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Reviewish: The Derelict

Posted by Shimmin Beg , in review, scenario 27 November 2016 · 960 views

This is a first impression of The Derelict based on reading the scenario and listening to the YSDC Actual Play. I should highlight right now that it is chocker with spoilers for absolutely everything in the scenario.

 

Secondly, I should emphasise as always that this is very much a personal take on the scenario, given my own tastes and Keeping inclinations, and the people I tend to game with.

 

Introduction

 

The Derelict has an interesting premise, being set in the frozen north and ship-based.

 

You know, I can’t help noticing that the Godfather of Call of Cthulhu seems oddly reluctant to include Lovecraftian elements in his scenarios? The grandfather of them all, The Haunting, is a standard creepy house story with tenuous links to a cult and a famous tome. The Derelict, meanwhile, is essentially Predator on Ice. Maybe that’s an unfair picture, but I’m not sure exactly which other scenarios he’s written himself.

 

The scenario’s been praised elsewhere, but I confess I’m underwhelmed, and I want to explore why that is.

 

Hooked?

 

The first thing is that the choice of hook is, in the nicest possible way, bizarre. The setup is that the group are travelling by boat across the Atlantic, and spot a wreck embedded in an iceberg. There are two possibilities presented to explain their presence.

 

In one, they have been hired as salvage crew to track down and retrieve that specific wreck. This is a straightforward background, easy for players to understand. The characters necessarily want to investigate the wreck and are strongly motivated to persevere in salvaging it, because the setup defines them as precisely those sorts of people.

 

In the second, one player is the owner of a luxury yacht who, having fallen on hard times in North America, has been forced to sell their yacht to a buyer in England, and is now sailing it across the Atlantic while enjoying a “last hurrah” with a group of wealthy friends. This seems an unnecessarily complicated setup with a lot of moving parts. The characters have no inherent motivation to investigate the wreck, let alone to salvage it; the Geneva Convention and the possibility of a reward can help motivate them, but any time the GM has to step in and say “actually, you feel motivated to do X, because Y” it’s a bit unsatisfactory. In addition, extrinsic motivators like this are weak once people realise bad things are happening – especially for characters used to an easy life.

 

So naturally, the scenario assumes the “luxury yacht” setup and is written up entirely on that basis.

 

Were I a dilettante and reluctantly persuaded to attempt to salvage a wrecked ship as an annoying interruption from my luxury yacht cruise, you can bet I would be gone the very second I discovered metal doors ripped open with inhuman force and freaking severed hands.

 

The scenario tries to alleviate this in the pregens, by including personal reasons to care – specifically, the yacht owner is secretly in search of this boat in the hopes of restoring his fortunes. This does provide a reason for him to insist on the salvage attempt, but I think not a great motivation to do so once they realise it’s a scene of carnage.

 

I wonder whether this is written up from a scenario Sandy might have run, where the dilettantes were the original party, and the pretext they came up with was turned into the basis of the published scenario? It seems like the sort of thing that’d happen in a film, but for a game scenario I’d prefer a simpler, more robust hook.

 

While the pregens provided do have some personal motivation to engage with the scenario, imagine how strong those motivations could have been if that had instead been applied to pregens for the salvager premise, which is strong to begin with! You could probably even have given them motivations to deal with the horrific stuff and thoroughly search the ship.

 

The Sciapod

 

So basically, there’s a scary merman thing that killed everyone on the wreck and is still lurking there. This is the “sciapod”, or basically the Predator.

 

Look, it kills everyone for no particular reason (of which more later), it’s overwhelmingly powerful, it can turn invisible, it’s the Predator.

 

I feel like the sciapod was unsatisfactory for me as an antagonist, perhaps partly because it seems to operate on narrative convenience rather than on any particular system. It’s supposedly a moderately intelligent creature, around human level.

 

We’re told that it attacked the crew of the wreck (and now the Investigators) because it wants to eat them; however, it’s left bodies all over the shop. It’s made some effort to put some of the bodies into a tidy pile, providing it with a plentiful larder, so there’s no particular urgency for it to kill the Investigators as well. Supposedly it prefers fresh meat, but in that case, why has it killed a load of people and then eaten small bits of each of them? That doesn’t really fit with the behaviour of hungry things, especially not sentient hungry things. It doesn’t seem to be out of fear, since there’s no evidence that a full crew of 20 men who managed to prepare barricades and Molotov cocktails were any threat whatsoever.

