Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/12/27/tabletop-review-call-of-cthulhu-dead-light/
On Monday, December the 23rd, Chaosium decided to surprise all of its Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition backers with a special gift – the release of Dead Light. Even better, this first stand alone adventure for CoC 7e was made free to all 3,668 backers. Of course if you didn’t back Seventh Edition via Kickstarter (and WHY NOT?), the adventure is available for purchase with the very reasonable price tag of $6.95. This way, everyone’s a winner!
Now as Dead Light is for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, you may be saying to yourself, “Wait a second! Seventh Edition isn’t out yet.” You’re right, but worry not my friends. In the back of the book is a conversion guide to let you use Dead Light with older versions of the game. If you really want to play this adventure with Seventh Edition rules, you can always use the Quick Start Rules Chaosium has provided. Man, between this, the QSR, the upcoming Horror on the Orient Express remake (I have proofs in hand and expect a preview of that content coming soon!) and Secrets of Tibet, CoC 7e might be setting a record for the most content produced before the actual core rule book is released.
Dead Light is an adventure for two to five players and it’s set in the 1920s right outside Arkham. The adventure is meant to be a one-shot or stand-alone experience and it’s unusual in that, unlike most published CoC adventures where the dice tend to have the last say regarding combat, death and the like, the Keeper has almost complete control over who dies, how they die and when in this scenario. This means in the hands of a bad Keeper, say one who views the game as Investigators Vs. Keepers, this can be a bit of a disaster. In the hands of most Keepers, who tend to view the game as a collective storytelling experience with their friends, Dead Light can be an extremely satisfying experience because the Keeper can (and probably should) show mercy at times. Instead of having the character die in an accidental fashion or due to a bad roll, the GM can save that death for a more interesting and/or dramatic moment. In some ways, the control the GM has over life and death in this adventure reminds me of “Wrong Turn” in Cthulhu Britannica, in that the Keeper can (and will) predetermine the death of characters, thus making Dead Light more like an interactive film (or “on rails” if you are up to date with your video game vernacular) than your normal tabletop experience. This doesn’t mean the adventure is out of the players’ hands. If a player comes up with a really good idea for getting out of a situation, the Keeper should definitely reward that with a stay of execution. After all, Dead Light is more about thinking and decision-making than dice rolling and the person running this adventure needs to keep that in mind even if they really feel Character X’s death would be absolutely perfect at that moment.
I should also point out that due to the nature of how this adventure is designed to be run, Dead Light is a great way to bring newcomers into Call of Cthulhu, especially 7e. This way players can learn the mechanics and flow of a Call of Cthulhu experience without dying right away. Nothing’s worse than bringing a person into their first tabletop experience ever and having them die thirty minutes into the game and then just have them sit around watching other people play. With Dead Light, you can really teach a newcomer the basics and mechanics of CoC and keep them alive just long enough to get addicted to the game. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even make it through the game unscathed, form an emotional bond with their Investigator and thus begins a beautiful friendship…until a shoggoth finally eats them or they are sent to live out the reminder of their days in a madhouse.
The plot of Dead Light resembles that of a survival horror movie or video game, where characters are picked off one at a time by a seemingly unstoppable monstrosity bent only on death and destruction. In this case, Dead Light features a lot more human on human violence (and murder) than you might be used to in a Call of Cthulhu adventure. Worry not, because the 1920s actually did have a higher murder rate than we have nowadays in 2013 (soon to be 2014), so petty robbery and nonsensical murder makes sense, even in a time when America seemed on top of the world. Once the horror is accidentally released, it will start picking off people in the surrounding area one by one until it is either defeated or you have a Total Party Kill. The good news for players is that there are a lot of NPCs that can (and should) be devoured before them, heightening the tension and terror. As well, the Investigators don’t necessarily need to beat the antagonist in this adventure – they can always choose to just try and survive. If they make it until dawn, they can also “win” that way…although trying to last that long will probably ratchet up the body count. There’s not a lot of combat to be had here, as trying to do physical battle with the creature is all but impossible and almost certainly lethal to the Investigators. There are ways to hurt it/contain it, but whether or not the characters discover these methods depends on where they choose to go and what they choose to do. As such, the adventure is pretty investigative for one where there is also a lot of death and that juxtaposition makes for a very unique experience.
As mentioned earlier, Dead Light is pretty light on rolling the bones. You’ll have some Luck and Sanity rolls obviously and Spot Hidden will be a big help with this adventure, but honestly, the most rolling that will occur will probably be with Dodge and Drive Auto, the latter mainly due to the horrific storm that just happens to be occurring the night of the adventure. This means characters will live or die based on the decisions they make, so don’t be afraid to burn your Luck or ask for Idea rolls if you play this.
Besides the unusual nature of how the adventure unfolds, this really is a standard style CoC adventure. You have a nameless horror that defies description, investigation is needed to discover how these events came to pass as well as how to end them, sanity will be dropping like rain and a good time will be had by all. The good news is that the adventure eschews all the standard tropes of Call of Cthulhu, so there won’t be any Mi-Go, Deep Ones or Serpent People. There are no cults to foil nor do you have to sit in a library for hours on end, hoping to find the one tome you need, containing a spell that will save the day. The only real tropes the adventure contains is exploring a spooky house and finding a diary that explains how these events came to be (and that also gives you some Cthulhu Mythos points). I’m really happy to see Chaosium giving gamers something outside the box with this one. Sure the adventure sometimes feels more Chill or Cryptworld than Call of Cthulhu at times, but it still keeps the mood and feel of the setting. If you absolutely have to have a Mythos creature rear its head in your adventures, you might be disappointed here, but I can safely say that the antagonist of Dead Light feels right at home with the eldritch horrors and nameless terrors Lovecraft and his contemporaries created in their day.
Dead Light probably isn’t an adventure for everyone –especially gamers who don’t like feeling as if they are “on rails” for an entire adventure, but a good Keeper can hide that aspect of this piece, and really make the adventure stand out as a memorable experience for all. I’ll admit I went into this going, “Survival Horror? Oh god.” and I came away really impressed with the layout, flow and plot of Dead Light. I’m especially glad I got this adventure for free and can easily recommend it for the $6.95 price tag it comes with if you didn’t back 7e via Kickstarter. Dead Light is a solid experience from beginning to end and my only caveat is that you really need a quality Keeper who can run this without turning it into a “players vs. Keeper” experience, because no one likes those. The vast majority of people that pick up Dead Light will have a lot of fun with it, and really, what more do you need from an adventure, right?