REVIEW: The Room without Doors

“The Haunting”… reskinned.

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about the admiration I have for Sandy Petersen’s introductory Call of Cthulhu scenario “The Haunting”. What I admire about “The Haunting” is that it literally teaches people how to play and how to run a session of Call of Cthulhu.

From the GM’s point of view, the entire thing is idiot proof: There’s an investigation but you can’t mess it up because the clues are designed to feed the atmosphere rather than allow resolution of the plot. There is exploration of a dangerous environment but all the events taking place in the house are non-lethal, pre-scripted and cued to the characters arriving in particular rooms meaning that while there’s room for individual creativity, even complete novices are guaranteed some level of success. The fact that the final confrontation involves more intense version of phenomena encountered during the exploration phase means that the adventure feels more like the climax of a paranormal investigation than it does a D&D-style monster hunt culminating in a video game boss battle.

From the players’ perspective, the violent climax and the exploration phase mean that there is a family resemblance to games you might have played before. You might be playing a horror game with a 1920s setting but there’s a boss battle and a dungeon to explore so you feel like you’re being eased into a new genre of RPG. The exploration phase might be new, but it’s impossible to mess up and it teaches you that you always hit the books before putting your character in danger.

Nearly thirty years after its initial publication, “The Haunting” remains a foundational Call of Cthulhu adventure because playing it teaches you how to play the game. In truth, the adventure’s only real weakness is the backstory that gets fed back to the players in the form of lore. 

The problem is that while “The Haunting” may be a traditional ghost story, Petersen has always been more interested in H.P. Lovecraft than M.R. James resulting in a backstory that kind of falls somewhere between the two traditions in that most ghost stories are rooted in memory and trauma rather than undead cultists. Charitably viewed, M.T. Black’s “The Room with no Doors” is an attempt to overcome this weakness by taking the structure of “The Haunting” and giving it a new backstory.

Set in Arkham, “The Room with no Doors” opens with an extended lore dump. The adventure orbits a house that used to be owned by one Victoria Mansfield. A well-educated New York heiress, Mansfield travelled the world until her money started to run out at which point she purchased a house in providence and took a job at the local university.

When not working, Mansfield devoted herself to satisfying her sexual desires. While her tireless devotion to getting off may have allowed her to become the doyenne of the Arkham BDSM community, her upwardly spiralling sadism and growing indifference to such bourgeois notions as consent soon saw her shunned by her fellow perverts resulting in a descent into madness accelerated by sinister tomes borrowed from the university library. A descent into madness that culminated in her kidnapping a young man and walling him up in her spare room so that she could lie in bed and get off to the sound of his mournful torment.

Fast forward a few years and the players are hired by the current owner of the property, an ambitious young woman who is desperate to get the house back on the market following some unpleasantness with the previous tenants.

On a structural level, “The Room with no Doors” is absolutely identical to “the Haunting” right down to the sub-plot about the cult that got raided by the cops. The only real difference between the two adventures is the lore woven around the structure of the adventure. Rather than an undead sorcerer and some stuff about cults operating in the local area, we have some stuff about a BDSM-themed cult operating in the area and a woman whose sadism became so acute that it lured her first into experimenting with the occult and then onto murder.

As far as stories go, this is not only a lot more creepy and interesting; it is also a more effective at bridging the gap between Lovecraftian horror and traditional ghost stories. However, good lore does not necessarily a good adventure make…

An interesting side-effect of this change in the lore is that Black is a lot more heavy-handed with backstory than Petersen. Petersen’s “The Haunting” drops a few evocative ideas about backstory before pressing on to the exploratory phase where all the fun happens but because Black’s lore is more involved, the adventure puts a lot more effort into encouraging the players to reconstruct the lore-dump presented to GMs in the introduction to the adventure. While I think that Black’s backstory is a lot more interesting than Petersen’s, I found that the lack of detail in “The Haunting” encouraged players to come up with their own twisted ideas about what happened in the house and sitting around a table cobbling together weird theories is a lot more fun than reconstructing someone’s else’s backstory.

