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.

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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.

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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.)

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PODs of Cthulhu

Like many other publishers, Chaosium have recently established the world of print-on-demand (POD) publishing. Really, for them this should have been a no-brainer: they’re a well-regarded company with a deep back catalogue, but these days people’s expectations of production values in the industry are pretty high and they also want to keep up a flow of new product. They need to be selective about what they give a full traditional print run to, and some products it just doesn’t make economical sense to keep in print and distributed in the traditional fashion.

This being the case, POD provides them with a pathway to making an ever-expanding proportion of their back catalogue available for people who want hard copies of the items in question rather than just getting a PDF, whilst at the same time reserving traditional print runs and distribution to brick and mortal game shops for perennial earners (like core rulebooks) or major releases with solid production values.

The major use of POD so far has been to make the full RuneQuest Classic line available in hard copy, but they have also put out a number of Call of Cthulhu products as POD. For this article I’ll review two of these and assess how suited they are to the POD setup.

Ripples From Carcosa

Ripples From Carcosa, primarily written by Oscar Rios, consists of three scenarios focusing on the whole Hastur/King In Yellow deal. This is a rather well-worn angle in Lovecraftian RPGs – it feels like everyone who decides they want to do something a bit different with all this cosmic horror stuff resorts, at a first impulse, to at least considering doing some Carcosa business, which ironically means it ends up as much of a cliché as “fish people” or “ghouls again” or “Nyarlathotep shows up in yet another fake moustache to fuck with people” or whatever.

However, Ripples tries to do something a bit different with it by having each scenario take place in a somewhat offbeat time period. There’s one adventure that uses the then-current iteration of Cthulhu Invictus, one using the then-current version of Cthulhu Dark Ages, and one using the setting from the End Time monograph.

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An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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A Severn Valley Holiday

Ramsey Campbell is one of the best horror authors of recent decades, and has sustained an amazingly high standard in his work from the 1960s to the present day. His body of work extends well beyond Cthulhu Mythos material, but the Mythos represents an important component of his portfolio and he retains a lot of affection for it – in fact, he just completed a full-length trilogy of Mythos novels that may represent some of his best work.

In particular, it’s with Mythos material that Campbell got his big break, after sending some stories to August Derleth. I’ve gone on before ad nauseum about how little I care for Derleth’s work as a Mythos author, and I have major reservations about some of his conduct as Lovecraft’s self-appointed literary executor (shoving R.H. Barlow out of the role, running promising Mythos authors like C. Hall Thompson off his turf, and passing off stories wholly written by himself as Lovecraft stories). However, as an editor it’s undeniable that he played an important role in keeping the whole Mythos thing going, and Campbell (alongside Brian Lumley) represents one of his successes in terms of providing the encouragement and advice a new author needed to develop their work.

Campbell’s earliest published Mythos stories (as gathered in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants) were basically well-polished pastiches – the sort of stuff that riffs heavily on over-familiar Lovecraftian tropes, but was about as good an example of that sort of thing as exists. His even earlier stories that he first sent to Derleth were even rougher and even more dependent on Lovecraft, to the point of being based in “Lovecraft country” locales like Arkham. Derleth advised Campbell to instead exploit local knowledge and set his stories closer to home to give them more of an individual flavour; thus Campbell’s accursed region of the Severn Valley was born, incorporating a range of small and out-of-the-way communities in the general vicinity of the fictional town of Brichester along with a distinct set of Lovecraftian entities that originally hailed from this neck of the woods.

Campbell would continue to develop the region as time went by. Realising that absolutely nothing requires you to write a cosmic story using an imitation of Lovecraft’s prose style style, with pieces like Cold Print and The Franklyn Paragraphs, he would develop an authorial voice of his own, and with later stories like The Faces At Pine Dunes and The Voice of the Beach he demonstrated that strong characterisation, social and political issues, and deeper emotional themes don’t need to be incompatible with cosmic horror, and can in fact help it: after all, the more you create the impression that these are real people existing in a real place and time, the more impact it has when something Mythosy insinuates itself into that. In keeping with this, Brichester and its cursed environs kept up with changing times, because Campbell realised that you don’t need to set Lovecraftian stuff in the 1920s (after all, Lovecraft set his stories in what were for him the present day); that recent trilogy I mention depicts a saga ranging from the 1950s to the late 2010s.

Campbell is not into Call of Cthulhu, or tabletop RPGs in general, but he’s not unsympathetic to the medium: he just finds that since his day job involves devising scenarios or imagining the inner lives of characters, refereeing or playing RPGs during his leisure time would feel too much like work. He has also been fairly generous about allowing the use of his creations in the game – indeed, Glaaki stars in one of the introductory adventures in the current core rulebook – so it’s no surprise that Chaosium eventually got around to producing an entire sourcebook themed around “Campbell Country” as a UK equivalent to their “Lovecraft Country” releases.

That book is Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places, a project credited to various hands. The main driving force behind the project was Scott David Aniolowski; after a brief introduction by Ramsey Campbell explaining the origin of “Campbell Country” and generally being about as nice about the project as you can expect a non-roleplayer to be about an RPG book, Scott spends his introduction giving a potted history of the project, which ground on for about a decade and faced various delays until Chaosium finally released it in 2001, after it began as a pitch to Chaosium, almost got farmed out to Pagan Publishing, before finally being finished for Chaosium.

