The Greater Festival of Masks

Masks of Nyarlathotep is a touchstone campaign for Call of Cthulhu, much as the original Ravenloft adventure is for Dungeons & Dragons; just as that adventure has been repackaged for different editions of D&D (as House of Strahd for 2E and Curse of Strahd for 5E), so too has Masks been revised and polished multiple times over its existence. In its current incarnation, it is a bit of a beast, selling in two hardcover volumes that between them come to some 666 pages or so, with Chaosium offering a handsome slipcase version which comes with a referee screen optimised to give information specific to the campaign and a collection of nicely-printed versions of a lot of the handouts. This is a bit of a contrast to the most version of the campaign I owned (and attempted to run back in my teens), The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, which released as a softcover book for 5th edition Call of Cthulhu weighing in at less than 250 pages. (Chaosium would do another edition of Masks in 2010, but from what I can tell this was a reprint of Complete Masks with a slightly updated layout.)

Some of the expansion in page count can be ascribed to Chaosium shifting to a new layout template for Call of Cthulhu products, and making some of the handouts less crabbed and tiny; the previous version of the book struggled to pack a lot of text between its covers. But this can’t account for all, or even most of that expansion. For the latest edition of the adventure, Chaosium has bestowed upon it a thorough process of revision, expansion, and improvement. The end result might be a bit of a monster, but perhaps it justifies this size.

For one thing, it’s a revered campaign, to the point where people have written entire book-length supporting products to provide further information, support, ideas, and details for people running the thing. It’s the most famed of the “globe-trotting mission to stop a major peril” model of campaign which Chaosium have occasionally produced for Call of Cthulhu – the first having been Shadows of Yog-Sothoth – and so it deserves an edition that Chaosium can be proud of. For another, it’s a campaign which is likely to take a good long time to play; there’s an in-character deadline, with the action of the main plot unfolding over a span of about a year, and it will likely take the better part of a year of in-character time for many groups to play through it. If it’s going to be a deluxe experience demanding a significant time commitment from participants, giving it a form factor commensurate with that is reasonable – especially if these two sturdy hardback tomes stand up to the rigours of play better than a softback book.

More or less every part of the previous presentation of the campaign has been expanded on, the authors using the larger canvas the two volume format permits them to more fully explain a lot which was presented rather tersely in the original. In addition, much of the campaign has been tweaked in light of the now officially-acknowledged two modes of play; for “classic” play, some of the pulpier elements of the original treatment (and the fights!) have been toned down, whilst for those using Pulp Cthulhu those aspects are turned back up, and there’s regular suggestions throughout all the chapters for how to inject some pulp into proceedings.

By and large, everything which was in the previous version is here in some form; in a few cases these have been substantially amended, but little has been outright deleted. However, there’s some underlying shifts in game design philosophy reflected here. What the previous version called “red herring scenarios” are now “sidetrack scenarios”, perhaps to get away from the dubious idea that spending game time on an outright red herring is a good use of gaming time; most of them do actually have some small tangential connection to the main plot, though not all of them.

In the introductory materials, more pointers have been offered on crafting characters suitable to the campaign (and, indeed, pregenerated characters are provided, in classic and Pulp Cthulhu versions), and advice is given on how to incorporate new PCs should any fall by the wayside along the way. There’s also an entire new prologue adventure, set in Peru. Previously, the campaign began with “Oh, yeah, there’s this guy called Jackson Elias you’re all friends with and he wants to meet with you in New York”, but this way players can experience an adventure in which their PCs meet Jackson Elias and get to befriend him, which – provided the Keeper does a good job of presenting him as being essentially likeable! – will make his return to New York carry more emotional weight. The Peru chapter’s advice on how to make an NPC useful and significant but not annoying is particularly good, with the Keeper urged to make sure that Elias is a useful bit of backup to have to hand without making him actually make decisions on behalf of the party.

A nice thing about the Peru chapter is that as a comparatively self-contained little jaunt not closely connected to the main plot, it can also be used as a standalone scenario if you really wanted. Other parts of the campaign can also be used in this fashion if you don’t fancy running the whole sprawling epic; several chapters have side stories explicitly tagged as such which you can either drop entirely if you don’t want to spend time on stuff not relating to the main plot or, with a little work providing motivations for investigators to get involved in them, provide a fine basis for standalone scenarios. Even the individual country chapters could be run by themselves with somewhat more work on the part of the Keeper – dial back on the international connections and make the local cult’s agenda the main story and you’re much of the way there.