 

More irritating for me is the fact that the sciapod knows to board each of the ships and to seek out and destroy the radio and controls. In what possible way could it know this? Even as an intelligent creature – and it’s not very intelligent – we have no reason to believe it knows anything about human technology, or that its species has anything remotely equivalent. This is very blatantly something that happens because it’s convenient for the plot, not because it makes sense given the information presented.

 

There’s also handwaving around the creature’s weaponry; it supposedly creates arrows whenever it needs to but there are two contradictory options presented for how it does this. It matters! Primarily, it matters because I think it’s really quite important in a survival horror situation for the Keeper to know precisely how many arrows the sciapod has available at any one time, and how quickly it can get more. These will affect its behaviour and the choices available to Investigators. I don't necessarily mind which is the answer, but I do care.

 

If the sciapod has a total of three arrows, then it can make three shots before running out. It would be cautious about using them, even if they can be retrieved. If the sciapod has five arrows but can synthesise more from a crystalline secretion of its body, it’s less cautious, but once it’s loosed all its arrows it takes time to make more; the Investigators can exploit that time to their advantage. If the sciapod has technology that creates an arrow but it takes a couple of rounds, the Investigators can work this out and can seize the opportunity to act just after it’s let off a shot. If the sciapod has technology that magically creates the arrows in an instant when they’re needed, it can keep shooting forever without pause.

 

A secondary issue is that given what we know of the sciapod, there’s no reason for it not to immediately kill all of the Investigators as soon as the boat’s disabled. It’s made sure they can’t escape. Now if it were planning to keep them alive as a source of fresh food, and slowly pick them off, that makes sense. But that doesn’t actually seem to be what it does; it doesn’t kill one victim at a time and devour them. The evidence of the wreck shows that clearly. And as an intelligent hunter, under no apparent time pressure, there is a very obvious way for it to behave, which is to hang around being invisible until it sees a target, then shoot them.

 

From the Keeper’s point of view, and the players’, from what I can see here, you want a monster that will slowly and sadistically (and ineffectually) hunt the Investigators in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse. The problem is that nothing in the scenario seems to give a reason for it to do so. If the Investigators demonstrate that they can actually defend themselves with firearms, it’ll have even more reason to invisibly headshot them. And while it could have been written up as a sadistic killer, it wasn’t.

 

Some practical matters

 

The scenario takes as read that all or most of the Investigators will immediately head to the wreck, perhaps leaving one character (likely an NPC) to watch their own boat. This gives the sciapod an easy chance to disable their boat. I think it’s likely players will prefer this option, but it’s also plausible that they’ll stick with in-character motivations and just send a couple of people to check out the wreck.

 

On the one hand, they should arguably be searching the place in the hopes of finding surviving crew. On the other hand, all the early signs suggest there’s nobody on board, and even the surprisingly tough pregens don’t particularly seem the type of people who’d relish the prospect of finding the starved corpses of the crew. So it wouldn’t be that surprising to me if several or most of them decided to stay on the yacht to begin with, seeing no reason to visit the wreck given their absence of relevant expertise.

 

While a Keeper could certainly insist on having the sciapod sneak past all the characters and wreck the yacht regardless, it would definitely bend my suspension of disbelief – especially as several of them have silver. On the other hand, I think it would be difficult to handle this otherwise. If they have a surprise encounter and end up with half the party dead at the start of the scenario, that’s not particularly satisfying. Conversely, it’s plausible several party members could surprise it and blow it away with a few lucky shots – it has 45HP, a gun does about 1d10. The odds are low, but not astronomical, especially given point blank is relatively likely.

 

Actual mistakes

 

There are some parts of the scenario that just seem to be flat-out wrong.

 

The first is minor – the notes explain that a “sciapod” means a “uniped or one-footer”, but this is contradicted by the profile at the back, where it’s correctly defined as a “shadow-foot”. It doesn’t make any difference.

