This week, I saw that latest (last?) Torchwood series, Children of Earth, and read the first act in the Curse of the Yellow Sign series for Call of Cthulhu. I expected one to be marginal and the other to rock, and was surprised on both fronts. MAJOR SPOILER WARNING for those that continue...
Torchwood defines the term "uneven." When it premiered three years ago, I had expected a darker, adult take on the Doctor Who mythos, one where humanity faced the same kind of otherworldly threats as the Doctor but had no Time Lord know-how or status to succeed without loss and sacrifice. Instead, Torchwood saw "adult" as an excuse to inject more sex and violence into the mix, while maintaining the goofy cheese of the new Doctor Who series. There's nothing wrong with trashy sex-&-gore (see the current HBO series True Blood), but British have always been able to inject a dark and unsettling political subtext when they made adult sci-fi. Torchwood failed in this, and could never elevate itself beyond cheese-tastic in those all-t00-few moments where it was more than adequate. Yet, in its latest series, Children of Earth, it finally became something more.
The first three episodes of the mini-series were effective, with its murkily-seen alien antagonist and hints at a horrifying exchange of children in the past. Then, with the fourth episode, Children of Earth ramped up the horror in a brutal and intelligent manner, as political leaders sat around a table and slowly descended into a moral hell where not only would children be given over to the aliens, but it would the "right" kind of children (first the illegal aliens, then the poor, then all those but the politically-connected). Even in its absurd trappings, that scene is frighteningly realistic, and, as with the best sci-fi, more about our present than anything fantastic. Then it gets even darker in the finale, where a political figure who was in that room murders his family and commits suicide rather than watch them turned over to the aliens and live with his complicity in the act. And then the usually cheesy Captain Jack pulls the switch to sacrifice his own grandson in the only chance humanity has to end the alien threat and save the 10% of the world's children that would otherwise be handed over. Both are unimaginable crimes, made all the more horrifying in that they were also absolutely reasonable things to do in that situation, carried out by "good" men.
On the other hand, we have Curse of the Yellow Sign: Act 1: Digging for a Dead God, a Call of Cthulhu scenario by reknowned game designer John Wick. As its title suggests, it's only the first part of a trilogy of scenarios, so this individual product is rather thread-bare: nothing particular of the Hastur Mythos appears, and the scenario doesn't end with any kind of conclusive climax. Indeed, there are no set events in the scenario beyond introducing the characters to the plot. What does exist is the premise: the setting is sub-saharan Africa in 1939, and the characters are German SS personnel working on a covert operation to mine diamonds when they unearth something alien and malevolent. While that alien prescence exerts a sanity-damaging influence on the characters, there is no plan to foil, ritual to carry out, Gate to close, or cultists to slaughter. All that is likely to happen in this unstructured game is that the characters will carry out acts of depravity and violence until... well, I guess everyone decides they've had enough and call it a night.
That actually appeals to me, as I've been thinking about running a "sandbox" game to work out the railroad-y tendencies I'm worried might be prevalent in my GM style. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be running Digging for a Dead God for reasons that became apparent after I'd finished Children of Earth. You see, the reason Children of Earth was so effective was not that horrible acts happened, but that it was good people carrying out those acts, honorable and empathetic characters forced into a very dark situation. Yet in Digging for a Dead God, you've got Nazi player characters (mostly), so that when they murder and torture and fall into darkness, there's hardly any moral distance from which they have to fall. I am a great proponent of the kind of personal horror Digging for a Dead God is trying to attain, and I definitely agree that CoC needs more of that than yet another ritual to disrupt; but if you play scumbags, there's no room for personal horror when all the story asks them to do is engage in scumbaggery.
I could probably avoid this if I changed the characters from Nazis to something less intrinsicly evil, but it means nothing if I simply file the serial numbers off to make the characters mercenaries or put them in another setting. I would have to establish the characters as intrinsicly "good" (ie. likely to be upset about putting villagers in a hot box) and still create a situation where they would be doing the kind of actions they are in the written scenario. In other words, I'd have to write a completely new scenario, and considering how little there is in Digging for Dead God (literally, you're Nazis, you torture Africans, and a dark god whispers to you - that is pretty much it), it just wouldn't be worth it. So, while I will probably pick up Act 2 of the trilogy (I do want a sandbox game focused on personal horror), this first part does nothing for me, except reinforce why Nazis make for lousy player characters.