Assistance in this might be found by looking at the clue charts in each of the chapters of the main campaign, which show how different handouts and other bits of information lead the PCs between both the major locales and NPCs in that chapter and into (and out of) the other chapters. If you wanted to modify the campaign by pruning and adding links, then these visual aids – once you get used to how they’re laid out – can be very handy. The big problem of adapting some sections of the campaign as standalone adventures is that some of them might lend themselves to solutions which require information in the other chapters – but because you can tackled the other chapters of the campaign in any order after the PCs leave America, they’re all written so that they could plausibly be tackled fairly early on in the campaign, though some sections might have less pleasant outcomes if tackled earlier than others.

Some tweaks have been made. Jackson Elias is now explicitly stated as being black – in the previous version he was referred to as “dark-complexioned”, which can mean anything from “black” to “has a strong tan”. This is in keeping with a broader attempt to ensure the campaign veers away from thoughtless restatement of tired-out pulp tropes which are best kept retired and benefits from the deeper historical research and cultural sensitivity made possible by greater access to research materials, whilst still ultimately telling the same basic story. You are still dealing with a saga based around a worldwide conspiracy orchestrated by ancient cults, many of such cults taking root among colonised populations, but an effort has been made to better highlight that these cults are aberrant even within the context of the societies within which they’ve tried to take root.

For those that are interested in a detailed comparison between what’s provided in the current version of the adventure and what was offered in its immediate predecessor, I’ll do that now, but let me do a brief conclusion now for anyone who’d prefer to avoid spoilers who doesn’t care about a more specific comparison: the new Masks of Nyarlathotep is not only a vast cyclopean monster of a Call of Cthulhu campaign in its own right, but it is also a great resource for Keepers. The expanded setting details on the various ports of call may be useful for anyone setting an investigation there, you get a deep bench of NPC stats to swipe, and some of the scenarios could happily be repurposed as standalone investigations. If you want it just for inspiration, the current hard copy might be expensive, but the PDFs will be very useful in that respect. If you are even vaguely entertaining the idea of running the damn thing, it not only offers the best version of this epic story to date, but also provides the best support and advice for Keepers attempting to run it.

Right, on to that comparison. I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum but some relevant information could be inferred from some of the things I comment on…

The America chapter is the first part of the campaign proper to receive these expansions, and right out of the gate you can see the benefit, with the chapter providing an extremely useful rundown of the practicalities of visiting and conducting investigations in 1920s New York which the previous version of the campaign simply doesn’t offer. There’s also – as there is at the start of each chapter – a “dramatis personae” section giving a useful rundown of who each of the major PCs are, their physical description and behavioural traits, and other pointers on how to play them. Game statistics are provided at the end of chapters rather than being interspersed through the text, which is handy for quick reference (as well as using the material with other systems, like Trail of Cthulhu, should you have a mind to).

The American leg of the campaign also includes a very sensible addition: without giving too much away, let’s just say that Jackson Elias is assumed now to have invested his money wisely, and as a result for the rest of the campaign the PCs will have someone sat behind a desk in New York able to sign cheques for travel expenses and the like, keep uncovered information under lock and key, and call in new PCs from among Elias’ wider network of acquaintances if necessary. This is a great quality of life addition which allows some parts of the campaign to work more smoothly without outright handwaving the question of money or introducing replacement characters.

Another major addition to the American section is significantly more details on Harlem – site of an important location – as well as a significant new plotline associated with it, in which a local man (a former member of the Harlem Hellfighters in World War I) is spuriously accused of a grim deed. As well as allowing some period-appropriate police corruption and racism to appear, should the group be willing to tackle those themes, this also means that Harlem is presented as home to a varied range of NPCs – many of whom can be very helpful to the investigators, if their trust can be won – rather than just a locale where some bad shit happens. Anyone using the Harlem Unbound supplement may well find it adds spice to this section – or, alternately, might see about lifting this adventure and adapting it for use in a campaign based on that book.

