Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Let's Play Alone Against the Tide

Alone Against the Tide

I’ve been on a bit of a “solo module” kick lately. They’re a very different take on Solo gaming than what I’m used to, but still a number of them are really fun. For some reason, Call of Cthulhu seems to have a good number of these, and most of them are really solid. Which shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. A lone investigator confronting horrors Man Was Not Meant To Know is far more in the Lovecraftian wheelhouse than, say, “disparate team of mercenaries, spies, Occult Scholars and the idle rich put aside their differences to save the world.”

One of the newer ones I haven’t had a chance to play yet is Alone Against the Tide by Nicholas Johnson. It’s gotten some great reviews and sounds like a classic setup. The PC is sent to the small town of Esbury, Massachusetts following the death of Professor William Harris. The rules only require the 7th Edition Quick Start Rules (available Here) and the player creates their PC during the module.  That’s about all I know, so let’s get started!

It probably goes without saying that the following, being an Actual Play of the module, is just about ALL SPOILERS.  Proceed with care.

I start by boarding the small, rickety ferry that will take me to the lakeside resort town of Esbury. The captain of the small boat greets me with a halfhearted wave. There are other passengers boarding behind me, so I take my place at the prow, eyes fixed to our destination.

The rest of the passengers seem to be weekenders and tourists, going to relax and shop at the resort. The boat fills with their quiet laughter and gossip, though one fellow traveler stands out to me—a lovely woman with brown hair and eyes who seems to be checking me out.

It’s here that I start creating my character, starting with my Characteristics—Strength, Constitution, Power, Dexterity, Appearance, Size, Intelligence, and Education. I have a list of values I can assign as I see fit (40, 50, 50, 50, 60, 60, 70, 80). At this point, I have no particular idea of who the PC is, nor do I want to try and second guess the module or “min/max.” Failing roles, after all, can sometimes be more fun than making them. So, I decide to assign them randomly. I figure I’ll roll randomly and assign from lowest to highest. For example, to start off I rolled a d8 and got a 2. Since “Constitution” is the second Characteristic on the list, that gets the 40. “Rugged Man of Action” this guy ain’t. Continuing with this, I end up with the following:
Strength (STR)
Appearance (APP)
Constitution (CON)
Size (SIZ)
Power (POW)
Intelligence (INT)
Dexterity (DEX)
Education (EDU)

So, whoever this character is, he’s fast and big. He’s also pretty strong and attractive, but not terribly well educated. His low Constitution is a bit at odds with his otherwise athletic build, so I decide to make the dude a smoker.

The woman notices me returning her gaze and gives me a quick wink before returning to her companion. I let my gaze go back to the lake. After a few minutes, the ferryman comes up to me. He busies himself with some work on the ropes but strikes up a conversation all the same. He says that I look a tad lonely out here, and is wondering what brings me to Esbury. I strike up a fresh Lucky and tell him that…

This is where you finalize character creation. There are eight possible answers (the eight sample Professions from the Quick Start) and each leads me down a different path. I again roll a d8 and get a 5—Journalist. I used a combination of dice rolls and whim to assign the various skills. I do go ahead and grab skills like Spot Hidden and Stealth as Personal Interest Skills. A good muckraker sometimes has to be a bit dirty, after all.

I’m going to skip most of the gearing up part. I have no weapons, of course. And I have whatever seems reasonable for a journalist—rumbled suit, notepad, camera, pens and papers, that sort of thing. Completed sheet is to the right.

I tell him I’m Joey Ryan, and I’m a big-time reporter with the Boston Globe, being sent up here to get the dirt on some professor or something. Word is, he died under, how you say, mysterious circumstances. The ferryman laughs a bit and shakes his head. He had heard of Professor Harris passing away, but doesn’t know much about the circumstances. He introduces himself as Lance Sanford, and lets me know that there’s an estate sale for the Professor going on tonight, and that he’s sure that Officer Powell and Prof. Harris’ widow, Amelia, will both be there.

