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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: Targets of Opportunity (Delta Green)

Targets of Opportunity is the latest supplement for the Delta Green game (variant of modern-day Call of Cthulhu), and it has a long and eventful history. Parts of it were originally written about 15 years ago and parts were written to order just for this book. In 2008 Pagan Publishing together with Arc Dream decided to publish a new Delta Green book, one that collected both old but not-published-yet original material and brand new stuff. They had just released the Eyes Only supplement at the time, and decided to try a ransom model to finance the new book: people would chip in with certain amounts, and then get the book (hardcopy plus PDF) when it was ready. It was a sort of advance order scheme for the customers, and made it possible for Pagan to do a new project without setting down a huge front of money for it. All good on paper and in theory.

Well, it turned into a two-year development mess, as detailed by Shane Ivey (of Arc Dream) here. Some people got a bit impatient during that time but I personally didn’t, I was and still am firmly in the “better late than shoddy” camp. The wait was well worth it, since the final product is quite awesome.

The book consists of five chapters, detailing four separate antagonist groups to throw at your players plus one potential ally (or even employer). They are all very different, and all very interesting. The antagonists are all extremely creepy and disturbing, in different ways and on different power scales. A few are quite small and localized, while the biggest one is a true globe-spanning conspiracy.

“Black Cod Island” opens up the book, detailing a Native American tribe living on a tiny remote island off the coast of southern Alaska. While inoffensive and friendly to the occasional tourist, they are quite insular and keep tight control on who enters their lands. There is a reason for this, and it’s not pretty. While qutie small-scale and not a world-shattering Mythos threat, this one would still be a very difficult case for DG agents since… well, those people have been there forever. And they know people, and know things.

Next up is “Disciples of the Worm”, which illuminates a a cult searching for the secret of immortality, having perhaps already found it. But if so, what was the price? There’s a lot of body horror here, and I’m sure David Cronenberg could make an icky (and brilliant) film from this stuff. Very nice medium-scale antagonist group, with lots of surprises in store for players who think they know it all.

Thirdly we get “The De Monte Clan”, which is an insidious ghoul clan which has kept New Orleans in its grip for centuries… until Katrina, that is. Now, the ghouls and their henchmen are trying to return to the old ways, but the disaster plus the cleanup has made things very difficult for them. In addition, the theft of a critical mystical book from them (as detailed in a separate Delta Green short story not included here) has seriously thrown a spanner in their long-term plans. Related to that, Delta Green is now on their tail, with the first contact resulting in one permanently insane agent and lots of dead ghouls. Both groups are now in “cold war” status, with neither knowing as much as they’d like about their enemy. In short, and excellent “sink or swim” cauldron to throw the players into.

“M-EPIC” serves up the “allied group” of the book, which turns out to be a Canadian “counterpart” to Delta Green. Operating under the cover of the Environmental Policy Impact Comission (Division M), the agents of M-EPIC have an easier time of things in general than Delta Green, mostly because M-EPIC is an official (if covert) government agency instead of a rogue operation. Of course, this does also mean that they need to deal with budgets, bureaucracy and all that crap. Much of their agenda has to do with investigating supernatural threats on Canadian soil (many of them related to Ithaqua), and of course the guise of an environmental agency gives them perfect cover to stick their heads into lots of places which would otherwise be off limits. The agency is depicted as heading toward disaster but unaware of it yet: there is a dark secret at the core of the agency, and the psychological wellfare of the agents is being neglected in practice. All this makes for a great “home base” to run a Canadian “Delta Green” game from, and naturally enough M-EPIC agents make excellent allies, “friendlies” and even antagonists to Delta Green agents.

The last section is also the biggest, clocking in at around 100 pages. It’s Greg Stolze’s “The Cult of Transcendence”, and it’s fantastic (and very nasty). It details a complicated, global conspiracy – or maybe “meta-conspiracy”, since there are so many layers here that figuring out what’s at the core is an insanely difficult exercise. Any agents who do figure out what’s at the core will wish they hadn’t, since that core is exceptionally rotten even by Delta Green standards. There’s lots of splatter horror here, but it never gets out of hand, and the contrast between that and the more “normal” sections of the conspiracy is interesting. At the core, it takes a look at what would be needed for a group of people to actually leave their humanity behind and “transcend” to Mythos entities. It’s not pretty.