 

A second point, and potentially an important one, is that the game allocates handgun scores and holsters to several characters, but doesn’t actually specify that they have guns! I think a Keeper will probably draw the intended inference, but it’s equally possible to interpret this as meaning that they are skilled with weapons but don’t have any to hand – unless they can recover some from the wreck…

 

Thirdly, one pregen’s profile makes a big deal of the safe in the captain’s cabin, but there is no safe in the cabin, nor anything to explain why they’ve included this line. I’m pretty sure it’s just an oversight. It’s possible this will result in that character determinedly searching the whole ship, but it’s also possible it’ll just cause confusion and frustration.

 

But what do you actually do?

 

One of my reservations about the scenario is that there doesn’t really seem a huge amount that the Investigators can actively do.
The scenario sets to work early to strip the agency from the characters. First their boat is disabled, preventing them from escaping. The radio is also destroyed, preventing them from contacting anyone or seeking further information. The sciapod is invisible to characters not wearing silver, which deprives them of information about what is going on. They can’t easily hide from it, play cat-and-mouse with it, prepare traps for it, or indeed fight it – though it’s pretty clear that the scenario expects them to physically confront it in some manner.

 

There are a few silver items scattered through the scenario, but the rule is specifically for skin contact with silver – generally even if they do scavenge an item, they’ll drop it in their pockets. As far as I can tell, the scenario doesn’t ever explicitly tell them about the silver rule? It seems quite possible they’ll never work it out.

 

The players can investigate the boat to discover what’s happened to the crew – i.e. they’ve all been massacred. There’s a little more to discover: the radio operator went conveniently mad on glimpsing the sciapod and smashed the radio, and one of the crew had a book about a Norse saga which briefly mentions encountering a similar creature but provides no useful information whatsoever.
The crew obviously attempted to defend against it in various logical ways, which failed. This might inspire the Investigators but could equally be interpreted as “this won’t work, don’t try it”.

 

I dunno, what with being superhumanly strong and superhumanly tough and able to kill characters with a single arrow at long range while being completely invisible, there really don’t seem many options for the Investigators to do anything at all about the sciapod.
They can’t radio for help. They can’t run away, because there’s nowhere to run to and they can’t see what they’re running from. They can’t easily hide, because their pursuer is invisible and there’s not many hiding places and it’s strong enough to rip steel doors off their hinges. They can’t wait it out because nobody’s coming.

 

Oddly enough, one of the few things they can do is just attack it. Two of the team can see the creature due to worn jewellery, and one has a silver-handled knife that might help. With an array of firearms between them they can do considerable damage to it in a relatively short time. Or they might get slaughtered en masse.

 

However, I suspect their odds are still much better with massed fire than if they attempt anything that might seem clever, sensible or interesting, because they’re incredibly vulnerable otherwise. The sciapod with its bow has a far longer effective range than they do and no ammunition limit. It will readily massacre anyone who gets into close combat with them – although, oddly, Dennis has a higher Fighting roll, so with a series of lucky rolls Dennis might be able to fend it off for several rounds. Matthew has a high Dodge, so might be able to block a corridor while weaving enough to avoid getting hurt, allowing the others to shoot it. Yes, they can shoot it in combat. It’s twice their size, they are not going to hit Matthew by mistake.

 

Basically, having a very quick look at the odds… okay, point blank is actually quite likely by the time they get to see it, which negates the penalty for multiple shots. There are at least three firearms, which is let’s call it six shots by the time this happens due to party-splitting and deaths, which means roughly three hits, which is about 16 damage on average. If any of those gets an extreme success they’ll do an extra 10 damage, and the odds are about even with six shots. So they can probably drop it to half its HP in one round, and kill it in three rounds if enough of them survive. It might massacre them all, it might also decide discretion is the better part of valour.

 

So yes, I think the most sensible and effective way to address being hunted by an invisible predator would be to all hunker down somewhere waiting for it, and then unload everything they have in the hope of killing it. Not an especially entertaining playstyle, to be honest.

 

What is fun?

 

I think ultimately this one boils down to being a different kind of fun. For me, this seems like the setup for a horror film or book: a series of events and decisions made by very specific characters (finding the wreck, deciding to investigate, the sciapod implausibly destroying the controls) leave them trapped with this creature, and the audience gets to see whether anyone can make it out alive. The decisions are not necessarily sensible, but are made through dramatic necessity and based on drives built into the characters. In a purely narrative medium, the timing of attacks can be planned and explained away, characters can be isolated for reasons that make sense, and you can avoid things falling flat.

