So, once upon a time Cubicle 7 had a licence to put out third-party Call of Cthulhu products. They do not have the licence any more; word is that they are going to put out their own D100-based system to allow them to reissue properties dependent on the licence at some point in the near future, though given that they have major game lines like Doctor Who, The One Ring, the absurdly lucrative cash cow which is Adventures In Middle-Earth, and the probably cash cow which is the 4th edition of WFRP on the horizon, plus significant projects like the official Warhammer: Age of Sigmar RPG, I suspect that such a project will be remarkably low on their order of priorities.
We don’t know the inside story of why the licence ended, or who made the decision to kill it. It is possible that the long time it took to deliver the final rewards of two Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters – Cthulhu Britannica: London and World War Cthulhu: Cold War – may have been a contributing factor. Having been made cautious by their own Kickstarter experiences, the new regime at Chaosium have made a point of, from time to time, checking in on licensees’ Kickstarter projects and exerting what influence they can to try and ensure that wayward projects come to an acceptable outcome. (And why shouldn’t they? Dicking around with someone else’s reputation isn’t cool, and that’s what you do if you accept a third party licence to produce game material for someone else’s product line and then shit the bed on Kickstarter delivery.)
Then again, by and large Chaosium seem to have been quite reasonable and understanding about delays, and it’s not like both projects didn’t deliver their main product successfully. It is equally possible that Cubicle 7 had simply become tired of either the costs involved in maintaining the licence or, considering the many demands on their time, the extra work involved in the approvals process. Either way, there’s a cruel irony that the last few rewards to be delivered on these Kickstarters should have slipped out shortly before the licence itself died.
In this article, I’ll cover the Cthulhu Britannica: London Kickstarter; in a later article (probably going live tomorrow), I’ll do World War Cthulhu: Cold War.
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.
The Cthulhu Britannica line of British-set Call of Cthulhu material had been going for some time, having been Cubicle 7’s first really major splash as licensees. Here they were treading into territory which had largely laid fallow since Games Workshop’s Green and Pleasant Land; oh, sure, Chaosium or Pagan Publishing would turn their attention to Britain from time to time (especially when they got in a Ramsey Campbell mood), but there’s a big difference between largely US-based writers trying to portray a country foreign to them and UK locals producing a supplement depicting their own home turf.
The thing is, Cthulhu Britannica didn’t really have a flagship product for the line. Oh, there was the supplement of the same name, but this was a collection of unconnected adventures. Subsequent supplements had delved into particular regions, but socially speaking Britain in the 1920s was organised in a very London-centric manner (and indeed to a large extent it still is; look at a railway map for a vivid illustration of this). That said, doing justice to London would require a truly ambitious product – hence the Kickstarter to fund the production of this lavish boxed set.
The campaign ended up with some 753 backers, who between them raised over £90.000. This meant that the average pledge was comfortably over £100 a head, indicating that the main draw for many people was the boxed set itself (since that’s the sort of money you’d need to lay out to get the physical box). The Kickstarter also offered the chance to pick up past entries in the Cthulhu Britannica series, so I took the opportunity to round out my collection – I’ll be reviewing the entire series in this article, though I actually already owned the Folklore supplement.
What Level I Backed At
PEARLY KING IN YELLOW! – A physical and PDF copy of Cthulhu Britannica: London and a physical copy of everything we unlock through the Kickstarter plus a PDF copy of everything unlocked available in PDF format.
Delivering the Goods
I received the main shipment, including my copy of the boxed set, in July of 2015; this was not quite a year late, the estimated delivery date being August 2014. Of course, some components were delivered in PDF substantially earlier than this, whilst other stretch goals took a little later to arrive – the pads of investigator sheets which had been funded as stretch goals didn’t get in the post until early 2018, whilst the Cards From the Smoke and Postcard Set didn’t get distributed until late 2017.
The delay in the main shipment arriving may be explained in part by the usual production delays any complex product may face, but could also have arisen from internal company politics; in particular, during 2014 Cubicle 7 arranged a management buyout to allow themselves to become independent again, rather than being lashed to the Rebellion group of companies as they had become. Between this and Mongoose undergoing a similar divorce from Rebellion, I have to wonder what was going on there – what’s the inside story on Rebellion trying to absorb major UK RPG companies only to spit them forth again like indigestible pearls? Either way, that process had to have been a bit disruptive.
