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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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