 

As a player, I think I’d just find it frustrating, because I can’t see anything relevant that I can actually do. There’s not a great deal to interact with. I can’t get the satisfaction of piecing together an elaborate mystery despite my inevitable death, because there’s no such thing: the monster has no origin, no explanation, the crew were not engaged on a horrific plan or mystical experiment, there’s no cool revelations about What’s Really Going On or the nature of the universe.

 

I might be able to attempt a far-fetched plan to destroy the sciapod if I survive long enough to do so, but given the dice mechanics of Call of Cthulhu combined with the deadliness of the monster, I doubt I’d get more than one attempt, so it doesn’t become an intriguing puzzle for me to solve.

 

Meanwhile, as a Keeper I get a lot of my satisfaction from watching players work it out. Now here there is some scope, because it may take a while for them to understand about the monster, work out the nature of the sciapod and what happened on the ship. This is, I think, the most promising meat of the scenario. On the downside, there isn’t any particular research they can do to cast additional light on the situation, nor does understanding the sciapod business really help them.

 

The Keeper has to try and find a good balance of sciapod attacks. You can’t play it too cleverly, since as far as I can tell, it would be very easy for the sciapod to wipe out the party in a boring manner. I’ve seen other Keepers describe having it ambush them underwater, tip over boats and so on. While these are clearly narratively effective, I personally dislike having one-strike events that take a player out entirely.

 

It just seems like this scenario consists of the characters wandering round a ship helplessly, finding a series of horrible things, with the Keeper kindly holding off on attacking them until it seems like a good time to kill the chosen character.

 

It’s clear that other people don’t feel the same. I’ve seen very favourable feedback, and that does make me question my own take. I wonder whether this is down to other Keepers enjoying the pure horror format significantly more than I do; I’ve never been interested in disempowerment fantasy and I play the game for the weird rather than for the horror. Some of those who’ve reviewed it clearly did find getting their characters picked off one by one entertaining. I felt like I’d be getting to the point of actively seeking to get my character killed, because in some ways that feels more satisfying than doing things I believe to be pointless.

 

It may well be that this is one of those things that doesn't fit my brain, and maybe another Keeper could spin it to feel rich and fun if I were in their game, despite the potential issues I've noticed. Entirely plausible. All I can do is give my perspective.

 

Final thoughts

 

There is a lot of potential in the scenario despite my reservations. The situation feels promising, the ship plans are good and I think the pregens are also interesting.

 

I think part of my issue with it is actually down to the sciapod itself. I am musing on a theory that lone monsters are structurally problematic in RPGs, especially compared to other media, but now isn’t the time.

 

If I were to run this, I think I’d probably want to redesign the sciapod in some ways. I’d definitely want to sit down and seriously think about how sciapods work, because I really do not like its arbitrary and plot-convenient knowledge of human vehicle technology; I’d want an explicit idea of what it does understand and what it doesn’t, so as to plan its behaviour and react appropriately and consistently to player choices. Similarly, I’d want to establish exactly how it behaves with relation to human prey, and change some of the evidence accordingly.

 

I’d also want to look for a way that the players can find out something meaningful. As the scenario’s designed, it really is just a case of “go to wrecked boat, get attacked by inexplicable monster, try to escape”. The one bit of “research” in the scenario only serves to say that someone else encountered it before, providing neither any meaningful background that gives the adventure a new dimension, nor any useful information to inform their actions. At the very least I’d like to have a clue that specifically points them to the importance of silver.

 

Honestly, I would probably also want to add something more Lovecraftian to the scenario, giving it some greater meaning beyond simply being a monster on a boat.

 

I’d definitely look to run it with the boat salvage crew. I would probably want to give these motivations that extend beyond simply being hired to do an everyday job, so that they’re keen to investigate the gory wreck itself. This might well mean making one or more of them characters with a better idea of what’s going on. There could be occult motivations, or a desire to retrieve some important object – perhaps something stored in that mysteriously-absent safe. After all, what brought this boat to the iceberg in the first place, and what lured the sciapod to it?

 

Finally, I think I might want to include more than one monster; but that’s another article for another time.






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yronimoswhateley
28 Nov 2016 03:37 PM

Thank you for the review!  I've never seen this scenario, but I've been curious about it since I first heard about it.

