Although the 1920s (Lovecraft’s own era) and the modern day (for obvious reasons of participant familiarity) remain the most popular eras for Call of Cthulhu play, the late 19th Century has persistently remained another one. Chaosium has recently given an official treatment to a Lovecraftian spin on the Wild West in Down Darker Trails, and before that both Chaosium and third parties have given Victorian London a close look in supplements like Cthulhu By Gaslight and The Golden Dawn; Victorian London is also one of the sample settings in Cthulhu Dark.
Playing in the era involves treading on some potential live wires – there’s a certain juggling act involved in roleplaying people (of various social origins and standings) who believe a range of things which may be wildly objectionable to our modern standards without turning the game into an exercise in simply recapitulating those beliefs. If you get it wrong then you end up with something like Richard Marsh’s The Beetle – in which whatever power the horror depicted has ends up being spoiled horribly by a gleeful embrace of the most simplistic social prejudices of the era. On the other hand, if you get it right, you get something like the best work of Arthur Machen – grabbing the neuroses and prejudices held by the Victorians (and still, reshaped by time, often held by us in the modern day) by the tail and giving them a good hard yank.
With this recently-fulfilled Kickstarter project, small press Stygian Fox offer a rare third party release for the Cthulhu By Gaslight setting, treading into these waters with an offering which, like Pagan Publishing’s much celebrated (and, sadly, long out of print) Golden Dawn supplement, is intended to provide a suitable structure and home base to form an 1890s London campaign around.
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
Stygian Fox asked for a baseline goal of £3500 to make the book, and ended up raising £17,761 via Kickstarter. Though some of the stretch goals they set themselves involved additional material for the book itself, these tended to be modest improvements here and there, and wisely a good many stretch goals were PDF accessories, the production of which needn’t impact the production of the book itself.
What Level I Backed At
The Hidden Patrons (Colour H/B+PDF): (PRINT) You support Hudson & Brand’s efforts from your comfy chair in your Gentleman’s Club or Ladies Tea Room circle. You put your inheritance to good use by helping H&B fight that which man was not meant to know! Backers will receive a premium colour copy of Hudson & Brand via DriveThruRPG.
Delivering the Goods
The estimated delivery date was May 2017; I ended up getting my hardcover in late March 2018, with PDFs of the book having been issued in December 2017. As far as the delays went it doesn’t seem to me that any one specific issue was responsible so much as it’s the simple story of one aspect or another taking a bit longer than expected to complete, combined with complications with other projects (some of which had been Kickstarted) that Stygian Fox had on their plate. In general, Stygian Fox’s portfolio is growing quite quickly, and it’s understandable in such situations for some things to be delayed.
It helped that there was a reasonable trickle of material coming out – the add-on dice which some backers had paid in for were produced and issued in a reasonably quick and efficient way, and sufficient samples of art and material were issued alongside concrete updates on where to make it apparent that progress was tickling along nicely.
The actual delivery of the final product was a bit more of a bumpy process, though this does not seem to be entirely Stygian Fox’s fault. They’d had issues with DriveThruRPG in late 2017 – there’d also been teething problems sending PDFs to backers of other projects – and had further troubles issuing the PDFs via DriveThruRPG this time (though I was able to get mine via BackerKit just fine). In addition, a very few people had issues with their print-on-demand copies arriving damaged, but this is down to DriveThru’s print-on-demand partners rather than anything under Stygian Fox’s control, and all reports suggest that contacting DriveThru to complain about manufacturing errors usually ends up with a suitable outcome.
Reviewing the Swag
Hudson and Brand, Inquiry Agents of the Obscure
The purpose of the supplement is to provide a home base and organisation for Cthulhu By Gaslight player characters – something that can serve the central tentpole of the campaign, the safe haven for the player characters and a mechanism by which new characters can be recruited to the cause.
The default assumption of the book is that Hudson and Brand – an army officer and a crusading journalist – each had their own personal run-ins with the Mythos and decided to join forces to investigate supernatural threats. They began their detective agency in 1881, combining mundane cases (to pay the bills) with more esoteric investigations. At some point in 1889, the duo disappear whilst investigating a case, and are never seen again; in the wake of this one or more of the investigators inherits their business, including its headquarters at 33 Golden Square, the manservant, cleaning lady, and cab driver that help support the investigations, and their extensive case files and collections of weaponry and strange artifacts.
As you’d expect, the supplement includes a nice floorplan of 33 Golden Square, executed with great style and clarity (there’s a reason that McAlea was Chaosium’s go-to cartographer for a good span of time – her basic design is enhanced by the artistic hand of Guillaume Taverner), as well as a full description of each of the rooms, the weapons left behind in the gun cabinet when Hudson and Brand embarked on their final investigation, and some of the items of genuine occult potency that exist within Hudson and Brand’s extensive collection of curios. You also get NPC descriptions for the agency’s employees and major allies, as well as adversaries and entities, and some ephemera like a large reproduction of a contemporary map of London, a mocked-up period newspaper stuffed with potential investigation seeds, and other useful tools.