Since Lance seems a bit bored, I decide to hit him up with some questions about what’s been going on. I start by asking what he knows about Harris. Apparently, the ferryman and the Professor got along pretty well. Harris was an academic, focusing on the American Indian, and seemed to have been in pretty good spirits recently. In fact, he was downright excited about something. Which is why Lance is a bit skeptical about the “suicide” that was supposed to have taken place.

You and me both, pally.

I don’t have time to pump the fella for any more information before a thick mist begins rolling in, and Lance needs to head back to the helm to take us in safely. It takes a bit longer for us to come to dock—the damn mist making everything murky, and indistinct. But I can’t fault Lance for his piloting—he brings us in smoothly and safely. I’m one of the first to get off, but I make sure to hold up and help the other passengers. How else would I get a chance to see the lovely brunette again? I am just about to ask her name when two dark-suited jerks bump into me, knocking me off my game. She shoots me a smile and a quick wink. I promise myself that, once this story is filed, I’m gonna need to track her down.

It’s practically night by the time we got to the dock, and part of me thinks I should go find a place to bed down. But a decently sized crowd seems to be headed to a lavish, modern-looking building by the lake. I follow them, and see a sign with the word “ESTATE SALE TONIGHT.” Well, guess it’s time I earned my stipend. Pulling out my PRESS badge, I head into the building.

The place is full of all sorts of people--most of them the well-healed, well dressed sort. Making the whole thing feel like a fancy dinner party. A couple of folks strike my interest--there's a copper by the door, some dusky skinned chap in an orange robe, my two dark-suited friends from the dock (who are chatting up some young fella in a fancy longcoat), and an absolutely lovely young woman up on stage with some old guy.  Everyone else seems to be either collectors or just using this as an excuse for a night out. Putting my 4th Estate duties first and foremost, I make my way to the stage to chat with the young woman. She's probably the widow Harris, or a friend of hers. In any case, someone worth talking to.

I could actually talk to a number of people at the Auction, but I figure my reporter would focus on the widow and perhaps the cop for his story.

I make my way to the stage, where I catch the woman’s eye. She gives me a flirty smile, and introduces herself as Amelia Harris, widow of the late Professor. “Well aren’t you a new face in town?” She teases playfully. “We get those quite a bit here. No doubt you plan to bid on some of my late husband’s things. Good for both of us, I say. Just be sure to give a good price for little old me, alright?” I decide to play her game and start chatting her up.

I need to make a Charm (60) roll to continue. I get a 42, for a success.

We banter back and forth for a bit, but she pleads that decorum prevents anything else from happening. She’s not terribly upset about her husband’s death, but she does seem to be in need of money. We make vague plans to meet up for a drink later.

I can now talk to up to three other guests at the event before the auction begins. I decide to try and chat up the Officer by the door, see if I can something “unofficial” from the official investigation.

I make my way to the rear of the building, doing my darndest to seem like I belong. I give the copper by the door a friendly nod, and hope he’s as bored as he looks. As I approach, he seems more alert than I first thought, meets my eyes, and says “I really hope there isn’t any sort of problem citizen. I wouldn’t want to see anyone getting hurt tonight.”

I need to make a Psychology (50) roll. I get a 27, for a success.

He seems more like the gangsters that run the streets of Boston than any sort of Law Officer I’ve ever seen.  Thuggish cops, greedy widows—this was supposed to be a simple fluff piece, but I’m starting to think I’ve stumbled upon something more significant. The foreigner in the orange robe—he’s being politely ignored by most of the guests. I decide to chat up with him—what brings him here, and what does he know about this mess?

I walk up to him, but as I approach, he turns to me and stares intensely at me.

I need to make an Anthropology (01) roll. I get a 6, for a failure.

I blurt out a quick greeting—“Hey there fella! Helluva party, don’t ya think?”. But I seem to have offended him somehow. He turns his back, wanting nothing more to do with me.

Foreigners. What are ya gonna do?

