As many of you know, I am an avid roleplaying gamer; by which I mean I have played many, many roleplaying games over the last forty years of my life. When I run games, I tend to run my own adventures and campaigns rather than published modules and/or scenarios; but there are some notable exceptions, and I own many hundreds of published adventures for dozens of different game systems. While some are exceptional and fit to be run as-is or with little modifications (I’ll do posts about them, too), others are useful sources of ideas; providing inspiration for new scenarios. Failing that, one can often find characters, monsters, traps, story elements and the like to unabashedly steal for your own games.
Some, though, are just bad.
Please note that this isn’t meant to tear apart published adventures or shit on someone else’s work. Many of these adventures were written in the early years of rpgs, many were written by inexperienced writers, and some just haven’t aged well. Even the most poorly-written adventure might be salvageable; or at least may contain good elements that can be used elsewhere.
In this series of posts, I will focus on some of these bad adventures; providing a summary of the adventure as-written, why I think it sucks, and what I would do (or in some cases, have already done) to fix it. I will be highlighting adventures that have been published in hardcopy by a gaming company as opposed to the current trend of community-created content available in electronic PDF form; not because I have anything against that stuff, but because I don’t own as much of it. What you will find here mostly are classic adventures for a variety of game systems, most likely published during the 80’s, 90’s or the first ten years of the new millennium.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I will be spoiling the shit out of these adventures, so don’t read my post if you’re going to play in one of them or want to read it yourself.
Let’s kick things off with a pretty bad adventure for one of my favorite games: Call of Cthulhu.
Trail of the Loathsome Slime (1985); by Marcus L. Rowland, published by Games Workshop
Synopsis: The year is 1983, and the investigators are contacted by “their good friend” and occultist, Walter Corey, who says he’s found something that will blow their minds; but of course won’t tell them what it is over the phone. The investigators show up at Corey’s house to find him murdered.
The previous year an ornithological expedition ship disappeared somewhere near the Falklands and it was assumed it was a casualty of the British-Argentinian Falklands conflict. Corey started dreaming about the ship and its crazed crew and published articles on his dreams. Then he bought a diary at an auction; a diary of a cultist who was executed back in 1927, who buried a chest on an island somewhere in the south Atlantic. Apparently, the mere purchasing of a diary is a newsworthy item, because news of the purchase appears in the papers and is seen by Arnold Rothman, the grandson of a fellow cult member from way back. Rothman had been serving aboard the missing ship for years, looking for that chest every chance he got. Last time, though, he broke his leg and couldn’t make the voyage where the ship was lost, so now he’s going to join another ship. He thinks that diary might hold the clues to finding the chest once and for all, so he broke into Corey’s house and killed him for it.
The investigators are supposed to discover Corey’s notes on the deciphered diary, drop everything and immediately book passage on a new ornithological survey ship to the Falklands. This new survey ship is a replacement for the old ship, because birders gotta bird. The PCs have to interview for the positions, either as scientists or crew, and there’s a decent chance they won’t be accepted. Oh yeah; this happens to be the same ship that Arnold Rothman is now serving on as second mate, too; although the investigators have no idea he’s the murderer of their “good friend”.
On the way down to the Falklands, there is an outbreak of ergot poisoning that drives most of the crew into a homicidal rage. The science team (presumably including most of the investigators) is unaffected, but they have to fend off seven crazed and murderous crew members. There are a couple of rifles and shotguns aboard, but not much else; and many of the crazed crew will try for those. Since this is for the original version of Call of Cthulhu, there’s a pretty good chance that some investigators will die before they reach the island. Whatever the case, Rothman isn’t affected either; and he runs the ship aground on Griffon Island, the site of the lost chest. Once there, the investigators and any surviving, non-crazy NPCs soon find that someone smashed the emergency radio and all their food supplies were stolen somewhere along the journey. The island is deathly quiet and mostly deserted. The reportedly huge penguin population has been decimated, and slime trails crisscross the island.
Seems like their “good friend” Corey wasn’t dreaming about the past…he was having visions of the future!
The investigators can go exploring, either on foot or using the ship’s unarmed helicopter; but it only has a range of 160 miles. (Griffon Island is 600 miles away from the nearest land, which is the Falkland Islands, so they can’t just fly away to safety.) They can also follow Rothman, who leaves the ship on his own to go looking for the chest. Either way, they soon discover a series of caverns beneath the island that were used by the former cultists. The chest is here; it contains a blasphemous mythos tome and a couple of magic swords, not the treasure Rothman was hoping for. The caverns are filled with loathsome slime (hence the name of the module), which is a by-product of the guardians of the chest: two shoggoths.
Yes, that’s correct. Two.
