A Tattered Triptych

Tim Wiseman’s Tatters of the King is a Call of Cthulhu campaign released by Chaosium in 2006. It is notable for being one of the last long-form Call of Cthulhu campaigns released when Lynn Willis was co-running Chaosium alongside Charlie Krank; in 2008, Willis would step down due to ill health, and it would be after that that Chaosium would enter the period of decline under Charlie Krank’s near-sole control until Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen enacted their boardroom coup in order to save the company. The presentation of the material, in terms of layout and art and overall production values, really isn’t that much further developed from material that Chaosium were put out in the mid-to-late 1990s, and whilst at this point in time that wasn’t as incongruous as it would become when they were still using essentially the same approach in the later years of the Krank regime, it can still feel a little rinky-dink at points compared both to the nicer products the market was producing in the mid-2000s and the sort of production values we expect from Chaosium under the new management.

That said, the simplicity of the layout has made it easy for the current powers that be at Chaosium to make the campaign available via print-on-demand. The POD version is a straight reprint of the 2006 release, without updates for the 7th Edition rules (not that many are really needed – multiply all the attributes by 5 and you’re basically there) and without correction of typos, of which there are a few. (Not, admittedly, as many as there were in products from the later years of Krank-era Chsosium – Lynn Willis helped maintain tighter standards as long as he was able – but enough that it’s noticeable.)

What of the content itself? Well, as more or less anyone with a smattering of Mythos knowledge will have guessed from the title, it’s a King In Yellow-themed campaign. Wiseman has good taste in the sort of material he draws on – as well as Chambers himself he looks to Thomas Ligotti and Ramsey Campbell for inspiration – but perhaps the most important touchstone he looks to comes from Chaosium’s licensees at Pagan Publishing.

Various writers at Pagan had, since early issues of the Unspeakable Oath fanzine, been waving the flag of the King In Yellow concept as a route into a style of horror more oriented around surreal menace and artistically tempting alien vistas than traditional tentacular horror, and Wiseman explicitly directs Keepers to this material for inspiration, with Delta Green: Countdown having presented their most polished statement of it as of the time of Tatters of the King‘s publication. (Eventually, of course, the Pagan crew would get the band back together under the Arc Dream flag, cut the licensing ties to Chaosium, and put out the standalone Delta Green RPG, in which the Impossible Landscapes campaign takes the “Hastur Mythos” to a Lynchian extreme.) This is a welcome stylistic gear shift, to the extent that Wiseman commits to it, because it allows Tatters to stand apart from the sort of action we’re more used to in long-form Call of Cthulhu campaigns, and when Tatters is on form it’s really on form.

That said, the campaign is a bit of a mixed bag: it consists of a brief prologue and three major episodes, and each of these is highly variable. The prologue is a dramatic way to get PCs hooked and get some of them exposed to The King In Yellow early on, and that’s fine, but none of the NPCs or incidents involved are especially relevant to the subsequent campaign: the big problem with it is that it feels like the first scene or two of an investigation into a significant problem (a playwright who’s made a King In Yellow adaptation for an amateur dramatics society), but actually it doesn’t go anywhere, there’s no real meaty investigation to do as a followup to this and none of these people are actually especially important, unless the referee puts in the legwork to make them more important. I played Tatters of the King years ago, and I remember in our campaign we kept trying to figure out how the playwright was involved with everything else, and I’ve listened to at least one Actual Play of the campaign where the playwright also ended up being something of a red herring, and if Chaosium were to do a 7th Edition update of the campaign I think job 1 is to add more flesh to the bones on the prologue and provide more support for follow-up investigations relating to its events.

The first major episode of the campaign proper is, by far, the best, and if I were running it myself I would give serious consideration to running it just as a standalone thing, since the weakest aspect of the episode is some minor railroading (like declaring that it is flat-out impossible for the PCs to find particular NPCs at this point in time, no matter what angle they take) which is intended to keep some irons in the fire for the later episodes. To run it as a self-contained adventure would need a little work to address those points and adjust some motivations, but you could absolutely do it, and the scenario involves a gripping initial quandary and a nice ramping-up of the bizarre until the PCs are confronted with absolute chaos. (It also unfolds entirely in the UK, with most of the early scenario taking place in and around London, so if you have Green and Pleasant Land or Cthulhu Britannica: London you can get some more meat on the bones that way.)