On the whole, sufficient updates were given (and sufficient material arrived in PDF) that the delay didn’t seem like that big of a deal, especially since once the main boxed set was received, the delays to the stretch goals simply didn’t weigh on my mind that much because the main thing I wanted had arrived. (This is a strong argument for a) keeping stretch goals modest enough that most reasonable people wouldn’t back the Kickstarter based solely on the hope of receiving that specific stretch goal and b) not waiting until each and every component is finished before delivering your product – if you can deliver your main product and then deliver the stretch goals later, a lot of pressure comes out of the process.)
Reviewing the Swag
Cthulhu Britannica: London
The first component of the set is the Investigator’s Guide to London; this is a thick book for players and Keepers alike which provides an expansive overview of life in London in the 1920s. Usefully, it also serves to a certain extent as a guide to British society in the 1920s as a whole, partly due to the necessity of discussing things like the class system and post office and the legal system and transportation and so on that by their nature extend beyond London to affect all of British society, and partly because in the 1920s British society tended to be arranged along London-centric lines (and in many respects this hasn’t really changed).
Moreover, if you were going to pick one locale to act as “home base” for a group of investigators in the 1920s, London is a very good choice – it is cosmopolitan enough that you could conceivably meet anyone there, sufficiently well-connected in terms of transport links that you can get around the country (or head abroad) in a hurry, and big and old enough to hide all sorts of incredible secrets. On top of that, as capital of the strongest remaining European colonial empire, it is a potent symbol of the status quo, and horror – particularly of the Lovecraftian kind – frequently ends up addressing the status quo, either by showing a threat to it (“The Great Old Ones will throw the world into anarchy if they awaken!”) or by revealing something awful about it (“The Empire is being manipulated by a cult of murderous sorcerers masquerading as genteel civil servants!”). The status of this boxed set as a potential “core supplement” for the Cthulhu Britannica is underscored here by the inclusion of an extensive set of investigator professions (a key component of character creation in Call of Cthulhu) optimised for British society at the time.
Neatly, however, this section is the only part of the book which involves much in the way of game mechanics (and even then the entries for the various professions include extensive descriptions as well as the game mechanical information called for); for the most part, the book is free of game system stuff in favour of providing a system-neutral guide to the setting. Between this and the fact that information about the Cthulhu Mythos secrets of London are kept out of the equation, the booklet ends up being an extraordinarily useful mostly system-neutral guide to London during the time period that will be useful to anyone setting a game in London during this era, regardless of the premise or genre. (It’d also be pretty useful to authors working in the era, since it condenses a whole bunch of research into one small package.)
The crowning achievement of the booklet is probably the borough-by-borough description of London, which highlights heaps of significant locations both in the city and in the small villages and towns poised to be absorbed into it by its expansion; I was pleased to see some material on my own family stamping grounds of Pinner, Ruislip and Uxbridge, and most people living in or around London will find something interesting about their areas in here. The depth of research in evidence in the book is more than sufficient to ensure that even native Londoners will come across plenty of novel and surprising information in these pages.
Nor does the book fall into the trap of assuming that the status quo of the era was beyond criticism – or that it was without its critics at the time. Discussion of class snobbery, xenophobia of both the popular and official variety, and the continuing struggle of women for emancipation (women in theory had the vote at this time, but until 1928 they had to jump through a bunch of votes male electors didn’t have to) makes sure that the supplement isn’t a regressive celebration of a supposed golden age but instead a warts-and-all portrait of a believably varied society.
The next component is the Keeper’s Guide to London, offering up a range of secrets for Keepers to exploit – ranging from real life occult trivia to invented Mythos threats. The book leads off with a decent discussion of the themes of the Cthulhu Mythos and how those can be exploited in a setting like London, and then offers a cornucopia of threats, secret societies, interesting NPCs and forbidden books. It also includes a writeup of the Daedalus Club, an invented society which can act as a means of getting a group of PCs together to investigate the Mythos. Usefully, though the book is statted up for 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu, an appendix offers sixth edition stats (which are usable with any prior edition). Even though converting between the two editions is trivially easy, it’s nice that Cubicle 7 have put the work in so you don’t have to. (It was also quite handy, since due to the massive delays to the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu Kickstarter people’s hard copies of 7th Edition didn’t emerge until comfortably after hard copies of Cthulhu Britannica: London got issued.)
