This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.
In part 1 of this article (which contains the usual note on methodology which you should read to understand where I’m coming from), I recounted the hideous gestation period of this project, which saw the old Krank regime at Chaosium departing in favour of new blood from Moon Design Publications, with elder gods Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen supervising things. Now, at last, we can turn to actually looking at the delivered goods.
Reviewing the Swag
OK, this is a complex enough deal here that I think I had best order the reviews of individual items carefully.
First off, I am going to review the core game books, and the Keeper screen and the stuff that came as part of that package, and the quickstart rules. These seem to be offered as central aspects of the game line.
Next up, I will cover major supplements and accessories that were part of the actual Kickstarter itself – Cthulhu Through the Ages, Pulp Cthulhu, the card decks, the Nameless Horrors adventure collection, and the Field Guide. These are all significant products in their own right which have filled out the 7th Edition product line as distributed to game stores as well as Kickstarter backers.
Next, I will cover minor accessories and stretch goals, including items cancelled or only provided as PDFs, most of which are random bits of ephemera which don’t represent especially significant additions to the product range.
Lastly, I will cover the extra unexpected bits which weren’t promised to us during the main campaign but we received anyway. These include Dead Light, and Cold Harvest, given away by the Krank regime to tide us over, Alone Against the Flames which was provided free to everyone, not just backers, but which seems to be a natural companion to the (also free) quickstart rules, and Doors to Darkness, given to us by Moon Design to compensate for the cancellation of random tat.
Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition
Also known as the Keeper’s Rulebook, this is a complete-in-one-book core reference, a central tome contains more or less all the necessary information that the main Call of Cthulhu rulebook has included over the years, including great swathes of text simply recycled from old versions of the game. That’s appropriate enough; the mission statement for 7th Edition was to brush some of the cobwebs off the game rather than transforming it entirely, and where the core Call of Cthulhu game experience is distinctively and clearly communicated by the existing text there’s little driving need to rewrite it.
That core experience is the reason Call of Cthulhu became the perennial favourite that it has been since its release. Dungeons & Dragons captured people’s imagination back in the day partly by being the first commercial game to outline the traditional RPG format, and partly by offering an evocative and easily understood mode of play within that context revolving around exploring dungeons and wildernesses, battling monsters, and amassing wealth and power. Since then designers aiming for novelty have had two choices: they could offer something very different from the traditional RPG format, or they could work within that framework but offer something different, either by providing an interestingly different take on a previously-described mode of traditional RPG play or by offering a new mode of traditional RPG play entirely.
Call of Cthulhu falls squarely into the latter category as the first traditional RPG designed to focus on an investigative mode of play. Player characters are even referred to as investigators, whilst the referee is referred to as the Keeper – or, to give the rarely-used full term, the Keeper of Forbidden Lore. The assumed mode of play involves the Keeper dreaming up a mystery for the PCs to investigate, with the assumption being that most investigations will tie into Lovecraft’s mythology of dormant godlike alien entities whose return would mean the destruction of humanity in its current form, and who stir in their slumber when humans accidentally or deliberately prompt them to act. The Outer Gods and Great Old Ones themselves are by and large entirely too powerful to take down in a straight fight, and the various alien races that are associated with them are often possessed of superior prowess to humans (and often superior intelligence and technology too); frequently, investigations don’t revolve around direct confrontations with major powers of the Mythos but with humans or human-scale entities who, deliberately or otherwise, have begun to let something awful out into the human sphere, with dire consequences should the investigators fail to nip the horror in the bud.
Originally set in the 1920s, it wasn’t long before the game was adapted to handle play in other time periods. Spin-offs like Cthulhu Invictus (Roman-era Call of Cthulhu) and Cthulhu Dark Ages (Dark Ages Europe) have gained some traction, but in general the most popular alternate time periods have consistently been the present day and the 1890s. Setting Cthulhu investigations in the present has a host of advantages – the setting is already familiar to the players, for starters, and it’s very easy to look up things like price lists, local information for areas, and other details to enhance the game – Google is your global sourcebook. Also, since Lovecraft set his stories in his own contemporary period most of the time rather than indulging his well-documented history nerd tendencies it’s arguably truer to the source material to keep things modern and add some immediacy to the horror rather than keeping it at some historical distance.
As far as the 1890s go, their popularity stems to a large extent from the well-regarded Cthulhu By Gaslight supplement, which recently had an expansive new edition come out. Perhaps because of how new the latest version of Cthulhu By Gaslight is, this time the core book only provides overt support for the 1920s and modern day. Whereas the previous core book also included theoretical support for the 1890s, in practice this amounted to an equipment price list, a tweaked character sheet with period-appropriate skills inserted here and there and irrelevant ones taken out, and a few timelines of important public and esoteric events of the era. Whilst that’s really all you need to adapt Call of Cthulhu to a modern-day setting, since all the participants in the game will have a reasonable idea of what the present day is like, it falls a little short of the sort of support you might want if you intend to run a Victorian-era campaign, so this feels like a good call to me given that the book is already thick enough.
The first major tweak this edition brings to the rules is evident when you begin character generation. From early editions there has always been a strange distinction between the way Call of Cthulhu and other games using variants of Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system handles attributes such as strength, size, intelligence and so on and character skills, with skills operating on a percentile scale but attributes being measured on a scale where, with some exceptions, the typical range of human attribute scores runs from 3-18 with 10 or 11 being the average. This can be traced back to RuneQuest – from which system, remember, the Basic Roleplaying rules were derived – and represents one of a few areas where RuneQuest overtly borrows from Dungeons & Dragons. 7th Edition eliminates this oddity by multiplying all attribute scores by 5, which turns the typical 3-18 range to a 15-90 range suitable for modelling on a percentile scale. Whereas in previous editions a roll of your percentile dice to perform a feat of Strength would have been expressed awkwardly as a “Strength x 5” roll or similar, now you simply roll against your Strength.
With both attributes and skills, you are encouraged to note down on your sheet not just the raw score, but the score divided by 2 (used for rolls of a harder than average difficulty) and divided by 5 (for rolls of extreme difficulty). This can be time-consuming in character generation unless an electronic character sheet that performs all the calculations for you is used, but does have one major advantage – it means that the attributes as they would stand in prior editions of Call of Cthulhu are preserved on the character sheet, making conversion between this edition and previous ones simple.
Focusing as it does on everyday characters faced with the horrors of the Mythos, character creation in Call of Cthulhu has always revolved around careers; after rolling your attributes, you pick a suitable-looking career, and that career has a number of skills associated with it; typically, you end up with quite a large pool of points to distribute amongst your career skills, and a smaller pool to distribute amongst any skills you wish to represent your extracurricular interests. The major issue is that in previous editions you had EDU x 20 (or x4 on the new scale) points to distribute amongst your career skills, which meant that if your character had a lousy Education score they would start play at a decided disadvantage. The new edition mildly adapts the career system by changing how career skill points are calculated for each career. The old EDU x4 ration still applies to highly academic careers, but other careers draw on a broader range of attributes to obtain their skill point pool – for example, a career involving a combination of specialist knowledge and manual dexterity, like being an auto mechanic, might have its skill point pool calculated by the sum of Dexterity times 2 and EDU x2. This makes playing a low-EDU character much more viable, as well as encouraging players to pick careers for their characters appropriate to their personal capabilities and inclinations.
