REVIEW: The Wombwell Stones

Set in early 1920s Britain, A Very British Horror is an on-going series of adventures (half of which have been published at time of writing) designed to either stand alone or function as an extended campaign. The first volume, The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild is set in a decaying B&B in the Cotswolds and it involves a traumatised friend, a deranged husband, family secrets, and a sinister cult with ties to the British establishment. I thought it very good when I played it, I thought it even better when I sat down to write about it, and I remember it now as one of the few published Call of Cthulhu adventures to really grasp the unique horrors of Britishness.

However, while The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild may be a fantastic stand-alone adventure and a great place to start a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in 1920s Britain, the second volume in the series is something of a disappointment.

The Wombwell Stones opens several months after the events of Folly with the players being contacted by an NPC who made a brief cameo appearance in the first adventure. This woman, it turns out, is another victim of the cultist-turned-deranged-husband from the Folly of Ponsonby-Wild as, prior to seducing and exploiting the owner of a B&B in the Cotswolds, our cultist had been using his money and looks to lure working-class women to their deaths. The NPC who provides the initial hook for this adventure is the sister of one such woman.

At this point, I’ll permit myself a short(ish) digression as I think that the treatment of this NPC goes some way towards locating the source of my frustration with this adventure. April Bradbury is a fantastic NPC: A supremely self-reliant working class woman who was abandoned by her parents at a young age, April worked multiple jobs in order to look after both herself and her somewhat less resilient younger sister. When the sister disappeared, April set about teaching herself how to conduct investigations and started moving about the country, hopping from one shitty, exploitative job to another in an effort to keep her head above water while searching for her sister.  Aside from being a fantastic backstory, this vision of the Northern working-class woman who gets on with life regardless of the hardships heaped upon her is something of a British archetype and as such, provides a rare glimpse into how Britain treated the working-class women of the 1920s.

In this regard, April is a useful counterpoint to Maud from the opening adventure as while both of them were victims of evil men, April’s lowly status meant that she had no option but to keep moving forward. Maud, on the other hand, had been born to money and status meaning that when the wheels started to come off her life, she could afford the ‘luxury’ of sinking into alcoholic lethargy.

One of the great historical problems of published Call of Cthulhu adventures has been their tendency to flinch from the implications of the horror they contain. In other words, when bad things happen in Call of Cthulhu adventures, it’s usually located either in the past (the PCs stumble across a mutilated corpse) or in the future (if the PCs don’t stop this ritual then…). The present is usually reserved as a venue for the thwarting of evil deeds. This tendency to flinch from the horrific is also visible in the way that the sanity mechanics treat existential horror as something that is too abstract to describe in words but concrete enough to be quantified as a percentage.

Both Maud and April are examples of the harm that Lovecraftian cultists unleash upon the world. The consequences of cultist activity are writ in their physical scars, their white-knuckled perseverance, and their collapse into alcoholism and madness. They are what the PCs are supposedly fighting and fighting for. They are the evil that is done by evil men. They are (in the context of this campaign) victims of Britain’s blood-spattered establishment. They are precisely the things that Call of Cthulhu should be showing us and yet they exist only to present the PCs with adventure hooks and then fade into the background.

The fact that both Maud and April turn out to be disposable NPCs also highlights a broader structural problem with the campaign. The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild works very nicely as both a stand-alone adventure and an introduction to a longer campaign as both its tone and its scope are quite tightly controlled. The first adventure in the series is about the domestic horror of someone who goes through waves of grief and trauma only to be victimised by sinister cultists and this theme and focus is carried over to the opening section of The Wombwell Stones.

The adventure opens with April asking the PCs to find some trace of her sister. The group quickly trace the cultist from Folly to a now-abandoned house on an otherwise peaceful middle-class street. I thought this section worked really well as the characters break into the house only to discover that the domestic normality contained within its four walls is nothing more than camouflage for a load of horrible stuff hidden in the basement. I particularly enjoyed this idea as it reminded me of the fourth season of the TV series Dexter in which John Lithgow plays an older, wiser, and more experienced serial killer with a large and loving family. At first, Dexter is jealous of the older man’s ability to ‘pass’ as normal and his ability to prevent his murderous tendencies from infecting the wholesomeness of his family life. However, the more time Dexter spends with the Trinity Killer, the more he realises that the wholesomeness of the family is nothing but a charade maintained by fear. One of my all-time favourite published Call of Cthulhu adventures is “Mr. Corbitt” precisely because of the way that the adventure is all about how a thin veneer of middle-class respectability might allow a deranged sorcerer to remain hidden on an otherwise normal residential street.

The problems start once the players have finished exploring the house as, having been asked to investigate the disappearance of April’s sister, the group emerges from the house with a solution to the opening adventure hook and no real motivation for delving any deeper. This is not an issue of the players refusing to take risks without payment or preferring to call the cops in order to be ‘true to their characters’, it’s an issue of an encounter sitting quite uncomfortably next to another encounter from a completely different genre with only the encounters’ presence in the same PDF serving as any kind of connective tissue.

