Beyond the Mountains of Madness
Beyond the Mountains of Madness is an epic campaign for Call of Cthulhu that sweeps the investigators from New York to the depths of the Antarctic wastes. It is, without a doubt, one of the finest campaigns that Chaosium has ever published, although running it successfully will be a test for the most experienced gamemasters.
The campaign is set in 1933, three years after the Dyer-Lake expedition from Miskatonic University discovered some extremely unusual biological samples at the base of a colossal mountain range in Antarctica. Disastrously, most of the expedition was killed in a tremendous gale, and their samples, notes, and equipment were scattered beyond recovery.
The investigators are invited to join a new expedition, led by the famous explorer James Starkweather and Professor William Moore, a noted geologist and paleontologist. Starkweather and Moore aim to complete the work started by the MU expedition, and explore the mountain range, now known as the "Miskatonic Mountains."
The campaign starts slowly enough. The expedition readies its supplies and equipment - including four aircraft – and after a few mishaps sails from New York on the SS Gabrielle. The tension rises steadily as the expedition sets out from the Ross Ice Shelf to the site of the disaster, and builds to a climax as a smaller party presses on and experiences horror and tragedy beyond the mountains.
The Starkweather-Moore expedition is not the only party of explorers on the Ice in the summer of 1933. Another American expedition, led by millionaire industrialist Acacia Lexington, is camped on the Ross Ice Shelf. The Germans have also despatched a large expedition, ostensibly to assay the natural resources of the continent. These competing parties have their own part to play in the horrific conclusion.
Beyond the Mountains of Madness weighs in at over 430 pages, almost twice as long as The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep. It features a beautiful cover by John T Snyder, and the usual Chaosium style line drawings throughout the text. Its depiction of 1930s Antarctic exploration is incredibly detailed. A series of lengthy appendices sets out the complete cargo manifest of the SS Gabrielle, crew rosters for the three expeditions and their support vessels, and extensive handouts.
GMs must have a copy of HP Lovecraft's story, At the Mountains of Madness, to run the campaign. Chaosium have thoughtfully republished it in a companion volume of fiction, the Antarktos Cycle.
The campaign is suspenseful, evocative, and disturbing. It deserves to win awards, but I have to say it will be a challenge to run successfully. The book is not very helpful in officering advice about how to run the campaign, its only serious deficiency.
The initial stages of the campaign are extremely slow, with the investigators checking the expedition's cargo manifests. Later in the campaign, the investigators have to purchase supplies for the expedition. These tasks are essential, but are like a slow day at the office. It would be wise to include just enough of the routine tasks to give the party the flavour of Antarctic exploration, without slowing the campaign down.
The campaign is essentially linear, and there is no way out for the investigators – apart from death or madness – once they cross the mountains. GMs would need to be careful to make sure the players do not feel they are being railroaded. One possibility would be to ensure that the investigators have very strong reasons to want to go to Antarctica, above and beyond "because it's there."
Finally, the campaign has an extremely equivocal ending. There is a danger that many players will end up feeling depressed and unhappy about what their investigators have done. I have no doubt that the authors wanted to achieve such an effect, and I have to concede that it is very Cthulhu. But there is plenty of grim territory in the campaign as it is. Personally, I think there is an argument for having a more upbeat ending, if only to make sure that the players are willing to come back for the next adventure.
In conclusion, Beyond the Mountains of Madness is a fine product, but is only for experienced GMs and players. I know that I will be assembling an Antarctic expedition soon.
Style: 5 (Excellent!)