The Piecing Together of Dissociated Monographs

Under the Charlie Krank-Lynn Willis regime, before Willis passed on and Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen lost patience with Charlie Krank and ousted him from control and installed Moon Design at the head of Chaosium in his place, one of the weirdest little schemes Chaosium ran was the monographs project. This was a line of booklets for Call of Cthulhu or Basic Roleplaying which were submitted by fans and freelance writers, and which had more or less all the editing and layout work done by the writers themselves, released with a caveat to that effect under some standardised Chaosium trade dress.

In principle, this was a nice way for Chaosium to make some money out of people’s fan writing and fans to get their ideas out in front of a broader audience thanks to having the Chaosium name attached to their work. To that extent, it was kind of like a precursor to what Wizards of the Coast are doing right now with the Dungeon Master’s Guild program on DriveThruRPG (which has in turn inspired other companies like Atlas Games and White Wolf to set up similar programs for their game lines).

However, the execution left much to be desired. For one thing, Chaosium was a weirdly late adopter of PDF sales (which you’d think the monograph format would be absolutely ideal for), was even more late about getting their material up on DriveThruRPG (the major platform for RPG PDF sales – if you aren’t there, you don’t exist so far as a major segment of the market is concerned), and didn’t price them especially reasonably. As far as printed copies go, you’d think that print-on-demand would be the order of the day, but evidently that wasn’t the case – because when Greg and Sandy kicked Charlie Krank out and did an audit of the warehouse they found stacks and stacks of unsold monographs.

Thus, when they did their fire sale to sell off unwanted warehouse stock, masses of monographs became available with prices slashed down to the bone, and naturally I took the chance to buy a fat stack of them. The results were… mixed. The new Moon Design-controlled Chaosium has ended the monograph program, though not being the sorts to pass up a bit of long tail income they’ve made sure they’re available on DriveThruRPG or direct through their website if you want PDFs, and on balance this seems to be the right call. For the piecing together of dissociated monographs brings only confusion…

Cthulhu Dark Ages

Cthulhu Dark Ages was an oddity because it was a line which seemed to be developed more through monographs than through proper products. (This despite there presumably being ample German-language supplements for the original Cthulhu 1000 AD to translate.) This is yet another weird business decision from Krank-era Chaosium: if you can’t afford to give a product line proper support, can you really afford the product line in the first place?

Either way, Cthulhu Dark Ages-related monographs got special branding as being Order of St. Jerome monographs, for good reason: the first monograph offered was The Abbey by Michael Patty, which is actually really quite good. It’s a supplement of three parts; the first describes the titular abbey, which can be used as a base of operations for investigators in 10th Century France, the second provides a detailed setting guide to France in that time period, and the last provides the Order of the Sword of St. Jerome as an investigator organisation. This provides crucial setting details and, even more importantly, a rationale for investigation which the core English language Cthulhu Dark Ages book sorely lacked.

An excellent companion piece to The Abbey – and, in fact, the one product which makes me feel like Cthulhu Dark Ages could truly be a viable campaign premise – is The Pastores by Thomas B. de Mayo. Imaginatively and intelligently tying together hints from a range of different Lovecraft stories into a shocking whole, it details a major Mythos conspiracy centred in a fictional region of France, and also offers a set of genuinely high-quality adventures associated with it. These are cleverly designed such that they could be viably be played through in order, mixed around in the sequence, or used by themselves, but what’s most useful about the supplement is the way both the conspiracy detailed and the scenarios feel rooted in the particular social institutions of the era. Certainly, if were to run a Cthulhu Dark Ages campaign I would almost certainly utilise the Pastores as a major component of it.

Another Thomas B. de Mayo monograph, Spirits and Dreams of the Viking Age, doesn’t quite hit the spot for me. It’s a fair enough attempt at integrating Norse cosmology and shamanism into a Mythos framework, and to provide an interesting conception of the world of dreams which provides a nice alternative to the Lovecraftian Dreamlands (which, of course, due to their fantasy soup nature end up feeling weirdly anachronistic in a Cthulhu Dark Ages game – after all, presumably some of the more late medieval/early Renaissance-feeling areas don’t exist yet because people haven’t dreamed of such things yet). At the same time, it’s quite rough about the edges – more so than the rather well-honed Pastores – and it feels like it really needs another couple of editing passes and rewrites to really drag out the best of the material here.