On one level, I am sympathetic to the problem: We all know the moment in every horror film when grim reality finally starts to dawn on the film’s protagonists: Suddenly, they’re not just dealing with a man-eating shark but a shark so large that it could swallow a man whole. Suddenly the guy they pissed off in the diner isn’t just a jerk with a truck, he’s a crazed serial killer. Suddenly, they haven’t just gotten lost driving cross-country in a town with no mobile reception, they’re stranded in a town that has been taken over by flesh-eating parasites. This shift occurs not only at the level of tone but also at the level of genre as thriller expands into something genuinely horrific. All horror stories have to make this transition at one moment or another, it’s just that this adventure handles that transition  quite poorly.

The shift that takes place in Wombwell Stones is between the kind of grinding domestic horror that Ross did so well in Folly and a considerably more pulpy and action-based register. It’s not just that Stones starts off in one genre and ends in another, it’s that Ross neither acknowledges nor manages the transition between the two: One minute the characters are exploring a creepy old house in order to help out a vulnerable woman, next they’re battling monsters in a dungeon in order to save the King.

I feel it is fair to say that pulpy action-based horror is not Ross’s forte, as later sections of this adventure feel really under-developed compared to the tonally focused and exquisitely textured sections dealing both with the events in the B&B from Folly and the exploration of the house from Stones. These earlier passages are dripping with atmosphere and almost over-burdened with detail but moving towards a pulpier register results in everything becoming a lot more thin and primitive. For example, the climax of the second act takes place in a buried temple and it might as well be a rubbish set-piece from a teenager’s D&D campaign as the players break into a lumber yard and find their way into a hidden basement only to be locked in a room with a monster while a wizard appears in spectral form purely so that he can deliver a ridiculous monologue without being cut down with a volley of shotgun blasts.

The lack of detail is also quite striking in the final section where the group have to decide how they will deal with a plot to kill the King. Ross provides an NPC and a couple of routes through the encounter but it’s all very sketchy and under-written compared to the opening sections of the campaign. Given that Folly saw Ross come up with at least a dozen weird objects to sit beside the one object that the PCs would need to complete the adventure, it’s a little disappointing to have the second adventure end with Ross suggesting that you might want to finish the adventure with a chase through some narrow streets.

Re-reading both Folly and the opening section of Stones, I am struck by the fact that these sections are all basically on rails: The PCs enter at one point, they then roam around a closed-off area with a load of things to look at, and then they exit at another precise point.  The players are free to explore the closed-off areas in their own way and at their own pace but they’re always going to be looking at the same set of things albeit in the order of their choosing. The problem with the second and third sections of Stones is that they are necessarily a bit more open-ended. Even if you could get away with selling a Call of Cthulhu adventure that was just three dungeons strung together with some Library Use rolls, the second and third sections have multiple points of entry as well as a variety of different outcomes. Ross responds to the open-endedness of section two in a cinematic fashion by forcing the players into an orchestrated set-piece battle. He responds to the open-endedness of section three by making a few suggestions and getting out of the way.

I must admit that I am not the world’s biggest fan of combat-heavy RPGs and I rapidly learned that putting a lot of effort into designing action set-pieces tends to engender a tendency to want to force your players into those set-pieces rather than allowing them to deal with conflicts in their own way. The Wombwell Stones shows Ross experimenting with both approaches and while I think his hands-off approach is a lot better than his hands-on approach, I am somewhat saddened to see that the hands-off approach comes at the expense of detail. I’m sympathetic to the issue here as this adventure is written for an audience and so Ross has been forced to write both for GMs who don’t know how to improvise, and GMs who can run an entire evening’s play based upon nothing more than a few notes about NPCs and places.

One of the reasons why The Haunting has stuck around as an introductory adventure is that it instructs both the GM and the players on how to conduct an investigation-based gaming session. The first few sections of this campaign are both well-written and comprehensible because they follow the template laid down in The Haunting but what does a good action-based Call of Cthulhu scenario even look like on paper? How do you write a sandbox adventure that can just as easily culminate in a huge set-piece battle as it can in a load of people sneaking around a church and escaping with a huge stone in the back of a truck? 

Personally, I would like to see Ross pursue the more hands-off approach. As a writer, he is fantastic on details and atmosphere but that set-piece in the underground temple is poorly conceived, poorly written, and completely out of kilter with the tone and subject matter established in the opening sections of this campaign. Going forward, I would love Ross to provide us with well-described settings and well-written NPCs. He can even provide a few hints as to how the more sand-boxy moments could play out but taking a tale of existential horror set amidst the British countryside and turning it into a D&D boss battle? No. Not for me.

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