The scenario centres upon a new production of Oscar Wilde’s Decadent play Salome, being prepared in London West End theatre. Persistent rumours of curious happenings have attached themselves to the majestically-staged production. And Oscar Wilde — usually the most gregarious of souls — has become sullen and withdrawn. The playwright’s close friend Bosie approaches the Protagonists to try to understand the strange pall that seems to have settled over Oscar and the forthcoming play.
This scenario has quite a long history of its own. I first encountered it in January 1996 — back in the pre-WWW era, when Lovecraftian gamers used to gather conspiratorially in USENET newsgroups and on subscription-only email lists. In the latter category, one of my favourites was the “Chaosium Digest”, a list where fans of every RPG currently supported by Chaosium could be freel share house-rules or new skills ideas or anything else for the whole community to enjoy.
Simon Lee posted a convention scenario to the Chaosium Digest, something truly inspired that he had written for a South African con in 1995. It was called “Prophecy” … and that free text-only scenario forms the basic core of the adventure we’ve just released. On its 25+ year journey from then-to-now a lot of complexity has been added to create a whole world of intriguing Aesthete NPCs and offer a more detailed long-form clue trail. The end result is something that I truly believe is one of the most intriguing Victorian Cthulhu scenarios to have been published for any game system.
Doing the in-depth research to flesh out this scenario was one of the most enjoyable tasks I’ve had for a game project, since it gave me an excuse to read an enormous amount about the Aesthete and Decadent movements in 1890s English art. Or, more to the point, read about the outlandish, scurrilous and flamboyant artists who populated that particular “school” of subversive counterculture. Where most game depictions of the Victorian Era focus on the “derring do” and “stiff upper lip” central to the vast Imperial achievements of Britain, there is an whole parallel strata of the late Victorian world that is far more concerned with foppery, indolence, and “art for art’s sake.” Oscar Wilde is the most famous of its scions (in England anyway, there is a whole separate Decadent tradition in fin de siècle France), but he is but one of many adherents. And many of them were extraordinary and outlandish individuals — and proudly so.
The NPCs I picked to use to bolster the backdrop of Simon’s scenario are all exemplars in this regard. They are pieces of real-world history that I could never invent as fictional elements … because, frankly, people would label them too OTT … I challenge anyone to read the biography of Count Eric Stenbock (writer of the incredible short tale “The True Story of a Vampire”) and not think he was someone’s elaborate literary creation.
We really hope that people enjoy this gem of a Lovecraftian scenario, and gaming tables everywhere can revel in the “Yellow” antics of the Aesthetes even as they recoil in horror from the terrors that seem to lurk behind the artwork they are bringing into existence. You have tickets for opening night … do you dare to take your seats?
This blog post wraps up the serialization of the CthuReview 2020, first published in the pages of Bayt al Azif Issue 4. Kind thanks to the editorial staff at that fine game magazine for allowing me to reproduce it here.
Lovecraft-Inspired Games Further Afield
The releases described so far (mostly) represent titles for games that have grown from the traditional “roots” of the Cthulhu Mythos RPG scene. Increasingly, though, the influences of Lovecraft’s world view and monstrous creations have seeped into many other games as well. The list of 2020-released games and supplements which follows is certainly not intended to be exhaustive but provides a glimpse of some of the more obvious influences beyond the normal sphere.
Achtung! Cthulhu 2D20 Quickstart (Modiphiüs)
It’s been known for some time that the roleplaying arm of Modiphiüs’ much-loved Achtung! Cthulhu line of World War II games wouldn’t be continuing as a licensed Call of Cthulhu property. In 2020, the publisher announced that Achtung! would be rebooted as an independent game utilizing the 2D20 system Modiphiüs has developed for its Conan and Star Trek RPGs.
While the core Keeper and Investigator books for this new system didn’t quite make it out in 2020 (they’ve since emerged in the first half of 2021), the Quickstart did just scrape into the period considered for this review. The 48-page Quickstart manages to cram a lot in. There’s a brief overview of the main factions in the Achtung! Cthulhu universe, a cutdown set of playable rules including a combat and magic system, five pre-generated and a 15-page mission involving occult tomes and nefarious German cultists. As a free PDF introduction to the new system, this is a great way to get a taste of what Achtung! Cthulhu (and its new system) is all about.
The Cthulhu Hack and other OSR Games
The Cthulhu Hack was created in 2016 by Paul Baldowski as a light-weight game for Lovecraftian investigation, loosely based on vintage D&D rules. Since then he, and several other folks, have created supplements for the game. In 2020 there were three substantial releases for The Cthulhu Hack:“Forgotten Duty” (a modern-day investigation featuring Roman ruins below the streets of Pamplona, Spain), “Threads” (a lengthy 2-part scenario featuring creepy clowns, spiders and the Dreamlands), and “Valkyrie Nine” (a shorter investigation set in the near future mining base on the moon).
As well as The Cthulhu Hack, there are a lot of other “Hacks” of the old-school D&D rules. Another one of them, The Jack Hack also has had a Lovecraft-based scenario released for it – Ripper Fhatagn. The Jack Hack is focused on the Gaslight-era murders of Jack the Ripper; this supplement adds Lovecraftian elements to that grim world.
While not in the family of “Hacks”, three other OSR titles with Mythos (or Mythos-adjacent) themes were also released in 2020:
Lost Carcosa (not to be confused with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess book titled simply Carcosa),
Four Against Darkness (published by Ganesha Games) is a solitaire fantasy RPG of dungeon exploration which has become quite popular in recent years. The basic premise is that the solo player controls four characters who step through a GM-less delve through a procedurally generated dungeon, hoping to complete a quest. It’s not strictly a roleplaying experience, nor is it a prose “choose-your-own” kind of reading experience. It’s something in between. In 2020, the publisher adapted this basic concept to the Lovecraftian horror sub-genre.
Instead of exploring a dungeon, the plucky group of investigators is charged with travelling around different locations in 1930s America trying to foil a nefarious Mythos plot before time runs out. There are several different endgame scenarios, each of which brings the characters face-to-face with one of Lovecraft’s nastiest creations. While designed primarily for solo play, the book does also suggest it could be run as a multi-player GM-less cooperative “RPG-lite” game with each player controlling one investigator.
Grey Cells is an RPG from Dapper Fish Designs that is solely dedicated to recreating crime-solving stories. It’s all about investigation and piecing together clues (and in that regard its intentions mirror GUMSHOE, albeit more leaning to the Hercule Poirot end of things). All good investigation games need a Cthulhu add-on, and thus was “Mythos Mysteries” created for Grey Cells.
It’s a sizeable supplement (92 pages) which aims to support a few different sub-genres of Lovecraftian investigation – it defines a “Cosmic Horror” mode and a “Pulp Lovecraft” mode. It introduces rules for madness, tomes, and the like … but the real strength of this supplement is the way in which it tries to capture the quintessence of what goes into a great Lovecraft mystery yarn and suggest ways to structure games to emulate it.
Cthulhu Deep Green
I described Cthulhu Deep Green in the CthuReview for 2019 – it is a super-light system that adapts Graham Walmsley’s excellent Cthulhu Dark RPG to a modern-day conspiracy-horror setting a la Delta Green. In 2020, a new scenario was released for the system: “The Linear Men” (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/324744/The-Linear-Men). This 2-part scenario is interesting because it is based not only on CDG but another offshoot of Cthulhu Dark, Trophy (Hedgemaze Press).
While we’re on the subject of super-rules-light RPGs which have released Lovecraft-themed supplements, it’s probably worth mentioning a few others.
One Page Cthulhu is a lightweight solo game by Noah Patterson. Like Four Against Darkness, described above, this game involves an exploration where the specific placement of areas and adversaries are determined by die rolls. In this game there’s just one investigator character that is controlled by the player, and their ultimate goal is to defeat a “Boss Monster”. Each turn, the player picks a direction to go, then rolls to add a certain shape of map addition, rolls again to populate it with some kind of adversary.
