|Name||Elder Sign (2011)|
|Accessibility Report||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [2.36]|
|BGG Rank||488 [7.01]|
|Player Count (recommended)||1-8 (1-4)|
|Designer(s)||Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
You needn’t think I’m crazy, reader. There are darker forces at work in the empty spaces of the world than any of us can truly know. Brooding, hateful beings beyond our wit or imagination – eldritch, Cyclopean monstrosities that slumber between our perceptions. They dream our world and its termination. Whether they are our dreams made flesh, or we are their flesh made dreams matters not. We wind and unwind together. As they approach, we retreat. As we ebb, they flow. As we fall, they rise. As they wake, we fall into sleep. And as we sleep, they draw their plans against us.
I know this to be true, for I have glimpsed beyond the veil during moments of clarity. I have worked here at the museum for many years – more years than I can express. Perhaps I have always worked here. The preternatural quiet of this haunted place has been both my salvation and my punishment. I have heard whispers in the walls, and songs in the shadows. I have felt the softening of the barriers between this world and the next. And when I close my eyes, I can see infinity. Yes, you might think I am mad, but you have not truly seen the darkness beyond the light of our sun. Come with me, dear reader, while I show you the inevitable pendulum of our eradication. It swings towards us, with intolerable inevitability.
This is the entrance hall to the museum. It may look like a gift shop, but those of us that know the truth call it the Marketway. It stands between the dull vacuity of normality and the insane chittering of the beyond. Here, I have gathered friends and allies to seek out the elder signs that will sooth the darkness into repose once more. There are many that have been touched by the abyss beyond our normal perception – that chasm of labyrinthian prisms and Cyclopean geometry. Many of them are mad, or worse. The human mind was not meant to know of these things. Few can safely contain true knowledge within the decaying organic prison of our thoughts.
I am left with only four allies, but they have already faced the non-Euclidian sensescapes of the bubbling things beyond our world. They remain standing. They are stout of heart, and strong of mind – for now. What they face in this museum will make each of them, before it unmakes us all.
The unfortunately named Monterey Jack is an archaeologist of international renown. He first came to know the song of oblivion during a dig in Egypt. He discovered dark, frightening artefacts in the tombs of the Pharaohs. Their intense heat and sinister seduction call out to their masters beyond our plane of knowledge. He has brought them with him, although one should not underestimate the comfort of a weapon at one’s hip. He has brought such mundane security with him also.
Darrell Simmons saw something lurking beneath the colloidal, Coriolis curve of his darkroom developing fluid. He saw faces, twisted and distorted, in the slowly maturing film- photographs he had taken in the museum were not what they seemed. The grisly visages gyrated and grimaced before his eyes before eventually fading away into nothing. Such a thing leaves a mark on a man.
Mandy Thompson is one of my most brilliant of allies. She is gifted beyond reason with an analytical mind of considerable dexterity, and yet possessed of an openness of assumption that is rare amongst those deluded enough to trust their belief in science. She saw through the calm assurance of the scientific method into the raging heart of chaos beneath, and now she can’t look away.
And then there is Gloria Goldberg – a famous author of occult fiction. She has seen the otherlands directly, gifted as she is with the Touch. Her books are sold as fiction, but she maintains they are closer to autobiography. We shall see when she faces the rift within this cursed place.
Oh yes, the rift – I get ahead of myself, readers. Forgive me. The horrors of the past few nights have turned my thoughts into a nebulous blur. Here, we stand on the brink of destruction. A dark presence has begun to wake, and its greedy appetite has fixed upon this time, and upon this place. The accumulation of wonders we have brought together in the museum have been speaking to each other, and they have begun to intone the words that ends the world. It is up to us to bring silence to this place.
Some of these rooms we have marked with a silver border – these are mystical runes that Gloria tells us will contain the agents of the Dark Lords within their approximate dimensionality. When we have no more borders, they will appear wherever they will. They will roam as they want. They will feast as they desire.
See the great clock in the Foyer. It counts down the hours, but also counts down our doom. When that clock strikes midnight, the Father of Serpents moves a little further into wakefulness. As he opens his eyes on the world, he will close his jaws around it.
As he wakes, he stirs shapes into the surroundings. His ancient malice shapes monsters from his will – dark, alien creatures that hunger for his return. We will face them as we progress through the museum. We must be able to tell the real from the phantasmal, and the incomprehensible from the merely insane. As we…
Do you hear the clock chime? Yig wakens…
And with his wakening, something approaches.
The multi-hued interdimensionality of intersecting realities takes shape and form. I can hear it – an agent of the dark gods skulking around the shelves and secret places of my previously secure sanctum.
