The Children of Fear for Call of Cthulhu, authored primarily by Lynne Hardy, bills itself as “A 1920s Campaign Across Asia”, and it is exactly that: a chunky (over 400 page) long-form campaign which will likely take a good long time to play through and involves travel throughout China, India, and Tibet. That said, what it doesn’t bill itself as is “A 1920s Cthulhu Mythos Campaign Across Asia”, and there are good reasons for that. These, and other issues I note about the campaign, mean I hesitate to recommend it unreservedly. I think it remains a potentially useful book, but I also think it’s a very, very nonstandard release as far as major Call of Cthulhu campaigns go, and a campaign which has some nagging issues at that, and I think referees contemplating acquiring it deserve to know that before they make the decision to purchase.
One of the selling points of the book is that the referee is given a lot of latitude in deciding the level of Cthulhu Mythos involvement in the events of the campaign – so the campaign can involve full-bore cosmic horror in its underpinnings or it can be a much more low-key affair. In practice, this comes down to the true nature of the two major supernatural factions involved being presented in a somewhat agnostic manner (though not completely – more on this later), so the referee can decide they are manifestations of the Outer Gods or forces from the Dreamlands or something out of a Theosophical pipe-dream or esoteric Buddhist or Hindu mythology.
However, the practical effect of this does not actually change all that much about the action of the campaign itself, or its overall aesthetic, which beyond a very few cameo appearances is largely devoid of Cthulhu Mythos content and very heavy on material from the folklore and mythology of the region. You don’t get alternate stats or notes on these things to play them like they are Cthulhu Mythos entities masquerading as such, they are very much written up with the assumption that they are those things. To a large extent, the campaign feels like it was written from beginning to end with a view to it being an essentially non-Mythos book whose wonders and terrors are rooted in Chinese, Indian, Tibetan, and a pinch of Theosophical legend, and then the “oh, you can pick what these factions really are” bit at the start was patched on after the fact. If you want more Mythos content than the bare minimum provided in the text, the “choose-the-nature-of-these-things” section suggests how you could do that, but all the legwork for implementing the consequences of that choice is left down to you.
I want to stress that I don’t think having an epic campaign for Call of Cthulhu which is essentially non-Mythos in its nature is necessarily a bad thing at all. In fact, in some respects I think it’s good that Chaosium are willing to throw significant production resources behind projects like this which don’t exactly constitute mainline Call of Cthulhu material. At the same time, I think it’s worth flagging this because some groups may prefer their Mythos-inspired roleplaying game campaign to primarily focus on the Mythos as the central supernatural feature of play. This is particularly the case given that the campaign can be quite long, and I can imagine a group being absolutely down for a short adventure with no Mythos content but balking at a long campaign with only minimal Mythos content (or Mythos content filtered through a comprehensively non-Mythos viewpoint).
This may be further exacerbated by the nature of the supernatural elements that unambiguously are in this campaign, regardless of what interpretation you put on those two big factions. There’s always a danger of this sort of project coming across as a clumsy act of cultural appropriation; this is exacerbated by the fact that a fair range of cultures is touched on here, so this isn’t even a project you could send to a handful of cultural editors for a read-over like Brittannia did for their Land of the Rising Sun supplement for Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition; to give this supplement the same sort of treatment, you’d need to assemble a full-blown committee with members drawn from several different national and religious backgrounds.
To give full credit, Hardy and her collaborators seem to have gone out of their way to make sure they do not present a glib or trivial presentation of the places, peoples, and beliefs the campaign touches on. In fact, the book is very information-dense – including historical information which, whilst of potential interest to some groups, isn’t necessarily going to have that much bearing on actual play. Between this and the research into the practicalities of travelling between the major locales visited in the campaign – a good chunk of which did not have particularly modern transport links in 1923 (though others are noted as being 10 minutes walk from the local train station – thank you, Indian railway system) – and an impressively deep bench of generic, reusable NPC stats, the book manages to be a useful tool for any campaign visiting the region, even if the actual adventure material in here is not used.
I don’t have standing to really say whether Hardy got the details of real-world religions and beliefs entirely correct here, but she certainly gives the impression of trying her hardest to present them fairly, even if the campaign by dint of its horror underpinnings necessarily delves into some of the more gruesome esoteric practices of the faiths in question. I do, however, have one significant reservation. Two concepts which come up in the campaign – fairly centrally – are Shambhala and Agartha. Both are legendary hidden realms, supposed to be dwelled in by hidden masters who play an important but largely invisible spiritual role. The former is a genuine feature of some Buddhist traditions – specifically, the Kalachakra Tantra mentions it, and the concept of Shambhala is still incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism.
