Friday, 19 October 2012
With Sisters of Sorrow, Adam Gauntlett takes Trail of Cthulhu and Pelgrane Press back to the Great War for a third time. Previously, in Not So Quiet – available in the anthology, Out of Time, the author had us visit a field hospital on the Western Front, whilst he let us take to the air in Flying Coffins to serve with the Royal Flying Corps and face an aerial antagonist the like of which the pilots had never seen. For this third scenario, the author switches to not just another theatre of war, but another side too! The protagonists of Sisters of Sorrow are part of the crew of UC-12, a U-Boot in the service of the Kaiserliche Marine. In other words, the players get to be the Germans! This is not as radical as it sounds, after all, the very first story that H.P. Lovecraft had published was “The Temple,” which related the events that led to the loss of the U-29.
In Sisters of Sorrow, the UC-12 is a mine laying Unterseeboot, an unarmed submarine tasked by the Kaiserliche Marine to cut its way through the nets that protect England’s harbours and lay mines as close as possible to disrupt shipping. This is a dangerous task. Not only is there the possibility of the detection and being sunk by the Royal Navy, but the actual laying of the mines can sink the submarine too! There is supposed to be a delay before a laid mine rises to the surface, but sometimes the delaying mechanism fails and the mine rises under the submarine and detonates! (This is where the title of the scenario comes from, for such mine-laying vessels were known as “Sisters of Sorrow”). For the crew, live aboard is damp, smelly, and unpleasant.
Assigned to penetrate the North Sea defensive zone and lay mines off Tyneside, UC-12 and her crew must contend with more than the routine of avoiding the Royal Navy and other shipping on its way to England. Strange noises seem to reverberate through the hull from the outside – could they really be whale song? This and other strangeness seems to be affecting the crew – have they been cooped up too long in the noxiously narrow atmosphere of UC-12? Or is it that water has been splashed on the batteries and they are giving off chlorine gas?
Structurally, Sisters of Sorrow is a reasonably straightforward, somewhat linear adventure. That though, is due to it being a military based adventure and not a criticism. Within the linear structure though, there is never time for the story to lag and there is always something for the player characters to do. If there is a criticism of the scenario structure it is that the player character roles are primarily reactive, although this is primarily aimed at building atmosphere and tension before there is the opportunity for more proactive play towards the scenario’s climax.
One interesting aspect to Sisters of Sorrow is when it is set. Not just during the Great War, but in the war’s early years. The submarines of the Kaiserliche Marine follow a nineteenth century Prize Code under which her crews must warn those of the ships that they attack so that due time is allowed for them to abandon ship. Although the UC-12 does have a machine gun, it is by no means an attack boat, which together with the terms of the Prize Code mean that the crews’ actions will be limited against the outré threats faced in Sisters of Sorrow. This complication, in combination with the descriptions of life aboard the Unterseeboot, is counter to the romantic, almost chivalrous notions that we have about submarine warfare.
Sisters of Sorrow is a one-shot scenario designed for play with six characters, that should not last more than two sessions. The scenario includes six pre-generated “investigators” – the Executive Officer, Chief Engineer, Radio Operator, Helmsman, Engineer, and Mechanic. As written, the scenario tells the story of their first, and quite possibly their last, mission. No advice is given on how to create characters if the players do not like the pre-generated ones included, as essentially they could take the role of any one of the fourteen man complement of UC-12. That said, the Military Template given in Trail of Cthulhu will probably be all that a Keeper and player alike will need. It is intimated though, that the role of the Kapitan be not taken by a player, primarily in the short set of play test notes that should help the Keeper further when it comes to running Sisters of Sorrow.
Although there are no notes on whether or not it could be run using a British crew and a British submarine, there is nothing to stop an inventive Keeper from adapting it so. Similarly, an inventive Keeper could easily adjust it to the Second World War if he so chose. One of the issues in changing both sides and period is that the limitations of the design of UC-12 would be lifted. Submarines operated by the Royal Navy in the Great War, and by all sides in World War Two were substantially better armed and this has the potential to curtail certain elements of the scenario.
Physically, Sisters of Sorrow is a twenty-three page, 4.26 Mb PDF. Done in murky grays and greens throughout, it is well written and neatly presented. It is lightly illustrated, but every piece by Phil Reeves is excellent, and even if the cover is perhaps tentacularly misleading, elsewhere he draws more inventively from the text to more disquieting effect.
Like the previous adventures, Not So Quiet and Flying Coffins, this scenario could easily work as a flashback to explain how a character became aware of the Mythos. The character does not even have to have been aboard UC-12. It could be that the character’s brother or father was aboard and that in playing Sisters of Sorrow, what is being played is not a flashback, but the events of the father’s or brother’s journal which was recovered… Sisters of Sorrow is all about the infectiousness of paranoia and desperation in confined spaces. After all, nowhere could be more confined than an Unterseeboot in the middle of a Royal Navy blockade in the North Sea when the danger comes from below.