Entry 34: Curse of the Yellow Sign, Acts One to Three (Part one of the Hastur Mashup)

This entry and the next, if not at least one more, are going to be breakdowns on Hastur themed releases. I am starting with this trilogy by John Wick because of its unusual approach to gaming.

Hastur is one of the entities who is more likely to be interested and involved directly in human affairs overall, instead of the tendency to malign indifference that most of the greater powers are inclined to show. Along with Nyarlathotep and Y’golonac, these three tend to see humans as playthings as well as potential resources, and have active interest in humanity for its own sake. The backstory of Hastur, the King in Yellow, the play by that name, and all the attendant elements of the play form a backdrop that has caught the interest of many over the years. This set of scenarios by Mr. Wick, along with the Ripples from Carcosa scenario compilation, and the Tatters of the King mini-campaign all form a backdrop of Hastur, specifically through the King in Yellow avatar and the play. I have already reviewed the two appearances of “Tell me Have you Seen the Yellow Sign” and the scenario “Asylum-Return of the Yellow Sign” (Great old Ones compilation for “Tell me” first appearance, and Tales of the Crescent City for the second appearance and “Asylum”), and they definitely fall under this canopy. There are other scenarios involving Hastur, but most of the commercially available ones don’t quite deal with the same aspects as these. On to the Curse series….

These scenarios are presented as though separate stories in a collection of short stories (a comparison that Wick specifically makes), with relatively unconnected storylines, no interactive continuity and separate casts for each story. They are presented as one shots that link by the themes of the Yellow Sign, and Hastur’s indirect influence.

Wick’s approach in these scenarios is very different from most scenarios you will encounter, and warrants examination. These adventures are not challenges to beat, but rather catastrophes to survive. Ultimately, as the scenarios are built, the main interactions are between the player characters as they confront the madness brought on them, and turn on each other in an attempt to endure and escape their situation if possible. The stories are very much sandbox adventures where a minimal setup is presented, the characters placed in the situation and things turns loose. They are also fairly rules light, the scenarios do have antagonists, but not really a monster to fight per se. There are suggestions for staging, including sound files for background soundtracks for each act that are available at his web page. http://johnwickpresents.com/yellow/ Before I go into each act, I will go into an overview of sorts.

First, while the looks of the scenarios are unique and attractive, there are a few flaws in editing, notably in one character sheet’s descriptions to the player, tense changes from second to third indiscriminately, sometimes even in mid sentence, and in the third act, part of the set up contradicts information in a preceding paragraph (a paragraph in the same column on the same page). These are minor issues, and you can pick which interpretation works better for you, but they do make for a jarring read. Another flaw lies in the soundtrack to the first act, which, ironically, is also the soundtrack I like best of the three. It is a soft ambient soundtrack, with the sounds of a jungle, birds and wildlife, trees moving in a light breeze, rain, intermittent barking of dogs (there is a rationale in the scenario for dogs to be present), intermittently broken by the cry of some monstrous creature that does not belong in any earthly jungle. While I like the soundtrack, the scenario has no ‘monster’ per se, so even though I like the sound, it is out of place. The track for Act Two is an odd atonal instrumental track, and while good, is not overwhelmingly special. I tend to think better of ambient sounds than music tracks, even this atonal one. The track for Act Three is a mix of ambient sounds and hints of an instrumental soundtrack through digitally created sounds that could be interpreted at least in part as additional sound effects, and is to me a mixed success. (though this is a matter of personal taste, and sounds are always a minimal issue in my gaming, since I have issues with my hearing)

These three scenarios require players who are willing to ride this roller coaster through, the pcs are all flawed characters to start with, in dangerous situations, and pretty much destined for some degree of madness, with them becoming each other’s…and their own…antagonists. Survival is the goal, but by no means guaranteed. I will say that it is a bit hard to be sure that there are enough triggers for the madness required by the intended game flow. A more traditional minded Keeper may need to add some of their own twists for this, but this is something I highly encourage anyway. But again, the scenarios of Curse of the Yellow Sign are not threats to be beaten, they are to be endured…if possible.

The scenarios deal heavily with the nihilistic philophies that are undercurrents in the Call of Cthulhu game and in Lovecraftian fiction. There is no obligation in any way for players or Keeper to fully subscribe to these philosophies in their own lives to be able to enjoy the scenarios, but awareness of them is very helpful.

