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Actual Play: Rigid Air

Shimmin Beg

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This is a review of Rigid Air from Fearful Passages.

 

Regular readers (as if!) might be puzzled to see this title, because I reviewed Rigid Air some time ago: http://www.yog-sothoth.com/blog/369/entry-2405-reviewish-rigid-air/

 

I gave a fairly favourable review based on my reading, and decided to put it on my Keeping pile in the hope of running it eventually. This weekend, I had the opportunity to run a game at fairly short notice, for two regular players and two visitors, on a fairly tight schedule. One visitor had played a lot of CoC but I didn’t know exactly what, my regulars had played a few games with me, and the other visitor hadn’t played at all. I didn’t want to draw on my long-hiatused campaign: only half the players were around, while the visitors didn’t know the background, and shoehorning them in temporarily would be a pain. Equally, I won’t get time to do a follow-up with this group any time soon, so I essentially needed a con scenario. I also wanted something that was a) definitely weird, B) had some actual investigation rather than mostly fighting, and c) they hadn’t already played. So The Haunting was out, along with the other rulebook scenarios.

 

I decided Rigid Air would be just about playable in the time. On rereading it, though, I noticed a few points I wasn’t quite happy with. I present these adjustments here in case anyone else finds them useful.

 

I did actually record this game, as I tend to these days. However, some players were not comfortable with the idea of being put on the internet, so unless they should change their minds one day, you’re stuck with text.

 

From here on, spoilers for Rigid Air, obviously. My next paragraph will describe the entire plot. Think carefully about whether to read on.

 

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My planning and adatations

 

To summarise the storyline: the Investigators are executors for a man who just died in a fall, and fly out to Canada to deal with it. His papers reveal a series of recent deaths, of his old companions on an expedition. They soon learn there’s a connection with the airship they travelled on. A surviving crewmate provides crucial clues and an item that lets them see the Mythos entity now nesting in the airship. They can destroy it, in hopes of saving the last man, but if they don’t it doesn’t really matter, to be honest.

 

The initial hook is a bit awkward, but we used it with a lot of handwaving. A lot of scenarios have this problem: one Investigator can easily be involved, but not several. There’s really no reason why a group of friends would join you to travel to another country(!) so you can act as executor for someone you knew years ago. Being an executor is hardly exciting, there’s not much hint of weirdness at the start, no real reason for friends to come along. One might, but three? I had the solicitor drop a hint that something odd had happened, so the PI and journalist could take a long shot on there being a story in it, but really it was a pretty hammy start. And we never did find a good reason to involve the used car salesman.

 

On the airship, they’re supposed to meet an astronomer who wants to talk about his hobby, and mentions weird distortions in the air. This seems fine for provoking general suspicion, but it’s not actually very helpful. Even meeting him again to examine his photographs doesn’t help much. It confirms that there’s something weird in the sky, but that’s all. In particular, it could easily cause confusion, because the actual threat is the airship itself, not something in the sky. I mentioned this in my reading review. I just cut this guy out entirely. He could be a bit of local colour in a slow-paced playthrough with loads of time for red herrings, but he’s just dead weight for my purposes.

 

There was no real problem with the section in Nelson. I tweaked this slightly to have Douglas’ will amended to include giving them the package, basically giving them a bit more cause for suspicion. As written, the package is just an extra bundle of stuff – I thought mentioning it in the will would make it more salient. I was right.

 

Seattle

 

In Seattle, the Investigators are supposed to receive clues from the final survivor of the expedition. I was a bit unsatisfied with the Seattle sequence, partly for reasons I outlined last time, but also because it doesn’t entirely make sense to me. The underlined Shakespeare is not a very useful clue in my view; it doesn’t convey much information, though it makes sense in retrospect, and I felt it was likely to cause lots of time-wasting while they tried to make sense of it, so I cut it out entirely. I was also a bit bemused by Whittle having the goggles, not least because Moore would surely miss them and Bambury would soon be found out. It just felt rather heavy-handed to me. In particular, having only one pair of goggles, and the insistence that Moore target whoever wears them, just felt unsatisfying to me, especially as I was running this as a semi-introductory game.

