The Present Day Ain’t What It Used To Be

Chaosium’s The 1990s Handbook for 5th Edition Call of Cthulhu hails from 1995, making it over 22 years old at this point. By the late 1990s, it was already feeling slightly stale, and only seemed more out of date in the Noughties; now, however, the passage of time has hit the point where it’s come full circle to being useful again, if only as a reminder of the zeitgeist of the time. (If nothing else the rudimentary computer rules provide a snapshot of the moment when personal home computers hadn’t quite become ubiquitous yet, and when Internet activity still largely happened through BBSs and other frameworks rather than the World Wide Web.)

It would be easy to mistake this for a gunbunny’s take on Call of Cthulhu, particularly given the attention given to weapons, the inclusion of a hit location system, and the rundowns of government, military, and organised crime groups offered. (Terrorism is relegated to a sidebar because it was pre-9/11.) This is exacerbated somewhat by the fact that few Mythos threats are actually detailed outside of a chapter of adventure seeds and a set of maps of interesting sites around the world (though this does make it a useful sourcebook for the era for any Basic Roleplaying-derived purposes).

Beyond this, the book is largely an update of Cthulhu Now – at least, those parts which hadn’t been cannibalised into the core Call of Cthulhu rulebook. In principle the present day is the era of the game which usually needs a sourcebook the least of all – but in practice the 1990s Handbook is a useful insight into yesterday’s present day.


A Real Bomb of a Supplement

In principle, Atomic-Age Cthulhu should have been great. It’s an official Chaosium supplement for playing Call of Cthulhu games set in the 1950s! You’ve got delicious themes of xenophobia and paranoia under a facade of syrupy-sweet uber-normality! What can go wrong?

Well, the major thing that can go wrong is that it can be a glorified monograph. For those that don’t know about that, this came out under the old Charlie Krank-headed regime at Chaosium, and one of the things they did was a line of monographs written and edited by fans with minimal input from Chaosium and tossed out onto the market with a big fat caveat on it as cheap and cheerful product. (Except the monographs were overpriced for what they were because the Krank regime was bad at business.)

Now, it isn’t unprecedented for Chaosium to turn what had been a monograph into a proper supplement – it happened to Cthulhu Invictus. However, in that case it got a proper layout and editing pass. Here it literally seems like Chaosium printed the monograph and then at the very last minute decided to bind it and present it like a fully-developed supplement, even though the art and layout is clearly extremely rudimentary and the book could have done with some additional editing passes. Even the fonts, paper quality, and general layout look like something more reminiscent of the monograph line (which had heterogeneous layout styles depending on who was doing the layout), rather than resembling the Chaosium house style of the time.

The apparent low level of editing seems to have knock-on effect on the quality of the adventures presented here – most of them could do with a fairly comprehensive tidy-up and rearrangement to better present the information to hand. On top of that, the various contributors don’t seem to have been given that much guidance as to what sort of tone the supplement was going for, so you end up with adventures ranging from fairly purist affairs to cheesy B-movie style action.

Lastly, there’s too many adventures and not enough setting material. There’s a brief guide to the 1950s, but it’s tucked into the back and is too brief – it isn’t extensive enough to feel like it’s giving you much you don’t already know, and it doesn’t seem to have many ideas about how to integrate the Mythos into the era beyond the adventures and adventure seeds offered.

In short, this supplement is a dud. Ignore it.

Comfortingly Familiar Horrors

Compared to the 1890s, you wouldn’t think that there was much use for Call of Cthulhu supplements giving a basic introduction to the 1920s – after all, it’s been the default setting presented in the core book since the game originally came out. Still, a few such things have emerged over the years, so since I’ve just covered my 1890s supplements I may as well cover my 1920s ones too.

The 1920s Investigator’s Companion

In 7th Edition the Investigator Handbook largely attempts to substitute for this, but the old 1920s Investigator’s Companion is still of some use. For one thing, its list of occupations is even more extensive than that in the 7th Edition Handbook (which of course must also incorporate modern-day occupations). For another, it provides a different overview of the 1920s from the Handbook, with some information provided by one not offered by the other and vice versa. There’s some particularly useful notes on how forensics works during the era, as well as resources for research for those far-off pre-Internet times. Simply for the extra depth offered on the era, this is a book that’s still worth keeping handy for player reference.

