I ran Vaudeville, a scenario for Call of Cthulhu by C. M. Arnold!
Here is its DriveThruRPG description:
"Little over a fortnight has passed since the untimely and sinister demise of Harry Houdini, and an investigator finds themselves the unexpected beneficiary of the escapologist's last will and testament. Initially, they have no recollection as to why Houdini would have bequeathed his New York apartment, but then it slowly dawns on them. Could the kindly Magician, Mr Weisz, who visited their orphanage all those years ago, be none other than Houdini himself?
Or will the mystery revolve around a young street rat chaperoned by a kindly Priest, tasking the investigators to find the young boy's sister who has run away to join a touring magician's stage show?
Either way there's a storm brewing in Vaudeville and a mystery to solve."
This scenario is the third part of a series by the same author called The American Empire series. However, it can also be played as a standalone scenario, which is what I have done! I have not read or played the rest of them, so this review is only focused on Vaudeville.
Vaudeville is simple but inspired, based on the historical figure of Harry Houdini and his dislike for ‘Spiritualism’ and those claiming to contact the dead. This premise automatically intrigued me! The PDF itself is formatted beautifully, with a lot of old photographs and decorative graphics. What I particularly like about the story is that there are two pathways (or connections) to the action, and you can choose between them based on the characters and time you have at your disposal.
I chose the Houdini connection with 4 players new to Call of Cthulhu, and the scenario took us approximately 3.5 hours. With more experienced players getting stuck into role-play, it could take longer. According to the book the other connection also takes longer.
Included with the title are:
4 Pre-generated Characters, with character portraits, that can also be used as NPCs
6 NPC portraits (mostly photos, some illustrations)
Text boxes with advice and information on how to connect this scenario to the others in the series
What Makes This Scenario Great:
The care put in the design and formatting of the scenario is notable. The background is an image of old paper, and it includes illustrations of magician posters and other images that make flicking through the scenario very enjoyable! I particularly liked the drawing of a rat next to paragraphs about the Street Rat connection, and a little magician for the Houdini connection. Very neat and easy to focus on the relevant material only.
I appreciated how the pre-gens have a strong reason to be involved, so strong that they can be used as NPCs if not picked by the players. The plot-hooks themselves in both pathways are hard to ignore for at least two of the characters, and lead you well through the story to the final showdown without moments of pause and uncertainty.
Reading through the scenario, the connections and links to the previous stories (including a soon-to-be-published fourth one!) are outlined regularly and clearly. I can’t attest to how easy it is to string them together, but I like the concept of this inter-linked mini campaign very much. This story itself serves well for a simple and fairly linear introductory scenario, but the magnitude added by the addition of several more episodes would likely add complexity and depth.
The group of pre-gens is diverse, including a Private Investigator who is (unusually) a woman, and a charitable Black man as a priest.
Without including spoilers, there is an inspired table for a randomised horrifying encounter that might take place for some of the investigators towards the end of the scenario, which also ties to their backgrounds. The Sanity loss from this encounter can be significant, which is great for a one-shot adventure, and relatively rare to see!
Suggestions for Improvement:
The scenario and handouts could benefit from a proofread - most notably the handout of the introductory letter for the Houdini connection refers to someone by the name of “Mr Graylings”, who I assumed to actually be the lawyer Mr Jenkins, one of the pre-gens.
Several handouts, while beautiful, didn’t seem to have a clear purpose in my game and after I took the time to print them I found myself regretting that decision. In particular there is a lovely Egyptian illustration without context on when the investigators see it or what it means. I also didn’t find much use for the map of the final showdown room, but that might be a personal preference, as I normally don’t use maps for Call of Cthulhu unless there is a full house to explore.
Another personal preference: I would have appreciated for the stat boxes for NPCs to be all collected at the end and standardised, as I like to print those pages off. That is how they are normally done in official Chaosium publications. There is one NPC stat box that can only be found in the middle of the text, and the final ones are mixed in with images and other information.
I felt that there were some information gaps while reading the scenario: there are no options or information given about accessing the location of the final showdown for example, even though there are descriptions of what the investigators will see if they go there early or late during the scenario.
