REVIEW: Refractions of Glasston

Written by Sam Guinsatao, Carson Jacobs, Joy Lemont, Elijah Oates, Rayce Patterson, Emily Pawlowski, and J. Tucker White, Refractions of Glasston was first published in April 2019 as a scenario for 1920s Call of Cthulhu. 46 pages long including illustrations, maps, hand-outs, and pre-rolled characters, this two session scenario is currently available to download from DriveThruRPG for free.

Set in Northwest Indiana, the adventure revolves around a glass company that claims to have created an unbreakable jar. Having arrived in town, the characters are encouraged to wander around talking to people and noticing things until they come to realise that the town’s booming glass industry has sinister underpinnings.

Okay… so that summary makes this adventure sound a little bit silly and that intuition is not without its merits. However, while Refractions of Glasston may have a few rough edges and boasts a number of perplexing creative decisions, both the peculiarity of its origins and the rigour of its execution make it an interesting piece in its own right and a fascinating counterpoint to Stygian Fox’s somewhat similar Under a Winter’s Snow (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago).

First and foremost, this adventure has a really weird and interesting back-story. Peek above the fold and you’ll notice a really long list of writing credits. This is because the scenario was a class project for a professional writing course offered by Taylor University. When I first hit upon this piece of information, I was put in mind of the film Whiplash where a young man goes to music school in the hope of becoming a jazz drummer and drives himself insane on the way to becoming a genius. At the time of its release, Whiplash was really well received but I have never been able to get past the fact that the protagonist drives himself insane in an effort to secure a job as a jazz drummer. Is the competition for jobs playing hotel lobbies and airport lounges really that fierce? That may be a little bit mean but the point I’m trying to make is that designing tabletop RPGs is not exactly a high-status and well-paid profession, so why are universities offering courses in how to crank out Call of Cthulhu adventures? The answer is that Taylor’s professional writing track is not so much about churning out novelists and future MFAs as it is about training the next generation of technical writers. In other words, this was not a class about learning how to churn out Call of Cthulhu scenarios, it was a class about being given a very specific writing brief and being able to adapt your workflow and your writing style to satisfy all of the client’s requirements. I must admit… I think that’s kind of brilliant and kind of sweet. The DTRPG page even makes a bit of a fuss about how they have updated the PDF in response to feedback.

The adventure is set in Northwest Indiana in the 1920s when a boom in American manufacturing lead to loads of small towns basically falling over themselves in an effort to lure investment to their door. This practice is still fairly common and I can remember a story about big cities making ridiculous offers to multinational corporations like Google in an attempt to encourage them to open an office in their town and thus add to their tax base. Back when Google were shopping around for a new headquarters, people quite rightly asked what the point of having Google set up in town if they were promised they were never going to pay a single penny in property tax? Who are towns for if not the people who live there and if a town fundamentally changes in order to bring in investment, what does that say about the value its leadership place on human lives?

These kinds of issues are very much in the background of this scenario, which is a bit unfortunate really as rather than addressing this issue head-on, the scenario alludes to it and then spends about a dozen pages making references to a variety of supernatural events that have no bearing on the contents of the adventure. I must admit that this rather got my back up as I have never studied writing but the one thing I know is that you should always be willing to kill your darlings and while the students’ research process might well have brought up a load of ideas that could have supported a Call of Cthulhu scenario, they really needed to cull the ideas that didn’t make the cut.

Another minor irritation was the suggestion that the characters were all arriving in town to investigate claims that the local glass factory had learned how to produce unbreakable jars. Um… why would anyone not in the glass business travel to fucking Indiana to see some jars? I get that a lot of standalone Call of Cthulhu scenarios come with pre-rolled characters and that pre-rolled characters benefit from an esprit de corps born of a common and clearly articulated purpose but I think ‘you are playing a bunch of investors in the glass trade’ is a hook that is more than a little bit too niche. It would have been nice to have a list of possible paths into the adventure but I guess having the group pull in for lunch or get waylaid whilst travelling cross-country would work too.

Once the adventure starts going, we are presented with the kind of rigorous structure that was sadly missing from Under a Winter’s Snow: The players get a town map, the town map contains a list of locations, each location contains things to see, people to talk to, and things to discover. Each clue the group discover moves a ticker along a track, once a certain point is reached, the group pop up on the glass company’s radar and they get abducted by hired goons, thereby dragging them from the first to the second act (I suspect the point of abduction is supposed to serve as a cliff-hanger between the first and second sessions so anyone running this adventure might want to speed things up or slow them down with that break point in mind).

Aside from having a really rigorous and well-designed structure, Refractions of Glasston also benefits from somewhat over-written descriptions. It’s not just that each location has a notable NPC and a clue, it’s that each NPC is described in detail (along with motivations and tips on how to roleplay them) and that a number of the clues are tied to quite elaborate scripted events. This is what I was talking about when I said that Under a Winter’s Snow feels under-written: When the players wander around the town, they not only meet people who tell them things, they also see things that encourage them to make inferences and push the investigation onwards. For example, there’s a nice little scene where the characters are snooping around a local business and they notice something that leads them to the local rum-runner and that opens up a whole new perspective on the town. That’s not just good surface-writing, it’s writing that functions in depth and it serves to make Glasston not only a good deal more interesting to explore, it also makes it seem a lot more real.

The group should arrive in the second half of the adventure with a pretty clear idea about something being off and the second session builds towards a big confrontation with a local monster. This is one area where I think the students let themselves down as while the monster is kind of cool and well-enough designed, he feels a lot more like a D&D monster than something out of Call of Cthulhu. The fact that he comes with a list of special attacks and a magical invulnerability that can only be pierced using a spell feels less horrific and more fantastical. I would also point out that, as far as boss battles go, it’s kind of brutal and way too OP for the kind of mundane characters that come pre-rolled with the scenario. Encounters with Call of Cthulhu monsters that do 8D10 damage and require spells to overcome tend to end in total party kills and there is nothing in this adventure to suggest another way around it. There’s a classic Call of Cthulhu adventure in which the adventure ends with a fight against a Shoggoth and clever players are usually able to work out that you can kill the beast by driving a truck full of salt up to the basement steps and emptying your truck. There is nothing comparable here. Either your doctors, nurses, and travelling salesmen win the final battle or it’s a TPK and that is a piece of design that is just not appropriate for Call of Cthulhu.

Another thing that rather frustrated me was the lack of thematic heft. Under a Winter’s Snow may be half-finished but it begins with pathos and ends with tragedy. Here, the suggestion that capitalists exploit their local areas like alien monsters is quite explicitly alluded to but those ideas are seldom returned to and the adventure ends with a big punch-up in the desert. That’s disappointing and a real missed opportunity given quite how much information this PDF contains. If you have space to talk about all the ideas you decided not to include in your scenario then you have room for a bit of dramatic weight.

On the whole, I must admit that Refractions of Glasston felt a little under-imagined for my liking. The monster is a bit D&D, the set-up is a bit silly, and the lack of dramatic heft serves to make the entire thing feel quite light and insubstantial. A lot of individual sections are good and I really appreciate and admire the attention paid to detail and structure but I wish as much love and attention had gone into the scenario’s big ideas. This isn’t a great scenario, but I think a lot of scenario writers would benefit from taking note of the amount of effort and rigour that has been put into it by writers who were both very young and very inexperienced.

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