Green and Pleasant Land

Produced by Games Workshop under the licence through which they released the 3rd edition of Call of Cthulhu in the UK, this supplement is largely dedicated to providing a dense set of information on Britain as it existed between the World Wars, along with a brace of adventures and a short story by Brian Lumley, billed as the “British Master of Mythos Fiction”. (I can only conclude Ramsey Campbell decided not to offer something.)

Compiled by Pete Tamlyn, at points the book is rather dry, and as with the Investigator’s Companion much of the information here you can look up yourself. That said, I think people who criticise historical supplements on such grounds are missing a point: yes, you can look this stuff up by yourself, but thanks to the supplement authors you don’t have to.

Furthermore, the supplements can provide a baseline answer to appropriate questions for the purpose of your game. The thing about looking stuff up in history – even comparably recent history like the 1920s – is that you will regularly run into areas where there either isn’t a definitive answer, or which answer is accurate is not always going to be easy to figure out. You could leave this stuff for players to Google – but then you’re likely to get different answers depending on which source people used. By saying “For the purposes of this campaign, this sourcebook is considered definitive in terms of setting details”, you can build your evocation of the time period on a solid foundation.

Golden Gaslight

Though Call of Cthulhu has been adapted to an impressive range of time periods, three tend to get the most attention, not least because they were offered as alternate options in the core 5th edition and 6th edition rulebooks. The 1920s was the default setting of the game for early editions, and is still the time period most commonly associated with it. Modern day material for the game is also plentiful, not least because the present day is (hopefully) a familiar place to all participants in the game.

The poor cousin of the three major time periods is the 1890s setting; in fact, it’s no longer offered as a core setting in 7th Edition, though conversion notes are provided in the Cthulhu Through the Ages supplement. I suspect that this is because the 1890s setting is different enough from the 1920s era to require a bit more in the way of support material and research to make the distinction clear. For this review I’m going to look at two supplements offered in the past to provide more meat for the bones of the 1890s in Call of Cthulhu, one official release from Chaosium and one third party release from Pagan Publishing.

Continue reading “Golden Gaslight”

Different Facets of the Shining Trapezohedron

One of the advantages that Call of Cthulhu gains from being based on the Basic Roleplaying Chaosium house system is the adaptability of the system in question. Though its basic parameters were originally set up for the purposes of RuneQuest, the system has proven remarkably adaptable over the years. Generally its stat-and-skill core is a bit flavourless, but precisely because of that flavourlessness it’s amenable to having appropriate flavour added – both from the selection of skills on offer and on subsystems like Call of Cthulhu‘s sanity rules, Stormbringer‘s demonology and alignments, or Pendragon‘s passions.

The upshot of this is that it’s remarkably easy to transfer Call of Cthulhu into different time periods or even more divergent settings – witness to this is the Cthulhu Through the Ages supplement for 7th Edition, which provides quick and easy conversion rules for a vast range of time periods and stranger settings. Largely it comes down to a matter of changing up the skill list to suit the knowledge and aptitudes of the era, providing an appropriate equipment list, and providing a set of appropriate occupations for the era of play.

For this article I’m going to take a look at three very divergent alternate approaches to Call of Cthulhu. Two of these are officially-published alternate settings put out by Chaosium; the third is a licensed product from Sixtystone Press which is perhaps the most imaginative departure from the norm.

Continue reading “Different Facets of the Shining Trapezohedron”

Not Core, But Companionable

Produced under the auspices of the effectively-identical 5th and 6th Editions of Call of Cthulhu, the two Keeper’s Companion volumes consist of a grab-bag of essays, resources, ideas and concepts which offer a useful pick-and-mix for Call of Cthulhu Keepers seeking inspiration. The first Companion bills itself on the front as “A Core Book for Keepers”; this feels like mild hucksterism on the part of the Krank-led Chaosium that published it in 2000s, since by my reckoning a genuinely “core” book for a game line is one which provides information essential to making the game happen, and the stuff you get here is nothing of the sort. (Call of Cthulhu has always been very good at providing an extremely complete game in its single core rulebook.)

