Call of Cthulhu Overview
Call of Cthulhu Overview Capsule Review by Stephen Joseph Ellis on 01/01/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
An enormous overview of the Call of Cthulhu RPG line spanning 60 books and 6 companies- Ia, Ia!
Product: Call of Cthulhu Overview
Author: Sandy Peterson, et al
Line: Call of Cthulhu
Page count: Varies
Year published: 1981
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Stephen Joseph Ellis on 01/01/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Historical Horror Conspiracy
CALL OF CTHULHU OVERVIEW
This style of review does not just look at one book and give a detailed breakdown of its contents. Instead I aim to look at a whole RPG game line, explain the basic concepts, background and rules and then provide a summary review of each supplement, how it adds to the game and how it compares with the other supplements. I will only do this for games which I own a majority of the supplements for (typically 80-95% of the line), so as to provide a complete picture of the line and highlight which books are essential for gamers new to the system and perhaps highlight some forgotten gems for veterans of the game.
It is also my policy to discuss in frank terms the twists of adventures, metaplot revelations and other spoilers which distinguish one supplement from another as these will be of interest to the GM considering purchasing the books. This means that this review may is not appropriate for players of the game line to read.
Call of Cthulhu is one of my favourite games. Unfortunately, I find it very difficult to put my finger on exactly what that is. Hopefully I'll be able to figure it out by the end of this review of over 60 books.
I think its important to explain to the 2% of gamer who don't know, exactly what Call of Cthulhu is about in both fictional and historical terms. Historically, an obscure New England horror writer called Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft wrote a number of short fiction pieces in the 1920's. These short stories apparently shared a common universe where evil, cosmic and very alien entities of great power existed, and of whom humanity was largely unaware. Exposure to these often tentacled entities (called Great Old Ones, Outer Gods etc.) brings individuals to the realisation that humanity is insignificant compared to these eternal horrors, and that humanity doesn't even rate a foot note in the great encylopaedia of the cosmos.
Unfortunately, a large number of these entities, alien races, extra-dimensional beings either visit earth, or who are trapped here. Lovecrafts stories tend to revolve around a solitary hero gradually becoming aware of these horrors, achieving some sort of success against them before he has an insight into the futility of humanity and power of the Others.
All in all, very gloomy, nihilistic view of the world, but this is combined with Lovecrafts uniquely ornate, archaic-gothic style of writing. Because, you see Lovecraft could never write 'big' without saying 'titanic, towering, Cyclopean'. In fact his wordiness makes him instantly recognisable. For example, upon a suicidally brave ship ramming the iconic Great Old One, the squid-headed Cthulhu he says "There was a bursting, as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, a stench as of a thousand opened graves, and a sound that the chronicler would not put on paper. For an instant the ship was befouled by an acrid and blinding green cloud, and then there was only a venomous seething astern; where- God in heaven!- the scattered plasticity of that nameless sky-spawn nebulously recombining in its hateful original form, whilst its distance widened every second as the 'Alert' gained impetus from its mounting steam."
Unsurprisingly, with the damage this has done to commas and description, Lovecraft never sold a book during his life time. However his stories were often published in the old pulp magazines like Astounding Stories and he had a large circle of admiring fellow authors such as Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Clark smith and August Derleth. It was these guys who kept Lovecrafts vision and stories alive, adding to the 'Cthulhu Mythos' over the years. British readers may recognise Ramsey Campbell as one later adherent.
That said, don't get the idea that I dislike Lovecrafts writing. I originally read his work as a teenager, and was impressed by the uniqueness of his vision and his distinctive style. And he does a great job of mixing horror with science fiction, creating disturbing villains, and establishing a realistic fictional 'folk lore'. (His evil country yokels could win prizes). But what he does best is establishing an atmosphere where things that are not seen, or described fully can be imagined with much more horror from the hints that he leaves.
His antagonists come in a variety of forms. From towering, cosmic horrors to whom earth is but a mote in the eye of the larger universe, summoned only briefly to earth by corrupted sorcerers and cultists to alien races like the Mi Go and Elder Things whose scientific detachment and alien technology make them as dangerous as the potent Gods. These entities are not anthropomorphised, but kept as alien in thought and deed. But the true horror comes with the realisation of mans futility. That something about the human mind prevents us from accessing the true universe, but instead creates an illusion called sanity and a belief that we somehow matter in universe enormous imagining that was busy before humanity was born, and that will be active when humanity is gone and that in the intervening period, the total sum of humanity activity and endeavour will not even be noticed by the greater reality!
Another defining feature of Lovecraft is how his bibliophilia comes through in his stories. Centrally there is the infamous 'Necronomicon' tome, a book of magic and blasphemous lore about the Mythos written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazared. So perfectly does he chart the various authors and line of provenance of the Greek, Latin and English editions, and so frequently that he references particular pages and phrases that many readers might be forgiven for believing the book was real. (And this has sparked more than a few 'Is the Necronomicon Real?' FAQ questions on the Internet. Short answer- the Necronomicon of HP Lovecraft isn't real, but other people have written books called the Necronomicon subsequently). But other tomes with such evocative names as 'Liber Ivonis', 'Unausprechlichen Kulten' and 'Cultes des Ghoules' and the fact he always mentions the horrible fate of the authors lends wonderful credibility to his stories.
All in all, it makes a very nice basis to write a role-playing game. Lovecraft has cult status, his writings basically describe individuals going on a limited duration adventure against extra-terrestrial monsters, and the Mythos is broad enough that variety will never be a problem. And so 1981 saw the arrival of Call of Cthulhu the RPG by Chaosium.
Call of Cthulhu uses the Basic Roleplaying system, which is mainly skill and percentile based, and so very simple. Player characters are called investigators and are usually educated members of the public - people like librarians, doctors, professors, but also wealthy dilettantes, police detectives or demobbed soldiers. However these are not totally strict classes, but rather indicate the type of skills that the player should purchase from a poll of 120-420 percentile points so their PC can function in their occupation. For example a librarian might have Library Use 60%, - to find an particular piece of obscure information in the stacks might require a skill check and the player to roll less than 60% on d100. An additional healthy dose of hobby or life skills allows plenty of room for customisation and differentiation.
As is common with the early roleplaying systems, it uses a variety of dice types (everything except the d12). Character creation tends to take between 20 minutes to 40 minutes as 8 primary characteristics (Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Appearance, Intelligence, Education and Power (which is charisma, strength of mind and mystical potential)- these characteristics vary between 3-18 in most cases and can be multiplied by 5 to render a percentile die roll check. there then follow lots of secondary statistics, including skills, hit points, Idea, Know and Luck scores and the infamous Sanity score.
Sanity in CoC measures how sane a character is by conventional standards. Experiencing horrific events, encountering dead bodies, seeing monsters That Should Not Be, or realising the universe operates on different principles to that which we believe to be self-evident would tend to unhinge most people. The game starts off with the premise that people are generally mentally well and sane, but that as they learn more of the horrible nature of the world (wherein the blasphemous alien elements of the world are summed up as 'Cthulhu Mythos' knowledge- not specifically knowledge of the titular Great Cthulhu) they gradually degenerate. Investigators will gain phobias, fetishes, mental illnesses and psycho-somatic reactions that will generally render them unable to function in human society. Obsessions, hallucinations, amnesia, schizophrenia, MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) and more are all covered with explanation of their roleplaying effects.
And this is one of the core strengths of the game in my view. In most RPGs, characters progress by increasing their control of the world around them. They get fitter, stronger, able to do more damage in combat, know more magic/technology or secrets and as Robin Laws puts it 'master the world in which they interact'. Cthulhu turns this around. While skills can increase and PC's can learn magic and secrets of the setting, this is not a benefit as exposure to Mythos inevitably leads to Sanity loss. As their sanity decreases they start to panic more, drop things, go catatonic and experience the long list of abnormal psychological conditions listed above. In short, the world around masters them, instead of the other way around.
What does this inversion of progress mean? Well instead of always jockeying for extra kills, adventuring for monetary gain, or seeking extra knowledge or special stuff, the investigators are reluctant heroes. They know that each investigation is a dangerous, horrific affair which will leave them worse off than when they began in terms of mental health. Yet they have to go to protect the world from the horrors around it, to sacrifice their sanity so the rest of humanity's peace of mind is protected, to push back the encroaching dark nihilism one day at a time. In short, they investigate out of altruistic reasons rather than personal ambition or greed. This makes Cthulhu the most heroic of RPG's as its about ordinary people (all those librarians and doctors and hobos) fighting terrible evil and protecting the world without reward or acknowledgment.
