Iain Ross’s The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild is the first volume in a series of Call of Cthulhu adventures that will eventually come to form a campaign entitled A Very British Horror. At time of writing, three of the planned four volumes have been published and while I have yet to take a look at any these later episodes, I can confirm that the first episode plays very well indeed. In fact, I would even go so far as to describe this adventure as a delight.
The PDF opens with a foreword outlining Ross’s influences as well as the adventure’s intended tone. While some would probably dismiss this type of thing as self-indulgent padding, I really think that more adventure writers should take the time to state their intentions and provide a few aesthetic reference points. Subject matter and descriptive prose can, of course, be useful in capturing particular vibes but a lot of the descriptions provided by GMs during actual play are going to be ad-libbed and nothing is going to help GMs capture particular vibes better than encouraging them to directly experience the kind of stuff that inspired the creation of the adventure in the first place.
In this case, Ross mentions not only the importance of humour in British horror, but also the weird combination of decorum and dead bodies that you get in old Agatha Christie adaptations as well as more recent TV series like Midsomer Murders. There’s even a scene in this adventure where the group are invited to take tea in the conservatory as a way of taking their minds off all of the dead bodies that keep turning up around the hotel. Intriguingly, while I know exactly the aesthetic that Ross was aiming for with this adventure, I think that the tone and subject matter of the Folly of Posonby-Wild is less Hercule Poirot than it is Basil Fawlty and that, I would argue, makes for a far more engaging and powerful adventure.
The adventure starts with a long-lost friend inviting the characters to her husband’s funeral. Vividly rendered, the friend is a one-time society girl who lost her parents and inherited a hotel in the Cotswolds. Crippled by grief and destabilised by her unexpected introduction to the world of hotel management, Maud attached herself to the first sympathetic man to cross her path only for him to tear her hotel to pieces and throw himself off the roof.
Ostensibly there to sympathise with Maud and maybe help her to reconnect with her old life, the characters soon stumble upon a series of Lovecraftian red flags including a library of occult books, a collection of sinister artefacts, and a waking dream filled with signs and portents.
The origin of these red flags turns out to be Maud’s departed father, a retired naval officer with ties to a sinister cult. This cult is entirely Ross’s creation and is undoubtedly one of the adventure’s stand-out elements as rather than joining Lovecraft in the basement of racist delusion, Ross presents his cult as a creation of the British establishment rather than a by-product of having too many Brown people hanging about the place. This not only feels quite timely given the state of contemporary British politics, it also draws on one of the more unappreciated Holmesian tropes.
Work your way through the lesser-known Sherlock Holmes stories and you will be amazed at home many revolve around men going to the colonies, becoming rich and powerful by doing horrendous things, and then returning home to live the lives of respectable country gentlemen right up until the moment when something goes wrong and they start drawing on the skills and assets they developed as loyal participants in the blood-soaked adventurism of the British empire. The outline of the broader campaign included at the beginning of this (otherwise standalone) adventure suggests this theme is going to feature prominently in the rest of the campaign.
Having spent a few sessions working my way through most of Type40’s systematically under-written Adventure Seeds series of mini-adventures, the amount of information included in The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild did feel a bit overwhelming. For example, when Ross decides to include a display case full of weird ritual objects in his adventure, he makes sure that each of those objects gets a description that is as vivid and complete as the one object that’s going to turn out to be useful later in the adventure. Similarly, when Ross mentions that one of the NPCs has an occult library, he gives you authors, titles, publication dates, and a general overview to pretty much every single book.