The investigators are now free to leave the island. assuming they can deal with a stove boat, a crazed second mate, a mostly-dead crew, no way to radio for help, a helicopter that won’t make the flight, no food and two–yes, two– shoggoths.
Commentary (why I think it’s bad): Ok, let’s start at the beginning. There’s no reason for their “good friend” Walter Corey to be in this adventure at all. He’s there to get killed and vaguely point the way to the island. That’s it. The big reveal that his dreams are precognitive and not dreams of the past doesn’t add anything to the story.
Second, the outbreak of ergot, at least as written, carries the very real possibility of a total party kill (TPK) outcome before they even reach the island. Since it’s Call of Cthulhu, most of the investigators are likely to be academic types with poor combat skills (if any); going up against manic crewmen with limited (or no) weapons is likely to result in multiple PC deaths.
Third: Speaking of the investigators, if, in keeping with early Call of Cthulhu, they are predominantly academics and “regular people”, they really have no opportunity to use their academic skills other than the beginning of the adventure to track down clues in Corey’s apartment and find out a bit about the cult. Once they’re on the boat, there’s not much to do except get killed by the crew, or get to the island and get eaten by the shoggoths.
Finally: TWO shoggoths?! It’s official: no one is supposed to survive this. It’s just not possible. There is very little on the boat or on the island that could even significantly harm a shoggoth, never mind kill it; and once again, there are TWO of the monsters on the island.
Sandy Petersen himself did a phenomenal YouTube video on why shoggoths are so dangerous. It’s well worth a watch. To summarize: they’re fast, massive, indescribably strong, almost indestructible and they’re as smart as the average human. They’re also very capable of one-shot killing any player character (or group of investigators) with ease. Some of them even know spells. In this adventure, there are a few drums of helicopter fuel that the investigators can use to make Molotovs (or detonate the drums). Those are probably their best bet, but hardly guaranteed to work. What guns they have are effectively useless, and the magic swords, while capable of causing damage, would require someone to get close enough to a shoggoth to hit it with a sword. (Good luck with that.) Unless the players are using established investigators with access to damaging spells, they might as well just let the shoggoth roll over them and get it over with.
How I’d fix it: There are some modification suggestions included at the end of the adventure. I’ll cover them at the end.
What would I do?
- I’d use pregenerated characters with relevant skills, or make sure my PCs had them if they were using their own investigators.
- Forget the whole Corey character. He’s a useless plot device. Why not just make the investigators start on the boat, perhaps on an unrelated expedition of their own? This means no auditioning for berths aboard the ship, which is a process they can fail, grinding the adventure to a halt before it starts. One of the NPC crew (Rothman) then steers the boat off-course in pursuit of his own treasure hunt; or perhaps the rest of the crew is in on it, too. They just needed a boat, and now they have one thanks to the academic expedition they signed on as crew. “Stay out of the way, eggheads; and you won’t get hurt.”
- If you want to keep the ergot poisoning (I wouldn’t, but YMMV), then give the PCs a fighting chance against the crew by giving them weapons; or at least an opportunity to reverse the effects of the poison. (Yes, I know real ergot poisoning has no antidote, but real ergot poisoning doesn’t happen overnight and turn you into a crazed murderer, either.) To continue the above example, maybe the PCs can try to regain control of the ship somehow, which may result in them running aground on the island; or maybe convince the crew they can help find the treasure; maybe by reading a manuscript or map in a language none of the crew can understand.
- Either use a different threat entirely or lose at least one of the shoggoths. One shoggoth is more than enough challenge for ANY group of investigators, never mind a group that has poor weapons and is probably already missing a few members because they fell victim to a homicidal boat crew. I can’t imagine any group of investigators in similar circumstances who could survive an encounter with two, so unless going for the almost-certain TPK is your intent, give your players a chance.
The suggestion given at the end of the adventure is to include a crashed Argentinian fighter jet that the investigators could conceivably repair and fly, or strip for missiles to combat the shoggoths. Dumb.
Another suggestion: in the event the party is exceptionally strong and has no problem defeating the shoggoths (!), have another outbreak of ergot on the return trip, assuming they can refloat the boat, or they get rescued somehow. This seems unfairly harsh in a series of unfairly harsh events. In other words, it doesn’t sound like much fun.
Trail of the Loathsome Slime isn’t a horrible adventure; it just needs a bit of streamlining and balance. It’s worth noting that this was published in the very early years of Call of Cthulhu; and would have been seen as something of a novelty as it was a modern adventure (for the time) and not set in the 1920’s. Making it a Pulp Cthulhu adventure would increase PC survivability (by a lot); it would also be interesting to update it to the modern 21st century.
What do you think?