REVIEW: Scream of the Mandrake

It is interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of Call of Cthulhu adventures tend to fall into one of two camps: Either they are vast sprawling campaigns that will take years to complete, or they are stand-alone adventures with settings so precise that it is all but impossible to fold them into any kind of on-going campaign.

This is because the nature of available Call of Cthulhu adventures is shaped by the market and the market is informed by the reasons for people buying Call of Cthulhu adventures in the first place. In truth, if you are in the market for Call of  Cthulhu adventures then you are either looking to pay top-dollar for a luxury product produced by Chaosium, or you are looking for a single-session adventure that you might be able to squeeze into a break between D&D campaigns.

While I have gone back-and-forth on their product a few times, I think it’s fair to say that Type40 are in the business of publishing terrible adventures with really good production values. If you buy a Type40 product, you will get some really good hand-outs, some pre-generated characters, a more-or-less evocative idea for a scenario, and very little else. Sure… there’s usually a basic plot and writer Allan Carey might come up with an interesting puzzle or set-piece but there’s usually no real plot and most ‘adventures’ amount to little more than an initial set up, a dramatic conclusion, and a few notes to help you guide your party from Step A to Step B. It’s shitty, it’s lazy, it’s grotesquely over-priced, and it’s utterly devoid of anything approaching creative ambition, but it is accessible and therein lays the rub.

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ZC: Bayt al Azif – Issue 1

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.

I grew up in the interregnum between two eras of fanzine creation: On the one hand, I am a bit too young to remember when mimeographed amateur zines were the only way that fans had to communicate aside from face-to-face meetings. On the other hand, I had drifted away from the hobby when online payment infrastructures and improved access to on-demand and off-set printing began to make zines a popular means of getting your stuff out there while also by-passing professional publishing.

Having returned to the hobby to find a flourishing (some might even say over-heating) market for zines, I am now playing catch-up and this series will give me an excuse to actually do some thinking about both the format and the kind of stuff that is being put out there.

My memories of RPG zines are dominated by two very different sets of titles. The first was a Nephilim fanzine I got based on an advert in the back of a magazine and that included a load of weird stuff about the author’s local cathedral and an absolute head-fuck of a campaign in which the PCs wound up inhabiting the bodies of the players. Despite not being able to remember the name of said fanzine, I remember being blown away by the complexity of the ideas and the fact that the whole thing felt intimately personal to one person’s vision of the game. My second set of memories is of The Unspeakable Oath. While that particular Call of Cthulhu fanzine was resurrected in the early 2010s, I can remember buying a few copies of the original Pagan Publishing run in which John Tynes laid out a vision that I now realise has since become not only the default understanding of Call of Cthulhu but of all Lovecraft-inspired games of investigative horror.

Billed as “a magazine for Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying games”, Jared Smith’s Bayt al Azif first appeared in 2018 and has since seen four separate issues.  I got my copies in the form of a PDF from DriveThruRPG but you can also use DTRPG’s print-on demand service to get it in the form of a hard-copy.

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REVIEW: Tickets Please for Call of Cthulhu

Tickets Please is a self-contained Call of Cthulhu adventure that is part of Type40’s ‘Adventure Seed’ series of scenarios. Like the other instalments in the series, Tickets Please is short and relies on superior production values to convince buyers that a series of really quite sparse notes are actually a viable adventure.

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REVIEW: The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos by S.T. Joshi

As someone who has been writing quite a bit about Lovecraft of late, it occurred to me that I should probably try and familiarise myself with some of the scholarly discourse surrounding his work and its legacy.

Aside from Lovecraft’s racism, the most obvious point of entry seemed to be the question of whether Lovecraft’s stories merely overlap or whether the referencing, shared names, and recurring settings amount to anything akin to an extended literary universe or ‘mythos’.

As a Lovecraft reader, my assumption has always been that while Lovecraft had this list of Named Entities that he would return to in story after story, said Named Entities were never deployed in a particularly coherent or consistent fashion.

