Review: Refractions of Glasston for Call of Cthulhu
When I first heard of a group of college students working with faculty and Chaosium mentors to write a scenario I was simultaneously hopeful and skeptical. On one hand, anyone who has played role-playing games for an extended period of time knows that writing content for a wide audience for a game is challenging. My head spins a bit when I think about taking quality writing and needing to support it with art, handouts, editing and layout that makes for a truly professional-looking package. That isn’t easy. On the other hand, Miskatonic Repository has provided a lovely platform to allow amateur writers access to publication avenues that were not present in the past. Why shouldn’t a college course provide an opportunity for experiential learning? With these competing perspectives in mind, I dove into Refractions of Glasston (RoG henceforth) with a positive and open mind. And I was not disappointed.
The scenario is a 1920s-era investigation set within the historical context of Indiana at the time. This is probably my favorite part of the endeavor. I learned a bit of Indiana’s glass manufacturing history by reading this scenario. Call of Cthulhu has always had the advantage of being a nice vehicle for exploring true history in the context of fiction. Having real world tie-ins in any CoC scenario are useful for giving players reasons as to why their character would be present and engaged. I think this will help the scenario especially if run at conventions.
At this point, note that there will be spoilers moving forward. There are specific plot points that I want to give as feedback to the student writers and I can’t really do that without making specific references to happenings. I enthusiastically recommend this scenario for play, so if you are a player and want to send it off to your Keeper, I think you can feel confident in doing so. Please direct your Keeper to read the rest of the review for tips for running it.
I have a long list of things that I like about the scenario. The biggest one for me is the cast of characters. The authors have done a great job of fleshing out the details of a wide variety of different characters for players to interact with, each with their own personal motives. This micro-setting feels “lived in” and the characters give it that authenticity. I think it is particularly important for a scenario of any game to have characters that players want to interact with. RoG has NPCs with a variety of motives.
The town is really well fleshed out. Glasston, as presented, has the right number of buildings for exploration activities to have solid depth, while not also being overwhelming in scope. Of particular note is the temporal variations that the authors have worked into the text about specific locations. There are many options as to what could happen depending upon the timing of when the investigators explore a particular location. Whether a Keeper uses these as written, or adapts them to their own purposes, it can never hurt to have more options.
I find “the monster” of this scenario to be very interesting. I think fear of being cut by glass is a very real phobia of a lot of people, and for good reason. Any scenario that targets common fears is immediately aiding in the development of mood. The Glass Plague is creepy and deadly and gives investigators added incentive to continue to find out more critical information as to what is happening in town. This threat also has a calculating intelligence behind it. I think the scenario could probably stand on the Glass Plague alone, without the entity at all, but the added layer of a cold, directed intelligence behind what is happening just makes everything even more interesting and terrifying. The attacks of the creature are varied and interesting.
The overall organization of the scenario follows three distinct acts. The first act is a sandbox with a large amount of supporting material to help it feel fleshed out. The last two acts are a bit more prescriptive. One of the most interesting elements of the sandbox act is the idea of the suspicion tracker. This is a simple but very powerful mechanic that I think could be broadly used in many investigative horror scenarios. A question constantly facing Keepers is timing of when sinister elements make their move. I’m sure opinions on this will vary on a continuum from “when the Keeper deems the time to be right,” to a more objective method of determination with the suspicion tracker. At the end of the day, the “correct” answer is whatever makes the game most interesting for a particular group. The suspicion tracker adds a concrete option for Keepers who prefer discrete triggers to events. The extent to which particular events contribute to the tracker make sense in the context of the overarching narrative.
The layout of the scenario is professionally done. Everything that makes the organization of 7E scenarios great is present here, down to the consistent formatting of character information blocks. This standardization makes it immediately easy for new fans to pick up the importance of getting characters down first before any events transpire.
The art of the handouts, the town map, and character portraits are all well done, given the amateur group producing the scenario. It is refreshing to see character portrait artwork that breaks the mold of what is “usual” for 7E. That isn’t a criticism of 7E so much as an appreciation for art variation in any product.
The pre-generated characters are well designed and each follows the “Holy Trifecta” rule of at least one or two critically useful skills (Library Use, Social, Investigative).
This is a free product being produced for learning purposes for students and as a benefit to the community. So, I think anyone needs to keep that in mind when they are evaluating. I’m not inclined to get too nitpicky here, except when that could have a positive impact on learning.
