Children of Fear, Arthur of Doubts

The Children of Fear for Call of Cthulhu, authored primarily by Lynne Hardy, bills itself as “A 1920s Campaign Across Asia”, and it is exactly that: a chunky (over 400 page) long-form campaign which will likely take a good long time to play through and involves travel throughout China, India, and Tibet. That said, what it doesn’t bill itself as is “A 1920s Cthulhu Mythos Campaign Across Asia”, and there are good reasons for that. These, and other issues I note about the campaign, mean I hesitate to recommend it unreservedly. I think it remains a potentially useful book, but I also think it’s a very, very nonstandard release as far as major Call of Cthulhu campaigns go, and a campaign which has some nagging issues at that, and I think referees contemplating acquiring it deserve to know that before they make the decision to purchase.

One of the selling points of the book is that the referee is given a lot of latitude in deciding the level of Cthulhu Mythos involvement in the events of the campaign – so the campaign can involve full-bore cosmic horror in its underpinnings or it can be a much more low-key affair. In practice, this comes down to the true nature of the two major supernatural factions involved being presented in a somewhat agnostic manner (though not completely – more on this later), so the referee can decide they are manifestations of the Outer Gods or forces from the Dreamlands or something out of a Theosophical pipe-dream or esoteric Buddhist or Hindu mythology.

However, the practical effect of this does not actually change all that much about the action of the campaign itself, or its overall aesthetic, which beyond a very few cameo appearances is largely devoid of Cthulhu Mythos content and very heavy on material from the folklore and mythology of the region. You don’t get alternate stats or notes on these things to play them like they are Cthulhu Mythos entities masquerading as such, they are very much written up with the assumption that they are those things. To a large extent, the campaign feels like it was written from beginning to end with a view to it being an essentially non-Mythos book whose wonders and terrors are rooted in Chinese, Indian, Tibetan, and a pinch of Theosophical legend, and then the “oh, you can pick what these factions really are” bit at the start was patched on after the fact. If you want more Mythos content than the bare minimum provided in the text, the “choose-the-nature-of-these-things” section suggests how you could do that, but all the legwork for implementing the consequences of that choice is left down to you.

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A Bumpy Ride On a Rehauled Railroad

The 2013 Kickstarter-funded rerelease of Horror On the Orient Express was a major undertaking for Chaosium, and from certain perspectives can be seen as a bit of a disaster. Sure, sure, the product did indeed come out and backers by and large got what they were promised and so on and so forth – but the handling of the Kickstarter, and the subsequent Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter, involved errors so major that they spelled the end of the Charlie Krank regime at Chaosium, as Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen were forced to step in and use their majority control of the company to prompt Charlie to resign, clearing the way for Moon Design Publishing to become the new management team.

I told the full story of how that went down in my retrospective of the 7th Edition Kickstarter, and since I was not a backer of the original Orient Express Kickstarter I can’t give much insight into how major management errors affected it. (In particular, I can’t see any of the backer-only Kickstarter updates which would allow me to get a full picture.) However, some of the problems are well known. In both Kickstarters, the Krank regime went a bit hog-wild with the stretch goals, making the classic Kickstarter error of promising a grand conga line of additional features which will greatly increase the work needed to complete the project, as well as getting overenthusiastic about making various little bits of associated merch which, whilst charming in concept, weren’t really within Chaosium’s wheelhouse when it came to manufacturing or sourcing them.

A truly major problem, however, was that they badly undercharged for shipping – a blunder compounded by the fact that they did the exact same thing on the 7th Edition Kickstarter. Even if a backer only wanted the main Orient Express boxed set, this was a problem, because thanks to all of those stretch goals the new boxed adventure was astonishingly heavy – I don’t own it, but I’ve picked it up in game shops to get a feel and it’s like it’s got lead plates in there or something. This only exacerbated the issues with the shipping costs, and can’t have made manufacture all that easy either.