If overcome, it yields a certain number of clue points – when enough have been collected, the “Boss” can feasibly be defeated. If the game doesn’t sound very Lovecraftian, it isn’t really – but the scenarios which frame the adventures do namedrop HPL’s creations. There are three volumes in the One Page Cthulhu’s Herbert West Trilogy: “Miskatonic Tunnels”, “The Black Caverns”, and “Night in Arkham Woods”.
Another similar effort is Bob McGough’s series of “Tales from Bob” adventures. The simplest is “Mythos Mishaps” which is a single page PDF describing a series of possible mysteries, adversaries, and creepy locations and allowing some random rolls or picks to make a combination of these which could form the basis for a Mythos-fueled adventure (where the GM fills in all the other details). The other titles in the series seem to each be based around a specific Lovecraft short story and provide some possible situations and challenges that could place the investigator into the world depicted by the stories – either by random dice rolls or GM picks. There are three such one-page scenario skeletons:
Another tiny rules-light game of Lovecraftian horror, Writers in the Dark is played between two people, each of whom writes letter to the other describing the horrific secrets that they have uncovered, and their fears for their very safety and sanity. Another take on the same epistolic horror concept is The Innsmouth Papers by Malcolm Harbrow.
I was fortunate enough to hear about this little gem of a (system agnostic) supplement when it was being Kickstarted; otherwise I probably would never have known it to exist. Campo de Mitos is an oddly specific campaign setting, but perhaps all the more intriguing because of it. It describes a rural region of Southern Spain – the area surrounding the Rock of Gibraltar – in the 1920s. The writer, Paco Garcia Jaén, does a great job describing (in English, perhaps not her native language) a really warm and evocative society of people blighted by the occasional presence of Mythos beliefs or entities.
There are also some nice elements of inclusivity in its depictions of a very different era of social mores.
While perhaps not an obvious locale to set your Lovecraftian games, if you’re up for a change of pace you could do a lot worse than send your investigators to this haunted version of Campo de Gibraltar.
Other D&D 5e
While I’ve already described the substantial volume of material produced by Petersen Games for its D&D 5th Edition setting, that is not the only D&D-fueled Lovecraftian content to come out on 2020. There are (at least) a couple of other publishers also actively releasing such material.
Whispers in the Dark (Saturday Morning Scenarios)
Unlike the Petersen Games’ Lovecraftian content, Whispers in the Dark steers clear of the heroic fantasy genre and instead adapts familiar rules to allow players to pursue investigative horror scenarios. Thus, the game style that Whispers seeks to evoke is not terribly far from Call of Cthulhu, even if the game mechanics are founded in very different roots.
To date the ruleset only exists in a Quickstart edition – a 78-page book that offers the basics around character creation, equipment, damage & combat, Mythos magic, and Madness & Sanity. Also included is a full scenario (complete with pre-generate characters) set in 1920s New Orleans.
This one-shot Lovecraftian mystery adventure is set in a generic fantasy setting that can easily be slotted into an existing game world (or tweaked to fit). Unusually for a fantasy scenario, the DM has the option of allowing for characters to “win” the scenario purely through puzzling out the mystery with no hack-and-slash involved. Of course, it also supports a more conventional play style with combat-oriented resolutions to encounters. Although relatively short, the scenario – which revolves around tracking down a missing person – is rendered using surprisingly good production values for an indy published title.
Almost half of the book is devoted to “The Great Old One Compendium” – Lovecraft-inspired elements to add color to the fantasy world, things like cults, secret societies, curses, and rituals, and of course a selection of new monstrosities. ()
This chunky RPG – two hardback volumes, each around 300 pages – is set in an alternative version of our own history. Things diverged at some point in World War I when a bizarre mist known as “the Miasma” manifested and began transforming living things into monstrosities; corrupt biological mutations. The current year is 1984, but the world is very, very different to our eighties – gone are New Romantics and fluoro legwarmers, replaced by a world filled with warring factions corrupted by alien influences and dubious new technologies. The game describes its setting as an intersection of science-fiction, steampunk, dieselpunk, and cosmic horror.
Technically Eldritch Century is written for a tweaked version of D&D 5e which is known as the “Draco System” but there is also support for running the material with the established default rules. Book 1 (Expeditions) focusses on character creation, special abilities, equipment, combat, and vehicles. Book 2 (Almanac) is about the Wounded Earth setting, describing factions and communities as well as a bestiary of monstrosities which characters might encounter.
The books are sold together as a bundle and hardcopy versions may be available through the Backerkit set up to support folks who funded this game via Kickstarter.
Cthulhu Parlour’s “Hotel Lovecraft”
This Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/legendphotography/the-storymasters-tales-hotel-lovecraft/description), was successfully funded in 2020 (and which has since delivered). Billing itself as a light roleplaying game, the main focus is on delivering an immersive audiovisual choose-your-own type of narrative. The game is set in a haunted house with some 54 locations, each of which has a tale associated with it – which is partly described written form, and partly delivered through recorded theatrical narrations over evocative soundscapes. After the GM has read out the text from the book and played the audio file, the rest of the players must choose between a handful of options of places to explore or things to do in the room. There are also some nice physical props – metal keys – that come along with the game. Is it really an RPG? I guess it depends on how you define the term: to me this feels more like a “Fighting Fantasy” type book brought to life with audio and props.
Future Horrors: New Kickstarters
In addition to looking backwards at what’s already been released, it’s sometimes interesting to look into the crystal ball (or maybe Shining Trapezohedron?) and get a sense of what is coming next. One of the best ways of doing that is to take a look at Kickstarter campaigns for Lovecraftian RPG projects that have funded but haven’t yet delivered their final rewards. In 2020 there were only two such new Kickstarter campaigns, significantly fewer than have been run in recent years.
In April 2020, this Kickstarter successfully funded a new sourcebook for the Cthulhu Invictus setting. Promising to provide a game depiction of the British Isles during the era of Roman occupation (1st and 2nd Centuries CE). It’s a mysterious place on the very periphery of the Roman Empire, home to a diverse collection of peoples and cultures.
This book was originally slated to be ready for release in November 2020 but hit some snags, mostly due to the departure of one of the main writers. The project has recruited a replacement but has been significantly delayed; by current estimates the book will arrive about a year later than planned.
[Update, March 2022 — this campaign has still yet to deliver any rewards to backers.]
After successfully delivering a sizeable 1920s Shanghai sourcebook and scenario set in 2019, Sons of the Singularity ran a Kickstarter campaign to create a similar volume for a different part of Asia – Indochina (French Colonial Vietnam). Their campaign funded in July with an estimated delivery of December 2020. They didn’t quite make that goal, but the books and PDFs did reach backers around the middle of 2021.
[Update, March 2022 — this campaign has successfully delivered both PDF and print copies of two books.]
While it’s true that the COVID-19 pandemic did stop one part of the gaming world, it really hasn’t significantly slowed the volume of new games and supplements that are being brought to market. Of course, some (if not all) of the products described in this review were probably started well before 2020 and mostly already done when lockdowns and shipping slowdowns really hit. So, perhaps the true impacts of those things will be reflected more in the gaming industry’s output for 2021?
Overall, the strong support for Lovecraftian content in the gaming community certainly continues. What is even more encouraging is its diversity and spread – where there was once just a single family of closely-connected Cthulhu-themed RPGs, there are now a broad range of different options for Lovecraft-inspired gaming. This is great for gamers; if you don’t like the particular flavor of one game, chances are you can test-drive four or five other games which have taken the same source ideas and developed them in different ways. It is always worth experimenting in this way, because finding the system that best suits the idiosyncrasies and preferences of your gaming group can elevate a great gaming experience to a truly awesome one.
We continue our serialization of the “year in review” article I wrote for Bayt al Azif Issue 4, summing up everything released for Lovecraftian RPGs in the calendar year 2020.