 

The monster as you described it actually reminded me more of any of a number of sea monsters, invisible or otherwise, created by William Hope Hodgson (one of Lovecraft's influences) to wreak havoc on helpless sailors in stranded ships, except for the arrows and the (seemingly unnecessary) intelligence.  If I were to run this scenario, I might be tempted to play that angle of things a bit more:  the investigators are pre-gen sailors following orders to investigate the derelict ship, or they are Carnacki-the-Ghost-Finder-style psychic investigators hired to help investigate the fate of the ship based on its mysterious last radio transmissions, which suggest the attacks are being made by ghosts....  That might also be a fun opportunity to play up the supernatural and ghostly aspects of Hodgson's weird sea monsters, which sometimes seem to have come from other dimensions or otherwise not to belong completely in the physical world, and tend to be accompanied by strange weather, Saint Elmo's Fire, mysterious lights in the sky, abnormal clouds of mist, and that sort of thing....

 

Perhaps strand the derelict and the yacht both in an dense tangle of seaweed in the legendary Sargasso Sea (a favorite subject of Hodgson in his sailor's ghost stories), saving the monster the trouble of having to be smart enough to disable the yacht.  It sounds like the monster only needed rudimentary intelligence so it would understand how to disable the boat and radios, which seems completely unnecessary to me:  just leave the radios alone - it's not like anyone will be able to sail into such remote and dangerous waters in time to help, especially if you add in that old classic: a storm that isolates the victims from help, or as mentioned strand the ships in a "ship's graveyard" of seaweed and derelict ships.  The best a radio can do under the circumstances is allow the players to leave an apocalyptic log, or lure in more victims....

 

I think you're quite right that it sounds like the "research" in the book with the saga describing previous encounters with the monster sounds like a lost opportunity for suggesting the monster's vulnerabilities, and perhaps also a motivation for attacking the ships (as you mentioned, something locked in the missing safe by the derelict's crew seems like a great motivation to work with - and apparently another lost opportunity in the scenario, as written!)

 

This scenario doesn't sound like a total loss, nor even a particularly bad scenario (I don't mind the scenarios that depart a bit from strictly Lovecraftian fiction, especially when dealing with groups that are already familiar with Lovecraft's fiction while enjoying a wide variety of different kinds of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and one could do worse for inspiration than the Predator or William Hope Hodgson's ghostly sea monsters). 

 

It does, however, sound like this scenario missed a couple easy opportunities to be better, and like it could at least have used a more critical editor.

Some further observations, having now listened to the end of the Innsmouth House playthrough (more spoilers!).

In my original post, where I talked about just shooting it, I'd somehow overlooked the sciapod's 5-point armour.  This takes the creature from "very hard to kill without luck and good tactics" to "essentially impossible to kill unless the Keeper decides otherwise", just because it will take so many rounds of combat and so much ammo that I honestly don't think it's possible if the creature is making any attempt to defend itself, let alone fight back.  I picked this up in the last section of the Actual Play, where the Innsmouth House players did horrendous amounts of damage to it with no effect.  I thought Graham was being uncharacteristically harsh until I triple-checked the creature's description and finally found the armour note.  Look, it's got 45HP and can murder any Investigator with one attack on 60% skill; they didn't have much chance of killing it to start with.

This only reinforces my original impression that the scenario doesn't give players anything meaningful to do, since they can't even effectively fight the creature.  There's a brief note that "silver weapons ignore armour", which is a sweet and pointless gesture: I can find exactly one such weapon, a letter opener.  Unless the sciapod decides to stand motionless for a few dozen rounds while an Investigator chips it away a couple of points at a time, this will not help.  The creature can kill anyone in a single hit.  Technically there are two items with silver handles, but I don't see any reason to think this would help hurt the creature.

Oddly, there's a kitchen knife whose description implies it's covered in the creature's blood.  Unless it's a kitchen knife made of silver, that is one strong chef.  If it is a kitchen knife made of silver, I have a *lot* of questions about this boat.

