No Man’s Land: WWI Mythos Action with the Lost Battalion
“It is again impressed upon every officer and man of this command that ground once captured must under no circumstances be given up in the absence of direct, positive, and formal orders to do so emanating from these headquarters. Troops occupying ground must be supported against counterattack and all gains held. It is a favorite trick of the Bosch to spread confusion…by calling out “retire” or “fall back.” If, in action, any such command is heard officers and men may be sure that it is given by the enemy. Whoever gives such a command is a traitor and it is the duty of any officer or man who is loyal to his country and who hears such an order given to shoot the offender upon the spot. WE ARE NOT GOING BACK BUT FORWARD!” — Major General Johnson Hagood
Trapped behind enemy lines and completely surrounded, players take on the role of infantrymen from the famed “Lost Battalion” during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of The Great War. The players’ infantrymen are tasked with a mission that sends them into no man’s land while the rest of the battalion holds on for dear life as German artillery pockets the landscape. No Man’s Land was originally developed as part of the Cthulhu Masters‘ Tournament for GenCon 1993. Its original title was “Screams in No Man’s Land” and was later adapted and published by Chaosium in 1998. No Man’s Land uses the 5th edition rules (5.5) and is the only published scenario to take place on the battlefields of The Great War. The scenario is separated into two parts, two convention sessions, and comes with six detailed pre-generated characters.
The book opens with a set of guidelines for using No Man’s Land as a tournament scenario, a one-shot, or a campaign opener. The additional material that follows covers running the scenario, creating an atmosphere with lighting, sound effects, costumes, and props. Players wishing to create their own soldier can use the “Generating Soldier Characters” section. Options are given for creating standard soldiers or officers. To enhance gameplay and inform the Keeper and players, towards the back the author, Sam Johnson, has two information sections. The first section is on the history of the Lost Battalion, while the second section, “A Soldier’s Lot“, deals with life on the Western Front. In that section, additional rules pertinent to encumbrance, medicine, sickness, hygiene, personal armor, World War I weapons, sanity loss, madness, temporary and indefinite conditions, and regaining sanity are outlined for enhancing gameplay or using The Great War as a setting for a keeper’s homemade campaign.
As a student of history, Modoc really appreciated the “A soldier’s Lot” chapter as he believes it does a fine job at conveying what life was like for soldiers. All the while places into context with the Call of Cthulhu rules. It’s a good primer for someone with little knowledge of soldiering or WWI.
No Man’s Land begins eight-day into the last large offensive of The Great War on Oct 2, 1918, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The offensive started on September 26 and continued until the end of the war on November 11, 1918. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the largest offensive in US military history and the bloodiest battle of the war. In No Man’s Land player character are part of the United States 1st Battalion, 308th Regiment (1-308th), 77th infantry division commanded by Major Charles Whittlesey, famously known as the “Lost Battalion”. While pressing through the Argonne forest on their way to capture Charlevaux Mill, the French army to their left and the 307th Infantry Regiment on their right, met with strong resistance and their movement forward was stalled. Unknown to the 1-308th, they pressed forward and became encircled by the German army. They took refuge in a ravine known as the “Pocket” for the next six days. They suffered from a constant barrage of mortars, German assaults, and a shortage of ammunition, food, water, and other essential supplies. Of the roughly 554 men that found themselves encircled in the “pocket”, approximately 197 were killed in action and 150 missing or taken prisoner before the remaining 194 men could be rescued.
You can learn more about the battle at the United States World War One Centennial Commission website.
I’ve played in this scenario once and have run it six times. The last time being two days and 100 years after the starting event that is outlined in the scenario. In the many times running No Man’s Land, I’ve found this scenario to be a great introduction into Call of Cthulhu. This scenario has a lot of action to it which makes it a good transition for players with experience in sword and board games only. In each game, the players felt at home with the arsenal of weaponry at their disposal. It gave them a sense of security knowing that at some point something awful was going to be encountered. Though as any experienced Call of Cthulhu player knowns that sense of security is really false. It didn’t take long, a couple deaths here and there for the players to learn that. Make no mistake, No Man’s Land is a deadly scenario. There are a lot of encounters in which a player character can end up dead; war is dangerous. I think the lethality of the scenario is higher than most due to its origins as a tournament scenario. A Keeper can always tone down the lethality if one wishes but usually, the player characters catch on quick that their boots are the most important piece of equipment they possess.
I found the underlining story to the scenario interesting but not great. No Man’s Land is a survival scenario with very little investigating. It’s also very linear in design. No matter how hard the player characters try to go their own way the scenario will always place them back on the trail. This is, of course, by design and indicative of its roots as a convention scenario. The underlying horrors used throughout the scenario are well placed, though I found the climax to be a little less than spectacular. But overall I think No Man Land is a great scenario as a one-shot, convention game or a beginning of a much longer campaign.
Modoc has played and read the full scenario but has not had a chance to run it himself. His opinion is slightly different than the one presented above. He had planned to run the first scenario as a stand-alone convention game at some point in the past. He argues that while the story is in fact, very linear and it will as mentioned above, redirect players back on course, it does allow a Keeper to really get the players into the feel of war. Part of what makes this scenario (either part or both) shine is that there is the option to really immerse the players into what a real hell is like.
When I ran No Man’s Land for my home group I used it as a launching point for a short campaign in which I pieced together a series of one-shots and ended it with a homemade scenario. I used Major Whittlesey, a true historical figure, as my tie into the group. A year or two after the war, I brought the player character’s together again to visit, now Lt. Colonel Whittlesey a resident of an isolated sanatorium off the coast of Maine. I used the scenario “The Sanatorium” from Mansion of Madness for the scenario. From there, we timed warped a few months to Thanksgiving day in New York City, the player characters place of residence, where the group gathered for a feast where Colonel Whittlesey made a quick appearance before heading to have dinner with his old friend Bayard Pryun and family. The group experienced the events outlined in the “Transgression” from Secrets of New York. Those who survived were shocked to read the following days headline from The New York Time; Lieut. Col. Charles W. Whittlesey, Lost Overboard from Steamship Toloa. The headline appeared on November 29, 1921, and is the true historical end to Charles Whittlesey’s life. Suffering from the trauma of The Great War added pressure and was a constant reminder of being the hero of the Lost Battalion; Charles Whittlesey is suspected of committing suicide by jumping over the side of the Steamship Toloa while en route to Cuba. He told no one of his plans but left behind several letters in his cabin for his closest friend and relatives. From here, I created my own scenario in which Bayard Pryun asked the players characters to investigate a strange package he received from Whittlesey after his disappearance that originated from Cuba. Perhaps someday I will revisit that scenario and publish it on the Miskatonic Repository.
~ Stephen Pennisi
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