Cthulhu in 2018: A Retrospective, part 3

In the first blog posting in this series I provided the “helicopter-view” of the year’s releases, which is probably the place to look if you want a quick overview. The rest of this series will consist of more details about individual 2018 releases.

Call of Cthulhu Licensee Releases

Ever since the “golden age” of 1990s, the notion of some kind of licensing model has been an important part of the Call of Cthulhu publishing ecosystem. Licensees provide Chaosium with a very handy supplemental product line to keep the game supported even at times when Chaosium itself is otherwise occupied. In recent times, licensees have been made up of two distinct classes – established game professional companies (e.g., Modiphius, Goodman Games) who wish to create Call of Cthulhu content, and smaller indie presses (e.g., Golden Goblin, Stygian Fox) who exist mostly to put out CoC content.

As noted in previous parts of this review, 2018 was a year when Chaosium itself had most of its production resources tied up with creating a single large-scale title. In such an environment, the output of Licensees is arguably even more important to the overall output of the extended CoC product line. Interestingly, the last two of the professional-sized companies with CoC licenses (mentioned above) put out nothing during 2018. Three of the smaller indie licensees did, however, create some great new content for the game.

Fear’s Sharp Little Needles (Stygian Fox): Stygian Fox, owned and operated by Stephanie McAlea, burst onto the CoC licensee scene in 2016 with The Things We Leave Behind, perhaps the best modern-day scenario collection published in a long time. Fear’s Sharp Little Needles (FSLN from here on) is a kind of spiritual successor to that book, in that it likewise aims to present the modern setting through a gritty and grown-up kind of lens. Whereas the earlier book was made up of normal scenarios, FSLN is a collection of small “mini-scenarios” each only about five pages long – but it contains a LOT of them. In all there are 25 of these mini-scenarios plus one longer scenario by Jeff Moeller. Stygian have done a great job at pulling together a talented and varied line-up of writers which lends the book a kind of breadth of vision which few scenario books can boast. It’s full-colour interior also looks great. Overall, I would rate this as the classiest of the CoC licensee products for 2018. One small blight that seemed to impact the final production of FSLN was some last-minute hiccups which created some late delays and frayed nerves.

[Full Disclosure: I created the handouts for Stygian Fox’s Fear’s Sharp Little Needles]

The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus (Golden Goblin): Back in late 2016 Chaosium announced that Golden Goblin Press, owned and operated by Oscar Rios, had been granted an exclusive license to produce CoC material in the Invictus (Ancient Rome) setting. Previously there had been two editions of Cthulhu Invictus – the first as a Miskatonic University Monograph, the second as part of the main CoC product line. Both of those books were written by Chad Bowser and Andi Newton. Oscar Rios has himself written and published a huge amount of content for the Invictus setting and doubtless his track record played an important part in Golden Goblin securing the licensing rights. In early 2017, a Kickstarter was run to fund the creation of a new edition of Cthulhu Invictus, this time targeting the current (7th) edition Call of Cthulhu rules. Interestingly, the decision was taken not to adapt the previous edition’s text but to rewrite everything from scratch. The resulting book, The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus finally emerged in print in late 2018 after a few production delays. The resulting book is an attractive and information-packed guide which gives you everything you’d need to get started playing in Ancient Rome. Interestingly it has full-colour interiors despite the Kickstarter only funding it for black-and-white: that’s a win for backers and other purchasers I guess. It also has a brand-new scenario from one of the original Invictus creators, Chad Bowser.

Devil’s Swamp (New Comet Games): Ben Burns previously published a licensed CoC title (The Star on the Shore) in 2017 under the imprint Dark Cult Games. With a brand-new company name, Ben ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in October 2017 for the creation of Devil’s Swamp.  The core concept behind this project was to construct a 1920s scenario anthology in which each tale is set in or around the Hockomock Swamp in Massachusetts. Thanks to hitting numerous stretch goals, this book blossomed from being a modest one to being something much larger which also brought in the talents of other writers. Rather than attempt to summarize the scenarios, interested readers are directed to this online review: http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2018/10/undeveloped-territory.html . One interesting aspect of the publication of Devil’s Swamp is that, like another title, it too was hit with an unexplained 11th hour delay at the final Chaosium approvals stage (in the same week, no less) which caused a week or two’s rework.

Lovecraft-related Stuff from Pelgrane Press

While Pelgrane Press are probably best known in Cthulhu circles as the publishers of the Gumshoe-fuelled 1930s investigative game Trail of Cthulhu, in the last year or two they have been experimenting with other types of Lovecraftian content. One of the outputs of this mad-scientist’s laboratory is The Fall of Delta Green which we already discussed in Part 2 of this review; other creations from 2018 are described below.