That doesn’t mean it isn’t very, very useful! You get an extensive list of real-world occult texts to pepper your investigations with, deeper details on a range of significant tomes and alien races which help invest them with more character than the rather brief rundowns in the core book offer, a delicious range of Mythos artifacts, cults, and locales to get inspiration from, extended commentary on the skill list offering further pointers on how skills can be used, and a really useful essay on forensic medicine, how coroners in the US operate, and how law enforcement bodies interact with coroners and use forensic medicine in their own right, which can be great if you want to add a deeper sense of verisimilitude in terms of what the authorities are getting up to. (The Companion also helpfully notes that it contains more or less all the material from the earlier Keeper’s Compendium, so there’s no need to go hunting that unless you are a collector or completist.)

The Keeper’s Companion 2 from 2002 no longer bills itself as a core book on the front cover, though it does on the inside title page – and if anything, the description is even more tenuous when applied to this book. Again, it’s a mixture of essays and compiled lists; the latter includes detailed breakdowns of firearms for those who want that, a random selection of books, spells and creatures not previously collected in one place, and a mass of technological devices invented by humans and others featuring in a range of published Call of Cthulhu adventures and supplements over the years, gathered together in one place for convenience. There’s also a “list of lists”, providing an index of various subjects – characters, creatures, tomes and locales – dealt with in published Call of Cthulhu material, which I guess is useful if you want pointers on where you can go find an adventure which uses one of the things in question.

Aside from a bundle of material on Deep Ones at the back of the book, the two significant essays here consist of one brief snippet and one big monster. The brief one is LaVey, Satanism, and the Big Squid, a quick overview of how some wings of occultism ended up performing rites to Cthulhu in real life. Revised by J. Gordon Olmstead-Dean from an internet posting of his, it’s decent when it comes to covering the LaVey angle – particularly when it comes to illustrating how most LaVeyans are basically atheistic sorts who dress up a might-makes-right libertarian philosophy in Satanic trappings – but doesn’t offer enough details on other aspects which I think would be of interest to readers.

For instance, Olmstead-Dean notes that a certain wing of occultists teach that you can use Cthulhu in occult workings because they regard any such figure as being a basically arbitrary representation of appropriate themes, ideas and associations – so if Cthulhu is more mythologically resonant with you than Poseidon or Superman seems more meaningful to you than Horus, you can perfectly happy use them instead. He does not, however, explicitly make the connection to chaos magic, the field which this idea comes from, or give suitable pointers to find out more about the subject.

In addition, he completely fails to mention Kenneth Grant or his “Typhonian” splinter sect of the OTO – a bit of an oversight considering that Grant was one of the first occultists to pay any significant attention to Lovecraft. In his Nightside of Eden, Grant advocated (with every sign of complete sincerity) the idea that Lovecraft had some subconscious appreciation of hidden occult truths, to the point where the deities of the Mythos had an actual reality to them and that Lovecraft’s writing, influenced as it was by his dreams, reflected that reality. (Subsequent books would see Grant doubling down on this, in the face of a backlash by more “traditionalist” Thelemites, by trying to tie in UFOlogy with the whole business.) Brushing past this without even a reference is a huge omission – it’s not that Grant is necessarily especially respected in occult circles, but he’s certainly infamous within them precisely because of the Lovecraft connection.

The major essay offered up here is a detailed breakdown of Prohibition by Adam Gauntlett – how it arouse, how it died, and how things were in between. Whilst this is, of course, a subject any of us could research for ourselves given time, I find the presentation here very useful – it’s substantially longer than, say, a typical Wikipedia article on the subject, shorter and pitched at an easier level than a more scholarly treatment of the subject, and hones in usefully on potentially interesting subjects for gaming – whether the players are producing, smuggling, selling, or buying suppressed liquor or trying to stop the above. Most usefully, it provides enough detail to help the Keeper feel like they can get across how Prohibition and its evasion functions during the era without getting bogged down in trivia.

The two Companions are, I would say, companions for between game sessions, not for the gaming table itself. Flipping about within their pages for details at the session is undesirable – but digging into them to mine ideas for preparing for your next session can be very profitable. As such, even in this 7th Edition era, I think there is still a place for them.

Not Much Underneath the Animal Masks…

The Hawkmoon self-contained RPG was a boxed set put out by Chaosium as a sort of cautious attempt at expanding Stormbringer into other fictional settings from Michael Moorcock’s stories. On the face of it, this wasn’t a bad idea – after all, the whole Eternal Champion premise that underpins so much of Moorcock’s fiction hinges on the idea of a multiverse of alternate worlds. Moreover, the Hawkmoon series would seem on the face of it to be a good one to pick for a first salvo into the wider multiverse, because it’s another sword and sorcery sequence and so extensive reworking of the Stormbringer system isn’t particularly necessary.

