In part 1 of this “review of 2017” we touched on some of the industry-level changes that have reshaped the landscape for Lovecraftian tabletop RPGs in the past year. For this second installment we’ll turn our attention to the products that were released in 2017 … or at least those which made some reference or use of Chaosium’s venerable-and-much-loved game, Call of Cthulhu. As we will see in the next installment, this is only part of the story — recent years has seen a steady increase in the number of releases that aim to deliver Lovecraftian horrors using other game systems.
But, even considering the list of Call of Cthulhu-related products released in 2017 is not a small task. In a typical year, Chaosium and its licensees has historically released somewhere between 10 and 17 books for the game — in 2017 that number was 17. Additionally there were a few notable products that technically saw release in 2016 but finally emerged in print during 2017. And then there are the five “launch titles” in the Miskatonic Repository that snuck out just before Christmas. So … a lot to cover.
As creators of the Call of Cthulhu game, and the largest publishing company currently producing for the line, it’s not surprising that Chaosium’s output in 2017 was the largest of any single producer: some 6 or 7 titles (depending on how you count it).
Probably the most significant Chaosium release for 2017 was Down Darker Trails, the “old west” setting that we already mentioned in part 1 of this review (since it also marks a much-welcomed return by industry veteran Kevin Ross). It’s not very often that Chaosium releases a fully-fledged and detailed new setting for playing Call of Cthulhu investigative horror, so it’s a bit surprising that they didn’t make a little more fanfare when this fine book came out. Delicately balancing historical realism with a pulpy sensibility appropriate to the western genre, DDT is a great addition to the game — and one that can be played with either CoC 7e or Pulp Cthulhu (for an even more two-fisted style). The book makes mention of two further books of scenarios/mini-campaigns that Kevin has already written/co-ordinated — here’s hoping that Chaosium has plans to get those out quickly to build a growing sub-line of western-themed Call of Cthulhu titles!
Another pulp-fuelled release from Chaosium in 2017 was the globe-trotting campaign The Two-Headed Serpent, which is intended to be a supplement to their 2016 release of the much-delayed Pulp Cthulhu setting book. This campaign definitely ticks a lot of the right boxes for a lengthy tale of two-fisted (not-really-investigation-based) battles against Mythos foes in numerous 4-colour locations around the world (and beyond).
On the rules-side of things, Chaosium also released a large hardcover book detailing literally hundreds of spells and magical-effects which have appeared in previously published Call of Cthulhu scenarios/rules, all updated to 7th Edition. This book, The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic, is a nice counterpoint to the core 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu rules. For reasons of space, the core rules needed to cut back heavily on the space allocated to spell descriptions — previous editions had steadily grown this section of the rules each edition, bringing in material from scenario books and the like. This necessary trimming left a small gap: folks playing scenarios written for previous editions of the game might run into occasional spells (like the ubiquitous but absent “Change Weather”) that aren’t described in the rules. Although not a particularly serious problem — and not one I’ve heard anyone complain about — having an encyclopedic and complete set of 7th edition spell rules is nice (even if it does require the Gamemaster to carry around another hardcover).
A surprise release from Chaosium in 2017 was Reign of Terror, a two-part scenario by the illustrious Mark Morrison set around the time of the French Revolution. This release has quite an odd provenance, beginning life as a (final) add-on to the sprawly and mega-Kickstarter for Horror on the Orient Express 2nd Edition. As part of the KS campaign, a few backers were treated to an exclusive scenario written by Mark and run personally for them at GenCon. While this rare and exclusive scenario could have ended there, a decision was made by the uber-backers that this great material shouldn’t be locked away, but shared with all backers. Based on that, Mark brushed up the manuscript to become a free backer-only PDF that dove-tailed nicely with HotOE 2e. Somewhere along the line the development of this freebie kicked up a gear and a set of additional historical, rules-related and setting material relevant to the rather unorthodox setting was written. All of this was packaged into two (somewhat-confusing) versions of the product — one being a free PDF with just the scenario text by Mark plus some basic formatting and illustration, and the other being a fully-fledged hardback book. The latter consists of everything that’s in the free version, re-typeset in Chaosium’s full-colour trade dress and re-illustrated with a lot more colour. Content-wise, it adds perhaps 20 pages of new material.