This is an excellent, excellent book, and it’s also a great read. Anyone looking for modern horror/occult content for a roleplaying game can get lots of mileage out of this, even though the book contains no “scenarios” as such: it’s all background material, NPCs, etc.

I do have to note a hilarious tiny gaffe in the otherwise impeccable book: one subsection posits a “Center for Sleep Treatment” located in Tampere, Finland. Fine, except that the name of the place is translated as “Keskus Nukkua Kohtelu”. As any Finn can tell you, that’s total gibberish and a warning example of what happens when you try to use a computerized translating tool without running the result past an actual human who knows the language (yes, all those words do exist in Finnish, but you would not combine them like that). “Unitutkimuskeskus” would be one possible translation.

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Minireview: The Golden Dawn (Call of Cthulhu)

The Golden Dawn is a sourcebook on Victorian Era Call of Cthulhu, written by the intrepid Investigators at Pagan Publishing. Not surprisingly (based on the title) it concentrates on the real-life mystical society “The Golden Dawn”, which was active in 1890’s England and had such luminaries as W.B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley as members. Of course, this is a Cthulhu supplement and not a historical treatise, so the book pointedly avoids detailing the intricate rituals and detailed beliefs of the actual society, and instead points the curious reader to other reference sources – apparently, the society had massive amounts of ritual and such. I think just providing an overview was a smart choice, most people aren’t all that interested in Hermetic esoterica, especially then most of it was apparently invented “from thin air” by the founder (who claimed they came from a non-existing German original chapter of the order).

Assuming the history detailed here corresponds to actual fact, it’s darkly amusing to see a “mystical society” which claims to seek “secrets from beyond” eventually fall to such banal things as office politics, internal cliques and personality clashes. Since this is a Cthulhu sourcebook some links in that direction are given, but to Pagan’s credit they did not directly tie the Golden Dawn into any specific Cthulhu cult or such — which would have been a bit boring. Instead, they portray the members and mostly well-intentioned seekers of mystical secrets and/or personal power (much like many Masons of the time), and have the society be largely clueless about the “real” secrets of the universe. They discover some tricks relating to astral projection, and stumble across some Mythos spells, but largely they are just stumbling in the dark, spouting mumbo-jumbo and trying to impress each other, thinking they are following secrets from the (mythical) Rosicrucians. Some are nutcases and some are quite unpleasant people, but they are not Cthulhu cultists chanting “ie! ie! ie!” around some altar.

The book is intended as a foundation for a game where the PCs are low-level members of the order. As such, it’s a great package: it contains a ton of information about the general organization of the Order, the most important members, the real-life history of the Order (versus what initiates are told), and other details which should help flesh out the scenario. Many historical people are presented, but their CoC stats are left out: you won’t find Aleister Crowley’s Cthulhu stats, here, sorry.

While the first half of the book contains background details on the Order and hints on how to run games with it, the second half gives you four scenarios to run. They are all very good and quite different from each other, and also perform the admirable feat of both using historical “important NPCs” in them and giving the PCs (mostly) free rein in how to proceed. The first concerns a (possibly) haunted room in a mansion, with W.B. Yeats himself recruiting the PCs along to help. It has a very evil twist, and may well result in a PC death or two. The second looks into the myth of Black Annis, a witch supposedly burnt at the stake in the old days. It’s also quite dangerous, especially if the PCs aren’t paranoid enough. The third takes place in Paris, at the Opera. Yes, there is also a Phantom involved, but it’s… not what you’d expect. Very nice and twisty little scenario. Last there is a scenario which concerns the possible return of King Arthur. Yes, that Arthur. Except that… well, forget all mythological preconceptions here, the Arthur given here is a) much more historically likely than the glorified man of the myth and b) a total murderous bastard. So yes, you actually have a scenario where you can have King Arthur murder the PCs (and/or sacrifice them to Mythos entities). Good stuff.

