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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: The Realm of Shadows (Call of Cthulhu)

The Realm of Shadows is another Cthulhu campaign from John H. Crowe III, published by Pagan Publishing. It’s set in the 1940s and the slowly escalating World War II provides a nice backdrop – the war doesn’t directly impact many things here, but it does give interesting context to several things and explains some plot elements later on in the campaign. The book is (very) loosely connected with Coming Full Circle, a previous campaign by the same author, in that this one can be played as a continuation and some small plot links are provided. It’s an extremely loose connection, though, this campaign mostly stands on its own.

The plot here centers on ghouls and ghoul cults. Unlike many “big plots” in Cthulhu scenarios, there is no impending “rise of the Old Ones” or such end-of-the-world stuff here. If the PCs fail… nothing all that horrible happens, at least in the short run. In the longer run things get a bit more grim, and various small-scale victories (or losses) encountered here will of course be very significant to the PCs. This approach is quite refreshing, though it does bring with it a few problems with PC motivation; after the initial scenario, the GM needs to do some work to make sure the PCs are set up to have motivation enough to pursue hidden things on their own. Things which have been hidden for ages, and are very good at staying hidden.

Events begin with the PCs getting hired by a worried doctor in a small New England town, whose wife has run away and taken their daughter with her. Strange previous behavior by the wife, added to the strange physical deformities ailing their daughter, makes the doctor suspect something sinister is going on. Is it just a case of marital problems coming to a crisis point? Of course not, this is Cthulhu. It’s a clever opening for the campaign; it’s quite low-key but has plenty of potential for action and is quite open-ended in how the PCs may approach things. At the end of it all, the PCs will hopefully have leads on a possible ghoul cult infesting some parts of Massachusetts.

…which the PCs are expected to trace and foil, in the second scenario. As noted, this runs the problem of too little PC motivation, it’s easy enough to see the PCs just give up and do something else at this point. Depending on how the first part went, the GM may need to do some little legwork here. The scenario itself is quite solid, and assuming the PCs are clever or lucky enough they’ll get plenty of clues, many of them pointing towards South America. There is also a small linking scenario provided, which takes place in the Dreamlands and may provide critical additional clues and is important in piecing things together in the finale.

The last part takes place in French Guiana, location of the infamous “Devil’s Island” prison camp and also host to vast tracts of utterly hostile and mostly unexplored jungle. This last part also gets greatest mileage of the war in the background – flying there is expensive, but the cheaper ship option runs the risk of a submarine attack. Also, the war and the simultaneous dissolution of the French government has had a huge impact here: local prices are haywire, the political situation is anyone’s guess, and attitudes are tense. The PCs need to get there, hire a suitable guide or two (a non-trivial task in itself), and then head off into the jungle to face whatever lurks there.

The end game is potentially explosive, panicy and quite deadly, as befits a Cthulhu campaign. The PCs do have a chance at survival, but the probability of them dying noble (or not) deaths in the depths of the jungle is much higher. The opposition is strong, clever and entrenched, and the PCs need to be clever and careful (or have serious firepower, not easy to arrange) in order to have a chance.

As a whole, it’s really an excellent campaign. It starts up slowly but in a clever way, ramps things up with local investigation, provides mystical viewpoints via Dreamlands links, and finally throws the PCs directly at the heart of darkness. The only weakness, as I see it, is the motivation factor in the midpoint, but that should not be an issue provided the GM does some groundwork in the right direction. Another quality campaign from Pagan, in other words, with the slightly nonstandard 1940s timeframe spicing things up a bit. As typical for a scenario from this author (and Pagan Publishing in general), the attention to and level of detail is impressive. Also typical and awesome is the art by Blair Reynolds – very creepy and atmospheric.

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