As for the rest of the game mechanics they too are quite simple. Combat is relatively quick and very lethal- attackers make percentile rolls under their Handgun/Fist/Punch/Sword Came/Bite/Claw/Weapon of Choice skill to hit and defenders make Dodge rolls to avoid. If they fail, then the attacker rolls the weapon damage and its subtracted from the defenders hit points. Hand guns typically do 1d10 damage and humans typically have an average of 10-12 hit points so two bullets will pretty much kill anyone. Unlike D&D there is no means by which to ever increase maximum hitpoints.
Magic can be learned by anyone who passes an Education roll, and who has access to the appropriate very rare tomes. Its learnt on a spell by spell bases, but as it costs sanity to both learn and practice magic, most investigators know only a few spells which they rarely use. Only insane NPC's can really be sorcerers or high priests armed with an arsenal of magic.
Equipment is based upon the eras technology and prices- availability is always up to the GM. One of the charms of Cthulhu is that material possessions are so ultimately meaningless in the fight against terrors from beyond time and space and the psychological damage they inflict, so Chaosium have never felt the need to produce a supplement devoted to guns and equipment.
EDITIONS OF THE RULEBOOK
In its 20 year history, Call of Cthulhu the RPG has had many different editions and formats. Currently its on the bluebacked 5.5 Edition (though the 20th Anniversary special edition could be considered a 5.5a or something).
By and large the basic rules system and statistics do not change between editions. A few skills get added or renamed and that's about it. Instead the presentation, artwork, scenarios and selection of spells, tomes and monsters changes.
The editions I have are as follows-
2nd Edition- A boxed set from 1983. Contains a 96 page rulebook with about 40 monsters and Great Ones and limited magic and tomes. Contains 'The Haunted House', 'The Madman', 'Brockford House' and two half page scenario vignettes. The first is called the 'Beginning Scenario' and concerns Mi-Go in Vermont, the second is 'The Cultists Lair' Also in the box is the wonderful 32 page Sourcebook of 1920's- it has prices, travel times, maps, diagrams of train layouts and airships and details of contemporary events. Also dice, character sheet, cardboard investigator silhouettes for combat and a fold out world map with Mythos locations marked. This edition is wonderfully retro, and while the rulebook is softback and quite basic, the 1920's book and map have material that has never been reprinted. However it lacks the excellent introductory scenario of later editions.
4th Edition- Hardback (1986) 192 pages produced by Chaosium and Games Workshop. Contains the material in the previous rulebook, most of the 1920's sourcebooks and the Cthulhu Companion volume. Has approximately 25% more monsters, lots more spells and plenty of scenarios. There is the 'Beginning Scenario', 'Cultists Lair' and also 'The Haunted House', 'The Madman', 'Brockford House', 'Paper Chase', 'Mystery of Loch Feinn', 'The Rescue', and 'Secret of Castronegro'. Also has some gorgeous full colour plates interspersed. It's a very nice book to own, quite complete by modern standards and has plenty of esoteric little notes, songs and maps that were cut from later editions.
5th Edition- Softback (1992) 240 pages produced by Chaosium. This is the first proper amalgamation and revision of the rules and introduces prices, details and timelines for the 3 eras- 1890's, 1920's and 1990's drawing upon earlier sourcebooks. it has a comprehensive list of tomes, extensive notes on the Necronomicon, both natural and Mythos monsters and spells from all earlier editions and many supplements and adventures. A defining edition its one of the easiest to use and play as it has quick reference tables for character gen, the first index, clearer artwork and well ordered appendices. It only lacks the quirky esoterica of earlier editions like the sanity quiz and the full colour plates. Scenarios contained are- 'The Edge of Darkness' 'The Haunting' (retitled from 'Haunted House' in 4th Ed), and 'Dead Man Stomp'.
20th Anniversary 5.5a Hardback edition. (2001). 320 pages long this is quite similar to the cheaper 5.5 edition currently in print. It has a great deal of new art work (not all of it an improvement), an 'ancient tome' look of Sienna ink and good quality paper. Substantial improvements have been made in the mental disorder section to bring it into line with modern psychology textbooks. Tomes have also been increased with a table of malefic tomes introduced by writers other than Lovecraft. It also contains the 'Call of Cthulhu' short story by HP Lovecraft and separates Great Old Ones, Outer and Elder Gods from the more common alien races. Scenarios contained are- 'The Edge of Darkness' 'The Haunting', and 'Dead Man Stomp'
1920's ADVENTURES AND CAMPAIGNS
Now we come to the meat of this Overview- a quick precis and review of each of the many books produced by Chaosium and others set in the first half of the 20th century. This list is not entirely complete but does reflect the substantial portion of the body of work which I own and have read.
A quick introduction to the different 'Chaosium eras' and how to recognise them at a glance- during the early 1980's (1981-1985) Chaosium generally produced quite slim stapled books with wraparound art on the covers. Many classic 'monster medley' campaigns date back to this era like 'Fungi from Yuggoth, and Shadows of Yog Sothoth'.
In 1986 and until about 1993 they started to use a more identifiable white spine and cover (with art inset) to their perfect bound books- including such books as the Lovecraft country series, Cthulhu Now, Mansions of Madness. They would also have pronunciation tests on the back asking if you could pronounce 'kuh-THOO-loo'.
1994- mid 1995 saw a new form of spine and cover- they tended to be all one colour like black or grey with inset cover-only art. Books like London Guidebook, Into the Shadows, 1990s' Handbook and Strange Aeons fall into this period and tend not to very good.
1996 saw a shift again to blue covers, inset artwork, white spines and adverts for other Cthulhu books on the back with many revisions and reprinting of older material. Latter 1990's and 2000's work has seen something of a renaissance in quality for such campaigns as Beyond the Mountains of Madness (BTMOM) or Unseen Masters.
Please note that this is a general rule for the books that I have in my collection and some exceptions may occur- for example BTMOM doesn't have adverts on the back or the Keeper Companion looks like a 1994 book despite being published in 2000.
A general point to make is that Chaosium tend to produce campaign and adventures books and they tend be better than other types of supplements such as player books, monster collections or GM advice books. Indeed one reason I guess that Chaosium have never been as rich as TSR or WW is the fact that they cater mainly to the GM market, instead of the larger player market.
Another point to made about Chaosium is this- they will publish unsolicited submissions that meet their criteria and needs- leading to a number of fans and independent writers adding their contributions to the CoC game. This has paid great dividends at times, such as when psychiatrist Bruce Ballon's book Unseen Masters was recognised by the Psychiatric Review, or the creation of such enormous campaigns as BTMOM or Orient Express. Though this can make for uneven consistency across products, it does make the game more accessible to those fans who want to write for the game. Writers who appear more than once and whose names indicate include Herber, diTillio, Aniolowski, Ross, Willis and Appel.
Onto the reviews, arranged by the chronology of the books which I own. (For example Masks of Nyarlathotep was printed in 1984 as a boxed set, in 1989 as a book with full colour plates and 1996 without the plate but I only have the 1996 version). The reason for this is that many reprints had different titles 'Shadows of Yog-Sothoth' became 'Cthulhu Classics' and the mix of scenarios sometimes changed. Therefore the only books I can speak of with confidence are those I own.
THE EARLY DAYS
'Shadows of Yog-Sothoth' (1982, 72 pages) is one of the earliest Cthulhu campaigns ever produced and still amongst the best. A full review can be found at . Briefly it has interesting set-up: the players are invited to join a new gentlemen's club with mystical trappings (something like the Masons) called the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight. (HOST) Despite the excellent brandy in the members bar, widespread social contacts and occult library, the PC's discover it is a cover for a sinister cult into which they are being indoctrinated. Further clues lead them on a long trail around the world as they gradually discover the cult is bent on raising the sunken city of Ry'leh and awakening Great Cthulhu! Visits to Californian desert film sets, close-mouthed rural villages in Scotland, examining the mysterious stone heads on Easter Island culminate in a race across the South Pacific and Ry'leh itself. Wonderfully pulp in parts, this has good pacing, some excellent NPC's, backdrops and situations. However it relies on the GM to improvise certain characterisations and develop linkages and consequences that are not spelt out in the text. Rates a 5. (Can be found at Rev_3522
"The Asylum and Other Tales" (1983, 80 pages) contains 7 unrelated scenarios 'The Auction' 'The Madman' (different from the rulebook’s 'Madman'), 'Black Devil Mountain' 'The Mauretania' 'Gates from the Past', 'Westchester House' and 'the Asylum'. A mixture of quality they range from rubbing shoulders with high society in foreign places ('Auction' & 'Mauretania') to investigating isolated creepy locales (Black Devil Mountain and Westchester House). The best of the lot is probably 'Asylum' in which the PC's investigate the death if a asylum inmate (possibly an ex-PC) and realise that Thing-esque horror is stalking them. 'Gate to the Past' has an alien time gate near Arkham open leading to PC's getting stuck in the Jurassic period, or allowing T-Rex to rampage through town. More pulpy and slightly sillier than most Cthulhu adventures, its a nice change of pace from the more social or cerebral adventures. Rates a 3 overall.