Act One: Digging for a Dead God

This scenario is set in 1939, in African jungles (exact location unspecified), the players are soldiers in the army of Nazi Germany, trying to exploit a known but abandoned diamond mine while exploiting local labor in typical Nazi fashion, while at the same time trying to keep a low enough profile to agitate a nearby British outpost. The mine does, however, have hidden depths, as do the player characters themselves, and their mission is far more complicated than most of them can realize, with repercussions none of them can anticipate.

Greed, paranoia, and fear are all parts of these characters lives before they enter the depths of the mine and begin to confront the deeper horrors. They will be coaxed into greater manifestations of their own flaws, and pitted against each other as the story plays out.

For a one shot, this is a wonderful scenario, though I admit I would probably find a way to work a few more mundane threats into the story (including at least one that will likely make that soundtrack file make a bit more sense). This is not a casual scenario, this is not campaign play per se, survival is far from guaranteed. In fact, played well, I think a scenario can be counted as a victory if only one character makes it out of the jungles alive (not necessarily intact). Interpreting that as a victory for the world at large is open for interpretation.

Act Two: Calling the King

This play involves an abandoned hotel in Colorado, moviemakers, the infamous play, and a descent into personal madness inside and outside the play. Almost everyone reading this will immediately catch the thematic backdrop that inspires this scenario’s setting, if nothing else. Jackson and King are well-homaged in this backdrop where a man tries to use the play “the King in Yellow” to affect a desperately needed intervention for a nearly lost love. The instigator of this intervention does not have a clue of the dangers the play actually represents, and the danger he has placed his love, his friends, and himself in.

Old wounds and potential new wounds become key elements in the player characters being drawn into the menace presented here. With their ability to perceive reality warping around them, their own fears and hatreds become their anchor, which leads to a conflict they’ll be hard pressed to survive. A great role playing challenge, and the right Keeper riding herd on the players, this can lead to a great one shot, with a tpk very likely.

One other minor ‘quibble’, there was an announcement in the scenario of different versions of the text for act one of the play to be available on the web site. They were not present, unsure if they had been but were lost over time, but I’ve not been able to find them. The scenario itself has a partial excerpt of the beginning of the play. For any keeper needing more, I can only suggest tracking down a copy of James Blish’s “More Light”, which has a good bit of the text of the play and does present it in an eerie style. This sotry can be found in Chaosium’s “the Hastur Cycle”

Act Three: Archimedes 7

For the third act of Wick’s collection, we enter the deeps of space, as player characters are awakened from cryogenic sleep to discover that in the interstellar space, something Other (guess who) has influenced the ship’s AI and turned it into a homicidal stalker, who wakes up the players as its latest toys in a ghastly version of cat and mouse.

This one is to me a very evocative scenario because ultimately issues of identity are at stake to the point where as the characters’ sanity slips, they learn that their stable personalities are a lie, and the truth of who they were before they ‘became’ the people who woke up is almost as disturbing as their computer software foe. Part of the beauty of this is that as the players roleplay, they begin knowing one thing and slowly learn the other, so the revelations are new to them as they unfold…but depending on their interactions, they may learn a lot of disturbing things from each other before they learn their own truths.

Again, a Keeper may have to tweak this one a bit (I will be going into the tweaks on this scenario when I talk about Ripples from Carcosa, for reasons that will be clearer then, and are apparent already to any who have read both already).

The best resolution for this one is an ambiguous ending with limited hope for half of the players, most likely.

Side note: This scenario has a suggestion for staging that I won’t detail here, but is a little bit metagaming, but is also one of the most effective ways to induce a real scare in a gaming environment I’ve ever heard of.

Epilogue to this entry

So, like a collection of short stories, three different events united thematically, but very different. Each has promise, and how they play out can vary considerably. A Keeper may want to tweak things a bit, they are structured very freeform, and may not be to everyone’s taste, and the ‘survive but don’t beat/win’ approach may be a tough one for Keepers to adapt to, but for one shots, particularly with this set, it is a sweet change of pace. The next review will be about Ripples from Carcosa and go into the overall feeling from these two compilations and an idea or two that I have regarding them, for the right group that can handle a good string of one shots.

These scenarios are available at john’s own page, url above, and at drivethrurpg.com

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