The Squid, The Cabal & The Old Man (2015)
Andre Novoa (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Level 1 – 2
DELVE. DEEPER. MUST. REVIEW. LAMENTATIONS. MEDICINE. NOT. WORKING. VACATION. CANADA. TARNOWSKI. REVENGE. VALLEY. OF. THE. JEDI. THREE-AND-TWENTY-SEVEN. WHAT. GARY. WOULD. HAVE. WANTED. TRUMP PRESIDENCY. GLASNOST. NOW. THERE. YOU. GO. AGAIN.
The Squid, the Cabal and The Old Man is one of the newer generation of adventures for Lotfp by confirmed history nerd Andre Novoa and with it Lotfp can now take its rightful place on the Throne of Most-historical-evar land. It is an investigative adventure Ah-la Call of Cthulhu with secret underground temple complex not unlike a dungeon thrown in grudgingly near the end. Also, as should be par for the course by now, people are going to die in this adventure, which is ostensibly for 3-5 characters of levels 1-2.
[I have been asked to indicate where spoilers begin. Spoilers begin right now]
The premise is bitchin! It is the year 1684 and the characters are charted by one-time colleague and now bitter rival of Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, to steal his theory of gravitational mechanics so he may claim it for himself. Complicating this ostensibly simple job of burglary is Newton’s paranoid conviction that he is being pursued by a secretive Cabal intent upon his destruction and the evil Space squid cult led by his supporter Edmond Halley that wants to harvest Newton’s brain for their otherworldly squid masters. Nice.
Beyond a lengthy introduction that I will not begrudge anyone writing their first adventure, we dive in fairly quickly, pausing only for half a page of optional rules for currency. While I appreciate the verisimilitude, the rules are sure to add complications especially since there is no clean conversion table between silver pieces and Pounds, though they may be inferred from the sample prizes of goods listed and fortunately for everyone all the treasure in the game is in sp.
Alright, let’s get down to the actual structure of the adventure, which is adequate but might be a bit too loosely structured for some. First we get a very short overview of the major cities and towns in the adventure. A lot of the information is interesting from a historical perspective but does not immediately generate gameplay. Window dressing is what we call this. Regardless, things like population figures and the fact that PCs will not be noticed in Newton’s home village because the inn often sees travelling merchants on the road between Peterborough and Nottingham help ground the adventure somewhat.
Then each of the three NPCs is described in terms of goals, background, and minor personality quirks. The stats, importantly, are included, but almost as an afterthought, which makes sense considering this is an investigative adventure. The Cult of the Squid is also covered, a clear homage to H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Cult, obsessed with gathering knowledge and responsible for the sacking of the libraries of Alexandria and Ctesiphon etc. Its weirdest (of course there is Weird in this adventure) trait is its collection of the brains of famous sages throughout history.
The adventure gives you some notes on how the adventure is to be run but it is essentially left up to the GM how events unfold. Besides the three NPCs we get several locations (the respective houses of the characters and the observatory and its hidden temple of the Squid Cult) and events are left to the GM and the players (a random table is provided for those short of inspiration). A point of annoyance: the maps of the houses are barely given keys but instead many of the objects and rooms are drawn in the maps themselves. Nice format, but unfortunately it looks like it has been done with black crayons and I cannot for the life of me figure out where, for example, the living room is located in less then a minute, very annoying for actual play. It’s an investigative adventure so the exact location of the rooms is very likely to be trivial but I must gripe nevertheless.
The way the plot thickens is that each house (almost all the houses have at least one guard and several servants btw, so burglary is not necessarily easy, but maybe a ruse can be successful) has some correspondence laying about to give you insight into the motives of the characters and clues to a plot on Newton’s life (there is a plot, just not the plot Newton suspects there is). This is where the adventure starts to shine. Clues tend to be subtle and can only be found by thorough investigation. Newton’s work (the object to be stolen), is located in a secret but abandoned masonic temple underneath his house (along with some other texts on Alchemy). Anyone stealing from Newton’s home has a chance that the burglary will be detected and a bounty hunter set upon their trail.
The masonic temple proper is…interesting. It’s very much a realistic sort of temple, albeit it with some odd traps here and there. No hordes of monsters. An amnesiac sleeping gas trap and the odd trap door. Because of Newton’s work on optics, only a certain diamond will allow the place to be illuminated properly! It feels very…real, yet fantastic? To give an example of the sort of subtle design this adventure is going for, there is a bizarre sculpture of an eye that gives anyone that spends at least 3 minutes staring at it a point of wisdom!
The real kicker is of course the Temple of the Squid Cult underneath the Royal Greenwitch Observatory. Again, investigation of the residence is necessary to uncover vital clues in order to gain access to the temple proper (the secret entrance is located under a telescope, and only by aiming it at the Star Lyra, which is circled on a star map in Halley’s Study).
Do you ever read a mystery adventure and feel it is all a bit too obvious and therefore boring as shit? This adventure might be one of the few that I think actually qualifies as a proper scavenger hunt/hardy boys mystery. Nice job.
The temple proper! The temple proper is laid out semi-linearly (think a tree with two branches), but has some stuff to fiddle with and, more importantly, its atmospheric! A room with floating stone orbs with cilia with walls covered in mathematical equations, painted in human blood! Ominous murals and squid-like sculptures! Blasphemous artifacts that spell death to any hand that touches them! A few leftover Squid cultists that can summon Cthulu-esque monstrosities. Mummies with their arms replaced with squid parts. A great pool with a captive Kraken! A puzzle room inspired by the movie the Cube (with a solution that must again be found in the Halley residence)! The piece-e-la-resistance is a room filled with the persevered brains of history’s greatest thinkers, as well as a treasury containing works lost for untold ages.
The temple is only 15 rooms but what rooms they are. All killer no filler. My only concern is that the way the adventure has been written, the temple is very likely to kill off everyone. The library is guarded by 5 6 HD Squid-armed mummies that move at 120 feet and have 3 attacks per round. You are fucking dead. There is no way in hell a level 1-2 party can fight that without warning. Maybe that is the idea. Escape back through the Cube maze. Run. Iä motherfucker! In addition, there are two artifacts that can kill your players just by fiddling with them. I get the vibe the adventure is going for, but my guess is that the chance of reaching the end of the temple is almost zero.
Pros: A proper historical mystery, sure to delight players that are actually into figuring out shit like that. As is almost par for the course with Lotfp adventures, the unique monsters are nice. Atmosphere is neat. Historical details and verisimilitude will no doubt delight fucking nerds.
Cons: Lack of structure might not appeal to everyone and means the GM needs to be competent enough to steer the adventure in the right direction (not super hard). End dungeon is virtually impossible to complete for the recommended levels, going beyond Raggi levels of lethal. Shit maps.
Bottom line: The Breath of fresh air continues with this foray into CoC-land. The mystery proper is well done, and if your players are smart enough and interested in this sort of thing I suspect they will have fun with this. The temple proper does a good job of building up atmosphere but the ending is too deadly but maybe that was the author’s intent ah la Call of Cthulhu (I don’t think so since he talks about the true treasure being knowledge in his foreword). Good but for a specific audience but not without its problems though. 7 out of 10. You done good kiddo.