Mythos Horror in the 1950s
Critique of Cthulhu: The Return of Old Reliable
Scenario by Oscar Rios
I’ve always loved ‘50s B movies. Despite them being well before my time, I find something nostalgic and comforting about watching them. A few weeks back I thought about channeling this love into a Call of Cthulhu scenario in homage of the genre, but so that I wasn’t covering already trodden ground, decided to check for extant examples. The two Blood Brothers books were my first go-to, as their whole premise is an homage to film genres. Surprisingly, there were none, but then I remembered Atomic-Age Cthulhu, a book with seven 1950s era scenarios. I was in luck. There was one scenario amongst the seven, named “The Return of Old Reliable”, that was indeed riffing on ‘50s B-movies, so I excitedly dove in. Unfortunately, I only made it halfway through before realizing how hard it would be to actually run. Waiting a few days, I decided to give it another go, just in case I was in the wrong mindset at the time (which can happen), as well as doing a full read-through with the hope that the second half might be significantly better. Sadly, neither of these cases turned out to be true. Still not wanting to give up, my love of the genre driving me on, I’ve decided to do a deep-dive, and see if I could salvage the scenario, sharing my thoughts along the way in this Keeper-oriented review. Needless to say, there will be spoilers.
The scenario begins with a rocket launch that sends a monkey into space, but something goes wrong, and the rocket crashes into the ocean. Something I discovered while writing this review, which the scenario doesn’t point out, is that the rocket launch, and “Old Reliable”, the monkey, were real. The rocket did crash into the ocean after a malfunction and was never recovered. The scenario expands upon the story by implying that there was more to it, which is a great premise, but it would have been nice if this was mentioned as Keeper information so they could utilize the verisimilitude. For instance, there may be real-world newspaper articles the Keeper could track down and include in their game, but without the knowledge that the story is factual, there’s no reason they would even think to seek them out. Monkeys as rocket test subjects are so engrained in pop culture that it’s only fair to assume this scenario is playing on the trope, rather than expanding on a historical event.
While on the subject of verisimilitude, I feel I need to point out that the road the scenario opens on, SR 528 in Florida, USA, did not exist in 1958 when the scenario is set. That road was not opened until nine years later. SR 520 runs nearby and did exist at the time, so it could easily be used instead. Aside from the road, the scenario also has a few other cartographic quirks. One of the key locations, a naval base, is said to be “just north” of Cape Canaveral, which would place it roughly where the Kennedy Space Center sits now, on Merritt Island. However, this is never actually stated, and from the descriptions, it sounds like it could even be set on the mainland. For instance, the entrance to Morrison, the naval base’s adjacent town, is 3 miles west of the starting diner, yet the section of Merritt Island where SR 528 crosses it, is only 3 miles in total, so either each is on the very edges of the island, or the town is on the mainland. The reason I feel it’s intended to be set where the Kennedy Space Center is, is that Gordo, the scenario’s villain, is said to have killed everyone within a 5-mile radius, which means that Cape Canaveral and the towns on the mainland would be just out of reach if it were. A simple fix for this would be to say that the entrance to Morrison is 3 miles north, rather than west. It’s all a bit confusing, and could probably have benefited from a location map.
As far as the additional backstory goes, it’s quite good. With monkeys already being used to test the effects of space travel for human safety, this scenario takes it a step further. Scientists inject the blood of byakhee to further increase their odds of survival, with the idea being that byakhee can naturally survive the cold vacuum of space, so that trait should carry over. That’s not how blood works, but it’s a great mad scientist idea regardless. On top of this, the rocket is also hit by a burst of cosmic rays, not dissimilar to the fate of the Fantastic Four. I can only assume this is an intentional reference, as “Marvel’s First Family” made their debut a mere three years after this scenario is set.
The scenario opens in a stereotypical ‘50s diner, setting the scene perfectly. It even suggests two songs that could be playing on the radio, which is a nice touch should the Keeper want to play them to set the mood. There are three suggested investigator hooks, two of which are journalists, and the third simply being passersby. These are all fine, and make sense in the context of the setup. There is a list of named NPCs present in the diner, which seems superfluous as they all die immediately, so the investigators will never learn their names. There is also a map of the diner, which again seems wasted considering the amount of time the players will spend there. I feel the space would have been better utilised by a location map, or even a map of Morrison.
