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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 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: Bumps in the Night (Call of Cthulhu)

Bumps in the Night is a collection of non-Cthulhu Cthulhu scenarios by the esteemed John H. Crowe III, published by the equally esteemed Pagan Publishing. It’s been a long time coming, and finally saw the light of day in print form via a Kickstarter. The label “non-Cthulhu Cthulhu” may need some explaining: the scenarios here use the CoC rule set and are thematically “Cthulhu scenarios” – but they don’t feature any “stock” Cthulhu creatures. No ghouls, Dark Young, Mi-Go, shoggoths, or what have you. Just weird shit that tries to kill you or drive you insane. In this sense, it’s similar to his earlier “Coming Full Circle” campaign, which had the same setup. The advantages are obvious: players familiar with (and perhaps a bit jaded to) the stock dangers are in for a rude surprise. Especially if they make false assumptions based on out-of-game info.

Overall, this is an excellent collection. While the five scenarios are all very different, they are all of high quality and have numerous interesting twists. Some are straightforward, some not, and one even has some (somewhat hidden) humor.

“The Westerfield Incident” starts things off. A fairly straightforward affair, it has the PCs investigating a series of grisly murders in and near a small town in Adirondack Mountains. Set in 1915, the remote location and lack of technology somewhat isolate the PCs, while their main information source is local rumors… and we all know how objective and factual those tend to be.

Next up is “The Vengeful Dead”, where the players are guests at a remove lodge, enjoying their vacation (or whatnot) in fancy, quiet surroundings. All of which is due for a sudden and violent change. Now, the scenario title may give you ideas, but going off on assumptions is a very dangerous idea here. I really liked the “twist” used here (which also provides some hidden humor, at least for the GM). This is a very open-ended scenario, where PC reactions to what happens will totally decide the direction the game goes in.

Next is “The Bitter Venom of the Gods”, which is maybe the finest offering of this bunch. It’s also nasty, evil and probably a bitch to run; lots of entwined motivations and subplots, and a large cast of important NPCs. A female acquaintance of the PCs (perhaps from the previous scenario, which can be linked to this) has considered marrying someone, and even moved in with him for a limited time (highly scandalous behavior for 1922!)… and then suddenly reconsidered and broke things off. She wants some backup while she goes back to the ex-suitor’s mansion to fetch her things. This scenario requires PCs who are interested in the well-being of the girl in question, so some previous setup may be required.

The next scenario, “Curse of the Screaming Skull”, is a complete change of pace. It has the PCs investigate some weird events at a remote lodge. The catch? They cannot do any damage to the house and the contents, due to large financial motivators tied to a recent will. This leaves the PCs to deal with a “haunted house” -type scenario, without the obvious solutions of “well, we just burn the thing down”. A subtle and low-key affair, it’s also probably quite difficult to actually solve.

Lastly, we get “An Unsettled Mind”, which is set in Baltimore in 1924. A series of violent accidents have the local police baffled, and the PCs (who may be part of the police force, here) are sent in to investigate. The whole thing sets the PCs up for a whopper of a moral dilemma; there is no easy or clean solution to this scenario.

This collection is very much recommended. The scenarios are interesting and quite varied from each other, and the lack of “normal” Cthulhu critters lets the GM set up tons of fun red herrings for the players. Some of the scenarios here are complex, and it’s not a given that the PCs will be able to solve them at all – sometimes escaping with your sanity intact is all you can do.

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Minireview: Horror on the Orient Express (Call of Cthulhu)

Horror on the Orient Express is a huge Cthulhu campaign, and also a very famous one – more because it’s damn near impossible to find without paying tons of money for it, somewhat less because of the actual contents. Of course, it is a very nice package, being a box set with lots of player handouts. The actual campaign is described in several staple-bound books, in addition to which the box contains a period advertisement poster for the Orient Express, passports, tickets, a cutout of the central “McGuffin” in the scenario, a booklet of maps of the train, a booklet of “extra” NPCs, etc. It’s a lavish production.

