A Severn Valley Holiday

Ramsey Campbell is one of the best horror authors of recent decades, and has sustained an amazingly high standard in his work from the 1960s to the present day. His body of work extends well beyond Cthulhu Mythos material, but the Mythos represents an important component of his portfolio and he retains a lot of affection for it – in fact, he just completed a full-length trilogy of Mythos novels that may represent some of his best work.

In particular, it’s with Mythos material that Campbell got his big break, after sending some stories to August Derleth. I’ve gone on before ad nauseum about how little I care for Derleth’s work as a Mythos author, and I have major reservations about some of his conduct as Lovecraft’s self-appointed literary executor (shoving R.H. Barlow out of the role, running promising Mythos authors like C. Hall Thompson off his turf, and passing off stories wholly written by himself as Lovecraft stories). However, as an editor it’s undeniable that he played an important role in keeping the whole Mythos thing going, and Campbell (alongside Brian Lumley) represents one of his successes in terms of providing the encouragement and advice a new author needed to develop their work.

Campbell’s earliest published Mythos stories (as gathered in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants) were basically well-polished pastiches – the sort of stuff that riffs heavily on over-familiar Lovecraftian tropes, but was about as good an example of that sort of thing as exists. His even earlier stories that he first sent to Derleth were even rougher and even more dependent on Lovecraft, to the point of being based in “Lovecraft country” locales like Arkham. Derleth advised Campbell to instead exploit local knowledge and set his stories closer to home to give them more of an individual flavour; thus Campbell’s accursed region of the Severn Valley was born, incorporating a range of small and out-of-the-way communities in the general vicinity of the fictional town of Brichester along with a distinct set of Lovecraftian entities that originally hailed from this neck of the woods.

Campbell would continue to develop the region as time went by. Realising that absolutely nothing requires you to write a cosmic story using an imitation of Lovecraft’s prose style style, with pieces like Cold Print and The Franklyn Paragraphs, he would develop an authorial voice of his own, and with later stories like The Faces At Pine Dunes and The Voice of the Beach he demonstrated that strong characterisation, social and political issues, and deeper emotional themes don’t need to be incompatible with cosmic horror, and can in fact help it: after all, the more you create the impression that these are real people existing in a real place and time, the more impact it has when something Mythosy insinuates itself into that. In keeping with this, Brichester and its cursed environs kept up with changing times, because Campbell realised that you don’t need to set Lovecraftian stuff in the 1920s (after all, Lovecraft set his stories in what were for him the present day); that recent trilogy I mention depicts a saga ranging from the 1950s to the late 2010s.

Campbell is not into Call of Cthulhu, or tabletop RPGs in general, but he’s not unsympathetic to the medium: he just finds that since his day job involves devising scenarios or imagining the inner lives of characters, refereeing or playing RPGs during his leisure time would feel too much like work. He has also been fairly generous about allowing the use of his creations in the game – indeed, Glaaki stars in one of the introductory adventures in the current core rulebook – so it’s no surprise that Chaosium eventually got around to producing an entire sourcebook themed around “Campbell Country” as a UK equivalent to their “Lovecraft Country” releases.

That book is Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places, a project credited to various hands. The main driving force behind the project was Scott David Aniolowski; after a brief introduction by Ramsey Campbell explaining the origin of “Campbell Country” and generally being about as nice about the project as you can expect a non-roleplayer to be about an RPG book, Scott spends his introduction giving a potted history of the project, which ground on for about a decade and faced various delays until Chaosium finally released it in 2001, after it began as a pitch to Chaosium, almost got farmed out to Pagan Publishing, before finally being finished for Chaosium.

Along the way, Aniolowski would edit Made In Goatswood, a 1995 tribute anthology of fiction inspired by Campbell’s Mythos stories (including a new Mythos story by Campbell himself – something of a rarity at the time); some concepts from that anthology would also make it into the supplement. If you have this anthology and the expanded version of Cold Print, that would be a pretty good snapshot of the state of Campbell’s Mythos fiction at the time this came out, and the supplement got the Cthulhu Now billing in keeping with Campbell’s general approach of setting his stories in the present day.

