REVIEW: Scream of the Mandrake

It is interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of Call of Cthulhu adventures tend to fall into one of two camps: Either they are vast sprawling campaigns that will take years to complete, or they are stand-alone adventures with settings so precise that it is all but impossible to fold them into any kind of on-going campaign.

This is because the nature of available Call of Cthulhu adventures is shaped by the market and the market is informed by the reasons for people buying Call of Cthulhu adventures in the first place. In truth, if you are in the market for Call of  Cthulhu adventures then you are either looking to pay top-dollar for a luxury product produced by Chaosium, or you are looking for a single-session adventure that you might be able to squeeze into a break between D&D campaigns.

While I have gone back-and-forth on their product a few times, I think it’s fair to say that Type40 are in the business of publishing terrible adventures with really good production values. If you buy a Type40 product, you will get some really good hand-outs, some pre-generated characters, a more-or-less evocative idea for a scenario, and very little else. Sure… there’s usually a basic plot and writer Allan Carey might come up with an interesting puzzle or set-piece but there’s usually no real plot and most ‘adventures’ amount to little more than an initial set up, a dramatic conclusion, and a few notes to help you guide your party from Step A to Step B. It’s shitty, it’s lazy, it’s grotesquely over-priced, and it’s utterly devoid of anything approaching creative ambition, but it is accessible and therein lays the rub.

One of the great problems facing Call of Cthulhu is the fact that it’s a lot harder to write a mystery than it is to write a dungeon crawl. Dungeons are easy: You draw a map, you fill it with monsters, you generate some treasure, and then you invite your friends around and everyone has a good time. Sure… you can go down the Lamentations of the Flame Princess route of producing dungeons that explore weird ideas, or you can delve into the aesthetics of dungeon design to produce something of real substance but as Baron de Rapp points out… at the end of the day, designing a dungeon is just randomly scattering shapes across a piece of paper and joining them up with tunnels.

It’s fascinating that ‘The Haunting’, the most widely-played adventure to have been written for Call of Cthulhu, is basically a dungeon-crawl with a bit of investigation tacked onto it. ‘The Haunting’ is a genius piece of writing as it not only teaches players how to progress through a Call of Cthulhu adventure, it also teaches GMs how to run horror and what an investigation-based horror adventure is supposed to look like. ‘The Haunting’ even contains a few scenario hooks that could be used to kick-start a Call of Cthulhu campaign but the problem is that neither Chaosium nor the wider fan-community have never been great at providing the support for the second, third, and fourth adventures in your campaign. As a result, people who want to play Call of Cthulhu either wind up buying Chaosium’s huge meat-grinder campaigns (what I call the standard model of Call of Cthulhu), or they wind up treating the game as a fun little diversion from their regular campaign. Sandy Peterson has always maintained that Chaosium used to be a lot more interested in the historical aspects of Call of Cthulhu than the horror elements and you can really see that in the fact that the game tends to reward people who go out and read books about specific historical places and then decide to write a stand-alone adventure set in that place.

Type40 adventures are interesting as they are neither historically-specific nor huge meat-grinders that require years to play and weeks to read. They are short, sweet, simple, and incredibly flexible: You can play them by themselves, or you can fit them into an on-going campaign with minimal fuss and virtually no additional writing. Type40 adventures are like professionally-produced dungeons: they look nice, they do most of the heavy-lifting required to run a game, and they require vanishingly little prep time. It should not come as any surprise that they sell well… they are filling a niche that both Chaosium and most Call of Cthulhu writers have historically refused to acknowledge.

The reason I keep returning to Type40 products is that they are flexible enough to be of use to me as a GM who sometime runs out of time when it comes to writing adventures. They can be strung together in any number of different ways and all you really need to make a campaign work is to string together a handful of adventures. Sadly, while I admire Type40’s willingness to break with the Standard Model of Call of Cthulhu, I still wish that their adventures were better as this is really underwhelming.

Scream of the Mandrake opens with the adventurers being invited to a gala in Kent. The gala is being held to celebrate the discovery of an agricultural method that will allow British farmers to grow pineapples.

The opening bars of the adventure include a list of thinly drawn NPCs and a list of the secrets they happen to hold. Other clues are concealed behind specific skill-checks and the scenario tells you when to ask the players to roll specific skills:

As you might expect, the primary secret is that the method required to grow pineapples is inspired by the method required to produce mandrake resulting in the creation of these weird screaming mandrake/pineapple hybrids. The scenario then presents you with a series of possible resolutions including blowing up the greenhouse, drowning the mandrakes in fertiliser, and allowing the people invited to the gala to dig up their pineapples resulting in the mandrakes running amok with hilarious/terrifying consequences. The adventure comes with blue-prints for both the gardener’s shed and one of the greenhouses, neither of which are of any use at all.

Now… setting aside the usual complaint about Type40 products (namely that $9 is way too expensive for something that is barely an adventure), I don’t think that Scream of the Mandrake is a very good adventure even by the low-low standards of Type40: For starters, the basic idea for the adventure is not just silly, it’s so utterly stupid that the players will not only fail to get into the frame of mood required to run horror, they will also immediately smell a rat and assume that the people growing the pineapples are up to no good. It’s also really depressing to note how little room there is for creativity or engagement on the part of the players.

The really frustrating thing is that if you look at adventures like One Less Grave, you’ll see that Type40 and Carey can produce adventures that evocative, engaging, and fun without being overly long or complex. The closest this adventure gets to any kind of atmosphere is the scene where the characters investigate a putting shed and discover a flayed and rotting cow carcas… that’s great but this adventure needed ten ideas like that, not just one!

I’m just surprised at how little Carey does with the mandrakes themselves. For example, people in the medieval period used to believe that mandrakes were literal humonculi and thought that mandrake would only grow near gallows because they believed that you needed the ejaculate of a dead man to get the stuff to grow. Other beliefs about mandrake included the idea that you needed cow milk containing drowned bats and others believed that the only way to get mandrake to grow was to fuck a pumpkin and leave it to rot in a pile of cow shit. Given the real historic beliefs surrounding mandrake, Carey’s idea of getting the stuff to grow by spilling human blood feels really weak and under-imagined. Give me a Kentish farmer who fucks pumpkins or someone trying to grow pineapples under a gallows and you might have the beginnings of a fun adventure but this is all so… beige.

Scream of the Mandrake is a poor piece of writing as it feels terribly under-written and under-imagined and that’s a real shame as I think Call of Cthulhu could really do with more simple, flexible, and evocative adventures. For whatever reason, Type40 have the format down cold… but they really struggle with the content.

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