Given that both “The Haunting” and “The Room with No Doors” are intended to be standalone adventures, I am not sure that there’s much merit in having the players piece together the exact truth about what happened in the house… the investigation phase of this adventure is important but only in so far as it primes the pump for the exploration and I think that’s why Petersen put a lot more effort into the fright-maze than he did into the backstory. “The Room with No Doors” may read a lot better than “The Haunting” but Petersen seemed to understand that stuff included in the adventure to amuse the GM is not the same thing as stuff included to produce better game sessions.

Like Petersen, Black fills the house with some evocative set-dressing and some creepy events cued to the characters arriving in particular places. However, I must admit to being a little bit disappointed with the scares given the amount of effort that has gone into re-skinning the adventure. Thirty years and thousands of adventurers have passed through “The Haunting” and yet all we have to show for it are some ghostly writing, some smashing plates and a wardrobe that falls on top of you? I understand that this is an adventure for beginners but this is an adventure that should rise to at least a 7 rather than the 4 that Black provides. Particularly disappointing is the way that Black bravely introduces the idea of sexualised ritual violence and then does nothing more with it. What about:

  • Set dressing like a blood-soaked flogger soaking in the kitchen sink.
  • Muffled cries that seem to be coming from another room. The group rush in, realise that they are hearing sex noises, have a bit of a chuckle, and then notice that the sex noises have turned into actual screams of pain.
  • A cupboard full of restraints and bondage gear that grabs hold of a player and drags them back into a cupboard that immediately locks shut forcing the rest of the group to desperately try and free them.
  • Rather than having a cupboard crudely fall on top of a player, have a ghostly apparition appear out of the corner of a player’s eye.  When they go to investigate, present them with the figure of a white lady staring out of an upstairs window. When the group tries to interact with the apparition, the figure disappears and the wardrobe is flying straight at them and trying to hurl them out the window.

I can understand Black not wanting to go too heavy on the sexualised violence thing.  Too much of that and you’re in danger of overstepping boundaries or descending into cartoonish crudity but Black established all of that backstory and put sex right in the middle of it. This is a story all about kink being stripped of consent and taken beyond the realms of sanity, why not make use of the resulting imagery?

Another innovation that Black introduces is a bit of a bait-and-switch. Traditional ghost stories are often rooted in trauma and the memory of people being subjected to terrible things. While Petersen borrowed a number of tropes from the traditional ghost story, his haunting had nothing to do with trauma and everything to do with evil sorcerers doing what evil sorcerers do. Black tries to iron out this tension by inviting players to learn about an evil sex wizard, digging through their library of dirty books, and then revealing that the haunting stems not from the evil sex wizard but from one of the sex wizard’s victims. This type of mis-direction crops up in a lot of ghost stories and I must admit that I have pulled a similar trick when running my own variation on “The Haunting” but here it feels somewhat deflationary as the players spend the entire session learning about an evil sex wizard only to end the adventure dealing with a completely different ghostly presence.

A better way of dealing with this misdirection would be to allow for the presence of two ghosts: The evil sex wizard, and their victim. The haunting can then be viewed as the result of an on-going battle between the two ghosts, a persistent evil that is complicated by the presence of a more benign ghost (who maybe saves the players or draws their attention to useful clues), or a result of the victim wanting the house to be empty so that they can spend eternity torturing their assassin. Black devotes a lot of energy into giving his evil sex wizard a more grounded backstory but shifting the source of the material from the wizard to their victim serves to render a lot of that backstory irrelevant. Corbitt’s lack of clear motivations was a real weakness in “The Haunting” and despite a lot of backstory that weakness persists in “The Room without Doors”, which is a real shame.

While I think that Black’s re-skinning of “The Haunting” may be something of a curate’s egg, I will acknowledge the improved layout and additional detailing provided by Black. The PDF looks really good and I particularly like the way that Black went out and found period-relevant photographs to illustrate the various locations.