 

I decided instead to introduce information about Moore in the package of papers, including his address. The Investigators would learn about Moore owning the airship, which would seem both odd and (since they’d also learn it was the one from the polar expedition) suspicious. By visiting his abandoned house, they would find some things left from the expedition, including both notes and goggles. Again, it’s a one-shot on a short schedule; I wanted to encourage them to get moving.

 

In retrospect, and having talked to the players, I would amend this slightly: instead of enough goggles for the whole officer corp (which was what I presented in the game), I’d have enough for two or three Investigators. As my players pointed out, this would force them to make tough decisions about who wore the goggles, and leave the others nervously ignorant. The advantage of my plan, of course, was that goggles for everyone meant no lengthy debates!

 

All of these changes are presented in “Moore’s Home†below. I didn’t come up with a specific location for his home; in play, I placed it conveniently between the players’ current location and Seattle.

 

The confrontation

 

Having very little idea what the players would do, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the end. This was possibly a mistake…

 

As written, the scenario has the dho-spawn killing a puppet if it withdraws its tentacle. This doesn’t particularly make much sense to me, since it’s depicted clearly as a mostly psychic phenomenon. I decided that instead, it would inflict pain and SAN damage to each puppet, which might well kill them or leave them insane. Apart from anything else, it seemed like it might be a more effective ending to have a few maimed, half-mad survivors around to interrogate.

 

Moore's Home

 

This is a sizeable house, as befitting a man with substantial private funds (Moore was, after all, able to buy his own airship), but no mansion. It has clearly been neglected for months, perhaps a year or two. The gardens are overgrown, some paint is peeling, and wood beginning to rot. There are no signs of life. It would clearly not be difficult to get inside, for someone willing to cause damage. It is relatively secluded, and noise will not be an issue.

 

The house is largely uninteresting. The library holds novels, many books on engineering and expeditions, geography and aeronautics. In Moore’s study, there are papers and notes.

 

A box of expedition gear reveals a lot of small electrical apparatus, which were used for performing various electromagnetic tests. It also holds several sets of goggles with odd polarized lenses carefully packed in individual padded boxes.

 

Diaries from the expedition are not secretive, but cryptically brief. They report successfully reaching the magnetic pole and performing various experiments, but detail is minimal. Something referred to as The Alignment appears to have been the climax of the expedition.

  • Shortly after the Alignment: “We succeeded, but not as we thought. We retrieved a sample, but there was some form of resonance. The crew were exposed even at that distance, but seem to sense nothing.â€
  • Towards the end of the return trip: “Not resonance, contact. Krantz was right, something crossed over. I tried the lenses on Krantz and the others. The emissions are not limited to the sample. Trust there are no lasting effects. Officers warned not to inform crew, in case of panic.â€
  • Shortly after the end of the trip. “Analysis of sample already finished. Seems cursory, odd. Politics? No news on Equatorial proposal.â€
  • Some weeks after the end of the trip. “Budget changes, project to end next month. Equatorial proposal rejected. Bellinghausen to be mothballed and sold. C feels no more useful data to find. Examined the sample again. Emissions seem to be growing stronger?â€
  • A few weeks later: “Concerned about increasing size of emission field. Seems to be detaching from sample; how is this possible? Telegraphed C to request further analysis, no response. Take hourly readings this week. Hard data may convince them. â€

(A logbook of cryptic data can be found. A Physics roll confirms it is some form of radiographic or spectral analysis. The specifics are baffling. The figures seem to show increase of something over time.)

  • “Sample emissions increasing. My emissions converging to resonance with sample? Krantz arriving today. Telegraphed Bentley, Lucas, Ross, Wills. Thompson and Bambury have moved, address unknown. Hire PI? Unable to contact C.â€

There are no further entries.

 

Some of the electrical equipment may allow Investigators to harm the dho-spawn, if they can work out how to use it (Physics or Electrical Repair).

 

Actually running the game

 

To my alarm, the Investigators were quite inclined to travel by train, which would have been rather a blow. I carefully avoided saying anything while they discussed it, but was very glad that the final vote was for the airship! This is really a bit of a weakness. My players are rather keen on steampunky trappings, but for whatever in-character reasons, the train seemed like a better option for a while.