Petersen Games (D&D 5e)
Since 2017, Petersen Games have been publishing fantasy roleplaying games under the (inaccurately titled) “Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos” (SPCM) product line. In recent times, these have all been designed for D&D 5th Edition. Throughout 2020, a frantic publication schedule churned out some sixteen books. The majority of these were episodes in multi-book campaigns – fans purchased these as subscriptions, and a new title arrived each month. The campaigns published to date have all featured 4 chapters each. The campaigns released in 2020 were Yig Snake Granddaddy, Dark Worlds, and The Big Sleep. In addition to these, Petersen Games also released five standalone scenarios.
If Chaosium’s Cthulhu Dark Ages (mentioned above) is intended as a somewhat historical version of a medieval setting, SPCM is the opposite. It’s very much the kind of typical fantasy world most gamers would recognize from other D&D and Pathfinder lines, but with an added overlay of Cthulhu Mythos themes and monstrosities. Judging from online communities, there are a lot of people who enjoy that combination.
Yig Snake Granddaddy
This campaign is made up of four books: “A Land Out of Time”, “Against the Serpentfolk”, “The Prehistory War”, and “The Ancient Ages Again.” There are fourteen episodes of campaign chapters spread across those books. The campaign isn’t specifically set in any pre-defined fantasy RPG world but instead in a generic locale (a wilderness region with a nearby ancient frontier city). The intention is that a DM could slot this into whichever game world he or she liked.
The campaign features four or five Cthulhu Mythos races and entities aligned into a series of factions. Yig and the serpentfolk are a persistent presence, but there are also Elder Things, Yithians and a cameo appearance by Bastet, Egyptian goddess of cats. All of these elements are worked into a lengthy plot with a number of twists and turns.
Starting with an expedition into the wilderness, the player characters soon discover that creatures from the far distant past – dinosaurs – are being pulled into the current era. After being betrayed, they find themselves briefly captives of the serpentfolk but soon rescued by an unlikely ally. The serpentfolks are hell-bent on bringing more and more civilizations from the past back into existence in the present, creating general havoc which the player characters must try to undo. A jaunt into the Dreamlands is a key part of an audacious plan that also features a brief stint being mind-swapped into Yithian cone bodies. It all ends with a mass battle in which allies assembled by the player characters go head-to-head against a group intent on sacrificing an entire city in order to summon Yig to the world with Apocalyptic intent.
The Dark Worlds campaign comprises four chapters or “acts” – “The Ritual”, “Nithon”, “The Zepzeg Cycle”, and “The Green Pyramid”. Unlike previous SPCM campaigns, this one is largely set on an alien world – Yuggoth – and has some mildly Science Fiction elements mixed in among the standard fantasy tropes.
The campaign begins on a traditional fantasy world (of the DM’s choice). The player characters get embroiled in the schemes of a mad ruler and his court vizier, machinations that include meddling with Cthulhu Mythos rituals. As a result, the characters find themselves whisked off to Yuggoth where they must track down someone who can help them return home. Along the way they draw the attention of the mi-go.
The alien planet has its fair share of hazards, which the characters survive as they make their way to the mi-go city of Nithon. Along the way they see an ancient green pyramid awaken with mystic energies, watch a terrible battle between armies, and eventually come to the attention of a mysterious benefactor – a member of the curious Zepzeg race who share the planet Yuggoth. After a brief diplomatic mission to help a colony of gnorri, the characters come into contact with a lloigor and learn of a weapon of unheard-of power. The campaign ends with an epic battle as the characters and their allies take the fight to the mi-go.
The Big Sleep
This campaign is made up of four acts, the last of which technically came out in early 2021. The chapters are titled “The Sleeper Rising”, “The Doomed World”, “The Fate of the Empire”, and “Lullaby”. The general structure of this scenario adds a certain amount of Post-Apocalypse survival horror to the traditional fantasy experience. Instead of the big Mythos manifestation occurring at the culmination of the campaign, here the “big bad” – in this case Tsathoggua – manifests at the end of the first act and succeeds in wrecking the world. The remaining acts feature the player characters’ efforts to return the world to its former state.
The campaign begins a little like a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario, albeit one transported to a fantasy city. The player characters are recruited to track down a hidden group of cultists who have some degree of secret influence at the royal court. Just as the culprits are unmasked by the investigating characters, Tsathoggua himself bursts through the palace walls bringing an army of eldritch horrors in tow. Assuming the player characters survive this onslaught, they are forced to flee – but there are opportunities to shadow the cultists and find some of the secrets of their order.
They then have some encounters with voormis on their way to plead for help from other realms and kingdoms. The rulers of the adjacent states all want something from the player characters before committing their resources to overthrowing the Mythos usurper. As the last act of the campaign, the characters descend into the ancient subterranean realms from whence Tsathoggua emerged, eventually arriving in lightless N’kai. The key to foiling the Mythos god rests in these stygian vaults … but Tsathoggua won’t go without a showdown!
In addition to the three chunky campaigns for SPCM, Petersen games also released a few smaller standalone adventures for the line: “The Lone Lighthouse”, “The Ghoul Who Saved Christmas”, “An Omen of the Stars”, “Night of the Brine”, and “The Pale Shepherd”.
In addition to the established publishers mentioned above, each of whom released a sizeable amount of new Lovecraftian RPG content in 2020, there were other smaller publishers who also unleashed new titles.
Sentinel Hill Press
Best known for publishing the Arkham Gazette gaming magazine (which sadly had no issues released in 2020), SHP is also responsible for releasing one of the most fun Kickstarted CoC scenarios in recent history. That scenario is The Dare, a nifty little scenario set in the 1980s. The players take on the roles of teenagers who have been dared to spend the night in an allegedly haunted house. Of course, it being Call of Cthulhu, the “haunting” turns out to be much more sinister than your typical Scooby-Doo villain. First published back in 1996 (in the Triad anthology Dwellers in Shadow), Kevin Ross’ scenario perfectly captures the eighties horror vibe – think “Stranger Things” – but is also just a great, fun scenario.
Sentinel Hill ran a successful Kickstarter back 2017 to reboot this scenario, updating it for 7th Edition plus expanding it out a bit. The result is gorgeous and highly evocative of an era which many of us look back on with nostalgia. Full disclosure, I was responsible for a small number of graphical details for this book including a handout and the Atari-inspired 1980s CoC character sheets (which you can also download for free from my blog, Cthulhu Reborn).
Less flashy than The Dare, but equally as invaluable, Sentinel Hill Press also published a well-researched PDF which summarizes each and every Call of Cthulhu scenario that is set in and around the Miskatonic Valley. This “Miskatonic Country Scenario Guide” would be very helpful to anyone planning an extended campaign based around Arkham or Kingsport. I had a little bit to do with its researching, but it was almost single-handedly the work of the highly knowledgeable Bret Kramer. I did do the PDF layout, though.
A Time For Sacrifice (New Comet Games)
Rounding out the releases by formal Call of Cthulhu licensees, it’s worth mentioning A Time for Sacrifice by New Comet Games. Late in 2019, this book was the subject of a successful Kickstarter campaign – in 2020 it was delivered, pretty much on schedule (a rarity for Kickstarters of all sizes). This hard cover, full-color book consists of five scenarios all of which have a connection to Mayan culture or ruins found in the Yucatan or Central Mexico. Three of the scenarios (“Egg Out of Time”, “Space Between Time”, and “Doorway of the Gods”) were written by New Comet founded Ben Burns. Other scenarios are contributed by Brian Courtemanche (“Pyramid Scheme”) and Jonathan Bagelman (“Thirteenth Bak’tun”).
I usually try to avoid talking in these articles about my own humble efforts at small-scale publishing under the Cthulhu Reborn imprint. After all, it feels like an abuse of the privileged role of reviewer to promote one’s own products. But 2020 was a massive year for Cthulhu Reborn with the release of the APOCTHULHU RPG in both Quickstart and core rule editions. So, I will break with my usual silence and describe what the new game is about – as to whether it’s any good, you can find several independent online reviews that will offer opinions on that subject.