A similar courtesy is provided in the third booklet, Adventures In Mythos London, which provides three adventures for use with the set. As is typically the case with prewritten adventures, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, though at least the longest and most developed adventure is also the best – it’s a rather nice introductory scenario which would make a great introduction to the Cthulhu Britannica: London setting, the Call of Cthulhu game, and horror roleplaying in general, with enough loose ends to develop further investigations if desired. The other two adventures are shorter and tend to form a linked pair, so if one isn’t to your taste it doesn’t seem like the other one will be. (Though one of them deserves kudos in noting that what one of the villains ends up doing is rape, and that depending on the sensitivities of your players you may want to dial it back a bit.)
Provided with the set is also six die-cut sheets of handouts – some representing documentary evidence found in the adventures in the adventure book, others intended to act as props to stir the Keeper’s imagination – and four nice poster-sized reproductions of period maps of London.
The manufacturing quality of the set is excellent; the box has nice thick walls that will stand up to a lot of abuse, and it is filled right to the brim with material. Though the adventures are of middling quality, the rest of the material is so good as to make this set a great resource for anyone looking to set some period horror in 1920s London, and a welcome addition to the broader Call of Cthulhu family.
The Curse of Nineveh
This is the big thick multi-episode campaign developed to showcase the London setting. As the title implies, it’s all about something nasty from the ancient ruins of Nineveh being brought back to London by an archaelogical expedition, and the investigators being caught up in the events that ensue. Using Nineveh as an inspiration for the campaign is an interesting move; as the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh was arguably as powerful a city in its prime as London was during the 1920s, and its destruction (along with its empire) at the hands of its various vassals is given an underlying occult explanation here, which is a good way to represent the stakes at hand – if dabbling in the Mythos has brought world powers to their knees before, there’s no reason to believe London is immune.
However, as is all too often the case when Call of Cthulhu adventure designers decide to get a bit more epic and cinematic than the low-key horror the game lends itself to better, the adventure often starts leaning more towards horror-themed colonialist adventure fiction than pure horror, and in particular uncritically works in some tropes of that style of adventure fiction that perhaps should have stayed on the shelf. For instance, there’s a murderous conspiracy of people of Middle Eastern extraction prominently involved in the story, including at least one honest to goodness Hashshashin, and whilst they have motives that the investigators may sympathise with they pursue those through violence, intimidation, and bloody-handed murder. Moreover, at least in the early stages of the campaign the Keeper is expected to use them as a means of menacing the investigators, and I just can’t get behind “you are being stalked by SCARY FOREIGNERS” as a plot point.
That said, the depiction of this clique seems to vary from chapter to chapter; sometimes their origins in Iraq is emphasised, whilst other times we are told they come from all walks of life. This is one aspect where the episodic nature of the campaign rather works against it, since the chapters often read like they were written separately and then massaged to fit into the overall narrative, when they could have done with a much tighter structure and guidance on tone.
One example of this is in the various cursed artifacts that the first five chapters revolve around. Each chapter focuses on a different one of these items, and each item forms an important tool for the bad guys to use in unleashing their dark god on the world. The player characters will realise this sooner or later. Once they do so, it is not unreasonable for them to say “OK, we’ll destroy the goddamn things to put them out of everyone’s reach”; in fact, it is a decidedly predictable approach.
Now, I don’t mind that this approach doesn’t turn out to be very effective. After all, if it was the secret society trying to suppress the items in question would have trashed them long ago. What I do have a problem with is the inconsistency in the presentation of these items. Some do have a clear explanation given of what happens if you try to destroy them and why it isn’t really a solution; some are utterly and unaccountably silent on the subject. The writers’ guidelines for this adventure should really have said something along the lines of “include notes on what happens if the PCs try to destroy the item your chapter revolves around”, and the chapters could really have done with a standardised format for presenting information on the core items so that in editing any missing bits would have stood out, but this doesn’t happen.
On top of that, the campaign is kind of a big railroad, to the point where the text unflinchingly talks about what to do at points to put things back “on track”. This is rather a pitfall of large campaigns structured as a chain of episodes, and on balance I think I prefer more unitary, self-contained investigations, whether these be short and sweet pieces or long, sprawling, complex affairs; such prewritten adventures have the advantage that they don’t need to worry about what the actual outcome of play is, whereas the problem with planning out a sequence of investigations in a chain is that for the adventures at the end of the chain to happen it is necessary to restrict the range of possible outcomes of earlier one. It is simply impossible for a clever team of investigators to derail the big bad’s plan early on; even more frustratingly, it is basically impossible to derail the plan in the penultimate chapter, despite the fact that doing so would be a perfectly dramatic and high-stakes conclusion to the adventure.