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Refurbished Mansions

Mansions of Madness Volume I: Behind Closed Doors is the first part of Chaosium’s expansive revision of the well-regarded Mansions of Madness scenario collection. As the “Volume I” bit implies, it looks like this will end up being a multi-volume series, and presumably each volume will follow the same format of this one in terms of including both updates of some adventures from the original collection and brand-new scenarios in a similar vein. As the Behind Closed Doors bit of the title suggests, the scenarios in this one all strongly feature situations where something super-dodgy is being done, well, behind closed doors by a figure in the scenario, a secret shame, a hidden obsession, or a furtive project inviting Mythos-flavoured disaster.

In fact, perhaps to make this a tastier offering to people who already have the original material, there’s actually more new adventures here than old. The new offerings – The CodeThe House of Memphis, and The Nineteenth Hole can tend towards the pulpier side of the game, but this will very much depend on presentation (even the pulpiest could end up having an atmosphere more akin to Lovecraft’s From Beyond) and presents a useful counterbalance to the older adventures, which tend towards less pulpy elements (and one of which is outright grim in some of its subject matter).

When it comes to the updates of the old adventures – Mister Corbitt and The Crack’d and Crook’d Manse – these are pretty decent, largely concentrating on presenting information more clearly and adding some quality of life features (many of the NPCs previously left unnamed now have names, for instance, sparing the referee of the need to think up a name on the spot). I wasn’t sure about The Crack’d and Crook’d Manse in the previous revision, but to my eyes the version here manages to swing things around to be less about dangling red herrings and deliberately misleading the players and more about establishing atmosphere. (The bit with the shed, in particular, is made substantially fairer, with the stuff I objected to previously now only happening if a PC ventures in without an adequate light source – so it’s gone from a pointless gotcha to actually a kind of fair enough incident to happen if you go poking around under those circumstances without taking sensible safety precautions.)

The supplement continues the new Chaosium practice of, where viable, pitching adventure collections as being playable with the 7th edition core rules or the Starter Set; in particular, it suggests that the adventures here are “an ideal next step” for people who followed up the Starter Set with Doors to Darkness and Gateways to Terror. The introduction notes that there’s less Keeper advice here than for those scenarios, though to be honest that’s fair enough since novice referees who’ve gone through those should already have been trained in the basics of best practice, and old hands don’t need the support anyway. The commitment to making the Call of Cthulhu range approachable for those beginning with the Starter Set is admirable, and probably plays dividends considering the massive sales of the Starter Set following it being featured on Critical Role.

Arkham? No

Arkham Now is a Call of Cthulhu supplement first published in late 2009. Primarily written by Brian Courtemanche and Matt Sanborn, the declared intention of the book is to provide a modern-day equivalent to the 1920s-set Arkham Unveiled supplement, in terms of providing a sourcebook profiling good ol’ Arkham for the modern era. The authors are upfront about it being a “labour of love”, and it sits among their first credits in the game line, but it is decidedly rough around the edges and clearly needs further development in several respects.

In terms of the publishing timeframe, it’s a product of that window of time when Charlie Krank was pretty much running Chaosium as he saw fit: Lynn Willis had left in 2008 due to ill health, but it was only after his death in 2013 that his stake in the company got redistributed to Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen, which allowed them to exert somewhat more supervision over things until they decided to take back control, remove Krank, and put Moon Design in charge.

One of the more disappointing things which happened during that span of time between Willis leaving and Stafford and Petersen stepping in was a decline in the quality of presentation of Chaosium products, especially their interiors. In the mid-2000s, during the last years of Willis’ tenure, the interior layout of Chaosium books could most kindly be described as “vintage”: it was hardly cutting-edge stuff, but it wasn’t outrageously sub-par by wider industry standards, especially if one considers that Chaosium by this point was a small press punching above its weight rather than a major company in the industry.

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Harlem Revived

After the first edition of Chris Spivey’s Harlem Unbound earned Kickstarter success and critical acclaim and put Darker Hue Press on the map, Chaosium sit up and took notice. The original book had been put out under licence from Chaosium, dual statted for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu; now Chaosium were interested in working more extensively with Spivey, not only reaching a deal to put out a 2nd edition of Harlem Unbound directly from Chaosium but also commissioning other work from him, including a spruce-up of the racially-themed classic scenario Dead Man Stomp and a quick discussion of Lovecraftian racism for the absolutely superb new Starter Set for the game.

(They had also signed on to make a science fiction game with him based on a blend of black and Jewish themes, Kadimah, but the two have agreed to part ways on that – Chaosium’s statement on the matter, which was co-issued with Spivey and doesn’t seem to represent any great rancour on either side, explains that Chaosium had realised that with their existing commitments and plans they couldn’t commit to giving it a release schedule of the sort it deserved. In addition, the impression I get is that it’s an intensely personal passion project on the part of Spivey, tied in with his own family heritage to such an extent that it really makes more sense as an indie solo project of his, rather than a conventional commercial RPG with contributions from a variety of hands which would inevitably dilute the vision.)

Now 2nd edition Harlem Unbound is out in hard copy, and good golly is it a lovely item; the original book was a pretty decent item in its own right, but Chaosium have brought to bear production values above and beyond what a startup publisher like Darker Hue had been able to muster on that project.

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