Apparently it was the assistance of Gary Sumpter – who gets co-top billing with Aniolowski – which really helped bring everything together and allowed the book to be finished and released. Of course, just using a sourcebook based on Campbell’s material doesn’t automatically mean you are going to be telling stories at the gaming table worthy of Campbell, nor is that necessarily a sensible goal to aim for. If there’s one lesson you can learn from Campbell’s writing career, it’s that finding your own voice will often be much more effective than mimicing someone else’s, because it will always flow more naturally to present material in your own way.

Sensibly, the supplement does not try to get you to adopt a Campbellian approach to storytelling; instead, it provides a details of Campbell’s additions to the Mythos (in the chapter The Campbell Mythos) and his fictional geography (in the chapter Campbell Country) and a set of adventures designed to let you explore the sort of themes he does in your game sessions.

The geographic rundown includes some details on getting around in Britain and British gun laws, but does not get into a laborious depiction of everyday life in the UK, showing a much better sense of priorities than Arkham Now in this respect. When it comes to discussion of locations, more attention is naturally given to fleshing out fictional locales than real-world places, though you do get a good sense of where places are in relation to other landmarks. (In a nice move, a rundown is given of which Mythos books can be found in which major libraries.) For thematic reasons, I think it would be better to place the fictional locales a bit north of where Aniolowski places them to make them a bit closer to Campbell’s native Liverpool, which is the centre of gravity of a lot of his fiction, but the more southerly location is consistent with hints to Brichester’s location in Campbell’s fiction and it’s all within an easy day trip distance of Liverpool so I’m not overly bothered.

The first of the preprogrammed adventure material we get here is The Windthrope Legacy by Aniolowski, which rather than an adventure in itself is a campaign framework which provides a reason to bring a disparate group of player characters into the vicinity of Brichester by having one of them inherit a sizable mansion and associated plot of land in the area.

In some respects, this is a very un-Campbellian premise, since his protagonists – especially if you set aside his earliest stories – tend to be more ordinary people with more ordinary lifestyles than that. On the other hand, giving the player characters a mansion, a significant but not unlimited stack of money, and ongoing expenses relating to the upkeep of the estate is a good way to give characters who do not have a previous contact with the region a reason to go there, make a go of living there, and take an interest in local affairs.

Characters developed to be rooted in the area don’t need this sort of framework to get them here, so The Windthrope Legacy is more useful if you want to drop this material into an ongoing campaign which has previously had its centre of gravity elsewhere. In that sort of situation, you need either a very tempting carrot or a very big, heavy stick to persuade the player characters to up sticks and move, otherwise you are left with a suspension of disbelief issue. (“Why is my character abandoning his career as a New York lawyer again? Oh, yes: the honking great mansion. Very good, carry on.”)

In some respects it reminds me of the Hudson and Brand campaign framework that Stygian Fox developed for Cthulhu By Gaslight, in that it lands the player characters with a home base, helpful employees, and what looks like to be a pack of advantages, but also has a number of secrets and ongoing issues – some of them Mythos-y, at least one rooted in more real life issues. This latter piece is not only perhaps the most Campbell-esque aspect of the scenario, in the sense of depicting social ills and treating them seriously, but also feels like it’s exploring the idea that the Delta Green RPG would later explore more extensively of player characters gaining some form of Sanity benefit from positive relationships with others.

All this said, it does make me think that if there is any component that’s missing from Goatswood, it’s guidance for generating a group of particularly “Campbellian” characters – people who live in the region and could plausibly spend a significant amount of time investigating stuff. Such characters exist in Campbell’s fiction, but it would take a bit of work to make sure that the characters you got were the sort who would proactively investigate things, rather than the sort who have odd things sort of intrude on their lives (the latter type of Campbell protagonist really making more sense as NPCs whose bad experiences the PCs investigate much of the time, unless you are dealing with a one-shot adventure).

