REVIEW: The Dragon of Wantley

Written by SR Sellens with interior art by Lydia Baldwin and cover art by Vitogh, The Dragon of Wantley is a Call of Cthulhu scenario set in 1920s Yorkshire.

I purchased the scenario for $5 through DriveThruRPG and received a 58-page PDF including a good deal of historical background information, full-colour handouts, a suite of pre-generated player characters, an audio recording of a song referred to in the scenario, and a set of files allowing you to 3D print an additional handout. The DTRPG page includes a 5-page preview that is perfectly representative of the product you get.

The Dragon of Wantley is a beautifully-produced PDF: It uses a similar sepia-toned and textured background to the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rulebooks and the artwork is of a singularly high standard. The handouts are well-designed and copious; the NPCs are all fully fleshed out and even include tips on how to play them. Every town has a map, and every building has a plan. All of the primary NPCs have not only pictures but lengthy character sketches and one of them even has a family tree stretching back about a dozen generations. Having reviewed a number of Call of Cthulhu modules that amounted to little more than a set of writing cues, it was interesting to immerse myself in the text of a scenario that offers you all the information you could possibly want and then some.

The Dragon of Wantley is a scenario produced to a professional level… in fact, it even looks better than some of the scenarios that Chaosium produces. The problem with The Dragon of Wantley is not the amount of material it includes… the problem with The Dragon of Wantley is that the material it includes is an absolute crushing bore.

Reading The Dragon of Wantley, I was reminded of Sandy Peterson’s frequent complaint that when he first pitched Call of Cthulhu to the pointy-heads down at the Chaosium factory, people were more interested in the idea of a game set in the 1920s than they were in a game based upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.

One of the ways in which this preference has manifested itself through the years is in the way that Call of Cthulhu products often obsess over time and place at the expense of actual horror. The most obvious example of this weirdly misplaced focus is a supplement like Secrets of New York which feels less like a sourcebook for running a horror game set in New York than it does a 1920s Lonely Planet guide with a few passing allusions to ghouls and sorcerers. The Dragon of Wantley is very much a part of this more historical approach to adventure writing as it starts with a real-world piece of local folklore that is then given the lightest touch of the Lovecraftian brush imaginable in the form of an off-the-peg stat-block as it turns out that the Dragon of Wantley was actually a specific type of Lovecraftian beastie which, despite being summoned and bound, has a tendency to keep escaping and wreaking havoc on the local landscape. That is about as Lovecraftian as this adventure gets.

The real emphasis of the adventure is on two strands of a family drama. On the one hand, the PCs are brought in to help track down the ward of a British aristocrat who appears to have run away to marry an inappropriate man. On the other hand, a different British aristocrat is starting to get on in years and a half-forgotten misadventure from his youth has re-surfaced and is unearthing all sorts of family secrets. The two strands are bound to each other and to the legend of the Dragon of Wantley.

The adventure is basically a bread-crumb trail that leads the PCs from London to Yorkshire. The trail is extremely linear and basically boils down to the characters finding a clue that leads them to a specific place, they then have to fish around until they find a specific NPC who provides them with another clue leading them on to the next waypoint. All of these locations are described at length and the characters are rendered in considerable detail. In fact, there is so much unnecessary descriptive prose here that it is often quite time-consuming to scan the pages of the adventure in order to locate the piece of information that will lead the party from one flat, mundane, and over-written encounter to the next.

For example, one clue takes the party to a small train station where the woman they are chasing happened to pass through. All the party needs is the location she travelled on to but The Dragon of Wantley buries this underneath about a page of description and a stat-block for the train conductor who happened to see her. It’s good to be thorough, but this all of this extra information adds nothing to the adventure… it’s just padding, it serves to create the illusion of substance where little to no substance in fact exists:

In fairness, not all of the encounters are as dull and over-written as the scene where the PCs have to speak to a train conductor. There’s a thing with some bodies dug up by local antiquarians, and the players can dig into the aristocrat’s family secrets but it is all very rote and it ends with a rather uninspiring confrontation with a Lovecraftian critter. There’s no atmosphere, there’s no novelty… there’s just page after page of beautifully designed and painstakingly researched background detail.

I think the root of the problem here is that while Sellens clearly liked the idea of an adventure built around a piece of local folklore, they struggled to either put much of a Lovecraftian spin on the source material or render a local legend in suitably horrific terms and so they put of their efforts into historical verisimilitude. The end result is a tedious story built around tedious subject matter.

The most disappointing thing about the tedium that is The Dragon of Wantley is that turning English folklore into horror is not exactly new… Setting aside the far superior work done by Cubicle Seven as part of the Cthulhu Britannica line of supplements that accompanied 6th edition Call of Cthulhu, people have been turning British folklore into horror stories since the days of Arthur Machen. There are even films like Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm that cover almost identical ground (in this case, the Lampton Worm rather than the Dragon of Wantley) without being in the least bit boring. I mean… just… look at it!

The problem here is that while Sellens has done all of the leg-work involved in putting out a professional-looking Call of Cthulhu adventure, none of that leg-work was done in service of a true creative spark: The plot is linear and predictable, the characters are flat and forgettable, there are no fun set-pieces, and the Lovecraftian spin on local history is utterly lacking in either verve or panache. The Dragon of Wantley is a beautifully rendered product but the content itself is utterly boring.

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