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Minireview: The Terror, by Dan Simmons

A couple of things, first off: It’s no accident that I read this right after The Walker in the Wastes; one of my reasons for buying this book was the fact that the basic plot centers around the same subject. Secondly, The Terror is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

I might class it as a “historical horror story”. In a way it’s a Cthulhu story without actually being a Cthulhu story, in the sense that the best tales of “Lovecraftian horror” tend to center around the theme of man versus a hostile and totally uncaring universe. That theme is very strong here.

The book takes the story of the lost Franklin Expedition, keeping quite close to known historical details, and then continues with what might have happened out on the ice after the known facts stop. There is a supernatural menace involved, but much of the horror comes from the (extremely) hostile environment: after getting trapped in the ice due to bad command decisions, the crew are harassed by poisonous food supplies, inadaquate equipment, crushing ice, and the constant freezing cold. Add in a… thing that (also) wants to kill them, and things become grim, fast.

It’s an extensively researched book, the amount of period detail is impressive. Told in unlinear fashion, the tale jumps from an “in medias res” beginning where the crew is already trapped to earlier times when the expedition is still in the process of starting off, then back again. In the hands of a lesser author things might have become confusing, but here the tale flows along and gains solidity despite jumping back and forth in time while switching the narrator voice with each jump. The characters are well-realized – I have no idea how well they correspond to the actual historical people in the personality department, but it doesn’t really matter; this is a work of fiction, not a history book. Franklin himself is portrayed as being hopelessly incompetent for the task assigned to him, though he is shown in somewhat positive light in past flashbacks. Sadly, this “leaders are incompetent and arrogant fools” theme seems to have been a real-life reality for much of the history of British arctic exploration (with some notable exceptions).

This is a thick book, both in page count and in content. It’s also quite brutal and dark. With those disclaimers, I can easily recommend this one. As noted, it was one of the best books of 2008 for me.

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Minireview: Walker in the Wastes

Walker in the Wastes is the first big Cthulhu campaign published by Pagan, and it can be quite difficult to find nowadays. I hunted eBay for quite a while before finding my copy, and it wasn’t exactly cheap. I do wish Pagan would do a reprint of this one…

Besides “rare”, what, then, is it? Well, it’s a huge “classic era” (1928 to be exact) campaign for Call of Cthulhu, kicking off with an expedition to the same area where the legendary lost Franklin Expedition vanished in the ice and the wind, 80 years previously. While extensive historical research points to the expedition having perished to a combination of starvation, scurvy, exposure and lead poisoning, this scenario posits that there may have been something more to that list of horrors. What starts off as a fairly mundane scientific expedition slowly becomes more sinister in true Cthulhu fashion. Something dangerous and non-human stalks the icy wastes, and the native “Eskimo” tribes on the ice aren’t talking much and aren’t necessarily all that friendly either.

The first expedition to the ice is intended to kick off a series of escalating events, some of which require the players to go globetrotting in search of clues. Clues to what? Why, a cult that wants to awaken an ancient god, of course! This is Cthulhu, after all, gotta have those cultists! I do have to say that the cult here is quite intelligently portrayed, and is quite far from the stereotypical “bunch of morons in robes” scene. I’d expect the body count on the PC side to rise fast, unless they are very careful.

This campaign will require a lot of GM prep to run. While it’s interesting and contains a lot of stuff (it’s over 200 pages long), the scope of this one is just so huge that those 200 pages are nowhere enough. Don’t expect to just pick this one up and run it… the author (John H. Crowe III) says that about four years of research went into writing this thing, and while you won’t need four years of GM prep in addition to that, you will need to do some amount of work. The campaign says it’s intended for “experienced Keepers and players”, and that’s a fair enough warning. I think this would be a really cool game to run or to play in, though, so I think that prepwork will probably be very much worth it.

After a fairly linear start the campaign becomes extremely freeform. At times I had trouble figuring out why exactly the PCs would go to a given remote corner of the globe – but to the author’s credit, the campaign doesn’t assume all the leads will be uncovered or followed. The end will be less likely to result in a total party kill if most leads are followed – but I can see this one branching in lots of different directions. Most of them deadly to the PCs, of course.

In sum… a huge, complex and demanding campaign, but one which probably rewards effort put into it. This and Beyond the Mountains of Madness are the two big arctic-focused Cthulhu campaigns that exist… and both are justly famous.

Oh, and this one has zeppelins in it. Can’t go wrong with those.

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