SAN Loss At House On the Hill…

Mansions of Madness is a collection of Call of Cthulhu scenarios put out by Chaosium in 1990 (a reprint over a decade later would tack on an extra scenario), based around the loose common theme of having a significant building (if not several) at the hub of the investigation. Though fairly elderly by the standards of the game line’s entire lifetime – Call of Cthulhu was a mere 9 years old when the book came out, the game is now some 38 years old – it’s still widely recommended to this day, with players and Keepers still finding much to enjoy in it.

Indeed, I’ve played through some of the scenarios in it myself in the past, enough that I think it’s safe enough for me to look at it for myself to see if it’s worth the hype. I liked the parts of it I’ve played through, but was it merely down to the unquestionable talents of the Keepers involved?

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De Weimar Mysteriis

Cthulhu in R’lyeh eternally lies
Somewhere in the depths of the sea
But soon, says the cultist
“Iä! Iä!
Tomorrow Belongs To Thee!”

So, Chaosium has turned its attention to Weimar-era Berlin in Berlin: The Wicked City, a 7th edition supplement primarily written as a passion project by David Larkins (with assistance from product line gurus Mike Mason and Lynne Hardy). This is a chunky supplement which provides a rich level of detail on Berlin as it existed in the span shortly after World War I – in which street violence and radical politics rubbed shoulders with a rich nightlife that included unprecedented freedom to explore drugs, sexuality, gender, and identity – to the period just before the Nazi takeover, at which point street violence and radical politics rather rubbed out said nightlife, save for those sections saved by NSDAP patronage.

Despite my little filk above, however, this isn’t just H.P. Lovecraft’s Cabaret – though there’s inevitably a major overlap of themes. Yes, the bars and cabarets and theatres of Weimar-era Berlin do get a close examination – as does the underworld of drugs and the unprecedented freedoms enjoyed by the LGBT+ community at the time, though in the latter case the text does offer sufficient depth to note that the community wasn’t a monolith; there, as in so many areas of German life, an extreme fringe of proto-fascists existed, and the community had a social pecking order in which crossdressers and those cultivating an androgynous presentation tended to be looked down on a little by everyone else.

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Sorcerously Resurrecting the Line

I swear that I didn’t know this was coming when I put out my more recent Chivalry & Sorcery 2nd Edition review, but there’s now a Kickstarter running for a 5th Edition of the game. The rightsholders, Brittannia Games, have been very quiet for some years, but it seems like they haven’t been lazy: rather, they’ve spent at least part of that long silence wisely making sure that they get all their ducks in a row for this Kickstarter (I am particularly reassured by the fact that Quickstart rules are already available and work on the main book layout seems to be at an advanced stage).

Particularly interesting for those interested in RPG history is this piece on Chaosium’s website, recounting the tale of an encounter between Ed Simbalist of Chivalry & Sorcery fame and Chaosium as they were in the process of thrashing out RuneQuest – it’s interesting to see the cross-fertilisation of ideas there, since I’d identified already that both games were very interested in rooting player characters in a specific social context.

Now, as I noted in my earlier, more sceptical take on Chivalry & Sorcery, Brittannia Games is not a full-time endeavour on the part of its principle movers. However, they seem to be approaching the project in a decidedly sensible manner. The text of the book is said to be complete, and they show clear evidence that the layout process is ongoing; indeed, the fact that they’ve been able to produce the Quickstart rules so soon after beginning the campaign suggests that they’ve got their layout ideas more or less worked out and it’s just a matter of working through the material. The February 2020 date for fulfillment sounds entirely plausible on those grounds. On the balance, I have decided that it’s worth the risk of backing; we’ll see how this apparently definitive attempt to present the game comes out.

Mini-Review: A Patch For Pendragon

The fifth edition of Pendragon has proven to be its longest-lasting edition, having originally been published in 2005 and remained supported by some publisher or another ever since. The original release of 5th Edition, with its cover art depicting Arthur fighting… erm… a giant piggy, came about through ArtHaus Games – an imprint of White Wolf, would ya believe it – before the purchase of White Wolf by CCP and the departure of Stewart Wieck, whose baby the ArtHaus imprint was. Wieck’s new Nocturnal publishing house was the home of Pendragon for some years, until recently it made its triumphant return home to Chaosium.