For similar reasons Dark Crusades by Derik P.S. Dunning fails to grip me – you know you need to tighten your prose up if you’ve manage to somehow make the Crusades sound boring, and the constant “people think it’s a Christian/Muslim relic but actually it’s an ancient pagan thingy” plot device becomes too samey.

Mainline Time Periods

Chris Jerome’s Parapsychologist’s Handbook is a real gem, providing an in-depth look at the actual practice of parapsychology and its development from its roots in the psychical research of the 1890s to the present day. Jerome does this stuff in real life (and credits Call of Cthulhu gaming with honing his real-world ghost investigation chops), so he’s able to give you an insider’s look at field investigation practices, equipment used, laboratory tests and current prevailing theories in the field. (There’s also pointers on using psychic powers in the game, and basing investigations around hauntings or poltergeists which work the way documented ones are supposed to work.)

As Jerome points out, Call of Cthulhu investigators are de facto parapsychologists as soon as their investigations take in paranormal events, even if they don’t take that as a specific career. That being the case, the information here can be decidedly useful – regardless of whether characters start out with a professional or hobby interest in parapsychology, there’s good odds that in an extended campaign they will develop an interest, and “parapsychological research group” is a legitimate premise for a campaign. And even if the players never go there themselves, “meddling ghost-hunter” is a great stock NPC to throw into any investigation. Jerome does a great job of portraying the state of the art in the three major periods of Call of Cthulhu gaming, which makes the Parapsychologist’s Handbook easily one of the most broadly and immediately useful monographs.

If the Parapsychologist’s Handbook is an example of how an enthusiastic and insightful writer can overcome rather modest production values, Children of the Storm is an example of how uninspiring writing can kill the most potentially interesting subjects. The basic concept – a supplement focusing on the Great Depression, with some discussion of how life was during it and a brace of adventures using it as a backdrop – isn’t half bad, but it’s written in such a dry style that I just can’t bring myself to concentrate on it.

The Casting Call of Cthulhu is basically a fat stack of pregenerated NPCs – just plain ordinary modern day folks, which the table of contents usefully divides up into broad categories with specific niches in those categories listed underneath. With 120 different NPCs detailed, it’s simple enough to parachute them into a scenario at a moment’s notice if you need someone with the skill set in question, and the provided background details, name and personality notes you can take or leave depending on whether you think they’d add anything to the scenario. Sold as a full-price monograph, I wouldn’t be so keen on it, but at the cut price I got it at in the fire sale it’s a pretty damn useful utility.

Future Shocks

A recurring thing in the monograph series was various people’s attempts to do futuristic settings for Call of Cthulhu; I only got a cross-section of the ones available since a) it seems to be a reasonably common idea and b) given that monographs have only a semi-official status and few people kept up with all of them, everyone who had their own particular idea of how to do it was free to do it without reference to other people’s attempts.

One writer who’s gone back to this well again and again is Dr. Michael C. LaBossiere. This goes back at least to his adventure Blood Moon, which was put out in the Chaosium supplement Strange Aeons (a collection of adventures set in unusual, non-standard time periods) in which Mythos horror strikes a UN moon base. In the early 1990s there was much hype in Call of Cthulhu circles about an upcoming supplement that LaBossiere was going to spearhead for Pagan Publishing – End Time – which had as its central premise the idea of the stars having come right and the Great Old Ones having taken over Earth, with a remnant of free humanity eking out a desperate existence on Mars.

The material got close enough to publication that in fact Pagan issued a press release dated Halloween 1993, saying that End Time would be released in the summer of 1994. This didn’t happen, and eventually much of the material that LaBossiere had prepared for the supplement ended up slipping out via this Chaosium monograph.