Another slightly surprising release was a book of modern-day scenarios by Sandy Petersen, the guy who was the primary writer for the first few editions of Call of Cthulhu (but who has largely been absent from the Chaosium line for the past few decades). The book, entitled Petersen’s Abominations, compiles five scenarios which are co-written by Sandy and Mike Mason. These all began life as convention notes for sessions that Sandy had run over the years — most famously fulfilling player’s wishes to be “killed by Sandy Petersen” (yes, really). One of the scenarios in this book, The Derelict, previously saw light-of-day as Chaosium’s “Free RPG Day” release for 2016 but everything else is new.
Rounding out the 2017 Call of Cthulhu game releases by Chaosium is a revamped edition of the classic solo scenario Alone Against The Dark. This new version is substantially the same scenario as the originally, but upgraded for CoC 7e and re-illustrated.
In addition to these six titles, Chaosium also released a novelty item “Call of Cthulhu: The Coloring Book” which is arguably part of the company’s game line (although it has no particular use in the game).
Although not released by Chaosium themselves, there were a few notable licensed items released by others in 2017 that tie-in directly to older Chaosium titles. The most impressive and exciting of these is the Audio Adventure “Brotherhood of the Beast” released by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society as part of the Dark Adventure Radio Theater line. The HPLHS have been working tirelessly over the past several years to create some amazing “30’s style radio drama” adaptations of classic H.P. Lovecraft stories. In the last year or so they’ve been getting a lot more creative and diverse with their releases, and this title is their first foray into the world of adapting a classic-era Chaosium CoC campaign (the Keith Herber campaign variously called “Fungi from Yuggoth” or “Brotherhood of the Beast”) to audio. Spread over 3 CDs and featuring four different optional endings, it’s a great adaptation. But what makes this release particularly remarkable is the deluxe version which adds a huge satchel full of physical props (see the picture above; and yes it really does look just like that).
Another series of Chaosium-related physical props that were created in 2017 came from the two successful Kickstarter campaigns run by Delphes Desvoivres which produced beautiful prop-quality artefacts for chapters of Masks of Nyarlathotep.
Aside from Chaosium, the only company to produce two brand-new Call of Cthulhu titles in 2017 was Cubicle 7 who continue to impress with the high-quality items delivered as part of their World War Cthulhu: Cold War Kickstarter. While the 1970s espionage setting is not an obvious one for Lovecraftian investigation, the previous work done in establishing a format for World War Cthulhu (in the WWII era) means that the format largely works. In 2017, Cubicle 7 was originally intending to release the final THREE books promised to backers of the Cold War Kickstarter, but due to a set of unfortunate circumstances the campaign book “Yesterday’s Men” was ultimately cancelled after two different writing teams both failed to deliver. Backers were given credit for the undelivered book.
The two titles that did see release are Covert Actions and Our American Cousins. The former is a book of six standalone scenarios (or missions) which see players travel to a range of different 1970s political hotspots on the trail of the Cthulhu Mythos. The second book is a kind of add-on to the core “World War Cthulhu: Cold War” book, which itself takes a British-centric focus to Cold War spying. The new book counteracts that a little, by providing information about US operations around the globe, as well as an additional scenario.
In addition to producing these two new books, Cubicle 7 also successfully closed out the very last parts of their earlier Kickstarter for the Cthulhu Britannica: London box. Although most items were delivered long ago, there remained two sets of cards to be delivered for backers — one set of Postcards (lots of period London-themed postcards with scenario hooks attached), and another set called “Cards from the Smoke” (a deck of threats and encounters which can be used for chases or improvised scenario building).
Sadly, none of the Cubicle 7 items mentioned above are available any more, due to their decision to terminate their license for Call of Cthulhu.
Although Sixtystone did not publish any new products in 2017, they did achieve a couple of notable things — the first being the shipment of backer copies of the doorstop-sized “Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion”. This encyclopedic reference had been available to backers as a PDF for some time, but production problems had several times delayed its physical release. Finally, 2017 saw the end to this long (and, no doubt very painful, production process).
Also during 2017, Sixtystone released physical versions of the modern-day scenario “Lost in the Lights” which was released in PDF (for CoC 6e) back in 2013 but never saw print at the time due to a variety of problems plaguing some of the creators. Updated to 7th Edition, this new full-colour print looks very spiffy indeed — and the Las Vegas-based scenario by Jeff Moeller is about as bonkers as you’d expect.
