An Unearthing of Ancient Mythos Tomes

The new regime at Chaosium have been justifiably cautious about how they use Kickstarter, given that they got parachuted in originally because the previous incarnation of the company blew itself up through mismanagement of the Kickstarter for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu and Horror On the Orient Express. Nonetheless, they have made use of it here and there, but usually for very deliberate purposes. Brand-new product for current editions of their games don’t get funded by them through Kickstarter; they leave that action to their various third party licensees.

Instead, they have made judicious use of the platform to fund projects to make available spruced-up PDFs and reprints of classic editions of their games, making game materials historically important both to the game lines in question and to the RPG hobby as a whole easily available again. Their first project along these lines was the RuneQuest Classic line, which made RuneQuest 2nd Edition (and, as a lesser priority, 1st Edition) and almost all of its first-party supplements available again. Though successfully delivered, that product ended up taking a while, in part due to the large number of 2nd Edition supplements unlocked via stretch goals.

For their next Kickstarter – for which I’ve recently received the physical goods (delayed by the shipping apocalypse) – they made sure to cap off the stretch goals at a sensible level. Call of Cthulhu Classic is a line rereleasing the 2nd edition Call of Cthulhu core rules, with physical products in two formats – both boxed sets based on the original boxes. For much of the 1980s, Chaosium had a neat inch-deep form factor on their boxed sets (which prevented them having too much in the way of empty space inside, unlike many boxed sets of the early decades of the hobby), and the inch-thick version of the Classic box presents just the 2nd Edition rules (and the 1920s Sourcebook which came with the core rules and various other bits and pieces); the two-inch thick version makes use of the extra inch to incorporate no less than five supplements for the game from 1982 to 1985.

However, is this a treasure trove of forgotten lore, or a Sanity-blasting compilation of horrors better left buried? Let me crack open the box and find out…

2nd Edition Core Rules, 1920s Sourcebook, and Cthulhu Companion

All of this material is fairly familiar stuff; indeed, the 3rd Edition of the game as published in hardback by Games Workshop simply took the material here, rearranged it a little, and put it into one volume. Much of the art here would still feature in the 6th Edition rulebook, and indeed a good deal of the text here is reproduced (either directly or with only a pinch of additional polish) in the current version of the game. (Even the Starter Set makes use of material from here – Paper Chase, one of the scenarios from the Companion, is used there as a gentle introduction to refereeing.)

Obviously, this speaks well of the clarity of the original rules and overall quality, though apparently the game had a bit of a bumpy start. It’s notable that the Companion opens with some words on tweaks between 1st and 2nd Edition Call of Cthulhu, and in the essays at the back of the core rules reprint it’s explained that 2nd Edition was chosen for the reprint because, quite simply, 1st Edition had a bunch of errata and issues and 2nd Edition came out within a year or so to replace it for good reason. (In addition, it’s my understanding that 1st Edition Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer both included the Basic Roleplaying pamphlet to provide the basic system rules before adding on the genre/setting-specific rules in their main booklets; the 2nd Editions of both games dropped this conceit, which just made things more fiddly than they needed to be.)

Although the reprint does add a long-lost scenario to the core book, for the most part these three booklets are most revealing for just how much of them survives into the game this day (though glib references to generic “natives” and the like have thankfully been dialled back). There’s not much to rediscover here because, thankfully, baseline Call of Cthulhu has never really gone away, and the best bits of the Companion have been so widely reprinted as to be ubiquitous in later editions of the game. The real meat of the box comes in the additional supplemental materials beyond this…

Fragments of Fear: The Second Cthulhu Companion

Much like the original Cthulhu Companion, this is a bit of a grab-bag of rules clarifications, extra material, and scenarios. The better material from here – like the rundown of some Ramsey Campbell entities like Daoloth or Glaaki, or the considerations of whether it’s possible to “get used to” seeing a particular type of Mythos entity, eventually made their way into the core book in some form; other bits, like the Lovecraft poem Nemesis, seem to be here solely to take up space.

There’s two scenarios here, neither of which have been revisited much for good reason. The Underground Menace has no real way to resolve the main scenario without the PCs fighting a hugely powerful monster, which is not very Call of Cthulhu; The Hidden Valley is set in the Belgian Congo and its treatment of the locals… well, the nicest thing I can say about it is that it’s very sparse, so it simply doesn’t give itself many opportunities to say horribly racist things, but what it does offer seems to be based on more a combination of fuzzy research and tired-out adventure fiction tropes (yes, there’s plenty of zombies about) which doesn’t give me much faith that the scenario has been written from an informed perspective, let alone a sensitive one. In general, Call of Cthulhu referees expect scenario designers to provide more depth of research, especially when writing about this sort of locale in this sort of time period.