Terror from the Stars (1986, 52 pages) is one of the last books to have wrap around full colour artwork. It contains two adventures - 'Pits of Bendal Dolum' and 'Temple of the Moon.' and the Theron Marks society handbook. Both adventures have climactic trips to deserted jungle temples in South America (Bendel Dolum also goes on a fantastical trip through the Dreamlands) which are both slightly below average in quality. The Theron Marks society is basically what happens when you apply AD&D adventuring party concepts to Cthulhu- it discusses optimal party mixes, safehouses, hoarding equipment, procedures, character signals, combat tacticals and amusing anecdotes. While one way to play Cthulhu, I'd be personally horrified if my players ever started doing this. Nice for a laugh, the indifferent quality of the adventures rate only a 2.
Spawn of Azathoth (1986, 3 book boxed set) is an early medium length campaign written by the normally excellent Keith Herber. The plot concerns is somewhat convoluted and concerns the presence of a planet sized chunk of Azathoth called Nemesis which passes through the solar system every thousand years, raining pustulent seeds upon planets and generally heralding chaos and death. An ancient human sorcerer called Eibon (author of Liber Ivonis) created both a protection against the comet-seeds and planned to stop the Nemesis by freezing time. It may be typical apocalyptic Mythos stuff, but for me this sounds daft- Why would Eibon replace one apocalypse with another, especially with a scale of magic that is complete out of keeping with human capabilities when compared to the Mythos? Anyway a group of Russians and astronomers (including Rasputin) learn of this ancient magic and decide to dismantle both the protections and magic's so that the earth can take its chances without being frozen in time. The actual adventures start off with the funeral of one of these astronomers- Philip Baxter and the PC's are asked to act by executors of the will. here then follow one impossible co-incidence after another as they visit an observatory in Montana, go diving in the Florida Keys, meet cannibals and Tcho Tcho (and possibly a Great Old One) in the Andaman Isles, make not one but two trips through the Dreamlands and then avoid comet-seeds in Tibet. The problem with all this is that Baxters children all have connections to Nemesis which are so co-incidental to stretch credibility. Furthermore, all impending threat is removed by the fact that the freezing of time wont happen for another 700 years, neatly removing all possible excitement. It does have some nice locales and set-ups but is handled so badly that it only rates a 2.
Onto the white book classic era which saw some of Chaosiums best work.
Cthulhu Classics (1989, 152 pages) is a reprint of Shadows of Yog Sothoth including some uninspiring colour plates and has 5 additional unrelated scenarios- 'The Warren', 'the Carnival', 'Secret of Castronegro', 'Pits of Bendal Dolum' and 'Temple of the Moon.' Over all this is a good collection with 'the Carnival' as an early and possibly more frightening precursor to WW's 'Midnight Circus' about the fear of traveling folk. Rates a 4 overall.
The Great Old Ones (1989, 176 pages) concerns itself with 6 unrelated scenarios 'The Spawn'- miner exploitation in New Mexico (PC's get hired by a trade union for once!), benign Yig worshippers and Cthonians, quite good,' Still Waters' -Cthulhu worshippers in the Mississippi, 'Tell Me Have You Seen The Yellow Sign'- Hastur in New Orleans Mardi Gras- very good, 'One in Darkness'- fighting gangsters and an unbound demon in Boston- more action orientated, 'Pale God'- visit Eihorts Labyrinth and spectacularly illustrated death scenes. Finally there is Bad Moon Rising written by Brit Marcus 'Forgotten Futures' Rowland. Like much of his work its a wonderfully Victorian fantasy in which the PC's don those old fashioned diving suits with the big helmets, step through a gate in a deep mine shaft and find themselves on the Moon! The British expedition find themselves under attack by the timetravelling Great Race and the PCs are inevitably captured. Then they get blasted throughout time to witness the death and birth of the universe and Azathoth up closer than they'd like. Fairly stage-managed to present a final spectacle which they cannot effect, this piece has a certain English charm about it that appeals to me. Overall this collection rates between 3-4.
Mansions of Madness- (1990, 120 pages) a collection of 5 location based adventures it typically has the PC's going to an isolated spooky place and investigating. Best of the bunch are the excellent 'The Plantation' with all the varied characterisations of Southern landowners, share-croppers and ex-slaves combined with Yig worship and 'A Cracked and Crook'd Manse' which has a wonderful monster inhabiting an old mansion, but is done well enough to genuinely terrify the players. 'The Sanitorium' has the PC's visit a former comrade on an isolated island asylum and discover that the staff are dead, the inmates free and an Alien-esque killer is hunting them down. 'Mr Corbitt' has an interesting hook for Cthulhu- it uses the neighbour on one of the PC's doing something suspicious. As nosy neighbours they investigate and discover you don't have to travel around the world to find the Mythos when its on your door step! Finally 'Mansion of Madness is an over-complicated McGuffin hunt with little to recommend it. 4 good adventures out of 5 is pretty good going for CoC, so this book rates a 5. especially as its easy to use in between campaigns.
Fearful Passages (1992, 132 pages) is a counterpart to Mansions of Madness. Whereas Mansions is set in fixed locations, Fearful Passages is a collection of different journeys that could be inserted between other adventures or used independently. 9 such journeys exist concerning such modes of transportation as aeroplanes, trains, airships, cars, armoured cars, canal boats, sleighs, elephants and even deep sea diving. The only thing missing is a 'Mauretania' like sea cruise. A mixed bag this has some excellent gems and some dross equally. Steve Hatherly experiments with Cthulhu adventure design again with an short adventure that lacks any active Mythos presence whatsoever by basically teaching deep water diving. Marcus Rowland has an excellent adventure on a passenger bi-plane that was never actually built in real life, and 'Rigid Air' concerns the Terra Nova airship of Arctic exploration. 'Armoured Angels' has the PC's go on a Wilbur Smith-like journey to a British dig in Persia with Vickers armoured cars. The rest is pretty so-so. Overall all of these adventures have excellent technical detail on the modes of transport, but the adventures themselves frequently don't lend themselves to insertion between locale based scenarios, and sometimes the journey itself is irrelevant to the plot.- rates a 3.
Cthulhu Casebook (1990, 140 pages) is a reprint of the Asylum and Other Tales, and is expanded by several indifferent colour plates and 'The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn', 'Thoths Dagger' and 14 pages of scenario advise, Cthulhu Monster Hunting Commandments, and the death reports certain monsters typically leave. Curse of Chaugnar Faugn is a nice 'who-dunnit' with possession and evil idols, while 'Thoths Dagger' is yet another jetsetting auction based adventure that leads the PC's off to Egypt. Over all the same rating as for the Asylum as a 3.
Fatal Experiments (1990, 128 pages) contains one of the few guns supplements for the game- namely unusual guns of the 1920's period including such things as black powder ducks foot guns, the behemoth of the 2-gauge shotgun and even modern Dragonsbreath rounds. Fortunately this takes up only 10 pages leaving the rest of the book for 3 very different unrelated adventures. 'Tatterdemalion' concerns a decadent millionaires hosting of the play 'The King in Yellow'. This has an excellent build-up, some great scenes of misdirection and even a fantastical visit to Carcosa, but the one problem is for the GM playing the role of so many NPC's in the initial party scene. This reminded me of the 'Great Gatsby' in its portrayal of decadent Long Island society and can be very creepy. 'Songs of Fantari' concerns Deep Ones capturing and experimenting with the PC's on an Italian island. A predetermined capture and the following experiments are railroaded through and may annoy players leading to a poor adventure. 'Lurker in the Crypt' is the longest adventure at 50 odd pages and is essentially a giant dungeon crawl through a cemetery, an undertakers, sewers and then ghoul tunnels and cult dungeons. Acknowledged as a deadly adventure by the author, I would go further and call it a death trap like D&D's Tomb of Horrors with super-powerful NPC's and monsters. Only worth playing if you have a small army to run through it. Overall Fatal Experiments has one excellent adventure, one poor adventure and one potentially unusable adventure leading to a low rating of 2.
