Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Two-Headed Serpent for Pulp Cthulhu

The Two-Headed Serpent is a campaign for Call of Cthulhu and its supplement Pulp Cthulhu, written by Paul Fricker, Scott Dorward, and Matthew Sanderson, the trio best known as the Good Friends of Jackson Elias.  From the back cover:
The world needs heroes, now more than ever.
The Two-Headed Serpent is an action-packed, globe-spanning, and high-octane campaign set in the 1930s for Pulp Cthulhu.  The heroes face the sinister conspiracies of an ancient race of monsters hell-bent on taking back a world that was once theirs.
We began play in early July and ran weekly 3-hour sessions up to mid December.  Accounting for a few cancellations, I believe it took us 18 sessions in all to complete the campaign.  We lost one player after the first game, another after chapter 5, and picked up a player just after chapter 4, and we had three players that were there from start to finish.  Four investigators usually felt like an appropriate size to me.  Having completed the game, here are my thoughts on the individual adventures and the campaign as a whole.  Spoilers after the break.


THS starts with the investigators working for a medical aid organization, Caduceus, although in the first scene it is revealed that they are also a front for another purpose - tracking down and stopping the evil serpent cult known as the Inner Night.  It’s a good setup for the campaign, giving the investigators the resources and direction to get entangled with a global conspiracy and sends them all over the world, with each of the nine chapters dedicated to a different locale.

The chapters are all very well organized, providing some background information on the region in the 1930s, some wonderful maps, relevant handouts (these are also separately collected in a Handouts pdf for easy access), and all of the important characters are described in a “Dramatis Personae” section, while their stats are collected at the end of each chapter and in the separate reference pdf.  It makes it pretty easy to run each chapter with minimal preparation.

Chapter 1: Bolivia

The starting adventure has the investigators traveling with Caduceus to a war-torn region to provide medical aid, but when their group is ambushed by soldiers brainwashed by an Inner Night serpent person, their true mission is revealed.  They are to find a lost temple of the ancient serpent empire and recover the mummy buried within.  The region details the Caduceus aid camp, the temple itself, and the surrounding forest.  NPCs from the medical group, soldiers, and locals are provided to interact with.  There is plenty of opportunity here to approach the mission a variety of ways, choosing diplomacy, stealth, or combat in equal measure.
Bolivia proved the deadliest chapter of the campaign for my group.  We had one investigator go quite mad at the revelation that a soldier was actually a serpent person wearing a human skin disguise and tried to replicate the feat.  She cut off a face and tried to wear it before running off, screaming into the jungle, never to be seen again [the madness occured at the end of the session, the determination that she disappeared into the jungle permanently dealt with the player leaving].  The temple finale provided the only two deaths of the campaign due to an enormous snake.  The investigators were already very low on luck, having played dynamite-toss with some Formless Spawns, so the snake proved too much for a couple of them.  This also taught the players the importance of maintaining a 30 point Luck threshold in Pulp Cthulhu, which mitigated many other would-be deaths throughout the campaign.
Overall, Bolivia was probably the best chapter of the campaign, with a clear goal, nice variety of obstacles, exciting revelations, and satisfying conclusion.

Chapter 3: North Borneo

Another jungle adventure, this time to deal with an epidemic in the villages surrounding a mining camp.  There is an interesting conflict here between the plantation owners, the sick villagers, and the British soldiers guarding the quarantine that has a lot of potential.  The investigators were pretty sympathetic to all parties stuck in a bad situation and had no real idea if the Inner Night were at work or who they would be manipulating and how.  This provided a bit of a slower, investigative start that was a welcome change.  They spent time treating the sick and interrogating the locals and eventually learned that the well had been tampered with.  This gave them the clue to find tracks leading up the mountain.
The trek to the mountain is through a Dreamlands-tainted section of jungle.  There are two possible combat encounters with Dreamlands creatures, which are rare to see in published adventures and so were a welcome inclusion, but I’d have liked to see more to do in the Dreamlands to emphasize the weird and alien nature of it.
Borneo features a finale in a lab-like facility with a control room, which my players managed to blow up.  This was the first in a recurring theme of blowing up control rooms around the world.
There is also a mechanic in Borneo where some of the investigators are likely to contract the sickness going around.  In my case, the doctor caught it as he was spending the most time interacting with the sick.  This sets up the best horror elements of the campaign as the sickness starts to work and Caduceus’s only cure is a frightening transformation.  It was about two months later, in real time, that the full consequences of this chapter were revealed, in one of the most memorable moments of the campaign.