It took me years to get my hands on a copy of this, finally getting lucky on eBay and getting one for under $100. After reading the thing, I’m still happy that I got it, though the contents are an at times frustrating mix of the fantastic and the problematic. As a story, it’s a great and atmospheric read. As a roleplaying campaign… well, it needs some work.

It begins with an old friend of the PCs being victim of a near-fatal attack, and enlisting them on a quest across Europe to find pieces of a mysterious artifact, the “Sedefkar Simulacrum”. It’s assumed the PCs say “yes”, of course. They are provided with tickets to the famed Orient Express, departing from France. As a prelude, the book gives us a short mostly unrelated scenario (“Doom Train”), which is actually pretty good and can act as a red herring in some ways. It’s not really relevant to the plot, though, and can be left out.

The main action starts in France, and wends its way across Europe. It’s assumed that the PCs will stop in certain places and investigate, and then hop back on the train to continue. The whole campaign is a travelogue, with the train voyage linking together the different set pieces… and oh boy, what set pieces. This is where the campaign shines, most of the specific adventures at various locales are fantastic; written with style and providing you with tons of creepy and atmospheric moments. Not all of them shine, of course, and some are downright mediocre, but the good ones are very good. The Jigsaw Prince episode is awesome, as is the somewhat related “City of Bells and Towers”. There are encounters with politics (the fascist Brownshirts are in full swing in Italy), encounters with mythological figures (Baba Yaga and her chickens, much creepier than it sounds), and encounters with various nasty cults and creatures. The mood shifts from quiet investigation to full-on action horror, with quiet social interludes in between. The Orient Express itself provides a sort of home base, an island of civilization (though it also becomes a scene of extreme violence at a few points).

So, the set pieces are excellent (well, many of them are anyway). What’s the problem?

There are several. First off, as the old joke says, this campaign is very “railroaded”. It’s expected that the PCs behave in certain ways and take the train from one location to the other, stopping in certain places – but honestly, in many places it makes no real sense for them to do so. There is no real support for PCs who go “fuck this, we’ll just take a car/plane instead”. Also, the backstory here is ridiculously complicated. There are three different major “bad guys” at work here, with at times conflicting motives… and worst of all, much of this is opaque to the players, with many characters only making their play towards the end of the campaign. In addition, some of the motivations presented here don’t really make much sense, it would be much smarter for some of the antagonists to do something much less complex (instead of trying to manipulate the PCs). All this makes for a confusing game for the GM to run, and a potentially frustrating one for the players who rarely see rhyme or reason to what is happening in the background.

There were a lot of writers involved with this one, and it shows. While many of the set pieces are really good, there are some poor ones in the mix. There, the PCs are just led by the nose through events, with little chance to change the outcome. Classical railroading, in other words, and something that easily results in player frustration. There are a few bad cases of this in the middle of the journey, and the entire (penultimate) end game in Constantinople has a lot of this fault, with the PCs ending up foiled, defeated, outsmarted and kidnapped no matter what they do. The Constantinople portion does contain some very cool bits in addition, though, so it’s not a total loss. The very end of the campaign, in London, assuming the PCs survive the harrowing (and very cool) return journey, contains a twist that’s maybe a bit too nasty. Or not, depends on the play group.

In the end, it’s a complicated and baroque campaign which combines fantastic and weird set pieces with an overly-railroaded and overcomplex main plot. In addition, it’s extremely lethal, so the GM needs to plan for easy replacement PCs along the journey (the set contains some help in that regard, with nicely detailed “extra” NPCs which can be turned into PCs quite easily). I’d rate this as a very challenging campaign to run, the GM needs to do lots of improvisation and on-the-fly modification in order to keep the plot flowing without too much (visible) railroading. Add to the mix the need to run a horde of NPCs, and you get something which will require lots of prepwork to pull off. Given that prepwork though, there is potential for a great adventure here.

