Reviewish: Grave Secrets
This is a spoileriffic review of Grave Secrets, by Brian Courtemanche.
Grave Secrets falls into an common spot for me, but for uncommon reasons. That spot is "scenarios that seems intriguing but I'd find very difficult to actually use". The reasons are that there's an interesting premise with a whole bunch of stuff I don't like behind it.
The scenario begins with a paragraph to set the atmosphere, and a one-page overview for the keeper that thoroughly outlines what's going on, including the major players and the supernatural basis for it all.
There are four pregen characters, and the scenario is somewhat built on the assumption that they're used, although other characters could be used with some care. The difficulty would, as usual, be finding a way to plausibly involve them in the plot, even once getting them to the town is taken care of. Of the four, two have personal connections to the Bell family (the victims) and another is a doctor summoned to help diagnose them. The fourth is a bit of a wild card and it's harder to justify why a pulp writer would be enlisted in the case, even as an "educated man".
The Investigators are pregens with their own reasons for being in town. They are all expected to take an interest in the misfortunes of the Bell family, who are slowly dying off.
The scenario does a thorough job of introducing the player characters and throwing them some initial bones. There are a few short initial scenes where they're brought together and their accommodation is set up, followed by introducing the hook. Courtemanche also takes care to note how NPCs will react to each of the Investigators, which is potentially useful - another factor that pushes for using the pregens.
There's a considerable amount of written dialogue (well, monologue) to present information to the Investigators, rather than statements of facts. Some Keepers may enjoy this as it offers a chance to get into character; others will prefer to simply have facts to hand to bring up in response to Investigators' questions.
To put matters briefly, the "disease" is actually a death-curse laid on the family by one of its own. Everett Bell was an adulterer, engaged in an incestuous relationship with his sister Mercy. His wife Amy was too paralysed by shame to intervene, but finally took a stand when Mercy became pregnant, and persuaded Everett to end things once and for all by murder.
Mercy laid a curse on the family as she died, and has returned as a wraith through the lingering power of a Native American holy site on which the village was built. She is a spectre of pure malevolence, slowly draining the Bell children of life.
There actually isn't a huge amount of clue-type information here, despite the length of the scenario. A great deal of the space is devoted either to verbatim dialogue, or to quite lengthy descriptions of locations. This may make it somewhat awkward to wing things if Investigators take any approach other than the expected one, since digging out actual facts from the wodges of text isn't quick.
As the Investigators move around the town and ask questions, they encounter the main NPCs: the Bell family, the amiable doctor, a zealous preacher, and eventually Injun Joe. From the doctor they'll learn that the locals plan to do something drastic, though not what.
Somehow or other, they'll probably get the idea that Mercy was pregnant. Whether they act on this, and if so how, is another matter. It's possible to get this information but not pick up on the second issue: that she was murdered. If they visit the graveyard, they'll also probably work out that there's something supernatural happening.
The hints of Native American influence in the area may actually complicate matters here. It's possible players will interpret these hints, including possibly finding an arrowhead near Mercy's grave, as signs that the Bells angered native spirits of some kind - whatever the author might have dreamed up, essentially.
There are basically three ways for the scenario to play out.
The first is to do nothing or give up. Mercy will continue to consume her relatives, then move onto the rest of the town. Investigators will probably have left by this point, and may have no means of solving the mystery anyway.
The second is to do very little. The preacher has set in motion plans to disinter Mercy, who he suspects of being an evil spirit due to her "suicide", and staking her to free the family from her curse. This will actually work. The text says explicitly that the plan doesn't work unless the Investigators participate, which on the one hand is clearly aimed at making sure it's the Investigators who resolve matters, but on the other is mildly irritating to me on some level. Regardless, if they simply go along to the graveyard with the townspeople, it'll all work out. There is no reason they need to participate in any meaningful way.
The third is for them to seek out Injun Joe, obtain a power that will reveal Mercy's wraith, then confront her in a dangerous POW-POW battle that's reasonably likely to permanently cripple the Investigator in question. Mathematically, she has POW 16, and she drains 1d6-1 CON fron a losing Investigator, which is more than 1/3 of everyone's CON. However, these are not really intended for continuing play, so that's fair enough. It's worth bearing in mind, though, that three of the four characters are actually liable to die if they persist in trying to defeat Mercy, just looking at the maths.
If they succeed, they can choose whether to confront Everett, reveal his secret, and so on.
The scenario is clearly designed to play to a specific sort of genre: the gothic backwoods small-town American morality horror. The fire-and-brimstone preacher, gossipy landlady, well-meaning doctor and shifty farmers are all classic tropes, as is the sexual sin that sparks all the trouble. This also goes some way to explaining the Native American elements.
It also seems to be aimed at encouraging ambient play, with the Investigators taking in their surroundings, chatting to people, eating and drinking and generally immersing themselves in the in-game trappings of the story. Although there is a mystery to investigate, much of the plot seems likely to come as revelation from NPCs rather than part of a systematic line of investigation.
A lot of care has gone into preparation, from the dialogue crafted to evoke each NPC, to the consideration of their attitudes to each of the Investigators. The pregen Investigators are thoroughly tied into the scenario between this and their own backgrounds. There are also a nice selection of creepy episodes available to throw in as necessary, including both generic events, and some more direct ones that occur if the town decides to dig up Mercy's corpse.
Layout and so on
The scenario suffers from the same layout problems as the rest of this book, with sidebars and maps placed erratically rather than where they're of most use to the Keeper. Otherwise, the information seems to be laid out in a useful order.
