Das Vedanya Comrade — Prisoners’ Dilemma [Call of Cthulhu]

Prisoners’ Dilemma

Author: Aaron Sinner and Todd Walden
Publisher: The Miskatonic Repository
Page Count: 55
Available Formats: PDF
PDF (DTRPG) – $5.99

In the unforgiving tundra and taiga of the Ural Mountains, a group of surveyors embarks on a dangerous journey to discover a  path through the mountain range. For two Soviet State Officers, it’s a chance for high honors. It’s backbreaking work, impossible tasks, daily abuse, and certain death for the reassigned gulag forced laborers attached to the expedition. Or is it an opportunity for freedom? Inspired by the true-life Dyatlov Pass Incident, Prisoners’ Dilemma is a test of survival.

Prisoners’ Dilemma takes place in 1929 Soviet Union, one year into Stalin’s Five Year Plan of industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture through penal labor. Player characters are reassigned gulag penal laborers forced to join an expedition surveying the Ural Mountains. They are the pack animals for the group and any other tasks their guards see fit. There’s little hope for survival, but at best, it’s a short reprieve from certain death in the gulag and a change in scenery.

If the player characters were hoping to be free of the oppressive work detail they faced at their gulags—they are dead wrong. Their two guards, Captain Boris Kandinsky and Lieutenant Sergei Usenko of the Soviet State show them little respect. They treat the player characters more as tools and less as human beings. Accompanying the group on the expedition is Pavel Aslanov, a local guide.

The scenario starts with the party assembling at the base of Kholat Syakhl (Death Mountain), part of the Ural Mountain range. The prisoners (player characters) are introduced to their guards, guide, and given the incentive of freedom upon completing a successful expedition to map a path through the mountain range. With their sleds packed high and slowly sinking into the snow, the expedition begins. Even before they start, trouble is brewing. A local nomadic tribe, known as the Mansi, who hunt and herd their livestock on the mountain, has not yet descended from their mountainous dwellings as they do annually. Despite this ominous warning, the group presses on.

The scenario breaks the expedition’s journey into various legs with harrowing challenges throughout. A convenient timeline of events affords a quick reference for Keepers. As the group gets farther into their journey, the tension increases until it reaches its final climax. Player characters may experience troubling horrors: self-harm, kidnapping, restraint, physical abuse, and abuse of power. The horrors experienced in this scenario mostly come from the guard’s actions making it all too real. Keepers should discuss these sensitive subjects before the scenario starts with their players and institute methods to interrupt play if lines are crossed. The scenario is designed for experienced Keepers who can balance horror while remaining empathic to their players. It’s intended for well-adjusted mature audiences.

Each travel leg has suggested events for the Keeper to use if they wish on top of the underlining linear story. It’s a nice addition for Keepers who need to lengthen or shorten the scenario to suit their needs. The events are not more than a paragraph and easy to use with the necessary skills listed for the task at hand. The whole scenario is arranged to support the Keeper. At important junctions in the story, the “Advice for the Keeper” section aids in keeping player characters on the correct path by summarizing key elements for the Keeper. Additionally, what-if Keeper advice assists when player characters gain the advantage and try and take control of their doomed fates; not that players will gain agency. They will have plenty of opportunities to turn the tables on their guards and take control of the expedition if they wish. The what-if advice allows the underlining story to continue even if it no longer fits the prescribed narrative.

The scenario is designed for 3-6 players, with four players being optimal. Six pre-generated characters are provided on Chaosium licensed character sheets, though they only use the front side. On the mostly blank backside is a brief character background description along with their crimes. I felt this part was aesthetically unappealing. The small block of text swimming in a sea of nothingness on the backs of the character sheet looked out of place. Thankfully that is the only visually unappealing aspect of the scenario. Prisoners’ Dilemma follows The Miskatonic Repository template, making reading through it a breeze. The artwork throughout is great. Top-notch line illustrations from artist Christopher Olson sets the mood.

When I began reading through the scenario, I was initially disturbed by the setting. Stalin’s Soviet Union is not a very nice period in history. Compound that with players taking on the personas of prisoners under the thumb of ruthless guards who care little of life. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I did. Though a warning is warranted, it has the makings for abuse of power by the keeper. I found the horror experienced in this scenario derives more from the personal inhumanities pressed upon the players than supernatural means. The scenario is terrifyingly violent, disturbing, and wrought with scenes of subjugation.

Though I find the setting problematic and that of the roles of the players, I can see a really good night of gaming within. Prisoners’ Dilemma is not for everyone. Pick your players carefully and have safety measures in place.  Watch your players carefully and back off at the first sign of trouble. A well-experienced Keeper can navigate the hazards of this scenario and create a night of horror that will keep your players awake at night. For those like myself who wish to not play in such a troubling setting, transporting the scenarios to a different location or time period should prove very easy. It could make a great scenario for Down Darker Trails with the expedition finding a path through the rocky mountains for the intercontinental railroad. Whatever you choose to do with it, take special care to make sure it’s a fun and exciting night of horror for your group that won’t leave them scarred for life.

~Stephen Pennisi

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Todd Walden says:

    Thank you for this great, in-depth review! I really appreciate you taking the time to read our work and to deliver such a thorough write-up.

    Liked by 1 person

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