I’ll end my “things I like” section by just mentioning how important I think it is that a class at a religious college is publishing this scenario. Role-playing in general, but especially “occult”-themed games like Call of Cthulhu, are often demonized by faith groups. I think it is a critical act of gaming leadership for a class at a religious college to publish a secular scenario. Thank you for sending a positive message about story-telling from your vantage point!
As to stretches, there are a couple aspects of the narrative that I think deserve mention for prospective Keepers.
A linchpin of the narrative is setting up the concept of the Sand Pit as a key location for the third act. The sandbox portion is pretty light on concrete mentions of the Sand Pit. It would be up to the Keeper to plan by having a list of NPCs that are the most important sources of Sand Pit information. For me, the top four (in order) are: Dennis Adkins, Gloria Hillis, Barry Coddle, and Elias Winters. Barry Coddle is the only character that gives explicit references to the Sand Pit. I think that relevant sections of the text would benefit greatly from reminding the Keeper that each of these characters are important sources of information for helping the investigators learn about the significance of the Sand Pit. For example: “Keepers should note that, if the investigators have not learned about the Sand Pit before now, Gloria is an excellent opportunity to communicate that information...” A journal entry handout cryptically references “sand.” But other than that, scouring the scenario, I find scant reference to the main sources of info about the Sand Pit. I’m guessing the authors had the idea firmly placed in their minds as they wrote and edited. In my opinion, it doesn’t come out in the text. I could see an inexperienced Keeper failing to do enough to set up the idea of the Sand Pit and, by extension, I could see a group of players completely lost as to how to act on the information they have about the Glass Plague. As written, it is entirely possible that if the investigators don’t talk to Barry Coddle, they would never hear the term Sand Pit uttered in the adventure. A good axiom to follow in scenario preparation is that players always need more chances to find information than you might think. References to the Sand Pit seem too light to me.
There are a couple points in the scenario where the NPCs seem overly aggressive. For example, the interaction with the Sheriff seems odd. One failed Fast Talk roll and not leaving immediately is enough to get an investigator shot? By the sheriff? Yikes. I understand that one of the central ideas is that the Glass Plague alters people’s minds, but this action seems in direct contradiction to what we learn about Joan McKay in her character bio. She wants to “keep outsiders from suspecting its plans” and her “strong moral code often outweighs Kh’yrenery’hk’s influence.” These statements seem to directly contradict her just shooting an investigator because she doesn’t like the cut of their jib. Shooting somebody isn’t an effective way to curtail suspicion. Another example would be the Brawl in Aisle 12. That just doesn’t sit well with me as a Keeper. It kind of smacks of “let’s be sure to get a combat encounter in here.” I think perhaps the goal is to give investigators an opportunity to study the Glass Plague, but those opportunities abound in the scenario. Does it function to influence the suspicion tracker? Is the goal to increase tension through violence? It just seems overly aggressive.
The Jim Crow Laws sidebar feels like a tacked-on and missed opportunity. It basically says: “Jim Crow Laws existed. Use that if you want.” Without any guidance on how to use them appropriately, I think the section potentially does more harm than good. Maybe the writers didn’t feel qualified to write advice on using Jim Crow in a historical scenario? If that’s the case, it is probably best to not try to do something you aren’t prepared or qualified for. It just leaves a hollow taste in my mouth. I feel like Call of Cthulhu is a great opportunity for us to engage on tough social issues as gamers. But without guidance on how to do that it risks making a mockery of very serious historical issues. So, my advice is either to flesh out this sidebar a bit more to give the tips needed for Keepers to be effective (maybe consulting with someone who can give appropriate guidance?) or to just ditch it entirely.
I think this is a pretty deadly scenario, whether we are talking about physical or mental harm. This could be considered a strength or a weakness of the scenario, depending upon who you ask and whether it is used as a one-shot or as part of a campaign. I wonder if it was independently play-tested, because I see a TPK here as being pretty likely, unless the investigators have a well-thought-through plan for fighting Kh’yrenery’hk.
Very minor nitpicks:
Page 24, first paragraph: “Visint”
Page 26, first column, last paragraph: Sounds (pun intended) like it should be a Listen roll, not Spot Hidden.
Page 28, Glass Behemoth stat block: Damage bonus is +5D6, but Brawl attack has +1D6
Refractions of Glasston is an excellent scenario with an interesting cast of characters and a truly frightening, otherworldly, unique threat. I find it easy to visualize squirming at a gaming table as the clues are uncovered and the Glass Plague is encountered. This student group should be proud of what they accomplished!
Verdict: A solid 4 out of 5 for me. Highly recommended.