The armour also seems to make a mockery of the scenario's suggested tactics for dealing with the creature.  If it has 5 points of armour, pushing it into a spiked pit isn't going to be enough to kill it - assuming each spike behaves like a spear and being really generous with +1d8 effective DB for the creature's weight, you're looking at an average of 9HP per spear, which translates into 4HP after armour.  So unless the Keeper rules that the sciapod is impaled by twelve huge spikes in its fall, it's going to survive that.  Then it's going to jump out (because it can explicitly jump a huge distance) and eat your face.  Pinning the sciapod to the wall with a bulldozer still requires you to beat it to death, so unless the Keeper rules that it's permanently stuck, your chances of chipping it away before it breaks free and murders you are still low.

That doesn't mean those things won't work - of course they might! - but it's going to be because the Keeper decides they want it to work, rather than because the mechanics of the game suggest it ought to.  It's not in accordance with my expectations for Call of Cthulhu, a fairly traditional system where normally either a creature can or cannot be harmed in particular ways.  It's more of a storygameish thing.

To be fair, the options of trapping it in a room on fire, asphyxiating it with CO2 or capturing it with a crane and steel nets might still work - though again, the creature is demonstrably able to rip steel doors from their frames, so as a player I would not particularly expect any of these plans to work.

Prediction Confirmed
I'd also note that the Innsmouth House players did exactly what I predicted: they looked at all the evidence, and said "well, all these guys tried to kill it and failed, there's no point us trying".  Then they sat around scratching their heads, because they couldn't escape on their boat, they couldn't kill the sciapod, and they were told by the Keeper that they had no chance of surviving if they just went off in a dinghy.  In the end they went for trying to retrieve the phone to slightly improve their chances of getting rescued, though my impression was this was because they couldn't think of anything else to do at all.

On Invisibility
Obviously the scenario is written to be short and relatively simple, so it can't cover everything.  I would ideally like some specifics on how its invisibility works, in terms of cause-and-effect rather than metaphysics.  At the most basic, is it some kind of mental effect that stops people seeing it, or does it bend light around itself, or is it composed of a material that's invisible (let's handwave the silver...)?  The classic technique for combating invisibility is to throw something: they hint at this with a note about using flour to track its footprints.  As a Keeper I'd want to know whether chucking flour or paint over the creature will reveal it, because that's an obvious one.  How about injuring it - do we start seeing floating bloodstains?  

Graham had some effective scenes when the sciapod was dragging body parts around.  If the invisibility doesn't extend to whatever it's touching, the flour technique should work.  Also, there should be a cloud of moving blood spatters all over the creature from all that killing and eating.  If it does make things it touches invisible, victims should go invisible when it grabs them, and the floor and walls it brushes over should also vanish, making it relatively easy to spot.  I'm not saying I need precise physics here, but I would like something to go on... its bow certainly seems to be invisible, even though the string is explicitly normal animal sinews, but its arrows are invisible until fired, which suggests a contact invisibility.  I dunno.

The reason this matters is that this is exactly the kind of thing I'd be trying out as a player, and my players would try out on me.

The intended rule appears to be that the invisibility affects the sciapod, and the bow that it's touching or is attached to it, and the arrows until it releases them, but not the floor it's touching or the tarpaulin that's thrown over it, so presumably not flour or paint thrown over it, which means those should work.  On the other hand, both its blood and its victims' blood seem to be invisible while in contact with it, but victims it's actively killing and eating are not invisible.

Broadly speaking, then, we have an invisibility effect that covers the sciapod and anything that would allow you to perceive the sciapod but nothing else, which is a Very Specific Degree of Invisibility - more of a D&D spell or (more kindly) a psychic effect than anything else, to my mind.  To be fair, I'm confident it's how it would work in the film... and it doesn't matter if it is a psychic effect.  I just like to have something consistent and functional to go on, and I like to know what the authors intend.

On Fun, Again
Listening to the Actual Play, it seems clear that the Innsmouth House players can derive a lot of enjoyment from being trapped in a dangerous situation and slowly picked off, without anything they can really do about it.  Paul pretty deliberately got himself killed, for example.  I'm happy for them, but it's not to my taste.  Don't get me wrong, I can enjoy a good death, but I'd rather that wasn't the point of the story.

Ultimately, The Derelict seems to be designed to produce that sort of horror film effect, where everyone runs around doing classic horror film things, and one or two characters might somehow make it out alive to either a probable watery grave or a rather implausible rescue.  If that seems fun, it's probably the kind of scenario you'll enjoy.  