The next chapter is set in England, primarily London – perhaps an opportunity to make use of supplements like Games Workshop’s Green and Pleasant Land or Cubicle 7’s Cthulhu Britannica: London. The previous version of the campaign did have a bit of setting information about London – perhaps assuming that the audience would find New York familiar in a way London wasn’t. Given that Call of Cthulhu – and Chaosium’s games in general – have had a very strong foothold in the UK ever since Games Workshop’s very successful republishing partnership with them in the 1980s, I’d say this would have been a tenuous assumption even at the time; with the game truly global in its commercial reach these days, it’s even less so now. That setting information is bolstered here, and in addition there’s information provided on some of the complications involved in arriving in the country. (Investigators hoping to take in tommy guns in their luggage might be in for trouble.)

By and large, the England section is much as it was previously, with most additions being clarificatory. A major tweak is done to one of the side-stories to make it a touch more Mythos-y. On the main plot, a major NPC is renamed and is now a woman. A new location to investigate has been added to the main plot, which can usefully provide further linkages to one of the subsequent chapters. Beyond this, the general approach seems to have been to punch up what was already here, rather than adding very much to it, but that’s no bad thing since the previous version’s England section was reasonably strong.

Rounding out the first volume is the Egyptian jaunt. The usual expansion on setting information (and new details on the actual practicalities of arrival) is provided, and the usual punch-up of material there, but again beyond the setting info the additions are largely clarifications to or polishing of what already existed. (Notably, one particular vision that the PCs might be afflicted with has its sanity cost dialled down from 1D10/1D100 – a likely PC-ending, possibly campaign-ending calamity – to the far more survivable 1D4/1D8.)

The second volume takes in the other three major locations in the scenario. The Kenya chapter in the previous version, though its use of language isn’t what we’d use today, actually did a reasonable job of highlighting the apartheid-like conditions in Kenya under British colonial rule at the time; the revision changes how some people are referred to (“black Africans”, not “African blacks”) and provides some additional detail. Some significant changes are also made: the basis of one side-story is more or less entirely revised, largely for the better, and as in London a significant NPC has had a name change and a gender flip.

In addition, more mention is made of the local cult’s international reach, and the fact that there’s a trickle of visitors from overseas heading through en route to the cult’s headquarters, which not only makes sense in the context of the scenario but also helps avoid presenting it as an African cult solely comprising Africans. (In the previous version, the international composition of the cult is in fact noted – but in passing, when discussing the cult headquarters, when logically these people should have left some sign of their passing, if only in local rumour, on the route there; this revision puts those rumours back in.)

Perhaps the most significant change, however, is the easing of some of the more railroady aspects of the Kenya chapter, which tended to strongly assume a particular chain of events in the previous version in a way which is rather needless. Some points where the previous version of the chapter threw up slightly pointless hurdles in the way of the investigators are also suitably amended.

The big climactic set-piece sequence which, in the previous version, wasn’t very interactive and involved a string of very horrible Sanity rolls which, if played by the book, would quite likely just end the campaign with a horrid TPK is still here. In this rendition, more of a sense here that the point is for the investigators to find a way to stop this horrid debacle before it reaches its culmination, rather than necessarily witnessing it – watching the thing all the way through makes more sense as a particularly severe failure state for a) not stopping this atrocity before it gets underway and b) not having the good sense to get away once it becomes apparent that the chance to intervene has been missed. There’s also a section on running this sequence providing advice which can help avoid it being an unsatisfying conveyor belt into permanent insanity or death.

The Australia chapter also drops some pointless railroading. In one notable example, the previous version of the campaign instructs the Keeper to keep a particular NPC alive solely because they later go on to play a role in Lovecraft’s The Shadow Out of Time, which is a nonsensical instruction because whether or not a particular Lovecraft story actually happens in-setting the way Lovecraft wrote really is not that important a consideration for the purposes of running a Call of Cthulhu campaign. It is noted that some Keepers might prefer to keep things true to “canon”, and I guess it’s nice that this preference is accounted for – but considering that Lovecraft himself didn’t bother with a consistent canon between his existing stories and was utterly not bothered about requiring that other authors using his ideas keep to a common set of facts, I think this preference is objectively speaking a big load of weenie-ish dorkery and people with that preference need to reconsider their terrible taste.