The scenario has a brief lead-in where the investigators can order food, and the waitress flirts with them, but as soon as they’ve eaten, things quickly take a turn for the worse as every person in the diner, bar one, becomes sick from poisoning and quickly dies. The unaffected person, a scientist named Anna Jung, is the one who poisoned them all, having laced “every cup, dish, and item of silverware”. This entire scene left me with so many questions, none of which were answered in the scenario. First of all, how did Jung gain access to all the crockery and utensils? Did she break in the night before? It says the family of tourists is having lunch, so did the diner not open for breakfast? If the poison works by ingestion, why did the fry cook and waitress die? Were they eating on the job? What about the teenage pump attendant who is said to be sipping a bottle of Coke? Why did he get sick? If the poison works by contact, then why did everyone get sick at the exact same time? Surely the cook and waitress would have touched things before serving. The serum used to poison everyone is actually intended to inoculate them against Gordo’s psychic powers, so Jung administers a subsequent injection which stabilises the investigators. Unfortunately, the injection doesn’t work on anyone else. The whole scene feels contrived, which strips it of any real shock value. My suggestion for removing all of these questions would be to have Jung pump the poison into the room as a gas via the air vents. I would also have her injection work on at least one of the others to remove any sense of contrivance. There are six NPCs, so perhaps a simple 1D6 roll to determine who it might be. This would also allow for some roleplaying opportunities before the police arrive.
Something else I need to mention is that any investigator who didn’t eat or drink will not be poisoned, but as this means they are then not inoculated, Jung will offer them a pill to remedy that. It could just be me, but from a role-playing perspective, if a stranger had just admitted to poisoning everyone in the room, and then offered me a pill, I certainly wouldn’t be taking it. On a meta-gaming level, the player would probably infer that they are meant to, but the scenario shouldn’t expect this of them. With this inoculation being a key factor to the story, it, too, could be resolved by my suggestion of the gas being pumped in; removing the need for assumed behaviour.
Moments after the poisoning, the police arrive. They shoot Jung without killing her and take her away. Three officers stay behind and question the investigators before telling them to leave. If they refuse, they are attacked, and this is where the scenario’s biggest weakness lies. As with most Call of Cthulhu scenarios, combat should be avoided if possible. However, unlike a shoggoth barrelling down a tunnel, there is no outwardly visible indication here that these officers are monsters, and yet they are. The scenario even assumes they will be fought, with sentences such as, “Investigators who’ve already dispatched these drones can proceed to Morrison unopposed.” The police here are zombie drones and take only 1 point of damage from bullets, and half damage from melee. Even if the investigators are armed (which is unlikely based on the suggested hooks), fighting these officers would be a TPK. To give some numbers, a group of three investigators with a reasonable 50% Firearms skill, would require 20 rounds to kill them. Meanwhile, an officer’s nightstick, which is their weakest weapon, average 6 points of damage, so with their 50% skill could take out those same three investigators in only 4 rounds. TPKs are fine for the end of scenarios, but this would be maybe 30 minutes in. The only indication that the police are inhuman is their black eyes, which they hide behind sunglasses. My advice to Keepers playing this scenario would be to have one of their glasses slip down while interviewing the investigators, without the need for any Spot Hidden rolls. It’s not much of a warning to dissuade combat, but it’s better than nothing.
With Jung imploring the investigators to save the world as she’s being dragged into a military jeep, they will then have to head to the naval base via the town of Morrison to do just that. The scenario has a slight error here that Keepers should be aware of. The jeep carrying Jung is said to drive away to the east, yet the entrance to Morrison and the base is said to be to the west, so the Keeper would need to make sure they change one of them to not confuse the players.
The police from the diner will now have set up a road-block at the off-ramp to Morrison. As I write this, it’s just occurred to me that if the investigators left as soon as the police told them to, they would then be ahead of them, and able to enter the town unchallenged. The scenario doesn’t cover this consideration, despite setting it up. This would actually prove to be advantageous due to the difficulties I mentioned above in defeating the police. If the police are there, the investigators would hopefully decide to find a way around them rather than fighting them. The Keeper will need to improvise such a plan, however, due to this specific location not being detailed, having no map, and not even a description of the landscape. Having never been to Cape Canaveral myself, I would presume the area is either salt-flats, swamp, or maybe even just sand. This is obviously not a game-breaking omission, but would still have been a helpful inclusion.