Alternatively, the group might be able to collaborate to produce a big climactic scene where the monster is implausibly overcome by a complicated trap - this seems to be the direction intended by the authors, based on the notes at the back.  Of course, pulling off such a scene will (as the notes note) rely on a series of rolls, and Call of Cthulhu is a high-failure system, so doing so will rely on a lot of luck or on Keeper connivance.  Groups who approach games substantially as a shared story might well have a great time with it, as it has a lot of strong ingredients.

I do enjoy the story aspect of games, but in a game like Call of Cthulhu (which I tend to view as relatively 'real') I also like having a fairly stable set of rules for how things work in the gameworld.  I enjoy using my in-game skills to interact with that world, working out how to solve problems and deal with situations.  Same applies as a keeper.  So I think I'd tend to prefer either that the monster had a consistent set of 'rules' that determine how it behaves and the ways its abilities work, which characters can exploit; or that we explicitly played a game (and probably a rule system) where narrative and genre tropes determine how things pan out.  

Another Disclaimer
Ugh, I feel like I'm really hammering on this scenario and I'm not.  Honestly I'm not.  I don't hate it.  I don't think it's a terrible scenario.  I'd like to exploit it.  It's honestly just that it's really easy to write extensively about things that don't work for you, and I'm incredibly verbose at the best of times, so we have a bad combination.  And I mean, I wouldn't be spilling all these words on it if I didn't care!  So I want to understand what it is about the scenario that doesn't work for me, and where that comes from, and maybe what can be done to make it a scenario for me.

Thanks for your interest Yronimos!  I do keep track of views on my writing (because I can!) and it's always really nice to get any feedback.  Even nicer to get a thoughtful addition like this :)

I like the Hodgson idea - I've read a little of his work (Borderland, of course) but nothing sea-related.  Any recommendations?  I'm certainly not tied to purely Lovecraftian monsters; honestly, given the setup here I think another author's flavour might fit better than trying to make it explicitly Lovecraftian, because it doesn't have many of the expected elements.

Sargasso Sea might well address the problem with the stranding.  I'm absolutely fine with them getting stuck (it's a classic trope for a reason), but as you say it feels a little eyebrow-raising for the monster to sabotage their ship.  Even the radio isn't a big problem, because the timetable's very much under the Keeper's control.  It's not a big area, so even a few hours would be plenty of time for the monster to hunt them all over the ships several times.  In fact, running the whole scenario as one nightmarish day or night could be a very effective and thematic option.

Oh, I tell you what you could do with the radio!  They could make contact with someone else - perhaps a research base, rather than a ship, so the people aren't actually able to come and help them? - and those people got previous messages from the crew of the wreck.  This would be an opportunity to pass on the clue about silver if nobody got it, and anything else the crew might have worked out.  You could even have a little cat-and-mouse game, where the researchers are trying desperately to help them over the radio, perhaps doing some Library Use for them and trying to arrange a rescue, but the Investigators are constantly driven away from the radio by the approach of the sciapod...

To be fair to the scenario, I don't want to demand too much of a short one-shot designed specifically for Free RPG Day.  It can't be comprehensive or offer a lot of alternatives, and it can't allow for all the weird individual preferences of Keepers :) So part of the reason I like to do these posts is to try and look for opportunities to rework things, and of course to solicit ideas from other Yoggies!

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yronimoswhateley
29 Nov 2016 07:28 PM

No problem, Shimmin!

 

I had about three different Hodgson stories that I'd recently read in mind when I wrote that, but I can't remember the title of the third; I'll include a few other titles that might also be useful:

  • "The Haunted Jarvee" - Supernatural Detective Carnacki describes a voyage on a haunted ship, and his attempt to exorcise the evil through scientific means
  • "A Tropical Horror" - A lone survivor tells the tale of a strange sea serpent which boarded his ship for several days, killing the crew one-by-one.
  • ??? - I'm sure I read a Hodgson story a few months ago involving an invisible sea monster which boarded a foundered ship, and began killing the crew, with a Carnacki-style protagonist able to reveal the hidden monster/ghost/thing with a special electric lantern invention, but haven't been able to track down the title (perhaps it was a Carnacki pastiche by another author?)
  • "The Boats of the Glen-Carrig" - a collection of stories with some particularly bizarre monsters
  • "Sargasso Sea Stories" - a collection of stories surrounding the legendary sea of ensnaring seaweed surrounding a "ships' cemetery" (loose inspiration for the fantasy/horror film "The Lost Continent" (1968))
  • "A Voice in the Night" - a ship's crew are stranded on a strange island full of gigantic walking fungi (basis for the classic Japanese horror film "Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People" (1963))