As a result, when Greg, Sandy, and Moon Design burst into the command centre at Chaosium HQ and wrestled Charlie Krank away from the main control panel, one of their first orders of business was tidying up the mess that had been made of the two Kickstarters. This involved some triage – on the 7th Edition Kickstarter, a brace of stretch goals or add-ons relating to random merch and tat were simply dropped, though since backers were getting an astonishing amount of stuff (thanks to those stretch goals) for a comparatively modest outlay I don’t think anyone can say they didn’t get way more value for money out of that Kickstarter than could be reasonably expected.

To all appearances, Chaosium are back on an even keel now, but it was certainly a scary moment for them, and to get this stability an awful lot of work had to be done honouring promises to Kickstarter backers and mending bridges with various creditors. The Orient Express boxed sets did end up going to backers, and did indeed end up distributed to game shops and sold – but I have to wonder whether it turned a profit in the end, after so much money got eaten up in shipping and other charges. In addition to this, it’s pretty clear that the boxed set stuffed with booklets and deluxe handouts and the like was just not a viable form factor for reprints; the interior layout was also done to the standard of the better releases of the late Krank regime, which means a very simple no-frills two-column monochrome layout; this is not in keeping with the production standards the new regime at Chaosium now insist on for major products, and which they brought to bear on releases like the revised Masks of Nyarlathotep.

For those that are very keen to get a hard copy of the campaign, Chaosium have now put out a two-volume hardcover set, which essentially reprints the material from the boxed set in a somewhat more manageable form factor. This has not been subjected to extensive editing and revision, though apparently some especially bad typos have been squashed. Some optional material is not included, like the in-character Traveler’s Companion, though this was not actually a plot-critical document in any way; a bigger issue is that a lot of the page number references have not been updated (at least, not as of the printing of the hardcovers my copies came from), which can be a pain because of course the hardcovers have different page numbering to the original collection of booklets.

That said, if you buy the hardcovers via Chaosium’s website they come bundled with PDF and ebook format downloads of all the materials from the boxed set, and ultimately material is presented in the hardcovers in a sufficiently logical order that it will rarely be difficult to find the thing you need. (If you only want a PDF, you can get that via Chaosium’s site too, or via DriveThruRPG, and that’ll also contain the materials.) It may take a little work, but then again juggling some six booklets would take some work, so when it comes to the physical manifestations of this new version of the adventure I feel it’s much of a muchness in the convenience stakes.

But is it worth it in any format? My answer is a tentative “maybe”. I am not as enthused about running the full-fat Horror On the Orient Express campaign as written as I am about potentially running Masks of Nyarlathotep, but I do still think it is a useful resource for Call of Cthulhu Keepers.

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The Greater Festival of Masks

Masks of Nyarlathotep is a touchstone campaign for Call of Cthulhu, much as the original Ravenloft adventure is for Dungeons & Dragons; just as that adventure has been repackaged for different editions of D&D (as House of Strahd for 2E and Curse of Strahd for 5E), so too has Masks been revised and polished multiple times over its existence. In its current incarnation, it is a bit of a beast, selling in two hardcover volumes that between them come to some 666 pages or so, with Chaosium offering a handsome slipcase version which comes with a referee screen optimised to give information specific to the campaign and a collection of nicely-printed versions of a lot of the handouts. This is a bit of a contrast to the most version of the campaign I owned (and attempted to run back in my teens), The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, which released as a softcover book for 5th edition Call of Cthulhu weighing in at less than 250 pages. (Chaosium would do another edition of Masks in 2010, but from what I can tell this was a reprint of Complete Masks with a slightly updated layout.)

Some of the expansion in page count can be ascribed to Chaosium shifting to a new layout template for Call of Cthulhu products, and making some of the handouts less crabbed and tiny; the previous version of the book struggled to pack a lot of text between its covers. But this can’t account for all, or even most of that expansion. For the latest edition of the adventure, Chaosium has bestowed upon it a thorough process of revision, expansion, and improvement. The end result might be a bit of a monster, but perhaps it justifies this size.

