Goodman Games, after its last release in its Age of Cthulhu line (review here), decided to bring on some Call of Cthulhu critics and do some retooling of its line, which I find to be an admirable sentiment. Shadows of Leningrad is the first scenario released since then, and I bought it to see how it measured up.
In 1927, a noted expatriate artist has died under mysterious circumstances in Leningrad. Shadows details the efforts of the investigators to travel to the USSR, attend the memorial service, and unravel the secrets of the artist’s death.
First, I should give Goodman Games some kudos for the overall setup. The introduction covers a wide variety of bases, which should make it easy to integrate into most campaigns. The graphics, handouts, and maps are impressive and show Goodman’s high production values. I must also add that I like the arrangement of the various segments of the module, allowing the investigators to explore various leads at different times and as different opportunities present themselves. The transitions between these sessions are usually smooth, and this gives the investigation a great deal of freedom.
Just because the transitions are smooth, however, doesn’t mean they are necessarily good. It seems this scenario, as the last one, falls into the trap of simply moving us from one area to another without fully considering whether the transition really makes sense.
Example: In the personal belongings of an individual, your players find a map to another location. The person in question likely wants to keep that place a secret. So, either this person knows where the place is and doesn’t need a map, or this person doesn’t know where the place is and should take the map along. Either way, the map has no reason to be there.
Example: The group succeeds in a Spot Hidden roll and finds a cache of hidden documents – oddly enough, including the very map I just mentioned. The scenario text mentions that the cultists have had to reconstruct this knowledge, as they had lost its location. What it does not explain is how the investigators find it with a casual glance when cultists have been walking past it for years or decades and seen nothing.
Overall, the scenario has the same trouble we saw in the last Goodman offering that the personalities of the individuals involved seem sublimated to the needs of the plot. For example, as this is a scenario in the USSR, we have the secret police showing up. A good way to handle this would be to have the local police official have their own agenda which keeps him from tossing the investigators into jail, at least until his goals are accomplished. This scenario handles it by making the secret police relatively lenient in dealing with the investigators – letting them go after a day or two, or getting away with a Fast Talk roll, or just by ranting about horrible monsters. It’s not a very elegant solution, and the NPCs end up looking like buffoons instead of characters.
As for the plot itself, we effectively have two: one involving the cult, and the other involving a mysterious source of power that the artist discovered. The latter really seems to be set up as a way of creeping out the investigators and throwing some unexpected opposition in their way. Those aren’t bad goals, but I wish the first plot would have done more toward achieving them, and I’m not sure the second will make sense to the investigators, even if they figure out what was going on. Besides, the second plot is dropped by the end, when it would be easy to bring the two together for a truly memorable ending.
I should close with one major warning: this scenario has a tendency to be deadly. I say this as someone who thinks Call of Cthulhu scenarios should be deadlier than much of the current crop. I can easily count half a dozen instances in Shadows which could kill at least one member of the group quite easily. Much of this could be avoided via running, but the climax itself, I would have to say, is virtually unsurvivable without a great deal of luck or good planning. The scenario at one point refers to this as pulp, but that seems to be more in the sense of what most investigators will be beaten into by the end.
Overall, Shadows is a much better scenario than Madness in London Town, but the line as a whole could benefit from a greater emphasis upon character-driven plotlines and the seeking of more elegant ways to resolve common problems. Nonetheless, this release displays some steps in the right direction.