A seriously flawed masterpiece, this one. Very much worth reading, the writing is generally good and very poetic, given to evoking moods of vague dread and strangeness. As a game, it needs work.

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Minireview: Taint of Madness (Call of Cthulhu)

Taint of Madness, subtitled “Insanity and Dread Within Asylum Walls”, is a sourcebook on asylums and the treatment of mental illness over the years. Since ending up in the loony bin is a fairly common occurrence in CoC, something like this is quite useful if you want to inject some realism into the proceedings. While it’s a Cthulhu book, it’s actually more a general sourcebook on asylums for general gaming use, there isn’t all that much Cthulhu-specific here. The book examines three time periods: 1890, 1920 and 1990 (“modern” at the time the book was written), and gives an example asylum / mental hospital from each era – real historical ones for the older eras, a fictional one for the modern setting. The sections also contain some story hooks and a short scenarios set in the given locales, but these are of minor import; the meat here are the historical notes on the treatment of the insane over the years, including a ton of information on various actual mental institutions: cure percentages, etc. With this book, a GM can place a PC in a real historical mental hospital, and have instant access to general statistics about the place.

Given all that, it’s a slightly dry read, but not overly so… the horrific and by modern standards inhumane treatment of mental patients in historical times makes for some quite shocking reading. The book presents the facts fairly objectively, but doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that mental patients were treated like animals during the earlier eras… and things weren’t always exactly sunshine and flowers during more modern times, either. Even though the situation is probably better now than it has even been, the heavy use of medication to “treat” patients (especially when staff resources and money is tight) makes for some horror stories even now. Sure, it’s a far cry from the old horrors of “Bedlam”, but in some ways it’s just exchanging chains for drugs.

Overall, it’s a great resource for anyone wanting a look at historical mental illness treatment. Not every game will need this amount of detail, of course, but if you do want it, here it is. As noted, it’s a great general resource, it’s not just for Cthulhu.

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Minireview: Fearful Passages (Call of Cthulhu)

Fearful Passages is a Call of Cthulhu (mini)scenario compilation with a good initial idea, but somewhat shaky execution. The idea itself is solid: make a collection of short adventures that deal with travel and different vehicles, ideally in a form that could be plugged into another game/campaign – after all, traditional Cthulhu involves a lot of travel, and having something available to spice up a long sea voyage (for example), would be nice. However, the end result is a bit less than it could have been.

The first problem is that all too many of these are very specialized, and aren’t at all suitable for inserting into an ongoing story. They involve weird “vehicles” (elephant, anyone), exotic locales, or require a specific backstory and NPC cast. Nothing bad with all that in general, but here it goes somewhat against the intent of the book. Also, the more exotic/weird entries here are also the longer and more interesting ones, with the shorter entries, the ones you might easily insert into ongoing scenarios, being not that good.

So, the adventures themselves go against the general intent of the book. On the other hand, if you examine these as standalone adventures, you’ll find more value here. The initial scenario “Fear of Flying” is one of the best ones here, showcasing the early days of commercial air travel. There is also an interesting one involving a haunted train (of sorts), and the final Russian scenario (involving a sleigh ride as the main “travel” theme) is long and intricate. This is by no means a bad compilation. Sure, it doesn’t quite do what it claims to do, and sure, some of the adventures are in the “not that hot” category… but there are a few interesting ones here, and it’s always possible that even some of the more intricate offerings here could be inserted into an ongoing game with some prepwork. There is perhaps more emphasis here on “action adventure” than you’d have in typical Cthulhu, but the general travel theme does tend to push in that direction.

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Minireview: The Laundry

“Never cross the line of a pentacle or summoning grid. Remember, incomplete pentacles emit tentacles.”

