The Dying of St. Margaret's is an adventure written by Graham Walmsley that falls into what Pelgrane calls its Purist scenarios for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG. What that means is that it's designed to evoke the feel and style of H.P. Lovecraft's stories rather than the more pulpy style in which investigators fight Lovecraftian horrors with tommy-guns and dynamite. Instead, the best investigators can hope for is to escape with a shred of their sanity intact. As such it's right up my alley.
The adventure comes in the form of a 28-page PDF, with an attractive color cover and a black-and-white interior with just a tasteful pieces of art. As such it's fairly reasonable in terms of ink/toner if you're going to print things out. The layout is neat and easy to follow, although the three-column format makes it less suitable for use on a tablet since the text tends to be quite small.
Enough with the physical details, what about the adventure?
The investigation, which is set in ToC's default 1930 time-frame, takes place on a remote Scottish island and is centered around a decaying private girls academy. The standard set-up is that the investigators are all friends or acquaintances of a group of staff from the school that have recently gone missing. Strangers at the beginning of the adventure, each of the investigators meet on the boat ride over to the island where they've each taken a temporary staff position – ranging from divinity master to under-Gardner – in order to gain access to the school grounds and hopefully discover what happened to their friend.
While this set-up may be a bit harder to fit in to an ongoing campaign, it's perfectly suited for a one-shot, purist adventure and towards this end the adventure includes five pregenerated characters that are perfectly matched to the set-up. It also works extremely well because the ultimate outcome of the adventure is supposed to emulate that of an H.P. Lovecraft story in which the investigators come face-to-face with the realization of their own insignificance in the universe and often end up physically or mentally damaged. In other words, played as intended PCs are not supposed to exit this scenario unscathed.
This, in my opinion, is the most polarizing feature of the scenario because groups that want the bleak outcome typical to many of the original Lovecraft stories are going to really love the feel of this adventure. In contrast, those that prefer to shoot deep ones or ultimately “win” against the Mythos are going to find the adventure really unsatisfying. All is not lost though because Walmsley does include suggestions, including creature stats, in an appendix that lets you convert the adventure to a “pulp” style one.
The investigation itself is fairly straight-forward and while not built on rails (PCs can go where they want and no events are really “time locked”), it does have a fairly predictable flow that helps a GM keep the suspense building throughout the session. The core clues of the investigation follow logically from one another. That said, like IndiePete, a flowchart showing how the core clues (and some of the axillary clues) relate to one other would have been helpful.
The scenario is also very manageable in terms of locations and NPCs, thanks to the fact that it's set in a small, isolated location (essentially the PCs only can wander the school grounds, the nearby village, or the area in between). Thus, the number of NPCs is fairly limited and easy to keep track of although making some notes to reference (rather than flipping back and forth in the PDF) is advisable. In addition, the scenario itself includes a great bunch of roleplaying tips including suggestions for body language that really help bring the NPCs to life. Kudos for that feature: I wish all of the ToC scenarios followed the same format.
Aside from the actual content of the scenario's investigation, Walmsley also has included some specific tips and scene suggestions utilizing flashbacks and specific events that directly connect to the investigators' Drives, pushing them forward at certain points and undermining their confidence at others to turn up the psychological elements of the scenario. This is perhaps my favorite part - although it's also the one that takes the most mastery to fully utilize – because done well it really helps create a sense of history initially and then pushes the investigators to the brink as their mental fortitude starts to unravel in the face of a truly cosmic force.
I've run the adventure twice, for two different groups, and had a great time in both cases. I love running it late at night, with the lights turned down and just a couple of candles (I've got electric ones to avoid burning down the house) lighting the table. Atmosphere is critical for really raising the suspense and horror of the scenario. I also like the scenario because it's incredibly flexible – it will work for one to five players equally well (though smaller numbers work best in my opinion) and works equally well for those new to RPGs or grizzled veterans, as long as they're on board with the Purist style. It's now one of my “go to” scenarios for cons. As such I would highly recommend checking it out.
[5 of 5 Stars!]