REVIEW: Tickets Please for Call of Cthulhu

Tickets Please is a self-contained Call of Cthulhu adventure that is part of Type40’s ‘Adventure Seed’ series of scenarios. Like the other instalments in the series, Tickets Please is short and relies on superior production values to convince buyers that a series of really quite sparse notes are actually a viable adventure.

I really have gone back and forth on Type40’s approach to adventures for the Call of Cthulhu RPG. When I first started this blog, I wrote about a load of Type40 adventures I had run but drifted away from them with somewhat mixed feelings:

On the one hand, I think they are a terrible rip-off in that they are more expensive than your average self-published OSR Dungeon Crawl despite being so thin that they seldom amount to little more than some (often incomplete) stats, some (usually uninspiring) pre-fab character sheets, and some focused improvisation cues with (usually great, sometimes brilliant) accompanying artwork.

On the other hand, I have had some success with this format as the lack of detail and structure compelled me to actually sit down and write meaning that Type40’s under-written, under-imagined generic scenario outlines did eventually become something really cool in play.

This being said, I have been playing RPGs for over twenty five years and have a lot of experience writing my own stuff so while I might have the time and the experience to turn a bunch of writing cues into a working adventure, this is not going to be true of everyone and so I simply cannot recommend that people start buying any of these so-called Adventure Seeds.

Tickets Please sticks very closely to the format established in previous scenarios though I would argue that the presence of a clear narrative through-line with specific set-pieces places this adventure much closer to Hand of Glory than The Mummy of Pemberley Grange.

The action takes place on a revolutionary British-designed airship that is currently hovering halfway over the Atlantic Ocean. The investigators (for reasons unspecified) have been invited on the airship’s maiden journey and are in passive reception of an info-dump from the scientist who designed the engines when he is called away by a member of staff. As soon as this happens, one of the passengers attacks a steward in a psychotic rage and the investigators feel obliged to step up and find out what’s going on.

There are basically two steps to this adventure: There is one taking the adventures from that initial opening scene to the diary of the scientist who designed the airship. The second step takes them from the diary of the scientist who designed the airship to the engineering section where they discover a) how the airship works and b) what has gone wrong. There are then a number of options presented to the players, each with an associated set of risks and potential rewards.

In terms of actual substance, we have a very well-realised set of plans for the gondola as well as a blueprint-style drawing of the airship presenting it as a kind of angled cross-section. There are also some hand-written notes in which the chief designer conveniently speculates about what might occur should the revolutionary new engines encounter precisely the problem they happen to encounter in this scenario.

Though well-executed, the artwork is nowhere near as evocative as the note-covered maps that featured in One Less Grave and the rules governing the effects of the gases, while functional, are neither interesting nor evocative. It’s not just that all of this is very thin given the cost; it’s also very uninspiring and not particularly scary stuff. As with The Mummy of Pemberley Grange, an experienced GM would look at that initial set-up and realise that this is all about survival horror and so the session should be littered with pulse-raising encounters with deranged passengers but there is nothing in this adventure to tell you how to introduce these kinds of action set-pieces. Writer Allan Carey carefully walks GMs through the very first encounter, telling GMs when to have their players make a SAN check but the second that opening scene finishes, the passengers are dropped as a potential source of tension and without the passengers providing a clear ongoing threat to the players, this basically becomes a two dice-roll scenario: Roll to find scientist’s journal and then roll to fix problem with the engines. That’s not just thin, it’s downright rubbish.

Having returned to looking at these Type40 Adventure Seeds for the first time in a while, I think the real problem here is that while they claim to have been designed to be run with minimal preparation, the ability to turn a vague set of notes into a decent game session requires the GM to have the ability to not only improvise cosmetic stuff like dialogue and description but also to have an intuitive grasp of more substantial issues like structure, pacing and overall narrative flow. You also need to be able to improvise action set-pieces and while the rules of Call of Cthulhu are light enough to allow that kind of free-wheeling approach to GMing, it does require the kind of skill and experience that you simply cannot take for granted when selling pre-written scenarios.

I think the idea of an adventure you can read once and run is a great idea but the hardest part of improvised RPG sessions is not coming up with basic ideas, it’s being able to turn those ideas into a fun session and there is literally nothing in this short document that will help you to do that. Rather than charging people for drawings of airships and lists of stats for NPCs who die immediately after delivering a single line of pre-scripted dialogue, Type40 would be better off providing players with a sense of structure; a timeline bound to a series of planned set-pieces would be far more useful in a short read-once-and-run scenario than half of what is provided in this already thin and uninspiring document.

The really frustrating thing about the Adventure Seeds line is that they are very close to a genuine gap in the market. Chaosium scenarios tend to come in two flavours; they are either part of gigantic on-going campaigns or they are scenarios set in such specific times and places that they’re almost impossible to fit into the kind of on-going campaign where players keep their characters from session to session but where there’s little to no over-arching narrative structure binding those scenarios together.

Browse DriveThruRPG and what you’ll find is that the market for standalone scenarios tends to assume that you’re playing Call of Cthulhu as a one-shot break from another game and so those scenarios will often have very specific settings with specific pre-made characters. The thing that’s great about the Adventure Seeds line is that they have so little detail that you can easily fit them into an on-going campaign regardless of where or when said campaign is set. All you need to fit Tickets Please into your campaign is for the characters to be travelling somewhere by airship and that is the kind of big, broad, easy-to-implement plot hook that makes a pre-written scenario really useful to people who are maybe too busy to write all of their own stuff.

Tickets Please is not entirely without value. The artwork is good, the positioning of the product is interesting, and an experienced GM should be more than capable of turning this poorly-structured and vague set of writing cues into a decent evening’s entertainment. I just wish that the scenario was better and that punters didn’t need decades of experience to turn it into a working adventure.

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