So, once again it’s that time of the year when gamers everywhere get to vote for which of the ENNIEs-shortlisted products they think was best of 2019. While this year’s crop of shortlisted titles certainly has a lot less Cthulhu/weird horror entries than we’ve grown used to, there are some great things there which I’d encourage you to consider when voting.
There are also a few products in there that feature work by yours truly. Those are:
While it has nothing to do with me or Cthulhu Reborn, I’m also really excited to see that Arc Dream’s Delta Green: The Labryrinth has been shortlisted for “Best Supplement”. That will definitely be my first vote!
Selections from the CthuReview 2019
For the past several years I have written a summary article each January which offers an overview of all Cthulhu-related tabletop RPG products that came out in the preceding year. I didn’t do that this January, since I was busy with other things (getting APOCTHULHU ready for press mostly). But the good folks at Bayt al-Azif magazine prompted me later in the year to compile a 2019-year-in-review type article for their wonderful mag. I haven’t had time to serialize that article here — though I still might do that at some point. But as this is ENNIEs season, I thought I’d extract what I wrote about each of the products that made it into the voting shortlists.
Since the two Pelgrane titles that made it to the shortlist were technically released in late 2018, I have also copied my comments about them from last year’s blog posts. Unfortunately, neither of the 2019 or 2018 review articles cover Chaosium’s second edition “Harlem Unbound” … so sadly I have nothing to copy here about that title.
Delta Green: The Labyrinth (Arc Dream)
Back in 2018, Arc Dream ran another in their ongoing series of massively expansive Kickstarter campaigns that start with a single book and ultimately spin off several further titles. The core of that particular campaign was a book titled The Labyrinth which was billed as DG co-creator John Tynes’ grand return to game writing. As mentioned above, I have a huge soft spot for John’s writing from his many great scenarios from the heady days of Pagan Publishing (back in the 1990s). So I was very excited to see what the older-and-no-doubt-wiser Mr Tynes would be able to add to the sprawling canon of the Delta Green universe. Late in 2019, I (and every other backer) got to see exactly that, when the PDF version of The Labyrinth arrived (the print version, plus all the “add-ons” unlocked in the Kickstarter, are still forthcoming).
On a fundamental level, what The Labyrinth delivers is a selection of four allies for your Delta Green agents, and four clear adversaries. “So what?”, you might think, lots of books do that. The real genius of this book lies in the nuanced way in which Tynes has crafted these organizations and individual NPCs, not just to make them feel recognizably “authentic” to the present day but also to feel ambiguous. The four allies are certainly helpful – or at least potentially helpful – but each has a dangerous or destructive element to them as well, usually something that isn’t obvious up-front. The adversary groups aren’t traditional robe-wearing Mythos cults, but organizations that have an agenda that aims to help some portion of the community – whether that be parents who are having trouble starting a family, or people who are lonely souls online. Their ties to the supernatural aren’t obvious, or necessarily motivated out of malice … so are they morally culpable for the horrors they create? Equally parts stunningly creepy and surprisingly inventive, The Labyrinth is an impressive piece of “world-building” (or is that “conspiracy-building”) which could fuel an entire campaign if you were willing to take its many ideas and extrapolate them into scenarios.
New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, 2nd Edition (Stygian Fox)
One major milestone achieved by Stygian Fox was the partial completion of their Kickstarter for New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, 2nd Edition. The PDF version of this book – which is a reprint and expansion of a title by Miskatonic River Press – came out very late in 2019; at the time of writing the print version is still forthcoming. New Tales, in its MRP incarnation, was widely heralded as a milestone book in terms of its well-written scenarios. The Stygian version keeps all those unchanged, adding one new scenario – an Innsmouth-based tale written by Seth Skorkowsky. All the illustrations, maps, handouts, and general look-and-feel have been updated to reflect the very high quality of graphic design which is typical of Stygian Fox books. In all fairness I should point out that the handouts for this book were contributed by yours truly (so I am not entirely unbiased in my assessment), but regardless I think that the book really is one of the more beautiful Call of Cthulhu titles in recent years.
Also noteworthy in this re-release are the all-new redrawn maps of each of the Lovecraft Country locations. These are more than simply recreations of old maps; almost all of them enhance the level of detail mapped out for their respective locations, adding to the collaborative world-building that has defined the game setting.
Berlin: The Wicked City (Chaosium)
Probably the most notable Chaosium Call of Cthulhu release of 2019 – certainly the most commented upon – was David Larkin’s sourcebook and scenario collection Berlin: The Wicked City. This is a curious title for current-day Chaosium to publish, albeit quite a welcome change. It provides a detailed and rather lurid portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, complete with its sleezy nightlife, murky politics, and licentious freedoms of sexual expression. While not many people would otherwise consider cabaret-infused Weimar Republic Germany as a setting for their Call of Cthulhu game, this book does a great job at showing the merits of such a choice. The book presents a lot of background to the several different facet, regions, and ideologies that a Keeper might like to weave into his or her Berlin-based scenario or campaign. This includes the murky politics surrounding the rise of the Nazi party. Not since the days of Gary Gygax’s 1st Edition DMG have I seen so many different terms for ‘prostitute’ grace the pages of an RPG book. But unlike many low-brow game books, the inclusion of such detail really is an essential part of the fabric of the setting … and it’s a topic, along with others such as non-traditional sexualities, that’s handled in a generally very sensitive manner in this book.