The designers of Principia Malefex did not do much right, but the one thing which was rather promising about that game was the way it really aimed for the British working-to-middle class milieu. I was talking about that game with a friend who’d also read a certain amount of Ramsey Campbell, and they noted that the overall execution felt like a game adaption which had aimed for something like Campbell’s fiction but only really managed to capture the mundane B-plot to one of his stories, with the actual horror that disrupts the tedium of everyday life missing. The opposite mistake in terms of presenting a Campbellian horror campaign would be to focus on the horror exclusively and jettison the B-plot aspects entirely; The Windthrope Legacy does not do this, but by focusing those B-plot aspects on NPCs rather than the PCs it, and much of the rest of the book, misses a trick.

Richard Watts’ Gothic is the first actual investigation offered up, and is quite strong on that B-plot (it is a somewhat clumsy treatment of homophobia but clearly has its heart in the right place) but doesn’t, to my eyes, quite succeed at giving the player characters much of a motivation to investigate; it hinges on pure curiosity and the players choosing to go along because that’s what they’re supposed to do. Still, it offers a fairly decent first step into the mysteries underpinning The Windthrope Legacy, though I suspect most of my players would really struggle not to see it as a big goofy Vampire: the Masquerade parody.

Aniolowski offers Silent Scream, in which a film company decides to get John Carpenter to make a remake of The Harbinger, a legendary 1925 Lon Chaney production that was filmed on the Windthrope grounds; an advance group of film executives and prospective actors come along to visit to do location scouting and see how they feel about filming there, only for a tragedy to ensues which mirrors the hideous events that happened during the original production.

This is a very Campbell-appropriate concept: Campbell has made no secret of his love of the movies, especially vintage film, and has used the idea of an old-timey movie production with a dreadful secret in his own fiction both before and after the release of this supplement in the form of Ancient Images and The Grin of the Dark – the latter of which, whilst not an explicitly Cthulhu Mythos story, has enough cosmic horror in it to please anyone and is one of Campbell’s best novels.

The horror here is also somewhat Carpenter-esque, in the sense that it plays on the same sort of paranoia that underpinned The Thing, though unlike The Thing the player characters are not isolated in any respect, which may raise issues if they decide that just plain fleeing is the best option. In fact, the scenario is really kind of harsh, since the only way to drive away the thing that’s coming after the PCs is with a magic item which the PCs might be able to discover how to make if they find the appropriate books hidden away in the Winthrope estate (and it’s probably reasonable to expect them to do a really decent search of the house if they haven’t done so already in response to the action of this scenario) or by inflicting a bunch of damage (difficult when one considers that realistic UK gun laws are in effect).

Moreover, so far as I can tell if you run this scenario as written, ascribing to the opposition sufficient intelligence in how it uses its powers and following the tactics suggested, it can be very easy for the player characters to get either wiped or irreversibly turbo-screwed in this scenario in a way that they could not reasonably have mitigated against (up to and including getting jailed for a murder they did not commit), and whilst such potentially challenging consequences could be interesting, the scenario doesn’t really offer much support in terms of handling even the ones it suggests in a way which allows a player character a plausible route back to being a viable investigator again.

A more significant shortcoming of this scenario is that it absolutely assumes that you are using the Winthrope Legacy campaign outline; here the player characters are only present because the filmmakers want to use their house and grounds as a filming location, and there’s no suggestions offered for alternate ways the player characters might get involved.

This somewhat limits the utility of the adventure compared to, say, Gothic, which for all its own shortcomings at least requires only that the player characters be physically present in Brichester to witness the inciting event. Similarly, Cross My Heart, Hope To Die, the next scenario, can be run with any party so long as at least one party member is someone that a certain NPC could plausibly turn to for help. It does assume that the PCs aren’t locals to the UK and so medics or psychiatrists among them probably don’t have the paperwork needed to professionally treat someone – a weird instance of scenario author J. Todd Kingrea or Chaosium’s editors on this one (Lynn Willis and David Mitchell) completely spacing on the fact that Call of Cthulhu is a popular and widely-played game over here and so there’s every chance the PC in question might be qualified to practice in the UK; however, this is a small enough point which shouldn’t derail the overall scenario.