I assumed that whenever Lovecraft needed one of his characters to read from some mind-shredding book of forbidden lore, he’d drop a reference to the Necronomicon because having the Necronomicon feature in a load of different stories strengthened its symbolic power as a representation of ‘forbidden lore that will melt your shit’. I did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had a clear idea as to what the Necronomicon actually contained.

Similarly, when Lovecraft made repeated references to Arkham or Kingsport, I assumed it was because he wanted to set the action in either a coastal town or a mid-sized city and rather than using real-world places that he could ‘get wrong’ he used made-up places which, though inspired by the real world, could be bent and twisted to suit the needs of a given story. It did not occur to me that Lovecraft might have had these fictional towns all planned out in his head like Tolkien drawing maps of the Shire. In other words, I assumed that, for Lovecraft, a commitment to coherent world-building was much less of a priority than producing stories that ‘worked’ and hit specific thematic and affective beats.

The first inkling that maybe people were not reading Lovecraft in the same way I was came when I started encountering Joshi’s repeated angry references to the so-called ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ and while I had always assumed that the term was just a means of referring to the content of Lovecraft’s stories, it is a term that has actually been subject to a surprising amount of discourse. This somewhat frustrating book purports to describe the rise and fall of one very specific vision of that mythos, but it does so using entirely the wrong set of critical tools.

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REVIEW: Berlin – The Wicked City

Yes… I know I said that I was going to start backing away from reviewing Call of Cthulhu supplements. Yes… I know that my experiences reviewing Call of Cthulhu setting books have not exactly been brilliant. I am making an exception for Berlin – The Wicked City as a) I happen to own a hard copy and b) while I was not entirely sold on Cthulhu Dark Ages it did spark enough ideas to make me take a further look at the more recent suite of setting books put out under the auspices of 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.

Long story short: While I’m still not convinced that Chaosium know how to produce setting books, David Larkins, Mike Mason, and Lynne Hardy have crammed so many fascinating ideas into Berlin – The Wicked City that the book transcends its formal limitations. They key to getting the most out of this supplement is not to view it as a setting book but rather as a short campaign set in Weimar-era Germany.

I have been sitting on this book for a while because reading Secrets of New York, Secrets of Los Angeles, and Secrets of New Orleans left me with little faith that Chaosium could produce a book about Weimar-era Germany without tripping over their own dicks and tumbling head-first into bad politics. It’s not even a question of being more racist or regressive than the rest of the gaming industry, it’s more a question of Chaosium having a long history of lax editorial standards on material that was already under-imagined. I can’t remember Chaosium having a corporate motto but for the last couple of decades at least, the company’s entire ethos has been ‘this will probably do’.

I sat on this book as I fully expected it to be an exploration of lazy centre-right ideas about the rise of Nazism. I was expecting not just stuff about degenerate art being a sign of corruption but also a load of stuff about Weimar-era progressivism being a kind of Lovecraftian accelerationism whereby people challenging traditional attitudes to sex and experimenting with gender-reassignment protocols turns out to be some kind of orchestrated cultish provocation designed to enflame salt-of-the-earth German and thereby trigger the rise of Nazism Mercifully, these fears turned out to be baseless as that is not what this book is about.

I sat on this book expecting it to be a series of really lazy and tedious historical opinions but it surprised and delighted me by articulating a Lovecraftian vision of Weimar-era Berlin that is rich, detailed, evocative, and very close to genuinely progressive. However, much like Cthulhu Dark Ages, this is a book full of lovely ideas that are let down by some weird ideas about how to put together a setting-specific sourcebook.

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REVIEW: Cthulhu Dark Ages

Sandy Petersen once observed that while Chaosium may have agreed to publish an RPG based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, there were always more interested in the idea of a historical adventure game inspired by the kind of golden age pulp magazines that would habitually refuse to publish Lovecraft’s work. While the names at the top of Chaosium may have changed a few times in the intervening decades, there remains an institutional bias towards the historical and against the horrific. This is obvious in the company’s habitual production of globe-trotting adventure campaigns, in the tendency of sourcebook to resemble Lonely Planet guides to 1920s cities, and in the range of topics covered by their experimental range of monographs.