What I find particularly irritating is the regularity with which the adventures explicitly tell the Keeper to deny the investigators the just rewards of their successes – for instance, they will say stuff like “Even if the investigators do a fantastic job of trailing this person, they just get into a car and drive away and can’t be followed.” (Paraphrasing an actual example there.) There’s just a few too many convenient plot points and structures designed to stonewall the players and prevent them from progressing too quickly, which conflicts far too strongly with my personal style of refereeing for this campaign to be of much use to me.
The Journal of Neve Selcibuc
This is one of the deluxe handouts for The Curse of Niveneh – Neve being the NPC who enlists the investigators’ help at the start of that campaign. Provided you can get past the mild silliness of Neve’s name being “Cubicle Seven” backwards”, it’s alright for these purposes. Extracts were published during the Kickstarter campaign, and its serialised nature is rather evident, with regular cliffhangers popping up throughout the thing. The production values are decent for a sturdy little 64-page hardcover, though the art pieces tend to be public domain bits and bobs with slightly too many bits that end up looking more Victorian than 1920s in nature, and at points the writers could have really done with stopping and thinking “Would Neve really have kept writing in her journal at this point, or should we just have this entry stop suddenly and then narrate what happens next at the start of the next entry?”
Still, it’s an interesting mix of Neve’s own (mostly-resolved) adventures, with a sprinkling of useful clues and hints for Curse as well as some loose ends that Keepers are encouraged to use as the basis of their own homebrewed extensions to the campaign.
The Journal of Reginald Campbell Thompson
Following the same format as Neve’s journal, this piece is much more central to the plot of Curse, since it lays out the full story of the blighted Campbell Thompson expedition to Nineveh and provides major pointers as to the nature of the big bad besides. If I had to choose only one of the journals to use in conjunction with the adventure, I’d pick this one.
Aside from sharing the “a lot of this art looks a bit too Victorian” issue with Neve’s journal, this also has the problem that it’s written in-character by an aristocratic British archaeologist whose attitude towards other cultures tends to alternate between being smugly patronising and fetishistically exotifying. On the one hand, this is to be expected; on the other, because Reginald encounters the Children so much it can play up the Scary Brown Conspiracy aspect of them a little too keenly.
This consists of a stack of 60 period-appropriate postcards, each of which has a suitably evocative message written on it which could usefully be used either to lure investigators into a scenario or as clues found in the course of an investigation. A fairly impressive range of gaming luminaries offer contributions – including one from Sandy Petersen himself, the creator of Call of Cthulhu, as well as Mike Mason who’s presently in charge of the line at Chaosium. There’s also some blanks for you to pen your own postcards on, and a handy booklet giving in plain text transcripts of the cards, biographies and attributions for the contributors, as well as ideas on how to develop scenarios from the postcards. As far as sets of instant adventure ideas go, it’s basically a much more tactile and thematically clever take on the old Tales of Terror idea, and it works quite well on that level.
Cards From the Smoke
These are a set of cards with various thematic, inspirational illustrations, quotes, and symbols on. The accompanying leaflet suggests various ways to use them to resolve chases or improvise investigations, but most of these seem a bit odd and fiddly and would seem to lend themselves to unusual results (like a chase going direct from a sewer tunnel into a formal garden into a sewer tunnel again – who builds a formal garden right next to an open sewer?). The cards are a little cluttered, resembling products from a card game whose rules don’t exist, but perhaps they are best used like Tarot cards – stuff where you can just randomly draw a bunch of them to set your imagination going when preparing a game, rather than stuff you use in a rigorously systematic way to resolve stuff in-game.
It’s a pad of preprinted character sheets. Useful, to be sure, though given that everyone prints these off PDF these days (assuming they even keep a paper copy of their character sheet) I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to get it if it wasn’t already bundled in with the other extras.
World War Cthulhu: London
This supplement is cleverly designed so that it can be of use either as a continuation of a Cthulhu Britannica: London campaign into the war years, or as part of the wider World War Cthulhu game line, or as fodder for a standalone campaign or one-off adventure set during the Blitz.
