ZC: Bayt al Azif – Issue 2

Zine Corner is an occasional series in which I talk about individual issues of zines I have come across on my travels. Some of these will be about RPGs, some of them will be about horror, some of them will be about folklore, and some of them will just be weird and cool. The rest of the series can be found here.

Published in August 2019, the second issue of Jared Smith’s Bayt al Azif continues the excellent work started in the first issue.

As with BAA1, the zine offers an intriguing blend of self-contained scenarios, reviews, inspirational material, and non-fiction stuff including commentary and interviews. Despite being four years old, this issue of Bayt al Azif remains useful, thought-provoking and really reasonably priced given what you can expect to pay for a single scenario.

Issue 2 of Bayt al Azif is 109-pages long and includes no less than three self-contained scenarios set in different places and time-zones. I purchased the issue from DriveThruRPG and it came with separately produced pdfs for each of the scenarios meaning that in terms of both quality and production values, you are effectively getting three adventures for the price of one fanzine and I’m aware that I’ve just said that twice in two paragraphs but I really think that people should be making a bigger deal of the fact that venues like Bayt al Azif cost between half and two thirds the price of the stuff produced by Allan Carey for Type40 and rather than a series of writing prompts gesturing towards the basis for a single short adventure you’re getting three detailed and adventures with stats supporting both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu plus a load of great non-adventure content too!

I’ll start this piece by looking at the adventures as they’re a useful demonstration of the ideas that Bayt al Azif brings to the fore. Ash delVillan’s “Nighted” is one of the most formally interesting Call of Cthulhu adventures I have seen in some time. While I’ve written before about how Peterson’s “The Haunting” has remained relevant because it teaches GMs and players how to experience an investigation-based horror adventure, one of the problems with the outsized legacy of “The Haunting” is that relatively few adventures dare to move that far beyond the template that Peterson laid down. It says a lot that one of Call of Cthulhu’s most celebrated third-party publishers were content to re-skin “The Haunting” and sell it as an entirely new adventure without even acknowledging the debt. DelVillan departs from the formal constraints of “The Haunting” by producing a primarily social adventure in which the players are expected to role-play and extract information from NPCs rather than reading dusty books and rifling through their desks. The adventure even comes with something resembling a GM’s screen so that a GM can manage the open-ended social encounters at a glance. While I love the idea of “Nighted” I must admit that I had to read it through a couple of times before it fell into place simply because I have become so accustomed to investigations that present themselves as breadcrumb trails. Once I was able to parse how the information was presented, the adventure’s quality became obvious.

Far less formally interesting is Ralph Sandfuchs and Philipp Christobel’s “False Friends”, a scenario set in Weimar-era Germany but in truth it could have been set any-where and any-when as the plot is not in the least bit rooted in the setting. While a perfectly well-realised introductory scenario, “False Friends” suffers for the fact that it follows an op-ed by Sandfuchs himself.

Sandfuch’s piece is in and of itself an interesting piece of cultural fore-shadowing as the piece is all about how Weimar-era Germany is the perfect setting for Call of Cthulhu. What makes it interesting is the fact that Chaosium’s Berlin: The Wicked Citycame out around the same time. I must admit, I wasn’t blown away by Sandfuchs’ piece as I think he singularly fails to articulate either why the Weimar Republic is a good fit for Call of Cthulhu or why he chooses not to run games in Jazz-age Lovecraft country. There’s some muttering about prohibition and about using one’s familiarity with particular eras to imbue your game with specific themes but neither line of argument really comes together, which is a shame as I am firmly of the belief that everyone should be using their home-towns as settings for any RPG that has an even remotely-contemporary backdrop.

As someone who grew up with one foot in Anglo-Saxon RPG culture and another foot in French RPG culture, I am often depressed by the profound lack of curiosity that most Anglo-American gamers show for RPGs from other linguistic traditions and cultures. At this point, I am not sure that most Anglo-American Call of Cthulhu players are aware that there are a) numerous translations of the game into other languages and that b) most of the people who did these translations followed up the release of the core-books with supplements and localised campaign settings that were noticeably different to the settings and vibes favoured by English-language publishers.

