Posted on June 28, 2010 by Flames
Available at RPGNow.com
A Call of Cthulhu adventure by John Wick
I wasn’t overly familiar with the works of John Wick before I picked up the first two Acts of this Curse of the Yellow Sign series (presumably a trilogy), but on the strength of what I’ve read I’m encouraged to seek out more. That’s always a good sign (pun not intended). Since then I’ve noticed that his name has been linked to some other reputable games, such as Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea and, more recently, Houses of the Blooded.
To a certain extent there is much to compare the Curse of the Yellow Sign series with the trilogy of scenarios within the Chaosium monograph Ripples of Carcosa – three scenarios that explore the ‘Hastur Mythos’ over different eras. However whilst Ripples of Carcosa stretches from the height of the Roman empire to a future of space-faring travellers, Curse of the Yellow Sign seems much more tightly focussed on a period closer to our own. This, of course, makes it more accessible but also means it requires nothing more than the Call of Cthulhu core rules to play since we are relatively familiar with the setting and worldly events at these times. And Curse of the Yellow Sign shines by comparison in other respects too.
The Curse of the Yellow Sign series
First off there’s no mistaking the quality of a fully realised book over a monograph, but even here the quality and layout of the books help conjure up the mood perfectly. The finished document is beautifully designed (by Aaron Acevedo for the first two scenarios in the series, and presumably beyond), with atmospheric photo-realistic artwork, including ‘photographs’ of the pregenerated characters and the faux-battered document style of the pages themselves.
Each book presents the characters and setting as a ‘sandbox’, meaning the action is completely motivated by the decisions of the players, and does not involve them being railroaded along a linear plot or reacting only to outside forces. The characters are very three dimensional, with motivations that means they will find both allies and enemies amongst the rest of their group. It is here that most of the conflict lies, making each Act read like a horror film, or play like a particularly dark session of Paranoia. Finally there is a great deal of John Wick’s personality invested in the text – an introduction of how the Hastur Mythos is dinstinctly different from the Cthulhu Mythos, of how these stories are not conventially gaming scenarios where the heroes win out in the end but are instead situations where it’s very likely the characters will meet a horrible death. Finally some amazing pieces on how John gamesmastered them to really amplify the sense of otherworldy horror.
Both the first two ‘Acts’ – as the books are referred – are presented with just as much attention to detail and atmosphere as each other, so there’s no reason to believe that successive Acts will not follow the same pattern. The rest of this review will concentrate on Act I: Digging for a Dead God.
It is May 1939, in the heat of an unspecified African jungle near the boundaries of British controlled territory. Unfortunately for them, the PCs are German officers (which, given the date, means they are officers of the SS), overseeing a covert mission to a diamond mine that has so remained undiscovered by the Allies. The six pre-generated officers have a detachment of soldiers with them, and are also working with twenty local African tribemen, who are treated little better than slaves. The fact that you have to play characters of questionable morale (without camping it up by plugging into Lawful Evil mode) is a great opportunity for some roleplaying outside normal parrimeters, particularly given what secrets can potentially be uncovered.
There are initially just two locations to explore, the campsite where the soldiers sleep and eat (including the mine shaft) and the village from which the superstitious natives have been ‘recruited’. Having given the players some time to get into character, to flex their creative muscle a bit and maybe offer suggestions of how things operate at the camp or what supplies they should ensure they’ve brought with them, a third location will be opened to them, as workers in the mineshaft come across the entrance to a long buried temple.
Once the temple is discovered and the group break through to the inside, the momentum will pick up, the scares will creep in and things are likely to get very messy. Violent events within the temple may well errupt out into the campsite too, but the scenario will most likely not get any further than this. They’re surrounded on all sides by jungle and any unsubtle attempts to put down adversaries is likely to draw the Allies to them. Simply put the PCs will have a job to get out alive. Perhaps more key to the story is that none of them will ever be able to walk away from the experience untouched by what they have seen.