Let’s address the cancellation first, because there’s a story here which we haven’t ever been fully told but which hangs over this product. Now, to be fair to them, Pagan Publishing’s release schedule has often been more aspirational than actual – as is the case with many a small press RPG publisher – and vapourware products aren’t unknown in the field. Still, on the evidence of the material presented here it certainly seems like LaBossiere was well on the way towards at least a finished first draft, and whilst it’s always possible the project got bumped into the long grass to allow for other products to come out, it’s hard to see a situation where Pagan would have been flat-out unable to put the book out, or where the manuscript could not have been finished otherwise.

A further eyebrow-raising detail is the introduction of this monograph, in which LaBossiere says that the project “came to an unceremonious end” in 1993. There’s a timeline issue there, given that the announcement of End Time‘s scheduled summer 1994 release came out on Halloween 1993. Moreover, in December 1993 Pagan did an online chat at AOL in which whoever was answering questions on behalf of Pagan Publishing (probably John Tynes) continued to talk about End Time as being a planned release for Gen Con 1994 – along with talking up the imminent release of Delta Green.

By 1996, the year that Delta Green finally came out, John Tynes was talking about End Time as being “in limbo” due to him not having time to work on it, his attention having been taken up by Delta Green and The Golden Dawn. By 1998, Dan Harms was reporting that Tynes was talking about End Time like it was one of the “follies of youth”, which certainly suggests that by that point the project was dead.

The outstanding questions that arise are: “Why was it cancelled?” and “Why the disparity in the dates?” On the latter, it could just be that LaBossiere was misremembering, or that he had a more pessimistic take on the project than Tynes and had come to the conclusion that it was dead before Tynes had, or that he was simply dating the end of the project to the moment it was put on hiatus rather than to the point it slipped from “on hiatus” to “cancelled”. Given how closely involved he was in the project, my personal inclination is to say that if LaBossiere was mistaken about the date, it was probably about whether the hiatus happened in 1993 or 1994, rather than being mistaken to the tune of 3+ years (particularly since this monograph came out in 2002, which wasn’t all that long after the cancellation), and that he’s probably dating the collapse from the start of the hiatus.

This leaves the question of what caused the hiatus. In the transcript of the AOL chat posted to the Delta Green website it is simply said that End Time could not be published under Pagan’s licensing agreement with Chaosium. This feels a little like an attempt to pass the buck, though if it is it isn’t entirely successful: even if Chaosium said “no” to it, then a) it seems odd that they would later turn around and put it out as a monograph, and b) it seems extra odd that Tynes would put out a press release for a supplement which his licence with Chaosium wouldn’t let him do. What gives?

Apparently End Time was originally planned as a standalone RPG, which might well have given Chaosium pause, but I’m not seeing any compelling reason why it couldn’t be retooled as a supplement had that been a sticking point. Indeed, not only are Chaosium quite generous about who they give their licences to, but during the time period in question they seem to have been generally very supportive of Pagan Publishing’s endeavours, to the point of letting them reprint material from Cthulhu By Gaslight in The Golden Dawn. It could be that Pagan’s licence only ended up letting them release so many Call of Cthulhu products per year or something, and End Time ended up getting bumped off the schedule in favour of other products – but then it comes back down to Pagan choosing to not make End Time a priority.

Bottom line: I would be genuinely surprised if Chaosium had made objections to Pagan Publishing of a form which Pagan couldn’t have resolved had they wanted to. (Not least because the document we have here in this monograph is not a finished manuscript – and if there was no finished manuscript for Chaosium to review, what basis would they have had to raise their objections?) I can see how the Chaosium licence may have been a barrier to Pagan releasing End Time in the extremely ambitious form they wanted to attempt – but I don’t see how it would have been a barrier to them retooling it as a supplement instead of a standalone game (a prospect which, if anything, would have been easier for them to produce than a standalone game), unless Pagan Publishing simply didn’t want to overcome that barrier. In that case, the licence isn’t the cause of the project collapsing, but merely a convenient way for Pagan Publishing to terminate their plans for it in a manner that at least partially saves face.

