Originally Published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/10/23/tabletop-review-cold-harvest-call-of-cthulhu/
Ah delays. They are not only to be expected with a Kickstarter campaign, but are generally a fact of life. If a backer is lucky, the company is apologetic and gives out some bonus freebies to offset the delays. We’ve seen Flying Buffalo do this with Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls for example. If a publisher is lucky, the backers are understanding and cordial, especially when the delay is the fault of a third party company. Although some backers for both of Chaosium’s Kickstarters have been less than understanding, Chaosium has been churning out a lot of free adventures for them to try and make up for the fact physical copies of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and Horror on the Orient Express are not available yet (although digital ones are). Recently Chaosium has given all of their backers in both campaigns a copy of the new Seventh Edition adventure Cold Harvest. While I am pretty used to Kickstarter problems and am a patient, accepting man with crowdfunding, I’m certainly not going to say no to a free adventure when it is offered to me. So I poured through Cold Harvest and found it to be a delight on multiple levels. It’s definitely something I can recommend to the rank and file of experienced Call of Cthulhu players.
One of the things that I really liked about Cold Harvest it that it was designed to be played with just a single Keeper and Investigator. You can certainly add more PCs if you want, but it’s so rare to see an adventure these days for a single player. We all know these are desperately needed. There will be times you and a friend want to game but the rest of the crew can’t get together. AD&D, Second Edition had eight or so adventures like these and they were all really top notch and fun. The concept of a solo adventure has died off (except for Tunnels & Trolls, which are more Choose Your Own adventure in style). Pagan Publishing did Alone on Halloween (which currently goes for $100 on the secondary market, so you know there is demand for this sort of thing) in this same fashion, but there are so few Call of Cthulhu adventures you can play by yourself or with a buddy that Cold Harvest becomes a breath of fresh (cold) air. After all, look at all the Lovecraft stories featuring only a single protagonist rather than a group of intrepid adventurers. This really should become a regular thing, but for some reason, it never has.
Another thing I enjoyed is the setting. Cold Harvest takes place in Soviet Russia during the late 1930s. There have only been a handful of adventures set during this time period and location, so it’s still a pretty unique way to play Call of Cthulhu. Let’s be honest, there are only so many adventures set in 1920s Arkham where you are doing battle with Shaggai or Deep Ones that a gamer can take before they start to get bored, so new locations, time periods and ideas are essential to keeping a game as old as CoC fresh. Even better, there is an Appendix in Cold Harvest that lists all the other adventures that take place in Russia, so an enterprising Keeper can round them all up and make a campaign out of them! Out of the four other adventures set in 1930s Russia that are shown in this Appendix, I only own and have played the Age of Cthulhu one, Shadows of Leningrad, which is really well done. So if you like Cold Harvest, you at least have a way to get more CoC content for the same time period and location. Yay!
So now let’s talk about the actual content itself. Although the PDF for Cold Harvest is sixty-seven pages long, the actual adventure only takes up thirty-three of those pages. So what makes up the rest of the page count in Cold Harvest? Well a lot of really neat and useful information actually! The piece starts off with a healthy dose of Keeper-only information, setting the stage for the adventure and also giving background information about what late 1930s Russia was like. Post-adventure, the content includes a whole host of NPC stats, an appendix of handouts for Investigators to look at, EIGHT pre-generated characters, a glossary of Russian terms used in the adventure, works of reference, the aforementioned list of other Russian adventures in the 1930s, and a conversion guide for those of you that don’t have (or want) Seventh Edition CoC but would like to play Cold Harvest with an earlier edition of the game. So there is a lot of content packed into this adventure beyond the scenario itself. I was impressed with how much fit into the sixty-some pages that make up Cold Harvest and I think most gamers will agree that even if they don’t care for the setting or adventure, the attention to detail and amount of effort that went into this piece deserves respect.