I was particularly disappointed by Sandfuchs’ contribution as the German Call of Cthulhu scene is one of the largest and most vibrant in the world and Chaosium have a somewhat depressing history of either taking their ideas and handing the credit to non-German writers (as they did with Cthulhu Dark Ages) or just getting North Americans to write about the places instead (as they did with 1930s Berlin). Eternal love and respect to Jared Smith for giving Sandfuchs’ a much-deserved English-language platform but a well-realised though ultimately quite generic scenario with a bunch of German names really isn’t the best exemplar of Germany’s history with Call of Cthulhu. Thankfully, the adventure is immediately followed by an interview with the writers of the German Call of Cthulhu fan-publication Cthulhus Ruf and that piece does a brilliant job of getting across both the scale and the vibrancy of German Lovecraft fandom.

Bridgett Jeffries’ “Beasts of Gevaudan” is both a nifty response to the flavourlessness of Sandfuchs and Christobel’s scenario as it does an absolutely fantastic job of conveying the institutional collapse and moral decrepitude of Ancien Regime France in the years prior to the French revolution. The adventure is set in rural France where a huge lupine animal is stalking and murdering prominent local citizens, the characters are asked to investigate but what is advertised as a monster-hunt soon becomes a chilling crawl through corrupt local politics. Jeffries acknowledges her debt to Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf as well as the weird historical events that inspired the film in the first place but Jeffries leans much further into the social criticism and produces a truly fantastic richly thematic self-contained adventure as a result.

While I admit to enjoying Jeffries’ scenario more than the others, every single one of the adventures contained in this issue is distinct and worthy of your attention: “False Friends” may be a bit generic to my taste but the plot and characters are strong and you won’t go far wrong using it to open a campaign. More experienced GMs who are comfortable with improvisation will enjoy the challenge of running “Nighted” while anyone who wants to take a break from an existing game and run something different will find real delight in Jeffries’ “The Beasts of Gevaudan”: Three great adventures for one very reasonable price… that really is a stone-cold bargain. Plus, the issue’s non-adventure content is typically strong too.

After the letters (a great piece of old-school zine culture) we have Dan Englehardt’s attempt to give an overview of all the Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian investigation RPG-related material published in 2018 and, frankly, I am stunned not only by how much stuff was being produced but also by the effort put into this overview by Englehardt.

My one complaint about this section is that little to no attempt is made to warn people away from duff products or even to guide their attention to specific people or companies that were doing particularly good work; this is very much fan-writer-as-booster rather than fan-writer-as-critic. To his credit, Englehardt does admit to a number of conflicts of interest where he either contributed to specific books or had professional relationships with specific companies but as I said, Englehardt is more interested in providing information about what’s out there than he is in providing any real aesthetic judgements.

As someone who has written reviews under a number of different guises over the years, I admit that this approach does tend to make me a bit grumpy. The problem is not with up-beat coverage per se but rather with the fact that writing your way into a particular industry by writing positive reviews of said industry’s products has now become the primary form of online cultural engagement. Everything is awesome right up until you spend money and wind up disappointed. Everything is awesome right up until your disappointment results in you being more reluctant to spend money next time and maybe the people who don’t get that second sale are the ones producing the genuinely good stuff.

This being said, I acknowledge that the economics of reviewing are difficult. I mean… while I have no conflict of interest with the RPG industry, I am not sure I could afford to access all of the stuff that Englehardt writes about and researching a market you want to contribute to will probably keep you reading a lot longer than simply searching for stuff that might be useful for your own game. I would also argue that the less opinionated nature of Englehardt’s overview makes it more relevant and useful today than it would have been had it been very opinionated: Opinionated reviews written in 2018 would carry the baggage of 2018 discourse and, as someone writing in 2023, I am arguably more interested in knowing what products exist(ed) than I am in knowing how a list of products interacted with the discourse five long years ago. Either way, the overview of Arc Dream’s Delta Green and Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu are superbly informative and that’s before he moves on to all of the zines and scenarios that were produced back in 2018. A really impressive and comprehensive series of overviews but you might want to read some reviews and do some additional research before making any purchasing decisions.

