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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: 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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