For one thing, it’s a revered campaign, to the point where people have written entire book-length supporting products to provide further information, support, ideas, and details for people running the thing. It’s the most famed of the “globe-trotting mission to stop a major peril” model of campaign which Chaosium have occasionally produced for Call of Cthulhu – the first having been Shadows of Yog-Sothoth – and so it deserves an edition that Chaosium can be proud of. For another, it’s a campaign which is likely to take a good long time to play; there’s an in-character deadline, with the action of the main plot unfolding over a span of about a year, and it will likely take the better part of a year of in-character time for many groups to play through it. If it’s going to be a deluxe experience demanding a significant time commitment from participants, giving it a form factor commensurate with that is reasonable – especially if these two sturdy hardback tomes stand up to the rigours of play better than a softback book.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Chambersian Clues, Chilly Catastrophes, and Slim Scenarios)

Sometimes you read a game supplement which is worth taking note of, but isn’t quite substantial enough to waffle on about at length. When that happens to me, I make articles in this series. This time around, I have a couple of Delta Green offerings and an adventure book for Land of the Rising Sun.

Static Protocol (Delta Green)

This is a sort of little companion supplement to Impossible Landscapes, much as The Labyrinth had a companion booklet in the form of its Evidence Kit. Like that Evidence Kit, it’s a collection of handouts, but it’s more focused; in essence, it’s a little dictionary of likely subjects player characters may wish to research while playing through the campaign, and underneath each entry there’s a clutch of little clues provided as little text boxes with dates and salient facts – perfect for adding to red string boards! – arranged based on which sources are likely to yield that information.

This makes running research processes in the campaign nice and easy – just consider what avenues the players have chosen to take in their research, judge whether they need a roll (remember, Delta Green encourages you to let people have stuff for free if it’s fairly basic and they have decent skills), and then provide the items in question in response to successful research.

Like the Evidence Kit, this can be obtained in hardcopy via DriveThruRPG’s print on demand service, but I genuinely think it is most useful as a PDF, since then clues can quickly and simply be copy-pasted into whichever group chat or Discord server you’ve set up for your game (or PMed to players at the table). In-person, really the best way to do this is to provide index cards, write the clues on them, and let the players come up with a massive timeline or red string board on their own using them.

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Navigating the Unnavigable

Impossible Landscapes is a new supplement for Delta Green with an extremely long history. In its introduction its author, Dennis Detwiller, explains how since the early 1990s he’s tried to produce an epic King In Yellow-themed campaign for Call of Cthulhu; with this, he’s kind of done it, at least to the extent that Delta Green shares enough DNA with Call of Cthulhu that if you wanted to just run Delta Green material with the Call of Cthulhu system it wouldn’t be that difficult.

Taking as its initial seed Night Floors, an adventure from the second of the original Delta Green supplements (the legendary Countdown), Impossible Landscapes substantially builds on that adventure and then jumps the timeline forward some 20 years (you could fit in an entire campaign of more Delta Green investigations in there) before the other shoe finally drops, dumping the player characters into the sort of bizarre morass of surreal horror the whole King In Yellow concept lends itself to.

Delta Green has a history of dealing with this sort of thing, of course. As well as providing the original outing for Night Floors, the Countdown supplement provided John Tynes’ seminal essay The Hastur Mythos, which hyped up the potential of the themes delineated in Chambers’ The King In Yellow for a more surreal and personal style of horror than the Lovecraftian cosmic horror that Call of Cthulhu usually defaults to; Impossible Landscapes is the result of Detwiller spending a few decades refining that idea.

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Supplement Supplemental! (Imperial Enclaves, Condensed Conspiracy, and Classy Clues)

Sometimes you read a game supplement which is worth taking note of, but isn’t quite substantial enough to waffle on about at length. When that happens to me, I make articles in this series. This time around, a WFRP release and a couple of tasty treats for Delta Green.

Archives of the Empire Volume I (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay)

This is presumably the first of a series, the idea seeming to be to package up small amounts of material on WFRP-relevant subjects in broadly thematically-related collections – kind of like Hogshead’s old Apocrypha Now collections, only a bit more focused. This first Archives of the Empire is broadly based around diversifying the coverage of the Empire. First up, there’s a useful section giving a rundown of the various Grand Provinces of the Empire, as they exist just prior to the events of the Enemy Within campaign. (There’s a promise that the final Enemy Within volume – Empire In Ruins – will give an update detailing what the lie of the land is once the campaign concludes.)