Over time, Nocturnal made a couple of patches to the fifth edition core book. The 5.1 revision, which I never got around to looking at, incorporated some errata and corrections and sported new cover art of Arthur accepting Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. More recently, the upgrade to Edition 5.2 – the version you can currently get from Chaosium – took place. Folding in further corrections and embellishments, the book also benefits from an updated layout, which is delightfully clear and readable, and a gorgeous interior with subdued but welcome use of colour. Perhaps the biggest upgrade is the use of the absolutely gorgeous artwork from the Spanish translation of the game.

Is it worth the upgrade? In my case I’d say yes, if only because my old copy of the ArtHaus edition is beginning to feel fragile after the rigours of play in my old Pendragon campaign. On the whole, I would say that it’s still essentially the same take on the game as was offered up in 2005, so if you already have the ArtHaus version or the 5.1 edition you don’t urgently need the upgrade – but it is undeniably an upgrade and given a choice between 5.2 and another version I’d go for 5.2.

Inscribing the Core Runes

It’s been a little while since the core rules for the new edition of RuneQuest made landfall, and now the physical versions of the major core supplements – the Glorantha Bestiary and the Gamemaster Screen Pack – are out in the wild too (along with a handsome slipcase to hold the treats in).

In my review of the core rules I found them to be a credible return to RuneQuest‘s old stomping grounds – how do these first expansions stand up?

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Down Darker Outback Trails

Terror Australis was an early Call of Cthulhu supplement – it originally came out in 1987 – which has been left fallow for some years, only to now receive a major new rerelease for 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu. Both the original supplement and new edition involve significant amounts of work from Australia-based game designers including Penelope Love and Mark Morrison, whilst the new edition has been substantially enlarged and revised.

The supplement is a guide to Australia in the 1920s, and seeds the threat of the Cthulhu Mythos within the island continent – both in terms of homegrown horrors (such as the Great Race of Yith and their enemies, the flying polyps, thanks to Lovecraft setting the climax of The Shadow Out of Time in Australia) and nastiness brought to the continent by the settlers.

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Alone Against the Book-Keeping

Alone Against the Dark is a solo adventure for Call of Cthulhu – a valiant attempt to cram a globe-trotting campaign on the scale of Masks of Nyarlathotep into a thin gamebook which almost, but not quite, succeeds.

The gamebook deploys several clever innovations to add useful options in play without needlessly wasting paragraphs – like the scope to telephone places or the use of a single paragraph to describe the process of using medical facilities, whether the place in question is a world-class hospital or a lonely ship’s medical bay. The cleverest thing about it, however, is the way it incorporates an honest-to-good method of providing multiple “lives” in a gamebook adventure. Though you only play one character at a time, when your character dies that isn’t the end of the adventure – you instead go to the starting paragraph of the next pregenerated character, who it is assumed has been largely filled in on what has been going on by regular telegram and, with the flow of telegrams having stopped for some days, is prompted to spring into action themselves.

The pregens themselves have 150 unspent skill points each, so you can personalise them as you see fit, though they each have their specialties – you begin with an aged academic and end with a tough muscley sailor lad – presumably because the later in the investigation it is, the more you’re going to need to resort to violence. It’s only a full-fledged “game over, start again” situation if your fourth PC (the Tom of Finland pinup) dies. In principle, it’s possible to finish the investigation with your starting character still alive, though you’d need to be both clever and lucky to manage it.

The major downside of the adventure is the painstaking timekeeping it demands; it literally requires you to account for every single hour of every day, including 8 hours for sleep and 2 hours for eating, each meal hour suitably separated from the other one. Though there’s some important plot stuff which does hinge on timing, equally I feel like this level of bookkeeping and fiddling about amounts to overkill – far, far too much effort on the part of the player for the payoff it gives. It feels like Alone Against the Dark might be better off were it adapted to Cthulhu Chronicles as a result; then your mobile could handle the bookkeeping and as a player you wouldn’t spend half the playing time ticking off hours and planning meals.