 

The section in Nelson seemed fine. I really should have pushed them along here to keep things fast, but I didn’t want to race through the investigative segment, and like to ease people into the early stages of CoC to help with the contrast. They chatted to a few people, talked to the coroner and decided it was a bit weird. The recent unspecified adjustment to the will (they failed a roll to get the solicitor to disclose what had changed, which I felt would be a confidential professional matter) did raise their suspicions, but they were inclined to wonder about the widow, so a bit of time was spent checking on that idea.

 

I amended Douglas’ backstory somewhat, mostly on the fly and on a whim. I mentioned a previous successful expedition to South America, which did perhaps avoid them jumping immediately on the polar expedition as the key. Asked about it later when they researched the polar expedition, I agreed that a couple of the same ratings had taken part in the South American expedition, but it wasn’t the same crew and no airship was involved.

 

One unexpected problem here, of a kind I’ve encountered before, was timing. The scenario has the Investigators arriving, the airship leaving the next morning, and returning on the third day. However, the Investigators decided they’d arrange to arrive on the same day as the reading. I could, if I’d thought of it, planned so that this wasn’t possible, but it didn’t occur to me, and since they only arrive in late afternoon, I didn’t see a problem. In fact, their suspicions were raised by the evening they arrived, which meant they had all night to investigate and could easily get the airship the next morning – which the doctor promptly did!

 

Suspicions raised

The players were perhaps a bit lax about their research, and didn’t seem interested in doing a second round of digging once they learned what they’d discovered in the first place. Lack of experience and lack of time were probably a factor here. As such, I had to basically throw a couple of leads at them, which wasn’t ideal. I actually had to do quite a bit of careful talking to get at least some of them to head down to Seattle, although I tried not to railroad completely.

 

In essence, they were convinced their most obvious line of research was the airship, neglecting both Whittle and Moore’s house. It was all a bit awkward, because while I’m broadly in favour of going with the flow, I didn’t feel this would lead to anything interesting happening. If I’d let the dho-spawn stuff kick off on the airship, or had the crew spot them prying, they would easily have died without ever finding out very much (or seeing the dho-spawn!). The scenario doesn’t really leave room for the crew to talk to them, so roleplaying options are also limited. I could, I suppose, have had Bambury say something brief and desperate to urge them to research rather than stick to the airship. On the other hand, letting them poke around but run into a wall would simply have wasted precious time, and this was my main consideration.

 

Basically, while not telling them exactly what to do, I explained that they could easily get to Seattle by train, and back again if they wanted, in the time the airship would take to get to Calgary. I also highlighted that the survivor they were worried about was in Seattle, and (to their knowledge at that time) the airship did not fly to Seattle so he was apparently not in immediate danger. They seem to have got the idea that it did stuck in their heads, obviously having anticipated the scenario plot. I had to repeat that information several times during the conversation!

 

In the event, one party member went on the airship all the way to Calgary, planning to take the same route back. En route, the doctor tried to interrogate the crew. I did my best here, but the scenario didn’t seem to leave much room for him to actually succeed – I think I allowed a hint or two, but not much more. Again, I could have been more generous here, in hindsight, and perhaps reintroduced the wavering Bambury. I’d thought about this during prep, but forgot during the game itself. Next time!

 

Finding the crew uncommunicative, the doctor then tried some snooping. I let him do this fairly freely, using Sneak rolls for general guidance rather than as a binary failure. This allowed him to gather some general intelligence to use later, but he was spotted trying to get into the cockpit. Usefully, he’d been drinking so much that he easily convinced the crew he was an innocent annoyance.

 

During the flight back to Vancouver, he managed to look into (but not sneak into) the engine pods. Botching a mechanical repair roll on looking for a way to sabotage the engine, I let him find one, but he believed it would almost certainly crash the ship and kill everyone on board - so he kept that one in reserve. He also had the brilliant idea of drugging the captain! As he poked around the crew quarters, I’d described a hip flask as about the only personal touch in the man’s cabin (the other crew, being zombified, got nothing at all). Being a doctor, it was trivial to fill this with opiates to produce laudanum, of which even a tiny dose would leave the man comatose.

