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Minireview: The Realm of Shadows (Call of Cthulhu)

The Realm of Shadows is another Cthulhu campaign from John H. Crowe III, published by Pagan Publishing. It’s set in the 1940s and the slowly escalating World War II provides a nice backdrop – the war doesn’t directly impact many things here, but it does give interesting context to several things and explains some plot elements later on in the campaign. The book is (very) loosely connected with Coming Full Circle, a previous campaign by the same author, in that this one can be played as a continuation and some small plot links are provided. It’s an extremely loose connection, though, this campaign mostly stands on its own.

The plot here centers on ghouls and ghoul cults. Unlike many “big plots” in Cthulhu scenarios, there is no impending “rise of the Old Ones” or such end-of-the-world stuff here. If the PCs fail… nothing all that horrible happens, at least in the short run. In the longer run things get a bit more grim, and various small-scale victories (or losses) encountered here will of course be very significant to the PCs. This approach is quite refreshing, though it does bring with it a few problems with PC motivation; after the initial scenario, the GM needs to do some work to make sure the PCs are set up to have motivation enough to pursue hidden things on their own. Things which have been hidden for ages, and are very good at staying hidden.

Events begin with the PCs getting hired by a worried doctor in a small New England town, whose wife has run away and taken their daughter with her. Strange previous behavior by the wife, added to the strange physical deformities ailing their daughter, makes the doctor suspect something sinister is going on. Is it just a case of marital problems coming to a crisis point? Of course not, this is Cthulhu. It’s a clever opening for the campaign; it’s quite low-key but has plenty of potential for action and is quite open-ended in how the PCs may approach things. At the end of it all, the PCs will hopefully have leads on a possible ghoul cult infesting some parts of Massachusetts.

…which the PCs are expected to trace and foil, in the second scenario. As noted, this runs the problem of too little PC motivation, it’s easy enough to see the PCs just give up and do something else at this point. Depending on how the first part went, the GM may need to do some little legwork here. The scenario itself is quite solid, and assuming the PCs are clever or lucky enough they’ll get plenty of clues, many of them pointing towards South America. There is also a small linking scenario provided, which takes place in the Dreamlands and may provide critical additional clues and is important in piecing things together in the finale.

The last part takes place in French Guiana, location of the infamous “Devil’s Island” prison camp and also host to vast tracts of utterly hostile and mostly unexplored jungle. This last part also gets greatest mileage of the war in the background – flying there is expensive, but the cheaper ship option runs the risk of a submarine attack. Also, the war and the simultaneous dissolution of the French government has had a huge impact here: local prices are haywire, the political situation is anyone’s guess, and attitudes are tense. The PCs need to get there, hire a suitable guide or two (a non-trivial task in itself), and then head off into the jungle to face whatever lurks there.

The end game is potentially explosive, panicy and quite deadly, as befits a Cthulhu campaign. The PCs do have a chance at survival, but the probability of them dying noble (or not) deaths in the depths of the jungle is much higher. The opposition is strong, clever and entrenched, and the PCs need to be clever and careful (or have serious firepower, not easy to arrange) in order to have a chance.

As a whole, it’s really an excellent campaign. It starts up slowly but in a clever way, ramps things up with local investigation, provides mystical viewpoints via Dreamlands links, and finally throws the PCs directly at the heart of darkness. The only weakness, as I see it, is the motivation factor in the midpoint, but that should not be an issue provided the GM does some groundwork in the right direction. Another quality campaign from Pagan, in other words, with the slightly nonstandard 1940s timeframe spicing things up a bit. As typical for a scenario from this author (and Pagan Publishing in general), the attention to and level of detail is impressive. Also typical and awesome is the art by Blair Reynolds – very creepy and atmospheric.

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