[Note: there is some complexity to how Pelgrane has approached licensing from Chaosium – as best I can tell anything which comes out under the name “Trail of Cthulhu” is a licensed property, but any other kind of Lovecraftian release from Pelgrane is entirely independent of licensing. The latter includes 2017’s Cthulhu Confidential as well as The Fall of Delta Green and The Yellow King RPG.]

Cthulhu City (Pelgrane, Trail of Cthulhu): Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s Cthulhu City is a strange beast to be sure. It is a detailed sand-box-style setting which aims to present “Great Arkham” – an amalgam of all of the fictional Massachusetts locations of Lovecraft’s tales: Arkham, Kingsport, etc., as seen through the lens of a dark and slightly-surreal dream. It’s an Arkham where the witch-haunted gambrels sit side-by-side with windowless cyclopean skyscrapers; where the normal folk rub shoulders with weird and sinister people and things which defy easy categorisation. If you’ve ever seen the movie Dark City (1998) the best way describe Cthulhu City is to imagine what would emerge if a fevered writer binge-read the collected works of HPL on the same weekend as he or she watched Dark City on a loop … and then allowed all those different ideas to mash together in their mind, possibly with some chemical assistance.  I’ll be honest: when I first heard about this book I thought I would absolutely hate it, as I am a bit of a purist about the Herber/Ross invention of Lovecraft Country from the 1990s. But reading through Gareth’s vast and idea-rich depiction of a nightmarish riff on everything Lovecraftian, I eventually fell in love with it. The format for the “sourcebook” takes its cues more from loose improvisational toolkits like The Armitage Files or the Dracula Dossier than it does from traditional location sourcebooks. Thus, rather than trying to describe every key location in the vast and sprawling city, it divides the settlement up into regions and then describes a combination of specific landmarks, reusable stock locations, and a plethora of character types and weird phenomena that could be dropped in as needed. The intent is that the weird “Great Arkham” can serve as a setting for an entire surreal story, or act as a kind of dream-mirror to the real-world Arkham in some not-quite-definable way. In its own way Cthulhu City is a masterpiece, but admittedly it’s a quirky masterpiece which serves a narrow purpose extremely well.

Hideous Creatures (Pelgrane; Trail of Cthulhu): Between 2013 and 2016 Kenneth Hite, one of Pelgrane’s star writers, ran a PDF subscription series of monthly snippets of game source material. That (award-winning) series was called Ken Writes About Stuff. About half of the issues were pieces which focussed on revisiting Lovecraft’s horrific creations and breathing new life into them. Fast forward a few years and Pelgrane Press has decided to collect these popular pieces about Lovecraftian monsters both common (e.g., Deep Ones, Shoggoths, Byakhee) and previously unseen (e.g., Vampirish Vapours, Ultraviolet Devourers) under a single cover. The resulting book is Hideous Creatures – subtitled “A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos.” Rather than simply reprint the material from the earlier PDFs, Pelgrane have made the decision to overhaul and in some cases vastly expand the descriptions of the creatures. They have also created a set of “in world” prop documents – one set per creature type – which provide a portentous account of someone’s encounter with the weird. In all, the book describes 31 different Mythos beasties: for each of them there are Trail of Cthulhu statistics, but most of the page count is given over to non-mechanical description. These sections include ways to vary the monstrosity to present a different version to players, real-world myths that might somehow be connected to the terror, forms of clues that a GM could drop into an investigation, and a few non-statted scenario ideas which portray the creature in a different light. Basically, a good proportion of this is useful regardless of whichever Lovecraftian game you’re playing … especially if your goal is to portray the different horrors of the Mythos in ways that riff on the original writings of HPL rather than remaining tied chapter-and-verse to a rulebook’s depiction.

[Full Disclosure: I did most of the interior layout, some art composition, and all the handouts for this book. While a PDF version has gone out to pre-orderers a general release is still pending as is the final print release.]

Cthulhu Confidential: The Shadow Over Washington (Pelgrane): Back in 2017 Pelgrane launched a new product line called Gumshoe One-2-One which is basically an adaptation of the investigative ruleset specifically designed for situations when there is one GM and one player. The system was launched via the publication of Cthulhu Confidential, a standalone Lovecraftian game of film noir-ish crime and detection. Set in either the late 1930s – the same setting as Pelgrane’s Trail of Cthulhu titles – or the early 1940s, the style of the game has a distinct Raymond Chandler overtone which sets it apart from any previous game. Since the release of Cthulhu Confidential, Pelgrane have put out several PDFs each of which contains an additional case for one of the hardboiled detectives featured in the core ruleset (LA shamus Dex Raymond, NYC crusading journalist Vivian Sinclair, and African-American WW2 vet Langston Wright from Washington DC). Five of those supplements came out in mid-to-late 2017, but a sixth was released in early 2018 – The Shadow Over Washington, a Langston Wright case written by Chris Spivey.