But those guys from the docks being here. They seem like they belong as much as I do. Which is to say, not at all. I make my way towards them, hoping they don’t remember me. As soon as I get close, though, one of them turns to me and says “Scram man, we don’t know you. You got nothing to do with us.” Even their friend in the longcoat seems annoyed at my presence. Well, isn’t this a fun party? As I turn to walk away, something about their jackets draws my attention…

I need to make a Spot Hidden (45) roll. I get a 53, a failure. It’s close enough that I could use Luck, but I figure I’ll hold off until things are a tad more desperate. 35 points aren’t something to waste casually.

but I figure it’s nothing. I hear the old man and Amelia welcoming everyone to the Auction. The whole crowd quiets down, and the main even is ready to start. Gotta hand it to the lady, she plays the “grieving widow” bit quite well. A few tears, delicate sniffling, even a few moments of being so overwhelmed with emotion that she can barely speak. The whole crowd seems moved by her emotion. I wonder how many of them notice her makeup remains unsmeared. She soon makes way for the old man who was with her—a Mr. Warren—who begins by laying out the items. The major items appear to be an altar of some sort (with yellow-green gemstones), a bronze crown from India, Prof. Harris’ notebook, some Brahmin robe, and a statue of some sort of minor Indian god.

I thought Prof. Harris was studying American Indians, not, you know, Indian Indians?

I need to make an Appraise (05) or Archaeology (01) check. I go for Appraise and get a 96, a failure.

I have no idea what any of this junk is, or what it could be worth. But it sure like the rest of the crowd is excited. Hell, people are even bidding on the guys notebooks! My dark suited friends and the guy in the robe are particularly interested in some of the stuff. I have a small stipend, but my editor really didn’t give me the clear for buying anything besides a cheap hotel and a cup of coffee, but the notebook might reveal just what Harris was working on and why his widow doesn’t seem to upset about his death. I put down a number that seems high and potentially affordable.  Hopefully the more glamorous items get all the attention.

I need to make a Credit Rating (40). I roll and get a 78, a failure.

I severely underestimate how valuable a bunch of notes could be, or the people are just operating on a different level than I am. I should really bring this up with my editor!

I don’t bother bidding on anything else, instead watching the auction. The fella in the robes seems to be happy with what he got, as do my friends in the dark suits. Amelia in particular seems happy, though she conceals it well. Pretty soon, the shindig breaks up. Most of the guests seem to be heading off to other, probably more exciting, events. But it’s late, and I plead exhaustion. Or I would, you know, if anyone invited me anywhere. Or talked to me.

The fog has gotten even worst during the party, and I can barely see my hand in front of my face. I get turned around a half dozen times before I find myself back at the flophouse I had eyed by the docks. I’m lucky that the owner is still up at this time of night, and is willing to rent me a room. After the auction I was ready for the worst, but my stipend would actually cover her rate AND leave me enough left over to buy a sandwich. Maybe even a cup of joe.  Assuming I don’t tip.
The room I get is small and a tad dusty, but I’ve slept in far worse. Hell, I live in far worse. I try to get one last look at the lake, but the damn fog is so thick that it’s just a mass of dark grey out there. I throw my suitcase to the side and crawl into bed. I only smoke another couple of cigarettes before passing out.

Joey. Hard at work.
I wake up to the smell of toast and eggs. Looks like a friendlier place than I thought, as there’s a plate waiting for me on the small, cramped writing desk. Nothing else seems to have been touched. I wolf down the breakfast and jot down a rough draft of my article.

I head outside, and the damn fog is still around. It’s thicker than it was last night, but at least the weak sunlight makes it a bit more manageable. I need to get a sit down with the widow Harris, but I’m not sure what their address is. I reckon I could ask the cops in town—need to speak with them anyway. 
But if that thug at the door last night is any indication, these ain’t your typical, friendly, small town cops. In fact, so far, ain’t no one in this town has seemed all that friendly. Well, Amelia was pretty friendly, but in all the wrong ways. I decide to go chat with Lance—he knew the professor and might be just enough of an outsider to give me some perspective.