This is a prime example of what I think is the real strength of this revision of Call of Cthulhu – finding small but clever ways to resolve what had previously been significant and long-standing problems with the system, in a way which doesn’t require a radical re-engineering of the basic structure of the system or its underlying mathematics but which fits into a logical whole with those aspects of the system they haven’t revised. For instance, adjudicating attempts to nudge NPCs into behaving as desired through the Charm, Fast Talk, Persuade and Intimidation skills is made somewhat more elegant by the way each of those skill has a couple of skills that are used to defend against it – if an NPC has at least 50% in one of those skills, the difficulty of the roll goes up, and if they are even more skilled it becomes extremely difficult to sway their opinion through the avenue in question. (So, for instance, a particular character might be very difficult to sway through logical argument, but fold like a stack of cards if subjected to credible-seeming physical threats.)
Likewise, a couple of new mechanics are brought in to blunt the tendency of percentile systems to involve characters failing a lot unless they have extremely high scores in the relevant skills. First, there is the mechanism of “pushing” a roll – players can have the option of rerolling a failed skill roll, but they have to be able to justify this in terms of some in-character action they are taking to pull out all the stops and attempt to complete the task at hand heedless of the risks they would have otherwise been taking care to avoid in a usual skill attempt. For instance, if an ordinary Spot Hidden roll involves a careful, non-disruptive search of an area, a “pushed” Spot Hidden can represent utterly turning an area upside-down in search of a clue; if an ordinary Persuade roll used against a gangster involves trying to calmly and politely explain the situation, a “pushed” attempt can involve persisting in pressing your argument after the target has made it clear they’re not interested in what you have to say. If the roll succeeds, great; if not, the Keeper has a free hand to bring in whatever bad consequences suggest themselves. Fail that pushed Spot Hidden and the the person whose office you’re plundering might catch you in the act or call the police on you – fail that pushed Persuade and the bootlegger you’re trying to get onside might lose his temper and have his toughs break your legs.
The elegance of this mechanic is that, as well as being believably tied into the in-character action (“pushing” a roll represents setting aside the usual care and discretion you’re otherwise assumed to be working with), it lets players declare that they aren’t up for a particular roll to result in a null result: good or bad, the result of a pushed roll will progress the session and shake things up one way or another, whether it entails productively progressing the investigation or throwing in an exciting complication. An additional, optional rule – optional presumably because it involves disruptive “metagame” thinking where you are thinking from the point of view of yourself as a player rather than as your character – is the use of the Luck skill as a pool of points to tip the scales: if you really want to have passed a particular roll, you can pay a number of Luck points, each point reducing the roll on the dice by 1 until you get down to your target number. This, of course, is hardly effectual if you have failed a roll by a long way, but it does take the sting off those irritating rolls where you’re only a few points off succeeding – at the cost of eroding your Luck score so you’re more likely to get into trouble later on.
What I particularly like, though, is the adaptation of the Idea stat to get around the “clue bottleneck” problem that is so often cited as a flaw of Call of Cthulhu.
This is the situation where, by missing a critical clue or a particularly critical subset of clues, the progress of a Cthulhu investigation comes to a grinding halt. Whilst I can see in principle how this could happen, I have never seen it in some twenty years of playing the game, and I’ve always been of the opinion that this is more a factor of poor adventure design poor Keeper technique than anything inherent to Call of Cthulhu – with an emphasis on poor Keeper technique, because whilst a badly-designed adventure might introduce the problem, I think it takes sloppy refereeing to actually allow it to happen. Insisting that there has to be one clue necessary to progress the case which has to be obtained in one particular way is what causes bottlenecks, and that insistence is a trait of unimaginative referees who aren’t willing to improvise. In my view, imagination and improvisation are key skills of competent RPG refereeing – thus, if you aren’t willing to engage them, you’re going to be bad at refereeing, QED.
Moreover, it’s always struck me as being a problem of excessively static situations, and to my mind a good horror investigation shouldn’t be static: the perpetrators (human or otherwise) should be active agents working according to their own agenda, and if the players don’t manage to catch the clues necessary to stop them then they should kill again (or otherwise advance their agenda) – then that activity can generate new clues and new opportunities for the PCs to get back on the case.
Nonetheless, it’s an issue which comes up frequently enough to bother many people. In fact, Robin Laws developed the Gumshoe system (which underpins Pelgrane Press’s competing Trail of Cthulhu RPG) specifically as a means of addressing this: under this system, the referee is encouraged to identify “core clues” to solving the mystery, and then just hand over the clues as soon as the investigators use appropriate investigative abilities, and then they can spend points to obtain additional clues for extra context. Superficially, 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu seems to take a similar route in its adventure design advice, advocating that the Keeper identify Obvious Clues – which don’t need dice rolls to obtain – and Obscured Clues, which do. The specific advice given is that failure to find a clue suggests an interesting direction for the game, then it’s a good idea to make it Obscured, whereas if failing to find a clue has no interesting consequences but finding the clue usefully progresses the game then it should probably be Obvious.
Whilst superficially similar to the Gumshoe approach, I like this much better because it is expressed specifically in terms of good practice in adventure design and refereeing, rather than in terms of the rules system. After all, if it’s really, truly important for the adventure to even get underway for the PCs to get a particular clue, why even go through the motion of asking them to use system abilities to obtain it when you can just set it out in the open? Furthermore, crucially the game only encourages you to make clues essential to accomplishing what you want with the game Obvious; if, as a gaming group, you are happy to have an investigation conclude with the PCs failing to track down the cultists and having their plan come to fruition off-screen, then that choice is open to you.
This gives the Keeper the freedom to calibrate the proportion of Obvious Clues to the preferences of their player group. Some Cthulhu groups I’ve been in would actively resent the implication that any of the clues we were getting were being spoonfed to us, because that would erode the sense of accomplishment we have when we uncover them. Others would prefer to have some nudging in the right direction but only enough to direct them towards the final confrontation, with character skill and player ingenuity being key to finding the additional information needed to actually get the best resolution, so the clues necessary to reach the showdown would be Obvious but the clues necessary to win would be Obscured. In principle I can imagine some groups just wanting all the clues to be Obvious, though in practice I suspect those groups would consist of players who just plain don’t like investigative gaming and would prefer to play something else. Conversely, by having the automatic acquisition of core clues hardwired into the Gumshoe system, the Gumshoe games create an expectation that a certain proportion of core clues will be automatically obtainable, and it requires active tweaks to the system or deviations from its expected use to change that assumption.
As I said, though, Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition does offer a game mechanic to use in avoiding the “didn’t get enough clues to progress the case” problem, which is the Idea roll. This is the ultimate insurance against adventures losing inertia by the players becoming stuck, though as a tool of last resort there are associated risks.
Through this mechanic, if the players are genuinely stumped, they can request to make an Idea roll. The Keeper then considers what the most significant clue they’ve missed so far is, and considers how often the associated people or places have been mentioned so far – the difficulty of the roll goes up if the players have had ample opportunity to obtain a clue and failed to do so. For instance, if the clue is associated with an NPC who has been mentioned over and over again, and who the players have either entirely ignored or have specifically decided against investigating, then the roll will have an extreme difficulty (Idea score divided by 5 for the roll), whereas if the significant clue is associated with a location which, for whatever reason, just hasn’t come up the roll can be of a normal difficulty.
