REVIEW: Under a Winter’s Snow

Written by Nathan Ross, Under a Winter’s Snow was first published by Stygian Fox in February 2020 as a scenario for what is referred as ‘Classic Era’ (i.e. 1920s) Call of Cthulhu. Twenty pages long and illustrated with an array of drawings, photographs, and hand-outs, this single-session scenario is currently available for download from DriveThruRPG for the entirely reasonable sum of $4.95.

Set in small-town North Dakota in the midst of a snow storm, Under a Winter’s Snow invites players to investigate the source of a mysterious and lethal pandemic. Long on investigation and short on monster-stomping, the scenario is timely, thematically rich and full of human tragedy. The only thing that lets this scenario down is the disordered and incomplete nature of the text.

Under a Winter’s Snow is set in the immediate aftermath of World War I and tells of a small town where a mysterious disease has erupted at the same time as a brutal winter storm. The opening section of the adventure proposes a series of paths into this set up ranging from the unique (the characters are a crew sent by a cash-strapped county to provide assistance), to the obvious (the characters are trapped in town by the storm), and on to the more prep-heavy (the characters are young kids who grew up in the town). None of these hooks is particularly well fleshed out but it is nice to have them offered to us. There is also a brief paragraph about moving the adventure from North Dakota to another location and while this might require a keeper to rework some of the hand-outs, I would say that this adventure could be played practically anywhere and any-when.

The adventure’s backstory is singularly engaging as rather than presenting us with incomprehensible monsters, evil cultists, or deranged sorcerers, Under a Winter’s Snow talks about a pair of young lovers who happened into some magical knowledge and then made a series of catastrophically bad decisions that only amplified the tragedy of their situation and the collapse of their respective sanities. This is a story of madness and corruption that never forgets its fundamental humanity and the result is a far more morally complex and emotionally engaging adventure.

The group arrive in town and are put up in the local equivalent of a Bed and Breakfast. The owners of the B&B are very well drawn and they serve as a useful barometer for the disease’s advance through the town. Ross even goes so far as to script a couple of nice moments that illustrate the town’s collapse into disease. The scenario lists these right at the front of the text and talks a bit about how the disease passes through three distinct stages but that’s pretty much it as far as scripted material goes. The scenario suggests that the players should sense that things get tangibly worse when the disease passes from Wave 1 to Wave 2 and then from Wave 2 to Wave 3 but I would have liked to have seen a load more scripted descriptions. Indeed, while this scenario is quite eager to stress that the players are on the clock and that things are getting steadily worse, the adventure as a whole really struggles to deal with the passage of time.

One way of dealing with this would have been to have the characters roll dice at the start of every day. These numbers would tell the keeper how swiftly the disease had advanced. The advancement of the disease could then be traced through a series of scripted events: Like, once the disease reached 50, you might have a little scripted scene about the town doctor getting sick. Then, once the disease reached 70, you could have a scene in which the wind pulls the tarp off a cart only to reveal that the cart is full of bodies. You could even have some important NPCs turn up in the scripted scenes as a way of not only showing how the disease is impacting the lives of named individuals plus it would give the players another chance to run into those characters should they miss them during their exploration of the map. It would also help to give more of an impression of there being a town as opposed to just a small handfull of named NPCs. We are told that people are dying of the disease and there are some events that take place in the doctor’s clinic but there’s no central gathering place where the players might engage with the location as a town. In order for the destruction of the town to carry dramatic weight, you really need to make the town a thing and this adventure doesn’t help you to create that weight.

This wouldn’t have required too much work… five or six such scenes would easily have done the trick but they are conspicuously absent from the text of the adventure. The scenario tells you to roll dice and to keep track of time but it doesn’t really support the characters’ passage through time and that is a very serious weakness.

Another problem is that while all of the locations and NPCs are well-drawn and well thought-out, not much thought has been put into how the characters are supposed to find any of these people or places. Under a Winter’s Snow is an adventure in which the characters spend their time wandering around, exploring, and asking questions but the only map of the town is one that is supposedly hand-drawn by the B&B owners and that contains markers telling you how the second and third waves of the disease affect the town. Frankly, B&B owners would not be in a position to know about the extent of the second and third waves and they certainly wouldn’t be in a position to know about them before they had actually happened. What this means in practice is that the first hand-out is useless and needs to be re-drawn by the GM who could then add the spread of the second and third waves should the players seek to ask for those pieces of information.

Given that Under a Winter’s Snow has a non-linear plot, what structure the game session has will come from the group’s movement through space and time. In other words, this adventure needed a clear map that the players could explore and a clear time-line to determine when things happen. Ross and his editors failed to provide either and so it is left to keepers to pick up the pieces. Neither task is particularly onerous but it is a bit shit to have to finish a pre-written scenario and inexperienced GMs would almost certainly struggle to do the additional work.

 The fact that Under a Winter’s Snow feels unfinished is a real disappointment as the adventure is otherwise really bloody good: The NPCs are well drawn, the setting is evocative and the themes of disease, isolation, and loss are incredibly timely given what we are all currently living through. Given how many published Call of Cthulhu adventures are content to either re-work The Haunting or provide a rich historically-accurate backdrop for gunning down dark-skinned degenerates, I salute Ross’ desire to produce a scenario that speaks not to real human emotions but to the emotions that define the current moment. If you want to see the quality of the writing in Under a Winter’s Snow then look no further than the final lines of the adventure:

With so many deaths, the town of Eisner cannot hope to recover. The town will eventually be abandoned, lost in the snow.

Fuck your Masks of Nyarlatohotep. This is the real shit. This is horror. Which is precisely why it is so annoying that they didn’t bother to finish writing the adventure before putting it up for sale.

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