The major innovation here as far as the World War Cthulhu setting goes is the invention of Network N Auxiliaries. These consist of investigators based not in the Special Operations Executive undertaking missions on foreign shores, but those who help N keep an eye on Mythos threats on the home front. Guidelines on creating such characters and designing adventures for them are offered – but if you don’t fancy using that idea, the book remains useful because of the wealth of detail it offers on British life during wartime, which can be useful not just in the London setting but for any game set in the UK in the era in question, as well as the notes on major changes to London landmarks and the like. (A full map is not provided, but the one from the Cthulhu Britannica: London boxed set would do just fine for these purposes.) This is combined with a number of ideas for Mythos threats that could arise in London, along with Fortean occurrences that were documented at the time that can be used as a springboard for Keepers to develop their own scenarios from.
The book also contains three actually quite decent scenarios set during the Blitz, one of which is set in the “Phony War” phase of the conflict and pitched as a potential introduction to the Mythos and Network N, the other two of which are cleverly set up with variant introductions so that they can either be run for existing Network N agents, or to provide player characters with an introduction to Network N, or without Network N coming up at all.
Altogether, the book does a really good job of teasing out the possibilities of a campaign set on the home front. Most World War II RPGs and supplements I’ve seen – both World War Cthulhu and Achtung! Cthulhu – tend to assume that the action of the game will take place either on the front lines of battle or in the tense world of espionage, resistance fighters and SOE activities. However, World War Cthulhu: London nicely demonstrates that there is all sorts of fun to be had on the home front too. Yes, the demands of total war, the draft, the suspension of much ordinary business in favour of war work, bombing raids and rationing all provide complications, but the book does an excellent job of showing how all of these things can be used for gaming purposes, and between the darkness of the blackout and chaos of air raids all sorts of opportunities for interesting mysteries can be found. On top of that, the book points out that many classic 1920s-era Call of Cthulhu scenarios, provided they don’t require much in the way of globetrotting, can very easily be updated to run during wartime with appropriate tweaks to work in the challenges of the time.
The original Cthulhu Britannica supplement wasn’t the sort of overview of Lovecraftian Britain the title implies; instead, it’s a collection of five adventures in different time periods – one in the 1890s, one in the 1930s, two in the present day and one twenty years in the future – all supposedly set in Britain. That said, only the historical adventures really manage to convey much in the way of local flavour; indeed, whilst the social order of Britain in the time periods in question is an intrinsic component of the adventures in question, the other three adventures could quite happily be relocated to any number of different countries and literally nothing of significance would change. It’s almost as though the Cubicle 7 staffers just grabbed whatever homebrewed Call of Cthulhu adventures they had lying around and threw this thing together in a hurry as soon as they landed a tasty licence from Chaosium.
That isn’t the only thing that makes this supplement feel like a bit of a rush job. On top of that, the standard of editing and proofreading is poor, especially compared to the high standards of the rest of the line. Typos are frequent (a particular bugbear of mine crops up when the text mentions someone’s interest being “peaked” instead of “piqued”). A map shows a house’s first, second, and third floors whilst the accompanying text discusses the ground floor, first floor, and second floor, as though different team members weren’t on the same page as to whether the British or American convention for naming the floors of a building were being followed. Another map has labels which are contradicted by the accompanying text. Perhaps the most glaring error is the descriptions offered of the adventures Wrong Turn and King; the back cover describes Wrong Turn as being a present day adventure and King taking place in the near future, but the chapter headers reverse this, and the actual text seems to suggest that both take place in the present day.
This by itself is just plain sloppy. Since Cubicle 7 ran out of stock of the supplement and had to wait for a new consignment before posting it to Kickstarter backers who’d bought it as an add-on these typos and errors must have persisted for multiple printings, evidently they simply either are too obtuse to notice these errors, or they are too busy to correct them but can’t commercially justify not keeping the book in print despite the flaws, or they are sufficiently flagrant hucksters that they simply don’t care that they’re flogging such an amateurish and botched product.
