Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Two-Headed Serpent - Initial Impressions and Bolivia

Following my post on Pulp Cthulhu it's time to crack into the review of the Two-Headed Serpent campaign.

The following is a review of the Bolivia chapter of the Pulp Cthulhu campaign The Two-Headed Serpent (Chaosium: 2017) based on actual play. I intend to review each chapter of this epic campaign as we play through it, highlighting what I see as strengths and weaknesses, and providing some suggestions along the way for what I’d do differently if running it again. Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you ever plan to play in this Pulp Cthulhu campaign.

Initial Impressions
The book is beautiful, with high-quality art and maps throughout. It is well supported in PDF form with a Keeper Resource pack that includes pre-generated characters, and compiled references and handouts.

Several appendices in the book offer details of key NPCs, monsters and weird science that feature in the campaign. The backstory is interesting (if somewhat convoluted) and well detailed in the opening pages. While there is a definite twist in the plot arc, the campaign anticipates that the investigators may choose different ways to engage with the scenario, and offers different entry points for each chapter to reflect this. There are also notes from the playtest session sprinkled across the book, which can be interesting and insightful.

Overall these factors given the campaign the feel of a modern, well resolved, set of linked scenarios which will be entertaining for players and keeper alike. Unsurprisingly, the Two Headed Serpent was nominated for an Origins and ENnie Award. But how does it play in practice? 

Chapter One - Bolivia
There’s a lot to like about the opening chapter of the campaign which drops the characters into Bolivia and straight into the action. Setting the scenario in the ‘Green Hell’ of the Chaco War and allows groups to explore an interesting piece of history in an evocative setting. There are some great set-piece scenes and the scenario has a nice tempo, with the action increasing in intensity right through until the end.

Starting out as it means to go on, the campaign begins in-media-res; interrupting an NPC mid-sentence with a shot to the head, then jumping straight into a combat sequence as the investigators are ambushed! This is a nice touch that sets the tone well and allows the players to introduce their characters in an exciting and dramatic way.

However, there are also a few drawbacks to this approach. As written, the characters must learn about the true purpose for their presence in Bolivia (and what to do next) by rifling through the papers of the deceased Dr. Ursini and then checking in with headquarters via a portable radio. If they do neither of these things the Keeper has a major problem, and there’s no scripted options to get things back on track. Successful Idea rolls could bridge this gap, but I feel this is an inelegant solution where there’s no reason the plot couldn’t accommodate a more robust option.

This could be solved by dispensing with the radio, and bringing one of the characters into the second tier of Caduceus in advance of the commencing of the campaign and providing them with the orientation package and a briefing for the scenario so they can pick things up to ensure the mission is completed. This has the added advantage of reducing the narrative burden on the Keeper and allowing any doubts and reservations that the character may have to be roleplayed across the table by the investigators.

The remainder of the scenario revolves around three main scenes; the aid camp, the stone wards and the temple of the dreamer, which is ‘unlocked’ only when the investigators have deduced the purpose of the wards and opened a second of them. There’s also an entertaining encounter with a monkey toting a flame pistol.

The description of the aid camp provides some details of the key NPCs who are Caduceus employees, a local hero and details the uneasy presence of the soldiers who are occupying the camp. The scenario includes some local history that relates to the temple of the dreamer, and an associated festival, along with some guidance about how the soldiers are likely to react to the investigators. However as an "opportunity for roleplaying and investigation" ascribed by the scenario there is little here to detail the circumstances of those seeking aid, the impact of the war, or other dramatic opportunities for the investigators to help out. Such details must be supplied by the Keeper.

For me this seems like an opportunity lost. Setting the scenario amidst the Chaco War might have allowed the authors to explore some of the themes of this conflict, through the plight of the refugees. This could have been achieved through detailing the stories of some of the refugees, and perhaps having tensions within the camp linked to the conflict. 

I also feel like the role of the soldiers – who are magically brainwashed by the Inner Night operatives - could have been more thoughtfully addressed. As written, they function as little more than mooks to support the inner-night and make the combat sequences more challenging and ensure the investigators have a good supply of shotguns.

After being ambushed in the jungle, it seems fairly likely that the investigators will also assume the soldiers at the camp are enemies and carry the fight on to them immediately. This has the potential to remove the role of the roving patrol to participate in the climax of the scenario. It’s also not immediately clear why, if they are willing to tolerate the presence of the Caduceus doctors a the aid camp, the soldiers would attack the supply column in the opening scene of the scenario.

If I were to run this again I would give this a slightly different treatment to highlight the more insidious and parasitic aspects of the serpent people’s interaction with the humans they consider so inferior.

  • Rather than being ambushed initially, the investigators would first encounter the battle scene and the first ward The formless spawn would attack quickly, killing Dr.Ursini mid-sentence as scripted giving the high-action opening.
  • Whether the investigators flee or defeat the spawn, they would seek refuge at the camp. Here they encounter the soldiers – but rather than being enemies from the outset, they might be more ambivalent. Perhaps they may even offer to supply the investigators with explosives to defeat the monster. Amidst their number is the disguised Karnassh who pretends to have suffered some facial wounds in a previous battle to conceal his imperfect disguise. 
  • As time passes the serpent man would slowly exert his influence over the soldiers. 
  • The investigators may note the gradual changes in their behaviour with unease, but unless they provoke events the soldiers do not fully become the pawns of Karnassh as scripted as the investigators approach the temple. 
  • In the interim Vorsinnish has been trying to locate the remaining wards with a clutch of serpent hounds (allowing for an additional combat encounter in the jungle and for the investigators to retrieve the serpent map). 
This reasonably significant re-structuring of the scenario may lead you to conclude that I believe that the opening chapter is fundamentally flawed – that’s not the case at all. 

The chapter is perfectly serviceable as written, and if your investigators are playing action-oriented types who just want to be pointed in the direction of danger, and who wouldn’t bother with the motivations of the NPC’s anyway, then I wouldn’t suggest that these changes are necessary at all. But if you have investigators who are likely to be interested in the wider story, the motivations of NPC's and who may want to spend time roleplaying in the camp then I think these changes will provide a more fulfilling experience.

The remaining sections of the scenario; the wards and the temple are excellent. The mix of monsters and traps is likely to lead to some thoroughly entertaining scenes that really plays up the strengths of Pulp over vanilla Call of Cthulhu. The only challenge may be in ensuring that the characters actually retrieve Tyranissh without simply dispatching her as another ‘snake-monster’. Here, again, having stressed to one of the characters the importance of retrieving her intact from the temple in advance of the scenario starting, may tip the balance in favour of completing the mission as intended.

What works:
  • The setting is unique and interesting, and the plot (while simple) has a nice increasing action tempo
  • Beginning the game in-media res lets the investigators jump right into the action
  • Temples, traps and monsters are a great way to showcase the Pulp genre and are likely to make for a really entertaining time 
What could have been better:
  • The initial link from opening scene to chapter plot is a little tenuous 
  • Not exploring the setting in more detail feels like a missed opportunity 
  • The role and motivations of the soldiers could have been used to better effect 
Overall, this is a solid opening chapter that is likely to prove entertaining and really get the players in the right mindset for the escalating action of the rest of the campaign. It conveys the key themes of the campaign (the enemy within, ancient civilisations, lots of snakes and monsters) in a clever way that’s woven into the action. At the end of the session the players may wonder if it’s possible to top this heady mix of action and adventure – but rest assured, the campaign is up to the challenge.

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