 

Of course, on arrival in Calgary, he got a call to his hotel saying the airship route was changing. Having heard from the others (next section) by this point, he cheerfully bought a ticket to Seattle.

 

Putting things together

 

With a bit of prodding to get things moving, the other three dug up the clues at Moore’s house and then talked to Chester Whittle. I didn’t bother with the total paranoia the scenario ascribes to Whittle, again partly for time reasons, and partly because they had so much information they were convincing. Very sensibly, once they’d got a solid idea what was going on, our PI used his contacts in town to hire another local PI to keep an eye on Whittle. I thought that was a fantastic idea.

 

When they learned that the airship was coming to Seattle, they took even more serious steps. The doctor arranged a stay for the very alarmed Whittle in a secure mental institution many miles in the opposite direction from the airship, where he couldn’t possibly get out unaided. They also arranged for their new PI hireling to watch the premises. A very sensible step, sadly not discussed in the scenario. If you think about it, a group could reasonably pack Whittle off on a liner to Europe, effectively making it impossible for the airship to follow.

 

The group then arranged to meet back in Vancouver, where the airship would be calling again en route to Seattle. This goes contrary to the scenario, but the intention there seems to be to strand the Investigators in Nelson and prevent them investigating the airship up close. Since mine had already long since left Nelson, there was no point - I preferred giving them a way to reunite easily.

 

The doctor booked a ticket back to Vancouver, and phoned ahead to book tickets for them all from Vancouver to Seattle, just in case. I didn't throw up any obstacles here (they used false names to book the tickets, though they'd travel under their own names) - I decided the crew would be rather suprised, but had no objection. He'd already portrayed himself as a retiree travelling for kicks, who didn't really care where he went, so Seattle was as good as anywhere.

 

In practice, they decided to attack the airship overnight.

 

The airship fight

 

I ran the attack very loosely, as we only had a few minutes left (even then, we overran). I used Stealth roles to see how long they’d get before the staff appeared, rather than as binary rolls. They decided to ignore the cabins and go to cut open the gas bag, hoping to set it on fire.

 

The scenario expects that no matter what the Investigators do, Bambury will mysteriously be there to find them, and shortly afterwards they'll be attacked by hordes of crew while the ship takes off. Also, the captain with his revolver is supposed to be picking them off. I didn't see any reason for Bambury to find them, the captain had already been drugged in what seemed like a very good ploy I had no intention of fiating away, and I was short on time, so I ignored all that.

 

They cut a way inside, then spent a couple of turns climbing up and hacking away, while the doctor kept watch. One decided to follow the tendrils up, which was perfect, as was the 12 SAN he lost seeing the dho-spawn. I induced a delusion that the tendrils of the dho-spawn were similar to all the other long wavy things all around – like grass and trees. He screamed, fled the ship, and eventually ended up breaking into and hiding in a passenger lounge to get away from the evil trees. This shrieking also served to hurry the crew up, and they were right behind the Investigators as they started to flee.

 

I don’t believe the scenario states exactly where the heads usually are – presumably in the gasbag? The doctor started searching the ship for them, starting in the control room. Time was pressing and there’s no particular reason they need to be in the bag, so I decided to give him what he wanted by having a set of cabinets under the control panels, with tendrils stretching into them, which duly turned out to contain the heads and brains. He spent a happy couple of rounds blowing them away with his revolver, which really got the dho-spawn going, but I decided this also caused it enough pain that it bought some time. I didn’t ask for shooting rolls. It’s not hard to hit a head in a small cupboard at point-blank range, and after the first couple he stopped bothering to open the doors first.

