Just as Call of Cthulhu has its classic time frame of the 1920s, so too does Trail of Cthulhu with the 1930s. Yet just as with Call of Cthulhu, the clue orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror from Pelgrane Press can easily slip the bonds of its natural home in the Desperate Decade to visit other periods. One author to follow this trend is Adam Gauntlett, who has already given us a a scenarios set during before the Great as well as a pair set during the Great War, such as the recent Flying Coffins and “Not So Quiet,” from the anthology Out of Time. Like those scenarios, Hell Fire is a one-shot affair designed for use with the six provided pre-generated investigators. Further, Hell Fire not only continues the trend away from Trail of Cthulhu’s core period, but exacerbates it by setting it in the 1760s, a period never visited by either Lovecraftian RPG, or indeed, rarely by any RPG, Rogue Games’ Colonial Gothic and the self-published indie RPG, Sons of Liberty, the Roleplaying Game of Freedom and Badassery, are rare exceptions.
Welcome to the mid-eighteenth century, an age of enlightenment and ennui, of privilege and propriety, of associations and assignations, of virtue and vice, and of scientific enquiry and salacious pornography. This is the age of the “belle époque” for the first British Empire, when there is much wealth to made from the colonies in the Americas, but the colonists themselves chafe under governance from London and will openly rebel within a decade or so. The protagonists of the scenario are all men and women of good standing, as well as members of an exclusive Hell Fire Club. They share an interest in fine dining, the finest of pornographic literature, Rational debate, and politics. Membership is of course by invitation only, and should word of their activities comes to the attention of society, then their fall from grace is assured, at best, scorned by society, at worst, locked up in gaol.
In order to fit the period, the author has radically altered the Skills list. Modern skills such as Psychoanalysis and Archaeology have been removed, the Piloting skill only covers boats, and the science skills have been amalgamated into one, The Sciences. Traveller is added as a new skill representing a character having visited countries and colonies outside of Europe and the Grand Tour, whilst Politics is a new interpersonal skill that allows characters to navigate the intrigues, politics, and careers of the period. Lastly and most importantly, the Evidence skill has been added for Hell Fire as well. It is not about collecting proof of certain activities having been carried out, that still being covered by Evidence Collection, but rather the evidence of the characters’ ill doings. Which of course, they will not want to be brought to light…
As in his previous scenarios, Gauntlett gives us the history too. Hell Fire comes with extensive notes on the place and manner of the Club during the period, as a guide to the pornography available and the art of duelling. The latter is accompanied by a simple set of rules to handle such matters of honour.
As the scenario opens in London, the “investigators” are at a meeting with fellow club member, Bubb Pearce. The man has been placed in terrible bind. The notorious, though fashionable Lady Mary Protheroe has in her possession letters belonging to Pearce with which she is blackmailing him into marrying her with a threat of his Breach of Promise. The Lady also has knowledge of doings at their Club, and Pearce entreats his friends to obtain the letters for him so that he can break the woman’s hold over him. Yet it seems that the player characters’ efforts are insufficient, for Pearce quickly vanishes, leaving in his wake, the body of Lady Mary Protheroe… Worse still, this brings the activities of the Hell Fire club to the attention of the authorities, were its secrets to become public knowledge the scandal would be the undoing of them all. As trusted club members, the “investigators” must uncover the cause of Lady Mary Protheroe’s death and the whereabouts of Pearce, all the whilst ensuring that knowledge of club’s doings remain out of the limelight.
Chasing down Pearce leads the characters to investigate his activities, both commercial and covert. This reveals ties across the Atlantic to England’s colonies and across the Channel to England’s greatest enemy, but worse to London’s sordid and malodorous underskirts where something lurks working to find fresh hosts and vectors that it will see it spread its infection far and wide.
Structurally, Hell Fire is presented as a series of lines of investigation that the player characters need to follow if they are to reveal the nature of the threat. For the most part, the scenario is very player driven, with the antagonists rarely moving against the player characters. This gives it a more languid feel, with the danger that the characters could lose their way unless they are pro-active in their investigation. The upshot being that this potentially indolent nature of the investigation when combined with the occasionally prurient nature of the scenario means that Hell Fire is best suited to more experienced players and a more experienced Keeper.
Physically, Hell Fire is neatly presented, although in comparison with other Trail of Cthulhu scenarios, is missing the artwork of Jérôme Huguenin. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the art of Olli Hihnala, but rather that it feels more traditional in comparison with other Trail of Cthulhu titles. The issue with Hell Fire is one of history. The period will not be familiar to every gamer and an introduction to the period might have been useful to the less knowledgeable so as to get across the nature of the period’s political and social clime. Such information would have also helped should a player want to create a character of his own. Similarly, a map or two would have helped, especially later in the scenario when it crosses the Atlantic to the Colonies. That said, the history presented here is interesting and the scenario does include one of the period’s odder figures.