And what a scenario! Cross My Heart, Hope To Die is a rare instance of horror media doing the “creepy kids” thing right by having the kids act like, well, kids – very naughty, vicious kids who are under a dark influence, but still basically kids. Between this, the disturbing things the children do, the excellent use of one of Campbell’s more gruesome creations, and the ratcheting-up of tension, it’s really rather good. My main quibble with it is that it is rather dependent on a timeline which could easily get thrown out of whack if the investigators are slow, but this isn’t an insurmountable problem.

Clifton Ganyard’s The Watcher Out of Time is a time loop scenario. This can be fun – there was quite a good one done for Delta Green a while back – but the treatment here could do with more work explaining exactly how the player characters perceive the end of one iteration and the start of the next. It’s the inevitable Daoloth story, though with some interesting crossover with other Campbellian Mythos stories, but it really feels like it was crying out for another writing pass. It’s another scenario where the “What’s the motivation for investigating this?” issue may rear its head, though fortunately by dint of being a time loop scenario that shouldn’t be a problem after the first iteration – once the PCs realise they are in a Groundhog Day situation they’re going to be motivated to look into it.

Aniolowski and Sumpter offer us Unpleasant Dreams. This is another scenario which is closely tied enough to the Winthrope Legacy concept that it would really require some serious work to make it work if you aren’t using that campaign framework, since their involvement hinges on their connection to one of the NPCs  in that. It’s also kind of horribly structured, with extensive amount of scenario space devoted to Club Eden, a fetish club which Aniolowski and Sumpter clearly badly want the PCs to go and visit, even though there is actually little point in doing so since it really offers very little that actually helps the player characters towards resolving the scenario.

I’m sure Aniolowski and Sumpter believe that Club Eden is important to the resolution – but it just plain isn’t. If you look over it and consider the actual information the player characters might obtain from a visit, it really gives them very little. Specifically, they can get this information:

  • The slain father of the NPC friend the PCs are trying to help out was a pedophile who abused his kids. That’s certainly shocking, but if the player characters have investigated deeply enough to twig to the father’s connection to Club Eden in the first place, they have almost certainly come across horrible proof of this already.
  • A really oblique hint to what is going on with their NPC buddy. It’s a very unhelpful hint, and the text explicitly states that their informant does not elaborate on it. For the amount of space this Club Eden stuff takes up in the scenario, I really think there should be a bit more meat offered than that.

As far as the description of the club itself goes, it falls right into the sort of pitfall that White Wolf got into when authors tried to be absurdly edgy for edgy’s sake. I do not pretend to know whether Aniolowski or Sumpter have ever actually been to a fetish club, but the description reeks of the sort of thing which people who haven’t attended fetish events fantasise about rather than the sort of thing that actually gets implemented in real life.

At first I thought “oh god, it’s going to be some sort of horrible child abuse/rape club isn’t it?”, but it becomes quickly apparent that this just isn’t the case. The most alarming thing is a mention of “zoophilia”, among the fetishes on offer here, but in context I think the actual fetish being catered to by the club in the sections in question is not zoophilia but petplay. (The latter is where your consenting human sex partner pretends to be an animal, the former is where you fuck actual animals.)

This, along with the other fetishes presented – pissplay, scat, generic BDSM, and adult baby nonsense – is presented as being oh good golly gosh the most transgressive thing ever!, the sort of thing which is actively corrosive to the sanity of participants and witnesses alike, with perhaps a pinch of Eyes Wide Shut nonsense, but it just seems like a lot of absurd tryhard stuff. You’re dealing with fetishes here which, by and large, are weirdly hot if you are into them and seem absolutely absurd, silly, or gross if you aren’t, and as transgressive as this might have seen decades ago Vampire: the Masquerade had well and truly been there, done that, and got over it by the time this book emerged.

It’s also likely to fall flat. As I mentioned above, it’s quite likely that by the time the PCs reach Club Eden, they’ve already encountered proof that the dead father was a pedophile (and if they haven’t, they get some pretty blatant hints to that effect through sharing their NPC buddy’s dreams), and next to pedophilia pretty much anything which is going on between consenting adults just seems like good clean fun. (Or messy fun, depending on how you like your scat.) Having the pedophile father in question be a bisexual man who also frequented this fetish club also unhelpfully lumps in genuinely abusive behaviour with LGBT+ sexuality and kink and treats all of them like they are the same thing, or at least that they are likely to go together, and that’s just not a helpful depiction of the subject matter in question.