Skipping the fight with the police at the road-block sadly means the investigators would miss out on claiming Jung’s notes and photographs as they are locked in the trunk of the police car. The photos visually explain the backstory of the scenario, and unless the Keeper chose the whistleblower investigator hook, they are the only handouts in the game. If running this scenario, I would be inclined to have them travel in the jeep with Jung, instead of the police car, so that they may be found later at the animal testing facility. Among Jung’s belongings is also a rifle and ammunition, though the Keeper could easily allow the investigators to find weapons in Morrison.
The investigators arrive at Morrison, a small town built for the naval base personnel. Everyone here is dead. The investigators can scavenge the town (with heavy penalties) for whatever they need, but as they have no idea what they’ll be facing, it will likely be little more than a weapons run. There are two groups of police here—one patrolling and the other cleaning up—so just like those earlier, they’re best avoided. I would advise Keepers to skip Stealth or Luck rolls to determine if investigators are spotted, and simply role-play the scene. This is likely the first time they will get their hands on a weapon, so hopefully, they don’t take that as a cue to start an offensive. It’s still too early in the game for a TPK.
Once past the patrols, the investigators are shadowed by four floating, disembodied brains with prehensile spinal-cord “tails”. These are hands-down the best part of the scenario. Though they have 5-point armour (in the form of a telekinetic shield!), they also only have 5 hit-points, so should be easy enough to dispatch as long as the investigators have acquired guns by this point. Ironically, despite being much less of a threat than the drones, the scenario calls them “Elite minions of Gordo”.
From the town, a two-mile road leads the investigators to the naval base, which is surrounded by a high electric fence, and a gate guarded by four drones. If the investigators are foolish enough to take them on, they are soon reinforced by three flying brains and a cyborg assault pod, which is yet another nigh-unkillable enemy, having 6-point armor, 50 hit-points, and a weapon that does 2D6+shock damage. As an aside, “shock” here has an asterisk, yet no subsequent reference. I looked in the 6e rulebook (which would have been the current version at the time), and the closest I could find to an explanation was in the Fire Vampire entry, where damage from “heat-shock” can be halved with a successful CON roll. This makes sense for the assault pod’s weapon but definitely should have an explanation in this book.
With the entrance being so well guarded, the investigators are presumably meant to dig under the fence. However, the chance of them having a shovel on them would be pretty slim, so they will likely need to return to Morrison and hope they can pass their Luck rolls to find one. I would personally be inclined to throw them a bone here, and have an old abandoned lean-to nearby that just so happens to have a rusted shovel resting up against it. There is already enough in this scenario piled against them to have their progression stymied by bad Luck rolls. The way the scenario is written, with lines such as “Investigators defeating the gate guards and the cyborg assault pod can begin exploring Kessock Station”, it sounds like they’re expected to fight their way in, which is simply mind-blowing to me.
However they get in, the investigators will find only three of the buildings occupied. One is being used for the construction of the assault pods by the floating brains, which would honestly be a cool scene to stumble upon. There are, however, six brains here, so it would be a more difficult fight than earlier. It also contains the wreckage of the rocket, which will be needed soon enough.
The next building is the animal testing lab. The scenario says that investigators inoculated with Jung’s serum will feel pressure behind their eyes when approaching, yet makes no mention of what would happen if they weren’t. Would an uninoculated investigator have even made it this far? Would they have simply been killed by Gordo upon approaching Morrison? As mentioned above, the inoculation process is an assumed behaviour, and the scenario doesn’t offer any options for those who refused Jung’s pill at the start.
Inside the lab, the investigators find Jung being held captive, with Gordo hovering nearby. This is another great scene, as Gordo is now a four-foot glowing brain with his monkey body hanging limply below. It’s quite a horrific visual and has a suitably horrific image accompanying it that the Keeper could show to the players. It’s a shame it’s not in colour.
The scenario once again assumes all the investigators are immune to Gordo’s psychic powers, as he merely manages to cripple them with paralysis while giving his villainous monologue. Gordo then escapes through the roof and the monkey body drops lifelessly to the floor, which is again, horrifically cinematic. The investigators are then able to free Jung, though she is quite traumatised, both physically and mentally.