Unfortunately, as I said above, the information doesn't feel to me as though it's presented in a very gameable way. It is densely written and I found it difficult to extract nuggets of information from the long blocks of text: who knows what? where do the clues lead? and so on. I think the presentation of information here inclines strongly towards it running as quite a linear game, and one in which the Keeper spends a lot of time reading out or paraphrasing descriptions, and reciting prewritten monologues.
So one of the reasons why I don't particularly care for this scenario is the whole Native American thing. Now, I appreciate that many people are spectacularly unbothered by old-fashioned portrayals of Native American topics, so they don't need to worry about it here either. For me, though, it's a distinct negative.
We have several elements that come together here. The site of the village is supposedly a holy site abandoned long before the settlers arrived, which is very close to the old cliché of the Old Indian Burying Ground that causes all the problems. And indeed, the text explicitly highlights that the only reason Mercy returns as a wraith is the "Lingering Shamanic Energies" of the place.
I sort of want to question whether there's any reason Native American holy sites should cause a white woman to return in what seems like a rather European manner, but I don't even know enough to do that well.
Secondly, we have Injun Joe. The last of his tribe, Injun Joe is a loner who lives on the edge of town in a primitive shack, which is nevertheless full of meaningful artefacts. Despite the death of his entire tribe, he is a shaman who has inherited most of their knowledge somehow. He's a powerful mystic who sells love potions, but also ekes out a living doing poorly-paid jobs around town. Oh, and he's probably an immortal sorcerer.
I dunno. I mean, I can see an argument that being a marginal loner whose social status is erratic is actually fairly plausible for a surviving Native American around a settler community. On the other hand, everything about this character just feels tired and clichéd and I'd personally expect rolled eyes and disappointed looks if I included him in a game for my players. There couldn't be a small group of Natives, most of them entirely ordinary, only one of whom knows anything? He has to be not only a potion-maker, but also randomly immortal?
It's a bit of a difficult one, because it is something of a genre trope, and when trying to invoke a genre we lean on those. But I feel these are pernicious in a way that the Firebrand Preacher, say, just isn't. You could argue that the Incestuous Yokel has its own issues, and I can't disagree, but it doesn't have quite the same history of oppression and erasure as Native Americans have.
The tone of the scenario is pretty grim, and it's not something I'd be comfortable with, on several axes.
To begin with, the focal point of the entire scenario is incest; and the scenario takes care to highlight that if given the opportunity by players, Everett will later progress from an apparently-consensual relationship with his sister to abusing his own daughters, result in suicide and another murder. This is simply not the sort of fare I'm looking for when I sit down to run an RPG, nor play one. Obviously this is a matter of personal taste.
More generally, the scenario is deeply depressing all round. Most of the children are already dead. Even if you could have saved more, Everett's shadow hang's long over them: either they'd be left victims of his future abuse (as the scenario dictates); find out what happened, leave him, and try to eke out a scandal-blighted life in the knowledge of his sins and crimes against them all; or, the only real third option, be left to mourn for a father who either killed himself or went irrevocably mad. Mercy's fate was miserable and tragic. The Reverend's plan involves a grisly and unedifying mutilation and will still leave the community under the shadow of a horrific "suicide" and the knowledge that evil spirits are actually out to get them. Injun Joe's lost tribe are merely a tragic afterthought to the whole miserable business, even though their extinction is probably a much worse tale than this if history is anything to go by.
The issue there isn't simply that it's unremittingly miserable, but that I don't think there is a single uplifting moment to be found. Even any triumph is robbed of its glory by the inevitable ruin of the Bell family, if not the community as a whole. That is very much not something I want from a game. If I want to experience a series of miserable revelations possibly followed by a hollow victory, I have only to open a newspaper. Again, tastes will differ!
It's also worth bearing in mind that some people will be very uncomfortable with harm to children in particular, and things like the ghostly foetus may upset them. It's worth finding this sort of thing out in advance.
Issues with the scenario
My main concern about the scenario from a practical point of view is that there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of need for the Investigators. No, bear with me here. There are at least two or three people who know about the incest. At least one person (the Doctor) knows that Mercy was pregnant and is, as the text highlights, in a position to make the connection. The community has already realised that an evil spirit is at work. They know about Injun Joe more than the Investigators do, so are perfectly capable of getting his help to find and banish Mercy's spirit. If not, the Reverend's little ritual would actually work - it's only author fiat that means it won't if the Investigators aren't involved, and that's down to chance rather than anything actually wrong with the plan.
Essentially, the only thing the Investigators need to do here is have some things revealed to them, possibly make a couple of connections that the locals are entirely capable of making, and then watch the locals deal with the problem. They can get a bit more involved in things if they want, but it's not actually necessary. Because of this, I'm not really sure what Investigators can do to actively engage with the scenario. Sometimes this revelatory style of scenario is what a group is looking for, but I would prefer to have more idea about how they can tackle it proactively.
A secondary problem is that players may well not be expecting ghosts in a Call of Cthulhu game, less still classic morality-based ghosts. Personally, I think I'd be hunting around for mystical texts, wondering what horrific entity could have impregnated Mercy (the whole story has a strong Dunwich Horror note to it) and looking for signs of aliens or ghouls. I appreciate the Investigators wouldn't necessarily want to do that, but as a player that's the grain I'd expect to be running with - and Investigators shouldn't be looking for vengeful incest-ghosts either!
This is simply not a scenario I'm going to run, ever. There's a nicely detailed (although not super accessibly-written) community here that might come in for other uses, but neither the tone nor the plot are things I'd want in my game. It's not written for me. And that's fine.
On a slightly different note, I appreciate that sexism was even more of a thing in the 1920s, but the scenarios in this book seem particularly keen to penalise female characters, from the possibility of being randomly murdered as a throwaway event of no relevance to the actual plot in Death by Misadventure, to the smug condescension they'll face in this scenario.