The fog seems actually a tad greenish as I make my way through it. Something about the lake, I wonder idly? I mean to bring it up with Lance, but he’s nowhere to be found. His ferry seems tied up pretty tight. I spend a few minutes looking around, hoping to find him, when one of the fellas who works down there notices me. He calls out, tells me that there’s no ferry running today, because of the fog. He gestures around, as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Oh,” I shout back at him. “I hadn’t noticed.”

So, I made a bad assumption. The module lets you either go over your items (I didn’t buy anything, so no point), go to the cops, or go the docks. I thought the docks would let me talk to Lance, but it’s your “I want to leave option.” So, that leaves me with “go to the cops.”

I head off to the police station. Maybe they can give something resembling an answer. The place is a small brick building, and an entire Boston precinct has been crammed into a single room. Filing cabinets, closet sized holding pen, one heavy wooden desk…and squeezed together till a man couldn’t hope to get by. Sitting in the middle, like a king pin smoking a cigar, sits Officer Powell. I ask him about the report on the Professor’s death. He replies with a snort ““You have no business dealing with that, and even if you did, this is my jurisdiction. Shove off and leave me in peace.”

I need to make a Fast Talk (60) roll. I get a 37.

I start droppin names, fella’s from the streets I’ve heard about from the older guys at the paper. Two-toe Mickey, Big Time Sal, and Little Sully, all the usual racketeers—people I figure a thug like this might take a bit more seriously than a mere reporter. He relents and lets me skim the report.

It’s clean, neat, and well presented. But it’s also thin. Damn thin. According to the report, Harris’ death is officially a suicide. He died in his study, alone. He seems to have done it on a night when no one else was home. His wife found him the next morning. No note was left, no criminal history, and the weapon was unregistered. When he clears his throat loudly, I hand it back, thanking him.
I’m sure there’s a cover up now.

Least I got the address for Amelia Harris.

Takes me a while to get there, though. This damn green fog has turned everything into a dreamlike haze, and it’s not as if this place was laid out with any rhyme or reason to begin with. When I finally do, some guy steps out, decides to get fresh with me. He’s got a dark suit, a ratty mustache, and a flat cap.

“You’re an unwelcome surprise. I don’t know what you’re looking for, but you won’t find it here. Why don’t you leave the poor widow alone, you creep? If you want to bother her, you’re going to have to go through old Joshua here, capiche?” He keeps his hand near his waist. Either he’s carrying, or he wants me to think he is.

I eye him evenly until he spits on the ground and moves on. I don’t want to antagonize anyone, but I sure ain’t here to be bullied, either. Once he’s clear, I make my way to the house.

The place sure looks comfortable, all baroque and well crafted. Definitely well maintained. Guess being a Professor pays pretty good. After I bang on the door a few times, Amelia herself answers. Gone is the grieving widow from last night—today she’s wearing a bright red dress. To call it “flattering” is putting it mildly. She smiles and invites me in. She puts her hand on my arm, as if we were old friends, and guides me through the large foyer. There’s crates and boxes everywhere, which she blames on the slow porters. Looks like she’s clearing the place out.

We head into a small drawing room and chat amicably for a bit. When I ask her about her late husband, she sighs theatrically. “I can’t imagine what you want to know about William. I found him in his study with the gun still in his mouth. What more could you want to know?”

I need to make a Psychology (50) roll. I get a 23, a success.

She’s not even pretending anymore, is she? But there’s something else about her. Something that’s…wrong. I’m just about to press her, when there’s a violent knock on the door “Police! Open the door.” That damn thug Powell. Amelia’s face drains white, and I decide to make myself scarce.

I could sit and see what the cops want, but I don’t trust them. The other option is to make a Stealth (40) check. I roll and get an 88, a failure.

I stand quickly, looking for an escape. There is too many rooms, and too many hallways. I finally notice the kitchen and decide there must be an exit that way. Before I can take more than a step though, I hear “Freeze! You’re under arrest for trespassing!” He has me dead to rights. I put my arms up and go quietly.

I could try to run here, but I feel like my character would go with the “discretion is the better form of valor.”