Chapter 4: Oklahoma

Caduceus has recorded some gospel radio programs that have a secret message of Yig.  They send the team there to investigate, particularly to see if the Inner Night is at work.  This chapter provides a small town in the dust bowl during the depression to explore, with over a dozen named NPCs to talk to and fifteen locales to visit.  There is no ticking time bomb as in North Borneo or instant threat of violence as in Bolivia.  Instead there is a small town where about half the members seem to be being drawn into a snake cult.
On its own, I like this adventure.  As part of the Two-Headed Serpent campaign, it is out of place and serves no purpose.  The cult here is not connected to either Caduceus or the Inner Night.  No one presents any real threat.  I ended up contacting Scott Dorward to inquire what the motivations of Caduceus even are in regards to this cult, since they’re all followers of Yig.  He explained the Caduceus sees humans as so beneath the serpent people that they would be offended by them worshiping Yig and want them killed.  That’s a nuance of motive that is pretty difficult to convey.  By the end of the campaign, nothing learned in this chapter had ever come up again and my players still had no idea why they went here.
This chapter ended with a wild west style shootout in the desert that was fun though.

Chapter 5: Iceland

There are rumblings of a massive volcano that may be erupting soon.  Caduceus knows that the volcano was once a serpent person facility and suspects the Inner Night might be at work.  They’re right.
This is a bit of an odd chapter.  It starts with an encounter with a rock hurling troll, finds a fishing village slaughtered and abducted, and then most of the chapter is exploring the facility in the volcano, which houses serpent people, their many strange experiments, and a lair of voormi.  The facility provides what is essentially a dungeon crawl, with about 20 rooms to explore and different monsters to fight, traps to avoid, and treasure (technology and artifacts) to loot.  I run a lot of dungeon crawls, but never have in Call of Cthulhu.  I think this chapter requires the most prep to run and if they aren’t used to dealing with detailed maps it can be confusing for the players.
I got off a bit lucky though, as my players found the quickest way to the control room and blew it up.  This caused the volcano to erupt and wiped out about half of Iceland and send tsunamis crashing out on neighboring coasts.  This was the first time my players began to wonder if they were the villains, as the death toll from their expedition reached near 100,000.
This chapter also revealed that one of the investigators, the doctor, was now a serpent person.  This happened when he ran into a flamethrower wielding serpent person who completely incinerated him.  Normally it would have been deadly, but thanks to his remaining Luck burn, it merely burnt off every bit of human flesh, revealing the creature beneath.  It was probably my favorite moment of the campaign.

Chapter 2: New York

Who wouldn't trust this face?
The New York chapter is a recurring chapter with events that play out on the various trips back between other missions, but the bulk of this adventure for us played out after Iceland.  It is expected that the investigators will start snooping around Caduceus at some point, so the HQ is well detailed with plenty of clues of their nefarious plots and serpent nature.  There is also an estate in Connecticut which can be explored for additional confirmation - a temple to Yig is the site of Caduceus rituals.  We never had the opportunity to visit that.
The main plotline for New York though involves the mafia.  They’ve also figured out that Caduceus is up to something, although their suspicions are of drug smuggling, and they want the investigators to bring them information.  Although we spent some time meeting with various mob goons and sneaking around Red Hook, stumbling into the Caduceus gate to the Congo cut this whole adventure short for us.  In retrospect, I’d like to have developed this one more because the mob, while criminal, actually provides something this campaign really needs in the later chapters: a faction that isn’t a bunch of snakes.

Chapter 6: Belgian Congo

The gate in the basement of Caduceus headquarters leads to a pyramid in the Congo which is now a biological breeding facility for the Caduceus serpent people.  Depending on their current state, players going through might be able to explore the pyramid immediately or might wake up in a hospital nearby.  I actually had a split group for this adventure, so I got to run it both ways.
Exploring the pyramid is tough work for investigators as there are plenty of serpent people around and they are well armed.  Our doctor though got his hands on some good tech and was able to use his recently acquired insane intimidation to fend off attackers long enough to explore a few rooms, grab some clues, and at least put together the information that Caduceus was up to no good out here.
Back at the hospital, the investigators were pretty much bewildered by events and tried to explore without causing too much trouble.  A pair of nurses were revealed to be serpent people and they recovered the weapons, and then they were much more comfortable causing trouble.  They had a shootout in the hospital, were reunited with the investigators who had fled the pyramid, and were trying to make plans of what to do next.
Here I improvised a bit to avoid another “blow up the control room of a facility” scenario.  Since the investigators had made a good amount of chaos both in the village and the pyramid, I decided for the serpent people to go on the offensive, releasing all their test subjects to shamble into the village.  We had an extended fight against a serpent zombie horde, which turned into a flight to the docks as a tyrannosaurus rex chased them through the jungle, and this was the point that any subtlety was lost to this campaign and the pulp meter broke.
The Congo is an interesting chapter that could easily be missed if the investigators don’t explore the Caduceus basement.  I think that either the Congo or Connecticut estate needs to be explored at some point to really show that Caduceus is not on the side of good, so if you’re running this, be sure you provide ample clues to at least one of them.