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Mini-Review: A Rising Tide of Solo Adventures?

In the past I’ve been clear that I think the management change at Chaosium was overall a good thing and that by and large the Moon Design gang have done a much better job of running the firm than the Charlie Krank-led regime. Whilst the work they have done to raise production standards, mend bridges, and pay debts have all been a breath of fresh air, especially considering the doldrums that Chaosium had languished in for so long, at the same time the new team haven’t just been knee-jerk innovating for the sake of innovating. They’ve stopped doing the stuff that didn’t work, sure, but they’ve kept going with things which made sense.

The Call of Cthulhu solo adventure line is a case in point, since to give credit where credit is due its modern revival began under Charlie Krank. After a brief dabbling in solo adventures back in 1985, Chaosium largely left the field for third party licensees to play with, but that all changed with the March 2015 release of Alone Against the Flames – which, coming three months before Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen hit the big shiny button which launched Charlie Krank’s ejector seat, was among the last products put out by the old regime.

Not only has the Moon Design crew kept Alone Against the Flames in the product line, but they have also recognised just how good it is as an introductory adventure, and in that capacity incorporated it into the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. They’ve also brought back into print updated versions of Alone Against the Dark and Alone Against the Wendigo (the latter retitled Alone Against the Frost), the old 1985 solo adventure releases. Now, with Alone Against the Tide, they’ve put out a brand new solo adventure, hopefully indicating that more solo fun will be coming from time to time in the future.

Credited to “Nicholas Johnson and Friends”, the adventure has you visiting the swanky Massachusetts lakeside town of Esbury. Local dignitary Professor Harris has died; his widow is presiding over a sale of some items from his estate. But why’s a Buddhist monk from India come all this way to the sale? For that matter, who are those toughs in the sharp suits who’ve turned up? Was the Professor’s death really suicide? And what’s with that curious idol he brought back from his expeditions?

Designed to be used in conjunction with either the full-fat Call of Cthulhu rulebook or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, Alone Against the Tide comes with a pregenerated investigator in the form of Dr. E. Woods. In fact, character sheets are provided for Ellery Woods or Eleanor Woods – the interior art seems to generally assume you’re Eleanor, and the stats are the same on both versions, but you get a different portrait on your character sheet and a slightly different description of your appearance and clothes depending on which you pick. Regardless of chosen character gender, the adventure pans out the same – Eleanor can choose to flirt with the same women Ellery gets to flirt with – so there’s that.

Alternatively, you can stat up your own investigator, and the adventure includes motivations for whichever of the professions available in the Starter Set you choose (if you’re working with the full rulebook you have to pick one of those professions, and indeed so far as I can tell there’s nothing you need to refer to in there which isn’t in the Starter Set rules anyway). This is kind of just a gesture – ultimately, regardless of who you are, you are interested in some capacity in Professor Harris and/or the work he left behind – but it’s a nice one to offer.

As far as the adventure itself goes, it follows similar principles to Alone Against the Flames: you are in this town, weird stuff is going down, there is a set order of events which are unfolding and thus a fairly linear timeline, but there’s lots of ways you can branch out around this timeline depending on what you choose to concentrate on.

Despite the title, incidentally, the scenario is not actually about Deep Ones! Instead, it’s riffing on the fact that a certain Buddhist holy site shares a name with a certain location in a Lovecraft story, though thankfully the Buddhist priest is an essentially friendly presence who’s filling in the same role as, say, your typical “Catholic priest who’s trying to contain a terrible evil” stock character in other contexts – his order has been containing the horror for generations, Professor Harris was being an arrogant colonialist and disrupted that, the monk’s trying to sort things out before it is too late. Though I ended up getting to a good ending without interacting with the monk that much, an alternate (and easier) route to victory hinges on you befriending him, and in general I think the character is well-handled.

I also quite like the artwork. Since this is a short product (under 100 pages) rather than a hardback – and since it’s aimed in part at people who’ve sprung for the modestly-priced Starter Set and haven’t necessarily got the appetite to the game which would make them pay out more for a more lavish product – there’s no need to give this the lush full-colour hardback presentation of other recent products, and the interior is all black and white. The interior art by Doruk Golcu and Andrey Fetisov are incredibly flavourful, eschewing excessively ornate detail in favour of a more atmospherically murky approach – I’d love to see their work gracing more Chaosium products.