As I’m escorted down the street, I see that little bastard “Joshua” grinning like the proverbial cat. He’s not even trying to hide his involvement. I swallow my pride and eventually get to the police station, where I’m locked up in the closet sized “holding cell.” This is ridiculous—even Powell must know that. I’m a reporter, for crying out loud, and I was drinking coffee with the homeowner. In what world is THAT trespassing? Though…why didn’t Amelia say anything?

I have some options here. Waiting the night out, trying to break out, or making a Fast Talk (60) roll. I opt for the later and get a 04, a success.

I try reason, threats, and even bribery, but nothing gets through to him. Finally, I promise to get out of town, and that seems to placate him. He unlocks the cell, and I skedaddle out of there.

I head back to the motel, needing a warm bath and hopefully a hot meal. Instead, my day just keeps getting worse. I find my room ransacked! The bed is overturned, drawers pulled out. My article is gone, though nothing else seems to have been taken. The window was left open, and the cold, greenish mist is drifting into the room. I start trying to clean up the mess, when I hear a violent commotion from next door. I rush over to investigate.

I kick open my neighbors door, and see some fella in a suit making short work of the foreigner in the robe. His back is towards me, so I rush the thug. I don’t know if this is the same guy who visited my room, but it doesn’t matter. You can’t just go around beating people up, no matter how funny they dress!

I need to make a Brawl (25) roll. I get an 83, a failure. As a result, I take 1d3 damage—I take 1.

He must’ve heard me approach, because he swings around and catches me in the chest, knocking me back. He’s on top of me before I can react, pummeling my head. I try to defend myself, and I turn just in time to see the guy in the robes running out of the room.

You’re welcome, pal.

I do my best, but it’s not long before the guy lands a few solid hits, and everything goes dark.

I awaken, stripped of my shirt, tied to a chair in some musty basement. My bruises and cuts are still there, untended, hurting like hell. There’s a table in front of me, full of all the items from the auction—the crown and the altar and that weird idol thingy.  By the only apparent exit, stands one of my friends from the dock. By the table stands Joshua, I think. When he sees me moving my head around, he gesture for the suit to leave, picks up a knife, and saunters over to me.

He presses the knife into my check, until I can feel the warm blood oozing down it. “Thought you could cause trouble for Josh, eh? I’m going to enjoy this. Getting rid of my little problem. Everything was fine until you started snooping around. You’re putting me and Amelia both at danger here, and you’re getting in the way of my plans. So I’m going to enjoy tearing open your throat and offering up your life to the idol. Perhaps it will please him. And then I will get what I want. I’ll finally make my way to that beautiful place that I’ve seen in my dreams. It will be over soon, but I will bleed you slow. Because I want to enjoy this…”

He presses the knife deeper, and I struggle to escape.

I need to make a Strength (60) check. I roll, and get an 81, a failure. That’s a 21 point difference, but if there’s ever a time to spend Luck “tied up and being tortured by a madman” is that time. I spend the 21 points (leaving me with 14), turning it into a success.

He’s distracted by my blood, and doesn’t notice me working the ropes against the chair until they finally break. As they fall, Joshua is momentarily in shock—and a moment is all I need. I rush forward and tackle him, making sure to get my hands on his wrist, twisting the knife away.

I need to make a Brawl (25) check and get a 91, a failure. Even if I used all my remaining Luck, it would still be a failure.

I can’t get the damn blade away, and Joshua balls up his other hand and hits me, hard, against the ears. I fall off of him and go reeling. Soon, he is on top of me. He grabs me by the throat, pinning me. His eyes seem to glaze over as he speaks in some strange tongue Grah'n y'hah ngnw ronog Bokrug stell'bsna, phlegeth ep throd ron.” I wonder what he thinks he’s saying, when the cold steel slices into my throat.

As my vision fades, I see a shiny city of marble, onyx, and lustrous gems—a city of splendor and magnificence near a crystal lake. Then the city is gone, and the serpent from the idol rises from the lake, eyeing me, until the waters rise and consume me. 


  1. I got into solo RPGs a few months ago, thanks to Me, Myself, and Die. This is great--bookmarking it!

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