On reading the material here I suspect that the issue came down to creative differences. One significant issue here is the role of the Mi-Go, who are presented as being in basically benign contact with the human survivors on Mars through the guise of the Greys (as they are in contact with Majestic-12 in Delta Green) with an agenda intended to use the humans as allies in undoing the return of the Great Old Ones. Whilst on the face of it the whole “Greys” thing is playing along with the depiction of the Mi-Go in Delta Green, in terms of motivation and significance this is pretty much incompatible with Delta Green, which I can see being a problem for Pagan (especially since so far as I can tell it’s Delta Green which was always John Tynes’ favoured project).

Moreover, the idea of having helpful aliens out there helping humanity feels like it’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the whole thing. Lip service is paid to the Mi-Go having their own agenda, but given that their main plan is to make Earth reinhabitable for humanity then for the conceivable scope of an End Time campaign their interests and humanity’s are basically aligned with each other. It feels particularly inappropriate for the Mi-Go to have this role, because although in the original Whisperer In Darkness they were depicted as having human collaborators, so do a good many other Mythos entities, none of whom are particularly nice, and there are better candidates in the Mythos canon to be benefactors of humanity. (The Elder Things, in particular, are no friends to most of the Great Old Ones and certainly know what it’s like to be displaced by more vicious Mythos entities.)

The whole “it’s possible to fix this” angle is also a huge turn-off for me. The backstory is that due to the events of Blood Moon, a big Mi-Go experiment in the core of the Moon woke up and shifted the Moon’s orbit so as to cause the stars to come right, so if the humans and Mi-Go could work together to stop this (somehow – the monograph doesn’t detail how this could be even remotely possible but insists that it is) they can put Cthulhu back to bed and reclaim Earth. Not only is this entirely too hopeful for what is otherwise an extremely pessimistic and downbeat setting, but it’s also kind of an obnoxious bait-and-switch, in that the titular End Time turns out not to be the actual end times at all but a phony end time arising by accident.

I can see why LaBossiere might think that the setting could do with a shred of hope to avoid it becoming entirely downbeat, but to my mind the Mars colony is that hope – despite its difficulties continuing to operate as the infrastructure and materials built on Earth age and decay (the assumed start date for a campaign is a century after the Mars colony is established and Earth is lost) and the extremely limited numbers, having the colony hanging in there despite all is about as significant a “life goes on” message as I really want in this setting.

The way I see it, if a gaming group buys into “Cthulhu has risen, civilisation on Earth has fallen, humanity is on the verge of extinction and this is the titular End Time” as the premise for a game, then by definition I think they have bought into an extremely pessimistic concept for a game, and odds are that they’re specifically here for the experience of roleplaying characters facing a hopeless situation as best as they can. “We can press the undo button” in such a situation is the absolute last thing anyone wants to see OOC, because it undermines everything they have bought into.

The supplement genuinely tends to be at its best when it is concentrating on the Mars colony and its travails, although it could probably do with a greater variety of Mythos threats being present on Mars for investigators to foil. (The Mythos threats presented as being on Mars fall flat somehow.) At points too much time is spent detailing situations which don’t really need detailing; there’s a long breakdown as to what each of the major Mythos species and deities are doing on Earth at the moment which feels wholly unnecessary because the supplement gives no suggestion that missions to Earth are remotely viable.

(That right there could potentially be another point of creative differences: the AOL chat talked about subsequent End Time supplements opening up scope for Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic adventures on a Mythos-dominated Earth, though I suspect all that would accomplish is to make the apocalypse seem much less apocalyptic than the return of the Great Old Ones really should be.)

In addition, the monograph simply gives redundant, pointless information at some point. For instance, there’s an extensive section which just provides a pointless restatement of the Sanity rules, in terms close to those used in the core Call of Cthulhu book at the time, which feels totally unnecessary to reprint here; sure, it might have been incorporated into the standalone game, but the monograph is not a standalone game so why repeat that stuff here?

