RPG Review: The Forbidden Beat by Robert J Grieves

Welcome back to our series of reviews of some of the works from the Fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop. Each review will be followed with a brief chat with its author(s) where we will be delving a bit deeper into some of the aspects that most intrigued me. Every two days there will be a new review and mini-interview out, so keep tuned to discover some of the amazing things that these bright new authors are coming up with.

Spoiler warning: It is simply not practical to review a product without mentioning anything about it. I have attempted to remain vague where possible, however I can not guarantee that you will not learn something about the adventure by reading this review

Declaration of interest: This article includes affiliate links.

Cover image of The Forbidden Beat by Robert J Grieves. It is an adventure for Call of Cthulhu, part of the Miskatonie Repository. The image is of a DJ illuminated in red playing for a rave part. Behind the DJ is a large glowing symbol.
Cover image of The Forbidden Beat by Robert J Grieves

The Forbidden Beat by Robert J Grieves

An adventure for Call of Cthulhu, part of the Fall 2020 RPG Writers Workshop DriveThruRPG bundle.

Special offer: Robert is providing a 20% off deal for the first 20 customers with this link!

Review

As with a lot of Call of Cthulhu scenarios there are quite a few content warnings required: gore and body horror, drugs and substance abuse, death, mental illness, eldritch horror, violence, and poverty.

Set in early 2000’s London, The Forbidden Beat leans heavily into its themes and setting to provide a fresh take on eldritch horror. While a rave might initially seem to be diametrically opposed to the usual Call of Cthulhu atmosphere of dark gloom and ritual chanting, the author has masterfully recreated the same feelings of dread with the rhythmic techno beats and substance abuse of a Free Party.

The scenario is deeply rooted in the history of East London, making the most of both its industrial heritage and also the foul reputation that it had at the turn of the millennium. The author provides plenty of little tidbits of historical information through the adventure, adding to the realism that is necessary in eldritch horror, as it is impossible to fully appreciate the weird if you aren’t already grounded in the mundane. The investigators will make their way through abandoned warehouses and factories, the ruins of an asylum (always a good indicator that this is a game of Call of Cthulhu), a run down community centre, slums, and temporary portacabins, in an impressive mix of old and modern.

The scenario revolves around the investigators trying to plan a rave with sharp time constraints. To do so they will have to find both a location and a DJ. This scenario relies heavily on having characters that can fit easily into the scene: squatters, left wingers, down beat artists and anyone else wanting to get “out of the system” are perfect. This means that if you want to come in with investigators from another campaign, or if your players already have a very specific idea in mind, then it might be hard to get them to fit in, though there is always the possibility that they’re working undercover to rely on, if needed.

This being Call of Cthulhu however, not everything is as it seems, and the party is simply a front for a ritual manipulated from afar by a powerful Old One cult. As with all good CoC investigations, everyone you meet is involved, knowingly or not, in the conspiracy or even directly under the thrall of the servitor lurking below. The investigators will be left little actual choice in the actual location or DJ, as the conspiracy moves around them to put everything it needs in pace, but CoC has never been about investigators actually having an effect on the world around them, and has always focused on trying to find out what will inevitably happen before it does, to either escape it or, in some rare cases, stop it (or more likely, delay it).

The investigators are aided by the mechanical aspects of it. The author has built redundancy into the clues, providing multiple opportunities for the investigation to progress, which reduces the risk of the players feeling lost and boosts their character’s agency. The author has also employed CoC foreshadowing well. Music as a vector for eldritch power is one of the principal elements of the scenario. The author has written specific mechanics for how this works depending on distance from the source and time spent listening. This is a crucial element of the final climax, however it is also foreshadowed earlier when the investigators will suffer it’s effects in a reduced fashion, allowing them to take precautions if they’re smart about it.

The possible conclusions are all appropriately bleak, and cover the most likely outcomes, capping off a very well crafted scenario. There are a few typos, but nothing major, and which pale in comparison with the care and attention that is evident in the rest of the scenario. The layout and art is spot on, with excellent descriptions throughout, and both historical references and advice for the Keeper provided. The conclusion is also accompanied with an appropriate techno soundtrack, which can make for a very atypical ending to a scenario.

The Forbidden Beat makes the most of its setting change to shakeup the usual aesthetic without betraying its narrative origins. It ties into both the mythos and real history, making for a perfect blend of mundane and eldritch that is the solid base of any good CoC scenario. Its an innovative take that doesn’t sacrifice the story for the sake of novelty, and definitely a great choice of adventure for anyone looking for a modern one-shot that could even lead to a larger campaign.

