Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Bumps in the Night


Last year at Gencon, I was able to pick up a copy of Bumps in the Night while visiting the Pagan Publishing booth.  I've been getting caught up on my Cthulhu reading lately, which means I'll be getting a few more reviews out in the next few weeks.  This one is written by John H Crowe III, a long time Pagan Publishing author.

The book is nicely done - it's a 118 page soft cover with an attractive layout and evocative black and grey art.  It features five scenarios; "The Westerfield Incident", "The Vengeful Dead", "The Bitter Venom of the Gods", "Curse of the Screaming Skull", and "An Unsettled Mind".  Instead of highlighting cosmic horror, these scenarios feature paranormal activities and occult monsters from folklore and mythology.

These scenarios excel in terms of structure and presentation.  One byproduct of spending so much time out here amongst the OSR D&D blogs is an appreciation for module structure and how it corresponds to game-play at the table.  I don't see a lot of the same analysis happening in other genres to land on the best structures for a scenario.  Horror has an agenda; the horror is out there doing bad things, and the player characters are frequently in a reactive role.  It can be challenging to balance the needs of free agency with the time pressure inherent in the horror genre while avoiding a linear design.

Here, each scenario is presented as a situation, with background facts that can be learned through investigation, and an overview of the locales and key actors, as required.  But each scenario runs on its own clock, and the horror is going to progress if the players don't intervene.  This is my platonic sweet spot for a horror scenario - give me a handful of interesting elements, a horror sandbox of sorts, and then give me some kind of event structure that defines what the horror is going to do, and then push the start button on the countdown.

I'm simplifying, of course; the writer provides antagonist reactions to some of the common ploys investigators may try to give the Keeper more guidance, but the underlying structure of each scenario is a simple investigative sandbox + event timeline.  It's really well done.

Like I said, the monsters aren’t the archetypal tentacle horrors of the Mythos, but run a gamut from native American vampires to Mesopotamian demons.  In most of the scenarios, there are enough red herrings to keep the players on their toes, and the monsters themselves appear under unusual or interesting circumstances.

If you play Call of Cthulhu, the Pagan Publishing stuff is already must-own, and Bumps in the Night slides in there as another high quality piece in a long line of strong books.  They seem to be slowly digitizing their back catalog, so hopefully that means some of this author's other works will reach a wider audience through PDF some day - Coming Full Circle and Mortal Coils are both excellent as well.  For now, you can only get this one in print over at Arkham Bazaar:  Bumps in the Night.