I’ve been playing A Time to Harvest with some mates at the local comic book store, and it’s been great fun watching the players react to the horrors found at Cobb’s Corners, a small town in Vermont terrorized by Lovecraftian beasties. I made a deal with my family to play; if they let me run a game every Monday night at the store, afterwards we three would go out to eat. Since the game has been so much fun, it’s more often than not that evening’s dinner topic. Both son Aug and wife KC like hearing about the fate of the gang’s investigator characters.
It’s so much fun that I wanted to run a game for them.. Aug has been playing role-playing games for a long time – comes with the territory with a dad like me – and KC, while still a novice, has enjoyed several sessions of your standard sword & sorcery type game. Things like 13th Age, and maybe some OSR D&D stuff. And as my desire to run an adventure for the fam was bubbling like a cauldron of witch’s brew, Chaosium released Doors to Darkness; Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers. Boom! “You got chocolate in my peanut butter! You got peanut butter on my chocolate!” One quick purchase later and the pdf. was slithering into my downloads folder like one of Great Cthulhu’s face tentacles.
Chapter One contains ideas for first-time keepers, those that run an adventure for a group of players and is more generally called the GM (Game Moderator) or DM (Dungeon Master). I’m sure I could have used the guidance, but skipped the chapter in my exuberance to get playing. As I’ve written before, I’m not an experienced Call of Cthulhu keeper, and while I sporadically bought CoC supplements during the ’80s and (less frequently) ’90s, my fondness for the line is fairly recent.
We used the Quick-Start Rules to make our investigators, the player characters, occasionally delving into the new Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook (7th Ed.) for clarification and to generate authentic 1920s names for our two investigators. The Quick-Start rules are incredibly well done and clear, and within half-an-hour Aug and KC created Noble and Florence, a pair of budding investigators called to visit the mysterious happenings in Providence, Rhode Island, the setting for Doors to Darkness‘ chapter two, “The Darkness Beneath the Hill.”
Warning, I’m not going to dance around and try not to spoil the adventure for you. It’s fun overall, and if you want to play it stop reading now.
Now that the obligatory warning is out of the way, I’ll get into the nitty gritty details. Josh Winscott, our friendly in-need-of-assistance NPC, sends the investigators a telegram asking for help. He’s discovered an old tunnel in the basement of the family residence he recently inherited, and suspects it was once used as a secret highway to shuffle slaves around after slavery had become illegal. The adventure explains some of the grim history of Providence slave trading, including the Brown family and the wealth they received from importing slaves. The adventure’s foundation was nearly as interesting as the adventure itself, and I applaud the author for his research and creative setting.
Josh meets the investigators and explains that the tunnel is likely an old slave tunnel and he wants to explore it. They agree to meet tomorrow, giving the investigators time to explore the city and comb its two libraries looking for information about Providence’s past and the Winscott house. In true Call of Cthulhu fashion they find both, and although this isn’t much of a mystery, a couple clues foreshadow the horror to come.
Naturally, Josh couldn’t wait ’til tomorrow and went on ahead, leaving the investigators to follow in his footsteps. They do, and discover that the slave tunnel runs into a much older tunnel, and at some point along that they stumble over a pile of old human remains. An educated guess explains that they are the bones of both slaves and slavers, rent and gnawed some 100 years earlier. Found at an intersection in the old tunnels, they decide to split up – always a good idea in a horror game – with Noble descending along the side passage and Florence continuing on until she hits the river a couple miles later. Noble finds a larger underground complex with strange snake carvings adorning the walls and ceilings and immediately flees. Reconvening with Florence, the pair high tail it and go to the cops.
The adventure has some suggestions for why investigators should go get the fuzz, but I don’t like stopping my players from doing what they want to do. Noble and Florence filled out a missing person report with a sergeant who absolutely didn’t believe in slave tunnels and ancient snake carvings, and the next day found that Josh still absent from the mansion. Reluctantly, the investigators returned to the tunnels and the cave complex.