Put simply, APOCTHULHU is a set of rules tailored to Post-Apocalyptic gaming in versions of our world where the insidious forces of the Cthulhu Mythos have somehow usurped mankind’s rule of the planet. Rather than picking any one form of “Lovecraftian Apocalypse” the game aims to support an endless variety of different “end of the world” scenarios. Included in the 73-page free Quickstart is a sample Apocalypse setting (and associated ready-to-run scenario) featuring Shub-Niggurath. The 330-page APOCTHULHU core rulebook has nine or ten different Post-Apocalyptic settings as well as detailed scenarios set in two of them.
One of the settings showcased in the core book is a version of William Hope Hodgson’s Night Land adapted for gaming by the grandmaster Kevin Ross.
Mechanically, APOCTHULHU uses a d100 system that will be very familiar to folks who have played recent games published by Arc Dream. It is released under the Wizards OGL and recycles some awesome previous rulesets that have similarly been published under properly open licenses.
As well as unleashing this new RPG on an unsuspecting gaming public, Cthulhu Reborn also continued supporting its older Dateline: Lovecraft and Convicts & Cthulhu lines with new Pay-What-You-Want PDF scenarios and, for Convicts, a campaign.
Once upon a time there were multiple gaming magazines printing a wealth of Lovecraftian RPG content; these days there are just a handful.
Bayt al Azif, Issue 3
In 2020, Bayt al Azif released its third issue, which included a range of great scenarios, interviews and general articles about the Lovecraft gaming hobby.
While Bayt al Azif was the only professionally published magazine to exclusively focus on Lovecraftian RPGs in 2020, there were a few isolated articles in a few other mags (we know of one in Parallel Worlds, Issue 1 and another in Tabletops & Tentacles #1). There were also a few amateur “zine” publications released in 2020 with significant Cthulhu content. In the latter category, The Necronomizine (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/328314/The-Necronomizine) bills itself as a compilation of mostly system-free material including a couple of scenarios; it also has a scenario for Evil Hat’s Fate of Cthulhu.
Another interesting-looking zine is The Eldritch Inquirer #1 (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/299160/The-Eldritch-Inquirer-1), which provides supplemental material for the OSR Eldritch Tales White Box, by Raven God Games. The premiere issue has a strong focus on the 1920s and New England locales (both real and Lovecraft-invented) – there’s even a scenario in the remote wilderness of New Hampshire. Much of the content in this issue is described as system-neutral and possible to run with other game systems.
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). In 2020, there were 106 English-language titles released through the Miskatonic Repository (98 for a fee, 8 PWYW, and zero free).
While 106 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 2020:
Full Fathom Five by Paul Fricker: Written by a well-known Call of Cthulhu writer (famous for his quirky scenarios), this attractively illustrated MiskRepo title puts players in the roles of a whaling crew in the 1840s. This particular voyage, however, the hardy sailors will pursue a lot more than their own “white whale” – they’ll come face-to-face with one of the most renowned creations of Lovecraft’s fevered imagination. They might even get rescued by yet another. It’s a fun change of pace one-shot scenario. It’s also been translated into a few other languages.
Highway of Blood by Alex Guillotte, et al: Set in West Texas during the 1970s, the vibe of this scenario can probably best be described as “grindhouse-y”, an appellation that is seldom applied to Lovecraft-related stories or scenarios. While out driving along a lonely stretch of highway, the player characters turn into an out-of-the-way nigh-ghost town for some gas or food … little do they realize they’re wandering into territory claimed by a bunch of inbred types with some very ancient beliefs.
Monophobia by Peter Rubin-Burgess: The idea of “solo” RPGs – ones that you play without a GM, on your own – have a certain appeal as a convenient way of stay gaming even when schedules or other circumstances (like, say, a pandemic) make it hard to gather a gaming group. This product is a simple set of tables and guidelines which aims to provide a framework for taking pre-existing non-solo scenarios – say, those from most published books – and running it in solo mode. It’s kind of like a dice-driven “Keeper emulator”. It’s a fun idea, albeit one that still requires some work and creative interpretation on the part of the player. Peter has written similar solo rulesets for a great many other games, too.
Time of the Serpent by Michael Diamond: This lengthy scenario is set in 1920s Chicago and represents a classic type of Call of Cthulhu investigation. The PDF is also nicely illustrated (mostly with period photos), but what really sets this release apart from any other MiskRepo title is the set of ten “Audio Handouts”. These MP3s aren’t sound effects but rather spoken clues that are narrated by some professional-sounding voice actors, some with ambient sound effects thrown in to establish the setting.
Cthulhu Dreadfuls Presents … by Brian Brethauer: There were actually two “Cthulhu Dreadful Presents …” titles released in close succession in 2020. The first was “#0: The Wystdovja Vale Gazetteer”. This 40-page PDF describes a new setting for Lovecraftian scenarios, a fictitious Eastern European village in the 1890s. The setting literally screams Hammer Horror classics, and if you’ve ever dreamed of running a game with that kind of aesthetic, you could do a lot worse than using this nicely defined rural setting. Released about the same time was “Cthulhu Dreadfuls Presents #1: Kiss of Blood” which is a 70-page adventure set in the Wystdovja Valley. Investigators are recruited by a local solicitor to track down a missing woman, whose late-night trysts in the countryside have brought her to the attention of some decidedly unsavory creatures of the night.
A Tableau of Red by Helen Yau: This modern-day scenario is set in Barcelona, Spain. A friend of the investigators is a teacher at a prestigious art school; during a visit to the charming Spanish city, curious events at the art school draw them into an investigation of the unnatural. As well as featuring an interesting and fresh location for Lovecraftian mysteries, this PDF is nicely illustrated throughout.
We’re getting to the end of our 2020 review, but still have one more part. Join us tomorrow as we describe a range of diverse games released in 2020 that show clear Lovecraft inspiration but aren’t from the “traditional” family tree of such games.
We continue our serialization of CthuReview 2020, the “year in review” article I wrote for the incredible Bayt al Azif Issue #4 — a Lovecraftian RPG magazine well worth your consideration. This content is reprinted by kind permission of the generous Bayt editors.
Chaosium / Moon Design, part II
In the previous blog posting we tackled the biggest of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu releases for 2020 (Cthulhu Dark Ages 3rd Edition, Malleus Monstrorum 2nd Edition, Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition Vol 1 and Children of Fear). That’s not all they released, however …
Harlem Unbound, 2nd Edition
In 2017, Chris Spivey burst onto the Lovecraftian RPG scene with his first self-published book, Harlem Unbound. That book, a warts-and-all depiction of the hard lives led by Black Americans in 1920s Harlem NY, went on to win awards as well as many accolades. Not long after its release, Chaosium announced that it had commissioned a second edition of the book to be released as part of the in-house Call of Cthulhu game line. That new edition made it to market in 2020.
Generally, the second edition of Harlem Unbound has all the content that made the first edition great, expanded out and augmented with extra scenarios. The one thing that this version doesn’t have is game statistics for Trail of Cthulhu / Gumshoe (the original book was dual statted for both CoC and ToC). For most gamers this won’t be a big deal, but if you’re especially keen to run a Harlem-based scenario or two using Gumshoe mechanics you would do well to track down the original version from Chris’ Darker Hue Studios.
As well as expanding on the sourcebook material from the original book, Harlem Unbound 2nd Edition incorporates four brand new scenarios to go alongside three of the original four scenarios (“Harlem (K)nights” from the first edition wasn’t included).
This is a great book, made all the more compelling by the heartfelt writing and willingness to tackle difficult – frequently distasteful – topics that a lot of authors would shy away from.
Does Love Forgive?
This slim softcover book is an oddity, to be sure. It includes two short classic era scenarios (“Love You To Death” and “Mask of Desire”) that are intended to be played with just one player and the Keeper. Both scenarios have strong thematic elements centering upon love and romance – between the player’s character and NPCs. This is unlike anything that Chaosium has previously published for Call of Cthulhu.