Horror on the Orient Express (1991, 4 book boxed set)- never reprinted from what I can tell, Horror on the Orient Express is a classic collectors item, which while flawed is still worth playing through. Launching off, it has the investigators attend the lecture and death of an old friend, before they must race across the continent to Istanbaul and back to re-unite the parts of a sundered Mythos artifact and defeat the horrific Cult of Skin. The plot device and literal engine of the campaign is the luxurious Orient Express service which goes from Paris to Istanbul, and coincidentally follows the route of the scattered artifact pieces. This is both the flaw and strength of the campaign- the coincidences are nearly impossible (why were none of the artifact pieces in Germany, or Norway, or Egypt?) but by stage-managing, the writers can use the linking action of the Orient express service, the wealthy passengers, courteous staff and even a monstrous stowaway to connect the campaign. The other problems of the campaign is a monster-medley approach in which the investigators must battle a different Mythos entity at each stop, and the excessive deadliness of the encounters- very few investigators will survive there and back. That said, the opponents are very horrific (indeed I sold the first copy I owned as a young teenager because of a very nasty monster made up of children fused together) , the background and set-ups are filled with possibility and grandeur and pacing is kept up throughout the campaign. Rates a 4 and I recommend buying it if you get the chance, if only to put Agatha Christie to shame in her depiction of the Orient Express.
LOVECRAFT COUNTRY- CLASSIC ERA AND BEYOND
Now we can turn to the Lovecraft Country series. These are combined location and adventure book which explore the mysteries and horrors hidden in the sinister New England described by HP Lovecraft. Because this was an area rich in history, mixtures of architecture and local folklore and small communities Lovecraft found it easy to turn the Massachusetts towns he loved in life into brooding locations for the Mythos. Keith Herber and Kevin Ross took the evocative details and descriptions of Arkham, Kingsport, Dunwich and Innsmouth into RPG supplements. And they did an excellent job of it, as this is possibly the single best body of work within the Call of Cthulhu game line. If I can make any recommendation to those interested in learning Cthulhu, it would be to collect Arkham Unveiled and Escape from Innsmouth as soon as possible and to scan Ebay for Kingsport when you get the chance. Dunwich is pretty hard to find and slightly weaker than the other 3. Three subsequent adventure collections set in Lovecraft Country (Tales of the Miskatonic Valley and Adventures in Arkham Country, Dead Reckonings) exist but don't measure up in terms of quality of writing and originality to the core books. Innsmouth also had an adventure supplements to beef up the playability of the setting- Before the Fall.
Arkham Unveiled (1990)I used to own, but mistakenly sold as a teenager. (much to my chagrin as all I now have is the inferior Compact Arkham Unveiled (1995, 96 pages) version). Arkham Unveiled is possibly the definitive town sourcebook ever produced. Why make such a bold claim you ask? Because it gives more detail, history, locations, NPCs and adventure ideas than any other location book. Not only does it contain a comprehensive street map, a pull-out copy of the fictional Arkham Advertiser newspaper, but it also lists every single business, shop, club, society and important house within Arkham and its environs. An idiosyncratic but usable numbering system gives an address, description of the building and relevant NPC stats and commentary on everything in town. And its a town positively brimming with plot hooks from the secretive age-old witch cult, to a local firebug kid, bootlegging gangsters and to whom they sell, the stacks of the Miskatonic university and even the local cosmetic surgeon. Each page conveys useful information to the GM without fluff- for example the entry on Christchurch cemetery (one of 6 in Arkham) informs you of its opening hours, denomination, which is the nearest Church, that a watchman lives near the gate and that its protected by 8 foot high spiked walls. Damage stats are even included for the spikes if the PC should fail to surmount it- isn't that an adventure idea on the spot!? Several adventures then follow, which recall as being particularly evocative and frightening- one dealt with the return of an immortal sorcerer from the Salem witch hunt days and his revenge on the descendants of his foes, and another had an scary depiction of an abusive and degenerate family in the woods whom the PC's encounter when hunting for meteor. These great adventures were stripped out from the 1995 version, but given that I can still remember them almost a decade on I feel this was a mistake. The original rates a 5. The Compact version is a 3.
Kingsport:The City in the Mists (1991, 120 pages) by Kevin Ross is a different breed of book. While Arkham screams with energy and bustle, Kingsport saunters dreamily along. Close to the Dreamlands, this city has the same level of detail and character as Arkham but develops at a more sedate pace. Characters such as the Terrible Old Man, unliving cult leaders and vibrant dreamers locked in the bodies of pensioners follow. 3 adventures and a town map are also included. Two adventures investigate the connection between the Dreamlands and Kingports Waking World, in the High House in the Mist and in the artistic community troubled by Cthulhus dream-sendings. The final adventure takes advantage of its port status for an adventure that can be described as 'The Fog' meets 'Jaws'.- rates as a 5.
Escape from Innsmouth (1992 and Expanded in 1997, 172 pages) is the opposite to Arkham. Instead of the second edition being only half the original, Kevin Ross expands the campaign. Not only does it have the same hyper-detail of town life as Arkham, complete with the cycles, relationships and currents in the hybrid tainted seaport of Innsmouth, but it has one of the best set of adventures of the Lovecraft series. Essentially the PC's investigate the decaying port and gradually realise that the inhabitants are all not quite human. And perhaps one of the PC's isn't quite human either! Then chased out of town by waddling fish-man mutants, they must return with the full forces of the Federal Government in the climactic Raid on Innsmouth. Complete with Marines, Coastguard, submarines, and FBI agents (Hoover makes a big cameo) they must fight the inhuman hybrids and their Deep One allies and master. An action packed adventure this really lets PC's rip with big guns and high explosive, leveling the town and interning the inhabitants- allowing a cathartic release for PC's long immured to losing to the Mythos!. One of the best Cthulhu products ever released, this rates a strong 5.
Return to Dunwich (1991, 132 pages) is a very hard to get to book. Dunwich is mentioned only once in Lovecrafts work (The Dunwich Horror) but is an evocative place of inbreed local yokels and rural suspicion. The paucity of Lovecraft canon allowed Herber to develop the place as he wanted, explaining the mysterious standing stones that dot the hills, local fertility cults and the true story of the druids and Hyberboreans who inhabited the region in times past. Less Lovecraftian and more of a mix of Outer Gods and Great Old Ones, this book is probably the weakest of the Lovecraft Country quartet. The sole adventure basically allows PC's to take the roles of the characters in Lovecrafts short story, and so it fails to ring with originality. That said, an entire appendix of adventure ideas would allow a long term 'locals campaign' as all the farmers and hillbillies are detailed with the same rigour as in Arkham. Rates a weak 4.
Adventures in Arkham Country ( 1993, 128 pages) is a weak companion volume to the quartet. Five unrelated adventures take the PCs's around the area to rescue kids from benevolent Deep Ones (?!?! what?) in Falcons Point, to unhappily divorced fathers using magic to get their kids back, to fighting Dreamlands monsters. One long Adventure- 'With Malice Aforethought' takes the PC's to Arkham Sanitorium where the inmates get killed and the PC's accused of homicide. Much of the adventure dwells on the PC's trial, allowing all your orators to start going into LA Law/Ally McBeal mode, which at least is original for Cthulhu. (Despite the huge number of illegal situations in which they find themselves, PCs rarely answer for their crimes in most published scenarios). Overall however, this books great weakness is that it doesn't build on the good material in the original sourcebooks, but instead presents new locations with none of the detail and plenty of poor writing. Rates a 2 and is mostly forgettable.
Before the Fall (1998, 64 pages) is based in Innsmouth for use to GMs who want to run more adventures with the Innsmouth sourcebook before the Raid adventure invalidates it. Four generally competent adventures are presented, including maternal love between Deep Ones and human offspring (twice), rum runners exploiting the lack of authority near Innsmouth and a solo adventure visiting an old acquaintance whose just moved near Innsmouth. Competent but uninspired, plus by the time I bought the book, our group had already raided Innsmouth and torpedoed the Deep Ones.
THE LEAN YEARS
1994-1996 were lean years for 1920's material (though plenty of rubbish 1990's was produced) though this may have been due to the Mythos CCG card boom and so I only have a few books for review.
In The Shadows (1995, 54 pages) has 3 unrelated scenarios, the first has Deep One antics in Aberdeen (Scotland- Wahey! Third appearance of my country in a Cthulhu adventure after Shadows of Yog Sothoth and Green and Pleasant Land) and is a sort of Innsmouth-lite wherein PC's must convince the Royal Navy to depth charge a chasm near Dogger Bank. Ultimately unsatisfying it has most of the action off-screen, though the PC's can go down in a diving sphere and get eaten by Star Spawn if they want. A forgettable adventure in Lousianas plantations follows with decadent, decayed Southern gentry- it includes some seductions scenes could be difficult to roleplay and has the appearance of the most uninspiring Lesser Outer God ever. Call me jaded but if it lacks the panache of Nyarlathotep or sizeof Yog-Sothoth, I'm not interested. The third and final adventure is operatic in both nature and content. Following the grandiosity and absurdity of opera plot lines it concerns a song which can summon 'the Angel of Music' another Outer God beastie. Hi-jinks follow, and it has a nice twist at the end where the PC's think they have won, but realise that its not over till the fat lady has finished singing. (and even death wont stop this corpse singing!) Over all this is a week collection with 2 poor scenarios and one reasonable. Rates a weak 2.
