Today we continue our serialized version of the CthuReview article that appeared originally in Bayt al Azif #3. The purpose of the article was to summarize all Lovecraftian RPG products that were released in 2019 (the article was written in April 2020). So far, we’ve blogged the parts of the article that describe Chaosium’s output for that calendar year, and also the output of the main Call of Cthulhu licensees.
In this post we begin to venture into more diverse corners of the Tabletop RPG world, to describe other places where Lovecraftian themes were baked into 2019 products …
Arc Dream’s excellent d100-based game of modern-day Lovecraftian conspiracy and investigation just seems to keep going from strength-to-strength. In 2019 there were seven new titles, one of which represents the return to RPG writing of one of my personal favourite game authors, John Tynes. All up, it was a pretty good year for Delta Green.
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.
The most substantial physical product release for Delta Green in 2019 is the hardback book Control Group. This is a scenario anthology of four adventures written by Greg Stolze and Shane Ivey. “BLACKSAT” takes Delta Green agents into one of the most unlikely places for a mission – low Earth orbit. “Night Visions” has them investigating some unusual and dangerous events in remote regions of Afghanistan. “Sick Again” is set in a more mundane locale – the American South West – but involves some rather unusual circumstances as players take on the roles of researchers trying to understand a mystery disease outbreak.
The final scenario, “Wormwood Arena” involves an investigation into a New Age cult in Kansas, a weird sigil, and some related disappearances. Of course, all of these missions are much more than they appear on the surface, and each one veers off into unexpected (but entertaining) peril and destruction. Nobody would expect any less from Delta Green.
As well as creating larger hardback books for Delta Green, Arc Dream also publishes slender saddle-stapled books containing individual scenarios. In 2019, they released Sweetness which is one such title, albeit the absolutely most slender example. One wonders at the merits of releasing a 16-page product as a standalone physical booklet, especially when the actual scenario only occupies about 10 pages. I guess collector-folk (like me) will pay for it regardless of the slimness of the stapled booklet. The scenario, written by Dennis Detwiller, is a kind of testament to the ways in which involvement with Delta Green can ruin a person’s life.
Delta Green is a peculiar game in that it actively encourages – insists really – that players brush up their knowledge of the structure of US Government agencies. This is, after all, where DG agents come from and it’s inside these agencies that they find their “cover” identities to avoid detection by the forces of the Unnatural, but more routinely the opposing conspiracy. The Complex provides 21 new agency descriptions (here called “dossiers”) covering a range of Law Enforcement, Defense, Intelligence, Public Safety, and other agencies … as well as a few private sector organisations (mostly those with ties to the military).
For each organization there’s some general background as well as plenty of practical advice on playing a character from that background; this includes recommended profession templates. Perhaps not the most riveting subject matter, but when it comes to empowering players and Handlers to create a diverse range of agents and NPCs, it’s good practical stuff. The Complex was primarily released as a PDF although it is also available as a Print On Demand title on DriveThruRPG for those who crave hardcopy.
As well as the print (and future print) books mentioned above, Arc Dream also released several PDF-only scenarios in 2019. Here’s the list:
- Future/Perfect 3 and 4: Dennis Detwiller’s multi-part campaign has been progressively been getting a more professional treatment and release, and in 2019 parts 3 and 4 saw release in PDF.
- Ex Oblivione: Another Detwiller scenario, this one focusses on gruesome ritualistic murders in a small town in Arizona. What starts as an X-Files-ish kind of investigation has the potential to turn into something much more dangerous, as a horror with ties to the earliest days of Delta Green becomes involved.
- A Victim of the Art: Yet another Detwiller scenario, this one involving a serial killer on Long Island who leaves victims in terribly mutilated state and strangely positioned.
