[Review] Among the Dead
Written by Mark Galeotti and Loren K. Wiseman (1992, GDW)
Among the Dead is an 82-page adventure published in 1992 by GDW for the Dark Conspiracy game line. Complete with GDW’s higher than average layout and art standards (at least for the time), this scenario is one of the best produced in the series. A good read, it brings Russia—in the world of Dark Conspiracy—to life, but fails to provide a completely compelling story at points.The adventure itself is divided into seven main sections, five which describe the storyline and events the characters will find themselves encountering, while the final two detail the setting and history of the plot’s two main locations – New York and Moscow.
Probably one of the best, and arguably most interesting, aspects of this scenario is its hook – or how the characters get involved in the story. Here the group are approached by a rich Russian immigrant, Alexander Lobov, and are asked (or hired) to discover what has happened to his niece, Annya Makasheva. Annya is one of Lobov’s few remaining relatives, and was working her way to be with him, when she suddenly vanished in New York. While this is not an overly original introduction to an investigative adventure, it is the presentation of this initial lead—a series of hand written letters—that really brings the players into the story, and adds that little bit of ‘something special’ to the hook.
I’ve personally used this hook, and the handout letters, on a number of occasions; it is, in my opinion, a great way of getting a group of players invested into a plot. The addition of something physical (in this case the handouts), which lays out the first logical steps in the investigation really helps the game get over the ‘hump’ of an initial session (where the players generally are still getting into character and are usually a little lost as to the goal of the story that confronts them!).
Once the characters accept the job for Lobov, they quickly discover that Roosevelt Island Children’s Hospital—the hospital where Annya worked as a nurse—is covering up some rather suspicious activities. The sections The Big Apple and the Hospital detail the investigation into these leads, and draw the characters deeper into the mystery.
Suffice to say that the party should quickly discover that Annya’s disappearance isn’t the only thing of interest going on at the hospital, and that they are now on the trail of some larger, more sinister, conspiracy. Amongst such discoveries are crates labelled BPX, which will quickly become the ‘white rabbit’ (i.e. consistent lead) for the rest of the adventure.
This part of the adventure also concludes with one of the ickiest revelations I’ve read in a role-playing game, and when you throw in the characters suddenly being trapped in Moscow (I won’t spoil why or how these two events occur) you can be assured that I was suitably ‘creeped out’.
Into the Light is a very brief section which deals with the direct aftermath of the characters arrival in Moscow. This is likely the first opportunity the group will have to draw weapons and cause a little mayhem in the adventure, although, equally, they might be a little cautious as to the motivations of the various parties they will encounter here. However, once the goals at least of one of these groups are clarified, it becomes obvious that the characters are now deep within Russia with little chance of an immediate return to New York (nor any other place in the US in general!). Probably more than a little lost, and with Annya’s trail gone cold, the characters are directed to discover the meaning of the BPX labelled crates.
This investigation is the subject of the next section, Down Amongst the Dead Men. Again this part of the story is quite open, with a number of avenues of exploration available to the players. Eventually, all clues lead to one project; the upgrade of Moscow’s underground rail system by the Metro 1 company, and more importantly their work on the former Proletarian Square station. Once inside they discover that something very sinister is happening underground and that the abomination that resides within must be destroyed. Fortunately for the characters there is plenty of help available to them in their adventures in Moscow: Major Vladimir Samsonov, case officer of the Aliens’ Board (the only government organisation offering any hope of the group returning to America); Zhao Qing, an employee of Metro 1 who has become highly suspicious as to the purpose of its project; and others who help to ensure that players don’t get too lost in this strange new world. After the (likely) destruction of the underground station, the characters come to the attention of the city’s controlling committee (which likes to call itself – Committee for the Salvation of the Motherland) the results of which are the subject of the section labelled Steel Angel.
With the fate of the characters’ exit visas in the hands of this committee it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that, in return for the appropriate signatures, the group is asked to undertake one further task. This mission takes the characters to Kazan (a city politically aligned to Moscow), where it is soon revealed that not only have some 200–odd people disappeared, but reports of werewolves run rampant! This portion of the plot is much more linear than those previous, and the characters quickly discover that a Gulag and a powerful Dark Minion are responsible for the rising fear within the city. Again, it is up the party to destroy this evil, a task that once more allows the characters to display some military finesse. Upon their return to Moscow, they will learn that Samsonov has located Annya, who is currently sedated and in a sanatorium! Her release and the entire group’s return to America sees a successful conclusion to the adventure.