The two scenarios actually feel a lot more like magazine scenario, especially those translated from European publications like Worlds of Cthulhu. Indeed, the pair of adventures in Does Love Forgive actually do have a European lineage, coming from a Polish supplement released for Valentine’s Day 2020. Chaosium’s translated edition emerged much later in the year. The format of these scenarios, while innovative, does present some challenges – especially if the Keeper and player don’t know each other particularly well, or aren’t comfortable roleplaying romantic exchanges or interpersonal conflict with a romantic element.
Alone Against the Tide
Ever since Chaosium was bought out by its new management, there has been a healthy rebirth of a book format that had remained dormant for decades, namely the solo Call of Cthulhu scenario. These books don’t require a Keeper –the reader plays through them a little bit like a “choose your own” game book, but with Call of Cthulhu game rules and character sheets used for resolving key conflicts and encounters. Alone Against the Tide began life as a 2018 Miskatonic Repository title, but has been overhauled and given a more professional (albeit black-and-white interior) treatment for this main range release.
In previous year-in-review articles (see earlier issues of Bayt al Azif), I’ve talked about some of the circumstances that have forced Call of Cthulhu licensee Stygian Fox into a curious situation. With a backlog of Kickstarter campaigns to finalize and fulfill, they are reliant on a steady output of new supplements for their Patreon backers. These are released monthly to those patrons and made generally available via DriveThruRPG a little later. Some of the titles are also set up as Print on Demand titles.
In 2020, Stygian Fox released seven of these Patreon/DriveThru titles – which is a sizeable output for a small press. The profits from these books also allowed them to finally deliver one of their most anticipated Kickstarter campaigns.
New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, 2nd Edition (see CthuReview 2019)
The major milestone achieved by Stygian in 2020 was the fulfilment of the print release of this book. I already talked about this book, and its general brilliance, in CthuReview 2019 (in Bayt al Azif, Issue 3), so I won’t repeat that description here. Suffice it to say, it is a classic title which is great to have back in print.
Set in England during World War II, the eighth entry into the Fox Country series is a substantial scenario that weighs in at 84 pages (including NPC photos, handouts, and maps). A relative of one of the investigators – a rich maiden aunt – has abandoned the turmoil of wartime London and arranged a stay at a tiny island in Essex, known as Foulness Island. Her letters to the Investigator have painted a vivid picture of the serene and quiet life on the sparsely populated island, with all its quaint old country trappings and Roman ruins.
But when her letters unexpectedly and abruptly stop, the related Investigator begins to fear for her safety. Their investigations confirm Aunt Lydia has, indeed, gone missing. Locals also talk about unexplained lights in the sky, seen close to the ancient ruins.
As they learn more, it becomes apparent that there is much more to Foulness Island than just its quintessentially English village and ostensibly polite community. To get to the bottom of Aunt Lydia’s vanishing – and indeed numerous other disappearances – investigators will need to unravel a mystery that is both insidious and decidedly unnatural.
This short scenario is set in a remote rural town in North Dakota in 1921. A deadly disease has broken out across this tiny community — its cause a mystery. People fear that it may be a resurgence of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. The investigators are brought into the snow-shrouded town to try to find how and why the disease took hold, and determine how to stop its spread. Of course, this being a Call of Cthulhu scenario, the sickness that is engulfing the town has origins that are decided unnatural. Dreams and other supernatural visitations point the way towards the true source of the outbreak, and a deeper personal tragedy that set it in train.
Set in the recent-historical era of the late 1990s, this scenario plays out in the east of England. A New Age cult called “Voice of the Machine” has been attracting lots of new recruits with its promises of heightened awareness through a combination of hallucinogens and meditation. One of the investigators has a friend whose daughter has been swept up in the cult. Wracked with worry, the friend asks the investigator to travel to Eaglescar and look into the strange counter-culture hippies that live in this remote town. Of course, the truth is much weirder than anyone would expect.
This book describes a science fiction “micro setting” for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, one in which humanity has explored much of our solar system and is preparing to look at mysterious places still further afield. Indeed, the investigators are among the crew of a space vehicle known as the Tryphena which is on a mission of exploration beyond our Solar System – but one which is destined to be much weirder than anyone could have predicted.
The first sign of space oddity comes when the Tryphena encounters a second vessel which seems to be an exact copy of their own ship. This doppelganger is found orbiting a lone planet in deep space, utterly abandoned by its crew. What strange events transpired that led to this bizarre situation? And what is down on the planetoid below?
Fox Country #12: The Strange Case of the Shadow Traveller
This Gaslight-era scenario revolves around the London Spiritualist Society, of which the investigators are either members or somehow associated. The manager of the society, Lord Henry Walters, has come to believe that some among the group have designs to summon up a malevolent entity – and that if successful, the society’s reputation will be ruined. Of course, he approaches the investigators to look into these grave concerns. The truth, as is often the case, proves to be something much stranger and more multi-faceted than anyone expects. The scenario plays out over two “acts” – the first is largely investigative, but the second takes investigators to a “haunted” locale and puts them in deadly peril.
This short modern-day scenario is set in a small town of Milo, Maine, where all the investigators grew up and went to school. A high school reunion brings them all back to Milo. During that event they come to learn that Alicia Thorne – one of the most popular girls from their childhood – vanished a year ago, under mysterious circumstances. Drawn into an investigation of the final days before Alicia went missing, characters might initially suspect Ben, her boyfriend. But there is much more to the situation than meets the eye.
When they finally get the bottom of the mystery investigators may find themselves facing a difficult moral decision. The scenario especially notes that its plot has elements involving suicide, and recommends gamers discuss their comfort level with adjacent subject-matter before starting.
This scenario represents another shortish WWII investigation occurring far from the front lines. In this case, the investigators become embroiled in a most bizarre situation where a German U-Boat mysteriously appears in the middle of an inland loch in a remote part of Scotland. A station has been set up to look into this unexplained phenomenon; by the time the investigation crew arrive the commander of that facility already lies dead, possibly at his own hand. Weird runestones found close to the lake only add to the weirdness and amplify feelings that the situation most definitely isn’t contained.
I had the extreme good fortune to play in a session of this scenario – run by author Rachael Randolph, no less – at NecronomiCon 2019, so can vouch for its general creepiness. The adversary which is slowly revealed as the scenario progresses is both original and subtle. In the session I played in, we were happy to have made it out alive after finally learning the horrible truth. Recommended.
Zennor, A Guide to a Village of Secrets
This short PDF describes a Gaslight-era setting loosely tied to Stygian’s Hudson & Brand franchise. In this booklet is described a creepy village perched on cliffs on the Cornwall coastline. It is an ancient place, full of secrets.
Golden Goblin Press
GGP, the other mainstay of the Call of Cthulhu licensee scene, put out two titles in 2020. These were both outputs of Kickstarter campaigns from previous years. The publisher also ran a brand-new Kickstarter in 2020 (for a project due to fulfil in 2021, see later in this article).
An Inner Darkness
The stated goal for this book was to create an anthology of 1920s Lovecraftian RPG scenarios which showcased not only the darkness of the Cthulhu Mythos but also the (sadly all too common) evils brought on by human prejudice, greed, and hate. It’s a tough topic to try to wrangle in a game book – depending on how one builds the depiction of human iniquity into the game narrative, things could get very dark, or alternatively underplay the massive impact this particular form of social ill might have personally had on the reader.
The six scenarios in An Inner Darkness all chart their own course in this regard. Some put the disgusting human trait front-and-center as a way of educating readers/players, while others keep human and Mythos ills quite separate in different parallel plot lines. This diversity of approach will probably mean that readers will like some scenarios more than others in this collection.
