Pages From the Bayt, part 1

If you’re a fan of Lovecraftian RPGs, you might already know about the fantastic Bayt al Azif, a splendiferous magazine that has been going for the last few years. Recently, Bayt published its fourth issue (typically, at present, releasing a deluxe-sized issue once per year).

If Bayt al Azif is not already part of your collection, it’s something well worthy of your consideration — each issue presents a carefully curated blend of gaming scenarios (of course), source material drawn from history or mythology, interviews with industry titans, practical articles about Lovecraftian gaming and conventions, and “year in review” product summaries.

In relation to the latter, I must confess that I am the guilty author/compiler of the lengthy annual reviews: so far I’ve contributed one to each of the first four issues. Issue 1 featured my summary of every Lovecraftian title released in 2017; Issues 2, 3, and 4 have followed with reviews of 2018, 2019, and 2020 releases.

In addition to publishing a fantastic gaming magazine, the editorial staff of Bayt al Azif are also supremely wonderful and community-minded folks. That is, no doubt, why my recent inquiry about whether it would be ok to reprint my last two CthuReview articles here on the blog, was met with a generous response of “sure, why not.”

So … with that kind permission granted, I’ve decided to start by serializing my review of all Lovecraftian gaming products released in 2019. The full article spans to a little over 10,000 words … and bear in mind it was written in early 2020 for publication in Bayt al Azif #3.

Introduction to the CthuReview 2019

There’s no denying that in last decade or so the influence of Lovecraftian cosmic horror has seeped into a vast array of different roleplaying games, worlds, and adventures. Some have said that trying to keep track of everything that has been influenced by that delightfully horrific taint is a fool’s errand. For the past few years, I have been that fool – trying to summarize the diversity of Lovecraftian tabletop RPG products from each year’s releases.

The good news is … I still haven’t come to my senses, so here I am penning a summary of Cthulhu RPGs in the year that was 2019.

Chaosium

Moon Design Publications (d/b/a Chaosium Inc.) remain the most visible publishers of Lovecraftian roleplaying products, their venerable Call of Cthulhu game now 40 years old. In 2019, Chaosium released three substantial hardback book titles as well as another six smaller releases. They also ran a four-part campaign via their “organized play” program

Compared to the past couple of years, Chaosium’s output was less voluminous both in terms of total pages and total books but covered a nice diversity of material. There were none of the “blockbuster” titles that have been the staple of the line in recent years, but a steady line of generally solid books.

Berlin: The Wicked City

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.

Shadows Over Stillwater

Back in 2017, Chaosium released Kevin Ross’ impressive “Lovecraftian Western” setting Down Darker Trails, a nicely-balanced fusion of Mythos horror and lovingly-researched rendition of the American West. Shadows Over Stillwater represents the first follow-up book to this new Call of Cthulhu setting. Within its pages may be found four detailed scenarios – the first three linked to form a sequential mini-campaign – plus a standalone description of a further Western town for the Keeper to drop in to his or her own game. There’s a nice amount of variety in the scenarios featured in this book, with some traditional horrors as well as some genre-crossing that affords some intriguing twists on the familiar.

If you already own Down Darker Trails, this volume definitely offers some great extra material to help expand out your Cthulhu Western games. The book itself is not without a few flaws, however. The chief among these is the disparity between the tone of the written material and many of the illustrations and supporting text. While the core scenario writing seems to be aiming at a measured approach towards fusing the Mythos with the historical setting, the optional “Pulp Cthulhu” boxes amp up the pulpiness not just by a little, but by a lot. This is reinforced by virtually all the colour illustrations (but strangely, not the B&W art) which aims for a cartoonish look. The end result is that Shadows Over Stillwater feels like a book which is at war with itself about what exactly it wishes to be. On the plus side, this means that in the hands of the Keeper its scenarios can easily be great Call of Cthulhu games or great Pulp Cthulhu games.

A Cold Fire Within

The third of Chaosium’s hardcover Call of Cthulhu titles for 2019 was the Pulp campaign A Cold Fire Within, written by Christopher Smith Adair. Unlike the preceding, this book definitely is not aiming to have a foot in both the CoC and Pulp camp – it has two feet firmly in the latter, and probably both arms, and an extraneous pseudopod as well. This five-chapter campaign (plus an optional floating time-travelling interlude chapter) is an entertaining rollercoaster which takes Pulp heroes through locations mundane and remarkable. There’s an extended visit to some famous Mythos locales thrown in for good measure as well (it’s hard to be any more specific than that without introducing spoilers). As well as all this fast-moving supernatural color and motion, there are also ample opportunities to go toe-to-toe with NPC bad-guys, which gives the Keeper a broad palette of challenges mundane and supernatural to throw at the players.

