Saturday 28 May was Gatecon 5 at Gatekeeper Games in sunny downtown North Fitzroy, an inner northern suburb of Melbourne that was once home to Australia’s largest collection of hot pink spandex shorts (not really). Gatecon is Gatekeeper’s semi-regular mini-convention, which they hold every 3 months or so. This was the first time I’d attended. I’m not sure what I was doing for the first 4 Gatecons, but unless it was jumping out of an aeroplane in a thunderstorm while twirling flaming pavlovas it was unlikely to have been more fun.
In April this year the Games vs Play crew went to International Table Top Day at Gatekeeper Games. That was a casual gaming day; Gatecon is a bit more structured, and though the games library was open for use Simon and Crissy had set up a full program of organised play. This included Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, Codenames, a playtest for Melbourne games designer Sye Robertson’s new game of gladiatorial combat, and a 7th edition Call of Cthulhu adventure set in 1920s Leningrad. I put my name down for the Cthulhu game, with fateful consequences, as it turned out for my character(s). But isn’t that always the way with Call of Cthulhu?
I’ve written elsewhere on Games vs Play how I’m writing my first Call of Cthulhu adventure in over twenty years, which made this adventure the first time I’d played the game in the same amount of time. Mark, our “Keeper” (as gamesmasters are called in Call of Cthulhu) was running “Shadows of Leningrad”, the third installment in the Ages of Cthulhu adventures released by Goodman Games in 2010. The setting was 1920s Leningrad in the early years of the Soviet Union; the investigators (as player characters are called in CoC) have been called to Leningrad to attend the funeral of a well-known Arkham surrealist painter Charlotte Orkonov, who died under mysterious circumstances which saw her husband claw his own eyes out and her younger daughter confined to a lunatic asylum. To avoid spoilers for anyone wanting to play “Shadows of Leningrad” I won’t go into details about the adventure itself, except to say it had all the classic elements of a pulpy CoC adventure – insane artists (and their equally disturbing artworks), dark cultists, unspeakable rituals by moonlight, and lots of gruesome deaths. Mostly of our characters, of course.
The character I started with was a 44-year old physicist from Miskatonic University whose hero was Albert Einstein. I think he was meant to be the token sceptic and voice of reason in the adventure, though ultimately he became the token dead guy (as I explain below). I was joined in this pursuit of massive Sanity loss by five fellow soon-to-be-insane lunatics: Ralph (who I’d met before at Gatekeeper Games where he explained Malifaux to me), Kyle, Mitch, Josh and Chris. We started off in high spirits, in much the way that I imagine young soldiers would’ve signed up for the First World War. Hey ho, won’t this be a grand adventure! I can’t wait to see the world, fight the forces of evil and be back in time for tea! Who are these Great Old Ones anyway? Can’t be that great if they’re old, what?
That all changed when the first of our characters was killed by a nine-year old child who was, er, somewhat challenged in the living department. In fact that was my scientist character that got bitten off first, mainly because I ignored the classic horror movie rule of never allowing yourself to be locked in a padded cell with someone who might want to kill you. Fat lot of good that PhD from Miskatonic University did him. It really was a long time since I’d played a Call of Cthulhu adventure.
I lost my poor old physics professor quite early in the adventure but was literally given a second chance at fighting the Great Old Ones by Ralph, who very generously gave me his character to play instead. In role-playing circles this is truly a noble sacrifice. If we’d been playing football this would be like handballing the footy to another player so they could kick the goal instead of you; if it was a reality TV show, it would be like voting yourself off the island so someone else could stay on another week for the privilege of eating bugs and conspiring against out-of-work-actors from Minneapolis. It’s just darkly ironic that after all that I still managed to get my second character killed by a pair of Gnoph-Kehs in the final moments of the adventure. (One Gnoph-Keh would’ve been enough, but no, I had to go and pick a fight with two of them. Good one.)
Mark did a great job as Keeper. Clearly he was enjoying the new 7th edition rules, which struck me as being more streamlined than earlier editions while retaining the essential spirit of the game. Gone is the resistance table, while character attributes are now expressed in percentages rather than 3d6, bringing them in line with the other learnable skills. There’s also the Luck mechanic which you can now spend to increase your rolls to success, at the potential cost of making a successful Luck roll later in the adventure. In 7th edition campaigns I imagine it would prudent to ration your Luck, but to survive standalone adventures like this one you’re probably better off spending your Luck as often as needed. As H.P. Lovecraft once wrote in a letter to Frank Belknap Long, “Lucky people don’t just wait for Luck to happen; they know when to spend their Luck score as a roll modifier.” (He didn’t really say this).
Mark ran a tough adventure for us investigators, pulling no punches and fudging none of the dice rolls. It made me think back to my own 4th edition playing days of the early ‘90s. Back then I was a fairly lenient Keeper, generally allowing most of the player-characters to survive until the finale, or providing them with ways to escape if things got too crazy. And of course that happens quite a lot in Call of Cthulhu.
But I would say that Mark was running the game truer to Lovecraft’s original vision of his Mythos. In Call of Cthulhu, not all the characters should expect to survive an adventure. In “Shadows of Leningrad”, none of us did. The odds are just stacked too much against puny humans in a universe inhabited by such overwhelmingly powerful horrors. Also, as “Shadows of Leningrad” was designed as a standalone module, the dangers to the investigators came earlier and hit harder than they would have had this been part of a campaign.
Nonetheless, in a Call of Cthulhu adventure you should be scared for your character something like 90% of the time. This is Game of Thrones with tentacles – any character could die at any time. Except that in Call of Cthulhu dying is often the better option.
Playing this adventure has definitely put me in the mood for re-starting my own Call of Cthulhu campaign with the GvP crew. I can honestly promise my players that I personally don’t want their characters to die or go insane. I want them to survive; I would love it if they stopped cosmic evil from coming into this world. Only problem is, I can’t say the same for the alien forces they’ll be coming up against. You have been warned, friends.
Gatekeeper Games is at 323-327 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North VIC 3068. You can see their website here. I didn’t end up playing any other games at Gatecon 5, but perhaps I’ll have a chance to do so at Gatecon 6 on Saturday 20 August 2016. For other events at Gatekeeper Games checkout their Facebook page here.