The quality of the adventures presented is also quite variable. The best adventure in the collection is probably the first one, Bad Company, mainly for the way it hones in on Victorian upper crust society’s fixation with good reputation and the suppression of scandal and uses that as the foundation from which the scenario is constructed; a close runner up is the 1930s scenario, Darkness, Descending, a piece about an archaeological dig that goes wrong in a way which is fairly typical as far as archaeological digs in Call of Cthulhu go. It’s probably no accident that these two are the longest pieces in here; they certainly seem to be the most developed adventures, with plenty of scope for players to approach the scenario as they see fit and minimal railroading.
One of the modern-day pieces, King, is decidedly undercooked, with a fairly threadbare premise and some rather embarrassing cultural insensitivity here and there. In particular, there is a prominent NPC described in the adventure who hails from Thailand but has a Japanese name, and who is described as having a generically “far east” accent despite also having been brought up in the UK since he was a young child. On top of that, despite not actually being related to them, he has allied with the Tcho-Tcho – a tribe of Himalayan cannibals that are regularly recycled in Call of Cthulhu adventures by people who at best don’t give much thought to the dubious racist implications of this particular concept. Here, it’s a bit worse because they seem to be randomly allied with the bad guy here merely because they both happen to hail from the same continent. Aside from this, the scenario would seem entirely pedestrian were it not for a certain garishly brutal attitude towards the player characters and a slightly heavy-handed gimmick for the way the scenario starts out.
Speaking of which, the two remaining scenarios are so thinly developed that they hinge entirely on trite gimmicks. Wrong Turn requires singling one of your players out to be the last survivor, and then abruptly ending the scenario once they realise they’ve been singled out so that they don’t even get to do anything interesting with that. My Little Sister Wants You To Suffer! doesn’t really interface with the Cthulhu Mythos, or even more general cosmic horror, in any useful way; instead, it’s a cheap spoof of reality TV shows, which is disappointing on several levels – firstly, because spoofing reality TV became old hat at least five years before Cthulhu Britannica was first published, secondly because it hinges on a cheap bait-and-switch in which the PCs are presented with various phony scenarios in the adventure and within the false memories they have been implanted with in order to movitate them only for these all to collapse at the end of the scenario, and thirdly because more or less any of the phony scenarios in question are actually more interesting than the reality TV parody, so once the gimmick is revealed it can’t possibly be anything other than a tremendously disappointing anticlimax. Indeed, Disappointing Anticlimax would probably be a better title for the collection than Cthulhu Britannica, since that’s much more of a common thread between the adventures than the supposed British location.
Cthulhu Britannica: Folklore
Using folklore as the basis for horror stories is a well-established tradition, even in Lovecraftian cosmic horror which tends to strive for novel, alien terrors rather than well-worn and familiar spooks. Lovecraft’s own The Whisperer In Darkness or Dreams In the Witch-House both have the dark forces behind the action alluded to in local stories. More particularly, consider the work of Arthur Machen, who established his own style of prototypical cosmic horror which would be a major influence both on Lovecraft and subsequent generations of Lovecraftians (to the point where Chaosium issued no less than 3 compilations of his work in their line of Lovecraft-related fiction – an accolade given to no other author). Consistently, Machen would either tease out horrifying implications in actual British folklore or invent gruesome truths behind the same. Call of Cthulhu players and Keepers have not ignored this – numerous published adventures draw on folklore as an influence, and one of the best Call of Cthulhu one-shots I’ve ever played in was improvised by the referee based off a bit of obscure local legendry.
Cubicle 7’s Folklore supplement, then, is a product that perhaps is overdue. For the most part it assumes that it will be used in British-based campaigns set in the 1920s, and therefore only details British folklore and interpretations thereof that were in vogue at that time; that said, there seems to be little stopping the Keeper from adapting this material to a late Victorian or modern setting, and the discussion of how folklore can be adapted for Call of Cthulhu offers useful considerations for any setting.
The supplement offers several ways of interpreting folkloric material into a game context and provides pointers on how to implement those interpretations. As pointed out, in any particular adventure a folkloric subplot could be a red herring with nothing supernatural behind it, or a distorted misrepresentation or cover story for a Cthulhu Mythos threat, or an independent supernatural phenomenon which could be connected to the Mythos in any number of ways – or could be entirely independent of it. Connected with this is an excellent discussion of folk magic offering three ways to implement it – as a garbled version of standard Mythos magic, as its own distinct form of magic with more limited scope but a lower cost than the powers of the Mythos, or as superstition that works solely on the power of suggestion.