Once the Keeper decides the roll’s difficulty, the party member with the highest Idea score rolls. If they succeed, then the Keeper thinks of some way in which a lucky coincidence or a flash of inspiration can guide the investigators to the clue, perhaps after some time passing. (“You head back to Jane’s place and write out all the names and places mentioned in the investigation so far to see if there’s anything you’ve missed. Eventually Andrea has the idea of plotting out the locations of the fish-people sightings on a map, and after staring at the pattern for a while you realise that all the sightings of the fish-people have happened within a few miles of Ol’ Jeb’s farm…”)
Crucially, if they fail the Idea roll, the Keeper still comes up with a way for the clue to become apparent to the investigators – but thinks of the worst possible circumstances under which the investigators find out. (“You head back to Jane’s place and write out all the names and places mentioned in the investigation so far, but as the hours drag by and you try to come up with some connection between them you make no progress. At some point after dark, a deafening shotgun blast rings out, shattering the window of the front room and sending you scattering for cover behind the furniture. Through the hole in the window you see Ol’ Jeb calmly reloading his double-barrelled shotgun, as various hunched figures hop out of his pick-up truck and start scuttling towards the house…”)
The key distinction from Gumshoe here is that whilst the crucial information does eventually come to the players, it doesn’t necessarily come to them on their terms or solely as a result of their action, which I’d argue is a particularly important feature for a horror game. In some respects, it can nicely reflect a grim reality of some types of investigation – a failed Idea roll in a serial killer investigation, for instance, could mean that the killer has struck again, giving the player characters another chance to accumulate clues at the cost of someone dying, whereas what I have read of Trail of Cthulhu seems to assume that players will always be the proactive agents in acquiring clues. Obviously, for an interactive game you do want that to be the case most of the time, but the way Gumshoe implements it seems, to me, to rule out the possibility of the characters saying “Well, we just have to wait and see if something comes up” – a potentially dramatic and chilling decision in something like a serial killer case, but one which real investigators do have to fall back on, and which is dramatic enough that I like how the Idea roll provides the players an opportunity to do that if they feel it’s necessary.
In short, the Idea roll is a “saving throw” against giving the Keeper free reign to have the other side advance their plans in as gruesome and threatening a way as they can think of, which I find nicely ties into my own ideas about how important it is for horror investigations to revolve around ongoing, dynamic situations rather than static situations – after all, so far as I can tell “The killer kills again, this time leaving behind evidence pointing more directly at a particular culprit” is a legitimate consequence of a failed Idea roll. Most importantly, it doesn’t close the door on the PCs failing their investigation – it just makes sure that that failure is interesting (“The characters, stumped by the evidence, were lured into a trap by the bad guys which they failed to fight their way out of”) rather than dull, whilst at the same time it also keeps the door open for players to simply decline the opportunity to make an Idea roll and walk away from an investigation, which can be a viable option in some long-term campaigns in which giving up on a particular investigation to go chase up other matters of interest until a new development opens up a stale case is intended to be a viable choice.
It isn’t an absolutely perfect mechanic – in particular, I can see friction resulting if the players and Keeper disagree on how prominent a particular clue was in the investigation so far. Then again, since the outcome of the Idea roll will involve the clue being exposed one way or another, so there’s actually room to negotiate here if you specify what the clue is after the players have committed to the Idea roll but before the roll is made. The Keeper can say “Well, the clue relates to Ol’ Jeb and and I think I’ve mentioned him a whole bunch of times, so I reckon this should have an Extreme difficulty” and the players can come back with “Ah, shit, I knew that weird bastard was hiding something” or “What the fuck, his name turns up once on this map handout in tiny type and he’s never been mentioned once otherwise” and the group as a whole can come to some agreement there.
What I particularly like about it, though, is the way it manages to resolve a long-standing issue many groups have had with Call of Cthulhu without doing undue violence to the style of the game itself. 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu is the best sort of update to a game – it incorporates various ideas from the 30-odd years of RPG design that have gone under the bridge since the last really substantial revision of the Call of Cthulhu system, but it does so in a cautious and careful way which shows evidence that the developers have given proper consideration of whether the modifications in question are really called for, rather than fixing “bugs” which fans of the game would tend to characterise as features.
On top of that, the developers have gone out of their way to provide the best advice for novice Keepers I’ve yet seen in a core book for the game, which I think is crucial. After all, if enough Keepers have been doing the “clue bottleneck” thing, then whilst I don’t think that necessarily implies a fault with the system, I think it does imply a fault with the Keeper advice and support given (if you assume that they read the Keeper advice in the first place – though if people don’t bother to do that, then their bad refereeing isn’t really the fault of the game so much as their own dang fault for ignoring good advice). The guidance offered is well-supported by the two sample adventures – one comparatively linear, one decidedly nonlinear – which showcase diverse and different models of designing investigations.
The best analogy I would give for this new edition of Call of Cthulhu can be exemplified by comparing the 6th Edition and 7th Edition covers:
Note that they’re basically the same concept expressed in much the same style – Great Cthulhu rising with his city of R’lyeh, with a hapless ship caught in the midst of this chaos. The 7th Edition version isn’t a radical re-imagining of the concept, but it is a clear evolution of it – see how Cthulhu seems more powerful, more threatening, more like something emerging from the very substance of the universe itself rather than being a dumpy creature of flesh and blood, notice how the sea seems much more violent and chaotic, and see how the itty bitty boat in the first one looks like it’s calmly sailing along whereas in the second it looks like it’s about to get wrecked. That’s kind of how I see this rules update – an evolution, not a revolution, but one which refreshes the entire structure of the game and makes it as potent and powerful as it’s ever been, shaking the cobwebs off the machinery and giving all the cutting blades a good sharpening.
Combining reprinted portions of the Keeper’s Rulebook and the old 1920s Investigator’s Companion from the preceding edition as well as incorporating original material, this book is designed and presented as a handy player’s guide to Cthulhu and it does the job admirably. Not being content with merely reprinting the character creation sections from the main rulebook, the Handbook expands on it by providing fuller writeups of careers (as well as offering a greatly expanded list of available careers), as well as introducing the concept of investigator organisations – formally or informally constituted groups of characters with an interest in investigating unusual events which can provide a handy rationale for why player characters keep getting themselves involved in all this weird shit over the course of an ongoing campaign.
Frankly, this is a superb idea, to the point where I’d argue that it should have been stressed more in the core book, but including this material in the Investigator’s Handbook will hopefully have the effect of encouraging players to raise the possibility of starting play as part of such organisations themselves, or indeed forming such an organisation in the course of play. The sample organisations given in this book are also really quite good, with a suitable range of 1920s-appropriate and modern-themed organisations (as well as some which could exist in either time period) being presented and a broad set of flavours involved. (I particularly like the travelling circus whose members have all been scarred or afflicted by run-ins with sinister Mythos cults, which tours the country investigating Mythos phenomena in order to track down the cults in question and wreak bloody revenge on them.)
On top of that, you get an in-depth look at the 1920s (handy for helping players familiarise themselves with the era if you’re setting the game then), a brace of useful advice on effective investigation techniques, and a reprint of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror to round off the page count and introduce complete neophytes to the eldritch eccentric’s work. On the whole, it’s the best sort of player supplement for an RPG – on the one hand, it’s not 100% necessary, but on the other hand your game experience will probably be enhanced if you have a copy to hand whilst playing.
Released rapidly after the end of the Kickstarter campaign to give people a taster of the changed rules, these Quickstart Rules give a brisk rundown of the basic rules of the game, a sample adventure (The Haunting, an adventure bundled in with every version of Call of Cthulhu since the original release but absent from the 7th Edition core book) as well as offering a truncated version of the character generation process which is useful in its own right.