The six scenarios and their associated human “darknesses” are: “Dreams of Silk” (terrible workplace safety and exploitative child labor laws) by Christopher Smith Adair, “When This Lousy War is Over” (prejudice against disfigured Great War veterans) by Brian Sammons, “A Fresh Coat of White Paint” (detention and forced deportation of Mexican people in the Great Depression) by Jeff Moeller, “A Family Way” (sexual assault, torture, imprisonment and abortion-related discrimination) by Oscar Rios, “Fire Without Light” (racism and the Tulsa Massacre of 1921) by Helen Gould, and “They Are From Far Away” (the Ku Klux Klan in Maine) by Charles Gerard.
Eldritch New England Holiday Collection
This volume could just as easily be called “Oscar Rios Rendered in Book Format,” so great is the Golden Goblin founder’s influence on this book. It contains four scenarios – two old, two brand-new – all written by Oscar, and all linked (loosely) by two things. The first is the protagonists (player characters) who are all children from an extended family that is scattered over Lovecraft Country – some living in Arkham, some in Kingsport, and even one or two in Dunwich. The other thing that links the scenarios is the thematic association of each with one of the seasonal American holidays.
Such celebrations represent opportunities for extended family to all come together and spend time in each other’s company – and be adolescent Mythos investigators when the opportunity presents. Two of the scenarios in this collection were published in Miskatonic University Library Association Monographs, Chaosium’s earlier (print-only) experiment with community-created content. “Halloween in Dunwich” was featured in the 2005 monograph Halloween Horror while “Christmas in Kingsport” appeared in the 2006 monograph of the same name.
Both of these scenarios have been overhauled for the new anthology and updated to Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. Two new scenarios round out both the four seasons and the full-range of Miskatonic region fictional towns – “Easter in Arkham” and “Innsmouth Independence Day.” The style of all four is idiosyncratically Oscar Rios, the newer scenarios even moreso than the reprints. One point that should be stressed is that the structure of the scenarios means that they really only work with the pre-generated adolescent characters (“the cousins”) – the stories are built around their families and their background, and its assumed that all six participate in each game.
CthuReview 2020 will return … tomorrow
We still have more 2020-released Lovecraft goodness to discuss, so join us tomorrow when we delve into titles released by Petersen Games (for their SPCM RPG), Magazines and Fanzines, as well as titles published through Chaosium’s community program (the Miskatonic Repository).
For the past four years, I have been contributing a “year in review” article to issues of the (absolutely awesome) Lovecraftian Tabletop RPG magazine, Bayt al Azif. I have recently been given generous permission by the editors of that august periodical to reprint those columns here on the blog — last week I serialized CthuReview 2019, the review article that was printed in Bayt al Azif Issue #3. This week it’s time to give the same treatment to my summary of titles released in 2020 …
We all know that 2020 wasn’t a particularly pleasant year for … well, pretty much anyone. With COVID-19 forcing many places into lockdown and disrupting almost every part of daily life, we’ve all had to come to terms with a new way of living. The ways in which people play “tabletop” roleplaying games has changed too, with a lot more of us running things online. With all this sudden change, it’s interesting to reflect on how much the pandemic has affected the operation of those publishers we rely on to bring out amazing new Lovecraftian RPG material each year.
This article is an attempt to chronicle the different Lovecraftian tabletop roleplaying gaming releases that came out in 2020. As with all such reviews, this one doesn’t claim to cover absolutely every RPG title that had a cosmic horror theme, or mentioned the terms “rugose” or “eldritch” somewhere in a monster description. But it does try to cover a broad range of games, both the well-known and established titles and new and smaller independent releases.
Publishers and the Pandemic
Before launching into a description of the games and supplements themselves, it’s probably worthwhile saying a few words about the different ways in which game publishers have done it tough during COVID. Like everyone else, they have had to adapt to work within stay-at-home orders and such. But the game publishing business has faced a few special challenges that may not be as obvious.
The first big challenge that publishers have had to grapple with is the increase in time and cost associated with shipping products to customers. We’ve all experienced the extra delays in getting items we’ve ordered – especially during the first half of 2020 – and complaints about slow delivery have been a perennial bugbear for publishers. The overhead costs of shipping have grown significantly too and have mostly led to companies passing on those increases to customers.
A less visible, yet probably even more significant challenge facing publishers who primarily create physical products is freight. That is, the charges to get bulk quantities of produced products (books, or box sets) from the company that prints/manufactures them to the publisher’s warehouses or fulfilment partners. Stories have run rampant online about freight companies (who run container shipping globally) massively increasing their charges – sometimes by several hundred percent.
These cost increases have a major impact on publishers and need to either be passed on to the end customer somehow (product price goes up) or absorbed (margin per product goes down).
A third major impact of the pandemic is the cancellation of pretty much all face-to-face game conventions in 2020, most replaced by virtual online conventions. Established publishers really do rely on big events to sell a lot of products. The convention circuit is to them pretty much what live touring is to music artists – it’s an opportunity to interact with your audience, showcases your latest stuff, and hopefully get people excited enough that they march off to the vendor hall to buy your games to take home. The lack of any face-to-face conventions in 2020 would doubtless have created quite a bit of financial pressure on some publishers for this one reason alone.
State of Cthulhu RPG Publishing in 2020
The rest of this article is a detailed summary of titles released in 2020, but it’s also worth taking a step back and looking at the Lovecraft tabletop hobby as a whole. From where I stand there are a few interesting trends and observations that can be made when comparing 2020’s output to that of previous years. These are obviously personal opinions and should be taken with a healthy dose of salt.
Firstly, the trend away from there being a relatively small number of big players in the market, has certainly continued – perhaps even accelerated. While Chaosium still puts out more pages of content than any other single publisher, their contribution to the “big picture” of Lovecraft gaming seems to be diminishing. In part this is a function of their energies being diverted onto other games and in part it’s down to their (financially sound) strategy of republishing the “greatest hits” updated for 7th Edition. It’s left to other smaller players to innovate and push the hobby forward.
The baton for making prestige products that are consistently good seems to now be with Arc Dream, whose Delta Green game has been going from strength-to-strength over the past few years. Granted the “conspiracy modern horror” sub-genre isn’t for everyone, but for those who are willing to dip their toe into that murky pool there’s a wealth of high-quality material now available.
If there was an award for frantic activity by a Call of Cthulhu licensee, Stygian Fox would certainly have taken it out in 2020. Some of their (well-publicized) past challenges have pushed them into a model where frequent releases, first to their Patreon and then through DriveThruRPG, are a critical part of funding the release of delayed Kickstarter books. For most months of 2020 Stygian managed to get a brand new title released, which is no mean feat.
Equally impressive in terms of frequent output in 2020 was Petersen Games’ Sandy Pertersen’s Cthulhu Mythos books. Throughout the year, these were released under a subscription model – with three whole multi-book campaigns making it out in 2020.
So, with those general thoughts out of the way, lets dive into talking about the titles released by these major publishers … and many smaller players as well.
Arc Dream (Delta Green RPG)
Perhaps the most significant of Arch Dream’s releases in 2020 was the hardback edition of John Scott Tynes’ superb book The Labyrinth. We already waxed lyrical about the PDF version of this book back in CthuReview 2019, so we won’t repeat that praise. But if you have any interest in modern day Lovecraftian games, and want a bunch of nuanced and compelling adversaries and allies to craft a cool homebrew scenario around – Delta Green: The Labyrinth is perhaps the best book of its type ever produced for a Cthulhu RPG. Definitely worth checking out.
The other big chunky hardback book from Arc Dream in 2020 was Black Sites, a scenario anthology which collects seven diverse and intriguing scenarios. “PX Poker Night” puts the players in the roles of dropout military folks on a mostly abandoned Airforce base which comes under attack from some unorthodox outside parties. “Kali Ghati” is set during the war in Afghanistan when a group of military and intelligence types have reason to visit a village of people with some very peculiar and ancient beliefs.