As noted, the final couple of sections of this supplement detail aspects of the main locations presented in the adventure. The New York section notes the city’s founding and how the metroplex has grown to become New Boswash. With a focus on Manhattan island (map included), it briefly describes the island’s key neighbourhoods, and provides examples of some of the types of encounters one might have there. Further notes detail the city’s government and police structures, as well as its transportation systems.
The Moscow section is considerably more comprehensive (which is unsurprising given that the supplement’s target audience is likely to be much more familiar with New York than Moscow. This includes an overview of the city in the Dark Conspiracy setting (again with a large map) and describes how the Red Army is organised in running the city.
A final couple of subsections round out the book; Russian Nightmares, details six Russian legends as Darklings to add your adventures, while Weapons and Vehicles details 10 Russian weapons (some of which have previously appeared in the Twilight 2000 supplement Infantry Weapons of the World) and two Russian vehicles (the
Volga Sedan and GAZ Sportabout). Both of these make good additions to the core adventure and they add much to the feeling of the Moscow setting.
It’s hard to exactly say what I think of Among the Dead. On the surface it is a pretty interesting adventure set in a totally new location (the core setting of Dark Conspiracy being very American-centric), but as much as the setting is inspiring, the actual adventure is not. After, as I noted earlier, after a fairly good introduction, the scenario breaks-up into what feels like three loosely connected adventures; each of which could have rightly deserved an eighty page supplement all to themselves. The first section is definitely the strongest in my opinion, with enough investigation in New York and the hospital to really drag the characters into a ‘conspiracy’. The second section, the investigation in Moscow, is almost as good, although I’ve experienced players feeling a little lost and confused when they reach this point, especially with the immediate change of focus within the plot. Unfortunately, the third section, in Kazan, is by far the weakest, with a story that feels very linear and a plot line that is not very exciting at all. The fact that the motivation is quite contrived (i.e. do as we demand or you don’t get home!) just adds to this for me, and it is a rather disappointing way to finish up what has otherwise been a very entertaining story.
While that might have brought a low note to the supplement, the worse sin in the book has to be the sudden dropping of Annya’s story line from the main plot. From experience, this just confuses the players, and adds considerable work to the Referee in the attempt to focus the players on the BPX angle. I get the feeling that the first section, the one I like the
most, was actually added to the Russian plot after it was submitted to GDW (hence Loren K. Wiseman’s credit – although don’t quote me on that, this is pure conjecture!). However, I can understand why something like this might be; most Dark Conspiracy characters (let alone their players) would be US based, and getting them involved in a Russian story line would be immensely difficult without some solid hook. I don’t want to sound too down on the Russian portions of the adventure, the author Mark Galeotti obviously knows his stuff (in fact looking him up on the web, it seems that he is currently Academic Chair of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and an expert on Russian security), but
these never quite flow as nicely – both in depth and quality – as the first part in New York.
On a more positive note, I do appreciate the open structure of the core story, and the way which information is readily accessible. It rarely feels as if the plot is being ‘railroaded’ (apart from the ‘directive of the committee’ of course), with information and leads available in a natural progression and important plot points presented in such a manner as to be easily inserted when and where the Referee feels most appropriate. It is rare (outside of Call of Cthulhu) for adventures from the 80’s or 90’s to follow this open structure, and here
it adds much to the quality and sustainability to the story.
Finally, on a personal note, I’ve run this adventure a couple of times now, and in both instances have found it difficult to progress the story past the character’s arrival in Moscow. I don’t know why, perhaps being thrust unknowingly into chaotic and corrupt Russia is too much of a shock for the players? Despite this, I do recommend Among the Dead to any Referee looking to change up the traditional Dark Conspiracy setting, and take their game in a totally different direction. I would liked to have seen a few more suggestions about other types of adventures characters could have in Moscow (or Russia in general), and potential Referees should look closely at expanding the final portions of the plot, but beyond that it is a solid addition to the Dark Conspiracy game line. As in any roleplaying game with a modern or futuristic setting the game is set in North America,
especially with the United States being the default country to build from. Later on, if
As in any role-playing game with a modern or futuristic setting the game is set in
North America, especially with the United States being the default country to build
from. Later on, if we are lucky, the game picks up and sourcebooks begin to appear
giving finer detail on aspects of the world.
Among the Dead, 1992 GDW (GDW 2107) ISBN 1-55878-107-2
Design: Mark Galeotti and Loren K. Wiseman
Development: Lester W. Smith
Cover Art: Nick Smith
Interior Art: Paul Daly. Earl Geier and Rick Harris
Art Direction: Kirk Wescom
Graphic Design and Production: Steve Bryant. Lamont Fullerton, Ami
Jontz and Rob Lazzaretti
Typesetting: Michelle Sturgeon
Anne Bedard and Michelle Sturgeon