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Minireview: Eternal Lies (Trail of Cthulhu)

“A decade ago, a band of occult investigators battled against the summoning of an ancient and monstrous evil. They failed.”

Call of Cthulhu has always been known for its excellent big campaigns, such things as Masks of Nyarlathotep, Horror on the Orient Express and Beyond the Mountains of Madness have well earned their “classic” status. The newer Trail of Cthulhu didn’t have anything comparable… until now. Eternal Lies is a huge new campaign, aiming for the same scope as Masks and, in my opinion, easily succeeding in that. At 400 pages, it’s a huge, complex globetrotting campaign, with madness and horror aplenty for all. It’s not quite as pulpy as Masks and probably will not cause quite as many Investigator deaths, but some fatalities are almost certain; there are some nasty spots where avoiding death or worse requires a very careful approach and some amount of luck.

The story starts in 1920s, when a band of (NPC) Investigators fails in a spectacular fashion to stop a cult ritual, leaving most dead and the survivors with their sanity in tatters. “Now”, ten years later, a wealthy patron hires some people (the PCs) to find out exactly what happened to her father in 1924 (one of the survivors of the earlier incident). I’ll avoid too many spoilers here, but the main plot involves a being called “The Liar” – thus, the double meaning in the game title – and the theme of corruption, both mental and physical, is strong throughout the text. Very nasty things happen to people here, and some of those people may just be the PCs.

The structure is really well designed: the first portion is fairly linear, but after that the game opens up into a globetrotting sandbox of sorts, with the PCs having the option to chase whatever clues they find, in whatever order they like. Not everything is mandatory, much like the structure of the older Masks. The action features spots in the U.S., Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. I got some personal interest from the fact that some of the spots the campaign visits are places I’ve visited myself in real life (though, obviously, the 1930s game versions are quite different). Assuming the PCs survive and gather enough information, there is a more linear end game section… and then, when and if the PCs survive that, there’s the real end game. Apocalyptic stuff, and quite cleverly designed.

Quite simply, this is a fantastic campaign. The writing is excellent, the plot twists clever, and the structure allows for a lot of player freedom while still following a complex background plot. There’s a lot of detail here, so a GM running this will need to do a bit of prepwork, but there’s already quite a bit of fan-made support material to be found on the web if one wants some extra handouts and such. The only caution I would have has to do with the adult nature of this material: there’s a lot of references to sex, drugs and violence here, in addition to random weird and disturbing stuff. Not for younger players. For everyone else: this just might be the major new Cthulhu campaign you’re looking for.

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Minireview: Snows of an Early Winter (Call of Cthulhu)

Snows of an Early Winter is a somewhat unusual Call of Cthulhu scenario; instead of the “classic” 1920s setting it’s set in the modern day (in New York city), and it has a tone that is quite different from usual CoC scenarios. In some places it’s closer to Unknown Armies in feel. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I cannot help thinking this scenario isn’t a perfect fit for CoC. As a general modern-day occult scenario it’s quite good, though. It’s quite open-ended and provides the PCs with tons of options instead of a clear path; of course, this also means that it may be a bit challenging to run. The scenario provides a bit pile of handouts for the players, and many of the “Mythos” elements here are unique to this scenario, helping keep veteran players on their toes.

The plot concerns a series of bloody murders on New York streets, possibly related to a strange cult with links to the movers and shakers of the city. Events move from street (or even gutter) level up to the expensive penthouses, and the ending has the potential to be quite explosive. It’s generally quite well-written, though it could have used a few more editing passes – some details are a bit confusing, at least on first read, and I suspect the GM would need to do quite a bit of work to get this to run smoothly (partly because of the free-form structure given here, which in itself is a good thing). To its credit, the scenario contains lots of “how to run this” -type hints and commentary.

