REVIEW: Endless Light

Endless Light is the second Call of Cthulhu ‘seed’ adventure published by Australian nerd-tat purveyors Type40. 

The format is largely unchanged from that pioneered by The Mummy of Pemberley Grange: $9 gets you a short, simple adventure built around a single planned encounter and supported by some high-quality handouts and a group of pre-generated characters.

The format is best understood as a radical departure from the approach to adventure design favoured by Chaosium and echoed by most people publishing adventures in and around Call of Cthulhu. The difference is that while traditional Call of Cthulhu adventures tend to be highly contextualised and incredibly detailed, Type40 adventures tend to be simple, abstract, and stripped of any broader context.

The result is a series of adventures that can either be run in a couple of hours with almost no preparation, or be expanded into something a bit more substantial through the addition of a pre-amble and the introduction of connections to an on-going campaign. Your mileage will obviously vary but while the first possibility does not interest me at all, I have found the second possibility extraordinarily rewarding. My players enjoy the simplicity, I enjoy having something solid upon which to expand but one man’s solid is another man’s ill-smelling goo.

Despite being only the second in a series of adventure seeds, Endless Light is already a more mature offering than that made by The Mummy of Pemberley Grange. The (optional) set-up is that the group are a team sent out to a remote island to investigate the possibility of expanding the lighthouse keepers’ living quarters. Think of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse and you’ve got your vibe right there.

The group travel out to the island just as a storm starts to blow in off the sea. Stranded overnight, the group starts to investigate the island only to discover that it is subject to what they think is seismic instability. Heading inside to get out of the rain, the group stumble upon the journals kept by generations of lighthouse keepers wherein they learn that this is not the first time that the island has experience earth tremors. In fact, the island was once considerably larger than it is today.

 One of the frustrations encountered when writing adventures for Call of Cthulhu is that while rulebooks and supplements are bursting at the seams with artwork and stats for mythos creatures, there is almost nothing on what any of these creatures actually want. This is due to the fact that Lovecraft tended to present his creations as being not just alien but alien to the point of being incomprehensible to human minds. As a result, any attempt to ascribe a particular agenda or worldview to a mythos creature runs the risk of not only making them less frightening but also making them relatable and one of the aesthetic pillars of cosmic horror is that the world is not only incomprehensible but also largely indifferent to human concerns.

There are two obvious ways out of this narrative impasse. The first is to present mythos creatures as by-products of human action. In other words, build your adventure around sinister cults or evil sorcerers and have the actions of those humans cause the appearance of a Lovecraftian monster. The second approach is to treat the mythos like a force of nature; storms, floods, and earthquakes cannot be placated or bargained with, they just turn up and cause devastation requiring the intervention of heroic humans. The Mummy of Pemberley Grange took the first route out of the impasse while Endless Light takes the second.

As the group are trying to cope with the impact of the storm and the seismic instability, they notice that they are not alone on the island. In fact, they are caught in the middle of a confrontation between two sets of mythos critters meaning that, in order to survive, they have to deal with the storm, the collapse of the island, and two groups of hideously incomprehensible monsters.

As with all Type40 products, the handouts included in the PDF are excellent: The plans for the lighthouse are beautifully drawn and are festooned with hand-written notes that had my players squinting in the hope of finding clues. The plans for the island are similarly evocative as are the hand-drawn plans of the underground caverns that look exactly like a crude map drawn on the pages of a cheap notebook.

Endless Light does mood really well, the basic set-up is evocative, the details of what happens make an already fraught situation feel ever-more tense, and the adventure concludes with a masks-off moment of full-on Lovecraftian madness. My only concern is that there’s not really a huge amount for the players to do as the adventure is written in such a way that all they really need to do is turn-up, wait, and then make a single decision that will either give them victory and feed their SAN Score or leave them beaten, broken, and potentially dead. Even worse, the basis for making the decision is not particularly well spelled out and so my group found itself agonising over what seemed to be a choice between certain death and certain madness.

I got around these problems by placing a bit more emphasis on the stuff leading up to the final decision. For example, I slotted this adventure into an on-going campaign and so the group wound up spending quite a bit of time researching the lighthouse and constructing an elaborate cover story for their exploration of the island. There’s also a moment in the adventure when the group are expected to help fetch some barrels of paraffin that have fallen into a cave beneath the lighthouse and I forced the group to delve deeper into the caves and run greater risks than the text of the adventure suggested. This also allowed me to feed the group some additional details that helped them to make their final decision as the adventure is really not that good at providing the group with information about how to deal with the situation in which they find themselves.

On the whole, I rather enjoyed running Endless Light but I felt as though I was narrating and hand-holding a lot more than I have in other sessions. By and large, I don’t have a problem with that kind of aggressive scene-setting but I think there’s a balance to be found between giving the players a sandbox and having them sit there while you read them a short story and I’m not sure that Endless Light gets that balance right.

Another problem I encountered is that while one of the critters in the adventure is mentioned in the core rule books and features prominently in a lot of mythos stories, the other critter seems to appear only in the latest edition of the Call of Cthulhu bestiary. Given that I don’t own that book and the adventure contains only a partial stat block and a page reference, I had no idea what these creatures looked like, how they acted, or what additional powers they might have. As a result, I was forced to come up with my own creature (a writhing wormlike hive mind that incorporates physical and psychological elements of drowning victims, think of a dog-sized sea anenomies that feature human arms, or eyeless human faces, and occasionally spout nonsensical fragments of human dialogue). As with The Mummy of Pemberley Grange, the results were pretty good and I think my group had a good time but I have twenty five years of GMing experience that allowed me to paper over cracks that should not exist in a published adventure, let alone a published adventure that sells itself on the basis of its low prep-time.

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