There is such a place as Fairyland

The Angel of the Abyss is not the only Cthulhu scenario to be reviewed this week. Gamedec students have also managed to get their paws on Fairyland by Scott Dorward. It must be played to be believed, but for now, please, enjoy the review.

And here you will find an interview with Scott Dorward, the author of Fairyland.

It is no secret that many Cthulhu adventures leave the players with little hope to win and Fairyland by Scott Dorward is no different. In fact, there seems to be no possibility whatsoever of ending the scenario in question on a happy note. But then, horror games in general and Call of Cthulhu in particular are great for those players who enjoy playing to lose. After all, there is much fun to be had while sliding down the scales of madness.

Before one delves into the scenario, it is worth noting that it has been written specifically for Cthulhu Dark – a rules-light Cthulhu game system developed by Graham Walmsley. That in itself – especially for those in any way familiar with Cthulhu Dark – should give a sufficiently complete idea as to what to expect: a Mythos-heavy rail-based game with an undeniably lovecraftian atmosphere.

And that is exactly what Fairyland offers, all neatly packaged into sixteen pages – or, in fact, a little less than that, since the scenario is supplemented with several high-resolution eerie graphics. It also contains the rules of Cthulhu Dark as compiled by Graham Walmsley plus a Fairyland-specific special rule regarding laudanum use.

Fairyland takes place in Cullingstone, a small village in the Borders of Scotland, in the year of 1897, which puts the adventure firmly in the late Victorian era. Since 1849 a young girl goes missing from the village every three years. No matter how strict and vigilant the parents are, one of the children always wanders into the woods. It is said that Hobs Wood, on the edge of which Cullingstone is located, hides the door to Fairyland. This appears to be true as all the missing girls return eventually, yet they are changed forever by their ordeal. Scottish legends provide a clear explanation: changelings, that is what comes back; not quite human, yet bearing familiar form. Moreover, the fairies can be cruel when they are not paid their due. And so the local families, terrified of losing more children and wary of supernatural vengeance, keep the secret. Especially as a young couple with a daughter has just moved into The Rambles…

There are no ready-made character sheets and there is a reason for that. Cthulhu Dark requires little in the way of such things; the only thing needed is a short history of each Investigator including their area of expertise. Instead, the author gives precise guidelines as to how construct the team and provides five samples of Investigators from within The Rambles and outside. The trial run conducted for the purpose of this review has shown that while including both types gives the Investigators a direct channel into the village, not to speak of another point of view, there may be some problems with the issue of splitting the team for long stretches of time. There is nothing reprehensible or impossible about running two separate groups, yet not every Secret Keeper is capable of such or likes to do so. Furthermore, a team consisting purely or mostly of household dwellers has the added value of family drama.

In my opinion, the unique advantage of Fairyland lies in its approach to the Mythos-related threat. In no way is the real culprit shown or correctly named until the very end. Furthermore, the Secret Keeper is advised to conceal its nature by all means, forcing the Investigators to move within the realm of legends and folk tales. This makes a startling amount of sense, seeing as none of the Investigators is meant to be a seasoned supernatural sleuth. Besides, the predominant theme of fairies and changelings gives the scenario an eerie quality, which can be amplified by providing appropriate musical accompaniment.

There is much to be said for the structure and layout of the text. There is no separate chapter pertaining to non-player characters, nor has the outline of Cullingstone and its environs been virtually isolated from the plot by being put it into one or more frames. Full descriptions of characters and places are woven into the plot and not only do they constitute its intrinsic  parts, they also provide a clear-cut structure. The organization of the text goes in the following order: chronologically and then according to spatial criteria. Non-player characters are assigned to specific sites depending on their social role and/or their usual location. Such a structure prevents situations where the Secret Keepers is forced to jump from one chapter to another and makes it easier to build a fully realized image of the area in one’s mind.

It cannot be denied that Fairyland perfectly suits its chosen mechanics. Cthulhu Dark works best for Mythos-heavy scenarios, seeing as it provides little in the way of rules for purely human conflict. It also serves best when applied to story-driven adventures. There is no meat for gamists  here – any undertaken action is always successful, the only question is what degree of success the Investigator will enjoy.  Unless, of course, somebody thinks that the story would improve, if the action fails.  The story is paramount. There is one more limitation: Cthulhu Dark seems to be most suited for oneshots. The reason for this  is the rapid sanity slippage induced by the use of Insanity Die. Case in point : during the trial run one of the Investigators went mad halfway through the adventure and promptly committed suicide.

It is important to note that while the adventure has been written specifically for Cthulhu Dark, it is wholly possible to run it using any other Cthulhu game system. Furthermore,  this  option is fully supported by the text; all instances necessitating rule usage are accompanied by tips which provide for both options. That, in turn, raises the question whether, and to what extent , does the choice of game system influence the game.

One must appreciate how neatly the author has managed to incorporate indications as to when and how apply the rules of either Cthulhu Dark or any other Cthulhu game system into the scenario. There are no verbal hints in the text proper; instead, one should watch out for different symbols placed on the margins. These, depending on the precise symbol used, show whether something is a clue or a threat to an Investigator’s Sanity. Or possibly both at the same time. Furthermore, in order to avoid any confusion, those parts of the text to which the symbols apply are italicized.

The advantage of this particular solution is twofold. Not only does it allow the Secret Keeper to identify the key parts of the investigation by merely glancing at the page, it also helps to improve the flow of the text and makes for much shorter and more concise paragraphs. That, in turn, should shorten  the time necessary for preparation and make the process of getting to know the plot much easier.

That said, one must commend the author for the overall quality of tips aimed at prospective Secret Keepers. Not only do they provide hints as to how to approach and describe certain events and characters in order to maximize the player’s experience, they also show the obvious care taken in testing the scenario thoroughly.

Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, one simply cannot deny that Fairyland is a truly interesting short scenario and any Cthulhu-enthusiast would be well served by looking into it. Its moderately low entry threshold should appeal to those Secret Keepers and players who want to begin or have just begun their adventure with Cthulhu. On the other hand, the undeniable lovecraftian atmosphere and eerie quality exuded by the adventure will not leave the purists disappointed.

I owe Adrian Andryśkiewicz, Kinga Gajdel, Anna Kwapiszewska and Mateusz Chenc many thanks. Without them, this review would have never come into existence.

Author: Urszula Chmielewska