Alone Against the Flames

April 4, 2019

 

Rating: B

Length: Approx. 1 hour per playthrough

 

I like Seth Skorkowski's YouTube reviews of adventure modules for AD&D, and I dip into some of his other videos on occasion.  He posted one recently about learning new TTRPG systems, in which he mentioned that this adventure as something that could be played by a single person (as opposed to the "DM+1" format that's usually meant by a solo adventure) to help learn Call of Cthulhu.  I'd never played Call of Cthulhu before, and all I knew about it were the memes about how every character ends up insane and how combat is instantly lethal, but seeing as I expected those were probably exaggerations by detractors (given that the game has lasted long enough to get to a 7th edition), I decided to give it a try.

 

The fact that I'm also a Lovecraft fan, as mentioned previously, also made it appealing.

 

The adventure is basically organized like a choose-your-own-adventure book, except that many of the decision points involve rolling dice instead of just picking something.  Before delving into that, though, it starts out with picking stats, skills, and an occupation.  I was thrown off by Luck being the only stat generated via dice roll, though I learned later that this is because Alone Against the Flames was set up to be fully compatible with the Quick-Start Rules instead of the full game (a sensible choice, in hindsight).  This did take me a little while because there are a lot of choices to sort through, but soon enough, I had my weak-but-smart 9 HP professor of anthropology on his way to Arkham.

 

I even passed the DEX roll that comes up from the bus driver's inability to keep his eyes on the road.  As I kept playing, though, I realized quite quickly that my dice hated me because I only passed one other stat/skill roll in the entirety of the adventure.  The first time that I failed one, there was the slightest moment of temptation to cheat and act as if I'd passed it, but then I would've had to rename my website, so I stuck with the honor system.

 

Unfortunately, failing all of those checks meant that I wasn't making any real progress towards figuring out what was going on.  I saw a random shack hobo...but I failed a Luck roll, so he ran away.  I tried scoping out the town's library...but I failed my Library Use rolls, so I didn't find anything of note.  I noticed some shady behavior...but I failed my Psychology rolls, so I couldn't glean anything further from it.  I tried breaking into the library for some secret research...but I failed my Spot Hidden roll, so I didn't actually find anything.

 

In fact, I was wallowing in so many failures that, when the adventure suddenly jumped to having been captured by cultists, it took me a moment to understand that that was in fact what had happened.  There really could've been a smoother transition between those passages.

 

It all worked out in the end, as despite having a penalty die and only 50 STR, I managed to pass the STR roll to break out of my restraints and escape from the climatic conflagration (with 1 HP remaining!).  The adventure gave the option of looking around to see what was going on now that I wasn't being sacrificed anymore, but I got the hell out of there and achieved a successful ending.

 

I had a lot of fun with it, so I decided to give it another try, going with a bruiser of a private investigator the second time around to see how different the experience would be.

 

Unfortunately, that was when the warts in the system started showing up, because it wasn't all that different after all.  Admittedly, I knew that the possible variability was going to be limited by the format, but there were just so many cases where making different choices or passing rolls that I'd failed on before didn't actually make any meaningful difference that it got annoying.  Perhaps the biggest offender was near the end, when I was being led up to the bonfire site to be immolated.  I passed an APP roll, which got one of the cultists to tell me that they'd weakened my restraints (why this needed to be checked against Appearance doesn't make sense to me)...yet it put me back in the same situation without any sort of advantage.  I failed the STR roll this time (despite having 70 STR and no penalty die) and burned to death.

 

I was disappointed by that result, but after some reflection, I realized that was alright.  The purpose of the adventure was to get me interested in the Call of Cthulhu system, and the fact that it was enjoyable enough for me to want to play it a second time is proof that it met that goal.  It was a neat introduction to something very different from the likes of Dungeons & Dragons or Big Eyes, Small Mouth.  I wasn't a fan of the d100 resolution mechanic (as with my complaints about the d20 mechanic from modern Dungeons & Dragons, it leaves a character's competence too greatly at the whims of the dice for my tastes), though being able to choose to "push" rolls in normal play for a high stakes second try would probably help to mitigate some of the problems with that.  The frailty of characters made every single point of damage feel meaningful, and even beyond that, it made the mere threat of combat tenser than is the case with a more heroic/superheroic fantasy system.

 

It's also worth mentioning that my second play did turn up a few more cases of very jarring jumps between sections, a couple of the hyperlinks between sections in the PDF didn't work, and one spot where the adventure forgot to mention the name of the skill that I was supposed to roll (it was Natural World, in case anyone reads this and decides to try the adventure afterwards).  None of these were more than minor problems, but they did detract from my enjoyment of the product, and I don't understand why Chaosium hasn't at least fixed the hyperlinks and missing skill name in the PDF, since a little internet poking revealed that those are known issues.

 

Due to my personal circumstances as far as player/GM availability goes, I don't expect to actually play Call of Cthulhu in the near future.  However, I can at least say that I'd be interested in giving it a try if the opportunity were to come up, which wasn't the case before I played through Alone Against the Flames.  Ultimately, I did enjoy it (even with the frustrating end for the second character), and I'd recommend it to anyone who hasn't played Call of Cthulhu and wants to burn a little time with checking out a different TTRPG.

 

Rating: B

Length: Approx. 1 hour per playthrough

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