So with all that out of the way, it’s adventure discussion time! In Cold Harvest, you’ll be playing as a member of the NKVD aka the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs AKA the standard and secret police of Stalinist Russia. A member of the NKVD has a great deal of power and can easily have an average joe sent to a correctional labor camp or even killed if the agent feels someone is being Anti-Soviet/Anti-Communist. Realize that in Stalin’s Russia things like not working your hardest or being depressed count as being “Anti-Soviet.” So there are a wide range of things a NKVD agent can “write someone up” for. That said, for all the power and room for corruption in the agency, there is also a great deal of risk. If you fail an assignment, it might be you the agent who goes to a labor camp or gets a bullet in the brain stem. Plus there was constant turnaround, so one day you may have a boss that likes you and the next one who wants nothing more than to see you humiliated. It was a time of constant paranoia and backstabbing throughout an entire country and it had to be a horrific experience to live through. So keep in mind that while you are playing the adventure, you’re going to have to work together but also cover your own ass, even at the expense of the other Investigators unless you want to be dying of pneumonia in Siberia in a few months. Well, your character not literally you.
In Cold Harvest the Investigator(s) are sent to Krasivyi Okatbyr, a small sovkhoz (think collective farm commune) that has stopped its high production values. In addition, a member of the Sovkhoz has accused a household there of sabotage and anti-communist activities. The NKVD Investigators have been sent to detain the family and send them to hard labor service but also see why the camp has not been checking in properly or producing flax and beets at the same level it used to. Of course, Investigators can always arrest and detain even more residents if they need to. In fact, they can bring down the whole village if needed…which is a very real possibility depending on player actions and if they are purposefully being extreme Soviet hardline dicks. There are a lot of issues to report ranging from the entire collective suffering from ennui and depression, to some people being completely deranged and/or physically deformed. Also there has been a murder right before players arrive so surprise – another added wrinkling for the NKVD to deal with and report on in order to keep their higher quality apartment and shorter food lines.
Nearly all of Cold Harvest is discussion and investigation. The entire adventure can occur without any combat at all. Really, for the best atmosphere, combat should be limited or excised completely, but the author has put a few pieces in for gaming troupes that feel they need to stab or shoot something in a play session. Really though, the adventure revolved around making hard ethical and moral decisions weighed against saving one’s own ass (and their loved ones as family is punished too, you know). This adventure is primarily a horror story because of how Stalinist Russia treated its citizens and the overwhelming fear and oppression that stymied everyone in the country to some degree.
Of course, primary does not mean ENTIRELY. After all, it wouldn’t be a Call of Cthulhu adventure without something supernatural or alien going on. Otherwise this would be for BRP instead of CoC. There is indeed something not human at work in this little Russian farming community. Players and their Investigators will see some examples of it. Sometimes it will be very subtle to the point where players will assume something else is the cause or the act is a red herring rather than something otherworldly. Sometimes, it will be blatantly obvious spooky things are afoot. Generally the deeper Investigators dig and/or the more they attack/arrest/detain, the bigger and badder the events will be over the three days the NKVD are active in Krasivyi Okatbyr. Again, the adventure is best if the Investigators never actually encounter or solve the root of the problem, but the author has included some optional occurrences where that will happen for more combat minded players or those that need guaranteed story resolution and/or hand-holding. My advice is don’t give in and keep the players guessing while also frustrated because the creature is too smart to outwardly reveal itself. The end result is a great adventure where you really have to use your wits to get through things and where there is a constant ambiance of creepy terror. Best of all, there is no “correct” solution to the adventure. All the possible outcomes are unhappy to some degree and the Investigators will have to live with the decisions they made. Of course the individual and their fates don’t matter in the face of another glorious success for the People as a whole, eh comrade?
I really loved Cold Harvest. The setting, plot and ability for the adventure to be played by as little as a single Investigator were all terrific on their own. Combined, you have a fantastic piece that might not be for everyone, but exudes a high degree of quality. If you are looking for an adventure that will challenge you on multiple cerebral levels and leave you a bit uncomfortable (without being squicky) when all is said and done, then by all means, grab Cold Harvest. It’s a truly outside the box adventure that reminds the average CoC fan that not everything has to involve Arkham, ancient evil tomes or the usual Mythos antagonists. A fantastic freebie for Kickstarter backers and one worth paying money for when it because available to the general public.