The fact that the supplement is so dependent on LaBossiere’s original Blood Moon adventure and his subsequent timeline may well have been the death blow there had creative differences of the sort I’ve outlined been responsible. They couldn’t drop LaBossiere’s ideas from the supplement without having to entirely retool the future history at the very least, and at the very least it would have left LaBossiere’s continued involvement in the project in question. I’m sure I’m not the first to suspect that a basic incompatibility between LaBossiere’s ideas and Pagan Publishing’s horror tastes led to the fall of the project, and certainly End Time doesn’t feel like something that belongs in the same cosmos as Delta Green.

End Time the monograph leaves me with the impression that End Time the finished Pagan Publishing product would have been a mistake – precisely the sort of youthful folly John Tynes apparently now thinks of it as being. Tonally speaking there is the kernel of a good idea in here with the Mars colony trying desperately to rekindle the flame of humanity after Earth is lost – though on reflection I think the parts of that idea I find the most exciting would be better explored not in a Mythos horror context but in a hard science fiction context, with the Martian environment rather than Mythos horrors being the main adversaries. It is entirely possible that LaBossiere’s interest is far more in hopeful science fiction than in nihilistic cosmic horror, which makes Lovecraftiana a poor fit for his talents.

This impression is only confirmed by Once Men, a different future setting for Call of Cthulhu by LaBossiere which follows a different timeline from End Time. This mostly consists of rather linear adventures, the first of which is basically a riff on Event Horizon and the last of which is more space opera. It’s largely uninspiring.

Christian Read’s The Cruel Empire of Tsan Chan takes a different approach by attempting to detail a future era only briefly alluded to in Lovecraft, who namedrops the titular empire as arising in the region of 5000 AD. Read has Tsan Chan be the name of a region rather than an Emperor and posits its cruelty as the necessary basis of its survival – for it exists at a time when Cthulhu has risen and madness and dream overwhelms the minds of all who are not behind the tall walls of the Empire. It’s fun, but falls into the trap of trying to give summations of the motivations and desires of Nyarlathotep, Cthulhu, Hastur and all these other entities which really work best as offstage impersonal forces and a big secret behind the Old Ones’ agenda on Earth, and in general I am not sure it provides an interesting setting for gaming in general and horror gaming in particular – it feels more like a weird fantasy setting, in which leagues it compares poorly to the likes of The Dying Earth or Dark Sun.

A Different Model

Once upon a time Pagan Publishing had something comparable to their own monograph line – a strand of simply printed little booklets which weren’t given the sort of lush treatment their more prominent releases were. Delta Green had a series of chapbooks, for instance, which were eventually compiled in the Eyes Only supplement, whilst the Tales of Terror line of supplements edited by Steve Hatherley had various fans writing in with adventure seeds – no game mechanics or stats, just an enigmatic situation and three potential explanations for it.

The big difference between Pagan’s chapbooks and Chaosium’s monographs is editing – Pagan Publishing bothered to do it and took pride in the products, despite their admittedly basic production quality. I myself had a few contributions appearing in More Tales of Terror, and I remember how Steve Hatherley showed a discerning eye in picking out good ideas, trimming out bad, and suggesting how others could be tuned up to be publication-worthy. Ultimately, one of the big problems of Chaosium’s monograph line is that they deliberately didn’t take that level of pride in those products – and the end result was often products falling well short of the mark.

Pagan eventually stopped doing Tales of Terror, I suspect because you can get all the scenario ideas you could ever want just by poking about on the Internet these days; Chaosium’s monographs, meanwhile, often featured material which might have been acceptable enough hosted on someone’s fan website but isn’t really worth publishing when there’s better fan-made stuff available for free. The new Moon Design-run Chaosium made absolutely the right call in discontinuing the line.

3 thoughts on “The Piecing Together of Dissociated Monographs

  1. Pingback: Kickstopper: Cthulhu Britannica London – Refereeing and Reflection

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  3. Pingback: PODs of Cthulhu – Refereeing and Reflection

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