Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Delta Green: Tales from Failed Anatomies, by Dennis Detwiller

Tales from Failed Anatomies is a collection of Delta Green stories from Dennis Detwiller, and it’s damn good. Not just good as rpg fiction, good as fiction period. Most of the stories are new for this volume, though the collection does contain some older, previously available stories (I’ve read at least “Drowning in Sand” and “The Thing in the Pit” before). The stories have the common theme of having something to do with Delta Green (or its Soviet counterpart, GRU-SV8) or the Cthulhu mythos, and are set at various points in history. The tales are arranged in time order, with the first ones set in the WWI and WW2 eras (the disastrous Innsmouth raid is one connecting point), and the last one is set in our future (and potential Apocalypse). Otherwise, all of the stories are stand-alone and most of them do not require any sort of Cthulhu Mythos and/or DG background information, they should work great as just general horror fiction.

Though there are a few stories here that don’t totally work, in general this is a high quality collection. The mood is nihilistic and grim, as befits the Delta Green theme, but the stories are very clever and quite different from each other and told from various different perspectives. While Delta Green fiction before this has set a high bar, this is possibly the best DG short story anthology to date. Recommended.

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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 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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Minireview: Rough Magicks (Trail of Cthulhu)

Rought Magicks is a magic rules supplement for Trail of Cthulhu. Now, I haven’t actually read the ToC rules yet, but I have some familiarity with the Gumshoe system, so I could more or less understand what was going on here. Apparently the base magic rules given in the core book are either very minimal or completely missing, thus the need for this supplement.

Since it’s written by Ken Hite, there is a certain expectation of quality here, and I wasn’t disappointed. Ken examines the various ways in which magic is presented in Lovecraft’s work, and then gives the GM various tools to simulate those effects. Best of all, many of the “how does magic work?” systems and explanations given here are (intentionally) contradictory, the expectation is that the GM will mix and match to get something suitably mysterious and creepy for his/her game. I like this approach, since “deterministic magic” is a mood-killer for a game like Cthulhu. Here, the players really won’t know what to expect, with the small downside that the GM has to do a small bit of prepwork in advance.

It’s compact, well-written and useful. If you’re running Trail of Cthulhu, you almost certainly want a copy of this.

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Minireview: New Tales of the Yellow Sign, by Robin D. Laws

The “King in Yellow” stories, originally written by Robert Chambers in 1895, are only tangentially related to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, though nowadays they are widely considers to be a part of it. This is largely due to their inclusion in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, initially via scenarios (especially the classic “Tell Me Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?” by Kevin Ross). Compared to Lovecraft’s tales, the Hastur/Carcosa tales have a more prominent fantastical element; less eldritch horrors and more creeping insanity and a lingering sense of wrongness, mixed in with what is almost sword & sorcery at times.

New Tales of the Yellow Sign is a collection of tales from Robin D. Laws, expanding on the “King In Yellow” mythos and the stories that it originated from. Not all of the stories even mention Hastur, the King In Yellow or Carcosa (though some do), but all share elements from the tales: alien, unexplained and often malignant influences, strange alternate histories, and slow spirals into insanity. Some are set in an alternate dystopian history, in which New York has “suicide booths” and history has taken several strange turns. There’s very little exposition here, the reader is just presented with weird elements mostly without explanation, and referred to past (strange) events also without much explanation. It works very well in generating a sense of unease in the reader, a sort of “what else aren’t they telling me?” feeling.

The stories are quite excellent. Sure, there are a few that didn’t quite “click” with me, but even with them I got a feel for what the writer was (maybe) going for. There’s very little stock “Cthulhu mythos” here (apart from some quick references), which suits the tone just fine. Some are historical tales, some involve alternate histories (maybe in a past, maybe in a future), and some are set in (our?) modern day. One notable story involves a very creepy smartphone app. Some of the stories even have a happy ending… but it’s always tinged with darker elements.

I really liked this collection, it’s a very different sort of collection of “Cthulhu stories”. Very much recommended.

