Review in Summary
A Time to Harvest is one of the newest adventures from Chaosium for Call of Cthulhu. With clear inspiration taken from classic horror and sci-fi films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them!, A Time to Harvest strikes a compelling balance between mystery, science fiction, and the cosmic horror that made Lovecraft a household name. With stipulations for running the adventure in both classic and Pulp Cthulhu, (the more action-heavy version of the horror game) Chaosium has created an excellent follow-up to their new starter set, creating an adventure that feels accessible to both veterans and newcomers.
The adventure is a horror mystery surrounding recent disappearances at Miskatonic University. Invoking classic horror movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, A Time to Harvest tells a story of conspiracy, betrayal, mistaken identity and a secret invasion. Players will constantly be second guessing their decisions and who they can trust as they navigate both life at the university and in other areas in New England before the villains finish putting their plans into motion. Death is around every corner (This is Call of Cthulhu afterall) but the developers have created several fail safes to keep the story going.
While the story can be convoluted at times and its efforts to make it compatible with Pulp Cthulhu fall a bit short, A Time to Harvest is a compelling adventure that never goes too long without a surprise twist or reveal.
A School Trip Gone Wrong
A Time to Harvest puts players, or “investigators”, in the role of college students enrolled in the prestigious Miskatonic University located in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts. You are sent in the wake of a previous failed research field trip organized by the university to assess strange archaeological and geological discoveries in the town of Cobb’s Corners, Vermont. The previous field trip ended in disaster when almost all the students were found dead or missing, the only survivor being the traumatized former jock, Robert Blaine.
Events escalate quickly from there as the investigators are swept up into shady dealings, old grudges, and a quiet invasion by creatures not of this world. To say much more would be to spoil the compelling story that unfolds as the players start from seemingly mundane circumstances to some truly strange and terrifying encounters and locations. It becomes clear very early on that the list of people the players can trust is small and all their actions, however minor they may seem, can come back to haunt them in a major way much further down the line. The story takes many exciting twists and turns that ensure your players never quite feel safe and have them second-guessing their own decisions.
Contingencies & Variations
One of the things I loved about this adventure is all the sidebars, alternative paths, and contingencies the writers have put in place. With most published adventures, especially in games like 5th edition D&D, it seems there is maybe one or two optimal paths the book describes, but past that the DM is left to fend for themselves. With A Time to Harvest, it feels like the developers have acknowledged that, especially in mystery games, there are any number of things that could change or go wrong based on the players’ actions.
Fortunately, the book goes into detail about how to deal with numerous different wrenches the players might throw at you. Maybe a key character is killed before they are supposed to, maybe the players discover the truth about a plan too early, or just don’t interact with a key part of the story. Not to worry, the developers acknowledge how those things can go wrong and how to adjust the adventure to compensate, even if it is less optimal than originally intended. Not only that, but later sections of the book will continually reference such diversion points and the necessary adjustments to make in this section for the story to work properly. In a story where there are so many interconnected threads and a delicate line of dominoes, it is refreshing to see the writers plan multiple fail-safes.
Additionally, the book offers occasional sidebars for adjusting encounters and actions based on whether the party is playing classic Cthulhu or Pulp Cthulhu in a way that doesn’t feel tacked on. You would almost expect the book to just tell you to add more of a monster if playing in Pulp Cthulhu and that would be it. But encounters fundamentally change based on which version you are playing. A harrowing stealth section may turn into an adrenaline-pumping shootout in Pulp Cthulhu. A chase encounter can instead turn into a stand-your-ground style fight.
To add to this, the final chapter is an optional one designed to be run in Pulp Cthulhu, though there are stipulations and adjustments offered to make it work in classic. This sort of design really allows GMs (“Keepers”) to tailor the story to what suits their table best without feeling like they have to do a ton of extra work themselves.
A Time to Harvest has very little working against it, though I will say the plot can get a little convoluted at times. The book gives the Keeper a MASSIVE amount of information and backstory to work with which is both a blessing and a curse. There are so many interconnected threads and agendas and so many characters to keep track of it can be almost overwhelming. A tracking sheet might be a good addition to this adventure if nothing else than to help the Keeper keep the flow of the story going. Despite the number of plot threads and characters involved in the story, I would say only a handful of them are memorable while a lot felt a little like filler.
I will also say that, while this game can be run in Pulp Cthulhu, the style of the story is very much a slow burn at the start, as seeds are planted and clues are hinted at. Those looking for an adventure that takes you right into the action might be better served looking at some of the official Pulp Cthulhu pre-written modules.
Also, while the premise of being students at a university is a unique one, it limits the kind of characters or backstories investigators can make. Not all players will be fully on board with playing students, so talk to your players beforehand and see if you can work out something for those who want to play non-students or maybe older/younger characters. Just know that if the players want to play a character not connected to Miskatonic University, the material is going to be working hard against you.
A Time to Harvest is another solid win for Chaosium in the wake of their superb starter kit. It feels like a fantastic introduction to classic Cthulhu style adventures with secret cults, larger than life foes, forbidden research, and enemies around every corner. It is a paranoia-inducing adventure that will keep your players guessing and has just the right amount of harrowing chases and nail-biting encounters to keep things fresh and engaging. If you’ve looked through the adventures given in the starter set and they aren’t to your liking, or you want to try something new after finishing them, A Time to Harvest is a great adventure to pick up.
That being said, if you’re looking for a good starter adventure for your Pulp Cthulhu game, I think a better one to start with is The Two-Headed Serpent. It’s a fantastic adventure full of action that plays to the strengths of that system better.
A Time to Harvest PDF: https://www.chaosium.com/a-time-to-harvest-pdf/The Two-Headed Serpent PDF: https://www.chaosium.com/the-two-headed-serpent-pdf/