Over the years, Call of Cthulhu has acquired a reputation for really high-quality published adventures. I have always found this somewhat baffling.
My experiences with published Call of Cthulhu adventures are probably down to the fact that while Chaosium have published a lot of critically-acclaimed adventures, few of those adventures have turned out to be compatible with the way in which I tend to run games.
For starters, I have never had much interest in using America as a setting for my games and Chaosium’s published adventures skew not just American, but American in a very highly-contextualised manner that often makes them impossible to re-locate. It’s one thing to change a few names and transfer an adventure from New England to Sussex, but it’s quite another to come up with a work-around for an adventure that refers to speakeasies or plantations. These kind of re-workings are not impossible per se, but there reaches a point where making an adventure workable requires so much additional work that it’s a lot easier to write something of your own from scratch.
I was drawn to The Mummy of Pemberley Grange by its relatively generic setting. My thinking was that while I didn’t mind writing additional stuff to localise a generic adventure, I did not want to have to spend a lot of time re-writing and adapting someone else’s work. This leads us to the central question of this review: While it is possible for published adventures to be too specific, is it possible to write an adventure that is too lacking in detail? How you answer this question will most likely determine how you will feel about The Mummy of Pemberley Grange.
The adventure is set in a mansion called Pemberley Grange. Pemberley is home to a woman named Jessica Pemberley who is so obsessed with Egyptology that she goes out and buys herself a mummy. She then invites the PCs to attend a Cocktails and Mummy Unwrapping party at which something terrible takes place. And that’s pretty much it. Let me break it down…
The Mummy of Pemberley Grange is 21 pages long. This includes:
- 3 pages of Cover, Credits, and Copyright Stuff
- 10 pages of pre-generated Player Characters
- 3 pages of handouts
- 1 page of NPC stat blocks
- 4 pages of adventure
The four pages of adventure begin with some boxed text comprising four paragraphs labelled “Keeper Information” and these four paragraphs are really all the adventure you get for your $9. The remaining three and a bit pages contain some very vague descriptions of the major NPCs and some indications as to where one might find particular clues. There is no timeline, there are no set-pieces, there are virtually no NPCs, and there is no real organisation to the information.
At first, I found this lack of detail quite frustrating as it left me having to flesh out the NPCs in order to imbue them with even a modicum of dramatic weight. I also had to add a few additional NPCs in order for provide some context for the actions of the monster. A monster roaming around an empty mansion is just a target for shotgun blasts but a monster who has already throttled the nice lady you met over dinner is already a bit more interesting on a dramatic level.
As to the lack of set-pieces, I accept that any adventure with monster attacks is going to require the GM to choose their moments with care, but when you pay for an adventure you do expect the writers to do some of the leg-work for you and nobody should be paying $9 for the privilege of coming up with their own set-pieces. All it would have taken was a set of bullet points suggesting the mummy might leap out of a tree or wade out of a lake in order to attack an isolated character and things would have been a whole lot better.
Beyond the basic set-up, the only things of real value provided in this PDF are the hand-outs and even then, the content is quite thin as a) images of canoptic jars are easy to find online and b) only the ground floor of the mansion gets a map, as though mummies refuse to either go upstairs or outside. At the very least, a map of the grounds would have come in really useful.
The Mummy of Pemberley Grange left me somewhat ambivalent: On the one hand, there really isn’t enough in this PDF to justify a $9 price tag when $5 will get you a significantly more detailed D&D adventure. On the other hand, what information this $9 PDF does contain was compelling enough to inspire me to write a load of additional material that resulted in quite an enjoyable evening.
In fairness, The Mummy of Pemberley Grange is not being marketed as a full adventure. The publishers refer to it as a “seed” but the format of very simple, easily prepared, single-session adventures has been seen before in the shape of the 5th edition book Minions. The format has also re-emerged more recently in the form of a 7th edition book entitled Gateways to Terror. So this isn’t just an under-written adventure. Aside from these mini-adventures, the closest comparison that springs to mind are the adventure fragments that feature in ultra-long published campaigns such as the historical Pendragon campaign or The Darkening of Mirkwood for The One Ring: What you get is not so much a playable adventure as some cool places, characters, and events that can (with a bit of effort and experience) be written up into a proper adventure.
I’m reminded of the story about how, when the American market first introduced pre-mixed cakes, consumers stayed away because the simplicity of the recipe robbed the consumer of any sense of accomplishment from having made a cake. According to the story, the corporations re-designed the recipes to allow the consumer to crack an egg into the mixture and sales soared. Upon first encounter, The Mummy of Pemberley Grange made me feel a bit like that first generation of American housewives as the text was too simple and vague to feel like a proper adventure. In order to compensate for these feelings, I used the text of the adventure as a set of writing cues to produce something a bit more complex and bit more closely tailored to my group. A few months later, and I have now run a large chunk of the adventures this publisher has put out and have started writing my own using their structure as a template. My group are happy and I am happy. Maybe sometimes you do just need to break your own damn eggs.