Aniolowski and Sumpter in fact seem to be under the impression that kink, fetish, and BDSM fun are corruptive, addictive forces that cause people to completely flip their personalities once they get into them; a fairly substantial subplot in the adventure, which so far as I can tell is included solely to make Club Eden have a bit more of a point, involves a Scotland Yard murder detective visiting the club, realising “oh shit, That’s My Fetish”, and going entirely off the rails as a result of this brief exposure. That’s not how that works, guys. That’s not how anything works.

Club Eden isn’t 100% devoid of horror elements (rather than basically harmless fetish play between consenting adults presented like it’s horrible). There’s a preserved corpse which is propped up to act as the doorman as a “joke”, and an Outer God spawn called Raymond Felch (if you are on a computer you’re happy to use to access NSFW material, go Google “felching” if you don’t know what fetish that is, I’ll wait) who lurks in the club and is referred to as the “god in the alcove” because I guess they just had to get the Bauhaus reference in. If you took out the corpse and Mr. Felch, however, Club Eden would come across as an unusually well-resourced fetish party which is making the interesting choice of trying to simultaneously cater to a bunch of very specific niches at once, rather than having Adult Baby Theme Night or Piss Night or whatever.

These are not the only issues with the scenario; for instance, we are asked to believe that the police forensic scientists examining a murder scene completely failed to find some polaroids tucked under a seat cushion with child pornography on them, which feels implausible. But the Club Eden stuff, and the ludicrous subplot with the detective, take up a whole bunch of real estate in the scenario for very little payoff when it comes to the core problem the player characters are expected to be dealing with. It cries out to be drastically cut back in favour of providing further development to the core investigation.

Sumpter also offers Blessed Be, the actual Goatswood investigation in Goatswood. This is basically a Wicker Man tribute, right down to the plot point of a false trail being laid to trick the investigators to think someone else has been chosen for sacrifice when in fact they are the ones who have been selected for the chopping block. It is brief, underdeveloped, and includes a pointless cameo of Errol Undercliffe from Campbell’s The Franklyn Paragraphs – one which not only involves Sumpter reimagining the end of that story in a way which I think is kind of needless, but also has the character turned into a figure not unlike Zadok Allen in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, only it’s even more implausible that the Goatswood cult has just let Undercliffe knock about in their town all these decades. I just don’t think this is a very respectful use of Campbell’s work, and it seems shoehorned in for the sake of the connection rather than actually meaning anything. Blessed Be is also a direct sequel to Unpleasant Dreams, which makes it another scenario which would require extensive reworking for groups not using The Windthrope Legacy.

Rob Malkovich’s Of Dreams and Dark Water is less inherently linked to the Windthrope concept, but falls down in a bunch of other respects, most particularly in terms of its understanding of the British setting. The idea of an IRA infiltrator slipping his way into a group of student environmental protestors doesn’t really reflect how the IRA operate (especially since he seems to be a lone wolf rather than part of the cell structure), the students resemble US student protestors more than the way student protest movements in Britain would operate, and so on and so forth. Again, this is not the only time the book includes this sort of gaffe – calling a shop a “general store” at one instance is a particularly glaring Americanism – but it’s a notable one.

The scenario is particularly incongruous in the way it depicts a major building projects of apartment blocks taking place on the shores of the titular lake from The Inhabitant of the Lake. While a line of houses do exist on those shores in the story, from what I remember it seems like an architecturally unlikely place to put such things – how planning permission was obtained seems to be entirely glossed over, and I am not sure Malkovich actually understands how building projects and planning consent works in the UK. Moreover, there’s still only a dirt road going to the lake, and you would think that the creation of a proper road would be a necessary prerequisite to get the kit up there to build the blocks in the first place. It is not the first time the scenarios feel like a depiction of Britain by Americans who had never been there and had only skimmed Campbell’s stories for research, but it’s an especially notable example.

