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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: 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: The Esoterrorists

The Esoterrorists is one of the first (if not the first?) game to use Robin Laws’ “Gumshoe” system, later featured in games like Trail of Cthulhu , Night’s Black Agents, etc. The main point of the system is the fact that when running an investigation-heavy game, you want your players (and their PCs) to figure out the msytery, which means that the PCs must find clues. If they don’t, things stall. In “classic” Call of Cthulhu this is a well-known problem with no good answers; if a certain core clue requires skill X at a certain percentage chance to succeed, and the PCs don’t make that skill roll, what is the GM to do? Usually, the answer is “somehow wrangle things so that the PCs get the clue anyway”. Gumshoe places that conceit on center stage: some clues are marked as core clues, and they are automatically discovered (provided the PCs visit a certain locale, and in some cases have a certain skill). No roll needed. Skill rolls and used for getting better clues, and for handling optional stuff where failure doesn’t stall the plot.

It’s a nice mechanism, and all in all a very nice rule system for investigation-heavy games. Which leads us to the game itself. Esoterrorists is a very thin wrapper around the rules themselves, it posits a game world there a mysterious group of “Esoterrorists” are trying to cause and provoke all sorts of mystical horror on the world at large, with the aim of weakening public disbelief of the occult. This, in their view, will let them take over, since they have the most magical mojo. As crazy plans go, it’s pretty out there, but of course the fact that magic does exist and work in this world (which is otherwise our normal everyday one) makes it a little less crazy.

Opposed to these guys is Ordo Veritatis, a vaguely described organization of “good guys” fighting the Esoterrorist menace. The PCs are assumes to belong to this organization. The book contains the Gumshoe rules, barebones descriptions of the above, and a sample scenario (which is ok). Not much else, it’s a pretty thin book.

…which is the main problem with the book. Other than the rules themselves (which are nice), there’s not much here to go on. Both the bad guys and the good guys are described extremely vaguely, so a GM wishing to run an Esoterrorist campaign would have to make most stuff up by him/herself. The good point here is that it’s not connected to a known “mythos”, so it’s easier to surprise players with occult weirdness here… but again, not much of that is included in the book itself.

I cannot really recommend this book at the moment, mainly because a 2nd edition has recently come out. I haven’t read it, but at least the page count is significantly higher so it might well provide more meat to the bones of this first edition. On the other hand, if you just want a decent early iteration of the Gumshoe rules in a portable format, you could do worse than picking up a copy of this. Gotta love a game system which includes the skill “Bullshit Detector”.

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Minireview: Night's Black Agents

Night’s Black Agents is a “Vampire Spy Thriller” game by Kenneth Hite, based on Robin D. Laws’ “Gumshoe” game system (best known from its “Trail of Cthulhu” incarnation). The main innovation there was the separating of character skills into “investigative” and “general” skills, which work quite differently – while “general” skills work in a somewhat traditional fashion, “investigative” skills always work. There is no danger of you botching a critical investigation roll and losing all access to a critical game clue, which has traditionally been a problem in Cthulhu games (and suchlike). Robin realized that certain types of rolls needed to always succeed or the game would grind to a halt, and that in practice GMs were fudging them to always work anyway – so why roll in the first place? While “Night’s Black Agents” is more an action move game than an investigation game, there’s enough of that to make Gumshoe a good fit as a rules system.

The game itself takes cues from the “Bourne Trilogy” series of movies (among many others), posing the players as highly trained (ex)operatives of the now-defunct Cold War; people with interesting and usually shady talent portfolios now working either freelance or for some GM-specified party. The trick here is that in the basic setup, the PCs have discovered that their employers are actually vampires. And no, not the “glitters in the dark and tries to look sexy” variety. The “rip your throat out and kill your family too” type.

Outside that basic setup, this is a toolkit, not a ready-to-run game. The game doesn’t even lock down what the “vampires” in your game actually are, though it gives lots of suggestions. They could be “traditional” vampires, they could be extradimensional parasites, they could be (space) aliens…. up to the GM. While this does pose more work the GM, in the end it means that your players will have very little idea of what to actually expect, and may find their preconceptions of what “vampires” are to be more of a hindrance than an asset. The GM is also given some tools to model the whole “vampiric conspiracy” in an abstract way, while planning what to hit the PCs with next. The default story has the PCs uncover more and more of said conspiracy until a climactic confrontation with the main “bad guys” – but again, up to the GM,

So, it’s a toolkit for creating games which mimic action movies (like the Bourne ones), with some supernatural elements thrown into the mix. The default game mode goes for cinematic action rather than gritty realism, but the game provides many extra modes which can be used to tweak the game genre in a freeform fashion: “Burn” gives some extra rules for modeling psychological damage, “Dust” pushes things more in the gritty realism direction, “Mirror” emphasizes double-crosses and hidden agendas, and “Stakes” gives the PCs personal motivations (intended to escalate drama). The assumption is that many of these will be used at once, as the GM sees fit.

It’s a very neat little game, at least based on reading it; whether of not the rules system works as intended in practice is something that would need playtest to figure out. The layout is clean and modern, the art is on the good side of things, and the writing is good. Only a few minor negatives come to mind. First off, the organization of the book isn’t quite perfect, in many places rules systems and rules-specific terms are referenced before they are explained in any way, making for at times confusing reading for people not familiar with Gumshoe. Secondly, this is a toolkit, which mean that there is very little here that a GM can use without significant prep time. For some, that may be a turn-off.

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