jueves, 14 de diciembre de 2023

Alone Against the Static for Call of Cthulhu - A review

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Two well-known tropes of horror films are TV static and found footage. When I first watched Hideo Nakata's masterpiece "The Ring" (Ringu), I am not afraid to admit it scared the bejesus out of me. Only days later, I was sitting in front of an apparently switched off TV with an in-built VCR, doing homework all alone, when, suddenly, it sprang to life with static and filled the room with loud white noise. My heart almost jumped out of my chest. Luckily, the reason behind that phenomenon was totally ordinary, but during that couple of seconds before my mind finally managed to understand, I felt horror. Movies like the award-winning blockbuster "The Blair Witch Project" also scared a generation and helped establish found footage as a well-known trope of horror films. As you must have already guessed, these two weird fears born out of modern technology are present in Chaosium's new "choose your own adventure" book for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition. In fact, Brian Holland's Alone Against the Static may well be paying tribute to those films, as both are from the late 90s and this adventure is also set around that time. Not to mention the action mostly happens in a cabin in the woods, but let's begin with the review before I get further entangled in more horror tropes!

Note: Here you will find some mild spoilers. Also, Chaosium sent me a copy of the book so I could write this review, but below is my honest assessment.

The movie-like cover by Nicholas Grey with both player characters in the middle of an ominous dark forest

Alone Against the Static belongs to Chaosium's aptly named line of "Alone Against..." scenarios to play by yourself. Unlike most other scenarios for the Call of Cthulhu RPG, you do not need a GM or other players to enjoy it, which makes it really easy to play. Because you know how difficult it can be to get together with people sometimes... And sometimes you just need to scratch that itch for a good interactive horror story! On the other hand, you can also play through this scenario with someone else, reading it and making choices together, or reading the entries aloud for another player. You could even turn the story into a normal Call of Cthulhu scenario and run it for just one player. If you ask me though, it is best to play it when you are all alone and it is dark outside.

Although the book claims you need a copy of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook or Starter Set to play the scenario, you can get by with just Alone Against the Static. At least in my experience, I did not need to check the rulebook at all. In fact, the rules you use along this "choose your own adventure" or interactive story have been simplified, so even if you do not own the rulebook, knowing the basics is enough. For example, the results of combat and chases are determined with just one dice roll. This is good for the story to flow and not get bogged down in too many dice rolls. If, however, you do need to know the basics, I would recommend downloading the free Quickstart rules.

In case you have never read any «choose your own adventure», game-book or interactive story, this works just like reading a short story, only you can make choices along the way that change the course of the narrative. It is as if you were playing a normal Call of Cthulhu game, with dice rolls and all, but where the text substitutes the GM. Like any RPG, you roleplay a character and, in this case, the book offers two player characters you can choose to play: Alex, a nurse, and Charlie, a salesperson. They are a couple whose relationship is going through bad times. Of course, they have decided a getaway to an isolated cabin in the wild could be the best solution to their problems, because that is the kind of thing characters in horror stories do! Oh poor Charlie and Alex, they have no idea what the forest has in store for them!

At the start you need to choose what character you are going to play in the story: Alex or Charlie.

So what's the story like? Well, good interactive fiction offers natural and logic choices, with consequences that make sense, on top of an engaging narrative. Alone Against the Static basically fulfills these points. The story is well written and flows nicely, and it will entertain you for between 1 and 2 hours for each playthrough.

On my first playthrough I decided to play Alex purely for munchkiny, metagaming reasons: a higher POW score and thus higher initial Sanity. Besides, a better Spot Hidden skill is always good. I played him (I chose that pronoun BTW) as I would have reacted to the situations he finds himself in. In other words, I was extremely cautious. For example, I didn't even go into the dilapidated cabin I found in the forest. I also ended up running away a lot, got lost in the dark, and fortunately managed to escape the horror, but met a horrifyngly Lovecraftian end nonetheless. At the same time, I got completely immersed in the story, felt uneasy as the mystery unfolded, prayed to the gods to succeed in several tense skill rolls, and enjoyed it a lot.

As any good horror story, it starts from a completely ordinary starting point, and it gets increasingly weird. However, the fact that the main characters are a couple who have been slowly drifting apart and trying to reignite their love makes it feel different and engaging. Obviously, it grows more unsettling as you read on, with good use of foreshadowing. I was reading it all alone on my couch, in front of a turned off TV, at midnight, out in the country. I swear it, if by any chance the TV had switched on on its own, I would have jumped out of my couch and run away yelling.

Entry after entry, choice after choice, an unsettling mystery unfolds...

Fortunately, that did not happen... this time, at least. But the feeling of uneasiness that sticks with you after watching a good horror film was there! That is one of the appeals of this story, it is set in modern times, and therefore, it is more relatable, and the fears explored in it feel much closer to the reader, so they cut deeper. It probably also helps in this that the two characters are just ordinary people. There really should be more Call of Cthulhu scenarios set in modern times! I remember listening to Sandy Petersen claim at the Kraken convention, how H.P. Lovecraft always set his stories in the (for him) modern times, and so he also prefers setting his scenarios in the "now". The same happens with horror movies, since most are set in our current times.