It skulks in the shadows. We shall have to deal with it before we can address the underlying irregularities in the shifting imminence of impending infinity. Our work is difficult, and our victory far from assured. We go where fate blows us, and fate has not been kind to us of late.
Gloria is the first of us to throw herself into the struggle. Her Sight compels her forward into places that those of us with mere mortal perception would not dare to venture. Her journals have told her of a forbidden artefact located within one of the crates of the loading bay. Something dark and alien and terribly useful to our cause.
There she meets great peril, which must be met with great bravery. There are dangers in the darkness, and she will need to be wary and wise if she is to overcome the Cyclopean task before her. Some of that danger she will need to seek out herself if she is to triumph. The notes of her journal will be invaluable here.
She grabs her mystic runes, and rolls them – that which lies beyond our understanding is not tamed or tempted by our decaying flesh. It fears not the corporeal world, or any of its gruesome instruments of eradication. We must face the unknown on its own merits, with the power of magical incantations. Most of us will be able only to make use of the green sigils when facing a challenge. If we wish to empower ourselves, we will need to sacrifice the resources, spells and artefacts that we have accumulated, or brought with us to this forsaken place. Gloria sacrifices her journal to strengthen her spellcasting, adding a yellow rune to her hand. With skill and wise forethought, she meets and overcomes a danger and sends it back to the Stygian blackness.
She rolls her runes again, although with one fewer rune available. She does not quite meet the needs of the leviathan challenge before her. Yig, slumbering through ageless aeons, stirs in his sleep.
She focuses her resolve – one rune must be discarded, but she may keep another in its current state before she attempts the task once more. Such slim mercies are all we have to hold on to as we marshal our forces against the gathering storm.
This time, she is able to meet the second peril and conquer it, making use of the rune she had previously focused. With that she opens the contents of the crate.
The crate contains a simple item, but also a dark and malevolent trophy. She claims that, and brings it back with her to the entrance hall. With enough trophies, she can transmute them into artefacts, spells, or even the powerful elder signs that will sign the stay of our execution. The challenge defeated, the dark lord Yig dreams another from the darkness of his damnation.
As she heads back to the Marketway, the clock ticks on – three hours have passed since we entered the museum at dawn. Time goes quickly here. Too quickly, as if it were no longer obeying the rhythmic pulse of the universe itself. Where we should work in parallel, we act instead sequentially. Causality itself is unreliable this close to the abyss.
Darrell is the next to venture forth – his skill at photography makes him an expert at investigating the depths of the museum. The flash of his camera will drive the darkness before him, albeit temporarily, and perhaps illuminate more than the dusty exhibits of antiquity in the process.
He follows the path of the guided tour. It’s an educational triviality we make available to visitors to the museum, but recently has become a source of considerable concern. Darrell’s investigations have revealed sinister secrets buried within our own exhibits, and he believes he can bring those secrets to the surface. This will require diligent study – he cannot attempt the tortured tasks as he sees fit. He must address them in the order presented by the tour itself, as indicated by the silver arrows that guide him around the display cases and cabinets.
He makes use of none of his accumulated equipment to face this challenge – he trusts his own abilities. Such arrogance in the face of oblivion is inspiring. Or chilling. The runes roll, and they do not roll in his favour:
Darrell is diligent and resourceful, and can strengthen his investigations through nothing more than his own guile. We are lucky to have him, he sees farther than his mere human sight should allow.
With this, he follows the trail through the museum. He then attempts the second task – no one rune will be powerful enough to meet the needs of this challenge, so he must sacrifice two to meet his goal. He has many runes that indicate progression of his investigation.
His inquiries leads him to a dark puzzle – one that requires all his wisdom and knowledge to crack. He first rolls his runes to reveal three investigation symbols. He looks, and looks, but cannot penetrate the mysteries of the tour. Failure forces him to discard a rune, and roll only two for the next attempt. He fails again, rolling only a terror and an investigation symbol. His last attempt will permit him only a single rune. He closes his eyes, summons his will, and rolls. It comes up what he needs to defeat a peril, but no peril presents itself. He has failed. The runes have spoken, and Darrell must face the consequences of his own arrogance. The penalty is in blood red on the bottom left. It must be paid.
He stepped into the challenge with hubris, willing to believe he could face the Cyclopean complexity with only his own ingenuity. The Museum does not tolerate such catastrophic crashes of confidence. Darrell felt the sting of his sanity sink, and his body has reacted with shock. If he should lose either, he will be devoured by the dark powers at work here, and we will need to replace him.