Aug and KC were scared, but I didn’t realize it at the time. The mere thought of going underground armed only with a pistol and a flashlight terrified them. They had heard all about the A Time to Harvest posse and the bad things that happened to them and didn’t want any part of temporary insanity and/or dismemberment. Aug complained about his bad dice rolls, regularly missing his Spot Hidden rolls. KC had Florence grip her pistol tightly. A few turns in the cave complex and they came across some degenerate ape-like creatures that scurried away from their torchlight. Following them, one suddenly turned and sprang at them, and I lurched forward in my chair, hands bent into claws and doing my best Planet of the Apes shriek. KC pointed her fingers in the shape of a gun in my face and screamed, “Blamb!” Florence immediately shot the critter and killed it dead.
And they both turned and fled again.
“What about Josh?” I asked. I had thought that their easy victory over the degenerate ape would bolster their confidence.
“Fuck Josh,” said Aug.
“We really weren’t that close,” said KC.
They raced out. I tried to make it difficult. At one point they had had to descend a narrow chimney. The rope they left for their return exit was mysteriously gone. Aug said that Noble tried to climb it anyway, and succeeded with a lucky die roll. He lowered the rope to help Florence up, and the pair ran back to the basement.
I had to break the story fiction and explained that if they left, the session was over and Josh was surely dead. I didn’t have a Providence sandbox for them to play in, where they could go investigate other stories or have other adventures. It was this or nothing. I hated to do it and it ultimately highlighted my weakness as a keeper, unable to control the game, but I didn’t know how to keep them in the damn cave complex. I guess I should have had the tunnel collapse, but that is as artificial as interrupting the game the way I did it. That’s when I realized how frightened they were, and how effective the simple adventure was.
My little talk succeeded and Noble and Florence went back into the dungeon. Nervous as two newborn colts, the pair entered a few rooms, poked around the weird contraptions they found, and slipped out as quickly as they had sneaked in. One room held a dozen large, oozing pods, suspended from the ceiling and dripping goo, each holding a sleeping snake person. One pod was empty, of course, the villain of the episode, but the rest swung vulnerable. With such easy targets, I was certain carnage would ensue.
“Oh, I don’t like this,” said KC, and the investigators run away immediately.
Eventually, they came to a room that was brightly lit, illumination spilling out into the dim corridor and hopefully indicating that something might be living in the room. Instead of sneaking in to take a look, Noble hesitantly shouted Josh’s name.
The waiting snakeman reacted by leaving the workbench he had been snoozing at and listening at the door. I said that they heard a slight shuffle, like a chair being slide across the floor. Noble called out again, louder, “Josh!?!” Then they tip-toed into the room, just in time to see the snakeman ring a big bronze gong, whose booming echo reverberated around the investigators.
Almost as loudly as their gunfire, as they immediately emptied their guns into the snakeman. Nearly dead, they then tried to interrogate the vile creature, at which point he cast an entrancement spell on Florence and slowly crept forward to sink his poisoned fangs into her leg. Noble ended that ploy with two fateful shots of his revolver. They both looked up in time to see the ghast sneaking into the room, summoned by the gong and noisy pistol play. Being well versed in the automatic gunfire rule, I led KC through three successful shots in her first round of combat, nicely dropping this beasty as well. The pair were ecstatic. They had survived! Josh was rolled up in a catatonic ball in a makeshift cell and easily rescued, and within minutes they were all back in the Winscott family residence and bricking up the hole in the basement.
They loved it, and I had a good time running the simple but effectively scary dungeon crawl. On reflection, it is merely one step away from a low level dungeon filled with kobolds and containing a lurking lizardman and a helper ogre (ah, maybe bugbear). It was deadly but far from lethal, and a nice stepping off point for gamers familiar with dungeons and monsters and new to the Cthulhu Mythos and Call of Cthulhu. Well done, and we quickly scheduled another evening’s session. Chapter 3, “Genius Loci” awaits, and from my quick skim, it seems much more of a mystery in the traditional Call of Cthulhu sense.