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Minireview: Cthulhu's Reign, edited by Darrell Schweitzer

The vast majority of Cthulhu stories are about the threat of the Old Ones awakening “when the stars are right” (after which, presumably, humanity is utterly doomed). Cthulhu’s Reign is about what happens if the stars do become right. It’s a collection of Lovecraftian end-of-the-world and post-apocalypse scenarios, some about the event itself, some (most) about the apocalyptic aftermath. It’s not exactly happy reading, and the quality varies wildly. Some of the stories go in very interesting directions, while some are mediocre or bad (many of these do have interesting premises, it’s usually the execution that wavers).

The initial story is one of these not-so-good ones, with two-dimensional characters, a weird premise, and some strange details. It has its moments, but generally starts off the collection on an off note. The pace picks up after this, though, and some of the later stories are quite good and inventive. While most are very grim and contain more graphic violence than your normal Cthulhu story, the collection does contain one comedy piece (which is pretty good), and a few of the stories end with a vaguely hopeful note. Only a few, though. This is a collection of stories about humanity’s doom, after all.

I’d say this is worth a read if you have an interest in the Cthulhu mythos. This book covers a theme not often seen in other mythos tales, and while the quality is all over the map there are some great and memorable tales here. As a general horror collection, this only rates a so-so review as a whole.

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Minireview: Through a Glass, Darkly, by Dennis Detwiller

Through a Glass, Darkly is the latest published Delta Green novel. Stuck a long time in literary limbo, it finally saw the light of day via Kickstarter.

It’s a good book, and almost essential reading to anyone interested in Delta Green. However, you must know the setting in order to understand anything here. If “green box”, “Groversille”, “NRO DELTA” and “A-Cell” are familiar concepts to you: dive right in. It’s quite a ride. If not, please skip reading this book until your security clearance improves. Page count is not expended here in needless exposition, and readers without the required background info will almost certainly be left bewildered.

The story itself details a critical junction point for Delta Green, perhaps foreshadowing the way the game setting will be updated in the upcoming new version. The original DG was set firmly in the middle of 1990’s paranoia, and some elements there are a bit dated now. The events in this book show one way in which the long cold war between Delta Green and Majestic-12 may come to an end. Well, sort of.

The plot concerns Project Looking Glass, a strange device with possibly vast implications. Some people vanish, and later a young boy appears at his parents’ door. Problem is, the boy in question has been dead and buried for years. The parents do not dare question the “miracle” of the return of their son, but DG is more paranoid. With good reason, as it turns out. From there, events escalate, with some ancient players of the covert game coming out of the woodwork, some for the final time.

The ending is a bit bizarre, I think I may need a re-read to totally figure out what happened. That doesn’t detract, though. The book is a fast read, and events proceed in ever-escalating fashion with a suitably climactic conclusion.

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Minireview: Mask of the Other, by Greg Stolze

Mask of the Other is a new ebook-only piece of fiction from Greg Stolze. I picked it up as soon as I saw it, since, well… Greg is a good writer, I was in New Zealand and thinking about what to read next, and the price was right. I’m glad I did, it’s actually a really good book. It’s also a Cthulhu mythos book, though it doesn’t directly advertise that fact.

The book consists of three separate strands, which slowly weave together into a coherent whole. It is also not told in strict linear order, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the year numbers which precede each chapter. The book starts off with the main protagonist group, a squad of U.S. soldiers in 1991 back-country Iraq, caught in the middle of a surprise attack with some extremely weird factors thrown into the mix. From there it jumps to the other narratives: 1974 and coastal Cyprus, where something came out of the sea, something unkillable. And 1988, when a rock band vanished while shooting a video at a long-abandoned island town. I don’t want to describe the plot much more than that, but I will say this: it’s awesome for once to read about people facing the Mythos with actual combat tactics and modern heavy firepower. No, that doesn’t help quite as much as you might think, but it’s still a different ballgame from the usual “scared civilians with shotguns”.

It’s a good tale, and overall a very solid piece of modern(ish) Cthulhu fiction. Recommended.

…and hey, any book which starts off with a chapter named “Saddam’s Got a Death Ray” can’t be all that bad.

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