What Do I Know About Reviews? Operation Marseille (Achtung! Cthulhu 2d20)
It’s been a while since I visited the alternate World War II of Achtung! Cthulhu, so I thought I might take a look at one of the most recent of the mission PDFs in the line. If you’re curious about the game system, and you haven’t seen it yet, you can find my First Impression here on Gnome Stew.
While the campaign length adventure Shadows of Atlantis is coming soon, most of the 2d20 adventures of Achtung! Cthulhu have been in the form of various PDF adventures, ranging from a little over four dollars to a little over six dollars American, depending on the length of the adventures.
I did receive a copy of Operation Marseille for review from Modiphius Entertainment, and I have received other review copies from the company in the past, for multiple games. I have not played the included adventure, but I am familiar with other 2d20 games both as a player and as a GM.
While Achtung! Cthulhu is a pulp World War II action game, it still includes elements of the Cthulhu Mythos and has horror elements. In addition to that content, characters will be dealing with a criminal element that deals illegal substances. There is some cultural insensitivity with the continued conflation of the Wendigo with Ithaqua, potentially because the name Ithaqua was coined by August Derleth and not Lovecraft.
This particular mission is 33 pages, including a credits page, a table of contents, four pages of handouts, and two pages of ads for other Modiphius products. The PDF layout evokes a weathered military report, with flourishes like sidebars that look like notes taped into the margins of the report.
Because it affects what kind of operative are available and where they hail from, I wanted to point out that the default timeline of this adventure is set in 1941, meaning that Majestic, the American counterpart to Department M, isn’t quite up and running yet.
I’m going to be touching on elements of the plot in the next section of this review, so if you want to be surprised by the content of the adventure, you may wish to avert your eyes from what is about to unfold.
A Change of Pace
Unlike a regular mission, where players might start the game getting a briefing, requisitioning equipment, and trying to meet up with local contacts to start the mission, this adventure starts in the middle of the action. The PCs have been sent in to break up a ritual performed by members of Black Sun, and that’s where we start, as they are busting up that ritual.
The actual play space of the adventure isn’t about stopping the ritual, it’s about making the ritual more difficult to duplicate as the PCs deal with the members of Black Sun present, and about the PCs working against time in order to escape from Marseille.
The assumption is that the ritual will fail. Even without the PCs interrupting, this was only meant to be a test run. The ritual being performed is meant to draw power from the Dreamlands. The residual psychic energy from the failed ritual manifests in random hallucinations with different effects, that the GM can hand out to the player characters as optional adventure elements. These include the following, each with their own test to resist the effects of the hallucination when it is triggered:
- The Lurker in the Dark
- Beckoning Music
- The Joke’s on Me
- Vibrations of Violence
- People Are Thin As Paper
- The Itch Under the Skin
- Pursued by Cats
- The Sound of Cannons
- Hunted by the Wild
Each of these hallucinations has a different trigger. It is noted that the GM should probably trigger these once “for free,” and then spend threat under the right circumstances to trigger them later on, if desired. As an example of some of the triggers, some of these might trigger when in combat, others when characters are running from place to place, and others the first time a weapon is drawn.
The Black Sun members performing the ritual can spend threat to summon reinforcements to cover their escape. Eventually when the church where the ritual was being performed had cleared out, and the Black Sun agents fled or detained, the PCs will need to leave, quickly, since the Armistice Army is still working with the Germans. This is where the PCs find out that their wheel person, someone from the local resistance, is missing.
The next phase of the adventure is all about time. There is a ship that the PCs need to catch in order to leave. They have until the sun comes up, or else the boat leaves without them. There are nine encounters detailed, although the GM is advised to pick six of these. Whenever the player characters fail to resolve one of these in their own favor, the escape clock ticks down by a full hour.
There are a few activities, such as performing a ritual to dispel the hallucinations caused by the psychic residue at the church, that cost a certain amount of time. There is also a car that they can attempt to fix up, with a work track with hour long intervals. It might be worth it not to have a hindrance or gain a boon, or it might eat up exactly the amount of time they needed to get away.
There are a variety of challenges available in the nine different scenes, including combat, opportunities to bluff past local authorities, solve puzzles, or face physical obstacles. Characters also get the feeling that a very specific looming presence is following them, but not quite catching up. It does not say “STARS,” but you get the idea. One of the hallucinations can actually be a bait and switch, where one PC keeps seeing this figure that really is following them.
In addition to Nazis, the Armistice Army, and a possible contingent of clockwork troopers, there are some encounters that are major hallucinations. If the PCs take the time to remove the hallucination truth from their, these two encounters are out of the mix.
One involves navigating an imaginary chasm that appears to form in the middle of the PCs’ location. The terrain shifts and there are some corrosive spheres flying around as well. The other involves an apparent transportation to a snowy wasteland, and an encounter with The Wind-Walker. Characters suffer from their injuries and stress in the hallucinations, but recover their injuries after it ends. When PCs appear to meet their fates, they wake up and realize an hour has passed them by.
The Final Act
One way or another, the mysterious figure hounding the PCs will catch up to them at the docks. This is a literal undead abomination that Black Sun has sent after them. Depending on how close to sun up it is when the PCs make it to the docks, there may be a whole lot of people that could get hurt when the creature goes on its rampage to take out the PCs.
Without their contact, the PCs will have to bribe the smugglers to take them on the ship. They can resolve this a number of ways, but several of the encounters above give the PCs the opportunity to look a few places for valuable material.
The PCs can’t fail to complete the mission, because the ritual went up in smoke in the opening scene. They can fail to snag the ritual book, meaning Black Sun can move somewhere else for more practice, and they can fail to get on the ship that will let them escape, leaving them stranded in occupied territory.
I really like how this adventure handles advancing the clock in the second act. I like that there are lots of options, and some compelling risk versus reward elements in various encounters. I also like having a “stop the ritual” mission that handles stopping the ritual as the “easy” part, and making the fine details and the extraction the challenge. There is a good variety of skill based challenges, potential social challenges, and combat, but since it’s a pulp adventure, there are a few places where bullets will fly.
It’s kind of an uphill battle, but since the Wendigo is an actual part of the beliefs of some indigenous people, and there aren’t a lot of indigeonous people writing that material that uses the Wendigo, I really wish we could just use other terminology for cold based creepy entities. I also wish there had been more clues earlier in the adventure that the PCs may need to loot some of the locations where they are taking refuge, since in a mission based game like this, sometimes players repress their inclinations to take everything that isn’t bolted down.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I really like this format that Modiphius has hit upon for adventures in many of the 2d20 lines. The adventures are focused, easy to follow, and do a good job of communicating the tone of the RPG for which the adventure is written. In this case, it hits all the notes . . . there is pulp action in the combat, the ritual and the hallucinations provide the supernatural horror, and dealing with the resistance, smugglers, occupying forces, and the Armistice Army provides the historical backdrop.
I still wish there were a more “international” option for an anti-mythos clandestine organization that didn’t lean so heavily on the US or the UK being the protagonist’s patrons, but that’s way outside the scope of this adventure. Just a little wish for the line in general.