Dr. Thompson examines our Koi Pond, having heard there is an elder sign to be found in its murky depths. We have only fish in there – I would be prepared to swear to that fact. The true reality beyond our perception though has no obligation to be respectful of our conceits of consciousness. The pond contains what it contains, whether I can perceive it or not.
The Koi Pond contains terrors, and navigating that terror will be vital to success. Should Mandy be unable to meet the requirements of the task in front of her whilst also rolling the runic symbols for terror, her efforts will instantly be in vain. She will recoil from the eldritch contours of the multi-dimensional reality of the waters – such flinching in the face of phantasms will cost her dearly. Her body, and soul, are on the line with every rolled rune.
She slips her pistol into her hand, and approaches the fish that dart around the shallow pool. Close inspection reveals that the koi move as if directed by, and around, an alien intelligence. She works up her courage and rolls the runes. The first attempt reveals a terror symbol, which allows her to address the first of the tasks before her. All other symbols are of no use to her for the second task. She rolls again, and reveals calamity:
Mandy does not go into such adventures lightly. Making use of her accumulated knowledge and inherent special understanding, she can re-roll two of those runes. She does, to reveal a skull, but only one. She can’t just focus, because a terror fails the challenge. All would be lost were it not for the fact she also arrived in the university with a clue about its sinister realities. She makes use of her fore-knowledge to roll one more dice, hoping it will bring her success.
It does, and she penetrates the veil beneath the waters to retrieve a trove of treasures – she is rewarded with a further clue about the museum, a common item, and an elder sign! The sign phases in and out of our reality – too bright to look at, too dark to illuminate.
Once ten of those signs have been collected, we can sing the lullaby that will lull Yig back into sonorous sleep for another aeon. We cannot fail in this. The stakes are too high. We have already worked so hard though, and made so little progress. As Mandy retrieves her sign from the pond, the sound of approaching footsteps echo through the building. She has summoned a monster. With no silver borders to contain it, it attaches itself to a room somewhere in the museum. Unfortunately, it does more than add peril to our explorations. It is an otherworldly beast from beyond our understanding.
When it latches on to our plane of existence, it saps away our ability to shape the reality of the museum through runic intervention. While this beast remains in the world, our yellow rune cannot be used on any task.
In order to deal with the remains of the high priest, we must also deal with the monster that has begun to patrol ceaselessly around his glass display case. And we must do so without the support of our yellow rune. Our life has become much more difficult.
As the clock moves ever close to midnight, Monterey Jack moves in to the Guided Tour, hoping to assist Darrell. He brings his alien statue with him, hoping that the ancient, Cyclopean symbology of the artefact will offer some insight into the mystery of the puzzle at the heart of the tour. His first roll allows him to penetrate the first mystery. His second does not contain enough to meet the task, so he focuses on an investigation rune and discards one of the remaining. His next roll contains no investigation runes at all, so he makes use of Darrell’s proximity to focus a lore rune – such is the benefit of teamwork.
His next roll gives him the investigation he needs to complete the second task, making use of his focused rune. And the next one allows him to retrieve the lore rune from Darrell and use that to complete the final task. And with that, the challenge is met. The puzzle is unlocked. The world turns, and it takes us with it. For now.
But the clock – it ticks ever on, and during the excitement of the day it has struck midnight, revealing a new mythos effect with which we need to contend:
This is a calamitous portent for us – we are already weighted down by the otherworldly malice of the dark, evil hound encircling the high priest. And now we must lose one of our other runes for the rest of the day. And as the clock strikes midnight…
We did not deal with our own fears. We looked outwards rather than inwards, perhaps fearing what internal contemplation would reveal of our true selves. In turning away we have emboldened the darkness to approach. Another creature comes, and latches itself onto the museum. We had a day of mixed successes. Tomorrow will be far more challenging…
Let me tell you then readers, of the elder signs. Our challenges are great, and we are largely blown by the winds of fortune. It is our runes that dictate our ability to challenge the Great Old Ones that lurk behind all words and deeds and actions and thought. These runes are an inelegant weapon, but we are dealing with the unthinkable abominations that lie outside the domain of rationality and corporeal tractability. We channel forces we were not meant to know, much less command.
As such, we are often merely conduits, with little ability to influence the outcome. All we can do is work to adjust the composition of the runes, which we often must do within tight constraints. We have resources, true, and we can expend them to skew the odds in our favour. Each roll of the runes though is at a reduced chance of success – we always lose something in the attempt. In short, the challenge of battling the darkness of inevitable destruction is one of resource management. We can set the odds as best we can, but in the end the runes are going to fall where they may. In this respect, it accurately captures all of the inevitability and futility one might associate with battling creatures from beyond. We cannot simply steel ourselves and master the unknown. We must hope that our inelegant, dangerous experimentations with otherworldly forces will be successful.