This flexibility allows Keepers to maintain strategic ambiguity, ensuring that players can’t blithely assume that every apparent magician they meet even exerts real magic – and, more importantly, makes it tricky to tell what is an innocuous fertility ritual and what is a deliberate invocation of Shub-Niggurath, which helps to encourage a paranoid atmosphere in which the player characters’ secret knowledge renders them unable to escape reminders of the sanity-blasting terrors lurking beneath the surface.
The discussion of folklore creatures wisely avoids going the full-bore bestiary route which other CoC materials can take to a demystifying extreme. Cubicle 7 here have realised that it isn’t really important for this supplement’s purposes what the difference between a pixie and a brownie is, and that it’s more useful to give a general idea of what faerie creatures are like in general and how they might intersect with the Mythos. A second creature roundup chapter examines entities from the core Call of Cthulhu book and offers suggestions on how they may be found behind hints in folklore – though several entries in this section drop the folklore brief and just suggest what the entities in question might be up to in 1920s Britain, which is useful but isn’t quite what the present supplement calls for.
About half the page count of the supplement is devoted to presenting investigations for Keepers to spring on their players. The triumph of this section is the compact adventure format utilised. The concepts here are decidedly more developed than mere adventure seeds, but don’t give the exhaustive level of detail many published adventures go for. Instead, we are given succinct explanations of what is going on, a selection of short descriptions of important locations and NPCs, associated notes such as how the investigators might get involved or timelines of potential events in time-critical investigations, and thoughts on what might happen when matters come to a head. Most Keepers would find this ample basis to improvise the rest (and any Keeper who isn’t comfortable with improvisation would be well advised to practice with these adventure outlines, seeing how central improv is to the Keeper’s task), and it avoids the pitfall of published adventures which define an investigation right down to the level of individual clues – an approach which too often prompts Keepers into assuming that the predefined clues are the only clues, an error which results in the old “the investigation stalemated because we missed a Spot Hidden roll” cliche.
This is really the best sort of game supplement, since not only does it contain a lot of material you can pick up and play with immediately, but it also provides plenty of prompting and advice to help Keepers expand on its ideas and use it as a springboard for their own creativity. Indeed, it is on the strength of this excellent supplement that I backed this Kickstarter in the first place. One caveat, though: one of the co-authors is James “Grim” Desborough, of numerous and incessant scandal-mongering (some years after penning this he dived off the deep end on the whole GamerGate thing, for instance). He doesn’t delve into his usual nastiness (like spouting indefensible nonsense about rape) within this book, and of course since it’s gone out of print anyway you won’t be giving him any royalties if you pick up a second hand copy, but I know some people feel strongly enough about his work that they won’t have it in their house.
Cthulhu Britannica: Avalon
This is a bit more like it: half the page count of this one is dedicated to a time-and-location-specific guide to the county of Somerset as it existed in the 1920s, given a Lovecraftian twist. The supplement’s author, Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams, doesn’t just bring his knowledge of the area as a local to bear alongside his research, but also comes up with a rather fun little device for incorporating the various Mythos seeds into the text. Specifically, he creates the conceit that he used as one of his sources for the guide the works of Professor Noah Ainley-Chant, an entirely fictional folklorist turned Mythos investigator who researched the dark mysteries and ancient secrets of the area back in the 1890s. This quite cleverly means that the book is in some respects useful for seeding ideas for 1890s adventures as well as the assumed 1920s setting; 1920s investigations can focus on chasing up Ainley-Chant’s unfinished business, with the characters perhaps running across his books and deriving important clues for them, whilst 1890s investigators can join Ainley-Chant in his original investigations.
The way the information is presented is also useful: essentially, Wade-Williams provides essentially accurate information on the area’s history, geography, and sites of interest as the main text, and then slips in extensive extracts from Ainley-Chant’s books to add a sprinkling of Mythos terror and present Ainley-Chant’s unusual theories about local mysteries. Not only does this help to demarcate what parts of the book reflect reality and which are invention, but in addition the fact that the Mythos secrets are presented by an in-character source leaves the Keeper free to decide the truth about them – Ainley-Chant’s conclusions are not necessarily correct, and to emphasise this Wade-Williams provides the occasional author’s note to show where he doesn’t think that the Professor’s theories are accurate even from a Mythos believer’s perspective. Thus, even if a player happens to know that the supplement is being used in a game, that isn’t necessarily a problem if they have read it because they won’t know what spin their Keeper is putting on it.