Next up is a piece of Stuart Horvath about Masks of Nyarlathotep that touches not only upon his personal relationship with the campaign but also with the history of the book and how, since its original publication, Chaosium kept periodically republishing the books in a diminished form that inspired Call of Cthulhu fans to not only restore material that was missing from later editions but also to make additions to the material that fixed its glaring problems. Needless to say, Chaosium eventually put out a version of the campaign that took a lot of these modifications on board and charged a huge amount for the latest version of the books whilst taking full credit for all of the amendments. It’s an interesting piece but at one point Horvath mentions that Masks is not exactly ‘woke’ and I would argue that this rather downplays the levels of racism in the original campaign. I mean… when I played the campaign, we used the version produced in the 1990s and that included at least one piece of boxed text containing a racist tirade worthy of Lovecraft himself and that’s without mentioning the fact that the line between goodies and baddies is so thoroughly racialized that the game can sometimes feel like an unmade Indiana Jones film in which Indie takes it upon himself to wage racial holy war. Sure… Masks is not exactly clued-up when it comes to the politics of colonialism but that campaign felt racist when I played it back in the 1990s. Horvath’s piece is beautifully written and it’s obviously intended as a celebration of a historically important RPG product that had only just been re-issued in a form that fits its stature but I think it behoves fans of the game to address these issues head-on.

Speaking of history, this issue of Bayt al Azif republishes a J. Eric Holmes review of first edition Call of Cthulhu with an accompanying piece of commentary by Zach Howard. Howard provides some fascinating context for the review but the Holmes piece is just superb as he articulates a vision of Call of Cthulhu that is very close to the vision that has been articulated in Pulp Cthulhu and through the changes that were stirred through pages of the 7th edition. While Peterson has never been one for acknowledging that his understanding of Lovecraft’s writings was filtered through the more up-beat and pulpy vision of August Derleth, Holmes picks up on the vibe though this may well be a product of the fact that he too understood Lovecraft in Derlethian terms.

I recently put up a review of Michael Fryda’s Keepers’ Reflections and one of the things I really enjoyed about that document was Fryda’s willingness to be open about his influences and the changes he made to Call of Cthulhu in order to turn it into the game he wanted to run for his group. While I will definitely be returning to this issue at some point, one of the things I regret about online discussions about running RPGs is that people tend to go directly to abstracted rules rather than simply walking people through their creative processes and explaining why they chose one thing over the other. Fryda’s openness about his work-flow really opened my eyes as while I didn’t agree with all of his creative decisions, I recognised the decisions that he was forced to make. This issue of Bayt al Azif contains a piece that is just as open, thorny, and provocative as Fryda’s document, it is called “Adapting a Scenario – Our Ladies of Sorrow” by Lisa Padol.

Padol’s piece shares her creative decision-making when trying to set-up a campaign beginning with a scenario by Kevin Ross entitled “Our Ladies of Sorrow”. The issue is that while Padol seemed to really like some aspects of the scenario, others really stuck in her craw and so the piece has Padol trying to articulate her issues with the scenario, exploring different solutions, and then considering a number of rule-variations drawn from a whole host of different Lovecraftian investigation games. While I did struggle to follow some of Padol’s arguments by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the texts she discusses, I really liked the way she thought through different issues and I really appreciate the way that Padol’s cherry-picking of different rule variations inadvertently serves to highlight the differences between the different Lovecraftian investigation RPGs. This was a difficult read but really appreciated.

I also really appreciated Jared Smith’s continuing series on real-world archaeological sites and how they might be twisted to fit into a Mythos-oriented campaign but I felt that this piece on the Temple of Melqart at Marat could have been a bit longer and I wonder whether it wasn’t cut to fill a gap in the existing page-count. Given how glib and touristy Call of Cthulhu supplements about real-world places of historical significance can be, I really appreciate Smith’s attempts to shine a light on lesser-known venues that he himself appears to have visited.

The only pieces I haven’t mentioned are Smith’s editorial, his interview with Call of Cthulhu editor Lynn Hardy and a comic strip written and drawn by Evan Johnston. All are excellent and thoroughly deserving of your time, which strikes me as a fitting description of the second issue of Bayt al Azif.

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