“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…
…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.