Cthulhu and Friends: Season 6 — Quarantine

tl;dr A dark, vibrant, intense premiere for the new season of this long-running podcast. The experience shows in high production values, great world-building and solid character work by the GM and party. The world and PC backgrounds need to deepen, but there’s every indication that that will unfold over the succeeding episodes. A great, refreshing listen.

Title: Quarantine
Season: 6
Season Episode: 1
Podcast: Cthulhu and Friends
Gamemaster: Veronica
Fred Greenleaf as Hardwin
Mike Lane  as Daniel
Staci as Imogene
Game system: d20-ish? Call of Cthulhu?
Rating: ★★★★☆

Damn, am I glad I decided to pick this podcast back up. I put in about 10 or so episodes on Cthulhu and Friends (CAF) season 1 a couple of years ago, and I have to admit that it didn’t work for me. The sound quality was weird, the story telling wasn’t hitting it for me, and I just wasn’t digging the characters.

But when I saw that a new season, number six even, of CAF had started this year, I decided to give it a try. As our how to try a new podcast guide points out, catching a podcast right when a new season comes out is a great way to get started.

And I’m really happy that I did. This episode starts a new season in a new universe, with a new set of players. One interesting aspect is that CAF launched a casting call after season 5, inviting auditions from community members who want to be on the show. They got hundreds of submissions, and out of all the people who tried out, Fred Greenleaf ended up joining. He’s one of the final four applicants, and this is his live playtest.

The new universe is also powerful and unique. It’s based in part on Steven King’s apocalypto-magical novel The Stand, and in part on the video game Fallout 4 (“the good one”). A nationwide plague has incapacitated the US’s economic infrastructure, and a coalition of baddies has taken the opportunity to launch nuclear strikes against the country’s military and civilian installations. Things have gotten bad.

We open with the three PCs each isolated in a private fallout-shelter vault, deep underground, locked from the outside. They’ve been in there for almost 3 months.

Imogene is a YouTube star, who shares her vault with her girlfriend Sammy and her Siberian husky, Animal. Sammy has died of the superflu, nicknamed Captain Trips just like in The Stand, and Imogene is trying to find a place in their fallout shelter to store the body.  She resorts to cutting it up and stashing it in different parts of the room. She has to roll for sanity, which I’m pretty sure is a Call of Cthulhu thing, and she gets a 100, which I’m pretty sure is Very Bad Indeed.

This is one of my main quibbles with CAF. Most of the Web pages for CAF claim that it’s running a variant of d20, and a lot of the skills checks rolled in the teens and twenties, so it might be d20. But some rolls I heard sounded a lot like the percentile dice skill system from Call of Cthulhu. I’m going to see if I can find a good explanation of the game system.

Cthulhu and Friends works very much in the narrativist style I like out of games. It starts out with the story, and then uses dice rolls to guide the outcomes. The GM, Veronica, doesn’t get hung up at all on the dice rolls or what they mean — she and the players just keep moving forward. There’s not a lot of gloating over good rolls or moaning over bad ones — they just keep moving the story on.

But, as a listener, I like knowing what a roll means in the game context. If someone rolls a 16 on Innuendo, what does that do? I guess a little more explanation of the mechanics to dumbos like me in the audience who want to know would help a lot.

The camera shifts briefly to Daniel, a hyper-religious survivor of the founding family of a megachurch called Jesus and Friends, and then on to Hardwin. He’s a startup millionaire several times over, and he has a luxury vault. After three months, he finally calls up the shelter’s head office to ask if the red light over his door, indicating that the outside world is too dangerous to go into, is ever going to change.

Instead of an efficient functionary, he reaches Marie. She’s a custodian, sad and scared. He talks her through it, and convinces her to come meet him and open the door. When she finally arrives, he realizes she’s a 12-year-old girl, starving from months of privation. And she’s carrying a crowbar with some brains or blood encrusted on the end.

This is a great sequence. Veronica takes this simple NPC and gradually lets these different facets unfold like a mechanical flower. Marie’s cracks show over time, and it’s not clear if she’s a Good Guy who’s had to do bad things, or a Bad Guy faking her way along. Or maybe that’s not even a valid distinction.

Regardless, Hardwin takes it in stride and shows humanity and compassion; he also makes sure to load his 9mm. The red light in his room has turned yellow, meaning they can leave wearing protection. It’s also an arch nod to the Yellow Sign, a repeating them in Lovecraftiana. They leave together to search for other survivors.

There’s a weird scene where they go to the vault of Reid Hoffman, one of Hardwin’s billionaire startup friends. It’s weird because Reid Hoffman is a real human being, founder of LinkedIn. My guess is that Veronica used his name as an almost mythic business celebrity, like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, but it’s still a little strange, especially since his corpse is in bad shape when Hardwin and Marie find it. I couldn’t help wondering how weird I’d feel hearing a story like that about me.

The pair moves on, finding many suicides or accidental deaths throughout the facility. They finally stumble on Daniel, who is passionately religious, which seems to be keeping him kind of sane, especially compared to Marie. Daniel is wearing one of Hardwin’s devices, a kind of body-broadcasting system favored by YouTubers. The Internet is gone, of course, but my guess is that with this kind of emphasis we’ll see this tech come up again.

The episode ends on their discussions; we never reconnect with Imogene. I found the story really compelling, and all the players gave great game. Not a lot of table talk; the players stayed in character all through the show.

Also helpful were the great sound effects and sound editing, which really gave the dialogue a sense of place. When Marie and Hardwin speak over an intercom, we can hear their words filtered through it. When they talk to Daniel through a door, we hear that too. There are dropped tools and scraped-open vault doors in the show; it’s a very evocative mechanism to get the listener into the story.

Audio and editing are great, too. Altogether, a really great experience. I’m a little worried that I’m going to spend a lot of focus on this arc and then have it come apart as the casting playtests continue; I’m going to hope that doesn’t happen. Regardless, above-average RPG podcast that has my attention for now.