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.

Continue reading “The Good, the Bad, and the Eldritch”

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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.

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”