Beyond this, naturally there is the usual expansion on the setting information; Keepers who want to add even more flavour will likely find Terror Australis indispensable, but even if you’re using that having a condensed, high-density package of information selected with an eye to relevance to the campaign is handy to have. (Admittedly, the previous version of the supplement already had a pretty decent section in this respect, drawing on the expertise of Penelope Love and Mark Morrison, the authors of the original version of Terror Australis).

That said, the depiction of Aboriginal Australians has some tweaks made to it here, particularly since the full story of the colonial oppression of them is still in the process of re-emerging and so the accepted ways of discussing such subjects have evolved a lot over time. Some hostile NPCs who were formerly Aboriginal Australians have been changed to further shift the scenario away from antagonistic interactions.

As usual, most of the pre-existing elements of the section are improved on with further clarifications and other expansions. The side adventure in here is particularly improved, with the background information provided in the previous iteration of the campaign not really giving much context for what’s happened at all; that is filled out here nicely. The major, climactic locale in the chapter is mostly as it was presented in the previous version, with some tweaks to remove elements which have either poorly-dated or just seemed to hit the wrong tone (whether this is due to them being a bit too jokey or touching on somewhat insensitive handling of Aboriginal folklore). Other improvements include mention of where a certain critical item for the grand conspiracy’s plans is actually to be found (the original Australia chapter fails to mention this item in its description of the location the item is found in here).

The last locale is China. An unfortunate tendency of the previous version of the campaign to write Chinese character’s dialogue in a stereotypical “me no good at English grammar” style (even in the case of a mixed-race character who was presumably taught English from a young age!) is avoided, the usual additions and improvements are provided. Again, a significant NPC is gender-flipped, and their background, role, and other details are extensively amended to avoid a somewhat tediously rapey “white slavery” angle from the original (though some aspects of this can be restored as Pulp Cthulhu options). A new NPC is added to interact with at the local newspaper, which helps puts a face to the institution (no NPCs associated with the Shanghai Courier were described in the original version of the campaign).

Perhaps the biggest issue here is that, of all the climactic incidents in all the chapters of Masks, the intended climax of the China chapter is perhaps the hardest to steer away from being somewhat pulp in nature, but it is sufficiently intrinsic to the overarching plot that it can’t really be dialled back that far.

The new edition is rounded out with some more detailed considerations on how to handle the end of the campaign – with further advice interspersed throughout some of the country-specific to provide better support for what goes down locally if the investigators happen to be there when the big deadline is hit. (These hints are largely found in the chapters found in the second volume, since the PCs will likely end the campaign in one of the locales covered there; certainly, if they are still in the US by this time, something has gone very badly wrong!)

As I said before I got into this comparison, I genuinely think that this version of the campaign does better than previous versions in terms of communicating how to go about deploying this astonishing mass of investigative adventure. As I’ve noted during this breakdown, a particularly good job has been done of opening out the campaign and avoiding phrasing things in a way which assumes a specific order of actions by the PCs or otherwise can lead into railroading; indeed, whilst in principle previous versions of the campaign acknowledged that you might tackle the different countries in any order, I think this version holds up better on the non-linearity front thanks to the effort taken to actually consider what that means and what the final days of the campaign might look like in different countries.

I’ve seen some people making snide comments about the new version of the campaign being too politically correct in terms of its handling of race and gender and so on, but I don’t see it that way. Doing this comparison, I really think the earlier iteration of the campaign was trying to present a similarly progressive take in many respects, but it was put together when the conversation on a lot of these issues was at an earlier stage and made some choices which have aged poorly but wouldn’t have been so obviously wrong-headed back when the campaign first came out in the mid-1980s. Adjusting for these is a perfectly sensible decision to take, especially when those adjustments include things like the expansions to the Harlem section which add further depth and flavour. Far from compromising the presentation, these editorial decisions actually enrich it.

2 thoughts on “The Greater Festival of Masks

  1. Pingback: 5 on Friday 05/11/21 – No Rerolls

  2. Pingback: A Bumpy Ride On a Rehauled Railroad – Refereeing and Reflection

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