Another area in which Ross displays his belt-and-braces approach to description is that there are a few areas where information is repeated in more than one place. For example, there is one scene in which the characters enter an area in which they can see another nearby area through some cracks in the flooring. Ross includes the information in the description of the first room, and then repeats it in greater detail in the description of the second room. This also happens when something happens at the end of a scene as Ross will tend to describe what the characters see when they stumble upon something and then repeat a lot of that information at the beginning of the next scene when the players start engaging with the stuff they have just discovered. While I appreciate the desire to be complete and cut down the time GMs spend hunting around for information, I often found myself a) having to apologise for repeating myself whenever I read stuff out loud and b) having to spend more time hunting for pieces of information as I’d flip through the information, encounter the first description of a scene, and not find the information I needed. This would usually prompt either additional searching, or a moment of panic as I wondered whether I hadn’t imagined the existence of said information in the first place.
At this point, the cynics among you will point out that I just need to spend a bit more time preparing my adventures and you are probably correct. However, the ‘maximalist’ approach to descriptive writing can be viewed as a response to the problems of a ‘minimalist’ approach to writing whereby descriptions can be either too thin to provide much flavour or too hard to find in the body of the text. My point is that giving the GM a lot of information can sometimes be as problematic as giving them too little. Minimalist approaches to descriptive writing tend to get more attention as they require the GM to create additional information but maximalist approaches to descriptive writing engender their own forms of additional prep as they require GMs to perform either pre-emptive edits or additional acts of highlighting. Anyway… this is more about me uncovering my preferences than Ross’s work so let’s just say that The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild is very generous with its descriptive writing and press on.
The plot of the adventure is fairly typical Call of Cthulhu fare in that the group gets invited someplace by a previously unmentioned acquaintance, they discover something weird going on in an evocative setting, they start digging into the weirdness, they realise that said weirdness is a lot more dangerous than it first appeared, and then they break out the elephant guns and the banishing rites. Purely on this level, The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild isn’t going to be winning any prizes for originality as the second the first weird happening occurs, it is fairly obvious where this adventure is headed. This being said, despite its lack of narrative originality, The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild delivers in spades when it comes to atmosphere and memorable moments.
I mentioned earlier that this adventure put me more in mind of Basil Fawlty than Hercule Poirot and that’s because Ross really captures the unique vibe of the British B&B: It’s set in a decaying mansion that’s been turned into a kind of hotel by people who have neither the nous nor the resources to handle the upkeep on the building. As a result, there’s this glorious disconnect between the beautiful photos of Victorian interiors and the repeated reminders that most of the rooms have been trashed by Maud’s demented husband. Then you have the slightly grumpy staff who do all the real work and the privileged owner who is too wasted to keep an eye on things. Indeed, the entire adventure hinges on the fact that there is a huge structure on the grounds of the hotel but apparently nobody knows it’s there.
It is sometimes said that Lovecraftian horror is all about peeling back the layers on the onion to reveal the darker reality that lies hidden beneath the limits of human complacency. Agatha Christie is an interesting figure as while golden age detective fiction acknowledges the existence of deeper realities, the emotional thrust of the story comes from the idea that the darkness can be safely contained by the forces of order. Poirot stories are all about desire, jealousy, and vengeance but they all end with the ugliness being swept out of view when a man in a suit summons everyone to the drawing room and reveals the identity of the murderer over cognac and cigars. The character of Basil Fawlty is a snob and a sycophant but most of the laughs he generates come from his failure to preserve British decorum and keep everything running smoothly. He’s about the brittleness of British reserve, and the ugliness that comes rushing out the second you look beyond the obsequious smiles and the ironed tablecloths. The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild absolutely nails that aesthetic as the adventure is all about digging through the detritus of other people’s lives and discovering realities that seem to get weirder and darker the more you sift.
When the final onion skin is pealed back and the true horror of the situation is revealed, Ross provides us not only with a fun monster and a tense confrontation, but also a set-piece made up of enough vivid imagery to make the whole thing come alive. When the party limp back to the hotel and are greeted by the local police, British decorum re-asserts itself in a typically half-arsed manner and thus we are reminded not only of the fragility of that decorum, but also of the utter absurdity of British institutions. Local bobbies and friendly local GPs offer no protection against the horror that is reality.