The Archival Call

Recently I got a chance to pick up a copy of Games Workshop’s 3rd edition of Call of Cthulhu from 1986. Much as with their edition of Stormbringer, this is a handsome hardcover presentation of what had been a boxed set of core rules and a separate supplement (the Cthulhu Companion) in the US.

As far as the core rules go, this is effectively a reprint of the 2nd Edition rules from 1983, which in turn were really no different from 1981’s first edition rules. As with Stormbringer, the first edition of Call of Cthulhu included the original Basic Roleplaying rules booklet, and a second rules booklet that adapted the rules for Call of Cthulhu purposes and a booklet providing source material for the assumed 1920s setting. Though both games were hot sellers, it must have quickly become apparent that juggling the Basic Roleplaying pamphlet and the game-specific rulebook was a royal pain, so in 1983 when they both came up for a reprint they got bold new 2nd editions in which the required information from Basic Roleplaying was fully integrated into the text of the main rules booklet.

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Kickstopper: Hudson and Brand Are Dead

Although the 1920s (Lovecraft’s own era) and the modern day (for obvious reasons of participant familiarity) remain the most popular eras for Call of Cthulhu play, the late 19th Century has persistently remained another one. Chaosium has recently given an official treatment to a Lovecraftian spin on the Wild West in Down Darker Trails, and before that both Chaosium and third parties have given Victorian London a close look in supplements like Cthulhu By Gaslight and The Golden Dawn; Victorian London is also one of the sample settings in Cthulhu Dark.

Playing in the era involves treading on some potential live wires – there’s a certain juggling act involved in roleplaying people (of various social origins and standings) who believe a range of things which may be wildly objectionable to our modern standards without turning the game into an exercise in simply recapitulating those beliefs. If you get it wrong then you end up with something like Richard Marsh’s The Beetle – in which whatever power the horror depicted has ends up being spoiled horribly by a gleeful embrace of the most simplistic social prejudices of the era. On the other hand, if you get it right, you get something like the best work of Arthur Machen – grabbing the neuroses and prejudices held by the Victorians (and still, reshaped by time, often held by us in the modern day) by the tail and giving them a good hard yank.

With this recently-fulfilled Kickstarter project, small press Stygian Fox offer a rare third party release for the Cthulhu By Gaslight setting, treading into these waters with an offering which, like Pagan Publishing’s much celebrated (and, sadly, long out of print) Golden Dawn supplement, is intended to provide a suitable structure and home base to form an 1890s London campaign around.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Eldritch

Helmed by Kevin Ross, Chaosium’s Down Darker Trails is a major new Call of Cthulhu supplement that takes the action of the game into a whole new realm. Whilst previously most supplements along these lines have been dedicated to covering a particular time period, the era covered by this one actually overlaps the existing Cthulhu By Gaslight period – for Down Darker Trails challenges players to mosey on down, saddle up, and shake hands with danger in the Old West.

Though this is an area that Call of Cthulhu has touched on before – useful notes on existing adventures set out West are included – it’s one which hasn’t seen this extent of development, but it makes a lot of sense. As well as Lovecraft himself writing a few quite significant tales set in the American West – including The Mound, perhaps the most significant of his ghostwritten pieces – Robert E. Howard wrote a number of horror tales set there which drew on the history of the region. (Whilst I cannot say I especially recommend Robert E. Howard’s work, fortunately Chaosium’s treatment of the subject matter largely avoids the stuff which usually infuriates me about Howard.) So on a simplistic level, adding this allows Call of Cthulhu to more completely incorporate the action of its source material.

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Keeper’s Kit of WTF

To round off my run of Call of Cthulhu reviews for the time being, I just want to take a moment to express my confusion about the 5th Edition Keeper’s Kit.

This was basically a GM screen with associated booklet, as has become common. The screen itself has this gorgeously simple design – deep blue background with arcane symbols, very setting-neutral, very basic but somehow all the more atmospheric for that. It comes with perhaps the most bizarre mish-mash of nonsense I’ve ever seen someone put out for the sake of padding out a GM screen offering; there’s a cut-out model of the Strange High House In the Mist, which is odd because that’s pretty much the last locale I think anyone would particularly want a standee of, and a bizarre adventure from Keith Herber that casts the investigators as gangsters chasing leprechauns with the serial numbers filed off and a Gremlins-esque aesthetic in the Arkham sewers.

Weird… yeah, that’s the word for it. Weird.

The Piecing Together of Dissociated Monographs

Under the Charlie Krank-Lynn Willis regime, before Willis passed on and Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen lost patience with Charlie Krank and ousted him from control and installed Moon Design at the head of Chaosium in his place, one of the weirdest little schemes Chaosium ran was the monographs project. This was a line of booklets for Call of Cthulhu or Basic Roleplaying which were submitted by fans and freelance writers, and which had more or less all the editing and layout work done by the writers themselves, released with a caveat to that effect under some standardised Chaosium trade dress.

In principle, this was a nice way for Chaosium to make some money out of people’s fan writing and fans to get their ideas out in front of a broader audience thanks to having the Chaosium name attached to their work. To that extent, it was kind of like a precursor to what Wizards of the Coast are doing right now with the Dungeon Master’s Guild program on DriveThruRPG (which has in turn inspired other companies like Atlas Games and White Wolf to set up similar programs for their game lines).

However, the execution left much to be desired. For one thing, Chaosium was a weirdly late adopter of PDF sales (which you’d think the monograph format would be absolutely ideal for), was even more late about getting their material up on DriveThruRPG (the major platform for RPG PDF sales – if you aren’t there, you don’t exist so far as a major segment of the market is concerned), and didn’t price them especially reasonably. As far as printed copies go, you’d think that print-on-demand would be the order of the day, but evidently that wasn’t the case – because when Greg and Sandy kicked Charlie Krank out and did an audit of the warehouse they found stacks and stacks of unsold monographs.

Thus, when they did their fire sale to sell off unwanted warehouse stock, masses of monographs became available with prices slashed down to the bone, and naturally I took the chance to buy a fat stack of them. The results were… mixed. The new Moon Design-controlled Chaosium has ended the monograph program, though not being the sorts to pass up a bit of long tail income they’ve made sure they’re available on DriveThruRPG or direct through their website if you want PDFs, and on balance this seems to be the right call. For the piecing together of dissociated monographs brings only confusion…

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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.