The historic horrors inflicted on the Russian people during the collectivization process were terrible, if a bit mundane in the grand scheme of things. Sure, people were starved, left to freeze, slaughtered and forced to move off their ancestral homelands. But at least their souls were not torn apart. Throw in a cosmic horror from the depths of space and an unbearable life becomes a terrifying tragedy. This is just the kind of dark environment that is perfect for a Call of Cthulhu adventure. This collectivization is exactly the setting for the adventure Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37.
In case anyone is confused about just how bleak the setting is coming into the adventure, one of the first things the adventure tells the players and game master is that there is no way of winning the adventure. In fact, there is a big chance that all the characters will not survive. This will be a strange paradigm to a lot of players, who are accustomed to the kind of adventures that might be difficult but are beatable like most D&D standards. But there is nothing more Lovecraftian than a story where the most even the smartest, strongest and most skilled individual can hope for is survival.
After a brief introduction, the scenario starts with an extensive description of the locations where the adventure is going to take place. This description goes building by building and even room by room in many cases. Often, even the smallest detail is provided. They even go so far as to define how long it will take for the group to search a room and find the pertinent clues. This might seem excessive but given the time limits that become apparent later, it can be invaluable information.
This is a bit disorienting as the GM is given a lot of information about the maps before being told what is actually going to go on in them. It almost feels like a site based scenario at first, though a very boring one in that there is no real threat inherent in any of the locations. The reason for this level of detail becomes evident later when more detail about the nature of the story and the events that take place are provided. The adventure is more of a simple framework that provides the locations and the results of the various actions that the characters can take in those locations juxtaposed against the actions of the threat rather than a streamlined narrative.
In fact, the adventure itself takes up less than half the book. While this might seem to be paltry, no more needs to be provided because despite how detailed the site descriptions are, it is not a site based adventure, or even really an event based story. Rather, the real story is the interaction between the player characters. The “antagonist” of the story, like those in most great horror tales is more of a plot device than a real opponent. It exists in the narrative to increase the tension between the characters more than being a direct threat though it is assuredly a threat. A distinct lack of food and other supplies as well as the intense environment in which the characters find themselves also torque up the tension.
If the characters worked together against the danger that threatens them, they could likely all survive. But in the end, though, it is the characters and their conflicts with each other that make the story. It is just the kind of adventure that certain evil bastards like to run where all the GM has to do is set up the situation and watch the players cut each other’s throats. And when it seems like they might come to some agreement or find some peace, the GM is given plenty of complications to be thrown in to set them against each other again.
Because of the structure of the adventure, the remainder of the book consists of information for both the game master and players to give them the details they need to properly play out the scenario. This includes the history of what happened at the Station before the party came for the game master so that he has a good grasp of how things reached such dire straits.
This includes an extensive description of the entity causing the problems in the Machine Tractor Station, both in game and mechanically. As promised, it is essentially immune to anything the players can do. The characters and annoy it or slow it down, but there is almost no chance that they will be able to kill it.
Also provided are an impressive amount of handouts. These handouts include a number of bits of information and details that the players can find or possess from the beginning that will give them some idea of what has happened. Of course, it is much more limited and flawed than what is provided to the game master and largely serves only to send the characters down the wrong path or intensify the terror they are feeling.
But no matter how prepared the game master is in this sort of scenario, it will not be interesting or entertaining if the players are not as prepared or invested in the game. As such, rather than players bringing in their own characters, there are pre-generated characters provided for this adventure. Players should definitely uses these characters as characters that the players bring in or attached to are very likely going to meet a bad end before it’s all over with. Moreover, a random conglomeration of characters or, worse, a group of friends or even just friendly investigators will not have the drives necessary for the game to be interesting.
The phenomenal number of handouts for the players makes it easy for them to get into the mindsets of the provided characters. This doesn’t end at the character sheets, which are nicely detailed in and of themselves and have all the mechanical stats necessary to play the game as well as a short description of the person’s appearance, personality and relationships. There are also special secret messages for the characters to review as well as secret motivations for the players to work off of to help flesh out their characters and their interactions with other characters.
The players are divided into two groups with inherently conflicting purposes in the story. But to add to that tension, some of the characters have further, secret conflicts with other members of their own group. This only adds another layer of conflict between the characters. These people might try to kill each other even without the outside pressure of a being beyond our understanding of time, space and life trying to devour them.
One of the many handouts that explains what the characters might know revolves around the Tunguska incident. Anyone who has more than dabbled in the realm of unexplained occurrences knows about this incident from around the turn of the century. Even decades later, no one has been able to completely explain the phenomena that were discovered. But whether or not it has anything to do with the problems at Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 or not, will have to be discovered by the players.
In case players decide not to try to kill each other over the material in their backgrounds and are going to try a leisurely investigation, the Game Master is given both the tools and encouragement to delve into the minutia of survival in the frigid, deserted world of Machine Tractor Station Kharkov to ensure that they are still forced to strive for survival. Keeping warm and finding food are almost as dangerous as the creature that is trying to eat the characters and the group is required to dedicate time and effort (either their own or that of the NPC’s with them) to dealing with both. This only amps up the tension of the plot another notch.
Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 ends up being an excellent example of one of the best type of horror stories. While there is a horrible, unfathomable monster stalking the characters, it is how the characters deal with that threat and, more importantly, with each other that actually makes the story.