It’s that truncated process I’m going to focus on here, since it’s the only material which is unique to these rules. In all editions I’ve seen, the fiddliest part of generating Call of Cthulhu characters has always been the assignment of skill points. In the full character generation process you get a big fat pool of points to spend among your skills, and whilst this is wonderful for character customisation equally it does take a while to spend all those points. If you are generating a character for a long-term Cthulhu campaign this doesn’t feel like a big deal, because the time you spend generating your character ends up being miniscule next to the amount of time you spend playing them, but it does mean that if you want to run a one-off adventure and don’t have pregenerated characters to hand (or just don’t want to use pregens) then the proportion of the evening spent generating characters before play can be irritating.
The Quickstart Rules evade this trap nicely simply by deviating from the full character generation rules a little and handwaving skill point allocation. Rather than being given one pool of points to spend on skills connected with your character’s career and another pool of points to spend on your character’s extracurricular interests, you’re simply given a set number of more substantial flat bonuses to apply to your career and extracurricular skills as appropriate. Likewise, instead of rolling dice or assigning individual points to attributes, you’re simply given a set of attribute values to distribute amongst them as you wish.
This doesn’t quite give equivalent results to the full-fat character generation system, but it guarantees that you do end up with a character with reasonable attributes, skills more or less appropriate to your career (the skill ratings for career skills are set such that it’s essentially impossible to be seriously deficient in any particular one of your career skills), and enough extracurricular skills to avoid being a one-trick pony. And for a brief one- or two-session adventure, that’s all you really want. (Indeed, some may feel that this character generation system is actually somewhat more fair than the one presented in the main rulebook, because it avoids the syndrome of characters with high EDU scores being dominant.)
Keeper Screen and Keeper Maps
This comes with a handsome three-panel screen (each panel in landscape orientation because Chaosium are good and right), with a bunch of useful information on the Keeper-facing side and a nice illustration of the player-facing side of some investigators undertaking an investigation somewhere forested at nighttime. The maps included involve a world map showing major 1920s population centres and significant Mythos sites, a map of “Lovecraft Country” – that set of invented Massachusetts locales invented by Lovecraft in his stories, placed here north of Salem and south of Newburyport, and a map of Arkham itself, along with some smaller maps of some locales from the sample adventures in the core 7th edition book.
You also get a small brace of blank character sheets, which I think is meant to constitute the “1920s investigator sheet pad”. There are fine, I guess, except a) they’re printed on glossy paper, which isn’t great for writing on (especially in pencil) and b) there aren’t many of them. The description of the pad made it sound to me like it’d be a full printed pad of tear-off character sheets which could last a good long while, and this certainly is not that. On the other hand, given that it’s simplicity itself to just print off a character sheet from the free PDF ones provided by Chaosium, I can see why a traditional character sheet pad wouldn’t be a high-priority product, and I can’t especially say that I miss it.
Along with the screen and maps, the set also comes with a couple of adventures – Blackwater Creek and Missed Dues. Missed Dues isn’t anything too special – aside from the assumption that the player characters are enforcers working for a 1920s gangster, it’s a competent but not incredible linear investigation with the investigators stumbling across the bizarre consequences of a robbery of Mythos artifacts gone horribly right. Blackwater Creek, though, is the real star of the set – a body horror tour de force with a nonlinear structure set up for two distinctly different flavours of investigating party, which can play out extremely differently depending on which type of party you go for.
Cthulhu Through the Ages
This handy supplement covers a range of time periods beyond those covered in the core rulebook, providing character sheets for them, adapted skills, suggested careers and a range of ideas for mythos threats and organisations of supernatural investigators suitable for the eras in question, plus a set of rules to cover combat in eras in which fighting is based more around swords and shields than guns and bullets.
Most of the chapters amount to “patches” for existing supplements for earlier editions of Call of Cthulhu to allow them to be used in 7th Edition. The Roman-era Cthulhu Invictus, the self-explanatory Dark Ages Cthulhu, and the Victorian-themed Cthulhu By Gaslight qualify as these, as does the Dreamlands section, though strictly speaking the Dreamlands aren’t a time period so much as an otherworldly setting that can be used in conjunction with any era. Either way, it’s nice that Chaosium have put out this material to let people keep running games in those eras and settings until they get a full 7th Edition update – and the brevity of these sections is testimony to just how easily old material can be converted to 7th Edition.
Other chapters open up new settings to Cthulhu investigators. One chapter represents a crossover between Call of Cthulhu and Mythic Iceland, a recent standalone BRP game that’s won a fair bit of critical acclaim. Two additional chapters represent potential futures; Cthulhu Icarus is a sci-fi setting focused on the spaceship Icarus, a manned mission to the outermost regions of the Solar System, whereas End Times: the Reaping presents an Earth transformed by the return of the Great Old Ones and their wholesale destruction of our present ways of life. Both are sparse enough that they’d require a bit of legwork on the part of a referee to really make the basis of an ongoing game, but provide enough detail that most referees should be able to wrangle at least an interesting one-shot or two out of them.
These don’t represent the only time that Chaosium has put out sci-fi settings for Cthulhu – several monographs provide such settings, including End Times by Michael C. LaBossier – a compilation of material originally prepared for an apocalyptically-themed supplement by Pagan Publishing (one of the most highly regarded third party producers of Call of Cthulhu material). (So far as I can tell, there is no connection between End Times: the Reaping and LaBossier’s End Times – in particular The Reaping is set on a ravaged Earth itself, whilst LaBossier’s End Times cast the player characters as colonists on Mars, tasked with adapting to life on the Red Planet without help from home after the rise of the Old Ones has destroyed everything that made Earth home.) In addition to those monographs, Chaosium has occasionally put out one-off adventures set in the future, such as in the Strange Aeons supplements which presented adventures in set nonstandard time periods.
At the same time, the fact that Chaosium saw fit to throw in a few original settings rather than just updating those that were covered by existing supplements is testimony to their willingness to air novel and interesting departures from the default setting of the core book. Just as games as diverse as Call of Cthulhu, Superworld and Stormbringer illustrate the versatility of the Basic Roleplaying system in general, so too does Cthulhu Through the Ages show how timeless horror concepts and adaptable mechanics can combine to make Call of Cthulhu a toolkit for adventuring in just about any historical era you can imagine; with as many examples as you are offered here, reverse-engineering the system for the era of your choice becomes much easier.
This is a major supplement for the game, and one which has been looked forward to for quite some time. At first, it was scheduled for release in 2003 as a supplement for Call of Cthulhu D20 – a variant edition of the game produced using the then-popular D20 System, a game system derived from 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons which had been made “open source” by Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of D&D. It didn’t come out at that time, however, and with the fading of the D20 craze Chaosium cancelled the Call of Cthulhu D20 line.
(That cancellation, by the way, is a decision I’d actually rate as one of the smarter ones of the Krank years – cashing in on the D20 craze may have made sense at the time, and Call of Cthulhu D20 is reportedly quite an interesting adaptation of the system to the setting and playstyle of Call of Cthulhu, but at the same time it would have made little sense for Chaosium to try and support two mutually incompatible versions of their flagship game for a sustained period of time.)
Then, William Jones produced a version for the 6th Edition Call of Cthulhu system, and reported on his blog that as of 2007 the manuscript was with Chaosium but no schedule for completing editing and layout as yet existed. (This was an all-too-common situation at Chaosium during the later years of the Krank administration.) Of course, that manuscript would have at the very least needed a major update with the coming of 7th Edition, and Chaosium made it a major stretch goal during the Kickstarter to fund a complete retooling of the supplement, helmed by Mike Mason and with a swathe of writers contributing, to finally bring the concept to life.