Alone Against the Tide was previously released by Johnson as a homebrewed product by himself alone, as part of Chaosium’s Miskatonic Repository storefront on DriveThruRPG, which is the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of similar publisher-supported “monetise your homebrew” schemes like DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons and Storyteller’s Vault for World of Darkness. Whilst there’s a conversation to be had as to the merits of these schemes, I think it speaks well for Chaosium that they are actually willing to pick out the cream of the crop from the Repository, give it a spruce-up, and release it as a canonised part of the game line – I’m not, off the top of my head, aware of Wizards of the Coast or White Wolf doing the same.

Delta Green’s Nocturnal Songs, Deadly Experiments, and Dark Locales

To round off this catch-up series on the Delta Green RPG (remember, I covered the core rules and some supplemental material in the previous two parts of this series), I’m going to cover here three scenario collections. A Night At the Opera and Black Sites are largely compilations of material previously released as individual scenarios, but I think smart buyers will prefer the collections to getting the individual ones. Both of them are quite diverse collections, and as a result there will probably be some scenarios you like and some which don’t appeal to you – but if you buy a collection then you can run the scenarios you like and strip-mine the others for what material you can, whereas if I am putting money down for a single scenario I want to be fairly sure it’s one I enjoy and will be appropriate for my table.

Control Group, on the other hand, is a sort-of campaign. I say “sort of” because each of the scenarios in it can be run individually as one-offs (or, in the case of the final scenario, slotted into a long-running Delta Green game without having to play through any of the others), but it’s presented as a series of scenarios all designed by Greg Stolze.

A Night At the Opera

As mentioned, this is a hardcover compilation of various adventures, many of which are stretch goals funded by the original Delta Green Kickstarter campaign. I got free PDFs of many of the adventures in question through my pledge level, and I liked more of them than I disliked and therefore preordered the hardcover compilation when Arc Dream presented the opportunity to do so.

(In case you were wondering: the title comes from the euphemism used in Delta Green to inform Agents that they are required for an operation. Though I’ve used the term in my home campaign, it always reminds my players of Queen albums and Marx Brothers movies; I’ve informed them that their PCs should be really worried if they ever get a message about “A Day At the Races”.)

It kicks off with Reverberations by Shane Ivey, a brief but decent introductory mission marred by the fact that it’s entwined with the Tcho-Tcho concept – and, in particular, the unreconstructed version of the concept from August Derleth and earlier iterations of Call of Cthulhu. It should be viable to tweak the investigation to make it less reliant on a “this entire ethnicity is evil and genociding them would have some positive aspects” trope – but Arc Dream haven’t done that, so still leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially in a time when Chaosium have backed away from the more unacceptable implications of the Tcho-Tcho idea.

Continue reading “Delta Green’s Nocturnal Songs, Deadly Experiments, and Dark Locales”

Delta Green’s Garden of Forking Paths

As promised, here’s part 2 of my catch-up article on the current Delta Green product line – last article I did the core rules, so this time I’m concentrating on supplemental material other than fully-developed scenarios (which I’ll cover next article) along with an entire standalone companion game.

The Complex

So, over the course of the Kickstarter for the Delta Green core rules four PDF articles were funded. The pieces in the Redacted series were all intended to provide a set of thematically-related player-facing writeups of US government agencies (and private contractors), along the lines of the agency writeups in the Agent’s Handbook. These are useful for players and referees alike – since the writeups provide guidelines for PC careers in the bodies in question, and also provide a basis for working out the capabilities of NPCs hailing from those agencies and ideas for what they might get involved in.