The climax of the scenario revolves around finding another scientist, Dr. Myers, trapped in a blast bunker. The bunker is under siege by an assault pod, which the scenario once again assumes the investigators will defeat, after which Myers comes out of hiding to greet them. It even says, “Once the investigators manage to destroy the cyborg assault pod.” Other than the desire to kill everything in sight, or perhaps the curiosity to figure out why a robot is shooting a building, there are no actual hooks provided to lead the investigators to him. The only option a Keeper has is for Jung to mention Myers after being rescued, though this is not specified in the scenario, and as written, Jung is said to simply resign herself to defeat, so would likely have no reason to do that. The assault pod does need to leave periodically to reload its ammunition, so the investigators thankfully don’t need to fight it.
Once Myers is met, he lays out the entire plan for defeating Gordo, which is easily the scenario’s biggest flaw—the investigators are just along for the ride from here on out, following a recipe provided by an NPC. The plan involves crafting the cosmic-ray-irradiated rocket wreckage into bazooka rockets. The one part that made me laugh was him saying, “one or two hits should be enough to bring that monster down.” It’s a floating, glowing, disembodied brain the size of a blimp, how can he possibly have any idea what effect rockets would have on it? The all-knowing specialist is a trope of the genre, however, so works for the scenario, but I still found it humorous.
Fortunately for the team, there is an un-cannibalized helicopter in one of the hangars, and Myers is also ex-military, so has 30% in Pilot (helicopter). It is unlikely that any of the investigators will have any points in the skill, which means Myers will be their designated driver by default.
The next step in Myers’ plan is to modify the rockets, of which the scenario says there are only six. The modification requires a Mechanical Repair roll, which failing will later mean the rocket misses its mark, though the Keeper is told not to mention this to the players. Luckily, the scientist has Mechanical Repair 90%, so at least some of the rockets should work. Presumably, the Keeper would have to roll on the players’ behalf, else they would be wondering why a failed roll had no consequence. Base Mechanical Repair is only 10%, so unless the investigators have points added to it, there’s no point even trying, which means that the NPC will once again be doing all the work.
Based on Gordo’s speed, the investigators can calculate that he’ll reach Orlando in 4 hours, which means they have 2.5 hours to catch up to him before he does. With the helicopter taking an hour to prep, and each rocket taking an hour to modify, there is some time pressure here, which should help to amp up the tension. Realistically, however, the loss of one city is probably not worth the chance of botching the rockets, so the investigators are probably better off just letting Myers spend the 6 hours to complete all the rockets himself.
Catching up to Gordo, the investigators get off one free shot before he reacts. There are only two bazookas, so any extra players will have little to do in this final battle, save for perhaps loading the rockets, so they will literally just be along for the ride.
After this initial attack, Gordo retaliates by firing lighting at the helicopter. This has a 30% chance of doing 1D12 damage to anyone on-board, which means that some investigators will likely die here. With this being the climax, that’s not a huge deal, and those that aren’t holding bazookas won’t be doing anything anyway, so they probably won’t care. The bigger issue here is that the pilot must then make a Pilot (helicopter) roll else the helicopter drops from the sky, most likely killing everyone on-board. While this is certainly dramatic, I feel it’s also a fairly unsatisfactory way to end a game, and with Myers’ 30% skill, there’s a good chance this is how it will play out.
As Myers so presciently predicted, it should only take two hits to take down Gordo. An unskilled investigator with the 40% attack chance the scenario states has a decent 77% chance of at least two of the six rockets striking. Unfortunately, this is much less in 7e conversion—the Heavy Weapons skill only has a base of 10%, plus the Bonus Die for the target having 4+ Build, results in only 19%, so the chance of at least two rockets hitting here is only 32%. Once the potentially faulty rockets are added into the mix, these numbers drop considerably. For instance, if only half the rockets are viable, then the chance of success becomes 35%…or a mere 9% with 7e! For this reason, my advice to any Keepers playing this using 7e rules would be to skip the Mechanical Repair rolls altogether, leaving the investigators with just as much chance of Gordo destroying the world as they have of dying from a helicopter crash.
In conclusion, this scenario contains a lot of fun ideas and set-pieces but leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and due to some particularly impervious enemies, could very easily end in TPKs, especially in the opening-to-mid scenes. It also loses a lot of player agency in the final scenes, with an NPC providing not only the solution to the scenario but also doing much of the leg-work unless the investigators happen to have two very specific skills which the scenario’s suggested investigators are unlikely to have. This could be remedied with some highly-tailored pre-gens, though that would not solve the other issues, and may come across as contrived, so would not be a complete fix. Hopefully, my notes will help any potential Keepers looking to run this scenario, so they don’t simply pass on it like I almost did.
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