The basic motivation behind the supplement is to address the tension between what has been called the “pulp” and “purist” strains in Cthulhu Mythos fandom in general, and specifically in the Call of Cthulhu community. This is an issue which was highlighted in Trail of Cthulhu (in another instance of Call of Cthulhu drawing on the best ideas to come out of its daughter game), but it actually dates back to Lovecraft’s own time to a large extent, and Lovecraft himself would have probably recognised the problem had he lived to see it.
The trouble arises from the fact that, whilst pulp magazines like Weird Tales were Lovecraft’s main market for his stories, Lovecraft’s own writing style was extremely out of step with the pulp fiction genres of his day. Out of the three most widely celebrated Weird Tales authors, in fact – Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard – it’s Robert E. Howard whose work is by far the closest to the “centre of gravity” of the pulp market. Clark Ashton Smith was more psychedelic and poetic, and even when he dialled those aspects of his work back a little for the sake of churning out a story for a quick buck the end result was usually a notch or two odder than the typical pulp fare. Lovecraft was more depressive, slow-paced, and dependent on creeping insinuation as opposed to furious action, and hated pandering to the tastes of the pulp market enough that for most of his career he generally didn’t bother, making an exception only when he was ghostwriting stories for others. (That said, in his later stories some concessions to the pulp demand for action were made – see the chase sequence in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, for instance – but these were never the point of the story.)
Howard, conversely, was adept at wheeling out the furious action, garish violence and shocks, and easily-grasped stock characters (usually in the form of flat-out stereotypes) that the bulk of the pulp market thrived on; moreover, he was much more willing than Lovecraft or Smith to pander to the expectations of the pulp audience and the editors. See, for instance, the way he included bondage-y scenes in many of the Conan stories because he knew that Farnsworth Wright got off on that sort of stuff, so the best way to ensure your story got the prized cover art slot on an issue was to include a scene that Margaret Brundage could illustrate in her inimitable kink-happy style.
Since Lovecraft’s ideas emerged in the pulps, and since Lovecraft was always happy to let others borrow his various motifs of Yog-Sothothery, it wasn’t long before more pulpy takes on Lovecraftian fiction started popping up in the selfsame magazines. Moreover, thanks to the enduring appreciation of Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, and other Weird Tales authors who managed to rise above the general standard of the time like C.L. Moore, fans have always had an interest in revisiting Weird Tales and other pulp magazines, and as a result the pulp style has never quite been forgotten by the fandom. As a consequence, there has been a strain of more pulpish Mythos stories ever since. August Derleth’s Trail of Cthulhu episodic series would be archetypal pulp fare had Derleth leaned less on the dense lore dumps and made a bit more of the extreme levels of violence he has his characters embark on in that saga; Brian Lumley and Lin Carter have also turned in some pulp-like efforts of their own.
Whereas the more purist tendency in fandom (which, I will admit leaning towards myself) prizes Lovecraft’s original grimly nihilistic vision and pessimistic take on humans’ odds against Mythos forces (sometimes to the point of overstating it a little – Lovecraft’s protagonists do win sometimes, especially when their foes are fallible human or semi-human wizards rather than full-on deities), the more pulp tendency tends to be a bit more optimistic, more action-packed, and more willing to let a two-fisted hero win the day by punching a bad guy in the jaw instead of doing a bunch of reading in fusty old books.
There is, therefore, a tension between the expectations that purist Mythos fans and pulp fans have of a Mythos tale – and an even more fundamental distinction between the expectations such fans would bring to gameplay. Tell a gaming group that you are going for a more purist take on Call of Cthulhu, and they will expect a strong emphasis on careful investigation and a style of play in which, as outlined above, if you have gotten into an otherwise-avoidable fight you have probably either lost outright or at the very least made some very suboptimal decisions. Tell them you want to run a more pulpy game, on the other hand, and they may well expect less investigative rigour (and more direct, simple clues), as well as a playstyle in which deliberately initiating a fight rather than avoiding it is not just a desperation move you do when you can’t figure out a better way to stop the cultists summoning their dread master, but a valid investigative tactics.
In general, the often unforgiving game mechanics of Call of Cthulhu are quite well-suited to comparatively purist expectations of play, but result in frustratingly high bodycounts if players attempt a more pulp-oriented approach to the game. Despite that, not only is there a certain appetite for pulpier adventures within the game’s fanbase, but some classic adventures written for the game – such as the much-celebrated Masks of Nyarlathotep – have been criticised for being written in a more pulp style without really talking the not-that-pulp bias of the system into account, resulting in obnoxiously high fatality rates.
Pulp Cthulhu, then, is a comprehensive set of guidelines and variant rules to allow for a more pulpy style of Call of Cthulhu play. This includes modifications to the way that some skills work, additions to character generation to give Pulp Cthulhu characters a bit more steel to them by default in the form of extra skill points and special talents, and some innovative tweaks to other game systems. The basic idea of spending Luck points to modify skill rolls from the core rules is expanded upon, so that there’s a wide range of other thing that Luck can be spent on (including surviving incidents which would otherwise be fatal), the process of reading books and learning spells is made somewhat faster so characters can start slinging spells at their foes earlier on, and there’s an optional rule where if you embrace the insane insights that brushes with the Mythos give you then you can end up getting “Insane Talents” which allow you to put your new perspective on how reality works into profitable effect.
The supplement also provides details on the 1930s, an assumed period of play for pulp adventures that’s a bit more suited for rough, violent, two-fisted action than the more genteel 1920s. This strikes me as a fine idea if only because the 1930s has more Nazis in positions of power (and thus placed to be potential antagonists), and there’s few things which simultaneously combine archetypal pulp action and a sense of genuine accomplishment than punching a Nazi in the face. The article on the Depression that the setting section leads off with feels a little bit like overkill, but it is at least good at underscoring how the Depression and its aftermath had nigh-ubiquitous consequences for American society over the entire decade. The supplement is rounded off with a set of four adventures showcasing how the pulp style can be used to construct investigations; the main distinction seems to be that cheesy plot devices and big fights are in whilst slow, careful pacing is out.
On the whole, Pulp Cthulhu offers an alternate way to play the game which, whilst it isn’t in my typical preferred style, I could still see the appeal of for an occasional change of pace (or if you want to run some fire-and-forget one-off thing focused more on exciting fights than a logical investigation), and it’s exactly what some fans of the game have been pleading for. Certainly, if a group wanted me to run Masks of Nyarlathotep: for them, I’d be inclined to run it using these rules as opposed to the baseline 7th Edition rules, both because it’d better fit the pulpier tone of that campaign and because it would help up the survivability of the player characters in that infamous meat-grinder without taking all the threat out of it.
The Phobia Deck, Curious Characters Deck, Unfortunate Events Deck, and Weapons and Artifacts Deck were packaged as a set of four individually boxed decks, in order to make the overheads on the project a little more bearable.
The Curious Characters Deck collects a group of NPCs suitable for the default 1920s setting, though it should be simple enough to “reskin” most of them for other eras without much effort. One side offers a picture of the character in question, whilst the other offers stats. I can see this being primarily useful to the Keeper in an improvised game or a game produced without much prep – if you need stats for a character you haven’t statted out by hand, just find someone who fits the right general niche in the deck and use those. It could also potentially be useful as an aid for adventure design, with random draws from the deck suggesting character types who could be involved in a mystery even if you don’t go with the stats or NPC details offered here. (Likewise, a random draw could be useful if you decide to have a random passer-by show up in a situation.)