 

In retrospect, I made a hefty mistake here. Obviously, I should have had the remaining heads burst out of the cabinets on their tendrils and start biting chunks off him. I was really very timid about attacking the Investigators in general. This is partly because (as so often) the scenario as written is very aggressive about it, and I wanted a less combat-heavy scenario for my inexperienced players, but pushed things too far the other way. More justifiably, I was already running over time by the time we reached the climax, and I really didn’t want to slow things down with a big fight. Combats are fun, but it adds a lot more activity to the scene, so reaching a conclusion either by winning or dying simply takes longer. Still, it was a one-shot. From a style standpoint, I overdid this, and should have let the doctor go out in his blaze of glory. At least I drove someone mad…

 

The screaming of the mad guy and the dho-spawn’s angry pulsing got everyone running, and the crew rushing out to confront them. After using some rubbing alcohol from his medical bag to set fire to the control cabin, the doctor somehow managed to sneak along the walkway to the crew quarters, grab the unconscious captain, and drag him out behind the crew without anyone noticing! The gunfire was definitely helping. Shortly afterwards the whole thing went up in flames, the dho-spawn died, and several of the crew went with it.

 

The doctor was later credited as a hero for spotting the fire and dragging the inebriated captain away from the flames, while the journalist was clearly traumatised by the horrific tragedy. The others got clean away.

 

Despite my plans, I didn’t actually roll for surviving Dho-spawn parasitism, as we were wrapping up. I just narrated the few surviving crew as being amnesiac, with severe mental and nervous damage from their experiences. If we ever play again, we can maybe follow up on the captain...

 

Other notes

 

In a few places, I did simply tell them as Keeper that some avenue wouldn’t get them anywhere – I handwaved searching Douglas’ house, and flat-out stated that investigating the expedition sponsors was not within the scope of this scenario.

 

Although I said last time I’d try to create a sense of a biomechanical horror blend inside the ship, I completely forgot about this. Tragic.

 

Final thoughts

 

I feel vindicated in my choice of scenario. It seemed to go down well, with very pleased responses from the players. The mixture of atmosphere, investigation and combat was broad enough to keep a range of player types happy. I did, however, had to push them rather hard to stop them simply rushing off after the airship as soon as they realised something dodgy was up. It was a nice mixture of creepy, pulpy and weird, and it has a broadly scientific basis, which I do appreciate. The supernatural ones are fun too, but I like to alternate.

 

I still feel the scenario has a couple of big weaknesses. The fact that they might not travel on the airship at all is a significant one – while you can still run the scenario, it’s going to be an awful lot less effective without that personal touch.

 

Another problem, which I only really spotted during play, is that the writers haven’t addressed the question of personal interaction. The only guidance is about Investigators trying to get near the airship near the end of the adventure, when the crew are polite, “cold and distantâ€. However, those same crew would also be having to interact with ground staff, suppliers, local authorities (those ‘trial routes’ are going to involve paperwork), advertisers and above all, passengers! I found it very difficult to work out how to portray the crew on the several occasions when players wanted to talk to them.

 

Part of the problem is, it’s not clear what the actual affect of the Dho-spawn has been. Does it simply control the crew like puppets? Does it give them commands? Does it mentally enslave them? Exert a weird influence on their behaviour, like a cuckoo, without actually controlling them? Form some kind of symbiosis, so it benefits from their knowledge of human culture and behaviour while still controlling them? The degree of freedom and individuality of the crew makes a big difference. Should the crew be always cold and distant, like a stereotypical French waiter? That’s not very realistic, it’d cause all kinds of problems. If they’re zombies, they simply can’t pull off a plot like this. Most likely, they are essentially fanatical cultists now?

 

But even that doesn’t help much with conversations. For them to be functional cabin crew, they need to be able to interact like friendly human beings. That means they must be willing to talk a little bit about the airship, their motivations and themselves. How much information can be squeezed out of them? Just how loyal are they to this Dho-spawn? We know Bambury wants to break free. Can a cunning Investigator gain the confidence of any of the others, and receive a plea for help?

 

It’s not that a Keeper cannot decide these matters – I did my best. But it would have been really helpful if the designers had covered these points themselves. Talking to people is a really important part of the investigative phase, and as my playthrough shows, Investigators can easily end up investigating the airship as first preference, rather than rushing off to another city by train. It would be nice to have a good solid plan for how to let that progress the scenario.

 

I will probably run this scenario again, trying to incorporate the lessons I’ve learned, as well as the ideas I had but didn’t get time to implement. Hopefully, next time I’ll have the option of multiple sessions, to give everything a bit more breathing space and reduce the pressure.


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