"Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser." -- Sherlock Holmes, The Copper Beeches
Horror gaming, particularly the cosmic horror genre represented by Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu game, can use almost any locale as the setting of an adventure: the abandoned tenement tucked away in a rundown part of an American city; the crowded marketplaces of Egypt; or even a small submersible in the depths of the ocean, or a base on the Moon. Any of these, and so many others, is ripe for exploitation by the Horror GM.
But, for some reason, and perhaps second only to Lovecraft's beloved New England, Great Britain seems a perfect place to set adventures of mind-shattering horror. From Roman times to Elizabeth I, the Empire, and modern-day London, horror-game designers have loved to set adventures in Shakespeare's sceptred isle.
Notable products have included Chaosium's Cthulhu by Gaslight, Dark Designs, and Sacraments of Evil, the first a setting supplement for Victorian England, while the latter two are collections of adventures in the same period.
Fondly remembered and hard to find is Games Workshop's Green and Pleasant Land, describing England between the wars and providing three adventures, while Justin Hyne's "The King of Shreds and Patches" brings cosmic horror to Elizabethan London in Chaosium's Strange Aeons. Pagan Publishing's Delta Green: Countdown adds a heavy dose of conspiracy to horror in the modern UK.
The more recently released Ramsey Campbell's Goatswood and less pleasant places is set in Campbell's mythical Severn Valley, in and around the decaying city of Brixton. It is in this area that we find the arena for Gary Sumpter's PDF adventure, Widdershins.
The adventure begins innocently enough, as distraught parents hire the investigators to find their runaway teenage daughter. It then takes them deep into the world of sex, drugs, and (70s) rock ‘n' roll, and finally to a seemingly peaceful village which holds one of those dread secrets that so agitated Mr. Holmes. In between they meet madmen and aging rock entrepreneurs, a dotty little old village lady who may hold the key to the mystery, homicidal groupies, and the reclusive leader of the long-disbanded rock group, Widdershins.
Widdershins is largely an investigative adventure, requiring detective work, observation, and the willingness to follow some sometimes obscure leads. In keeping with the laws regarding firearms in the UK, there is very little opportunity for armed violence until the end, when both guns and some magical capabilities may well be necessary to survive in one piece. Outside of that final moment, players are much better served by talking and using their social skills, rather than their fists.
Similar to his The Usurpers, Mr. Sumpter makes it next to impossible to save the missing girl. The best the investigators can hope for is to spare her any more agony and to put an end to the villain. Players hoping for a happy ending are likely to be disappointed, but, then, players looking for a happy ending are unlikely to be playing Call of Cthulhu -- at least not for long.
Sumpter deserves praise for staying true to the genre, which overall makes the adventure much more satisfying than if everything had turned out right in the end. Be aware, however, that the lack of direct action in most instances means the success of the adventure depends more than usual on a GM's ability to present interesting characters for the players to interact with. Fortunately, Widdershins provides a fair number of these.
Widdershins is available for download as a 20-page 4.9 Mb PDF from Sumpter's web site, http://garysumpter.com. The adventure follows a standard two-column format, with boxed text providing important additional information for the GM. Statistics for important NPCs are located in a section at the back, and there are several handouts to keep the players busy. Of special note is the existence of a web site devoted to the band Widdershins, something the players can discover and access during the game, bringing the idea of the handout into the Internet Age. The rules system is based on 3d6 statistics and percentile skills, and is wholly compatible with the system used for Call of Cthulhu, but is not actually for that game . . .
If there is any criticism of the adventure, it is that players may find themselves unprepared for what they find in the end, unless they are especially sensitive to the subtle warnings provided during the adventure. This, however, is a minor quibble. In all, Widdershins is a worthy addition to the cosmic horror genre and is ideal for a single night's play.