The Laundry is a roleplaying adaptation of Charles Stross’ “The Laundry Files” novels, based on the same core mechanic as Call of Cthulhu (BRP) and written (among others) by Gareth Hanrahan of Paranoia fame. Since the books have been describes as “Cthulhu meets Dilbert, with a dash of Paranoia”, all that is quite apt. I’ll say this up front: it’s among the best, if not the best, book-into-rpg adaptation I’ve ever read.

For people who haven’t read the books: the stories deal with the life and times of one Bob Howard (not his real name), an employee in Her Majesty’s Occult Service, more properly known as “The Laundry”. Operating in the U.K., it tries to keep the country safe from supernatural horrors, while at the same time fighting the more tangible horrors of budget cuts, (literally) nightmarish bureaucracy, clueless supervisors and antiquated equipment. So yes, Dilbert meets Cthulhu. Many of the alien horrors here are quite explicitly from the Cthulhu mythos, though there is a twist: in this world, magic and mathematics are inseparable, and if you do clever simulations with computers you risk summoning something from Dimension X to eat your brain on the side. The general public is blissfully unaware of this, of course, so the Laundry has its hands full trying to quell demonic incursions caused by clueless hackers. Or cultists, can’t forget those.

So, it’s Cthulhu set in a modern-day environment where you’re actually working for a government agency (kinda sorta like Delta Green), but unlike DG this one is very British. It’s also not a rogue agency and actually has a budget… though it’s a very skimpy one. The books are heavy on the humor side, and the game mirrors that. It’s not a joke game, but there is a heavy humor element involved – witness the cover in which a Laundry agent fends off zombie hordes in a cubicle office, while wearing an XKCD t-shirt. Pop culture references are everywhere here, and a lot of the humor depends on being aware of them.

Gamewise, it uses the venerable old BRP engine. Now, this is both good and bad. Good because BRP is definitely in the “if it’s not broke don’t fix it!” department, it’s been the engine of choice for Cthuluoid games for decades now. Conversion of Cthulhu modules into Landry ones is (at least mechanically) easy, and experienced Cthulhu players will feel right at home. On the minus side, the engine is a bit old and creaky in places, and the Sanity mechanic as “mental hit points” is something that is done better by many other systems. The system used here is mainly straight-up BRP, with some expansions to handle the magic-via-math framework of the books.

The book is well organized and is a great read. It’s damn funny in places and presents the material in a way that makes things easy to follow. The artwork is nothing brilliant, but solidly in the “good enough” category. The beginning of the book concentrates on the mechanical details of creating a character, along with the BRP mechanical details. After that we get a huge pile of detail on the Laundry, along with a wonderfully byzantine organization diagram, a list of key NPCs (along with pics), some “ingame” case file notes, a list of antagonists (otherworld horrors, cultists, and other fun stuff). There is also a fantastic section on CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which is Laundry-speak for the end of the world, the time when the Stars Finally Are Right, so you could actually run a game series set around that. It probably wouldn’t be a very happy game series, but the book does give you the tools with it. Finally, we get three scenarios: “Going Down to Dunwich” which is your basic intro scenario, and not a bad one at that (the PCs get sent to a seashore village for a training session, and things… don’t quite go as planned). The scenario gets plus points for some quite clever red herrings, especially aimed at experienced Cthulhu players. Assuming things here might just get you killed (or worse). The second scenario is “A Footnote”, which is a short romp which can be plugged into the middle of pretty much any Laundry game. It’s ok, but nothing awesome. Lastly we get “The Greys”, in which the PCs investigate an alien which (reportedly) appeared in a local pub and then vanished. It’s the most complex of the three scenarios and also the best; figuring out what the hell is actually going on will need a bit of work, and the final answers aren’t all that happy ones.