The Phobia Deck offers tools for handling bouts of insanity during the game. Some of the cards detail thematically appropriate phobias, manias, and obsessions characters might develop as a result of Mythos experiences, whilst others suggest ways of resolving intense moments of panic (with some cards focused on such instances where they happen in the presence of other player characters, whilst others offer ways to resolve them when they happen with the other PCs absent, which is quite neat.) Because the deck is split up in this way and only has 48 cards, there isn’t that much variety in each category, and I suspect this is the deck which would see the least use.
The Unfortunate Events deck presents a range of plot twists and odd events that can come up in the course of an investigation, along with rules for resolving them on the back. The notes on using them wisely suggest not just tossing them out randomly, but picking them out when an appropriate situation presents itself. It strikes me that these are particularly useful for handling matters when one of the player characters is isolated, since you can hand the card to them and say “This happens, resolve it using the details on the back” and keep narrating for the bulk of the party, for them to discover exactly what happened later on. A big problem with this is that the art and nice, large captions on the front of the cards may give away to other participants what they are, but you could hand it to the affected player with one of the generic blank cards offered (which have a handsome question mark drawn on one side) covering the artwork.
This is another deck I see as being potentially useful in session planning, or for that matter in deciding what happens next in a session; if you’re stuck for ideas, draw a random card, look at the art and the caption, and consider how such a development might viably occur in the scenario.
Lastly, the Weapons and Artifacts deck offers both weapon stats for a range of 1920s and modern-era conventional weapons, and details on mysterious items that the player characters may find. This is mostly handy as a way to save players having to write out weapon stats from the rulebook if they acquire a weapon mid-game.
These are all useful little accessories in their own right, but I can’t entirely blame new-Chaosium for giving them a lesser priority: as nice as they are to have, I wouldn’t call any of them essential or transformative to the game experience.
This is a set of six adventures for 7th Edition, each with a suitable set of pregenerated investigators with extensive ties into the scenario. The common thread, as the title implies, is that none of the scenarios involve any named and well-known creatures or deities of the Cthulhu Mythos whilst still evoking cosmic horror reminiscent of the Mythos.
To a large extent, the authors of the scenario stick true to this idea, though some of them sail close to the wind a bit; for instance, one of the investigations involves the town of Dunwich, but it’s the real-world sunken city off the English coast, not the fictional one from The Dunwich Horror, so it uses a Lovecraftian name in an unexpected way and doesn’t involve named Mythos entities, whereas another investigation riffs on a plot device from a different Lovecraft story but takes it in an unusual direction so it’ll at least still surprise veteran players, which is after all the point of the exercise.
The book offers two scenarios set in the 1890s (one the Dunwich one, another set in the artistic scene of 1890s Paris), two in the 1920s (one in a Depression-era “Hooverville” – a shantytown established by those dispossessed by the crash – with the investigators as impoverished residents therein, and one in an all-American small town) and two in the modern day (one based in the UK around characters who were all members of a particular occult society in their university days, one a Hollywood-based Scientology parody). Of the ones on offer, the Dunwich one is interestingly experimental, the Paris one is nicely atmospheric, the small town Americana one is quite clever, the Hooverville one is one of the most horrific Cthulhu scenarios I have ever seen (and I mean that in a gooooood way), and the Scientology parody is a bit fun if a bit obvious – Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green supplement did one 20 years ago back when poking fun at Scientology was still novel,l after all.
The only scenario I have real reservations about is the other modern-day one, which delves into some quite triggery material which some groups may enjoy if they like the idea of a really no-subject-matter-barred horror game, but which many will find distasteful. (I also found it weirdly judgemental, but that might just be me.) Still, five scenarios out of six on the “I’d actually be quite interested to run this” is pretty good going for this sort of compilation.
There is a somewhat standardised model for the scenarios; there’s the usual rundown of places and incidents, stats for characters encountered, and lovingly crafted maps and player handouts and pregenerated characters, plus notes on how to run many of the adventures with non-pregenerated characters if you want to incorporate them into an ongoing campaign. In addition to this, each investigation has a really useful relationship match, showing how all the significant NPCs (and often several of the player characters, if not all of them) relate to each other.
It is an interesting exercise to compare this release to Doors to Darkness, because the latter product shows a sharp increase in production values to this one, despite both being basically the same sort of release. Specifically, the general presentation and layout of this book represents the Chaosium house style which had more or less remained unchanged in its stark simplicity since the 1980s, whereas Doors to Darkness uses a full-colour presentation reminiscent of the new core rulebooks. This seems to be the new standard for Call of Cthulhu products going forwards, and it does feel like an improvement; even though, as I said on the Kickstarter comments, I quite like the very clear and simple old layout style, it does seem like the sort of thing which these days would be more appropriate for a small press release from a publisher who can’t afford to do anything nicer, rather than the quality you expect from an RPG industry leader these days, and Chaosium responded to my comment noting that it really does make a difference in terms of sales.
Still, in terms of the actual content Nameless Horrors is pretty excellent, and is enough to offer months of gaming fun by itself. It’s a nice showcase for the new edition, particularly for the way it is able to weave traditional Call of Cthulhu fun with new innovations from 7th Edition.
S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors
This is a new version of an old product – or rather, two old products. When the Kickstarter ran, the promise was for new editions of Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters and Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands, but when Moon Design took control of matters they made the decision (particularly since vanishingly few backers were only owed one Field Guide as opposed to both) to combine them into a single volume for the sake of keeping things remotely viable.
To a large extent, this is basically an art book, with gorgeous illustrations of Lovecraft monsters prepared by the artists of the acclaimed French edition of Call of Cthulhu (extensively featured in the 7th edition books) accompanied by brief text discussing them. The presentation is inspired by the Peterson Field Guides to birds and wildlife and plants that are popular in the US, which naturally lends itself to a pun when you combine it with Sandy Petersen’s name. Its in-game use is frankly limited – in particular, it diegetically assumes a setting where knowledge and academic discussion of Lovecraftian monstrosities (the field of “preternaturalism”) is way more commonplace than it is actually typically represented as being in the game. Still, as a showcase for the artwork involved it’s nice to have.
Bookmark Set (PDF delivered, hard copy cancelled)
This is a collection of bookmarks with nice art printed on them along with quick reference guides for the game rules. Handy but not essential; my main complaint about the PDF is that a no-art version would be nice for easy printing purposes.
The Evidence File (PDF delivered, hard copy cancelled)
As it turns out, this is a nice PDF image you can use for the front and back covers of a file folder, plus a blank form for mocking up telegrams. A bit sparse, but then the only extra things we were supposed to get with the physical equivalent were a pencil (easily enough obtained) and unspecified “props” for the main rulebook (character sheets or something? But blank PDFs for those are provided by Chaosium anyway – perhaps these bits ended up in the Keeper’s kit with the screen). Either way, this is another one where making it PDF-only makes absolute sense.
Sense-Impacts (MP3 delivered, CD cancelled)
Making mood music to establish atmosphere in game sessions is a tricky business. Firstly, you preferably want something which is mostly instrumental, so that the lyrics don’t become a distraction. Secondly, you want each individual track to represent a specific mood without sudden changes of pace or atmosphere, because you can’t time the developments in your game to match those shifts even if they are tonally appropriate (it’s better to crossfade into a different track with the right mood when the action of the game demands it). Thirdly, you want pieces that you can play on repeat without them becoming tediously repetitive.
Chad Fifer’s Sense-Impacts compositions broadly do the job here, offering a range of different spooky moods to deploy during your game. The occasional snippets of background audo tie some tracks to the 1920s, but others are suitable for any era. I’d recommend that any referee intending to use these set aside some time to listen to them and take notes on the tracks and assign them for particular uses, especially since the track titles, whilst spooky and evocative, often aren’t very descriptive when it comes to the particular atmosphere the track is going for.
