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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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.

The Delta Green Archives

With UFOs high in the zeitgeist in 1992, and shortly before The X-Files made the subject matter a full-blown pop culture phenomenon, Pagan Publishing’s Call of Cthulhu fanzine The Unspeakable Oath published a little adventure called Convergence, which introduced the concept of Delta Green – a top-secret, unsanctioned, off-the-books conspiracy within the US government to investigate and contain the threat of the Cthulhu Mythos.

In years to come, Convergence would begat a whole swathe of supplements. The original run of Delta Green material would provide an exciting model for modern-day Call of Cthulhu play. In more recent years, Arc Dream Publishing – consisting of many former Pagan personnel and generally speaking the inheritors of their illustrious mantle – has turned Delta Green into its own standalone RPG, though not with a system so radically divergent from 5E/6E Call of Cthulhu as to render the original supplements useless. In essence, the Delta Green RPG is a fork of Call of Cthulhu, with adaptations and changes made to better reflect the style of the Delta Green setting – substituting out the Call of Cthulhu sanity system for an adapted version of the Unknown Armies one being the most significant system deviation.

Sooner or later I’ll be doing Kickstopper articles covering the new Delta Green RPG, since the product line has been underwritten by crowdfunding efforts, but until then (and to avoid those articles getting even more absurdly big than they are already), here’s some reviews of the original run of supplements.

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Kickstopper: Friends, Romans, Great Old Ones!

One of the recurring strengths of Call of Cthulhu is that it’s very easily adapted to other time periods. Tweak the skill list to remove anachronistic skills, introduce skills appropriate to the time period, and update the baseline skill values appropriately – people are likely to have a generally higher level of computer skill in a present-day game than one set in the 1970s, where computer use is likely to be a highly specialised skill, for instance. Once you’ve done that, you’ve done 90% of the work; do an equipment list and a career list and you’re basically there.

Cthulhu Invictus is a game line which takes this principle to heart by adapting Call of Cthulhu to ancient Rome. It’s also not a game line which Chaosium themselves are interested in directly managing these days – though they did put out material for it for 6th Edition Call of Cthulhu, and did include some conversion guidelines in Cthulhu Through the Ages.

Instead, in 2017 they gave Golden Goblin Press, a third party publisher, a 3-year licence to handle the line, beginning with The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus – a new core book, updated to the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu rules. What happens when that three years up, I rather suspect, depends on how well Golden Goblin do as custodians of Cthulhu Invictus. How’s the line’s flagship product, as produced via this Kickstarter? Let’s have a see…

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Non-Euclidian Training Wheels

Chaosium’s new Starter Set for Call of Cthulhu, whilst attractively presented, doesn’t seem to have required an awful amount of work in terms of generating raw text. The individual components seem to have been drawn together from a range of existing products Chaosium had to hand, to an extent where those who already have an extensive Call of Cthulhu collection probably already own a lot of it. That said, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – and, of course, anyone who already has an extensive Call of Cthulhu collection doesn’t need the Starter Set in the first place.

Along with a set of dice, some pregenerated player characters and some blank character sheets, and nice printouts of the player handouts for, the box comes with three handsome booklets. The first offers a brief introduction to the concept of the game and then follows the example of the classic “Red Box” Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set by Frank Mentzer by using a solo adventure to teach the basic concepts of the system. Specifically, the solo adventure in question is Alone Against the Flames, which is actually fairly substantial as far as such things go and is probably as decent an introduction to the system as could be offered in this format.

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