 

 

At least a few of Hodgson's stories appear to be in the Public Domain, available free from Project Gutenberg: (link)

Do you think its a fault of ship based scenarios that they tend to be that bit more deadly? Obviously this depends on the group as some groups like the "We're all DOOOOOMMMMMED" aspect to CoC and others hate it (my group would be in this category, they care about their characters too much). This one seems especially harsh in terms of lethality of its protagonist but any threat on such a confined area would lessen their chances due to lack of resources, lack of a way to flee or way to call for help.

I've done one adventure onboard ship and while it didn't kill any of the investigators, it was certainly one of the most tense adventures as that feeling of being trapped was a big motivator.
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yronimoswhateley
30 Nov 2016 02:57 PM

Seems like those feelings of claustrophobia, being cornered and trapped, isolation, and so on are fairly standard in modern horror, ranging from space ships in "Alien" and "Event Horizon", to your standard-issue Cabin in the Woods, to ships, submarines, mining platforms, underwater research bases, and so on appearing in any of a half-dozen or more oceanic horror movies that appeared through the 1990s ("The Abyss", "Leviathan", "Sphere", etc.)  It makes sense, at least, in cinematic horror.

 

Cinematic horror is not necessarily the sort of thing that makes a good RPG campaign and characters, though.  Based on anecdotal evidence, that sort of thing seems to work better for one-shot campaigns with disposable and somewhat exaggerated pre-gen characters.

 

Either way, in my experience, the doomed characters are usually fun to play, as long as the doom is colorful enough - and as long as at least some of the character's short time in the spotlight mattered or contributed in some way to a fun story!

 

(Of course, that suggests that some fair questions are whether the doom facing the characters in this scenario is colorful enough to be fun, whether the characters are given enough opportunity for their time in the spotlight to matter, and whether the pre-gen characters are suitable for a cinematic one-shot....)

Sorry for neglecting this, both of you!  You made some really interesting points and I'd like to address them when I can do them justice. I started drafting a post specifically on lone-monster scenarios, for one.  Right now I'm just too worn out for that.

Thanks for the recommendations yronimos!  I've heard HPPodcraft on "A Voice in the Night" and it sounds very cool.  I must look out the others.
 

Do you think its a fault of ship based scenarios that they tend to be that bit more deadly? Obviously this depends on the group as some groups like the "We're all DOOOOOMMMMMED" aspect to CoC and others hate it (my group would be in this category, they care about their characters too much). This one seems especially harsh in terms of lethality of its protagonist but any threat on such a confined area would lessen their chances due to lack of resources, lack of a way to flee or way to call for help.

I've done one adventure onboard ship and while it didn't kill any of the investigators, it was certainly one of the most tense adventures as that feeling of being trapped was a big motivator.

 

I agree with Yronimos that the isolation is a broad trope; it's so useful as a way of compelling characters to engage with the horror element that it's become really popular.  Because it can be so hard to explain protagonists not just getting away from things, anything that says "because they can't" is a strong element, and "it's physically impossible" is a good play there.

That being said, I think ships are one of the more deadly options in that sense.  I think it's perhaps because there's so many layers to the isolation?  You're trapped in a confined area with limited movement and resources and out of contact. If you somehow managed to get yourself out, you're in an environment (sea, space) that's incredibly hostile to human survival and where you're at a huge disadvantage in movement and so on.  Then, beyond the immediate dangers of monsters and sea/space, you're still faced with travelling vast distances before you can reach anywhere potentially safe, and it's quite likely you'll starve to death before you do.  I think that strengthens the sense of being trapped beyond just a haunted house or cabin: sure, the woods might be cold and monstery, but humans are actually evolved to survive in woods.  Bases are also good, although there's a slight bonus with ships that nobody even knows where you are.

 

I'm currently working up a blogpost on single-monster scenarios, related to this discussion.

As promised, a blogpost on monomonsters.  As it's a quite general one rather than Cthulhu-specific, I've posted it on my other blog: http://librarians-an...nomonsters.html