As a whole, it’s a great book. It details a fascinating little Victorian secret society, while concentrating on making it a good base of operations for a game (as opposed to a historical treatise). I loved the foreword which directly states the reason they are not detailing most of the rituals etc: “they are pretty dull”. Instead of boring recitals of Latin phrases, we’re given a nicely organized info packet on the Order and the times it existed in, topped off by four very good scenarios. The only minus point here is the fact that this is a very specialized sourcebook, you can’t directly use much of this in a “normal” Cthulhu game, other than as historical trivia. Some of the scenarios might be translatable, but many contain so many Victorian tropes that it would require a bit of work.

Oh, and Crowley was a nutcase. But you already knew that.

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Minireview: Mortal Coils (Call of Cthulhu)

Mortal Coils is a collection of Call of Cthulhu scenarios from Pagan Publishing; unlike some previous collections, these have not been printed before in Unspeakable Oath back issues, but get their first publication here. Since this is from Pagan I expected high quality, and for the most part that’s exactly what I got. There are no real stinkers here and some are really really good, but as always in a scenario collection the quality varies and (even more importantly) “good” is often a relative concept in these things. What might work wonderfully for one GM and play group may fail spectacularly for others.

The scenarios are connected by a theme of someone (or something) having vanished and/or died, but otherwise they are all over the place. Most take place in the “classic” 1920s period, but the locations vary a lot. The majority are set in the U.S. but two are set abroad. The detail level is high (especially in John H Crowe III’s scenarios, it’s a trademark of his), and likewise the difficulty level is on the high side; in some cases, the scenarios seem a bit too daunting to me, at least as written. While some can probably be integrated into an ongoing campaign, I suspect most of these would work best as stand-alones (either because of scenario requirements or because of lethality).

Vigilante Justice (by John H Crowe III) starts off the lot. It posits one of the PCs being married to an NPC, and also has the PCs playing natives of small-town Kentucky, limiting integration options a bit. The child of one of the PCs has been kidnapped, and authorities are no help (the office of “sheriff” did little investigation or police work in those days), and time is running out. It’s a nice enough scenario, but it quite difficult as written and the main bad guys get little-to-no actual description here – I understand they are detailed in some other sourcebook, but that’s no help here. On the other hand, that detail isn’t necessary here, since the PCs will be involved with “subordinate” minions.

A Murder of Crows (also by John H Crowe III) is a bit better, in my opinion. Two brothers have vanished into the Louisiana swamps, and the PCs are tasked with figuring out what happened. There are some red herrings thrown out to confuse the PCs, while the actual antagonists here are quite well-entrenched; the PCs need to be very careful in what they do. The depiction of the cult-infested small town in the middle of a swamp is great, and some of the small details here are wonderfully disturbing. Some extra bits seem a bit too weird and maybe unnecessary (I mean really, a lost bunch of Confederate soldiers?), but may work out well in actual play. A nice scenario, but also quite potentially lethal.

Nightcap (by Jeff Moeller) is interesting and different. Heavily based on the Dreamlands, it involves a mysterious flask found in the forest and some strange goings-on in back-country Kentucky. It’s quite an imaginative little thing, and the ending (involving “Teddy”) is potentially both terrifying and utterly weird. It has a few “GM traps” involving the nature of the bottles themselves, but nothing that can’t be worked around. A good little side trip to throw at PCs too used to looking for Cthulhu influences under every bush.

God of the Mountain (by Michael Cisco) is one of the best scenarios here. It’s also quite unusual and deliberately designed to foil normal player expectations. The PCs hear of the disappearance of two brothers in Peru while searching for the lost city of Tahaun, and the PCs are sent to investigate (it’s presumed they have motive to do so, via various means). What they find there is eerie, subtle and quite lethal – and probably also something the players aren’t prepared for. A real gem of a scenario, but also potentially quite lethal. Might be best run as a one-shot.

Common Courtesy (by Jeff Moeller) is another unusual scenario. A young woman has disappeared, and the case may potentially involve his recently-deceased husband, and the fact that the marriage was both recent and unusual – the husband was quite openly gay. Investigating the matter will bring the PCs head-to-fist with a strange group of the deceased husband’s relatives. The relatives are both (very) foreign and have some very strange notions about proper burial rites. The scenario is constructed so that simply using blunt force or involving the authorities is sure to result in a bloodbath (with high probability of PC deaths), and the sneaky approach is also difficult. There is a peaceful solution, but it will involve some heavy sanity losses for everyone. Quite a clever and evil little scenario, all things considered.