One must be wary when approaching the precipice. Challenges may seem achievable at a distance, but when locked in battle with demons, inner and out, it is common to see hope ebbing away as a result of over-confidence. Each challenge contains a statistical tipping point, and once we pass it the only thing we will accomplish is our own undoing. The choice to inefficiently defeat a challenge versus sacrifice a rune for another uncertain attempt is one that must be considered with all due gravity. We must choose wisely the order in which we attempt to confront the lurking horrors, and shepherd our agents to best effect.
However, while we make decisions all the time in our efforts against the approaching horrors of the beyond, we rarely make very interesting decisions. It has been said that God does not play dice with the universe. It is clear though that Cthulhu certainly plays Yahtzee. The strategic confluence hinges on what is basically an economic system – we accumulate and hoard resources. We spend them when we expect them to do the greatest good. Even the investigators are resources to be spent, and usually there is an optimal choice of investigator, challenge and items that is unquestionably the right way to proceed. We are often following a path that has been trodden down before us, and we should question whether this is the wisest strategy in the dark, shifting places of the world.
There are problems with this approach to facing the impending apocalypse. For all the sinister evocation that comes with battling looming horrors from beyond, it all seems a little… comical. One wonders if perhaps even the Great Old Ones have a sense of humour, for we find otherworldly artefacts of stunning power on a regular basis. One would think that a museum containing the Necronomicon, the ruby of R’lyeh and the Flute of the Outer Gods would be unlikely to also possess the Lamp of Alhazered and the Book of Dzyan. The challenges we face have no sense or meaning. Perhaps it’s a result of the barriers of reality and unreality melting together like candle-wax but when I try to construct a narrative of a day’s work I find myself lapsing into incoherency. I don’t tell a story, I babble a sequence of disconnected facts. Nothing hangs together especially well, in a way that is eerily reminiscent of adventures in otherworldly realms such as Pathfinder.
When Lovecraft first spoke of the veil beyond the veil, he did not speak of monsters pouring out in their massed legions. He spoke of unutterable terror coupled to geography, geometry, and spatial dimensionality. He spoke of cosmic terror that drove people insane because of its fundamental incompatibility with the psychological limitation of human consciousness. Guns, axes and knives aren’t great weapon a war against our own psychic baggage. And yet, they’re fundamentally what we use here in the museum. It’s just not quite what I expected when I first glimpsed the real world beyond the shadow of our own.
I never expected it to be easy to shut this world off from the encroaching darkness. However, one might expect an experience like this to make an attempt to more effectively shape the despair curve. It’s very easy, indeed maybe even inevitable, that a few poor attempts can rapidly shut you out of any meaningful progress. Failure becomes like a portcullis slamming down on an unfamiliar passageway. Runes become locked, tasks escalate in difficulty as monsters make their way into the museum, and resources begin to dwindle. Mythos effects can frustrate even careful strategy, locking you and all the other investigators into unwinnable situations. If you can’t roll the runes, you can’t make progress.
A degree of enhanced difficulty is almost mandatory in situations where people are expected to work together, but I much prefer it when success or failure stems from choice. The problem here is not that it is a challenge, but that the challenge is horrendously inconsistent. You can waltz through the museum without a scratch against one dark deity, and then find yourself with multiple dice-lockouts on the next. Circumstances entwine into thick cords of unmeasurable and maddening frustration.
As usual we ask the ancient, lingering question. We sing the query of ludology into the swirling forges of the stars above. ‘O Lord, how do I do this better next time?’.
The answer isn’t entirely ‘roll better runes’ or ‘draw better cards’, but there’s an unhealthy amount of that mixed in to the heady brew. We can become better. We must become better. We cannot, fundamentally, become masters of our own fortune. Our fate is always substantively in the hands of forces far beyond our ken.
Dear reader, with all of this in mind we find it very hard to recommend that you go out of your way to face Cthulhu in the depths of the museum. We make out that this is an experience where you will band together with your allies against the looming darkness, but what co-operation is permitted lacks any real opportunity for collaboration. What choices you make are shallow. The consequences you suffer are unearned. Your victories are often unmerited. Your extinction impossible to circumvent if the fates have so decreed. There can be satisfaction in this ill-fated place, oh yes. But there is more anger and anguish. For every joyful success there is a bitter, frustrating failure that you you could not obviate. That, in our view, doesn’t create the context for the catharsis we expect from the banishment of indeterminate abominations from the cold spaces between the worlds.