Reviewish: The Derelict
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.