We Have Met the Enemy (by Rebecca Strong) is the weakest of the bunch. It’s not bad, none of the scenarios here are, but neither is it up to the level of the others presented here. The action involves one “Uncle Freddy” (related to a PC) having been murdered, and the PCs (of course) investigating. The base idea here is decent: it tries to set up a situation where the PCs need to do some not-so-nice things in order to prevent even worse things. The problem is that the whole thing is very linear, and it assumes the PCs do some very specific things (which actual PCs are quite unlikely to do, without heavy prodding). Also, the “bad things” aren’t probably all that disturbing in the end, to your average bunch of PCs. Again, it’s not bad, it’s just… very mediocre.

Dream Factory (by John Tynes) is (barely) the longest scenario in the book, and it’s both complicated and quite good. The action takes place in the “dream factory”: Hollywood in the transition where silent movies were just about to be eclipsed by “talkies”. A young and promising starlet has vanished, and the PCs are hired to trace what happened. Possibly involved are a bunch of (ex) boyfriends, jealous co-actors, doting “mentors”, foreign “genius filmmakers”, and a cult (or two). As noted, it’s a complex scenario, but it does also provide comprehensive notes on NPCs, timelines and such as help for the GM. It’s a difficult case to actually solve and can go in lots of different directions, but there is material here for a pretty awesome game, provided the GM is familiar enough with all the different plot lines and characters. Good stuff.

Mysteria Matriis Oblitae (by Dennis Detwiller) involves a researcher at the University of Mexico City receiving a photograph of a bizarre creature, originating in a distant rural Mexican village. The bloody Mexican revolution of 1910 has left many of the villages in the area as burnt-out husks, and not many outsiders visit the region in the first place. Enter the PCs, tasked by the University to investigate this new zoological find. Well, surprise surprise (or not), they find more than they bargained for. The intersections of this story and actual Mexican history add some extra interest, and the scenario provides both playtest notes and notes on what would happen if the PCs do some specific (and possibly obvious) things, up to “get the military involved”. There is a definite Delta Green feel to this thing, even though it’s set in a historical Cthulhu setting.

So there. A very good (though not flawless) collection of Cthulhu scenarios, covering a lot of styles and themes.

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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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Minireview: Coming Full Circle (Call of Cthulhu)

Coming Full Circle is another excellent Cthulhu campaign from Pagan Publishing and the author of Walker in the Wastes (John H. Crowe III). As the author notes in the foreword, it’s almost the polar opposite of Walker: instead of large-scale globetrotting investigation, this is a very small-scale and insular affair. It’s also purposefully not a Cthulhu mythos campaign; the antagonists have their basis in New England folklore and mythology, instead of the Cthulhu mythos as such. There are notes to tie this to the mythos, if the GM wants to… but that’s purely optional. It’s also somewhat unusual in its time period, being set from 1929 to 1939, a decade after the classic Cthulhu period and under the looming threat of the U.S. Great Depression.

Like many other books from Pagan, this is brimming with detail and historical notes on the period, and NPC descriptions are extremely good. This is important since this is a very character-driven and insular campaign, talking place in a (fictional) New England town. As noted in the intro section, this thing plays best if at least one of the PCs is a noted “psychic investigator” or some such, since the opening hook has a local widow contacting the PCs regarding a haunting. It’s assumed the PCs take the bait and go investigate, of course, and the rest of the campaign depends on the PCs forming some sort of relations with the family in question. This might get tricky for the GM; if the PCs just want to do a quick investigation and move on, much of the rest of this might fall flat – so it’s important that the GM uses the piles of local and NPC detail given to try to bring the town and the locals to life.

The campaign consists of four parts, taking place years apart and all (at least somewhat) connected to this certain family (though one of them is only very loosely connected and can be run as a stand-alone as needed). In a way it’s the story of a certain family and the dark things that haunt them, and it’s up to the PCs to figure out what’s behind it all. The final part, the titular “Coming Full Circle”, finally wraps things up and returns to the source of the evil… assuming the PCs are diligent and/or lucky. The opposition is quite dangerous and clever, here.