This was originally promised as a CD, but frankly the MP3 format here is more useful, allowing you to pick out the tracks you need and utilise them in whichever software you prefer to use for this purpose, whether it’s your go-to music player or one of the various utilities people have developed to enhance people’s use of music and sound effects in a tabletop RPG context.
Dice and Exclusive Dicebag (produced by third party, delivery cancelled)
Look, I’m a tabletop RPG gamer, I already have a dicebag and more polyhedral dice than I really need. Cancelling the shipment of dice to backers made sense because these things are cheap enough that it just wouldn’t be cost effective to post them to us, but they dice themselves actually exist; they’re part of this annoying modern trend of dice with really intricate patterns on the faces that make them harder to read. I can live without them.
It’s a handy slipcase with the cover art on it, with space to comfortably store the main rulebook, the investigator guide, and the Keeper’s screen. Not essential by any means, but I find it handy to tote my stuff about in.
Lovecraftian Bookplates (PDF delivered, hard copy cancelled)
These are some fun little bookplates you can print out to make it look like a book’s been checked out from Miskatonic University’s library or something. They are cute, but I can see why it wasn’t worth the bother of printing and shipping out hard copies because with the PDF I can just churn out as many bookplates as I could possibly want or need.
1000% Shirt and Pin (pin cancelled, shirt delivery cancelled – redbubble version available)
This was to commemorate the Kickstarter attaining over 1000% of its funding target. I backed before that level was met, so it was never part of my calculations in choosing to back, and on balance I don’t feel any great loss that it won’t be happening now.
Gahan Wilson mug (delivery cancelled – redbubble version available)
It’s a funny picture where the joke is that, because the image wraps around the mug, it’s not clear whether the investigators are chasing the monsters or vice-versa. A bit Scooby Doo, in other words.
Arkham Sanitarium Kit and Postcards (PDF and image files delivered, hard copies cancelled)
The Arkham Sanitarium Kit comes to a set of handy floorplans of various different sanitariums from different eras and architectural styles, along with a collection of flavourful and useful forms for you to adapt and print out accordingly. These aren’t just related to the sanitarium theme, mind – as well as sanitarium-based stuff like an inpatient admissions form, an incident report form, a daily record and a discharge form, you also get useful templates for things like land deeds, police department arrest reports and crime reporting forms, seals for the City of Arkham and Miskatonic University to adorn official papers with, public transport tickets, autopsy reports, birth certificates, cemetery records, death certificates, doctors’ letters, letters from the Mayor of Arkham or Miskatonic University, sports club membership cards, university cafeteria meal tickets, student records and worksheets, library cards and overdue book reminder cards, burial permits, pilot’s licences, gun licences, postcards, prescriptions, freight bills, warning stickers designating scarlet fever quarantines, speakeasy membership cards…
The materials in question are obviously focused on the 1920s, specifically the US, more specifically Massachusetts, more specifically Arkham; however, if you are running a campaign or designing an adventure set in the right era and region, this kit is extraordinarily useful. Again, this is something where it being an electronic-only release makes absolute sense, since this is actually more useful presented as image files for the end user to be able to tinker with accordingly and print out themselves.
Embossed Certificate of Commitment (Cancelled)
The plain, non-embossed image files will have to do.
A stratigraph is a representation of processes happening on geological timescales – which happens to be the sort of timescale Mythos developments in the past occurred on, so this is essentially a big fold-out Mythos prehistory of Earth. It’s fun and gives an interesting look at what beasties are supposed to have arrived then, but isn’t enormously useful.
Wallpapers and Art Prints
The art prints are pretty, but all the art from this edition has been pretty. The prints themselves are just A4 sized ones, nothing super-fancy.
Mythos Tome Dustjackets (cancelled)
These never emerged in electronic form. The idea was to provide some nice dustjackets you could slip onto your core rulebook to make it look like the Necronomicon or something. It’s a nice idea in theory, but I suspect it’d just look kind of awful in practice – a paper dustjacket, even a nice one, will just make a book look like a modern hardcover, not a worm-eaten antique tome of forbidden lore. I cannot entirely blame new-Chaosium for deciding not to waste time and money on it.
Innsmouth Gold (delivery cancelled, discount offered by manufacturers)
These are prop gold coins, supposedly part of the eldritch R’lyeh-sourced gold that the Deep Ones bribed the townsfolk of Innsmouth with. A fun idea, but not a major factor in me backing, so I don’t mind that these were cancelled.
This is one of those pieces where they were actually made, but the costs of honouring the commitment would have been completely ruinous for Chaosium. The manufacturers (Campaign Coins, who specialise in producing coin props for RPGs) offered Kickstarter backers a generous discount, but I couldn’t be bothered to pay more money to take up the offer.
It’s grey and it has the emblem of the Silver Twilight Lodge on it, the Lodge having been an antagonist organisation in the Shadows of Yog-Sothoth campaign (and, later, the boardgame Arkham Horror). I wear a fez now, fezzes are eldritch.
Not officially announced during the Kickstarter campaign, this was a little bonus sent out to backers over Christmas 2013. Dead Light is statted up for 7th Edition, but has useful notes on converting the adventure to previous editions. (It’s trivially easy; you could fit the basic 7th Edition-earlier edition conversion principles onto a business card.) The actual adventure is a short affair – I was able to wrap it up with my Monday evening group within one and a half sessions, using the Quickstart Rules and including character generation, and those are fairly short sessions by the standards of most RPG groups so I think you could viably play through the entire adventure in an evening.
The concept is simple: the player characters happening to be driving somewhere north of Arkham, in a forested area in the middle of a horrendous storm, when they find themselves stumbling into a Mythos incident in the process of unfolding. In contrast to other adventures, where shit has either gone down in the past or is about to go down in the near future, in this adventure the crisis is right here, right now, and the player characters – plus the occupants of a nearby roadside diner – have to deal with it.
The basic challenge of the scenario is to survive the night. Whilst in principle an especially apathetic group of player characters could ignore the adventure entirely, the adventure hook is such that if the player characters have even the slightest shred of human empathy and compassion they’ll pitch in to help – and once they start helping, they’ll tend to find themselves drawn in further. Nicely, though, the scenario’s only linear, mandatory events concern the player characters getting involved in the first place; rather than giving a strict timetable on how things go down or a linear sequence of events, the adventure simply presents the salient locations and non-player characters and has the Keeper work out what happens next based on the NPCs’ personalities and the players’ actions.
The NPC descriptions are particularly good; there’s enough depth to them that you can instantaneously get a handle on their personalities, they’re fractious and awkward enough and have enough personal agendas that there’s a lot of scope for them to create trouble and complicate matters. (The Monday night group found that managing these NPCs rapidly became like herding cats, and it was only a lucky run of Persuade rolls which saved the group from further disaster.) At the same time, the NPC descriptions are sparse enough that each fits nicely on a page for quick reference.
Like The Haunting, this adventure is designed so that it can conceivably kick off a Cthulhu campaign, slipping in references to ancient sins and lingering evils which the player characters can follow up later on. Nicely, though, they avoid the pitfall in The Haunting where the investigation can get so derailed looking into these aspects that the player characters never get to the haunted house at the centre of the scenario; the hints of a troubling past are clearly not the sort of thing the PCs are going to be able to follow up on tonight, and the present danger is sufficiently immediate to keep the action mostly focused on the matter at hand. Between this, and the careful provision of multiple solutions to the crisis so that you don’t need to pass any particular skill rolls to reach a conclusion (though if you miss important clues or don’t make the right deductions about the enemy’s behaviour the conclusion could end up being suboptimal). In other words, it’s an object lesson in how a lot of the supposed flaws with Call of Cthulhu are really flaws in shoddy adventure design, and if you follow some simple principles you can avoid all of them.