The obvious comparison for A Cold Fire Within is the previous Chaosium Pulp campaign, The Two-Headed Serpent. While both similarly pulpy in their outlook, they’re otherwise quite different – Cold Fire is much less of an exercise in ‘globe-trotting’ than its predecessor and the chapters generally bind together more closely to produce a more consistent long-form narrative. The newer campaign does feel somewhat shorter, however, which is perhaps a consequence of its structure as a linear(-ish) sequence of adventures. Overall, however, I’d probably pick A Cold Fire Within as the better Pulp campaign.

Gateways to Terror

A notable focus for Chaosium in recent years has been creating pathways to bring brand new players to Call of Cthulhu. Two of the main areas they’ve focussed on are products specially designed for people new to the game, and super-short demonstration games to be run at conventions.

Gateways to Terror is a book that is firmly at the intersection of these two – it’s a collection of three one-hour convention/demo games brushed up to publication standard. The purpose behind this release would seem to be two-fold: supporting new gamers, and providing Keepers with ultra-short games that can be slotted into gaps at short notice. The short “one night” format has been (very briefly) tried before for Call of Cthulhu with the “Fright Night” releases in the 1990s, but the scenarios in Gateways to Terror are even briefer than those.

For what they are, these new scenarios are reasonable enough, ticking all the boxes for easy-to-run drop-in scenarios. Gateways to Terror was a title that many suspected was destined to be a PDF-only title, a print version not becoming apparent for many months after the electronic version’s release. A print version did, eventually, materialize.

The Shadow Over Providence

The biennial NecronomiCon convention in Providence is a highlight in the Cthulhu literary and gaming calendar. For the 2019 convention, Chaosium decided to commission and release a short scenario – this was The Shadow Over Providence by Jon Hook. The scenario premiered at the convention, both in terms of being run by Jon at the gaming tables and also being sold by Chaosium in the vendor hall. One of the novel things about Jon’s scenario is that it is set in and around (a fictionalized version of) the beautiful art deco Biltmore Hotel (currently called the Graduate). This delightful 1920s building is the very epicentre of the con, and a location visited a few times by Lovecraft during his life.

As a booklet, Shadow Over Providence is a slim saddle-stapled affair: its scenario is relatively brief yet not without appeal, especially if you’ve visited some of the downtown Providence locations referenced.

Dead Light and Other Dark Turns

A rather unexpected title put out by Chaosium in 2019 was the republished and repackaged edition of “Dead Light”. This scenario has a slightly unusual publication history – being released in slim standalone booklet format as a special gift to backers of the oft-delayed Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter. That original publication (CHA23132) was, one presumes, exclusive to backers – hence perhaps a reason to re-release the scenario six years later in a different format. This time around, the book (CHA23159) has a much bigger pagecount and “Dead Light” is accompanied by a second scenario, Matthew Sanderson’s “Saturnine Chalice”, as well as a selection of story seeds and a hefty collection of player handouts and maps.

Alone Against The Frost

In recent years, Chaosium have re-released all of its old solo Call of Cthulhu scenarios (most of them originally dating to the very earliest days of the game). In 2019 it was the turn of 1985’s “Alone Against The Wendigo” to receive the update and re-release treatment. Chaosium decided to change its title to “Alone Against The Frost” – the text describes this as a move to correct the previous cultural misappropriation of a creature from indigenous mythology.

The Lightless Beacon: When the Lights Went Out

In 2019, Chaosium paused in October to mark the first anniversary of the death of its co-founder Greg Stafford (best known as the imaginative spark behind Glorantha, and extensive work on Runequest and Pendragon). For the occasion, the company released a free PDF-only title for each of its games. The Call of Cthulhu title was The Lightless Beacon, a short convention-style scenario.

Organized Play: Flotsam and Jetsam

Back in 2018, Chaosium kicked off its Organized Play program by releasing a multi-part campaign called “A Time To Harvest”, making a new chapter available free to registered Keepers each month. The program returned in 2019 with a four-part mini-campaign called “Flotsam and Jetsam.” The four individual chapters were “The Star Brothers” by Brian Courtemanche, “Inheritance” by Matthew Dawkins, “Insanitarium” by Anthony Lee-Dudley, and “On the Banks of the Ohio” by Glyn White. Signing up to the Chaosium organized play program is currently free of charge.

CthuReview 2019 will return … in part 2

Chaosium’s contributions were just PART of an amazing year of Lovecraftian Tabletop RPG releases: there were also great titles published by Call of Cthulhu Licensees, by Pelgrane Press, by Arc Dream (for the Delta Green RPG) and for a diversity of other disparate game systems. Join us for part 2 tomorrow where we begin to unpack all that great stuff.


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