As mentioned in part 1 of this retrospective, changes with Chaosium’s licensing model for Call of Cthulhu had some impacts in 2017 on smaller publishers. For a few it meant the opportunity to produce books under license for the very first time — all-in-all there were four brand-new licensees in 2017 (Dark Cult Games, Darker Hue Studios, Trepan, and Weird 8). Here’s a quick roundup of the products they released:
- Weird 8 released “Sun Spots” a 1920s scenario by Dave Sokolowski which has an interesting history. It was originally planned for a cancelled Miskatonic River Press book of scenarios about Lovecraftian god-like entities, and as such had been edited by the (now sadly departed) legend of the game, Keith Herber. Dave ran a very successful Kickstarter to revise and release this scenario as a self-published book
- Darker Hues Studio released “Harlem Unbound” which an interesting counterpoint to the traditional Lovecraftian tropes of all-white investigators plunging headlong into danger amid a society filled with (historical) racism. Chris Spivey ran a successful Kickstarter to publish a remarkable and unique sourcebook which focusses on the vibrant black society of 1920s Harlem and challenges players to take on the roles of black people who are the subject — as opposed to the perpetrators — of racism. An interesting book. Also interesting is the decision by Darker Hues to make the book a dual-statted release with both Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe (Trail of Cthulhu) statistics.
- Trepan released “The Haunted Clubhouse”, a smallish PDF-only release by Melbourne-based writer, Leigh Carr. It features a modern-day scenario set in New Hampshire (although sadly I’ve yet to read it).
- Dark Cult Games released a sandbox-style scenario called “The Star on the Shore” before (somewhat confusingly) changing their company name to New Comet Games. The scenario is well-illustrated.
In addition to these four brand-new publishers, there were also another fiveestablished producers who also released one title in 2017. They are:
- Stygian Fox released “Hudson & Brand”, a setting/organisation book for Gaslight-era London. This rather beautifully laid-out book describes the Hudson & Brand Inquiry Agency, an established private investigation service that can either be a source of work for player characters or a source of baffling cases. The book also includes a couple of scenarios. Currently available to backers only.
- As mentioned in part 1 of this round-up, a notable publication in 2017 was the Golden Goblin resurrection of a “lost gem” by Scott David Aniolowsi, “Cold Warning.” This 30 page scenario was the product of a rather unusual Kickstarter campaign that only ran for one week (but was still highly successful). Scott’s scenario is a great example of a “classic era” type scenario brought up to modern production and writing standards.
- The illustrious Sentinel Hill Press re-released Issue 1 of their Arkham Gazette magazine, dedicated to the town of Arkham and its inhabitants.
- Somewhat of a surprise, Modiphius released part 3 of the “Zero Point” campaign for Achtung! Cthulhu — the first part of this multi-book campaign by Sarah Newton came out right at the beginning of Acthung! Cthulhu’s publication history … though this third chapter, “Code of Honour” (set in Istanbul 1942), has been much delayed for some reason. Looks nice but I haven’t yet had a chance to read it.
- Also somewhat surprising from Modiphius is the release of an Audio drama set in the Acthung! Cthulhu world.
- Finally Skirmisher, publishers of Cthulhu Live (which is technically a variant of Call of Cthulhu) produced a new LARP script called “The Return of Cyris Crane” (or more accurately an update of an earlier script with a slightly different name).
As mentioned in part 1 of the retrospective, Chaosium launched the Miskatonic Repository, its community publication vehicle shortly before Christmas 2017 (making it all of about three weeks old at the time of writing). I haven’t yet read any of the titles available for sale … but here is a list of the six that were made available prior to the end of 2017:
- “The Scales of Time” by Michael Nagel
- “The Trail of the Monolith” by Michael Nagel
- “Terror Itself” by James Coquillat and David Naylor
- “Plague” by Matt Ryan and Noah Lloyd
- “Isle of Madness” by Edward Possing
- “Jasper St. Jones Got The Prettiest Bones” by Tristan Jusola-Sanders
- “The Idol of Thoth” by Joe Trier
Phew … that was a lot of Call of Cthulhu stuff to describe. But that is only half the story for Lovecraftian RPG material produced in 2017. For the next part I will tackle the task of tracking down the Lovecraft-related material produced for other game systems in 2017.
To be continued …