The second significant chunk of the campaign involves an essentially non-Hastur-flavoured side story which the PCs are drawn into largely to narratively tie off some loose ends from the first episode and give them the essential information they need to progress to the third episode. This feels clumsy – like it’s there to provide padding and not much more; it felt incongruous when I played it, it felt incongruous in the Actual Play podcast I listened to, it’s rather incongruously presented here.

It really feels like some material from the middle of some other adventure which Wiseman hastily repurposed to pad out the page count here. Indeed, Wiseman outright admits that a major NPC’s motivations in this one is left ambiguous to allow for the referee to put their own spin on it, which I don’t think is a terrible idea in principle, but I am not sure about the execution here: the action of the episode suggests that actually Wiseman had very specific motivations and goals in mind for that NPC, but then decided to not clearly enunciate them in the writeup, perhaps for the sake of adding a thin slice of flexibility to what is otherwise a fairly buttoned-down scenario which has a bad habit of assuming that the PCs are just sort of there to watch this inter-NPC conflict unfold and maybe provide some assistance here and there rather than being proactive. (It gives almost no consideration to what happens if the PCs show up, get the info they need, and then just plain leave – a bit of a tall order due to some transport issues they face if they are relying on public transport, but on the other hand some parties might be able to afford their own motor car, and even though the scenario says their car suffers difficulties due to the cold, it feels like a sufficiently stubborn party with a sufficiently skillful mechanic in the group should be able to overcome that.)

The tendency for entire encounters to be presented in a semi-railroaded fashion, with a lack of consideration for what happens if players don’t jump the way Wiseman was expected, is also apparent in the third part of the campaign. Apparently the entire campaign was playtested, but it smacks of having been playtested once (in fact, only six playtesters are credited, with one of them in fact being the referee who ran it for me and others later on), which isn’t necessarily that useful: the most useful playtesting isn’t the playtesting a scenario author does with their friends, because a) the author knows what they meant when they wrote the scenario, and b) the author knows their friends better than they know the people that other referees are writing for. A properly playtested scenario really needs to be run by someone who isn’t the author, ideally for a group not previously known to the author, to catch issues which would otherwise fall by the wayside.

Some of the semi-railroading in Tatters feels like a by-product of this thin playtesting process: it’s the sort of thing you get if you come up with an encounter and then assume that it’s just sort of obvious for players to approach it the way your playtest group did, and so don’t give enough thought to alternate ways people might spin it.

Another issue with the third segment of Tatters is that it’s an example of that well-worn Call of Cthulhu motif, the globetrotting campaign. I’m deeply unsure of the merits of globetrotting campaigns; I think they end up being difficult to write and difficult to run for not very much reward, because you need to do a whole bunch of research to bring the different locations to life, but then the PCs don’t spend enough time in those locations for the time you spent researching to really pay off. It also ends up basically being an exercise in transporting the PCs from point A to point B, until eventually seeds sown in the first episode of the campaign can finally yield a return.

Taken together, the three segments of the campaign really do feel like three separate scenarios which were then given a common root (in the form of a cult which had a bad break-up prior to play beginning) to provide a through-line, and I wonder if that was a mistake; perhaps each of the scenarios would have been stronger as a standalone adventure, not reliant on the others to either set up crucial plot threads or to resolve loose ends.

I enjoyed Tatters of the King when I played it, and I don’t think the last two thirds of it are flat-out worthless, but I suspect most referees will find that they can run the first segment more or less as presented (particularly since it does a better job of considering alternative courses of action) but then end up having to do a bit more legwork to adapt later parts of it, in part because of the natural tendency for PC trajectories to diverge further from a planned arc the longer a campaign goes, in part because those later parts seem to envisage a mostly-railroaded experience with a few major decision points (and admittedly the decisions do feel meaty) whereas I think many groups these days prefer a bit more flexibility. I’d certainly put it head and shoulders above Ripples From Carcosa, a similarly-themed scenario collection which suffers from the slack quality control Chaosium was exercising by the later years of the Krank regime.

One thought on “A Tattered Triptych

  1. Pingback: An Unearthing of Ancient Mythos Tomes – Refereeing and Reflection

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.