As it stands, it just made sense to combine the four documents into a single supplement – The Complex – and make it available via PDF or print-on-demand, and it’s well worth it. The chart of agencies towards the beginning, which helpfully points to their writeup in The Complex or The Agent’s Handbook, vividly establishes just how much The Complex extends the game. Some of the agencies are are a bit specialist or off the beaten path – making the material here perfect if you want to add an NPC (or even a temporary PC) to the game who has specialist knowledge they can use on a consultant basis, or if you want to incorporate a player character with an odd set of skills without departing entirely from the assumed “government employee/contractor” status of Delta Green agents.

You could even use the supplement to run games where all the PCs come from a specific agency – say, NASA for some spacefaring fun, or the National Parks Service for a Delta Green investigation into the whole Missing 411 thing.

Continue reading “Delta Green’s Garden of Forking Paths”

Delta Green’s Return To Duty

For some 4-5 years or so now, Delta Green has been reactivated. Previously a run of critically acclaimed third party supplements for Call of CthulhuDelta Green is now a standalone game, with both its core materials and major new tentpole supplements funded from two Kickstarters. The major product on the first Kickstarter was the core system; on the second, The Labyrinth, one of the new supplements. An extensive number of other supplements, scenarios, and other bits and pieces of supporting material were funded as stretch goals to those Kickstarters.

In fact, so deep is the bench of existing and incoming Delta Green material that I have thrown up my hands and given up on doing a conventional Kickstopper article on the subject. Instead, I’m going to do a little trilogy of articles to cover major releases in the line so far. First up, in this article I will cover the core system. Next article, I will take a look at a few scenario-agnostic supplements and The Fall of Delta Green – a GUMSHOE-powered companion game. Finally, I will cover three scenario collections which between them incorporate a good chunk of the scenarios so far released for this edition of the game.

To summarise the premise of the game, for those that haven’t bothered to read my review of the older supplements: back when the FBI raid on Innsmouth uncovered only ye liveliest awfulness, the US government began covertly investigating the Cthulhu Mythos. This program of investigation, containment, and suppression of Mythos threats was known by various names over the years, but the iconic name is Delta Green – named for the triangular green stickers added to the personnel files of agents to denote their membership.

Delta Green was not the only conspiracy within the Federal government to delve into the paranormal, however. In the wake of Roswell, the Majestic-12 conspiracy – yes, the one some actual UFOlogists claim was real and which provided much of the basis for the backstory to The X-Files – was performing its own work. Delta Green and MJ-12, however, had very different attitudes; the former wanted to destroy and suppress alien technology, the latter wanted to exploit it. (If this is all sounding rather Conspiracy X, it’s almost certainly a matter of parallel evolution, overlapping influences, and maybe a touch of the Conspiracy X authors being inspired by some of the early Delta Green material in The Unspeakable Oath magazine.)

In the 1970s, Delta Green overstepped its mark; the catastrophically violent results of some of its operations gave Majestic-12 the leverage it needed to argue that Delta Green was a haphazard, borderline-renegade operation which needed to be brought to heel. The gambit worked beautifully, and Delta Green was shut down… officially. Unofficially, many of its members organised themselves into a cell structure and kept the project going, too aware of the potential consequences of if they didn’t. Right through the 1990s into the new millennium, Delta Green was an illegal cross-agency clique operating without legitimacy or sanction. Now read on…

Agent’s Handbook

The player’s guide to the standalone Delta Green RPG contains more or less no setting information beyond flavourful snippets of fiction; it is clear that players will rely on the referee (or “Handler”) for all their information about the Delta Green conspiracy itself. What you do get here is a nice, simple, elegantly presented, very easy to understand fork of the Call of Cthulhu game system, developing it in a different direction from 7th Edition and one better suited to the specific style of Delta Green.

Character generation is streamlined in some quite nice ways: you pick an occupation, that sets some of your skills to different base levels than they otherwise would be at, then you pick 8 skills to add 20% to. This takes the place of the awkward point-spending process of earlier Call of Cthulhu editions, at the cost of losing some fine granularity and the option to go very specialised in some areas in character creation. It also means that characters with a high Education and Intelligence scores don’t end up with a massive advantage – in fact, along with the Appearance stat, the Education stat is entirely gone. (7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has resolved this problem in a slightly different way by providing careers where your career skills don’t wholly depend on the Education stat.)

Continue reading “Delta Green’s Return To Duty”