Chaosium’s innate bias towards historical Simulationism was also influential on non-Anglophonic versions of the game produced by third-party publishers who would often attempt to localise Call of Cthulhu by providing sourcebooks designed to help you play in your native country. Indeed, many of my early experiences with the game involved scenarios set against a background of a France still recovering from the trauma and chaos of World War I. While a lot of these localisations were content to swap currencies and provide male adventurers with differently-shaped hats, some local publishers proved a touch more ambitious.

For example, back in the early 00s, the German games company Pegasus Spiele were publishing a Call of Cthulhu-related magazine entitled Cthulhoide Welten when they received an English manuscript by Stephane Gesbert about running games in dark ages Germany. Pegasus translated the manuscript into German and released it as a special edition of Cthulhoide Welten entitled Cthulhu 1000AD. In 2004, Chaosium took Gesbert’s ideas and used them as the basis for Cthulhu Dark Ages, a game designed to support Call of Cthulhu campaigns set in dark ages England. Successful enough to prompt the publication of several supplements released through Chaosium’s slightly iffy monograph series, Cthulhu Dark Ages is now on its third somewhat chaotic edition.

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REVIEW: The Drooler in the Dark

The Drooler in the Dark is a 5-page PDF designed to function as long-term background colour for an on-going campaign with a fixed location. Originally written in 1992 by Michael LaBossiere, the text has been updated a number of times including for the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. It can be downloaded from DriveThruRPG for free but the pay-what-you-want suggested contribution is 50 cents.

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REVIEW: Sorrow in Tsavo

First published in 2020, written by Bridgett Jeffries with editing and layout work by Jared Smith, Sorrow in Tsavo is a single-session Call of Cthulhu adventure set in 1890s Colonial Africa. The PDF is 43-pages long and includes six pre-generated characters with specific ties to the story so it cannot be easily integrated into a campaign. Thoughtfully written and full of lovely touches, Sorrow in Tsavo is undoubtedly one of the best recent Call of Cthulhu adventures I have discovered on DriveThruRPG.

I have in the past remarked that Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks all too often feel like sourcebooks for a 1920s adventure game that just happens to contain elements of Lovecraftian horror.

This certainly rings true when you consider the way that setting books struggle to strike a balance between historical accuracy and game-relevant content meaning that sourcebooks dedicated to places like New York wind up feeling like Lonely Planet guides to a version of 1920s New York that was identical to our own except there’s a bunch of ghouls living in an old building.

To make matters worse, while Chaosium are undoubtedly more interested in history than horror, their engagement with the stuff of history is usually paper-thin and often amounts to little more than over-researched set dressing. Rare is the adventure or sourcebook that looks at a historical period and uses Lovecraft as a means of emphasising certain themes and ideas. Bridgett Jeffries’ Sorrow in Tsavo is a rare and refreshing exception to that depressing rule.

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REVIEW: Refractions of Glasston

Written by Sam Guinsatao, Carson Jacobs, Joy Lemont, Elijah Oates, Rayce Patterson, Emily Pawlowski, and J. Tucker White, Refractions of Glasston was first published in April 2019 as a scenario for 1920s Call of Cthulhu. 46 pages long including illustrations, maps, hand-outs, and pre-rolled characters, this two session scenario is currently available to download from DriveThruRPG for free.

Set in Northwest Indiana, the adventure revolves around a glass company that claims to have created an unbreakable jar. Having arrived in town, the characters are encouraged to wander around talking to people and noticing things until they come to realise that the town’s booming glass industry has sinister underpinnings.

Okay… so that summary makes this adventure sound a little bit silly and that intuition is not without its merits. However, while Refractions of Glasston may have a few rough edges and boasts a number of perplexing creative decisions, both the peculiarity of its origins and the rigour of its execution make it an interesting piece in its own right and a fascinating counterpoint to Stygian Fox’s somewhat similar Under a Winter’s Snow (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago).

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