Skirmisher’s Cthulhu Live (LARP) Scripts

While necessarily not on the radar for the mainstream of Lovecraftian gamers, indie publisher Skirmisher Publishing continues its long mission to create and publish new scripts for Cthulhu Live, the LARP ruleset for Lovecraftian gaming. Cthulhu Live has been around since the late 1990s and one of its edition was even published by Chaosium – but these days it seems like it’s something that Skirmisher alone are supporting.

In 2018 two new scripts were released for Cthulhu Live:

  • The Ageless: A 1920s script based around an Egyptian sarcophagus and the mummy contained therein.
  • One Starry Night: A modern-day script (which also suggests it can be played as a tabletop Call of Cthulhu game) set in Arkham, MA. A friendly scientist recently returned from the excavation of G’harne in western Africa asks the investigators over for tea …

Magazines

In the 1980s and 90s, gaming magazines were a favourite medium for publishing shorter Call of Cthulhu content, although this practice died off somewhat with the advent of the Internet and easy online self-publication. More recently again, gaming magazines seem to have made a resurgence in the last few years. Indeed, 2018 was perhaps the best year for Cthulhu tabletop gaming magazines in quite a long time – with three separate titles each releasing an issue.

The Unspeakable Oath, Issue #25 (Arc Dream / Pagan Publishing): The venerable old Unspeakable Oath, it seems, just won’t die. After being on hiatus for nine years (2001 to 2010) it was resurrected and published on a semi-orderly schedule until 2014 when it appeared to once again be put on indefinite hold. In July 2018 to many people’s surprise, it sprang up with little warning and released a brand-new issue (PDF and print). Issue #25 is an attractive if slim production, the first issue of TUO to feature a full-colour interior. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is its split between material written for Call of Cthulhu and material written for Arc Dream’s own Delta Green RPG (described in Part 2 of this review). While the magazine contains some of each, it’s clear that the focus for scenarios and other longer content is on the Delta Green system. Also interesting is that at the same time as releasing TUO #25, Arc Dream announced that this will be the final publication under the old subscription model – the suggestion is that in future content might be made available under some kind of Patreon model.

Arkham Gazette, Issue #2 (Sentinel Hill Press; KS updated version): For some time, Sentinel Hill Press have been working on updated versions of older issues of their Arkham Gazette gaming magazine for both PDF and print release. This work began back on 2014 when Sentinel Hill ran a successful Kickstarter to find the creation of Issue #3 of the Gazette – and as a stretch goal to also revise and re-release all preceding issues. In 2018 the last of these reissues came out – Issue #2: Innsmouth. True to their track record, this re-release is a thoroughly-researched and scholarly piece which nicely distils the horrors of Innsmouth into bite-sized chunks that could be useful in games of Lovecraftian investigation. It features more source material than you could shake a Deep One thighbone at, as well as a lengthy scenario by Sentinel Hill head honcho Bret Kramer.

[Full disclosure: Arkham Gazette, Issue #2 contains several handouts designed by me.]

Bayt al Azif, Issue #1 (Jared Smith): Perhaps one of the more surprising releases of 2018 was the first issue of a brand-new magazine for Lovecraftian tabletop gaming, Bayt al Azif. The brainchild of Jared Smith, the first issue of Bayt is simply dripping with old-school nostalgia while also having a contemporary full-colour interior. The issue contains a variety of different content, ranging from scenarios (a solo scenario set in Miskatonic U, a Dark Ages scenario, and a modern scenario), source material, ideas for running games, and even an interview with Chris Spivey. Rather than try to summarize the whole thing here, we suggest you check out this review: https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/17/17904.phtml

[Full disclosure: The Bayt al Azif article “CthuReview 2017” is a reprint of text that first appeared here on Cthulhu Reborn, written by me. It was reprinted with my permission.]

Zines: Those who came to gaming since 2000 or so might struggle to believe that once-upon-a-time a lot of the really interesting new writing in the RPG world took place on the pages on small amateur semi-periodicals hand-printed, stapled, and sent from the editor’s basement. Those shoddily-printed super-small-press publications were called “fanzines” or simply “zines.” Believe it or not, the gaming Zine phenomenon is starting to make a bit of a comeback, and even intruding into the Cthulhu world. In 2018 at least five Zines with Lovecraft-related game-content were circulated:

 

<< That’s it for part three of this retrospective series; in part four we’ll cast our eye further afield to try to summarize some of the Lovecraft-inspired products produced for other RPG systems >>


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