“The Last Equation” is a Dennis Detwiller piece about a most remarkable piece of mathematics. “Lover in the Ice” is an especially gruesome scenario – definitely not for players who are easily shocked – with a classic X-Files kind of feel to it. “Sweetness” is a small tale about the damage that can come from meddling with things Unknown. “Hourglass” begins with a viral video showing a woman vanishing into thin area in a public place. Finally, “Ex Oblivione” is a particularly creepy scenario set in the deserts of Arizona, featuring some survivals of horrors that link back directly to Lovecraft.
Black Sites also includes a small scenario seed “The Child” that is a weird encounter from which a Handler might improvise his or her own scenario.
Individual Softcover Books
As well as releasing scenarios in hardback compilations like Black Sites, Arc Dream also publishes them as saddle-stitched softcovers. In 2020, “Hourglass”,“PX Poker Night”, and “Lover in the Ice” were all released in that format. The contents are no different between versions.
Chaosium / Moon Design, part I
During 2020, Chaosium released four hardcover books, a slipcase with 2 more hardcovers, and a couple of smaller softcover titles. Oh, and a deck of monster cards. All up, that stretches to a quite respectable 1900-or-so pages of material. This compares to about 1300 pages of new material in 2019 and only 1000 in 2018. So, by that metric it was a bumper year.
For convenience, we’ll split the discussion of Chaosium’s output into halves, starting it here and completing it (tomorrow) in the next part of this review article.
Cthulhu Dark Ages, 3rd Edition
Easily the best of Chaosium’s titles for 2020, this book represents not only an updating of the Dark Ages setting for Call of Cthulhu, but also a major reimagining of its default setting. Written by Chad Bowser and Andi Newton, this is technically the third edition published by Chaosium (although the second was never widely distributed); it’s the first for the 7th Edition CoC rules. The Dark Ages setting has always aimed to present a much more historically accurate version of the middle ages than found in most fantasy RPGs. If you think something like the film or book “The Name of the Rose”, you’re in the right ballpark for tone.
The first English-language edition of Cthulhu Dark Ages (released by Chaosium in 2004) was a translation of a title originally written in German. It retained a focus on life in Continental Europe during the 10th and 11th Centuries. This new edition shifts focus heavily to England of the same time period, describing life among the Anglo-Saxons. It even has a ready-made village setting for you to use as a starting point for your adventures: Totburh, situated near the modern-day Severn Valley. The new book also includes three ready-to-play scenarios.
Because this edition varies so widely in setting compared to its predecessor, there is definite benefit to owning both. Previously the Cthulhu Dark Ages setting hasn’t received much support in the way of follow-up supplements; we hope that this excellent re-launch of the setting will inspire some further books of Dark Age scenarios at least.
Malleus Monstrorum, 2nd Edition Slipcase
Once upon a time every RPG aspired to provide a book for the GM, a book for the players, a book of spells, and a book of monsters. With the publication of the bulky Malleus Monstrorum slipcase, 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has now achieved that goal. Monster books have always been a bit of an oddity for CoC – if you’re running pre-written scenarios, the full game stats for the various adversaries are usually included, so the only time Keepers really need such a reference is when building their own scenarios. Of course, there are lots of people who do create “homebrew” Mythos adventures for their gaming crew, and a bunch of folks write scenarios for publication in the Miskatonic Repository and elsewhere. For all those people, this massive 2-volume compilation of every Mythos monstrosity and “god” is a goldmine. Or ticket to unceremonious SAN loss.
The original Malleus Monstrorum (published in 2006) was the product of a mountain of research undertaken by the legendary Scott David Aniolowski. He is still co-credited on this 7th Edition update, but many, many other hands have also been involved along the way. One of the biggest changes that have taken place in Lovecraftian games over the past five or six years has been the increasingly complex and legalistic framework around licensing creations from the estates of authors who created Mythos names in their fiction. Because this work aims to compile the horrific named creations from hundreds of Cthulhu Mythos stories, the sheer amount of work that must have gone into tracking down the many author estates and signing contracts with each would have been very significant.
No other publisher would have resources to do that, and so the Malleus Monstrorum will probably stand as the only example of its type for a Lovecraftian RPG. Of course, if you play games other than Call of Cthulhu there is nothing to stop you buying this amazing two-hardback slipcase for inspiration or for adapting stats to your game of choice.
Either way, it is most definitely a deluxe production. To go along with this new Malleus Monstrorum, Chaosium also released a deck of “monster cards”. The front side of each card shows artwork depicting a Mythos nasty and the reverse side has its key stats for Keeper’s quick reference. About 60 monsters are featured in the deck.
Whenever online polls are run asking gamers their favorite book of Call of Cthulhu scenarios, Mansions of Madness always comes out somewhere near the top. First published in 1990 and then re-released in 2007 with one extra scenario, Mansions has long been considered a “go to” collection for creepy tales about houses or buildings tainted by the Cthulhu Mythos. Bringing the venerable old scenarios up to the 7th Edition and getting them back in print has long been on the wish list for many gamers. With this release, Chaosium grants that wish … well, half grants it anyway.
In an interesting move, Chaosium have decided to be a bit creative with re-releasing the scenarios in Mansions. Rather than a single book of 7th Edition updated scenarios, they’ve elected to split the original five or six scenarios across multiple volumes and augment them with brand new house-or-building themed scenarios. For this first volume, they’ve reprinted two original 1990 scenarios – “Mister Corbitt” by Michael (now Shawn) DeWolf and “The Crack’d and Crooked Manse” by Mark Morrison. Three new scenarios round out the collection: “The Code” by Christopher Lackey, “The House of Memphis” by Gavin Inglis, and “The Nineteenth Hole” by Stuart Boon.
Overall this book feels quite uneven, but its best scenarios are excellent. Morrison’s “Crack’d and Crooked Manse” still steals the show and Stuart Boon’s unusual take on the haunting of a golf clubhouse is a refreshing change for the genre. The updates to the (previously quite brief) “Mister Corbitt” have rendered it into a different kind of scenario, perhaps more approachable for a beginner Keeper. As a collection, it’s definitely something to pick up if you’re looking to send some investigators into some eerie buildings of doom. One can only look forward to seeing how the remaining scenarios from the older volume get refreshed in Volume 2.
Children of Fear
Chaosium’s big all-new chunky release for 2020 was the campaign Children of Fear by Lynne Hardy. It is billed as an epic journey starting in 1920s China, spanning the old Silk Road routes into Tibet and India, and perhaps taking investigators into otherworldly destinations too. On the surface of it, this setup has a lot going for it – a long-form adventure in a part of the world which has never much been explored in any Lovecraftian game, some intriguing cultures and philosophies for investigators to interact with, and a literal race to save the world from calamity. It’s fair to say that Children of Fear doesn’t really live up to the potential awesomeness that any of those themes could bring to a campaign.
There are a few issues holding this campaign back. One of them is the exceedingly dry and “textbook-y” tone to the writing. Doubtless it provides a wealth of information about people, places, and cultures that investigators might encounter during its eight chapters (not to mention a lengthy discourse on the history the tea-growing industry in India). But all the information is presented in a way that feels like you’re reading a Wikipedia page. It’s all great detail, but the Keeper would need to take it and synthesize meaningful game depictions largely on his or her own.
Another factor that may give some readers pause is the very slight and mostly hand-wavey way the campaign treats the Cthulhu Mythos. There are major supernatural factions involved, to be sure, but Keepers are expected to decide for themselves which forces of the Mythos represent the real “truth” behind those facades. Options are given, but this aspect of Children of Fear really feels like an afterthought, making it feel more like a campaign about Oriental folklore which could – if you really want it to – have a connection to Lovecraftian creations.
Overall, the campaign will strongly appeal to some gamers – mostly those who have a special interest in Eastern myths, philosophies, and locales. It will also appeal to people who just want to run something that is completely different than anything that’s been released for Call of Cthulhu before. Other groups might find less to appeal to their sensibilities.
CthuReview 2020 will return … tomorrow
We still have a lot of 2020-released Lovecraft goodness to discuss, so join us tomorrow when we finish up the description of Chaosium/Moon Design’s products and titles from the two most-prolific Call of Cthulhu licensees, Stygian Fox and Golden Goblin.