Shadows of Yog-Sothoth

Released in 1982, this was the first major adventure supplement for Call of Cthulhu, containing the titular campaign plus a couple of bonus scenarios. Shadows of Yog-Sothoth itself is a campaign that’s cast a long shadow over the game; the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight, introduced in its first chapter, end up making an appearance in the Arkham Horror boardgame, and NPCs and locales from it are referred to as optional extras in releases ranging from Masks of Nyarlathotep to Tatters of the King – which is odd, given that it’s been thoroughly out of print for long stretches of time.

Seeing this reprint reveals why that might be the case. It’s the work of diverse hands – with Sandy Petersen contributing a couple of short bits to provide connecting tissue between chapters and the conclusion, and the remaining four chapters each written by a different designer. I’ve covered campaigns in the past like Horror On the Orient Express or, in a WFRP context, The Dying of the Light which have attempted this sort of round-robin approach in the past, and criticised them for what I considered to be fairly patchy quality control, but Shadows makes both of those look like perfectly cohesive works of ingenious game design.

The kindest thing I can say about Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is that it stumbled so that later Call of Cthulhu campaigns can walk: quite simply, this was written back when people had barely any idea as to how you would design an investigative horror scenario to begin with, let alone had any understanding of what constitutes best practice in a Call of Cthulhu context. When you read over this campaign you’re literally watching Sandy Petersen and friends trying to figure out how you write this sort of campaign in real time, and the end results are not pretty.

The campaign’s overarching plot is basically incoherent – it’s basically a string of investigations which will likely confuse more than they enlighten, at least one scenario exists solely to give the PCs a chance to get to the next scenario rather than having much of a point on their own, and then the whole thing just abruptly reaches an absurd conclusion. More or less any sin a published Call of Cthulhu adventure can commit can be found in here. Demonising Native Americans? Check. Presenting a situation but giving insufficient consideration to what should be motivating the investigators to actually look into it? Check. Requiring the PCs to fight a bunch of powerful enemies to resolve a scenario? Check. Railroading the players by the nose, dumping clues in their lap like a trail of breadcrumbs? Check. Skimping on the research, presenting the referee with the challenge of running a game set in a time, place, and culture they have little guidance about? Check – and that’s a particularly bad one given that this came out in a pre-Internet era when it was much harder to do a quick bit of research on the spot.

The final scenario has the PC face off against Cthulhu when he rises briefly before deciding to go back to bed. This bemused me; Sandy Petersen made the editorial decision right in the core game materials to leave out a lot of August Derleth’s unsupported declarations about the Mythos, like his spurious attribution of Old Ones to the classical Greek elements or his “war in heaven” concept. (Arguably, Call of Cthulhu coming down on the side of the anti-Derlethians was an important step in the fall of Derlethian revisionism in the Mythos fandom; now Derleth’s perspective is very much a minority position, if not outright extinct.) I thought this meant that he had enough good taste to not give the time of day to Derleth’s appallingly lazy pastiches, but here he is essentially presenting the same ending as The Trail of Cthulhu, minus the nuke.

All this makes the callbacks to Shadows in other adventures even more baffling: meeting Carl Stanford or visiting a particular Scottish village would surely only be meaningful on an in-character level to PCs who survived the events of Shadows – unlikely, given the dire circumstances of the last scenario – and only be interesting on an OOC level to players who have played Shadows or referees who’ve read it, and they shouldn’t really be using their OOC knowledge in gameplay so it doesn’t really have any game impact.

The fundamental point of a prewritten adventure is to save labour on the part of referees, either by providing material for referees to strip-mine for their own scenarios or by providing scenarios which can be run as-is. I am willing to bet that Shadows has been used in the former manner far more than it has in the latter mode over the years. There’s bits and pieces in here you can adopt and use, but the material is simply far too bare-bones for the most part to run as-is: the referee would need to not only carefully read the scenario, but also do a whole bunch of their own legwork to put some meat on these bones, and these bones are so bare and need so much meat that you’re looking at a level of work where you might as well just be designing your own thing from scratch.

As for the two bonus scenarios, The People of the Monolith is basically a riff on the Robert E. Howard short story The Black Stone, its main fault being that there’s not much for the PCs to do beyond witness a spooky thing. The Warren, on the other hand, comes the closest of anything in the book to a properly fleshed-out scenario, though even then it could do with a significant amount of work to properly introduce its ideas to the referee. (A chronic issue with scenarios of this vintage is that they don’t provide nearly enough preamble to properly fill the referee in on what is going on.)