A little bonus sent out to subscribers in October 2014, when it became clear that the shipments of products wouldn’t be starting until January 2015 at the earliest, this is another adventure provided with 7th Edition stats and guidance on running it with earlier editions provided. Unlike Dead Light, however, Cold Harvest diverges substantially from the assumed setting of Call of Cthulhu, as well as the usual practice of giving players a free choice of their characters’ profession; the adventure instead takes place in Stalinist Russia, casting the player characters as NKVD agents. The adventure provides 8 pregenerated characters, each with distinctive backgrounds and personality traits; that’s somewhat more player characters than would be participating in the average game, but on the plus side this should boost replayability of the module a bit – try a different subset of the sample PCs with a different player group, and you’re likely to get radically different outcomes.
Providing enough historical outline to put the events of the adventure in context – as well as an idea of what powers NKVD agents have (answer: conceivably unlimited, though in practice if they annoy their superiors they’ll end up on the next train to Siberia) – the adventure has the player characters investigating an unexplained downturn in production at a collective farm. In principle, harsh punishments such as shipping the residents off to the gulag system would be called for: horrifyingly, that isn’t necessarily the worst outcome for the characters here. Designer Chad Bowser takes the grim realities of life under Stalinism and combines them with the cosmic nihilism of the Cthulhu Mythos to devise a situation where there is genuinely no unequivocally “right” answer – just well-realised NPCs in a situation that combines the depressing and the surreal in equal portions.
This is obviously an adventure which calls for a certain amount of care in who you run it for. Some players may find the idea of playing Stalinist secret police to be repugnant on the face of it; even groups who are willing to stomach playing characters working for a system they wouldn’t endorse in real life may find the adventure as a whole to be a huge downer, particularly since as written there isn’t necessarily an explicitly presented climax, so it runs the risk of being a real dud of a session – “PCs arrive at collective farm, farmers are miserable, weird stuff happens, farmers get shipped to the gulag” isn’t exactly jolly partytimes, and is a decidedly viable way for the adventure to play out.
At the same time, I can see how if you did have a group who bought into the concept, it could be a really powerful roleplaying experience for everyone, and the module does offer a really neat showcase of just how adaptable the Call of Cthulhu system is to offbeat investigation concepts.
Alone Against the Flames
This is a solo adventure, much like a gamebook, which is specifically designed to teach the basics of the 7th Edition rules by being played in conjunction with the Quick-Start Rules. This is a good call – using the full rules set would be overkill for solo play purposes, but the quickstart is just the right length for this sort of purpose, plus of course it’s free which is friendlier to newcomers who may have picked up Alone Against the Flames out of curiosity.
Smartly, the adventure doesn’t expect you to sit there and go through the whole character generation process before starting play – instead, the opening paragraphs, which describe your cross-country bus journey from your home town to Arkham to start a new job (one of four possibilities you get to pick) take you through the character gen process whilst narrating the start of your journey. Once that’s done, the bus breaks down in the sleepy little village of Emberdale, leaving you stranded there. But surely you will get out before that dodgy fire-based Wicker Man-esque festival that they’re having in a couple days, right… right?
So, given the fire theme it’s fairly obvious to any Lovecraftian old hands that Cthugha is your big bad this time around, making the adventure a good example of how even though August Derleth’s Mythos inventions tended to be introduced in bad stories, they tend to make fun adversaries in an RPG context. By and large, the adventure does a top-notch job of letting you choose your own approach to the investigation, giving you lots to explore (slightly more than you can experience in any one playthrough, adding replay value) and with effective investigation unlocking new options but not necessarily locking you out of surviving – though the better a job you do of investigating, the more likely you are of being able to get a vaguely positive outcome. Most of the important game mechanics make an appearance here and there, and the writing is careful to make sure you aren’t referred to with gendered language so you can imagine your character the way you want them to be.
In short, it’s a solid little gamebook which I would be happy to lend to someone who wanted to get a taste of the Call of Cthulhu system and house style before playing a multiplayer game, as well as being fun to play in its own right.
Doors to Darkness
This is a collection of “gateway drug” scenarios for Call of Cthulhu – little scenarios which are designed to be capable of completion in an evening, each of which is designed to give beginning players some exposure to the game’s distinctive play style and which is also designed to be easy to run by beginning Keepers. (There’s also a very useful chapter on best practice in running Call of Cthulhu, which by and large helpfully expands on the advice in the core book.)
The adventures are all set in the default 1920s setting of the game, which is fair enough for a collection of introductions to “classic” Call of Cthulhu play, and they’re varied enough that you should be able to pick out an adventure suited to whichever group you’re working with. The nice thing about having a collection of fairly simple investigations like this is that whilst they’re definitely useful for introducing new people to the game, they’re also nice as pallette-cleansers between heavier investigations for more experienced groups. I suspect old hands won’t find these investigations very challenging, but sometimes you need a cakewalk to recharge the batteries before heading back into the full-on heart of darkness.
I certainly don’t mind having my name included in the long list of backer names in the book credits – especially since the backer name list makes a handy resource for coming up with NPC names on the fly, so there’s a non-zero chance of me making spontaneous appearances in other people’s Call of Cthulhu game sessions as a result.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
Given the extent to which the material I have received has exceeded the money I put down, I would say I got this Just Right.
Would Back Again?
Yes – in fact, I already have, having jumped onboard the RuneQuest Classic Kickstarter which has already delivered some lovely reprints of the core RuneQuest 2nd edition book and some minor supplements and has started delivering on its stretch goals. It has been subject to its own delays, of course – apparently they have suffered from some personnel churn on the project – but progress has still occurred, and we got physical, core product in hand only a few months later than planned, rather than whole stinkin’ years. It says a lot about the exceptional turnaround that Greg, Sandy, and the Moon Design crew managed that I’m willing to put high-tier backing behind Chaosium Kickstarters after the Krank regime almost completely blew it.
Final Thoughts For Part 2
Whilst this Kickstarter proved to have devastatingly bad consequences for the Krank regime, it has delivered for the backers, and has been a major success for the new Chaosium. The mere act of kicking out the old regime instantly earned Greg and Sandy a shocking amount of goodwill from backers and industry professionals alike. The fact that Moon Design, under Greg and Sandy’s supervision, have more or less been able to deliver most of what was promised (and a little compensatory extra treat to make up for the bits which proved out of reach) has cemented their reputation as being a trustworthy and competent group of people able to make good on Chaosium’s promises – even when those promises were badly thought-out and should probably never have been made in the first place. If they are able to take this momentum and use it to build up Chaosium’s fortunes again, they may well succeed at bringing the company back to the top tier of RPG publishers it used to be a part of.
Petersen can be especially pleased that not only has his legacy been salvaged, but also the poisoning of Kickstarter in the eyes of Call of Cthulhu gamers he feared might take place does not seem to have happened; even in the wake of this Kickstarter’s troubles, numerous Call of Cthulhu-related projects by other hands have been rolled out and funded. I myself have backed seven (not counting this one), and those don’t even account for all the successful Cthulhu Kickstarters I am aware of. The fact that fans of the game are still willing to trust crowdfunding projects at all suggests that whatever damage may have been done by the near-failure of this project has been largely averted or minimised, and that comes down to Stafford, Petersen, and Moon Design stepping in to give this story the happy ending it deserved.