Lastly, there is Steve Spisak’s Third Time’s the Charm. This has the Insects From Shaggai trying to rig a nuclear power plant to blow, and is a scenario based largely on a total lack of research on how nuclear energy is regulated in the UK. A token attempt is made to make this a culminating event in the Windthrope Legacy framework by having the major surviving NPC servants show their hands, but this is largely dealt with in a sidebar and I suspect is an after-the-fact addition to Spisak’s original scheme. It’s also an example of a scenario where the best way to resolve it is to find some clear evidence that Something Bad is happening at the nuclear plant and give it to the government, who will then sort it out, allowing the player characters to wash their hands of actually being present at any sort of climax – the sort of thing which makes in-character sense but is rather deflating to actually play through.

So, then, that’s Goatswood: a promising but not excellent collection of Campbellian Mythos contributions at the start that ultimately offers little which has not been already perfectly adequately compiled elsewhere since, a campaign framework, and a collection of adventures which tend to be kind of poor. How did this happen? Perhaps some textual archaeology could be done if we assume that the adventures more intricately connected to The Windthrope Legacy – Silent Scream, Unpleasant Dreams and Blessed Be – represent the ravaged skeleton of the initial planned campaign, and the other scenarios were grafted on later to fill out the book, but to be honest a lot of the scenarios share the same problems, to wit:

  • When it comes to bringing in Campbellian themes and, in particular, a look at the more grimy and difficult side of life in the UK, half the scenarios do not seem to bother and the other half overplay their hand.
  • The collection very clearly was written by Americans who lacked any sort of UK-based proofreader who could have pointed out aspects which didn’t ring true.
  • The scenarios all show sign of being written significantly earlier than 2001; in particular, more or less none of them consider whether player characters have access to mobile phones, which in the early-to-mid-1990s might be plausible but by 2001 is a massive oversight.
  • Regardless of whether they are tied to the assumed campaign framework or not, the scenarios all tend to assume that the PCs are yankerdoodles unleashed in England rather than locals, and especially assume that the PCs are just kind of investigating stuff out of curiosity rather than having any sort of official standing or personal obligation to look into stuff.

Revisiting The Winthrope Legacy framework after looking over the scenarios, I think the shortcoming of it is that it tries too hard to provide a tempting onramp for player characters who already have shit going on at home, (with “home” defaulting to “somewhere in the USA”), and it doesn’t really provide the player characters with much clear motivation to keep investigating, meaning that too often the scenarios rely on the players playing along because they know they are playing Call of Cthulhu – never great for immersion.

I suspect that they wanted to keep the door open to have American player characters show up in the Brichester region, but I think there more artful ways this could have been done, especially if the supplement is intended to present a campaign that you create fresh characters for rather than integrating pre-existing PCs into. Base the framework around a police unit, or a media outlet, or a paranormal investigation society, or an intelligence outfit, or whatever and you can always have some PCs hail from overseas if players are leery about playing Brits.

It’s a real shame, because Goatswood has in it the seeds of what might have been something better, but they are poorly cultivated and the poor scenarios are the result. Perhaps eventually we will see a comprehensive revision; frankly, I suspect nobody will get around to trying. Goatswood was not warmly critically received when it was released, so far as I can tell, and with the passage of time its shortcomings have become all the more evident. Now that Chaosium is run by people who have actually lived in the UK, I am sure the shortcomings of the supplement are as brutally evident to them as ever, and whilst there’s one adventure in here which could scrub up nicely – Cross My Heart, Hope To Die I would consider to be worth the effort to try and salvage – it may be better to take that, jettison the rest, and start from scratch if they ever decide to do another Campbell-themed supplement.

3 thoughts on “A Severn Valley Holiday

  1. I bought this when it first came out and reached pretty much the same conclusions as you. In fact, I ended up taking Brichester and it’s environs and using it as the setting for a Demon: the Fallen campaign rather than try and cram the as-written Call of Cthulhu scenarios in.

    1. Given there’s an entire adventure that’s an extended Vampire: the Masquerade riff and a whole lot of utterly needless edginess. I guess it was already halfway there to just being an old school World of Darkness supplement.

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