What Started as a Game Session Report turned into a Review of “A Time to Harvest”

I’ve got my complaints with Chaosium’s A Time to Harvest, an adventure released in installments for organized play. According to plan, groups all across the country, perhaps world, received monthly installments and then run each episode for their gaming groups. It’s a swell idea, a free adventure released in parts, designed to interest gamers and boost sales of their latest edition of Call of Cthulhu. I hope they succeeded.

The adventure takes place primarily in Cobb’s Corners, a sleepy town in Vermont that is polluted with hidden, skulking aliens. Based on H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “A Whisperer in the Darkness”, A Time to Harvest picks up where that story left off, enfolding the player characters (referred to as the “investigators”) smack dab in the middle of an alien infestation, and further ices the horror cake with a monster-worshipping cult determined to summon an otherworldly deity. There is a lot going on and that is part of the difficulty.

Call of Cthulhu is a very traditional role-playing game. Designed in the late 70’s early 80’s, it still got that old school rpg flavor. The NPCs are stat heavy, and because the game mechanic often compares one character’s stat against another’s, the stats are important and hard to handwave if you don’t have them. I printed out the episodes and bound them in a three-ring notebook, and spend considerable time flipping back and forth among the pages looking for a specific NPC. Some of this searching is mitigated by re-listing all the antagonists at the end of the chapter, but with six chapters all bound together, I still flipped a lot of pages.

There are a lot – a lot – of NPCs. Chapter one has 12 townspeople, ranging from the sheriff and deputy to the school teacher and librarian, and 10 academics that the players need to know, 8 of which accompany them on the field trip to Cobb’s Corners. Chapter two introduces 8 new NPCs “disguised” as the 8 that went on the field trip. “Disguised” isn’t exactly right, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t played it yet. The Keeper has to remember who is “disguised” as whom, plus the 2 new academics introduced. All these academics are entangled in a complicated plot web, to keep the players guessing at what is really going on. Chapter three adds 7 oil and chemical company employees to the mix. In chapter four we go back to Cobb’s Corners, and while you might think we’ve detailed all the essential NPCs, we haven’t. Add 2 more. Chapter five only adds 1 NPC, one which we’ve seen before so it shouldn’t really count, and chapter six closes out the adventure by adding 2 more oil and chemical company employees. That’s 41 NPCs for those counting at home.

To increase the confusion, many of the NPCs have very similar names. I’m not sure if the author tried to keep the names sounding Lovecraftian, but many of the names are so similar it’s hard to remember who is who. We have a pair of professors named Learmonth and Wilmarth, a professor named Armitage and a business tycoon named Abelard. Of the academics, we have a Professor Harrold, a Harold Higgins, and a Gibbons. The oil company has a Drake and a Nekler (not too bad) and a Matherson and a Morrison (oh come on!). It gets ridiculous and often muddied the story-telling because we would mix up who was who. In Chaosium’s online forums, it was nice to read that other people also found this issue problematic, and unfortunate that the Chaosium representative who responded poo-pooed the comments away. “If the names are confusing change them.” Ah, sir, that’s your job.

It’s also, since I’m listing its negatives first, very combat orientated. It doesn’t start that way. The first couple chapters are a stand-up mystery, as the players try to figure out what is going on in Cobb’s Corners. Two parallel groups of bad guys keep the players guessing nicely. But once they’ve figured it out, and they are told by chapter three in case they haven’t got it on their own, it’s combat after combat: Deep Ones in Detroit, Dark Young in Vermont, and Shoggoths on the . . . well, I won’t say. Keep a little suspense to the few who read this.

Finally, A Time to Harvest is very linear. While the investigators do get to poke around some, and Cobb’s Corners allows for all sorts of investigation, the action unfolds in a very ordered sequence, and when the players deviate from the anticipated action – which they invariable do all the time – it’s difficult to get this sucker back on the tracks. I had to get very creative to let my players do what they wanted, while at the same time trying to keep to the printed agenda as best I could. Some things got out of control and I let them. One of the “disguised” NPCs returning from Vermont to Miskatonic University – did I mention that chapter 2 takes place at Miskatonic U.? – is supposed to be a super bad guy and intended to be a difficult antagonist for the players. My players killed him early with a lucky shot. I folded aspects of him back in, but they killed him again easily. During another derailment, I had to skip half of chapter four as the players rushed directly into chapter five, which they didn’t know they were doing, and then return to it after the greater conclusion of the latter chapter. A little anti-climactic.

Okay, so what’s good about it?

Well, it’s kind of awesome. When the players figured out what was pestering Cobb’s Corners it scared the Bejesus out of them. When they figured out how the returning students were disguised it compounded the horror. “They could be anywhere!” The blood bath in Detroit frightened the shite out of them, and the destruction of Cobb’s Corners and the summoning of an Elder God (Old One? Outer One? I can’t remember the parlance) freaked them right the frig out. We were playing in public at a comic book store and were totally animated and engrossed in the adventure. People would walk in and cast wary glances our way, as we sat in the back and yelled, “Run for your life!”

Sure it’s railroad-y and too full of NPCs with almost the same damn last name, but that’s my perspective. The author provides 40+ NPCs and probably 15-20 monster stats for the Keeper. That’s a lot of work. The page flipping will hopefully be better organized in the published version; one of the detractors of the episodic release was that each chapter was numbered starting at page 1. Hard to find a mentioned reference when there are 6 page 29s. The climactic sequences are out of order, but at the end of episode five the evil cultist summon a friggin’ Great Old One to Cobb’s Corners. That scene was simply fantastic, and you’ll be hard pressed to match it. Well, maybe not you, but I would be.

Is it worth the price? Hell yes, it was free. Thank you Chaosium! I imagine that the published version will run $50 or more, that seems the going rate for Chaosium’s high-budget, glossy-page releases these days. Will I purchase it? Probably.  I’ve got a meth-addict-response to new releases from game companies that I like. Chaosium is my current favorite, and I’m really excited about a potential episodic release for the new RuneQuest rules, although it’s going to be harder to fill those seats at the gaming table than a CoC game. But I’ll do what I can. Carry on!

 

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One Response to What Started as a Game Session Report turned into a Review of “A Time to Harvest”

  1. Sounds like a great adventure! It sounds like many of the obstacles you bumped into — disorganization, similar-sounding names, lack of a roadmap for how the NPCs interact — can be resolved with some revision and editing. Figuring out how to organize and present the content of a game or adventure is less fun and less flashy than writing awesome adventure ideas, but it’s a big part of the publisher’s job.

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