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Minireview: Mortal Coils (Call of Cthulhu)

Mortal Coils is a collection of Call of Cthulhu scenarios from Pagan Publishing; unlike some previous collections, these have not been printed before in Unspeakable Oath back issues, but get their first publication here. Since this is from Pagan I expected high quality, and for the most part that’s exactly what I got. There are no real stinkers here and some are really really good, but as always in a scenario collection the quality varies and (even more importantly) “good” is often a relative concept in these things. What might work wonderfully for one GM and play group may fail spectacularly for others.

The scenarios are connected by a theme of someone (or something) having vanished and/or died, but otherwise they are all over the place. Most take place in the “classic” 1920s period, but the locations vary a lot. The majority are set in the U.S. but two are set abroad. The detail level is high (especially in John H Crowe III’s scenarios, it’s a trademark of his), and likewise the difficulty level is on the high side; in some cases, the scenarios seem a bit too daunting to me, at least as written. While some can probably be integrated into an ongoing campaign, I suspect most of these would work best as stand-alones (either because of scenario requirements or because of lethality).

Vigilante Justice (by John H Crowe III) starts off the lot. It posits one of the PCs being married to an NPC, and also has the PCs playing natives of small-town Kentucky, limiting integration options a bit. The child of one of the PCs has been kidnapped, and authorities are no help (the office of “sheriff” did little investigation or police work in those days), and time is running out. It’s a nice enough scenario, but it quite difficult as written and the main bad guys get little-to-no actual description here – I understand they are detailed in some other sourcebook, but that’s no help here. On the other hand, that detail isn’t necessary here, since the PCs will be involved with “subordinate” minions.

A Murder of Crows (also by John H Crowe III) is a bit better, in my opinion. Two brothers have vanished into the Louisiana swamps, and the PCs are tasked with figuring out what happened. There are some red herrings thrown out to confuse the PCs, while the actual antagonists here are quite well-entrenched; the PCs need to be very careful in what they do. The depiction of the cult-infested small town in the middle of a swamp is great, and some of the small details here are wonderfully disturbing. Some extra bits seem a bit too weird and maybe unnecessary (I mean really, a lost bunch of Confederate soldiers?), but may work out well in actual play. A nice scenario, but also quite potentially lethal.

Nightcap (by Jeff Moeller) is interesting and different. Heavily based on the Dreamlands, it involves a mysterious flask found in the forest and some strange goings-on in back-country Kentucky. It’s quite an imaginative little thing, and the ending (involving “Teddy”) is potentially both terrifying and utterly weird. It has a few “GM traps” involving the nature of the bottles themselves, but nothing that can’t be worked around. A good little side trip to throw at PCs too used to looking for Cthulhu influences under every bush.

God of the Mountain (by Michael Cisco) is one of the best scenarios here. It’s also quite unusual and deliberately designed to foil normal player expectations. The PCs hear of the disappearance of two brothers in Peru while searching for the lost city of Tahaun, and the PCs are sent to investigate (it’s presumed they have motive to do so, via various means). What they find there is eerie, subtle and quite lethal – and probably also something the players aren’t prepared for. A real gem of a scenario, but also potentially quite lethal. Might be best run as a one-shot.

Common Courtesy (by Jeff Moeller) is another unusual scenario. A young woman has disappeared, and the case may potentially involve his recently-deceased husband, and the fact that the marriage was both recent and unusual – the husband was quite openly gay. Investigating the matter will bring the PCs head-to-fist with a strange group of the deceased husband’s relatives. The relatives are both (very) foreign and have some very strange notions about proper burial rites. The scenario is constructed so that simply using blunt force or involving the authorities is sure to result in a bloodbath (with high probability of PC deaths), and the sneaky approach is also difficult. There is a peaceful solution, but it will involve some heavy sanity losses for everyone. Quite a clever and evil little scenario, all things considered.

We Have Met the Enemy (by Rebecca Strong) is the weakest of the bunch. It’s not bad, none of the scenarios here are, but neither is it up to the level of the others presented here. The action involves one “Uncle Freddy” (related to a PC) having been murdered, and the PCs (of course) investigating. The base idea here is decent: it tries to set up a situation where the PCs need to do some not-so-nice things in order to prevent even worse things. The problem is that the whole thing is very linear, and it assumes the PCs do some very specific things (which actual PCs are quite unlikely to do, without heavy prodding). Also, the “bad things” aren’t probably all that disturbing in the end, to your average bunch of PCs. Again, it’s not bad, it’s just… very mediocre.

Dream Factory (by John Tynes) is (barely) the longest scenario in the book, and it’s both complicated and quite good. The action takes place in the “dream factory”: Hollywood in the transition where silent movies were just about to be eclipsed by “talkies”. A young and promising starlet has vanished, and the PCs are hired to trace what happened. Possibly involved are a bunch of (ex) boyfriends, jealous co-actors, doting “mentors”, foreign “genius filmmakers”, and a cult (or two). As noted, it’s a complex scenario, but it does also provide comprehensive notes on NPCs, timelines and such as help for the GM. It’s a difficult case to actually solve and can go in lots of different directions, but there is material here for a pretty awesome game, provided the GM is familiar enough with all the different plot lines and characters. Good stuff.

Mysteria Matriis Oblitae (by Dennis Detwiller) involves a researcher at the University of Mexico City receiving a photograph of a bizarre creature, originating in a distant rural Mexican village. The bloody Mexican revolution of 1910 has left many of the villages in the area as burnt-out husks, and not many outsiders visit the region in the first place. Enter the PCs, tasked by the University to investigate this new zoological find. Well, surprise surprise (or not), they find more than they bargained for. The intersections of this story and actual Mexican history add some extra interest, and the scenario provides both playtest notes and notes on what would happen if the PCs do some specific (and possibly obvious) things, up to “get the military involved”. There is a definite Delta Green feel to this thing, even though it’s set in a historical Cthulhu setting.

So there. A very good (though not flawless) collection of Cthulhu scenarios, covering a lot of styles and themes.

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