London Guidebook (1996, 92 pages) is a well written, comprehensive sourcebook on London in the 1920s. It has maps, histories, locations, fashions and advertisements. Its also fundamentally very, very boring. Why? Because it is almost completely devoid of the Mythos. Historically its a brilliant compendium of various accounts and historical sources, but it lacks direct examples of the Mythos in London. A single 5 page scenario at the end involves Bright Young Things with decadent Chinese Opium cults and a single monster in some caves! As a source of Cthulhu inspiration, its very poor rating a mere 1, but is occasionally useful when other campaigns such as Horror on the Orient Express or Masks visit London.
Horrors Heart (1996, 80 pages) is a linked campaign which would probably take 4-7 4 hour sessions to run through. Set in Montreal, Quebec this concerns the conflict cult of Chaugnar Faugn and an opposing cult of Crusader descendants who have fallen far from grace. In precis, it involves French Canadian werewolves, Catholic saints and Vatican empowered Jesuit cult-busters, and the awakening of the Great Old One Chaugnar Faugn by its chosen one. Overall this has a mix of investigation and adventure, research and action. Throughout social relationships remain important, calling for excellent roleplaying by both players and GM, though the final scene in an underground cavern owes a great deal to 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'. Generally well written, its over-complex in parts but should be within the capabilities of most. Rates a 4.
From mid-1996 onwards Chaosium's general RPG quality improved and they changed their books to match. With a white spine and blue covers, they spearheaded their renaissance by reprinting and in many instances expanding some old classics. Then they began to publish more original work that has made them an Origins award contender once more.
Compact Trail of Tsathoggua (1997, 48 pages) is written as two linked adventures, each of which can be played in a single night. The premise is original- an enormous hieroglyphed wall has been found in a glacier in Greenland. Professors of many different disciplines must race their before the glacier falls into the sea to decipher the writings and determine how this oddity could come about. The PC's discover the truth behind the lost Conan-esque civilisation of Hyperborea and must trek across the ice to discover lost temples and terrifying remnants of Hyperborea. The second adventure is weaker and concerns an NPC from the first who has gone AWOL in strange circumstances in Canada, leading to encounters with sasquatch and the Wendigo. Overall its a nice resource to have for quick, one night adventures if your whole group hasn't turned up, or as an introduction to Cthulhu. Rates a strong 4 as it combines exploration and discovery with danger and excitement.
The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep (1996, 224 pages. This is the 3rd edition of the campaign. the first in 1984 was a boxed set, 1989 saw a 200 odd page softback with full colour plates. The Australian chapter was cut from the first two editions and appears in the rare Terror Australis supplement. The 3rd and subsequent editions contain Australia and some other minor sidetreks.)
I've been dreaded writing this part of the overview for fear of not being able to stop talking about Masks. Why? Well whenever gamers get together to talk about the greatest campaigns ever published, it tends to like this. People mention WFRP's 'Enemy Within', or Pendragons' 'Boy King', or the 'DragonLance/Tomb Horrors/Temple/Slavers' campaign to a lot of nodding from D&D old timers. Some Vampire fan ventures to mention the 'Transylvania Chronicles' and gets told to stop smoking so much crack. Tribe 8 people mention the 'Prophecy' and 'Conquest' cycles to some approval from those that have actually played them. AD&Der's usually mention the 'Night Below' campaign which is pretty undeniably good. But generally its agreed that Call of Cthulhu has the best campaigns and the best of the best, is Masks of Nyarlathotep.
Why? There are plenty of theories about what makes this the best campaign ever. They talk about the detail of the hundreds of NPC's, the freedom of players to go down different investigative routes, the quality of the writing and how the plot is compelling enough to keep both GM and players going long into the night. Some say Masks is the most Pulp Cthulhu campaign an that's true with mummies in Pyramids, rockets on secret volcano bases and weird technology. Others talk about how the opponents are coherent and connected (part of a network of cults which worship the Machivaelian Nyarlathotep in his many guises) yet endlessly surprising and different. Its adventure design and ideas have been praised too. But for me, the true strength of Masks is very simple- its pacing. Like a great novel or film, Masks captures the increasing and decreasing frequency of action and excitement in a cycle that perfectly times the moments of exhilaration and despondency, revelations and setback, tension and relief which engages both the reader and players within the campaign.
So what is Masks about? Quite simply its a global campaign based around thwarting the plans of the charismatic Outer God Nyarlathotep and his cults to create a portal which will usher in the End-times. Following the footsteps of the doomed Carlyle expedition the PC's can choose their route of investigation through such diverse and cinematic locations as New York, London, Egypt, Kenya, Australia and Shanghai. While different opponents are encountered, this is no monster medley, instead its bound together by the global phenomenon of Nyarlathoteps different but related cults and avatars. Of particular interest is the connections to Ancient Egypt of Nyarlathotep and even a rare visit to the city of the Great Race in Australia as described 'The Shadow Out of Time’. As the best campaign ever created in my view, this book rates a 5.
Day of the Beast (1998, 120 pages formerly Fungi from Yuggoth, 1984 and Curse of Cthulhu 1990) is yet another classic era Cthulhu campaign like Shadows of Yog Sothoth and Masks. This 12 part campaign revolves around the machinations of an ancient cult of Nyarlathotep worshippers and the fate of a 'chosen one' descended from a line of Pharaohs to release the God upon the world. Another global campaign it crisscrosses North and South America, before jumping to London, Hungary and Egypt. A literal out of the world experience takes place when the PC's get an opportunity to visit the alien library orbiting the star Celaeno. The opponents are the Brotherhood of the Beast, with not one but two immortal leaders as well as the first Mythos corporation New World Industries (spiritual predecessor to WW's Pentex) who aim to take over the world! Mwu ha-ha!
While good, this campaign will always be seen as inferior to Masks for a few reasons. Firstly it lacks the skill and pacing, and secondly it introduces the Monster medley idea in which the players must battle a different variety of Mythos threat with only tangential connections to each other. Having Deep Ones, Serpent Men, Mi-Go and Yithians appear individually is fine, but all in the same campaign stretches credibility beyond all reasonable expectations. As such this still entertaining book rates a mere 3.
The Complete Dreamlands (1997, 190 pages, reprinted from 1986 and 1992)- a guide to the locations, personalities and rules of the Dreamlands (the world into which dreamers enter) presents the other side to Lovecrafts writing. Not just a fatalistic, atheistic horror writer, Lovecraft also wrote fantastical stories built around the concept of dreams as reality, filled with raucous fantasy, talking cats, 'noble savage' ghouls, legendary heroes, teeming mythic cities and the occasional cosmic horror. Much like the Lankhmar or Dunsany tales it presents an altogether more hopeful world for humanity empowered by their dreams of wonder and terror. They too find a modern reflection in such works as Neil Gaimans Sandman comic series, or the Umbra in WW's cosmology.. The Dreamlands have never been my cup of tea, because I found them less of an original concept that Lovecrafts Mythos writings, after all people have been writing about the importance and possible reality of dreams for as long as man could write. However many people do enjoy the possibilities involved, especially the curious 'dream-logic' which governs the Dreamlands (modern clothing and weapons transform into fantasy analogues, such as guns to crossbows or suits to robes.) including the difficulty in dying in the Dreamlands (still possible, but it only mostly forces the Dreamer to wake up). As a depiction and supplement for the Dreamlands this book does well as does two excellent adventures, Lemon Sails and Pickmans Student. Rates a 4.
Beyond the Mountains of Madness (1999, 440 pages!) is the largest RPG campaign ever contained in one book. Enormous in scope it takes up where Lovecrafts novella 'At the Mountains of Madness' leaves off, with the Starkweather-Moore Expedition to the Antarctic of 1930. A colossus of a campaign, the PC's start off as expedition members making frantic last minute preparations (including making Pemmican and a wonderful checking of the cargo manifest that becomes crucial months later when they depend upon it in the Antarctic), investigating murders, German plots and rival expeditions. The action briefly subsides once at sea, until sabotage and King Neptunes party liven up affairs. And then they reach the Ice. The endless, forever-white, madness inducing Eternal Ice........
The secrets of the Elder Things, their great cities that pre-date humanity, the fate of the proto-shoggoths and the truth behind the Mountains of Madness are all laid bare in this epic campaign. Confronted with not just Mythos threats but also natural conditions, NPC personality conflicts, rival expeditions, duplicitous Germans, raving madman and saboteurs, this campaign is as much about humans reaction to Antarctic exploration (in the vein of Scott or Shackleton) as the discovery of the Mythos. Its this that makes BTMOM a modern classic, with scientific detail, faithful use of Lovecrafts ideas, interesting group dynamics and the most evocative back drop possible. Unfortunately its huge size makes it a daunting challenge for anyone who doesn't know if their group will be able to sustain it- this campaign could easily take a year or more to play through. As for myself, I will experiment with running through the Antarctic sections in close succession over the course of a week long 'gaming holiday' in which the group can play 8 hours per day, every day for 7 days in a isolated lighthouse. We'll either finish it, go mad or never speak to each other again, but I'm willing to risk it for the sake at putting this campaign under my belt!
