This review is part of my list of Maritime TTRPG scenarios. This overview is meant to help players to select the adventures they want to play. It’s spoiler-free up the section for gamemasters. Please keep the comments spoiler-free as well!
April 12th, 1926, 8:15pm. The Beacon Island lighthouse off the shore of Folly Point, Massachusetts, ceased to cast its light over the region’s dangerous rocky waters about 15 minutes ago. As a result, the SS Essex County, a mixed passenger and cargo vessel on which you are all traveling to Rockport, has foundered on the rocks and incurred considerable damage to its hull.The LightLess Beacon, page 9
The ship is sinking, and the crew hurries you toward one of the many small rowboats acting as the ship’s lifeboats. As they load you in, they tell you your best bet is to aim for Beacon Island—they doubt you’ll make the mainland as a storm is brewing. You should have just enough time to reach the island before it hits.
Then, without another word, they shove you off into the dark, churning waters. All you have to guide you is the small light shining at the base of the lighthouse’s towering silhouette.
- System/Ruleset: Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition
- Dependencies: Basic Rules only (several options)
- Authors: Leigh Carr with Lynne Hardy
- Setting: 1920s, New England, USA
- Theme: Lighthouse, Smuggling, Mythos
- Pregens: four, gender-neutral & nameless
- Players: 2-4 (5+ optional), best with 4
- Time (as written/as tested): 60/300 mins
- Source: The Lightless Beacon (Free PDF)
- Weird Admiral’s Rating: 7/7
The Lightless Beacon is a great introductionary scenario, especially designed for new players and/or Keepers. It seems to be written for convention play in mind, with an estimate of just one hour needed for completion. Don’t let this fool you! Investigative scenarios tend to need way more time if you let the players do their thing. The authors know this too and give plenty examples for options that will prolong the story. In our own playthrough with three players and one Keeper, we stretched this small adventure to more than five hours in total and had a blast with it, even though literally every element in the setup let’s you drive the players to a quick, and most likely bloody end.
This scenario loses no time in bringing the team together, which I like a lot (and which reminds me of the Naufractus scenario by Oscar Rios for Cthulhu Invictus). The second act has a lot of natural occuring clues and creepiness to build up tension and literally no railroading at all, as the investigators are free to go where they want – although in a somewhat limited environment. In our game, the investigators didn’t even explore the whole island before the conclusion. But even with missing some parts of the scenario, they could easily deduce what was happening and how to survive. The ending leaves the Keeper with a variable trigger and several options, which should satisfy all kinds of players.
Having played a lot of 6th Edition Call of Cthulhu in the past – both as Keeper and as Investigator – this scenario was my first that made full use of the 7th Edition ruleset. I feel that the new character sheets make understanding the rules much easier in many ways. Also the opposing rolls table is finally gone and there seem to be way less skills than before – which is a good thing, too. The basic problem with the rules hasn’t changed though: rolling tests for obtaining important information is not only outdated but can spoil whole investigations. There are other rulesets, e.g. the GUMSHOE system, that do better in this regard. However, 7th edition still seems to be an improvement.
Gamemasters’ section – Spoilers ahead!
- Where does the SS Essex County come from? The scenario gives us the ship’s destination, Rockport, but does not state its point of origin. The investigators’ background descriptions do not help with his, as the Marine Biologist seems to be from Boston, while the artist works their “way down from Portland … to … Cape Cod”. The ship’s position at the beginning of the scenario (and the investigators’ arrival at the island from the North) would only make sense when the vessel was traveling south to Rockport, else it would have passed Rockport before even seeing or needing the Beacon Island lighthouse for navigation. But then it would have passed Innsmouth some time before, right?
- What about the other passengers and crew? The introduction has the crew of the ship shove the investigators into a lifeboat and push them off with specific instructions to head for the island. After that, neither any other passengers nor crew from the Essex County are ever mentioned again. The Keeper will have to decide on their fates. Have they all perished with their boat? Have they been cast away from the island by the wind and waves? Why does none of them show up on Beacon island? Of course you could use this openness to get additional people onto the island if you have to replace incapacitated or killed investigators, or want to spook the players even more.
- What if the investigators freely hand over all the coins to the attackers? The conclusion sees only two main outcomes for the scenario: either all investigators die or something will scare the attackers away so they can survive the night. In our game, the players very quickly deduced from the evidence found that the attackers were primarily after the coins. They decided to throw the coins at them from the top of the lighthouse and give the treasure up completely, while they were preparing for their last stand at the top of the lighthouse. I decided that this should work, as the attackers are described as being on a retrieval mission only, and let them grab their gold with a dramatic gesture (with which they still absolutely spooked the Marine Biologist).