In recent years one of the welcome alternative voices in Lovecraftian RPG publishing has been Pelgrane Press. Whether it’s their Trail of Cthulhu titles, or more recently their Cthulhu Confidential or Yellow King RPG books, Pelgrane have always been an innovative voice which dares to challenge some of the deep stereotypes of Lovecraftian games. Unfortunately, for reasons (I am guessing) of logistics and time limitations Pelgrane released almost no Lovecraft-related new releases in 2019. Doubtless the huge pressures of getting the print versions of the massive, sprawling 6-book, 2-screen Yellow King product out to backers chewed up a massive amount of Pelgrane’s time and money. Publicly shared woes about massive problems with print partners gives some insight into the not-so-fun part of running a publishing company. Hopefully it’s just a blip, and now that both the “cursed” print products are now safely in backers’ hands we’ll see Lovecraft stuff from Pelgrane start to flow again.
Perhaps the biggest Lovecraft-related feather in Pelgrane’s cap for 2019 was the print release of Hideous Creatures, a wonderful, wonderful bestiary of obscure Lovecraft monstrosities (released in PDF previously). I had an awful lot to do with the visual appearance of this book (doing handouts, some illustration composition, and all of the layout) – so I won’t comment on that element of things. Judge those for yourself. But on the writing front, I must say I am consistently impressed by this book each time I open it.
Despite the fact that about half of the book’s contents was previously released as PDFs in the “Ken Writes About Stuff” subscription service from a few years back, there are so many fresh ideas crammed into Hideous Creatures that it feels like a brand-new book.
Most of these ideas come from other writers: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan had a big hand, but there’s also great material by Becky Annison, Helen Gould, and Ruth Tillman.
Covering 31 common and not-so-common monstrous creations by Lovecraft, this book spends a little bit of time giving Trail of Cthulhu stats for the creature, but far more time giving mythological connections, potential powers, ideas for varying or tweaking the monster, and stat-free scenario ideas. Oh, and handouts providing in-world documents relating to every monster. All this means that even if you don’t play Trail at all, the vast majority of this book would be of use to you if you wanted to spice up the horrors in any Lovecraft-related game.
Doors To Heaven (Yellow King RPG free rpg day scenario)
The only other marginally Lovecraft-related product released by Pelgrane in 2019 was the Yellow King scenario “Doors To Heaven” by Sarah Saltiel. This formed one half of Pelgrane’s Free RPG Day booklet for the year (the other half being a scenario for the 13th Age Fantasy RPG).
The Miskatonic Repository
Chaosium runs an online community publishing portal called the Miskatonic Repository aimed at providing an easy way for “fan-made” products to be made available to customers of DriveThruRPG (either free, Pay-What-You-Want, or for a fee). Whereas this publishing platform had only recently reached its first full year of operation when I wrote the review of 2018 products, it is now a well-established institution.
Compared to 2018, when some 44 titles with English-language content were released on the Repository, 2019 saw a marked increase in the number of releases. Some 75 English-language products were released during that year – 57 sold for a fixed fee, and another 18 released as either free downloads or Pay-What-You-Want titles. On top of that, the Repository has been embraced in a major way by fans who wish to release material in other languages (notably Polish and Korean).
While 75 Miskatonic Repository titles is clearly way too many to even list, let alone try to summarize, I’d like to nonetheless draw attention to a half-dozen noteworthy monographs that were released in 2019:
- The Saltwater Inheritance by Mark Morrison: I would imagine most people reading this article have some notion of who Mark Morrison is – he’s one of a handful of writers whose 1990s scenarios created the foundation of what Call of Cthulhu is today. But nobody much would have seen the very first piece he ever wrote for the game – a submission to a “write a scenario to go with this map” competition run in White Dwarf in the early 80s. As the story goes, Mark didn’t win the competition (he came second), but even the fact that he could take a map clearly designed to work with 1980s hexcrawl fantasy RPGs and spin it up into a 1920s scenario of Lovecraftian investigation is pretty impressive. This Miskatonic Repository release reproduces the text of the original 1980s submission, with a nice new version of the original map.