Rates an epic 5 if you want the gaming challenge of a lifetime.
1890's CTHUHU BY GASLIGHT
I don't have much to say on this era as very few book have been published for it, and I don't currently own any of them. (Though I did own one and have recently won a copy of Cthulhu by Gaslight on Ebay)
Consisting of 3 books that I know of, Cthulhu By Gaslight, Dark Designs and Sacraments of Evil, this era has never been as popular as the 1920's or modern day stuff. In part I suspect this could be due to an over-use of Sherlock Holmes stereotypes in the minds of gamers. Having read Dark Designs when I owned it many years ago, I can candidly say it wasn't particularly memorable save for a forced adventure where someone dies in a train compartment with the PC's as they go through a dark tunnel. Short of that, all I can say is that its an era I've never particularly missed playing in when compared to the excellence of the 1920's books.
CTHULHU NOW (MODERN ERA)
I wont spend as long on this section, as to be very frank, the Chaosium 1990's stuff tends to be very poor in comparison to the 1920's books. Part of this is that Lovecraft based his stories, attitudes and monsters in the 1920's and some of that doesn't particularly translate well to the modern day. While the alien forces of the Mythos may be eternal and mans technological advance is mere hubris, in game terms it just means the PC's get bigger guns and less latitude to use them. For example, when fighting an amorphous entity, PC's are less likely to consult mouldering books of lore and more likely to use science and laboratories to solve the problem, leading to technobabble that would put Star Trek:Voyager to shame. Equally when fighting a cult, the cult are more likely to claim religious persecution by the PC's and insist they are having their rights of freedom of speech suppressed, leading to Ally McBeal legal silliness. Another problem is that in the modern era, people tend to be more accountable and less able to interfere with crime scenes or take the law into their own hands- no longer can rich playboys and doctors and lawyers take time off work to investigate and also be given police records just because they pass a credit check of looking prosperous. The final and most crucial problem is explaining why the world at large doesn't know about the Mythos, given increased knowledge of the isolated corners of the world where the Mythos lived in the 1920's and the fact that the Mythos entities are pretty noticeable when investigators confront them ("Whoops, just summoned Azathoth, there goes Argentina!) As it happens there is a solution to all these problems, but it was discovered by Pagan Publishing and not Chaosium.
Chaosiums original book Cthulhu Now (1987, 1987) exemplifies some of these problems, being mainly a book of hit locations, modern fire arms stats and 4 adventures. Two of these, concerning dream research and the curse of an idol are just like 1920 style adventures with more tech. 'Evil Stars' presents a satanic rock band attempting to summon Hastur at their concerts, while Killer Out of Space is the most interesting, describing how a NASA space shuttle crash lands after picking up an alien presence. Rates a 2 for one good adventure and a whole heap of credibility issues.
Similarly the 1990's Handbook (1996, 72 pages) gives more gear and guns and updates Cthulhu Now by 8 years, but lacks any adventures or a true means to integrate Lovecrafts small town vision with the global village. Rates a 2, but only for its maps of Cthulhoid activity around the world.
At Your Door (1990, 160 pages) is the first 1990's campaign revolving around genetic experimentation and Mythos madness in the West Coast. It makes the mistake of using fictional cities for devastation when real-life examples might have had greater description and impact. Generally kooky and odd rather than horrific, it lacks pacing and punch. Rating- 2.
The Stars are Right (1992., 130 pages) consists of 7 unlinked scenarios, and despite two good scenarios 'Loves Lonely Children'-a hard-hitting child abuse story involving fetishistic summonings of Ygonolac and 'This Fire Shall Kill' with a firefighters cult of Cthuga the Living Flame, the book ultimately disappoints. Kevin Ross, John Tynes and Steve Hatherly also wrote scenarios for this book, and while I normally enjoy their work, they failed to impress me this time. Rates a 3.
Uttati Asfet (1996, 156 pages) is a campaign set in 1991 evolving around a rather boring author-created Great Old One. Lacking verve, good writing or anything resembling tension I don't recommend it in the least and have never used it. The one original act was to include an appendix of real life news clippings about the then raging Gulf War, use of them now however now makes it feel terribly retro and dated given the eclipse of that conflict. Overall it rates a low 2.
Resection of Time (1997, 74 pages) is an adaptation of a not particularly good tournament adventure that fails because it takes as its premise that the PC's have had their memories altered years before. While fine for a one-off game or convention tournament, it wreaks havoc for established characters and so rates a 1.
Secrets (1997, 48 pages) has 4 unconnected short adventures which can be played through in a single night. Only the last, Cult of One is anything more than an expanded plot idea from the rulebook and it has the same idea as a very bad film I recall watching once on TV- namely an evil sorcerers spirit still possesses the parts of his body which have been transplanted into other people upon his death. Naturally the evil transplanted organs and body parts gradually possess the transplantee, leading to a nasty opponent, rating a decent 2 overall.
Bermuda Triangle (1998, 92 pages) lacks any sparkle or interest in presenting what should be the mysterious region on earth, and the lack of usable plot hooks or interesting adventures (sea ghouls? This aint AD&D!) condemns it to a 1.
Unseen Masters (2001, 216 pages) After a long wait (it was promised in 1998) we see the first really high quality Cthulhu Now book published by Chaosium. Written by a psychiatrist, it contains lengthy mini-campaigns or adventures which are unrelated by topic, but all are set within New York. All three adventures refer frequently to various Mythos stories and campaigns, including the Hound of Tindalos for a locked room mystery/serial killer hunt, and the final scenario which involves the child of one of the PC's becoming a 'Damienv' like figure (from the movie The Omen) after an encounter with the Lovecrafts Shining Trapezohedron. This last adventure really brings home the horrors of the Mythos and concentrates on the roleplaying of a domestic household and its disturbance. The scenario most heavily involving Ballons psychiatric expertise is probably the 'The Truth Shall Set You Free' though which requires the GM to slowly create a schizophrenic mind-view for a PC without the player realising it. Basically the GM describes things the environment typically perceived by schizophrenics (such as feelings of insubstantiality, or seeing people watching him everywhere), but only to that player. If done well (and the word schizophrenia isn't used) then the players may believe that the afflicted PC has psychic powers and be drawn into the madmans ravings as they are convinced 'out-of-game' that if the PC had schizophrenia the GM would tell the player to act it. Its a nice little touch that works especially well within the Cthulhu game universe in which laws of physics are sometimes only local rather than general. This book is written with authority, verve and some good ideas and comes well recommended by a Psychiatric award!- A strong 4.
The last of the Cthulhu Now products is 'Ramsey Campbells Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places' (2001, 244 pages). Set in the Severn Valley region described in Ramsey Campbells Mythos stories, it is a kind of English Lovecraft country. Mouldering villages, age-old fertility cults, Mythos haunted deep woods create an evocative place to explore, countermingled with real life history and towns of the Severn Valley. However the majority (180 odd pages) are used on 9 semi-related scenarios in an 'Open campaign' format. By this I believe it means you can use other adventures without disrupting the flow too much. The scenarios themselves are a mixture of the good with the bad, mainly through using non-Mythos elements (too many vampires for example) and slightly pedestrian horrors and villains. Nice ideas such as the cursed making of certain films, or changeling children are revisited and improved through NPC interaction, but others are simply rubbish and uninspired. A mixed bag certainly, and I came away feeling slightly disappointed, which is also the way I reacted to Campbells novels when compared to Lovecrafts. Rates a middling 3.
In their time, Chaosium have experimented with other eras and even non-Mythos horror for CoC.
Strange Aeons (1995, 80 pages) has three scenarios, set in unusual time periods. The first 'Garden of Earthly Delights' has the PC's as Spanish Catholic Inquisitors in 1597 investigating a witch cult and instead finding Mythos aliens and their possessed humans. 'King of Shreds and Patches' is set in Elizabethan London and has wonderful cameos by Shakespeare in the Globe theatre and Dr Dee translating the Greek Necronomicon! Serving as much as an Elizabethan sourcebooks this adventure is competently done. Blood Moon is set in 2015 and contains a 'Space 1999' style Moonbase which the futuristic PC's must defend from the Mi Go colony on the Moon. Overall these adventures all have the virtue of originality and interesting set-pieces, but don't lend themselves to continuing campaigns. Rates a 4.