Ultimately, there is a reason that Masks of Nyarlathotep is regarded as a classic whilst Shadows of Yog-Sothoth has been overshadowed: Masks, even in pre-7th edition versions, simply does a better job of explaining itself than the scenarios here. In addition, whilst Masks is now considered to be a fairly pulpy, high-violence take on Call of Cthulhu which drags those dials up about as high as people are comfortable with, it’s evident from this that it was actually fairly middle-on-the-road on that front when it came to early adventure material; it was only later that people really saw the potential of more low-key, slow-boil, un-pulpy approaches to the game. (It’s worth saying again, because people keep missing the point: Lovecraft was actually a terrible example of a pulp writer, his aesthetic instincts as a writer were more or less directly opposed to the general ethos of the pulps, trying to make Call of Cthulhu pulpy is an error in taking the style of the magazines the early stories first appeared in and mistaking it for the overall ethos of the cosmic horror genre.)

The Asylum and Other Tales

This is a collection of shorter scenarios; the introduction offers suggestions of how you can drop them into any campaign as a reaction to a particular circumstance coming up. The Auction both provides a nice murder mystery to chase up and also provides a mechanic for running auctions in Call of Cthulhu – albeit one which may be fiddly unless you do some working-out beforehand – whilst The Madman is essentially a riff on what I’ve taken to call the Derlethian Standard Narrative (character moves into house, reads books, ends up developing an alternate personality that does Mythos shit unbeknownst to them) but a fairly good one, largely because it frames the main figure of that narrative as an enigma for the PCs to investigate, which I think is more satisfying than the sort of story Derleth usually wrote with this sort of protagonist. (It helps that the titular madman is actually trying to do something rather than just sort of being generically evil, as happened a lot in Derleth’s stories.)

The third adventure is Black Devil Mountain, by none other than Dave Hargrave of Arduin Grimoire fame. Hargrave was part of the same West Coast set of gamers that included Steve Perrin and many of the early Chaosium crew, but was never a full-fledged Chaosium guy; as Greg Stafford later recounted, he’d tried to pitch Arduin to Chaosium as a complete game system and then got upset when Greg rejected it as clearly not being remotely complete. Greg would later reach out to Hargrave to see if he was interested in contributing anything to this supplement by way of mending bridges, and this is the result.

As Greg would later note, it’s basically a sort of “Cthulhu dungeon”, and in fact Greg says it almost got rejected before he stepped in; even then, Greg admitted that it’s “really contrary to the game”. Admittedly, it probably didn’t seem that contradictory next to some of the material in Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, so perhaps this isn’t one to pin on Dave entirely; on the other hand, the racist depiction of a local Quebecois “half-breed” called “Black Tom” who’s depicted as greedy and secretive and shifty and talking in this mumbling nonsense dialect I’m happy to lay directly at Dave’s door.

Fortunately, the title adventure is somewhat better. It’s also the longest adventure here, and is quite clearly the most developed, and perhaps those two things are related: Chaosium seem to have been in the process here of learning that brief, sparse descriptions of scenarios (whether as standalones or as chapters of longer series) don’t play to Call of Cthulhu‘s strengths. The Mauretania, a shorter piece, has some small-scale investigations but is mostly interesting for the details it provides on 1920s luxury liners; Gate To the Past, on the other hand, is a little silly in tone. Westchester House, though a little weird in some of its details (someone turns an 8-room farmhouse into a mansion of 145 rooms, really?), is conceptually interesting in terms of presenting an investigation where things actually have a mundane explanation which is still exciting.

On the whole, The Asylum & Other Tales finds Chaosium and their contributors crawling bit by bit towards something resembling good practice in adventure design, whilst still quite some way away from it still.

Trail of Tsathoggua

This was one of the first adventure supplements penned by Keith Herber, who would become a fairly prolific writer for the game and whose tenure with Chaosium would peak when he was line editor for Call of Cthulhu from 1989 to 1994. That was something of a golden age for Chaosium’s output for the game – they’d gained a good handle on what worked and what didn’t, the 5th Edition core book from that era is one of the best core rules sets the game has ever had (not least because it folded in support for Gaslight and the modern era into core), and in general Chaosium were filing on all cylinders.

However, Trail represents more humble beginnings. In theory a three-part campaign, really it’s two mostly-separate adventures; the third scenario is a nice little haunted house investigation which you could very happily run independently of the other two parts, whereas the first two chapters are basically the two halves of a single story.