As I noted in the beginning, I really liked this book. It captures the feel of the books near-perfectly, and (like the books) is a very good and at times very funny read. The presentation is excellent, and while I could quibble a bit with BRP as the engine, there is no doubt that it works. As a game, being agents of a government agency is a great mechanism for giving a game structure, and gripes about “what is this crappy mission and can’t we just go home instead?” become perfectly valid in-game, also. GMs who are fans of Paranoia also get a great excuse to throw some bizarre paperwork at the players. In triplicate, and to be signed in blood.

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Minireview: Strange Aeons (Call of Cthulhu)

Strange Aeons is a collection of three Cthulhu scenarios from Chaosium. The initial premise is nice: scenarios set outside the normal 1920-1940 Cthulhu era, hopefully avoiding some of the more worn genre conventions. Unfortunately the results are only mediocre; none of the three are fantastic and the science fiction one is downright disappointing.

The first scenario is “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, set in 1597 Spain. The interesting twist here is that the PCs are cast as servants of the Inquisition, sent to investigate rumors of a miracle in a tiny village Of course, since this is Cthulhu, said miracle is based on fact but is very, very far from the divine origins the Church is interested in. What follows is unfortunately a bit of a “we’ve seen this before” thing; there is a cult, various bloody things happen, and the PCs only survive because of the intervention of a Deus Ex Machina NPC. That maybe makes it sound worse than it is… it’s not a bad scenario, and acting as Inquisitorial agents is sure to be some fun. Still, it could have been more.

The second offering is “Blood Moon”, and is both the science fiction story of this collection and easily the poorest scenario here. Set on a moon base in 2015 (hey, that’s only a few years in the future!), it has the PCs come in to investigate a mysterious death. Naturally enough, there is a Cthulhu menace involved, but it’s a surprisingly uninspired one and the NPCs are mostly just stereotypes and caricatures. For an example of what could be done with Cthulhu in a future space setting, this is a poor showing. It’s not totally hopeless, just lackluster and unimaginative.

Lastly we get “The King of Shreds and Patches”, a scenario involving Hastur and the King in Yellow, set in Elizabethan London and dealing with the original “The King in Yellow” play script. This is easily the best scenario here, and is quite interesting. The PCs get to deal with various well-known historical figures, engage in rapier fights, and investigate grisly deaths and strange disappearances, possibly linked to a mysterious play manuscript. The end game is quite lethal (one of the bad guys has a ridiculous rapier skill value), but that’s not a bad thing in a Cthulhu one-shot scenario. Due to page count reasons the scenario doesn’t give you all that much background of the era, so some other source may come in handy when running this one to provide historical color and details.

In sum, it’s at most a mediocre book. While the last scenario is quite good and interesting, the others are of less quality and as a whole the book does not live up to its promise. Yes, we get Cthulhu set in non-standard eras, but in a mostly unimaginative way. Pity, that.

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Minireview: Nocturnum (Call of Cthulhu)

There aren’t all that many big Cthulhu campaigns out there (though the ones that do exist tend to be excellent). Also, all the ones I’ve previously read are from Chaosium, so an alternate one from Fantasy Flight Games, published in 2002 and statted for d20 Cthulhu, seemed worth checking out. Also, it was cheap, so what did I have to lose?

Oh boy.

Let’s start with the good. Nocturnum is ambitious. It clearly strives to be a globe-trotting modern-era Cthulhu campaign, with a “save the world from doomsday” plot and lots of exotic locales. Unfortunately, ambition only gets you so far, on its own. The episodes are quite varied from each other, and some of them contain cool ideas – especially the early ones. I could imagine myself using (heavily modified) versions of some of these as standalones, or as parts of something else. Oh, and some of the in-between fiction pieces are ok and suitably creepy.

Then we get to the problems, and that’s a much longer list. The first one is: this is not Cthulhu. Sure, it’s marketed as such and there’s some awkward inclusion of Nyarlathotep here and there, but it seems clear to me that this was originally designed either as a standalone “modern horror” game (or intended for some other game line), and someone somewhere decided to make it Cthulhu so it would sell better. It’s an awkward fit, since the mood of this thing is much closer to The X-Files, Conspiracy X, Dark Matter, and such. The campaign introduces two separate new “mythos” races, and neither are very memorable or convincing. It just does not feel like a Cthulhu campaign, on any level.