There’s quite a bit of violence, and some of the events are quite disturbing. It’s also almost gonzo in places, which enhances the UA feel. I’m pretty sure this thing could also plugged into Delta Green without too much trouble, and may be more at home there than in “straight” CoC. In any case, it’s a pretty good if a bit unusual scenario, worth taking a look at.

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Minireview: The Frozen Stars (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 4/6)

I wasn’t really expecting The Frozen Stars to be all that good. The previous installment of this adventure path was ok but nothing special, and here we were supposed to move to an alien planet with snow-elves (kinda) who ride dragons. I expected that the designers were biting off more than they could chew, and would just spew out another generic dungeon crawl. I’m happy to report that wasn’t what I got, and that this adventure is pretty damn good.

As noted, the PCs land on an alien planet, after a short dungeon-crawly bit within the TARDIS… err, I mean Baba Yaga’s hut. They are met by aforesaid “space-elves”, and what happens in this encounter can determine a lot. In a fairly unusual twist, this adventure allows the PCs to ally with either the “good” side or the “evil” side, with encounters and a storyline for both. The “good” side is a bit more fleshed out and will probably be the usual choice, but it’s nice to see a design that gives the PCs a lot more latitude than is usual. Their mission, such as it is, is to fetch a McGuffin from a fortress, but how they go about it can vary quite a bit, here. In addition, the PCs get to take part in a mass battle, in another nice piece of design; they have the option of intruding in some critical spots, which will affect the course of the battle. Of course, they also have the option of doing nothing, in which case default events happen – usually, these are not good for the PCs. The whole thing wraps up with a travel segment and a short dungeon-crawly bit.

Very solid design, with lots of different things for the PCs to do. This adventure path is shaping up to be much better than I thought it would be, given the somewhat gonzo premise and all the dimension-hopping involved. Nice work, guys!

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Minireview: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is a tongue-in-cheek romp through a near-future dystopia and retro 80’s popculture. It’s the year 2044, and the world isn’t a pleasant place for those without vast amounts of money. The protagonist, Wade Watts, is a geek who lives with an obnoxious relative in a very unique form of a trailer park, and spends most of his time online. In this case, “online” means the OASIS, a sort of virtual reality Internet, with some AOL overtones. OASIS was created by one James Halliday, who became the richest man on the planet as a result, and who spawned the largest “Easter egg hunt” in human history after his death. He left clues scattered around the vast OASIS system, and declared that whoever found and followed all the clues would inherit his (vast) fortune. Naturally enough, a large percentage of the online population immediately went nuts and went to work on the puzzle. The problem? Halliday was a huge fan of 80s pop culture, and all of his clues related to this time period, largely forgotten until now.

When the book starts, all this has been going on for a long while. Huge corporations are trying to solve the puzzle, vast numbers of individuals are doing the same (many having organized themselves into various informal “clans”), and nobody has gotten anywhere. Until Wade, one of the seekers after Halliday’s treasure, finally manages to figure out the first clue. After that, all hell breaks loose (since the results of the “race” are public knowledge), with rival seekers and a huge, ruthless corporation all gunning for Wade.

This book is a huge amount of fun, especially if you grew up in the 80s and are familiar with the pop trivia stuff presented here. First-edition AD&D, Rush, Back to the Future, War Games… it’s all here. I think I recognized most of the references (and figured some of them out before the protagonist), but I’m sure I missed a few here and there. There’s also a geeky love story involved, and plenty of action (both virtual and real-world). It’s not the most realistic virtual reality -based story out there, but it doesn’t aim to be. It’s a celebration of 80s pop culture and an adventure tale, woven into one. Recommended.

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Minireview: The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man (Call of Cthulhu)

The Dreamlands is a part of the greater “Cthulhu Mythos” which hasn’t received all that much attention up to now. Sure, there is a sourcebook for it, and some other minor things, but it’s still very much in the fringe. Which is fitting, in a way, since it was also in the fringe of Lovecraft’s work, and was expanded by other authors, each lending their own style to the whole. At times, depictions of the Dreamlands (both fiction and game) were more in the sword & sorcery genre than horror. That’s not a bad thing as such, it’s just… different.

