REVIEW: Sorrow in Tsavo

First published in 2020, written by Bridgett Jeffries with editing and layout work by Jared Smith, Sorrow in Tsavo is a single-session Call of Cthulhu adventure set in 1890s Colonial Africa. The PDF is 43-pages long and includes six pre-generated characters with specific ties to the story so it cannot be easily integrated into a campaign. Thoughtfully written and full of lovely touches, Sorrow in Tsavo is undoubtedly one of the best recent Call of Cthulhu adventures I have discovered on DriveThruRPG.

I have in the past remarked that Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks all too often feel like sourcebooks for a 1920s adventure game that just happens to contain elements of Lovecraftian horror.

This certainly rings true when you consider the way that setting books struggle to strike a balance between historical accuracy and game-relevant content meaning that sourcebooks dedicated to places like New York wind up feeling like Lonely Planet guides to a version of 1920s New York that was identical to our own except there’s a bunch of ghouls living in an old building.

To make matters worse, while Chaosium are undoubtedly more interested in history than horror, their engagement with the stuff of history is usually paper-thin and often amounts to little more than over-researched set dressing. Rare is the adventure or sourcebook that looks at a historical period and uses Lovecraft as a means of emphasising certain themes and ideas. Bridgett Jeffries’ Sorrow in Tsavo is a rare and refreshing exception to that depressing rule.

Set in 1890s Kenya, Sorrow in Tsavo is a 43-page PDF comprising an adventure designed to be played in a single session by a group of three to six players. The adventure comes with engaging pre-generated characters each with their personalities, motives, and tasks to complete.  Described as having a ‘sandbox’ structure, the adventure provides a Lovecraftian take on a real historical event where a pair of rogue lions hunted and killed 35 railroad workers and if that sounds suspiciously like the plot to the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer then you would be absolutely on target as this thoroughly excellent adventure can be viewed as a Lovecraftian take on that very story.

Sorrow in Tsavo is an adventure in two parts. The first part has something of a sandbox structure in that the players assume the roles of people responsible for the completion of a railroad bridge across a Kenyan river. While the completion of the bridge is the reason for the PCs presence, each PC has a different area of skill and a different set of responsibilities that pertains more-or-less directly to the completion of the bridge. For example, the military engineer may be responsible for the building but the building is being slowed down by malaria spreading through the workforce as well as the lions that appear to be circling the hospital. While dealing with the malaria may be the responsibility of the doctor and killing the lions may be the responsibility of the big game hunter, the PCs are supposed to be pooling their skills in order to get these problems sorted. Each task accomplished gives the group a bonus dice for a single roll and so there’s a reason for the group to deal with the mundane problems rather than chasing after the monsters, though dealing with the various mundane problems allows the group to more about the supernatural menace as well as the history of British colonial activities in Kenya.

Upon first reading the adventure, I must admit that I felt somewhat overwhelmed. Jeffries opens the text with some historical background before moving onto the PCs’ backstories and then explaining how the various NPCs might act and relate to each other. This seems like a lot of information to take on in one go but that’s because all of the PCs and NPCs are described prior to the emergence of the adventure’s structure.

Described as a ‘sandbox’ this adventure is really a series of encounters that can be dealt with in any order prior to the triggering of an encounter that leads to a confrontation at the end of the adventure. How the initial encounters are approached and resolved is left largely open (and Jeffries is really good at describing certain possible resolutions for inspiration before stressing that this is all about the fun of having the players work together to solve problems) but the final act of the adventure is almost literally on rails.

Once the structure of the adventure became apparent, I breathed a sigh of relief but I also felt a little bit disappointed as the ending is not only quite rigid but also sealed off from the rest of the adventure. Yes, solving the mundane problems does allow the group to gather clues about the supernatural menace but I think more could have been done to stress the feeling of impending doom.

I think this adventure would have been massively improved by the inclusion of a timeline. By having a list of days with notes like ‘lion attack’, ‘a dozen additional workers off sick with malaria’ and ‘worker desertion’, the group would have been under greater pressure to get stuff done. The adventure talks about various resolutions requiring a few days to complete but there’s no real in-story pressure to get these things done and I think that’s a real shame. Having a secondary set of events that are triggered by the passage of time would also make it easier to drop hints about the supernatural nature of the impending disaster. Sorrow in Tsavo should be a bit like the TV series The Terror in that the group should spend its time stressing out about mundane problems only for those problems to keep getting worse and while the group does manage to get stuff done and win a few victories, those victories should be swept away by the realisation of quite how supernaturally terrible their situation actually is. This story should be all about tension, tension, tension and that tension should only be released by a sense of cosmological horror.

In fairness, I think the ending to this adventure serves that final purpose really well as when the nastiness is revealed, it is nastiness on suitably cosmological scale rather than the cavalcade of rubbery monsters and dark-skinned cultists that tend to crop up in most Call of Cthulhu adventures. I just think that keeping track of time and having stuff happen while the players are dealing with the various sand-box encounters would inject a bit more tension and urgency. Thankfully, coming up with your own set of time-dependent events should be relatively easy given that Jeffries has done an excellent job of describing the NPCs and the world they inhabit. I don’t usually like self-contained scenarios but this one is a bit of a peach.

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