I could ignore that if the writing and plotting was good, but unfortunately that’s hit and miss too. For every nice piece of plotting and scene-setting, there are five totally silly ones. Every time I started thinking “this section isn’t that bad”, along comes something totally idiotic and kills the suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t help that most things here are heavily railroaded. Oh, and there’s also that old bad-scenario-writing standby, the invincible (and often invisible) super-NPC who magically follows the PCs around and Does Stuff (and then vanishes again). It’s possible to have something like that and not have it suck, but it’s tricky. Here, it fails, along with many other things.

As for the plot and contents: an alien race wants to escape the Earth and is conspiring to have an asteroid hit the Earth in order to facilitate that. A bit campy, but ok, I’ve read worse premises in Cthulhu scenarios and had them work. As a quick rundown of the individual scenarios:

The first has the PCs trapped in a wintery logging town during a blizzard, and (surprise!) bad stuff starts to happen. It’s nice and atmospheric, but contains such gems as an alien creature using “evil magic” to transform humans into werewolves. If you ignore that bit of stupidity it’s not a bad scenario, and could work nicely with some other X-Files -ish games.

Second has the PCs in a college town, investigating a student friend who seems to have gotten mixed up in a bad drug deal. This is a good scenario, though the end is very loosely specified (the GM isn’t given too many tools to decide things). Also, it’s totally disconnected from the first adventure. Regardless, it’s one of the stronger entries in this book.

Next is the first scenario featuring the “metaplot” (in a way that might be visible to the players in any sense). The PCs are asked to hunt down a missing girl, last seen at a California monastery, because… well, that’s left a bit vague. “Because they know about this paranormal stuff”, maybe. It’s a bit unconvincing. The scenario itself is ok, but the end (or the next small chapter more properly), railroads the PCs into becoming wanted fugitives. The GM text says that this is to help build a sense of urgency for the PCs and remove their safety nets, but it seems very contrived and railroady. At this point, the campaign hasn’t given the PCs anything much to be urgent about, and arbitrarily making them wanted criminals “just because” doesn’t seem like a good move.

Next up are a few other mini-events (like the “let’s make them criminals” one), but more palatable. Nothing major here.

After that, the PCs need to break in to a mental hospital and get access to a patient being held there. The initial setup is ok, but then it verges into silly territory again. Apparently, this is one of those new-style hospitals where serial killers and slighly depressed teenagers and kept and treated in nearby rooms. Some predictable “the patients are loose!” mayhem ensues, but it’s a bit tired.

Next is a scenario set near a swamp, with a possible swamp monster. It’s actually not bad, and could be used (with some work) as a standalone scenario. Unfortunately, after that we get a bit where the PCs are captured by the bad guys, and the railroad gets into heavy gear (and also ramps up the silly).

After that bit, we come to one of the low points of the campaign. On the plus side, some of the action takes place on an oil rig. On the minus side… where to start? The scenario features such pieces of idiocy as a spy from the Norwegian government with a mission to set up a bomb on an oil rig, and blame it on Greenpeace protesters. Said oil rig is in Norwegian waters. So let me get this straight: the Norwegian government wants to blow up an oil rig in their own waters, just so they can blame Greenpeace for it, and because they are evil? Apparently, according to this scenario. Also, said super-spy also kills a person in a ship cabin, cuts up the body with a knife, and throws the pieces out a porthole – all in a few minutes, while the PCs watch, and in a way which nobody else (in hearing distance) notices. Oh, and apparently all that blood also vanishes somehow, magically. The whole things is monumentally stupid and juvenile.