The book surprised me when, particularly at the beginning, it asks "you" how you feel (confident?, excited? or doubtful, anxious?), because it means that, even though in a limited way, you can roleplay your character. At certain points it also asks you seemingly trivial questions like: Do you dress in jeans and T-shirt or track pants and sweater? Do you take a quick shower or a longer one? Since every choice leads you to different entries, it makes me wonder if and how all these decisions will have an impact later on, particularly when you have reached the end. Some you realize later on, but others remain a mystery. Should I have chosen the other option at that point?

What are you going to do?

Actually, there are certain entries where the text recommends noting down the number, in case you decide to go back to it later. Although this is not specified, I guess the purpose is making it easy for you to "cheat" and go back to it if you don't like the outcome of your choices from that point onwards. I tend to stick to my choices no matter what, but this is helpful if you have a different approach. I guess these must be key entries where the narrative can take a totally different turn depending on your choice. Moreover, at the bottom of every entry you can find the numbers of the entries that lead to the one you just read. This makes it easier to retrace your steps through the book if you want to do that. Finally, all entries have internal links in the PDF version of the book, making it easy to navigate. You can go from one entry to the next by clicking on the indicated page number at the bottom. Just remember: if the link seems not to work, you may already be on the page where you can read that entry! All this means Chaosium has made a noticeable effort to make the book easy to use.

Speaking of the structure of the story, Alone Against the Static uses a system of keywords you need to tick from a list on a log sheet when the text indicates you to. Its purpose is to mark certain items, physical conditions, or pieces of knowledge you have acquired that may play a role later on, or just points on the adventure that can influence how the story develops. To avoid spoiling future playthroughs just by looking at the list, these keywords have fairly inconspicuous names, such as "Familiar Face", "Fully Charged", or "Tech Support". For example, let's say you find a weapon in one entry and you mark its corresponding keyword on the log sheet. Perhaps much later on, after making many other choices, the text includes a mention like "if you have marked this or that particular keyword, then go to entry X", while you would go to a different entry if you have not. It is a clever way to make certain events have an influence in later situations, while avoiding having to write full words on your character sheet.

The art in Alone Against the Static is great

For my second playthrough, I played Charlie to see her "side" of the story. I was looking forward to do it as soon as I finished my first playthrough, because it is great the book offers you this other point of view. I also wanted to play her as different as possible to how I had played Alex on my first playthrough. So this time, I played more bravely and aggressively, and made completely new choices, particularly at the beginning. It was fun to see the first scene from Charlie's point of view, although the story soon becomes the same as Alex's: your partner leaves and you are left alone in a cabin in the woods (cue mysteriously eerie music). This time I explored the dilapidated cabin, I got some intriguing items, and later on I fought against the stranger, but afterwards I also got lost and ended up dying in the fight against my nemesis (I fought well, though!). Damn, I think I know now what I must do next time!

Part of Charlie's character sheet

There were only a couple places where the story felt a bit jarring. First, at a certain point, you get 3 options: have lunch, look for a flashlight or try to repair something. Once you do the first two, the third option is no longer available, but you get bored anyway! Second, later on, you may reach an entry where you face a hideous adversary (entry 347). I was expecting the text to ask me to make a Sanity roll, but... it did not happen. It felt a bit like when you are playing a normal game of Call of Cthulhu and the Keeper forgets to ask you for that roll (it happens).

Before I wrap up this review, I must say it is great that Alone Against the Static does not make any direct reference to any known entities from the Cthulhu Mythos. Experienced Call of Cthulhu fans tend to quickly foresee what god or monster is behind the whole story, or eagerly expect one of those to be behind it all, but I find that boring. Actually, you don't need any of the "usual suspects" for a story to be engaging, since there are many ways of creating a narrative that feels Lovecraftian but is still original. Alone Against the Static is proof of that and also combines it fantastically with a set of modern horror film tropes. In fact, my favorite scenes in both playthroughs are the ones where you play a tape on the VCR... Goosebumps! And also the one when you fail a SAN roll and get paranoid! Finally, at the end of the book, the author provides you with some game information, in case you decide to use the evil force behind the supernatural events described here in your games of Call of Cthulhu, which is a nice detail.

Come play with us...

I am left with a nagging question: Is there any way to take this story to some sort of relatively happy ending? I need to play it again to find out!

The best:

  • Unsettling and immersive, with clever nods to modern horror tropes: TV static, found footage...
  • You do not need anyone to play! Scratch the itch for an interactive horror story right away!
  • Two player characters to choose from, with different sets of skills.
  • Does not name any specific entities from the Cthulhu Mythos, but it is still Lovecraftian.
  • You won't get the full picture with just one or even two playthroughs, so it is replayable (wait, perhaps there is no "full picture" to get, but that is also fine. Trying to reach all possible endings also makes you want to replay the story).

The worst:

  • I wish it had even more entries.
  • Realizing there should be way more scenarios set in modern times.

Alone Against the Static is available from Chaosium's website both in PDF (15$) as in hardcover with included PDF for 30$. If you buy only the PDF first, they will deduct its price when you later buy the book in print. You can also purchase the PDF from DrivethruRPG for 15$. So, will you survive alone against the Static? And if you have already played it through: Did you manage to survive??? At any rate, I hope you found my review useful.

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