It’s good stuff, assuming you feel like running a small-scale historical supernatural game. As noted, Cthulhu mythos elements as such are missing here, which can be a good thing to throw players expecting “familiar” Cthulhu tropes off the track. Not quite all of them are missing, though, in order to make things interesting. The amount of detail given should make this fairly easy to prep for, though the GM does need to read and re-read a lot of the information; as noted, using that to flesh out the important NPCs is critical here.

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Minireview: The Resurrected III: Out of the Vault (Call of Cthulhu)

Out of the Vault is a compilation of Call of Cthulhu scenarios from the pages of Pagan Publishing’s “Unspeakable Oath” magazine (issues of which can be hard to get hold of nowadays), with new layout and art. Possibly some tweaks / corrections also, not sure about that; I had read almost all of these previously from the magazines, but it’s been a while so can’t say about possible differences. In any case, it’s generally a very high-class compilation. There are 10 scenarios, mosty from the “classic” 1920s era, and most of them are pretty good. Some few are only so-so, and a few are truly excellent. Many are quite deadly, as is par for the course for Cthulhu one-shots.

Highlights for me were the bizarre and deadly “Within You Without You”, the cinematic “Blood on the Tracks”… and above all, the crazy and brilliant “In Media Res”. That last one is quite unusual for a CoC scenario and is close in theme and feel to the (also brilliant and unusual) Unknown Armies scenario “Jailbreak”. It throws the PCs (and players) into a very scary situation with no warning, and also wraps up before questions are answered. Creepy and very cool, and also very suitable for a short LARP session; in fact some people have apparently run it as such.

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Minireview: The Mysteries of Mesoamerica (Call of Cthulhu)

Mysteries of Mesoamerica (publisher link) is a new Cthulhu sourcebook from Pagan Publishing, somewhat of a rarity in itself. Once again Pagan fails to disappoint – assuming you are feeling like some 1920’s Cthulhu set in politically stormy Central America, this book’s for you.

It’s a pretty hefty tome, contentwise. The page count is “only” in the 220 region, but in the Pagan fashion it’s crammed full of info in a readable but fairly compact font. Lots of very cool art, too, which sets the mood nicely. The first third or so of the book goes into setting detail: politics, geography, history. It’s a pretty nice crash course into what’s what and who’s who in that area in the 1920s. The rest of the book is filled up by four scenarios, all good.

The first one, “The Well of Sacrifice”, concerns an archeological expedition which stumbles upon something dangerous – par for the course in Cthulhu. It’s quite compact and also quite deadly. It’s not strictly speaking a Cthulhu scenario at all, but fits in with the mood. The second scenario (“Menhirs in the Grotto”) is a lot more complicated; there is again an archeological dig, but this time the context is quite different as are the dangers. Local social contacts feature heavily, here. Thirdly we have “The Heretics”, which (once again!) has a loose archeological theme to start things off with, but quickly changes into something much more contemporary. Last, there’s “Temple of the Toad”, which fails to break from the “archeological find” pattern but once again goes off in a different direction.

I quite liked the scenarios, though the first and last ones are quite compact and fairly straightforward. One could fault them for all having some sort of archeology context, but that’s mitigated by the fact that archeology is just such a natural reason for PCs to be in that region during that time, and also by the fact that the scenarios all go in somewhat unpredictable directions. All are also quite dangerous. The good thing with having a unifying startup theme for all the scenarios is that they could be combined for the same set of PCs, as long as those PCs were into archeology.

One amusing addition were the numerous PC character “R.I.P.” sidebars scattered among the scenarios. Apparently the death toll during playtests was on the high side… the author of the first scenario notes that both playtest sessions resulted in total party kills… even though he hadn’t intended for the thing to be quite so lethal. So be warned: some of these may be more suitable for one-shot use than as inclusions in a campaign.

Overall, this is yet another quality book from Pagan. This is far from the “soft” direction some Cthulhu writers have gone towards – these scenarios are mean, nasty and bloody. If the PCs survive to talk about it afterwards, they’ll have won a victory.

“El Diablo! Vamos! Vamos!”

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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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