After that we’re in Copenhagen, and apparently there is “the world is ending” panic in the streets and the PCs are hunted by creatures. Mostly filler. After that things brighten up a bit, with a scenario set in a small Danish town, secretly ruled by old Norse gods. It’s a nice and creepy scenario, and might work great as a standalone, but here… come on guys. Old Norse gods? Real ones, not “mythos being masquerading as X”? In a supposedly Cthulhu scenario? Please.

The rest of the book is one big railroad where the PCs head off towards Nepal (via Russia), in order to do some superheroics and save the Earth. Or stuff.

Overall, this just isn’t a very good campaign. It contains some nice bits (along with lots of stupid), and some of this could be used as separate standalones – though more easily in a generic X-Files -style game, not a Cthulhu one. The campaign itself, as presented here, is at best mediocre and at worst pure crap. It’s badly railroaded, has uninteresting bad guys, contains monumentally stupid plot points, and (especially in the beginning) is quite incoherent. The PCs are given no real reason to do the things they are supposed to do, until the heavy-handed railroading steps in.

If you’re thinking of picking this one up, save your cash.

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Minireview: Tatters of the King (Call of Cthulhu)

Big Cthulhu campaigns from Chaosium aren’t that common, but they tend to be pretty damn good when they do appear. “Horror on the Orient Express”, “Beyond the Mountains of Madness” and “Masks of Nyarlathotep” are all rightfully considered to be classics. Tatters of the King by Tim Wiseman is the latest entry in this category (though being written in 2006 it’s not exactly brand-new anymore), and I’m glad to report it continues the tradition of excellence. While it reads like it’s a bit tricky to both run and play, the depth of plot and detail is fantastic, and the plot twists are quite inventive. In true Cthulhu fashion, the end game can be a grim affair.

It begins in October 1928 with a prelude concerning a play named “The King in Yellow”, written by one Talbot Estus and opening in a London theater. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that the opening night has… complications. From there the PCs are launched into the plot proper, which involves a certain patient in a mental hospital, dark magic, numerous cultists with different and at times conflicting agendas, weird monoliths on the Scottish moors, a possible trip to the strange meta-City of Carcosa, ancient British fertility cults… and finally, if the PCs are clever enough, a trip abroad to a very grim and alien destination. I don’t want to detail the plot too much, since it’s quite clever and some parts are prone to spoilers.

The story features a lot of detailed NPCs, which does present some challenges to both players and the GM: there are quite a few important people to keep track of, and the clues are quite subtle at times. The GM will need to do quite a bit of improvisation if (and when) the PCs walk off track, especially since many parts of this are quite freeform, with the PCs being free to investigate things at their own pace, using whatever methods they deem best. This is a good thing as far as structure goes, but it also means that it’s possible for the plot to get bogged down. There were a couple of leaps of faith at places concerning what the PCs were likely to do next, so some prodding and extra hints here and there may be needed.

So it’s complicated. It’s also pretty deadly in places; while no meatgrinder like Masks, there are still places where a wrong decision can prove disastrous. The end is particularly deadly, but I guess that’s fitting. Beyond the complicated nature of the plot and the possible need for some extra help to keep the adventure “on track”, I cannot find much bad to say about this book. Yes, it will probably be a bit more work for the GM than a more straightforward campaign, but I suspect the rewards will be worth it. Most of the book does take place in Britain, though, so players looking for a globetrotting adventure in the fashion of some of the other big campaigns will probably be a bit disappointed.

I really liked this book. It’s intricately plotted while still keeping the different NPC motivations quite clear. The book gets extra points for not depicting evil cultists as doing what they do “just because they are evil cultists”. They all have their agendas, which are quite believable and in some cases even sympathetic. In some notable cases, some may even turn into allies-of-convenience for the PCs. I also loved the Carcosa section, it reads like it should be a blast to play or run. To cap things off, the ending is quite fantastic, if deadly.

This campaign easily holds its own against the “classic” big Cthulhu campaigns in my opinion, and even surpasses them in places. Excellent stuff.

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