The series in question concerns Duke Dorian Hawkmoon, who resides in a future Europe that is stumbling out of a new Dark Age brought about by the devastating wars and catastrophes of the Tragic Millennium. Hawkmoon spends a lot of time fighting the sinister forces of Granbretan, a twisted future Britain that has become an evil empire, its repressive culture represented in part by the way its citizens go about in animal masks denoting their station in life and in part by the menacing figure of King Huon, its centuries-old king who rules over the Empire and preserves his existence thanks to the fabulous technology of his sorcerer-scientists.

So far, so science fantasy. The Hawkmoon boxed set attempts to convey this setting by providing character generation rules for player characters hailing from a great swathe of Europe and North America, details on fabulous sorcery-science artifacts and terrible mutations, summaries of the Hawkmoon saga and a general overview of the setting, complete with NPC stats. Fine. Yet despite providing most of these features it still feels hollow and flavourless somehow next to Stormbringer.

Admittedly, part of what leaves me cold here might come down to the fact that I don’t really like the source material. Moorcock has gone on the record as saying that he cranked out the Hawkmoon novels in the space of mere days for the sake of earning some quicky and easy money so he could concentrate on weightier work, and is kind of surprised by their continued warm reception by fantasy fans. Frankly, as far as I am concerned the novels betray their origins as rush-written disposable trash very easily, and the high regard they are held in by some readers is evidence of generally poor taste and low levels of discernment in the fantasy fanbase. The series is blighted by flat characterisation that gets contradicted from book to book, a similarly contradictory and hopelessly muddled plot, and degenerates in the final three books (and final novel The Quest For Tanelorn in particular) into a mass of self-indulgent multiversal crossover waffle and heavy-handed allegory that never misses an opportunity to insult the reader’s intelligence.

Still, there’s stuff to enjoy there – the descriptions of Granbretan, in particular, were places where the novels really came alive (not least because it was Moorcock’s vicious autopsy of British culture’s worst tendencies), and made me feel like conceivably this could be an interesting setting to game in. Whilst it might be possible to whip what you get in the books into an interesting, gameable setting, the Hawkmoon set doesn’t quite get there.

For one thing, it gives lots of attention to the various little nations of 6th Millennium Europe and America, all of which are a bit flavourless at best and tastelessly based on national stereotypes at worst, and whilst it does give a certain amount of detail to Granbretan, it could have afforded to concentrate on it a bit more in order to invest things with the flavour the broader setting is sadly lacking. For another, designer Kerie Campbell-Robson puts in sops towards having a scientific invention system, whilst at the same time not really offering much of a robust invention creation system – a particular problem since most of the items described in the set are items from the books which play a very specific role in those very specific plots and aren’t of enormous utility outside that context.

It feels like the weird science of the Hawkmoon series and its occasional forays into interdimensional wackiness are regarded by Campbell-Robson as being the meat of the setting, given the energy put into describing them, but after this description is offered it remains unclear what you’re really meant to do with them. The interdimensional travel rules exist mostly to allow characters from Stormbringer to visit the Hawkmoon setting and vice versa, which is nice in principle but in practice if I were going to spend a significant proportion of a campaign in the Young Kingdoms I’d just bite the bullet and play Stormbringer rather than bringing in this watered-down stuff. The mutation stuff we’ve seen before in Gamma World, and like I said most of the super-science items are very tied into particular plots from the novels.

Campbell-Robson does not successfully identify a niche for players to get involved in this stuff independently of the action of the novels, which speaks to a wider failure to offer a distinctive time period for adventure. Stormbringer assumes that campaigns kick off before Elric’s saga passes the point of no return and thus takes place in an identifiable point in time in the setting; in Hawkmoon it’s not clear whether we’re assumed to be playing before, during, or after Hawkmoon’s own adventures. It doesn’t help that the sample adventures, though imaginative, end up sliding well outside the scope of the novels – having the player characters uncover long-frozen folk from the 21st Century feels like the sort of thing which instantly tonally shifts the campaign to something well outside of the world presented in the books.

Apparently Hawkmoon underwent significant further development in its French translation, but in terms of the English-language product it remains a bit of an also-ran compared to the wild, flavourful Stormbringer.