And then there’s this new work, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man, a huge Dreamlands campaign written (and illustrated!) by Dennis Detwiller. It’s the first large Dreamlands-based CoC campaign, and it’s also excellent. It took a while to see the light of day; it would probably still be sitting in Dennis’ project pile if not for Kickstarter, which provided funding for making this a reality (I was one of the backers). I was expecting it to be good, based on Dennis’ earlier works, but the end result was even better than I was expecting. I’d love to try to run this, even though it’s somewhat challenging.

The game setup is somewhat unusual. The PCs are all opium addicts in 1920s New York, meeting at their dealer’s residence. Things escalate, and eventually the PCs find themselves in the Dreamlands. By default their main drive would be to escape, but it’s possible that some PCs may have (or gain) other motives, perhaps dark ones. It’s not like these people are the cream of humanity to begin with.

Why is this book good? Because it brings the Dreamlands to life in a way I haven’t seen before. It feels like a coherent whole, while keeping a fantastic and somewhat whimsical feel, with a very dark undercurrent. There’s horror here, mixed in with the fantastic. I also like this campaign because it’s very much structured as a sandbox, giving the PCs vast freedoms in how they might proceed. I can see five different games of this playing out very differently from each other, based on player choices. There is also a larger plot in the background, but there is extremely little railroading after the initial setup.

Of course, a sandbox campaign set in a vast realm of dreams means that only some locations and events are described, so the GM will have to improvise quite a bit. While the book is big, and the locations it covers are all wonderfully evocative, it still only scratches the surface of the Dreamlands. This, of course, makes this campaign a bit challenging to run, at least potentially. There is also the question of replacement PCs; while the Dreamlands isn’t all about horror and going insane, there are plenty of spots where the PCs may end up very, very dead and player in need of a replacement. Due to the setting, this requires a bit of tinkering from the GM, but the book does some suggest some obvious spots where new characters could join the party. In some other places, it may need some extra suspension of disbelief… but on the other hand, this is the Dreamlands we’re talking about. Strange coincidences and matters of fate can be fitted in, while keeping the tone intact.

The campaign is fantastic, the art is great, and it’s available. Go get it.

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Minireview: Stunning Eldritch Tales (Trail of Cthulhu)

Stunning Eldritch Tales is a pulp-themed collection of scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu. While only some of them are investigation-heavy, they all seem quite well suited for the ruleset and show how the designers see the rules being used (the text contains lots of help for the GM in that regard).

Devourers in the Mist opens up the collection, presenting a somewhat Lost-like scenario; the PCs are stranded on a mysterious island after a shipwreck, and must try to survive. While not the strongest scenario here, it’s somewhat unusual (in a good way) and would be a nice one-shot to run at a convention, for example.

Shanghai Bullets is more traditional, with the PCs trying to solve a murder in Shanghai and avoid getting murderized themselves. While it’s not a Shanghai sourcebook, it does offer some period info about the place in a compact fashion, probably enough for a GM to wing it. Since this is (also) a pulpish scenario, historical accuracy isn’t the most important element. It reads like a fun scenario, with lots of options in how the PCs approach things.

Death Laughs Last is also a murder mystery, but this one is set in New York and involves the death of a relatively wealthy philanthropist with a mysterious past. The pulp elements come from the presence of masked crimefighters on the city streets, which isn’t exactly Cthulhu as generally depicted. Regardless, these is a Mythos connection, and the scenario itself is good.

Lastly we get Dimension Y, my favorite of the bunch, in which the PCs get to witness a scientific experiment go awry and have to deal with the fallout. The characters are interesting, there is a tight timetable for the PCs (with bad repercussions if they just dawdle about), and the whole thing fits together quite nicely.

Overall, a fun collection of quality scenarios. The only connecting factor between them is the “pulp” motif, otherwise they are totally standalone and separate from each other.

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