Many have also commented that Berlin: The Wicked City has one of the best cover illustrations of any recent Chaosium title, and I would tend to agree with that assessment. As a bold and brave approach to familiarizing readers with a setting that few would have previously encountered, this book deserves the praise it’s received. Whether it’s something you need for your game will depend ultimately on whether your tales of Lovecraftian horror are likely to venture onto The Continent and into the infamous heart of its vice capital.
Pelgrane’s Yellow King RPG + Absinthe in Carcosa (Pelgrane)
Pelgrane Press have established themselves in recent years as a mid-sized publisher that isn’t afraid to take on some absolutely massive honking projects, and largely deliver them on time. A couple of years back their Dracula Dossier product (line) for Night’s Black Agents was a modest Kickstarter which escalated into something bigger than Ben Hur. Their current Kickstarter – for Robin D. Laws’ Yellow King RPG seems somewhat cut from a similar cloth, aiming as it does to create a brand-new RPG with not one but four variant historical settings, each of them a wildly different take on the King in Yellow mythology of Robert W. Chambers.
Strictly speaking, the weird fiction of Robert Chambers is not part of the standard Cthulhu Mythos cycle of stories, but it’s been so closely rolled into virtually every Lovecraftian RPG that I think it’s reasonable to consider it, if not precisely “Lovecraftian” then at least a near neighbour.
Pelgrane’s Kickstarter for the Yellow King RPG funded in July 2017 but had an estimated fulfilment date of December 2018. This is a long lead time for a gaming project (which may have put off some), but it has proven a fairly accurate schedule – the final PDFs for all parts of the game being delivered in early December. Printed versions of the books are still pending.
Trying to describe the Yellow King RPG is not an easy task. On one level it’s easy to understand: it’s yet another Gumshoe-based game of weird investigation. It’s the style of investigative settings and adversaries that makes it something quite unique. Whereas pretty much all existing investigative Lovecraftian games have aimed to set their tales of dark cosmic horror in a recognizable historical or current real-world setting, the Yellow King RPG revels instead on putting players into slightly surreal worlds where normal history has been subverted by the influences of the King in Yellow. If you’ve ever read the original cycle of four “King in Yellow” stories by Chambers, you’ll probably recall how they seem to be set in slightly unsettling versions of the present or near future (e.g., a version of America where there is a Royal family and suicide booths on street corners). The core concept is that the influence of the King in Yellow (the entity, the play, both) is corrosive to normality and causes weird decadence to seep in and warp reality.
Thus, in the first book of the Yellow King RPG, players take on the roles of art students in a warped version of 1890’s Paris. Amid the fin-de-siecle decadence of the “yellow decade” they can run into manifestations which hint that things are not as they should be. The publication of a play called “The King in Yellow” has started to overwrite reality with an alien world called Carcosa. The second book in the Yellow King RPG set (titled The Wars) presents an entirely different set-up but one that is equally warped from established history – it is a version of 1947 where World War 2 has been extended by the alien influences of the Yellow King. Players take on the roles of soldiers fighting on these battlefields of shattered Europe investigating instances of weird supernatural manifestations.
Books Three and Four (Aftermath and This is Normal Now, respectively) provide two different “modern day” types of setting – or rather, places and times which are “twilight zone”-similar to reality as we know it. But in different ways. In Aftermath, the players take on the roles of survivors of the Continental War from Book Two, now living in the 2010s … but the devastating influence of the wars means that “modern day” America is a kind of brutalist totalitarian state where propaganda and society has a more 1950s bent and technology has languished in the 1980s. Conversely, This is Normal Now presents a world that seems on the surface like it is our familiar “real world” of the 2010s (or whenever the game is played) but weirdness and dark secrets lurk not far below – the discovery of which will expose the truth that this world is really nothing like the world we know.
It’s entirely possible to just pick one setting and run a game limited to just that, but the Yellow King RPG is written with an eye to linking the characters from different eras/realities to one another. This could be as a kind of epic multi-setting campaign, or via parallel concurrent game realities intersecting and interweaving with one another. In each of the four settings, the same Gumshoe-based rules are the order of the day, but most of the novelty of the game isn’t in the rules but in the ways in which the setting is presented. As such, it is conceivable that you could ignore the Gumshoe aspects entirely (if that system isn’t to your liking) and use the core material as a sourcebook for whichever weird investigative system you prefer. (But don’t tell Robin Laws I said that.)
In addition to the main four books which make up the Yellow King RPG there are two additional books unlocked during the Kickstarter – one is a book of fiction, while the other is a large “in world” game prop for the 1890s Paris setting. I can’t really comment much on either of those (since I haven’t read the fiction and was involved heavily in the creation of the prop).
Happy ENNIEs Voting!
Voting for the 2020 ENNIEs runs until July 12th and the announcement of winners will be made as a live broadcast that’s part of GenCon Online (July 31st, 8PM EST).