Agartha, on the other hand, appears to be largely a Western fabrication, a mangling of the Shambhala concept. Indeed, The Children of Fear itself does not cite any sources for the story older than the claims of French esotericists Louis Jacolliot and Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, the latter of whom claimed to have visited Agartha through astral projection. One can see parallels with Helena Blavatsky’s spurious claims of being trained by secret esoteric masters in their Tibetan headquarters, and the original Agartha concept seems to arise from the same Western fascination with India – and the truckload of Orientalism which that fascination was filtered through – which yielded Theosophy in the first place as well as the thoughts of Nicholas Roerich, which were along similar lines (some of Roerich’s admittedly excitingly trippy art is featured in the book, in fact). Despite the claims by Theosophically-inclined types that Agartha is a concept from Buddhism, I cannot find any Buddhist source attesting to this being the case (aside from fringe cites clearly more inspired by Theosophical and New Age concepts than authentic Buddhism).
I think Hardy and her team are fully aware of this, and didn’t go into this intending to pass Agartha off as an authentic concept – if they had, they’d have glossed over the fact that there’s no source for it that predates Jacolliot. Arguably, if it’s fair game to draw on Buddhism or Hinduism’s esoteric sides for a game, and if it’s fine to draw on other Western occult traditions like the Golden Dawn, it’s also fine to draw on Theosophy – and perhaps appropriate given the fact that Lovecraft sometimes namedropped it. The nagging reservation I have is that I am not sure how clearly Hardy and her team have demarcated what ideas in here are sourced directly from the cultural heritage of the region, which are Theosophical concoction, and which are their own.
One could also argue that while it is fine to draw on Christian-flavoured occult and esoteric traditions such as the Golden Dawn when you are writing for an audience which is likely to be conversant enough with Christianity to spot where the esoteric weirdness starts, a good chunk of the likely audience for an English-language Call of Cthulhu rulebook probably don’t know Buddhism or Hinduism well enough to have a good handle on what religious ideas here represent fringe or esoteric positions in relation to those faiths. I do think the supplement tries to draw this distinction at points, but I’m not in a position to be sure whether it’s assiduous enough about this as it needs to be.
This all points to something which might be a major issue at some tables, and an absolute non-issue for others. The supernatural aspects of this campaign are rooted in real-world religious traditions to a point which might be a turn-off for groups who for whatever reason would prefer not to associate such faiths with horror scenarios, or who prefer to run their games in a setting where either there is no truth to any human religion or philosophy and all is howling chaos and cosmic nothingness, or would prefer to maintain ambiguity about the validity of any particular religious perspective and just don’t want to include anything in their game which suggests that, for the purposes of the campaign at least, certain religions are true, or at least sufficiently close to the truth that knowledge of them is especially advantageous.
So much for subject matter and theme: what of other aspects of the delivery? Well, tonally the campaign feels like a release which is straying more towards the pulp end of things still, though I think this is often an inevitability in these sort of long-form big-scale big-stakes Call of Cthulhu campaigns. The more the player characters are roving around and put in the position where they must fight world-threatening danger, the more pulpy it’s going to seem; a more “purist”, anti-pulp approach to Call of Cthulhu is likely to focus more on somewhat more localised threats and shorter scenarios, simply because the idea of globe-trotting adventure isn’t really in keeping with the purist cosmic horror ethos. There are at least some suggestions on how to dial cater to more or less pulp-oriented play, and indeed, at points there are alternate proposals for encounters to run depending on whether the PC party are enthusiastic combat bunnies or are not particularly optimised for combat.
The scenario itself includes some features which I usually dislike; some of these are actually handled in rather elegant ways, to a point where I don’t think they are a problem, whilst others I think would demand a little finesse on the part of referees so that they don’t become irritating, There is a fairly major twist in the campaign which involves the PCs having been deceived, and deceived in such a way that if they saw through the deception and took appropriate action it is possible that they can cut the threat short. The good thing about this is that Hardy is more than happy to say “OK, if they see through this and they take the appropriate actions to correct for it, then great, you can declare victory if you like”. It means you may end up missing out on running the last couple of chapters of the campaign, but if that would badly bug you and your players a rationale is provided for using them anyway (particularly since seeing through the deception perhaps only partially solves the problem).