Chapter 7: Calcutta

This is probably one of the better chapters in the campaign.  Calcutta draws all the factions into one place, including the mummy Tyranissh, recovered back in chapter 1, as everyone scrambles to find and recover the elusive Cobra Crown.  There are a lot of ways to approach this chapter, with various options for entry and different leads to track.  We started with the recommended chase scene, then later had a face-to-face meeting with Rose Meadham, which finally answered many of the investigators questions.  The intended finale of this chapter is a pretty epic showdown with Tyranissh and a gate opening in the middle of a crowded market and lloiger attacking.  It’s a fitting escalation after the previous chapters and however it shakes out, it’s likely at least one of the three competing factions will be eliminated from the scene.
That’s not quite how it worked out for us though.  Rose had given the investigators a bomb to use against Caduceus, and they didn’t bother examining it at all, or they’d have recognized it from North Borneo.  Instead, they got into a fight in a hotel lobby with the Caduceus bosses and, with the help of another bout of madness and a crazy plan result, decided to use a bomb in a fist fight.  They were able to flee the hotel, steel a speedboat, and just escape Calcutta, but nearly 1 million people were evaporated by that bomb, including Tyrannish and the remaining Caduceus henchmen.  With the destruction caused by the investigators, I hope you understand why I decide not to call them “heroes”, as the campaign typically does.
My only criticism of the Calcutta chapter is that the links to Snake Island are fairly weak here.  My players had the opportunity to recover a letter from Rose that references it (I had them find it while searching her hotel room after she’d left, since it seems to incriminating for her to just hand over), or an assumed airport chase scene.  Either of these would be very easy to miss and I’d recommend some more clues along the way indicating Caduceus’ plans there.

Chapter 8: Snake Island and Chapter 9: Mu

These two really are one adventure.  There is no time for recovery in between and the events in Brazil are easy to skip past.  Chapter 8 is unfortunately written still assuming that Caduceus is very much in control.  Although it has some notes for the Inner Night or Tyrannish being in charge, the only NPCs here are Caduceus members and the only locale described is a Caduceus office.  There is some information for a bit of a showdown between the investigators and one of the human servitors of Caduceus, but my investigators talked their way through that fine, even getting his help since they were going up against the Inner Night.  After the events of Calcutta, however that plays out, lingering too long in Brazil would be an odd change of pace.
There is an opportunity for a fight against a sea serpent, but my investigators managed to get a sea plane with Caduceus pilot, spotted the serpent in the water, and avoided it.  On Snake Island, they discovered the portal to Mu and jumped through for the final confrontation.
Mu is an alien continent being ravaged by a battle between serpent people and elder things.  It’s pure chaos and a fitting finale for this campaign.  There is a short trek to the citadel with some opportunities for a few encounters if you feel the need to batter the investigators a bit, but I mostly skipped these and just described the chaos around them.
The citadel on Mu provides 5 locations and 5 encounters to randomly run through.  I actually very much preferred this to the more rigid dungeon crawl setup of Iceland since it felt more chaotic and alien as the investigators ran through strange, twisting corridors, confused by the bizarre architecture and the fire and death of the battle raging.  It was pretty effective and maintained a much better pace as we rushed to the final confrontation.

The final showdown is everything
a pulp adventure should be.
I also liberally scattered alien weaponry around the facility so that the team, who’d been without any backing from Caduceus for a while now, would have the opportunity to go in appropriately armed.
And so we had our final showdown in a control room of a facility built on top of a volcano.  Who could have seen that one coming?  The team fought off serpent people and formless spawns with their newly acquired lazer guns.  One investigator, with a talent for weird science, hijacked a transport sphere and flew it at top speed into Rose Meadham, crushing her into a wall of strange technology in the temple of Yig.  The serpent person investigator was able to use his high Cthulhu Mythos score to get the computer to initiate its self-destruct and they were able to fly the transport sphere back out the portal and escape as Mu was destroyed.
I have no idea what their final death toll was.


Final Thoughts

The Two-Headed Serpent lives up to its tagline and does a great job of showcasing everything the Pulp rules have to offer.  Some of the individual scenarios are stronger than the overall campaign and it does suffer from some repetition, but if you've got a group that enjoys a mix of two-fisted action, global conspiracies, and a dose of body horror, it can provide many evenings of entertainment.
Personally, I prefer the more atmospheric, quieter horror that Call of Cthulhu can deliver so well and don't know that I'll run much more Pulp, but the rules are very effective for delivering what they're meant to.  The various talents provide a lot of punching power to the investigators and it's a very modular system, allowing you to tweak it to your own preferences.  My only real criticism is of the Luck rules, which, as I mentioned, turned into a meta-resource to be managed enough to maintain survival, and at its worse prompted the players to have investigators less suited to a task attempt it because they had more luck to burn - a type of metagaming I really don't enjoy.
Still, Chaosium is on a great run lately with the 7th edition rules and supplements.  We got nearly 60 hours of play out of the Two-Headed Serpent, and Pulp Cthulhu comes with four standalone adventures which I haven't even read yet.  The best accolade I can offer THS is that I had a group of four players, all strangers recruited online, who showed up week after week to continue the campaign, and upon finishing it have all signed up for the next one.
Masks of Nyarlathotep awaits us.


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