The only real weakness to the layout is the placement of the map: Rather than opening with a full map and then maybe repeating the different floors at relevant points in the text, Black opts to include a single iteration of the map and sticks it right at the end of the adventure with the handouts. This ensures that every time your characters ask something about the location of the different rooms, you will wind up scrolling all the way to the end of the PDF before scrolling all the way back to the relevant section. I have never encountered that in a PDF before. In hindsight, I probably should have either done a print out of the map or done a screen capture that I could flip to without losing my place in the PDF.

“The Room without Doors” is not a bad adventure but I would struggle to recommend it to anyone who happens to have a copy of “The Haunting”. The re-skinning may be pretty good but there’s just not enough new stuff here to justify buying a whole additional adventure. Far better to take “The Haunting” and write either your own lore or think about reworking some of the scares. If there’s one thing that “The Room without Doors” demonstrates it’s that the structure of the “The Haunting” is immortal and can withstand any amount of messing and re-writing.

Post Scriptum: I sat on this review for a little while as writing it didn’t allow me to get to the bottom of how I felt about the adventure. Curious as to whether anyone else had picked up on the adventure’s extraordinary similarity to “The Haunting”, I did some googling and came across a few reviews. None of them mentioned the similarity.  I then had another look at the text of the adventure and noticed that Black had also failed to acknowledge the debt.

Now… if I am being charitable and treating “The Room without Doors” as a re-skinned version of another adventure but the author isn’t acknowledging the debt and nobody else is noticing the similarities, is this adventure still an homage or is it actually plagiarism?

My thinking on this issue was somewhat refined by an interesting piece published over at Monsters and Manuals. The piece looks at MT Black’s The Anatomy of Adventure, a book that is supposed to tell you how to design adventures but instead turns out to be a rather vainglorious exercise in self-promotion in that Black apparently spends the entire book listing their many triumphs. This made me somewhat less inclined to be charitable as blowing your horn while making money off of other people’s ideas isn’t a great look.

Then I had a bit more of a think… According to Monsters and Manuals, MT Black is mostly in the business of putting out dungeons to feed the market for D&D5 modules. The thing about dungeons is that they all have the exact same plot: Adventurers arrive in a place and hear about a ruin full of monsters. Said adventurers then clear said ruin of monsters and everyone goes home in time for tea and experience points. The differences between those kinds of modules tends not to be the plot but rather the layout of the dungeons, the content of the dungeons, and the lore threaded through the dungeon to feed the atmosphere. In principle, I could publish a version of the Temple of Elemental Evil and nobody would bat an eyelid as long as the dungeons were different, the monsters were different, and the lore surrounding the dungeon related to some kind of aquatic frog cult rather than elemental priesthoods.

I would argue that “The Room without Doors” is Black’s attempt to use the same approach to writing Call of Cthulhu adventures as they take to writing D&D adventures: Look at what is successful, change the layout of the rooms, fiddle about with the lore, monkey about with the antagonists, do a professional job on the layout, and upload that shit to DriveThruRPG.

If it’s not plagiarism or lazy writing for D&D, why would it be plagiarism or lazy writing for Call of Cthulhu? Reasonable people can differ on this issue and you may very well be in the market for a re-skinned version of the adventure that is included for free in the official quickstart package but I don’t think it’s cool.

The reason it’s not cool is that dungeons are more about monsters, layouts, and lore than they are about plot. Call of Cthulhu adventures are investigations and investigations are at more about the plot than they are about monsters, layouts, and lore. The value of “The Room without Doors” lies not in the lore created by MT Black but in the plot structure developed by Sandy Petersen and Sandy Petersen’s work is literally available for free whereas “The Room without Doors” costs money.

MT Black is clearly an effective business person and they clearly know how to write lore and do layout on adventures.  They are clearly very successful and I wish them the best of luck but having paid money for what turned out to be an adventure I already owned, I will not be buying any more of their work.

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