Inclusivity-wise I would recommend avoiding the use of the word ‘exotic’ when describing cultures, as it is an othering and dehumanising word which has been used for propaganda in the past. In this particular occasion it was describing North African laundry lines. Instead of using that word, I would just offer the specific or approximate origin of the fabrics with a normal success rather than trying to hint at it by using ‘exotic’.
Phaedra’s Short Game Summary:
Investigators (all Pre-gens)
Ashley O’Neil, 26, the gangster with a temper
Sable Cruickshank, 44, the fierce and stylish PI
Dr Edwin Wolf, 59, the doctor with military experience
Lillian McIntyre, 43, the ever-prepared scientist
The investigators, following the Houdini connection, gathered at Ashley O’Neil’s newly inherited New York apartment and read the letter informing them of their mission: expose alleged spiritualist Baudelaire for staging the act involving contacting the audience’s dead relatives. After paying for front row tickets to the show, meeting Curtis - a man searching for his romantic interest who was hired as an assistant for Baudelaire’s act - the group bump into Delores Baudelaire, wife and assistant. Mr Jenkins succeeds in charming her and getting her to offer them three free tickets to tonight’s show. On her way out, she dropped a mysterious business card “Messenger Entertainment”. The group went to find this company, only to bump into a mysterious man claiming to be the manager of many magicians, including the Baudelaires, and to be the true reason behind their success. After failing to impress the man with a trick, they all find themselves suddenly transported outside the building, with two walls fast narrowing on either side of them. Managing to avoid being crushed to death, they return to the theatre to find Curtis had discovered a secret entrance where they can observe the under-stage area below the trap door and find out what happens there during a show. The party divides, with two people watching from the front row, and another two following Curtis below the stage. All but Father Sterling, who is protected by his artefact, experience disturbing hallucinations of their deceased loved ones, but manage to snap out of it. Then the current assistant - Adrianna, one of the orphans Father Sterling used to help - falls through the trap door and is suspended in an odd light, her life being slowly drained from her body as the audience chants along with Baudelaire and the strange thugs surrounding the light. Father Sterling sees Adrianna and makes a noise, alerting the thugs and the engineer in the trap room and starting a fight. Ashley tries to join the fray and help but is given trouble by the trap door, which Ashley smashes through and falls on Adrianna, almost killing her. The fight continues with vigour, until Mr Jenkins, with a broken coccyx from trying to follow Ashley but being pushed off the stage by Baudelaire, pulls a fire alarm and disperses the crowd. Shortly after, he is trampled to death by a panicked audience. Sable’s body is briefly taken over by the angry Mr Messenger, and the Baudelaires are set on ethereal fire for failing the ritual and their mission. The rest of the investigators leave the scene scarred, but alive.
Suggestions for Keepers:
The scenario would be shorter and not as interesting if the Investigators failed the Luck roll followed by a Spot Hidden roll and did not see Delores enter the pharmacy. I allowed them to only roll Spot Hidden and would have drawn their attention to her in some other way if they failed. Afterwards, when it came to receiving Messenger’s business card as a handout, my players who were new to Call of Cthulhu did not start questioning her (therefore not giving her a reason to give them the card). I had them spot it having ‘fallen’ to the floor as she left.
I recommend reading both pathways/connections regardless of whether you want to focus on only one. In the final few scenes, the players see Adrianna (the plot hook of the Street Rat connection) but it is not made clear whether they would know her or not if doing the Houdini connection. I decided to have Father Sterling and Ashley O’Neil be familiar with her when she was in their old neighbourhood to increase the stakes of that final showdown.
The Pre-gens as a group find themselves in two ‘camps’: the lawyer and his PI, and the gangster and priest from Boston. It is unclear why the former group would follow the latter in their adventure, so I made the requirement in the letter by Houdini even more explicit - that the lawyer has to help and supervise this process.
I used Curtis as a helpful NPC to assist them in finding the trap room using his vagabond background, as the players might not have easily thought to go there otherwise. Curtis can be used to help with other things, like spotting Delores if the players fail their roll and amping up the action if the players try to run away instead of fighting in the final scene.
If you'd like your own Miskatonic Repository Scenario reviewed on Phaedra Keeps an Eye, contact me through Stars Are Right, or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.