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Cthulhu Week: Curse of the Yellow Sign, Act II RPG Review

Posted on August 19, 2010 by Flames


Available at RPGNow.com

    Curse of the Yellow Sign,
    Act II: Calling The King

    A Call of Cthulhu adventure by John Wick

    This book is the second in the series that began with Act I: Digging for a Dead God. The front cover artwork is exactly the same, title aside, being of a large Yellow Sign on a dark, blood spattered background. Instead there is a longer piece of introductory copy on the back cover that delivers the mood to you straight off the bat. “At the turn of the century,” it begins, “In an abandoned hotel / In the dead darkness of winter / Six sit to read a cursed play.” Any Call of Cthulhu pro will, at this stage, be nodding sagely at this point, correctly indentifying the play The King in Yellow, the horrific drama around which many (recent) Call of Cthulhu adventures that focus on Hastur cultists have tapped into. However, in much the same way as the previous Act, the lines between player and character are deliberately blurred, the back blurb ending on the notes:

    “Calling the King is a Call of Cthulhu scenario for six players.

    It will remove all your illusions.

    About life.

    About love.

    About hope.

    You are not prepared.’

    The Curse of the Yellow Sign series continued

    As before the document is laid out in a similar way by Aaron Acevedo, but with noticeably less artwork. A picture of the main antagonist is repeated (albeit cropped) from Act I, as are the faux-worn document style of the pages, but the six character ‘photographs’ set the scene better this time, conveying something of the individual personalities within the group. This time our players get to step into the shoes of sic people who are, in this setting, the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of the six suspects in Clue (or Cluedo).

    Continuing the style of set up from Act I this book presents the characters and setting in a ‘sandbox’ format, meaning the action is completely motivated by the decisions of the players interacting with each other, and to a lesser extent their environment. They are free to wander wherever they want (within reason – the sandbox in question being, once again, isolated from civilisation). As mentioned on the back of the book the story unfolds inside an abandoned hotel. Kubrick’s hotel from The Shining is used as a reference point, as is The Haunting of Hill House and it’s no bad thing that John Tynes has written a great little King in Yellow story set around the hotel Broadalbin (which is also referenced in Dennis Dettwiller’s King in Yellow game Insylum). This encourages a degree of mood, and allows for a certain ammount of borrowing from these intellectual works to get the surreal and slightly unhinged feel just right – in particular the Overlook Hotel is the perfect model in terms of its location, in mountains over winte, miles from anywhere.

    The characters this time are more two dimensional; each is summed up with a couple of descriptors to label them with, their part in the play and their real life stereotypical personality (so, for example, we have “Director, genius” for the character of Richard Brennan, and Julia Chancellor is described as “Supporting actress, power dater”, all listed on nice little name tags that you can print out to ensure the players remember who’s who). Under the surface – and supplied to each player with their character details – are more complex personalities and agenda, although by the end of the story the pressure of the play may have reduced them to almost one dimensional caricatures of their roles in the play, cycling the same motions endlessly, haunting the hotel until they can somehow find their release.

    Again there is a great deal of John Wick’s personality invested in the text and it is a joy to read. You can tell he had fun with this one.

    The Setting

    It is the 10th December 1999. Genius film director Richard Brennan has invited five actors to the abandoned Glennwood Grand Hotel, to rehearse scenes from a play Brennan is hoping to bring to the big screen. The five actors are friends and associates, one of which is his ex-wife who has, quite publicly, fallen apart with a track record of drug-dependency and alcoholism. The director and actors all have hidden agendas and opinions about each other, and whilst some will be considerable proactive in manipulating their fellows others just want to stay well clear of those they consider bad news.

    The Glennwood Grand Hotel is a massive sprawling hotel, hence the comparisons to The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel. It’s up in the frozen Rocky Mountains of Colerado, far from anywhere. Whilst it’s not impossible to escape the hotel most of the characters are emotionally invested in at least a couple of the others and are unlikely to leave them behind. Still, they’ve really nothing to worry about. It’s not like there’s anyone else in the abandoned building, is it?

