The Watchers in the Sky is the second of four Purist scenarios written by Graham Walmsley (the first was The Dying of St. Margaret’s). While not meant to be a “sequel” to St. Margaret's the two scenarios share a certain feel and setting that make them work well as a series, albeit using different investigators.
The scenario is available as a thirty-six page gray-scale PDF (the cover is color) for a very reasonable $5.95. The layout and editing are good, with just a few minor errors. The three-column layout is easy to work with at the table when printed out, but makes the PDF very difficult to use on a tablet without a lot of zooming and repositioning. The scenario includes four handouts at the end of the PDF, each of which looks great.
The Watchers in the Sky is designed to be a standalone scenario, taking two-three sessions to complete. While it could be converted to a one-shot convention style play, doing so would require cutting out some of the auxiliary scenes that help develop the investigators and thus some of the richness of the scenario is lost. However, with a good group and tight, directed scene pacing, it's still possible to get a great experience even out of a single, four-hour session.
Speaking of Investigators, Watchers is constructed to make use of the five Investigators included with the scenario. While it can be adapted to other investigators, Keepers will find the scenario easier to run and a lot more powerful using these investigators since they've been tailored for the scenario, have a strong link to the story, and have been constructed to have a certain amount of friction between each other, as well as the story which really helps bring them to life at the table and get things moving quickly. Having used the investigators from Walmsley's adventures before, I think they really enhance the story and and recommend using them to get the most out of the scenario.
As explained in the scenario's description, The Watchers In The Sky blends elements of Hitchcock's [url= http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birds_(film)]The Birds[/url] with Lovecraftian horror to create something new but which feels familiar. The scenario begins with a prologue, using the Direct Scenes technique Walmsley first introduced in The Dying of St. Margaret's. These help bring to bring the investigators to life, revealing their Sources of Stability and background in a meaningful, story-rich way rather than simply dumping info on players – in other words, this scenario is all about the principle of "show, don't tell." This technique also helps involve players whose characters aren't present in the scene by asking them to take on the role of a NPC, keeping all the players involved and helping create a unique experience.
Once the Prologue is out of the way, the investigation kicks in to full speed, with the group investigating the appearance of a strange flock of misshapen birds. With three different places for PCs to start, the scenario does a wonderful job of bringing the PCs together in a very natural way, having them meet up in the University of Brichester's library after a series of set-up scenes that introduce each of them to different clues regarding the investigation, though all involve strange misshapen birds that seem to be watching those involved. Once they meet in the library the pace of the investigation picks up, as the group pieces together clues to track down the origins of the strange flock of birds, uncover cultists, and ultimately discover part of the horrible truth behind the creatures.
The Watchers in the Sky is very well-written, with an immense amount of advice and guidelines on how to bring the scenario to life, although much of it is embedded in the text and thus it requires some careful reading to get the most out of it. For example, all of the major NPCs are succinctly, but vividly outlined, complete with suggestions on how to portray that at the table – for a Keeper who likes to really get into roles, this is awesome stuff, as it is to those new to the art of GMing, though the latter may find it all a bit intimidating at first.
Similarly, the scenario works best when a GM knows it inside and out, and where players take a proactive role in talking to NPCs, searching locations (though GUMSHOE's rules help a lot here), and actively following up clues. Without this active engagement the scenario is likely to fall flat and passive, “make the connections for us” type groups will find the scenario difficult or even boring. However, this is unlikely to be a problem for the vast majority of Trail of Cthulhu groups given the nature and focus of the game.
The scenario is also written in a wonderful, open-ended manner in which not all of the details of the Horrible Truth are provided. This approach may annoy some readers, but it keeps true to Lovecraft's own approach – particularly in his more “Purist” stories which Watchers is trying to emulate – in which only glimpses of creatures are provided and much of the real details are left to the reader's imagination. This helps provide an unsettling uncertainty to the whole story which I think really ramps up the suspense and mystery. It also lets the Keeper customize the scenario to his or her perspective on the Mythos and thus make it their own.
One other feature of the scenario bears mentioning: it includes a sidebar featuring alternative to the default ToC Insanity rules ( “Drive yourself Crazy”) in which the players take control of when their investigators suffer Stability loss rather than the GM – the players decide when to call for Stability Checks, thereby putting control of their character's descent into madness. These rules are a great addition to the game for seasoned players, especially those who want to play a character who is clearly out of their depth or losing their grip on reality. I love this approach and it's one I've adopted for nearly all my ToC games since it both offloads some of my work as a Keeper plus rewards players for engaging both the system and the genre. I also love it for use with these single scenarios using pregenerated characters since it lets players pace their character's slipping sanity. That said, the rules are not going to work for every group, particularly if you're playing with those who are unfamiliar with Lovecraftian horror or who are extremely gamist (i.e., you can make your character essentially impervious to the horror simply by choosing to never lose sanity – keep in mind that for some characters would make perfect sense).
The Watchers in the Sky is another excellent example of a Purist scenario in which the investigators are ultimately helpless against the forces they're up against and much of the story involves their battling with this realization. Similarly, Hitchcock's The Birds doesn't end with the good guys winning but rather with the protagonists driving away with huge flocks of birds. Thus, Watchers manages to stay true to both sources of inspiration, blending the two to create something new and interesting.
Watchers does a fine job of this: it is explicitly designed to be played in Purist mode and would be difficult to convert to a Pulp-style game and won't appeal to those looking for that style of game. That doesn't mean Watches is boring though. In fact it is engaging, well-paced, and has the potential for a lot of suspense. Hence, it delivers exactly what Purists want and does so in a novel way.
Watchers also helps demonstrate how robust the Trail of Cthulhu rules are, focusing on the Sources of Stability mechanic, bringing it to the forefront. The adventure is a perfect follow-up to The Dying of St. Margaret's, though at its heart it has a very different feel to it: While St. Margaret's is all about bleak despair and decay, Watcher's focuses on the mysterious and weird alien nature associated with the Mythos. As such, it's clear that Walmsley has a clear understanding of the different themes present in Lovecraft's stories and that's what makes these scenarios so great.
[5 of 5 Stars!]