Behind the Screens

Hello Robert, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. You’re the first, and only, scenario that uses Call of Cthulhu that we’ve got in this series. In fact, you’re the only one that isn’t in a D20 system. Could you tell my readers what are your favourite aspects of the system to help those that might be looking to expand their horizons?

Hi, and thanks for inviting me to talk about TTRPGs!

I’ve been playing Call of Cthulhu for around ten years now, so I often forget it isn’t most people’s first game. In fact, I’ve never played more than a couple of D20 games.

Without getting into the technicalities of D100-based games (it’s a percentages game, once you grok it), I often feel there is a deliberately cultivated air of mystery around Call of Cthulhu which DMs work hard to maintain. Even the fact that the GM is called the ‘Keeper’ of forbidden knowledge, rather than a Dungeon Master is significant here: players begin the game not wanting spoilers, and the game is only really effective when there is a gradual unearthing of something terrible – a secret or a piece of history or a piece of knowledge. Good players will lean into it, often playing with deliberate naivete even when they’re very experienced.

This has some fun consequences. For example: Magic. In a lot of games, being a Mage is great fun, and involves gradually becoming an unstoppable mana-powered human artillery barrage. In Call of Cthulhu it’s much less advisable. You can learn spells, but always at great personal cost, either to your character’s Sanity or Health. Likewise Loot: in most games Loot is unambiguously good for the character. In CoC, anything you recover from the wizard’s lair or the cult’s hideout is only going to be bad for you. That doesn’t mean the players won’t have good reason to read the Necronomicon, but it’s a decision akin to running up the stairs in a slasher film. Sure, there’s a reason, but everyone around the table (and the GM!) is going to be watching the consequences through their fingers.

I have written in one of my Keeper notebooks ‘Remember: Loot = Scares’!

The base game of CoC is set in the 1920s, while you’ve brought it forward to the early 2000s, and done it well I might add. Why did you decide to change the time period?

Thank you very much!

This is a debate with a lot of history (haha) for horror aficionados. Sandy Petersen, who designed the game, originally pitched it as a modern day game, but Chaosium felt that players would want to play up the escapist aspects of the game (which can be fun, and might sometimes be referred to as ‘Pulp Cthulhu’). HP Lovecraft writes somewhere that horror should always be set in the present at the time of writing, and use the best science available, and Ramsey Campbell (one of the foremost writers of Mythos horror) said in a lecture I saw that his stories basically sucked until he set them in the UK in the 1970s, when he was writing.

Now, all of that said, there are many wonderful period pieces set in 1920s Arkham, and I play a lot of those games myself. I just can’t really write them and make them convincing. I also write mainly for my playing group first, and there’s no question they get more excited by modern day settings. I think Stygian Fox with their ‘The Things We Leave Behind’ really opened my eyes to what could be done with modern, ‘True Detective’ style stories in the US. There’s also an old-school Modern Cthulhu scenario book called ‘The Stars Are Right’ which has just had an upgrade for the 21st Century and CoC 7th Edition that features some amazing modern day concepts.

Finally, I wanted to write something that I could be happy with politically. Graham Walmsley writes in the rules to ‘Cthulhu Dark’ that there’s been a tendency for Mythos Horror to focus on figures like the police, and also to centre investigations around male, white, middle-class professional figures like journalists and lawyers. Lovecraft’s own bigotry absolutely informs this, although I have to stress Call of Cthulhu players and Keepers are near universally wonderful people. At the same time, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the trope of Immigrant-Deviant-Foreigner-Cult speaking odd languages summoning demons. Setting something in the modern day gives me more access to information to address this iniquity, especially in this part of London.

When we think about the Cthulhu mythos, it’s generally flickering street lamps in fog and ritual chanting that comes to mind, not a pounding bass line and strobe lighting, but you pull it off perfectly here and after reading the adventure it just seems like such a natural fit. Where did the inspiration come from for centring your scenario around a rave?

It’s nearly all personal experience! Greg Bennison who did our incredible artwork is another ex-raver as well, and we both found it very Cathartic to channel this experience of those years into this game (it turned out we actually went to a number of the same parties, and didn’t know each other!)

There were four or five years of my life where this was all I wanted to do. I spent a lot of time in squats and warehouses listening to techno and getting deeply immersed in the scene, and really believed in the politics of it. I briefly lived in a van and travelled all over Europe, and made some really good friends (many of whom now have very – I won’t say surprisingly – respectable jobs!)