Blood Brothers (1990, 138 pages) and Blood Brothers 2 (1992, 130 pages) contain 13 and 9 short scenarios of B-movie style horror. Each different and each with their own ready made PC's these are perfect for one night games. None of them contain Mythos elements, but instead exploit the ease of the CoC rules system and Sanity mechanic to power through adaptations of films like 'Dawn of the Dead' 'The Body Snatchers' 'Seven Little Indians', 'the Fog' and the majority of Hammer Horrors vampire, mummy and zombie films. The scenarios sometimes use experimental gaming techniques (such as writing dialogue on a chalkboard and describing actions only for silent films) and have titles which speak for themselves like 'Uncle Timothys Will', 'Honeymoon in Hell, The Land that Time Ignored, Ancient Midget Nazi Shamans and Chateau of Blood'. Fun and enjoyable, and often slightly silly, these make for great fun at conventions or as one shots. Both rate a 4.
Chaosium have produced some Call of Cthulhu player and GM aids over the years. Given the quality of the rulebooks and campaigns, I don't see much of a aid-gap to fill myself but they seem to be reprinted with as much frequency as the other books.
Obviously there is the de rigeur Keepers Screen (2000, trifold screen and mini-adventure), in this case a woefully inadequate 3 panel affair which doesn't cover an opened book without falling over. The adventure is pretty average with an undead cult leader that's horrific to see but predictable. Rates a measly 2.
The Keepers Compendium (2000, 208 pages) puts together some interesting information on forensics, alien races, expanded descriptions of ancient tomes, magic items, cults and skill use and limitations. All of this is worthy and often well written information, which can add depth to the game if used. The trouble is that I've never used the book as I've always found the details I needed were already in the published campaign or the rulebook, or easy enough to improvise. For GM's who create their own adventures every week and want additional details, then this rates a 4.
The Creature Collection (1998, 112 pages) contains lots of Outer Gods, Elder Gods, Great Old Ones, Avatars and alien races. It basically rounds up all those critters introduced in published adventures that were missed from the rulebook. However, taken away from the context of the campaign for which they were created, they look out of place and sometimes quite boring. While you could make an adventure out of confronting one of these entities, this book doesn't provide the plot hooks or ideas, leaving the GM to figure it out themselves. Think of it as the equivalent of AD&D's 'Fiend Folio' to realise how marginal and arbitrary this collection is. Rates a 2 as a mere monster book, and your better off buying the adventure in which the monster appears.
A 1920's Investigators Handbook also exists, describing more the periods history, equipment and society than appears in the main rulebook. Additional options for player occupations and abilities also exist, and while I've briefly read it, I don't own it so cannot say more. Except for this- it doesn't matter if your character has additional skills or unique occupations from this book- Great Cthulhu still gets to roll 1d4 to determine how many investigators he eats per turn! Additional details about characters are likely to prove short-lived and a speed dice-rolling programme would be a better investment!
Over the years, Chaosium have licensed different companies to produce Call of Cthulhu material. In a majority of cases for TOME, Triad, FFG, Games Workshop this has usually been second fiddle to Chaosium, save for Pagan Publishing who made their reputation by superseding Chaosium in terms of originality and quality of writing and it was they who made 1990's Cthulhu playable!
TOME (Theatre of the Mind)
This long-lost company was an early licensee of the 1980s'. The only book of their that I own is Whispers from the Abyss (1984, 72 pages) an over complicated morass of three scenarios, which fatally squander the Roanoke mystery as an invisible vampiric cloud. Despite some excellent maps, it also suffers from bad layout and text choices and the narrative really doesn't flow well. They also produced the obscure Arkham Evil, Pursuit to Kaddath and Death in Dunwich which are now so OOP that they are only available for high prices n Ebay.
Back when Games Workshop was the major UK distributor of RPG's they also licensed Call of Cthulhu to produce the 3rd Edition rulebook and some adventures and source material.
Chief in fame amongst British role-players is Green and Pleasant Land- The British 1920's-30's Cthulhu Sourcebook (1987, 80 pages) this is written in an easier style to read (and better illustrated) than the London Guidebook, filled with tongue in cheek charm as it describes the personalities and events of the day with a particularly British turn of phrase. Establishing the difference between 'Gentlemen' and 'Players', Butlers and Valets and throwing in some original fiction from Brian Lumley this book has it all. Three scenarios are included including a disappointing horticultural horror in Scotland, a freeform plot when a sorcerer takes poison pen letters to the next level and finally Deep Ones by another name in canal tunnels in an reasonable adventure. Rates a 4, especially for the nostalgia associated with this revered tome.
The Statue of the Sorcerer and the Vanishing Conjurer (1986, 70 pages) is a curious double adventure compilation. Involving sorcerous antics and cultists in San Francisco and stage illusionists in London respectively, this book provides some interesting but dated material for the GM. I particularly enjoyed the clues and puzzles that were employed, along with the high quality cardstock handouts. Rates a competent 3.
I don't know too much about this company, other than they no longer exist. Writing such adventure supplements as Grimrock Isle, Lurking Fears and Whispers in the Dark, the only book of theirs I possess is End of the World. (1994). It contains 3 generally good scenarios with possibly apocalyptic consequences by such people as Kevin Ross and Scott Aniolowski. 'Breeding Ground' has Wicker Man like Shub-Niggurath cultists in Georgia, 'Thunder in Blood' has ancient Mayan priests summoning Azathoth during the 1924 US military action in Honduras and 'Think Tank' has an introduction which reads as follows "The Mi-Go.....have been constructing a bio-mechanical vessel which they hope will carry their plundering armies through time and space...to extend their empire." . What? Time and space? Plundering armies? Doesn't that remind anyone of the Daleks? Unfortunately the adventure just gets cheesier, and while excellent as a Dr Who tv movie, failed to remove the incongruous Mi Go as Daleks image from my head.
FANTASY FLIGHT GAMES (FFG)
Something of a 'try anything once' publishing house, these guys held the license to expand the Cthulhu LARP rules (none of which I own) and to create a 3 book Nocturnum campaign using an new type of monster- the unpronounceable Shk'ryth. Using far more game fiction than any Cthulhu adventure before or hence, it describes a nefarious plot of the bad-guys to draw a large asteroid to hit the earth and wipe out life, it tapped into the whole 90's fear of space rocks. The 3 books Long Shades (1997, 120 pages), Hollow Winds (1998, 128 pages) and Deep Secrets (1999, 128 page) were reprinted this year as the Nocturnum Master collection. It presents 22-odd chapters which range from roleplaying intensive investigations and mysteries in the early days to desperate action with plane crashes and North Sea oil rigs and finally espionage, corporate intrigue and growing international tension as the news about the doomsday asteroid comes to light and the PC's must stop it in an apocalyptic ending. I think this is a reasonable campaign, but they get the pacing slightly wrong with too much of a finale in the middle and a stutter in the action towards the end. Plus the whole astronomers conspiracy of silence and evil corporation seems a little trite to me. I found the most interesting and developed scenarios to be the first three in Long Shades before the campaign gets delusions of grandeur.
Finally the shining star of the Chaosium licensees. Having long published the Call of Cthulhu fanzine and then magazine- Unspeakable Oath (UO) on an erratic schedule, they developed a new breed of CoC writer whose names bespoke quality writing- Appleton, Crowe, Detwiler, Glancy and Tynes. They also created a number of excellent 1920's adventure collections and campaigns before writing what is generally regarded as The Best Supplement Of All Time- Delta Green.
Delta Green (1996, 298 pages) is the true Cthulhu Now book. Commonly described as the X-files meets Call of Cthulhu it in fact predated the X-files TV show by a year or two in conception (though it took the best part of a decade to finally appear. It introduces the covert Delta Green conspiracy- descended from the US Federal Governments response to the Innsmouth raid (and establishing its Lovecraftian credentials) it has been stripped of its legality and official powers by the powers that be and replaced with a more fashionable alien investigation agency called Majestic-12. PC's are assumed to be Delta Green agents or friendlies, who use their positions in the Federal agencies and departments to protect US citizens and interests from paranormal threats both domestic and abroad, without official sanction, recognition of back up. This solves the traditional modern day Cthulhu problems I described above in a number of ways- they get access to crime scenes because they are FBI/NSA/CIA/DEA/ATF agents or have forged the credentials to do so. Technobabble research is solved by leaders in the Library of Congress who keep to 'Need-to-know' policies or by government labs giving the end results. They get to investigate because its their job to investigate Mythos activity and their careers support Federal investigations. And finally the reason the world doesn't know about the Mythos already is because its the PC's who cover it up and explain away sightings with official denials. The writing is smooth and always excellent. Enemies, both human and inhuman are compelling and believable. Blending organizational doctrine with Mythos-savy methods lends itself to Nazi Karotechia remnants of Hitler's occult interest, MJ-12 and their sinister alien deals and technology and sorcerous criminals whose enigmatic leader puts the squeeze on New Yorks Mafia. Combined with sparkling ideas, comprehensive government agency descriptions, powers and careers, and some top flight adventures and mini-campaign this creates a book that comes recommended by everyone who has read it. A must-buy rating of 5.