For the sake of Keepers hoping to run this scenario I’m not going to detail the exact nature of the threat. Suffice to say it ties in, albeit in ways that are unexplained, to the Hastur Mythos.
In Act I the element of the Hastur Mythos the characters are most likely to stumble across first is the Yellow Sign itself, only fitting since this is the opening Act of the series. Furthermore as the opening Act it introduces us to a figure that will play a major part throughout the remainder of the series, looking to be the only constant that links the different Acts, Yellow Signs aside. The actual nature of the entity is something that ties in with recent popular gaming theories about the nature of Hastur, but to say much more than that could possibly spoil the story for all involved. It’s worth noting that there’s very little to connect this ancient temple with a notorious play from the 1890s, but then it’s your sandbox and you can pretty much do with it as you will. In any case, it’s unlikely that the players will get a chance during the game to truly consider these connections. They’ll be busy trying to get out alive.
This story, along with the others in the series, is an exercise in projecting the mood and atmosphere of horror. The author suggests ways of making the gaming area as close to a jungle at night as possible. It encourages the Keeper to pass the players the orders for their PCs. The pregenerated character sheets – which detail personal details which may have a direct impact on the mission – resemble official notes with photographs of the characters clipped to them, and would be perfectly supplied to the players along with their official orders. Furthermore the Keeper is encouraged to use minimal lighting, perhaps going so far as to have the players each armed with torches. This nicely blurs the line between character and player, with the game more of an exclusively audio experience than most roleplaying sessions. It could be argued that the lack of light makes it hard to pinpoint things on your character sheet (or the GM to find relevent sections of text to read out), but Wick suggests that the game will be more story-driven than playing it by rote with lots of dice rolling. He also suggests how to better play loss of SAN points during this story, how to pace it so it can be completed in one evening and even relates how dressing up as a Man in Black to run the game, complete with Yellow Sign pin in his tie, really set things off nicely.
This is a great little scenario that requires minimal effort to jump into, as long as the Keeper prepares all print-outs in advance and is fully prepared to immerse himself in the role. The depth of detail and suggestions offered by the author are both a helpful guide and an interesting and engaging read that comes across as more passionate than the usual horror scenario. It’s a real break from the standard investigation into weird goings on behind closed doors that characterise most Call of Cthulhu scenarios, nor does it descend into modern day dungeon crawling where the German soldiers pick off one wandering monster at a time, which the set up could easily have done. It’s also a great choice for a scenario if you need something to fill the evening, as the pacing can be tweaked by the Keeper according to the activites of the PCs, and just how quickly (or slowly) they seem to be confronting tragic circumstances. Above all I really loved this style of presenting a situation and a bunch of characters, then letting them loose to direct events. I’ve yet to run the scenariobut still thoroughly enjoyed reading the proposed scenario, anticipating just how the pregenerated characters might interact.
The only major issue is that some of the mentioned handouts do not appear in the book nor are they – when last I looked – on the author’s website where this book says we might find them. This means, for example, that orders for the soldiers will have to be stripped out of the main body of text and laid out on a page yourself, minus the authentic feel of the character sheets. A slight oversight, perhaps, and given the quality of the rest of the document it’s hard to gripe. But it’s a little frustrating to be told that something is available and then be unable to find it.
This adventure could very easily 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 1939). 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 I of Curse of the Yellow Sign as follows:
Layout: Four and a Half out of Five Dice (barring a few absent handouts, this is how I’d like to see more Call of Cthulhu scenarios presented)
Artwork: Four out of Five Dice (top quality pictures, for the most part)
Writing: Five out of Five Dice (thoroughly engaging, you’d kinda like John Wick to run your game)
Overall: Four and a Half out of Five Dice (A really cool scenario for Call of Cthulhu Keepers prepared to make the effort)
Note: the inside back cover gives us a preview of the next Act, with a glimpse of the text from the play The King in Yellow and a splatter of blood.
Reviewed by Simon Brake