That particular dramatic moment has other pitfalls, mind. In particular, it involves the sudden intervention of a group of NPCs who, both in terms of them as characters and their wider network of helpers as an institution, might end up seeming like a bit of an ass-pull. Indeed, the PCs spend a good chunk of the campaign being silently observed and monitored by an expansive conspiracy, but the campaign doesn’t really offer that much in the way of hooks for you to investigate that. Even if the PCs figure out that they are being observed – and, indeed, the campaign does occasionally nudge you into giving them that impression – there is precious little way to
This may partially be because if the players figure out what that conspiracy is up to, the deception I talked about earlier may end up being a bit more obvious than it is – but it does mean that ultimately if you run the campaign as written, there’s a good chance that a) the major antagonist faction doesn’t seem to show up for most of it, and seems like an asspull when they do show up, and b) if the players see through that deception at all, it’s because they had a hunch and were correct about it, not because they actually outsmarted the conspirators. For some groups this may be dissatisfying, and if as a referee you think these antagonists need to have more foreshadowing, it will largely be down to you to do that.
Another aspect of the campaign which could become an annoyance without careful handling is a significant NPC, who recruits the PCs to assist with a task which ends up taking much of the middle section of the campaign to complete. (This part is nicely nonlinear, with good consideration given to differing travel needs depending on the order in which the PCs visit the relevant locales.) This NPC knows more about what is going on than the PCs, knows more about the specific supernatural stuff they are encountering, and can act as a font of all knowledge who can just explain things to them if needed and/or put them back on the right track if they get lost.
Some groups may find this NPC charming, some might find them infuriating. Whilst the skill of the referee in presenting the character will obviously have something to do with this, some groups might find having such an NPC accompanying the party annoying in principle – feeling that having them present takes too much of the spotlight away from the PCs, or just disliking having someone around to explain everything rather than figuring things out for themselves. To be fair, the campaign does account for this: whilst it mostly assumes the party are accompanied by this NPC, the possibility that they might send the NPC off to do some tasks on the checklist whilst they go off in a different direction to complete other tasks by themselves is also explored and supported.
That said, the campaign still tends to assume that the PCs will behave towards this NPC in a benign or at least polite manner, either actively helping them or sending them on their way. Little consideration is offered to the possibility that PCs decide to actively oppose the NPC in question, though to be fair I don’t think you need that much. Jaded, traumatised veteran Call of Cthulhu investigators may well get jittery and off that NPC very suddenly – in which case the campaign is largely derailed, though the character in question does have some tricks available to them which can help their survivability. Nonetheless, I think you’d be well-advised to run the campaign with characters which are not quite that paranoid or ruthless.
That said, if their form of resistance is in the form of trying to observe the NPC’s movements before coming to a conclusion, this is actually fine. The campaign already suggests that if the PCs refuse to help the character in question, said NPC will just go recruit some other characters to do the thing which then sets up the action of the last two chapters (with a method provided for getting the PCs re-involved at that point). A potentially interesting route through playing through the campaign might arise if your players end up trying to keep tabs on what the NPC is doing, coming across the actions of the group of NPC investigators they’ve recruited, and then end up in a cat-and-mouse game with them as they try to stop this group from undertaking this course of action.
This sounds like I have a lot of criticisms of The Children of Fear, but I would rather say I have a lot of reservations. I don’t think any of the things I’ve cited so far are necessarily an automatic flaw or will be generally inappropriate; I fully think some things fall into the Marmite-y category where for some people they’ll be serious bugs, whereas to others they will be prized features. I do still think that it is a good thing that Chaosium are doing ambitious projects like this rather than keeping Call of Cthulhu within a tightly-framed set of confines.
I just very much think that The Children of Fear is not going to be for everyone, and that even a group which in theory is entirely keen to play some Call of Cthulhu and eagerly buys into the standard conceits of the base game may still be thrown by it. That makes it hard to recommend unreservedly; it has to come with caveats. I am sure there are people out there who will find that this is a new classic on the level of classic Call of Cthulhu campaigns of years past; I am equally sure that there are others for whom this will be of most use as a doorstop. Hopefully I’ve flagged up enough here to help referees make their own decisions.