Delta Green: Countdown (1999, 424 pages) was almost the largest Cthulhu book ever published but was narrowly beaten by BTMOM. Countdown takes off where Delta Green left off, by expanding into the response of other governments to the Mythos threat in Britain and Russia, introducing modern up-dates on old cults now masquerading a child-care charities, criminal rings or transportation companies as well as MJ-12 new brainwashing project. The Hastur Mythos are appropriately surreal and debauched phenomena that insinuate themselves into investigators life- more like an altered state of consciousness than a physical threat. Nearly a hundred pages are spent describing the government agencies of interest to players of dozens of countries worldwide and yet more mysterious manuscripts and adventures follow. Combined with quick rules on PC psychic powers and divination forms, it creates a smorgasbord of ideas that are slightly diluted when compared to the focus of the original DG book. Indeed because some of the ideas and groups are so disparate, its hard imagining ever using everything in it, but only cherry picking the most appropriate. Rates a 4 as a result- less essential but still good.
For the 1890's Pagan wrote only one book- The Golden Dawn (1996, 186 pages) describing the composition, history, personality and rituals of the infamous Golden Dawn occult society (of Yeats and Crowley fame) it does a reasonable job of making the groups real life history into a game-resource. Occult rituals are introduced for player use (pretty weak when compared to the might of the Mythos) along with 4 tangentially connected adventures. There a haunted house mystery, a return of the pagan King Arthur and his strange gods before Geoffrey of Monmouth Christianized him, and finally an excellent Phantom of the Opera scenario over the Channel in Paris. Unlike Horror on the Orient Express, the Golden Dawn order provides the perfect game link to all of these adventures without straining too much credibility. Recommended if you can find this long out-of-print book with a 4 rating.
Pagans 1920's books include the non-Mythos Coming Full Circle which describes traditional New England evils and witchcraft without a Mythos presence. While I do own the book, it seems I cant currently locate it (and I don't remember lending it to anyone- Bah!) so I cant provide further details.
Walker of the Wastes (1994, 224 pages) is an epic campaign to battle the global cult of Ithaqua from releasing the Wendigo from this North Pole prison. As pulpy as Masks in places it has the PC's sabotaging airships all round the globe, rescuing the Tablets of Fate from goose-stepping Germans in Persia and discovering the fate of the 19th century Franklin Expedition. Largely well written I was disappointed on first reading by the timidity of the antagonists before realising the intentional subtlety and down-playing of them. It makes hitting the PC's with the fury of the Wendigo Great Old One all the more shocking. Other than occasional disjointedness and technical Arctic detail now put to shame by BTMOM, this is a worthy campaign rated as a 4.
Realm of Shadows (1997, 202 pages) is set later than most Call of Cthulhu adventures in 1940. Whilst the war rages in Europe, the PC's gradually uncover a ghoul cult and smash its South American temple HQ. The trouble with this campaign is that in Cthulhu, ghouls tend not to be actively malevolent towards humanity. Indeed because they have a symbiotic relationship with man (eating his dead) they usually protect mankind from the more apocalyptic elements if the Mythos. Because its hard to establish a ghoul threat beyond revulsion, the writer struggles to deliver a compelling plot and so this book, while excellently illustrated and written only gets a 2.
Mortal Coils (1998, 206 pages) is a a collection of 8 unconnected adventures. Best of the lot include Tynes tale of the Mythos in Hollywood 'Dream Factory' as well as 'We have met the Enemy' which starts with a tired hook (relative dies and bequeaths Mythos artifact on PC) and ends with an interesting moral quandary- is it right for investigators to sacrifice an unwilling victim in order to potentially save the world? Generally innovative new ideas and good writing lends this book a strong 4.
There's a few things that slip through the cracks of an overview this size which I want to mention in passing. About 4 supplements and 2 editions exist of a Cthulhu Live- a LARP system for Call of Cthulhu which I've never really got into, other than at conventions were it works surprisingly well.. For magazines, Pagans Unspeakable Oath is worth getting whenever you can snag a copy- it usually has well-researched articles, plenty of adventure ideas and some excellent scenarios. I believe a few collections of UO scenarios have even been reprinted as the Resurrected series by Pagan. On the UK scene, the Whisperer fanzine exists, though I have to buy a copy it looks competently done and is available from www.leisuregames.com. Computerwise there have been more than a few Cthulhu based computer games, but only one utility of note- Byakhee is an excellent character generation programme which installs easily on low spec machines and its intuitive to use. Highly recommended and to be found at Byakhee
This overview has probably taken more time and cost me more sanity than any other I have ever written. I've tried to show the breadth of scope in the great body of work that has been produced for Cthulhu and how I responded to each. Naturally I haven't been able to cover everything in as much detail as I wanted, so if you want more information on a given book, please drop me a line and I'll post it on the forums below.
If I had to recommend Call of Cthulhu to a new gamer intending on GMing, then my advice would be thus:
: Go read Lovecrafts stories first. If you like them, then you will probably like the traditional Cthulhu campaign. If you didn't like them, then you may still enjoy the BRP system for use in horror RPG's.
: The books to acquire if your interested in 1920's Cthulhu are these- the Call of Cthulhu RPG 5.5 Edition- its got everything you need rules and GM wise along with some excellent introductory adventures. The best supplements to get for Lovecraft Country are undoubtedly the Compact Arkham Unveiled and Escape from Innsmouth, both of which should still be in print. For campaign use, treat yourself to Masks of Nyarlathotep and gasp in awe and understand why its so highly praised.
:Secondary purchases for the 1920's would definitely be Trail of Tsathoggua for a short campaign and Beyond the Mountains of Madness for an extended campaign. Beyond that, Pagans Mortal Coils is still in print. Unfortunately many of the books with publishing dates past 1996 are no longer in print, so you may have to search obscure stores, second hand specialists or Ebay to get some of the books which I've praised so highly.
:For Modern Era Cthulhu, then Delta Green is the book of choice. Buy it now! (note you'll still need the core rulebook, DG is a true supplement and doesn't have any rules material) After that, Unseen Masters and Countdown are recommended.
:For the 1890's all the books are now OOP and you'd be best to look on Ebay.
WHY I LIKE CALL OF CTHULHU
Writing this review has forced me to crystallize and define the reasons why I enjoy the Call of Cthulhu RPG above all others. What I've discovered is this- I like Cthulhu because its about true heroism, because its different from the great mass of RPG's and because its so well written. What do I mean by these criteria?
:True Heroism. Cthulhu isn't about super-powerful wizards, mighty warriors or bad-ass vampires who are out to better themselves with their special powers. Instead its about perfectly mundane, ordinary people, without special powers and who, armed only with their wits and courage must save the world when they would much rather be doing something less dreadful.
:Different from other RPG's. Other RPG's have the premise that the PC's can change the world in some way and that things like possessions, powers or experience matter. In Cthulhu the greatest achievement is saving the world and stopping it changing because with Lovecrafts nihilistic vision things will only get worse. And ultimately nothing matters more than the survival of the world. Related to true heroism, when players create a CoC character in a game where the PC's always 'go mad or die' then they are accepting that ultimately material possessions and magic wont matter, so instead of going for extra XP or gold pieces, they settle down and roleplay the little man with a big job to do. They and I find happiness in playing someone completely mundane in an extraordinary situation rather than extraordinary characters. The possibility of character death is accepted and embraced without the negative consequences from character death in other games where long-term character advancement is valued.
:Good writing. All RPG systems have their mix of good and bad products. But in my broad experience, Call of Cthulhu products tend to be a lot better than average. A higher proportion of the books inspire, exhilarate and terrify me more than any other system. The completeness of the basic rulebook is a joy to me as well. In these days were almost every RPG needs rules supplements, errata, additional metaplot revelations and expansions, then the finality of the Cthulhu rulebook is a constant relief. Everything the player and GM needs and a lot of what they wants is included in that one book and I wish a lot more companies thought the same way.
Style-3. Cthulhu products tend to have clear text and font use but only average artwork. Writing styles and themes vary hugely, leading to a composite score of 3.
Substance- 4- Cthulhu adventures and the rulebook tends by and large to deliver the goods. For their best and greatest campaigns a 5 would be too mean, but because more than a few books are below par and quality can be uneven within books it drags down the total substance rating to a still respectable 4.
Stephen Joseph Ellis, 1st January, 2002.