(A quite nice inclusion is the selection of “Fate cards”, intended for use in one-shot games – you give each of the surviving PCs a randomly-selected card and it gives them a look at how the terrible events they’ve endured affect them in the long run. They generally focus around the assumption that whatever happened was a major psychological shock to the PCs, so I reckon they’d work best for the sort of one-shot where none of the PCs has previous occult investigation experience and the characters are out of their depth and it’s a major meat-grinder.)
A big fat chunk of the book, however, is dedicated to giving detailed summaries of Hudson and Brand’s old past cases. This is an excellent source of adventure ideas. You can have aspects of a new case calling back to something Hudson and Brand faced in the past, and use the case descriptions to summarise what the PCs discover if they choose to comb the agency files for such parallels. You can have old enemies of the agency re-emerge and come after the PCs, either because they’ve been poking into the enemy’s interests again or as a pro-active attempt to shut down the agency once and for all before it builds momentum. You could even, if you like, turn back the clock and either have Hudson and Brand disappearing earlier, and have the PCs investigate the cases that the duo were not around for, or have Hudson and Brand as still-living mentors for the PCs in the course of investigating those cases.
My personal inclination, though, would be to use the material as presented, with Hudson and Brand meeting their fates in 1889 and the cases they investigated being an existing backstory for the agency as of the start of the campaign. This is because the case files then not only act as seeds for investigation ideas, but also as ways to enrich the history of the agency – and the richer its history, the more meaningful the PCs’ inheritance of it seems.
In particular, the course of Hudson and Brand’s investigations follows an arc which will be familiar to many Cthulhu players in long-term campaigns – characters begin fumbling along, not entirely sure what they are dealing with, grow into competence, but find themselves emotionally and psychologically eroded both on the eldritch blasting of their psyche by exposure to the Mythos (as the game’s Sanity mechanic tracks) and the bit-by-bit destruction of their personal lives as the morass of terrible events around them casts a pall over them (any referee worth their salt will ensure that the PCs’ loved ones will eventually pay an awful price for the character’s involvement in the Mythos, after all). The final case, in fact, very strongly suggests that Hudson himself had gone down a particularly dark path, and that Brand had worked out that something was decidedly off about Hudson but felt unable to challenge it due to the extreme methods he’d resorted to in order to discover that.
Dropping the agency in the players’ laps after Hudson and Brand’s story has run its full course not only allows for this cautionary tale to be discovered by PCs who look for it, but also gives the agency as rich a history as possible – and the richer that history is, the more investigating the agency’s own past becomes a rewarding aspect of gameplay in its own right, and the more intriguing baggage comes with ownership of the agency. On the whole, it’s an ingenious concept and were I to run a Cthulhu By Gaslight campaign I would definitely give consideration to using the Hudson and Brand concept as a foundation stone of the campaign.
As far as their handling of the prejudices of the era go, the authors take a reasonably even-handed approach; Hudson runs into horrors in the Third Ashanti War which form his introduction to the Mythos, but also realises that these Mythos forces are being conjured not by the local religions orthodoxy but by those who would be regarded as dangerous heretics by the Ashanti as much as by the English. The class structure and assumed gender roles of British society are facts of life, but those assumptions are upended here and there by NPCs who do not follow them. Though I don’t note any overtly LGBT characters, notice is given of the difficulties such people had during the era – and though no consideration is given to whether Hudson and Brand are an item, if you want them to have been an item at some point in their history it’s extremely easy to play it that way. (There’s the fact, for instance, that Hudson’s bedroom is very big and luxurious, whilst Brand’s bedroom is substantially smaller and seems to have been mostly used by him as a study…)
On the whole, whilst it would be possible for a tasteless group to use the book as a celebration of the worst values of the Victorian era, that would be a matter of them bringing their own nasty baggage to the table – the book itself is more or less open to individual interpretation when it comes to the cultural and ethical mores of the era.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
I’d call this one Just Right; higher backing levels included additional material in the book itself, though this was also made available as separate PDFs to Kickstarter backers and I’m happy leaving them in that format. The standard hardback is a nice, solid book which by itself should happily stand up to the rigours of play.
Would Back Again?
It honestly depends on the project – I’ve backed other Stygian Fox products, I’ve also decided not to back on other projects where I didn’t find the concept in question especially exciting. In general, I think at this point Stygian Fox have learned enough from their various Kickstarter projects that I’d feel reasonably confident about backing another project from them provided I found the concept interesting enough.