I was always fascinated by the nastier side of it: the crime, the accidents, the hospitalisations. It really contrasted with the more fluorescent view of things. Ravers sometimes talk about the ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ (TAZ), a place where the police don’t come to. That can sometimes be a very dark place – we’re talking dog attacks, fights with machetes and crowbars, people losing limbs, police using tear gas. In the end that takes its toll on everyone, and some people end up using the drugs to cope.

So why not more horror about it? With the noble exception of the blood-rave in the original ‘Blade’ movie, and a couple of B Movies, both of which take an American approach, horror has kind of ignored this, and I think that’s because it’s a very closed-off world. That makes it the perfect fit for Lovecraftian horror, because it’s sort of cult like. The rave itself is largely a dark place: often the electricity is cut off in warehouses, and so there are very dark corners: perfect for this kind of game.

In the conclusion, you advise cranking up the volume on your prepared techno playlist, and if possible adding some strobe lighting, to really shake things up and try and get the players acting in the chaos of a rave setting just like their characters have to. Is this sort of “immersive” storytelling something that you have tried in the past in your games, and do you intend to keep doing it in the future?

Oh my god yes. My collaborators and I spend far too much time trying to get these things right. I recently ran ‘The Forbidden Beat’ for the amazing ‘A Weekend With Good Friends’ convention the guys at ‘The Good Friends of Jackson Elias’ run, and I think most of my prep consisted in trying to work out how to DJ a playlist over Spotify. Lockdown has really cut into our ability to make games immersive like this, but my gaming group has produced some terrific stuff. Themed food is always good, and sound effects can make things special (Ambient-Mixer.com works for me). I think noise can be really effective: one game had a scene in a helicopter, so we all screamed at each other to replicate shouting over the rotor blades. It can’t all be candles and spooky churches, you know?

The only thing I haven’t been able to do, again because of COVID, is try the strobe but trust me, it’s coming.

I often like to talk about the world that it’s set in, but of course CoC happens in our world. Here however you’ve blended in real world historical effects into the adventure to add credibility and a certain level of realism. How much research did you have to do to get these things right, and why bother going this extra mile rather than just making it up?

So this is my neighbourhood. The game is set in East London, and I’ve lived here for many years. I teach here, it’s where I go to the supermarket. I’m very proud of my home. So part of the excitement here was the possibilities for showing it off. It’s an area that has seen massive gentrification and redevelopment in the last twenty years. Especially ‘The Wick’, where the game is set: when I was first there it was these scuzzy warehouses and graffiti everywhere, and now it’s all these posh flats. There’s also an incredible history of immigration and diversity here, combined with a sense of being a law unto itself. I read recently that the Police in the late 1800s wouldn’t even go into East London. Some people say that’s one of the reasons it produced so many boxing champions: you had to be able to take care of yourself!

I consulted with Dr Juliet Davis, an architecture professor at Cardiff University who has written about the re-development of Hackney Wick extensively, and she was kind enough to give permission for one of her maps to be used in the game itself. I think she was a bit confused about what exactly we were producing: I usually say it’s ‘participatory theatre’, which is true, I think!

So the reason I bother with this kind of verisimilitude is partly pride in my neighbourhood, and also a sense that things are scarier when they seem real. Like Orson Welles with ‘War of the Worlds’ the radio show or the BBC’s ‘Ghostwatch’. To quote Lovecraft again, ‘the work must be executed with the same care and attention of an actual hoax’.

There is a wider conspiracy at work in your scenario, with an antagonist behind the scenes that doesn’t appear in person. Do you have plans to follow up on this in the future? Or possibly develop other scenarios set in the modern period?

I’m so glad you asked. We are continually at work on the ‘Big Project’, which would be four or five scenarios set around millennial London, and culminating at a certain big event that took place in Hackney Wick in 2012. The hidden antagonist is a very big part of that, and there’s playtesting going on right now to see how players respond to That Person and their machinations.

Is there anything else you would like to add before we finish?

Only to thank the ‘Project Fear’ crew: Al, Abe, Ben, Greg, Jess, Mal, Robbie D, and my girlfriend Alma who drew the maps and helped with the layouts and also encouraged me to get the thing finished! We’ve been telling horror stories for twenty years together and can’t wait to share more with the world.

This is just the beginning!

Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!

You can find the adventure on the DriveThruRPG here, and more work by Robert here. You can also follow them on Twitter.

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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