Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Far from the Sure

Behind an impressive looking cover that echoes the Call of Cthulhu titles of the 1980s, The Star on the Shore is ambitious first scenario which sets out to a create a sandbox investigation set in New England. Unfortunately, whilst it has just about everything that a Keeper needs to run the scenario, The Star on the Shore is hampered by a lack of development, organisation, and ultimately, editing. The truth is, The Star on the Shore is a first scenario from a new publishing venture and it very much shows.

What strikes you first though about The Star on the Shore are its production values, which are high indeed. A slim hardback printed on high-grade paper, it has gorgeous, full colour painted covers front and back; it is full colour throughout with illustrations aplenty; and the maps feel lovely, especially the pull-out town map whose style echoes that of the Lovecraft Country line. That said, whilst none of the artwork is bad, some of it is not as good as the book’s best and feels as it should have been in a pulpier, more traditional style of horror roleplaying game rather than Call of Cthulhu.

Written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and published by Dark Cult Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Star on the Shore can be run as sequel to classic ‘The Haunting’ scenario—now found in the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quick-Start Rules—or as standalone scenario, although given that it takes place in Rockport, Massachusetts, on the New England coast, it could be added to a Lovecraft Country campaign also. Actually, to say that it is a sequel to ‘The Haunting’ is not really true. Only one element of the plot of The Star on the Shore is tied back to ‘The Haunting’, and then only to the background of 'The Haunting', not the actual scenario that the players and their investigators play through. 

The Star on the Shore begins in Boston in 1921. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has hired a member of the Dark Wing Detectives to conduct a survey and excavation of the ruins of Chapel of Contemplation, the baleful church at the end of the lane from Mister Corbbit once lived. It is these ruins that the investigators may have had the chance to visit during the events of ‘The Haunting’. In the meantime, the excavation has uncovered a hidden annexe in which was found a statue of an obnoxiously octopodid being, carved in granite and weighing several hundred pounds. Unfortunately, someone sneaked into the Chapel of Contemplation, killed the nightguard, and stole the statue. The question is, who were they and why would they want the statue enough to kill for it? (The scenario does not address how a three-hundred-pound statue was got out of the basement room it was in or whether anyone noticed it being moved.) The investigators—who are described as a “crack team of investigators”—are hired to find the statue, but not by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but by the representative of the Dark Wing Detectives that the museum hired. (The scenario does not address why a member of a group of detectives is hiring other detectives and it does not explain who or what the Dark Wing Detectives are either.) Clues point to the town of Rockport on the Massachusetts coast. Oddly, the hirer will happily inform the investigators of a strange light seen to crash into the sea off the coast of New England, but not of the nightguard’s death. Which suggests a certain duplicity upon his part, and whilst there may not be any intended, this is certainly how the players are likely to interpret it. Another clue to Rockport, ‘Motif Number 1’ could also have been better explained without the need to look it up.

It is in the description of a strangely-befogged Rockport itself that the sandbox element of The Star on the Shore comes into play. Almost half of the book is given over to describing the major locations and their inhabitants in, off, and under the town. These vary in length, detail, and relevancy, but each entry suffers from a complete lack of organisation. They are written in an almost ‘stream of consciousness’ fashion so that every entry reads like a little sandbox itself that you have to investigate in order to put all of the information together and then be able to impart to the players and their investigators as the Keeper. It does not help that there is no real description of Rockport itself so that it will be difficult to describe the town to the players.

The Star on the Shore does include some notes on running the scenario and they are useful. These cover the course of events over the three days that the investigators are supposed to be in Rockport, the dreams they will suffer whilst there (this the first time that the dreams are mentioned), a list of the notable cultists, spells, and possible outcomes. Ideally, the list of cultists should have been a bit more upfront along with more details of the cult organisation and what each knows, all for easy and quick reference. One nice touch is that the stat boxes for the NPCs are colour-coded per their relationship with the cult which dominates Rockport, but this only explicitly made clear after the description of the town and its inhabitants. Also, a list of clues would not have gone amiss, as there are a lot of them spread about the town such that they are awkward for the Keeper to maintain a track of. There are also a lot of locations for the investigators to visit over the course of the three days and there are some locations that seem to have no reason for the investigators to visit despite how interesting the clues to be found there actually are…

Although the scenario addresses possible outcomes, it only addresses the possible outcomes of the dénouement against the Mythos threat. It does not address what happens afterwards in terms of the cult and its influence if the investigators succeed and it does not really address what happens if they fail. Either way, there are no indications as to what Sanity rewards or losses should be given out once the scenario is finished.

The scenario is supported by some twenty or so handouts, all of them done in full colour. Most of them are nicely done, but some are rather bland and one contains a really odd anachronism. The maps though, as mentioned previously, are really very nice. In addition, The Star on the Shore includes some ten pre-generated investigators. To a man and a woman both, these tend towards a pulp-style and are somewhat underwritten. As a set of pre-generated investigators, they are merely okay, but as a set of pre-generated investigators specifically written for use for The Star on the Shore, they are definitely underwritten.

In addition, The Star on the Shore comes with a second scenario, ‘Key to the Abyss’, which concerns itself with ordnance leftover from the War of 1812. It is set in Rockport still and can be run as part of, or separate to, The Star on the Shore. The problem with that is that it lengthens the scenario and distracts from the main plot. Also, it is written without any explanation until you read the handout, so its set-up also is rather confusing and lacking in answers to any questions you might have.

As for The Star on the Shore, there is a decent plot to the scenario. It probably tends towards the Pulp style in tone, certainly as evidenced by some of the artwork. There is also doubtless a good game to be got from the pages of The Star on the Shore, but ultimately, it fails to do what a good scenario should do—and that is, present its information in such a way that the Keeper can readily absorb it and then be able to present it to his players and their investigators during the game. This is due to three factors. The first is ‘stretch goal creep’, the concentration of a creator upon giving the backers of a Kickstarter campaign more and prettier rewards, so that once funded he is concentrating upon getting them all together, rather than concentrating upon getting the basics right. Which leads to the second and third factors, a lack of development and a lack of editing.

In the end, The Star on the Shore as written is simply not a good scenario. Undoubtedly, there is a good scenario and a good game to be got from the pages of The Star on the Shore, but it does not even start to do enough to make that process easy. As lovely as The Star on the Shore looks, it would be unfair to describe it as ‘all style, no substance’, but ‘nice style, hidden substance’ would be more accurate.