Indeed, this is where things run into some issues. The second scenario, The Curse of Tsathoggua, is so dependent on a particular set of circumstances happening at the end of the first scenario (the titular Trail of Tsathoggua) as to make the conclusion of that scenario essentially linear. That said, I perceive signs that it wasn’t originally written that way; in particular, the crucial thing that a particular NPC needs to see in order to trigger the events of Curse is hidden away in such a manner that it’s very easy to imagine the PCs missing it, which is a weird way to set it up if you want to guarantee that this event happens. One suspects that Keith wrote Trail first, got inspired to work in Curse, and then went back to add notes to Trail warning the Keeper that they need to run it in a fairly linear fashion.

Indeed, Trail is an example of a scenario type you could call a “Ghost Train” – a horror RPG railroad. For the most part, the PCs are basically along for the ride here, bouncing from incident to incident and trying to survive. There can be a certain type of fun in that, but Herber works in a few too many “if you miss this Luck roll and fail a skill roll you insta-die” incidents for my tastes. Curse, on the other hand, allows for somewhat more freedom in the sense that it’s still leading the player characters to a particular conclusion, but leaves how they handle that conclusion wide open. It’s a little freer with regurgitating past Mythos’ writers appropriation of First Nations folklore, and the general “hostile Indians” trope utilised there sits awkwardly next to the better-researched handling of the Inuit in Trail; nonetheless, I think better results could be got if you just ran Curse, and maybe worked in some NPCs who’d been on the Greenland expedition chronicled in Trail who could recount the events of it to investigators who track them down.

One last quirky thing: the illustrator of this supplement was none other than Steve Purcell, creator of Sam and Max. The plot of Sam and Max Hit the Road involves a woman eloping with a sasquatch, and plot points around ancient sasquatch wisdom from before the dawn of modern civilisation. This has a whole swathe of points in common with the concept of Curse of Tsathoggua

A Skewed Look at the Game’s Origins

Overall, then, the two-inch version of the Call of Cthulhu Classic Edition box contains some still high-quality core materials, but supporting adventure supplement which just weren’t that up to much. For all its faults, Trail at least has one pretty decent scenario in the form of the mostly-unconnected haunted house adventure, and is miles ahead of Shadow of Yog-Sothoth, so it’s clear that Chaosium were fumbling towards an idea of what best practice looks like over this time period, but they weren’t necessarily quite there yet.

At the same time, I don’t think they were necessarily that far away either. As mentioned, this was also the time period when Masks of Nyarlathotep came out, and even though I have my issues with that campaign it still blows all of the adventures here out of the water. 1984 would also see Keith Herber’s other early campaign release, The Fungi From Yuggoth – later rereleased as The Day of the Beast, and I ran it in that form and remember it as being quite good.

Of course, both of those campaigns are significantly chunkier than the scenario supplements here – evidence that providing more context generally helps a Cthulhu adventure – and Masks has been reprinted for 7th Edition, and Day of the Beast may well be ripe for a revised release sooner or later. On the other hand, the scenarios here are the sort of thing where they’re shaky enough that doing an update on them wouldn’t be a matter of mere revision – you’re starting to look at a total root-and-branch rewrite. It simply isn’t worth the effort when Chaosium have both new projects to attend to and a deep bench of better material to reprint instead.

As such, the only real reason to give these things the light of day is in a nostalgia product like this, and that’s what they are good for: acting as a reminder of where the game came from, and the growing pains involved as people worked out how investigative RPGs actually worked. I’d actually compare the full Classic range to OD&D and its supplements, since in both cases you have a game which is presenting a radical reimagining of the basis of gameplay (the RPG format in general and the dungeon format in particular in OD&D, the investigative format in Call of Cthulhu) and then a community flailing about a bit trying to get to grips with how this works and develop an idea of best practice. Just as different schools of thought in what’s actually enjoyable about D&D arise from early conversations around it (as chronicled in Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift) and keep repeating it over the years, to an extent games like GUMSHOE and the current edition of Call of Cthulhu are responding to issues arising from these early days of the game, and in particular the bad habits in adventure design exhibited by some of these early texts.

5 thoughts on “An Unearthing of Ancient Mythos Tomes

  1. matt712013

    From your review it sounds like the five supplements may be great from a historical, collector perspective, but not really useful for gaming. Then again, the whole kickstarter was, apparently, about that historical POV.
    Would you have been happier with just the basic box, without these supplements?

    1. No, I’d say that if you wanted the nostalgia hit/roots-of-the-game history lesson then you’d want the supplements and if you didn’t but just wanted a pre-7th core book then 5th edition is right there.

  2. As far as the core game goes: if you like 7th, 7th is there, and if you don’t, 5th and 6th are widely available second-hand and not missing anything significant from what’s here. So for me at least the base game box would really have been a nostalgia exercise too; I can see the appeal of having a physical version of something a bit like the old edition (though the card’s got thinner and the sepia printing has changed to black), but I don’t think it has much practical gaming benefit to offer.

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