    The Curse

    In Act II we are subjected to the play The King in Yellow. As is common with any published story that touch on the actual text of the play, we are here presented with a slightly different mix of dialogue and even characters; this version of The King in Yellow features two heirs called Uoht (the elder and younger), and an absent heir called Thale (usually present in the play, here only appearing in ‘flash back’). Act II also re-introduces us to a figure that we met in Act I, Yellow Signs aside. The actual nature of the entity is again not something we have addressed here and, this time, he is not alone; as the PCs read the play strange things begin to occur, and other guests of the Queen can be seen in their masks.

    Pages of suggested script are provided, but they look to be snippets of Scenes rather than wholly realised scenes. I suggest the Keeper flesh out these details if they’re feeling particularly brave. From the rest of the booklet it would suggest atmosphere is key; having them sitting around a table, reading lines that their characters, also sat around a table, are reading perhaps presents disturbing parallels, particularly when used in conjunction with other techniques.

    The Mood

    It’s all about the terror in Act II of the series. Details are given of the authors attempts to really terrify the players in this Act, to attempt to inflict on them a fraction of the genuine discomfort experienced by the characters. Ranging from using a small light or torch to great effect to tailoring specific hallucinations to specific characters right up to having players screaming in horror when an uninvited guest reveals their true face; ALL is geared up to make the players uncomfortable and to foster that discomfort amongst the rest of the group.

    Apparently the author was able to run this game without dice, character sheets or rules. This seems to be another nice little touch to blur lines between player and character – by removing any elements to help remind you you’re playing a game (and, let’s face it, who has never seen dice picked up and rolled around during a particularly slow moment?) the players are immersed even further into the setting.

    Conclusion

    I loved this story. There’s a limit to where you can go with a story where the hook is that people are going to be performing The King in Yellow. It can only lead to madness. And yet John Wick pushes those limits as far as they can go, creating an eerie little tale I can’t wait to actually run with people. It has much in common with the classic Call of Cthulhu adventure Tatterdemalion. In this case, however, it is less a situation of a party turned sour and an invitation to join the King in Carcosa. Rather we see six personalities unravel, as they learn that all they’ve ever cherished, and that they value, truly means nothing. It’s bleak, it’s nihilistic, it may well be my favourite ever King in Yellow scenario. It’s a hard job to present something that’s true to the grim horror of Robert Chambers’ original stories, but John Wick has done it without making it an A to Z of King in Yellow propmpted madness.

    “This is how it ends…”

    As with Act I there seems to be no resource support on the associated website, despite being told we can print out, for example, pages of the script. A couple of typos also appear to have crept in.

    It seems to me something that could so easily be adapted to Cthulhu Live too, if you wanted to run a LARP adventure with just a handful of people.

    Just as this game could be easily adapted for Cthulhu Live use, so too can it be adapted to Call of Cthulhu d20, Trail of Cthulhu, or any of the other Cthulhu campaign settings that have cropped up (with the provisor that the story is set in 1999), bearing in mind the author was able to run the game without any dice or rules If you were prepared to create six new characters and dress up the sandbox slightly differently there’s no reason you couldn’t shift this to any other time.

    I would rate Act II of Curse of the Yellow Sign as follows:

    Layout: Fiive out of Five Dice (This is how I’d like to see more Call of Cthulhu scenarios presented)
    Artwork: Four and a half out of Five Dice (top quality pictures, in the style of World of Darkness photo-art)
    Writing: Five out of Five Dice (thoroughly engaging, the examples of play sum up what sounds like an amazing session)
    Overall: Five and a Half out of Five Dice (The best scenario I’ve seen for Call of Cthulhu in a long while. But then I’m a BIG King in Yellow fan)

    Note: the inside back cover gives us a preview of the next Act, with Houston trying to contact Archimedes 7. “Last transmission garbled please verify. Please verify Yellow Sign?” I think it’s fair to say that Act III (if it is indeed called Act III) will be set sometime in the near future. I’m very much looking forward to where John Wick takes us next.

    Reviewed by Simon Brake

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