Somerset is a good pick for a locale too – it is rural enough to have a sufficient expanse of wilderness and isolated communities where strange things can be happening, has enough widely-available history and folklore associated with it to provide a decent source of inspiration – both for this supplement and for the Keeper who wants to do some further research – whilst at the same time it has good enough railway links to London in the 1920s that investigators based in the capital can easily visit. At the same time, it isn’t all rural – the city of Bath is given an expansive section of its own in here, and has an ancient enough history to provide lots of ideas for investigation whilst being a busy enough city to make a good home base for investigators if you want to make Somerset the focus of a series of adventures. By and large, the guidebook half of this supplement succeeds at teasing out the possibilities of Somerset as a locale and giving plenty of support to Keepers who want to set a campaign there.
The second half of the book consists of a set of full-length investigations and a brace of short adventure for the Keeper to develop in their own time. The short adventure seeds are quite useful, mostly because they leave the specifics of implementation as an exercise for the Keeper, but the more fully developed pieces are rather disappointing, tending towards useless railroading and being built too much around artificial set pieces without giving sufficient consideration to working out what the point of the investigators’ involvement is. One of them, for instance, is set up such that if the investigators play their cards right and get to the end, they get to listen whilst an NPC makes a speech and then, er, that’s it; another scenario involves a spooky little girl who seems inspired more by recent J-horror than Somerset folklore, and who is given dialogue more reminiscent of a cheap supervillain than a spooky child, even a child who’s also an eldritch deity. About the only interesting thing about these adventures is that one of them recycles the concept of “Meonia” as a term denoting a secret society or forgotten legend surrounding the British royal family, a concept that so far as I can make out originated with the “psychic questing” books that Andrew Collins and others put out in the 1980s and 1990s – a fun little subgenre of ostensible nonfiction that reads like (and probably is) fiction.
Still, though the adventure section is mostly disappointing, the guidebook part is sufficiently useful that Avalon remains a useful supplement in its own right, presenting a pocket setting which imaginative Keepers could plug away at for years.
Cthulhu Britannica: Shadows Over Scotland
Cubicle 7 followed the same general format as Avalon for Shadows Over Scotland – get a freelancer in who hails from the area in question (Stuart Boon, the author, has a day job working at the University of Strathclyde), have the first half or so of the book be a guidebook to the region in question, and fill out the rest with prewritten adventures.
In this case, though, the region in question is not a county but an entire kingdom. Boon breaks down his discussion of 1920s Scotland by region, taking in the urbanised Highlands, the more rural Lowlands, and the even more remote offshore islands. Rather than following Wade-Williams’ lead in providing an invented source for Mythos information, Boon simply directly presents it, cooking up a vision of Scotland where Mythos cults become increasingly overt in their activities the further you go from the urban centres. He shows a great deal of restraint in not throwing in a full-on Wicker Man pastiche, but despite that you could very easily fit the original Wicker Man into the general picture of Mythos threats in Scotland presented here. In each sub-region Boon also depicts a few of the major cities or towns, in order to provide a useful hub for investigations taking place there.
The book also benefits from Stuart Boon being quite a good scenario writer. Six full scenarios are provided – two for each of the sub-regions – and they’re a pleasingly varied lot, ranging from sandbox investigations in which the order of events is highly dependent on which locations the investigators choose to look into and what they do there to somewhat more linear adventures, and with tones varying from the highly mystical to SF-horror. Five of the six are pretty solid; the last one I don’t particularly like, most because it feels a little truncated and rushed (possibly a side-effect of the page count of the book already creeping towards 300). The scenarios benefit from Boon providing a table at the end of each of them, laying out the important locations in the scenario and describing who can be found there, what may happen there, which important pieces of information the investigators may pick up there, and so on – a summary so incredibly useful that I wish more Call of Cthulhu scenario authors would adopt it.
On the whole, Shadows Over Scotland is a high-quality release in the Cthulhu Britannica series and continues the ramping up in quality over the original Cthulhu Britannica supplement that Avalon started.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong
I got a treasure trove of stuff from this Kickstarter and liked most of it, and the stuff I do like in here can give me years of entertainment. I’d say I got this one Just Right.
Would Back Again?
I did! Come back tomorrow to check out my thoughts on the World War Cthulhu: Cold War Kickstarter to see if I regretted that or not.