- Of Wrath and Blood by Jon Hook: The most played Call of Cthulhu scenario of all time is no doubt “The Haunting” (aka “The Haunted House”), the introductory scenario included with the 2nd through 6th editions of the rules, and in the 7th Edition Quickstart Rules. Despite the fact that this famous scenario is peppered with hooks to inspire follow-on stories, almost no published material has picked up on any of those threads. One notable exception to this is the scenario in this monograph, which is a direct sequel to the events of “The Haunting.” The scenario was actually written back in 2010 as a submission to a competition run on Yog-Sothoth.com (where it also won second prize, sheesh what is it with these silver medallists and Repository republications?).
- A Lark in a Cage by Noah Lloyd: This scenario, set in Gaslight London, was written by one half of the crew responsible for the long-running blog reckoningofthedead.com (described earlier). The adventure touches on a number of interesting facets of the 1890s era, from the hubris of science to the grand expansion of public works. And, of course, throws in the Mythos as a complicating factor to all that. What starts as a simple request to locate a missing child takes a left turn, placing the investigators in the midst of intrigue between two powerful but invisible factions at work in London. This title also has some rather nice book design and excellent maps to accompany the scenario.
- The Solo Investigator’s Handbook by Paul Bimler: Have you ever found yourself wanting to play a Lovecraftian investigative scenario but there’s nobody around to game with? While you could solve this problem with one of the solo scenarios published by Chaosium over the years, you could alternatively use this Miskatonic Repository title to improvise a solo Cthulhuoid scenario on-the-fly. Working by a table-driven process (and your own imagination to extrapolate based on what you roll), it’s possible to spin up an entire adventure without ever needing a Keeper to drip-feed you horrific encounters and clues. While technically the system presented in this book is geared to Call of Cthulhu, it could really be used with any investigative horror scenario (just ignore/replace stats in the few places where they are mentioned). While this kind of approach won’t ever surpass the social experience of a Keeper-led game, it could definitely get you out there and investigating the Unknowable when there’s nobody else around to run a game.
- Five Faces of Fear by Faceless Publishing: This 162-page title was probably the largest book released on the Miskatonic Repository in 2019. It contains five full scenarios, each written by a different writer (all of them Irish authors who’ve previously designed games for conventions). A couple of the scenarios are also set in modern-day Ireland, but others are placed elsewhere in geography and time – there’s a scenario set in Cape Town, another in Liverpool, and one set in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. What’s great about this book is the diverse range of ideas that are peppered through the five scenarios, and the community approach these different writers took to creating the book. If you’re sick of running scenarios set in traditional Lovecraftian locales and situations, some of the scenarios in here might make a great break.
- A Balance of Blood by Matthew Puccio: It’s not common to see Cthulhu Invictus scenarios turn up on the Repository, and this one is a good one. Set in Armenia, on the far eastern fringe of the Roman Empire, the players take on the roles of members of a Roman delegation sent to meet with the commander of all Armenia’s armies. All is not well in his household, and soon a simple mission turns into something infinitely more bizarre and dangerous.
- Other Honourable Mentions: as well as the books mentioned above, the following Miskatonic Repository titles struck me as notable for one reason or another – “Dark Offerings” by Rob Leigh, “My Guardian Monster” by Danial Carroll, “Fever: Death Toll” by G.A. Patrick, “Taming the Waterwolf” by Arjen Poutsma, “The Second Amphora” by Entente Cthulhiana, “We Are All Savages” by William Adcock, and “The Unbearable Likeness” (the first Fox Country release, described in the Stygian Fox section previously).
CthuReview 2019 will return … in part 4
The CthuReview has already covered a whole bunch of 2019 releases … so what’s left, you might ask? Well, a lot of stuff as it turns out — everything Lovecraftian that doesn’t come from the family tree rooted in d100/BRP/Call of Cthulhu. While it’s hard to be exhaustive in tracking down all such items … we will give it a crack in our final installment of the 2019 Review. Check back tomorrow and see if we survive with our sanity intact (ha!).