On the Shelf Review – The Watchers in the Sky

“The Watchers in the Sky” is the latest release for Pelgrane PressTrail of Cthulhu line, which Simon Rogers was kind enough to send me as a review copy.

“Watchers” is another work by Graham Walmsley, author of “The Dying of St. Margaret’s,” which I previously reviewed here, and it constitutes another work along the “Purist” tradition.  Such works seek to place the investigators into situations in which incursions of cosmic horrors overwhelm them, and in which mere survival, even in a crippled or maddened state, is the only possible victory.

“Watchers” begins with the investigators performing one of three actions:  visiting an associate in an asylum, conducting a test in a laboratory, or witnessing the autopsy of a curious creature.  Each one of these alerts the group to the existence of birdlike beings combining the characteristics of  various lifeforms.  As the investigation proceeds, the group tracks them back to their lair in an attempt to unravel the mystery…

SPOIILERS FOLLOW

…which they can’t.  As a matter of fact, Walmsley has written a scenario that embodies the mystery with no real solution, in which the investigators are caught up in a situation beyond a rational solution.

I have mixed feelings about this; on one hand, it is a pleasant antidote to those Mythos stories, whether gaming or otherwise, that overexplain the horrors that are encountered.  On the other, I think the particular take on it here actually veers further into the incomprehensible than Lovecraft into the realm of Ligotti.  I do love Ligotti, but after a certain point the line behind the creepy incomprehensible and the merely frustrating or baffling incomprehensible is difficult to navigate, and I think that “Watchers” will fall more on the second side of the line.  Given that this is a capsule review, however, it’s hard to tell how this might play out.  To his credit, Walmsley recognizes that this might be a problem and gives advice on handling it, but an optional background for a group that might need a solution might be in order.

Overall, I do like the basic structure and presentation of the scenario.  Though it is likely to appeal to a group of characters composed more of scientists and researchers,  “Watchers” gives a group many different possible skills through which to find the clues necessary to navigate the mystery.  The scenes are flavorful – though the locals in the pub scene seemed too friendly, perhaps – and there’s much in the clues to suggest the greater cosmic import of the mystery.  As with “Dying,” I thought more help with the possible outcomes might have been appreciated, and I wish the final horror had been more closely tied to the investigators themselves than to their Sources of Stability.  Nonetheless, this is certainly a compelling piece.

EDIT:  I should add that there’s one innovation here that I really like:  an optional rule that allows investigations to dictate their own Stability losses, with the goal of racing down to the bottom of the scale as quickly as possible.  I must say there’s a significant number of players who, in a system that calls for insanity, seem to seek it as a reward in and of itself, and it’s nice to see a mechanic actually designed for these players.

I will admit to mixed feelings about the scenario.  My overall impression of it is relatively positive, though with the misgivings noted above.  Nonetheless, I really like what Walmsley is trying to do here, and I seriously think it’s worth a look, if for no other reason than incorporating ideas into one’s own Cthulhoid games to make them more horrific.

Published in: on April 4, 2010 at 3:42 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks, Dan, that’s a fair review.

    When I’m writing, I often have a Lovecraft story in mind, and this time it was The Whisperer In Darkness. So the mystery is rather like the one in that story. You partly discover what the Mi-Go are, but not why they put brains in cylinders or what the strange vibration is. Much remains unexplained.

    Whether or not that works, of course, is a different question.

    Graham

  2. Graham,

    Thanks for stopping by. I’d be interested to hear how this plays out for those who use it.

    As to your point, I’d say that “The Whisperer in Darkness” relies less on the unexplained, per se, than with the unreliable narrator (Akeley himself isn’t entirely trustworthy, even before things get stranger later on in the story) and explanations that just make matters worse (So, they’re flying mushrooms?). That’s not to say that some aspects aren’t explained – the brain cylinders, and the mysterious black stone, for instance – but I think there’s a few different layers going on there.

  3. Thanks for the review.

    SPOILERS FOLLOW:

    Just to note that not one of our playtest groups had any problem with the aspects of this adventure you found troublesome; and it’s not so much that there is no solution, simply that there is no pre-defined solution. That said, the option not to solve the mystery completely is one which makes the actual play all the more creepy, at least in my direct experience. It’s like a Rorschach test for players.

    Graham says “The Investigators will discover much
    about the creatures, but how the pieces
    of the jigsaw fit together is left to the
    players’ imagination.”

    He also defines three approaches to the undefined mystery, letting the players know there is no solution, leaving the palyers in the dark, or a combination of the two.

  4. Simon,

    Many thanks for stopping by. I think my worry was that, for particular groups, not enough of an “explanation,” even if false or subverted later, was present for the Keeper to work with. Nonetheless, if it’s working out in actual play, it should be fine.

  5. […] the Nature of Lovecraftian Revelations The discussions following upon my review of “The Watchers in the Sky” has inspired some thoughts on the nature of revelation in […]


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