Recently our good friends at Kalandhorizont in Hungary released their translated version of the APOCTHULHU Core Rulebook! We are so pleased to have been able to work with them on this — they’ve got a great track record (having produced Hungarian language versions of such diverse RPGs as Trail of Cthulhu, Blue Planet, and Runequest).
For the past few days, we have been serializing the “2019 Year in Review” article I contributed to Issue 3 of Bayt al Azif (article written in early 2020 and published late 2020). This is re-published with the kind permission of the generous editors of that fine game magazine (which I thoroughly recommend you check out).
For this final part of the 2019 retrospective, we tackle games that have a Lovecraft influence but are beyond the traditional d100 sphere. We also wrap up the review with a round-up of Kickstarters that funded in 2019 (or earlier) — some of which have fully delivered since this was written, some of which are still MIA … yes, “ASG’s Horrors of War” we are looking at you 🙂
Lovecraftian Games Further Afield
Perhaps the most challenging part of trying to summarize the year’s Lovecraft-inspired RPG releases is trying to track down games from beyond the traditional crunchy Cthulhu-centre of the hobby which have nonetheless woven “eldritch” or “cosmic horror” elements into their releases. Because Lovecraft’s fame … or should I say notoriety … is so great among gamers and game writers, his influences can pop up in all sorts of unexpected places. The list of games and supplements which follows is certainly not intended to be exhaustive but provides a glimpse of some of the more obvious influences beyond the normal sphere.
FATE is an amazing lightweight narrative-led game which has been successfully adapted to many different genres. When I first heard of the upcoming Kickstarter for Fate of Cthulhu I was excited, but the more I read about the specific project the more limiting it sounded. Rather than being a general game of Lovecraftian horror using the FATE rules, Fate of Cthulhu aims for a much narrower scope – it’s a game that’s all about people from a Post-Apocalyptic future (where the forces of the Mythos have triumphed) travelling back in time to present day to stop that terrible fate from eventuating. If you think “Terminator” or “12 Monkeys” you’re on the right wavelength. While this concept seems interesting for a scenario or even a campaign, the idea of making a game that is only suited to that kind of story feels, to me anyway, like a bit of a wasted opportunity.
Regardless, the Kickstarter for Fate of Cthulhu was quite successful, and the book was delivered later in 2019. It’s an attractive 256-page tome, although there are elements of the writing that I find a little problematic. In terms of the possibilities for gameplay the book offers five different dystopian future timelines that your character can be from – one in which Cthulhu has risen from the sea and driven the world crazy, one in which Dagon has mutated humanity, one in which Shub-Niggurath has gone on the rampage, one in which Nyarlathotep has taken rule in Egypt and built an army of alien horrors, and finally one in which the King in Yellow has created a plague that sweeps the earth.
As ideas these are a bit on the obvious side, but I suppose also easy things for players without much prior experience of Mythos fiction would instantly be able to comprehend. Gameplay seems to be, as advertised, limited to going back to the beginning of the Mythos entity’s rise to power and somehow deflect or defeat it. Each timeline gets about 25 pages of description which give a brief capsule summary of how the world ended and some of the people and places involved.
One of the welcome new additions in recent years has been the creation of lightweight Lovecraftian games which embrace a more minimalist approach to game rules while still encouraging gameplay that has the familiar feel of investigative cosmic horror. Perhaps the most famous game in this group is Graham Walmsley’s super-lean game Cthulhu Dark. Moth Lands Publishing’s 2019 release Cthulhu Deep Green is an adaptation of the Cthulhu Dark rules to the genre of modern-day conspiracy horror.
If that description makes you think “Cthulhu Dark crossed with Delta Green” you are very much on the money – although Cthulhu Deep Green never mentions any of the elements of the Delta Green universe, or even the existence of such a game. I guess that’s not surprising since those things are all intellectual property owned by the Delta Green Partnership.
So, what does super-rules-light conspiracy horror in CDG look like? Well it’s a lot like Cthulhu Dark with the exception that combat is much more of an option for players – and there’s a lot more focus on the specifics of mental damage to player character agents and the things they get up to between missions. As well as releasing the core Cthulhu Deep Green game as a 52-page PDF, Moth Lands also released a CDG mission called “Food of the Gods” as a separate 18-page PDF. The core game has since been released as a Print-On-Demand physical book as well.
Not so many years ago Goodman Games used to be a Call of Cthulhu licensee, producing the Age of Cthulhu line of books. While that relationship seems to have come to an end, there are obviously some at Goodman who still foster some love for the Mythos: The Cthulhu Alphabet is testament to that.
This is a book which is, strictly speaking, fully system-neutral but which seems thematically tied somehow to Goodman’s very popular Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. Indeed, The Cthulhu Alphabet would seem to be inspired by the publisher’s earlier Monster Alphabet. Both provide a literal ‘A’ to ‘Z’ of different facets of designing a game critter (or other element) and offer some random tables for randomly picking one of a dizzying array of options.
In The Cthulhu Alphabet, examples of the kinds of alphabetically-ordered categories include: “F is for Forbidden” and “V is for Voorish Sign”. The former includes a table of Forbidden items and another table for randomly picking how they arrive in the hands of the player characters. The Voorish Sign entry includes pages and pages of possible supernatural effects that might be triggered by said mystical hand gesture.
The book is basically 100-or-so pages of such alphabetical listings. It’s a fun and somewhat handy resource for games, but perhaps the most engaging part of The Cthulhu Alphabet is its liberal splashings of old-school black-and-white art. These are by a range of artists, but all evoke a kind of vibe that feels reminiscent of the early days of the role-playing hobby.
Sandy Petersen’s Ghoul Island Campaign
For the past few years Sandy Petersen’s personal game imprint has been ramping up its output of Cthulhu-infused roleplaying books, bringing the Mythos to players of mainstream fantasy games. First there was a book of Cthulhoid monsters for Pathfinder, and then the same book ported to 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The popularity of these has no doubt inspired the creation of scenario books which similarly take the common formats of fantasy adventures and replaces the monsters with Mythos creatures. Petersen Games produced four hardcover scenario books in this vein in 2019, all of them part of the “Ghoul Island” campaign for D&D 5E.
The four chapters of this campaign are titled: Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen, Act 2: Ghoulocracy, Act 3: Clean Up Crew, and Act 4: Ghatanothoa Awakens. In format, the Ghoul Island campaign is quite similar to most “Adventure Paths” created for fantasy games – the characters pass through a linear series of loosely-plotted adventures, slowly getting exposed to more and more dangerous situations before having a chance for an epic fight to stop the forces of evil once and for all. Act 1 sees the adventurers hired on to deliver cargo to a nightmare-shrouded island, the journey breaking the minds of many of the crew causing them to mutiny.
Act 2 sees them on the trail of the traitorous crew, uncovering a temple to Ghatanothoa, ancient horrors, subterranean tunnels, and a huge battle which threatens to destroy a city. The third act sees the adventurers on the trail of Ghatanothoa’s foul cultists, up into lava tubes and perhaps capture. The last part covers the adventurer’s mission to defeat the cult once and for all, including a surprise side-visit into the Dreamlands and a trip back to the volcano to stamp out the menace before an even worse threat can be unleashed upon the fantasy world.
Dark Trails (DCC)
A Kickstart campaign was run in mid-2019 for a game called Dark Trails utilizing the Dungeon Crawl Classics system created by Goodman Games. The game, to be published under license by an outfit called Stiff Whiskers Press, promised “a standalone weird West RPG based upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft and all things Cthulhu.” The campaign was very successful, raising almost 5 times the original goal. Unlocked along the way were a range of upgrades including some Cthulhuoid western adventures. While the full version of the Dark Trails game has yet to materialize, the publisher did put out a “Bootleg Edition” just before the end of 2019. This was envisaged as a cut-down “quickstart” version of the game, although at 192 pages I don’t think anyone would consider that a quick read.
Most of the “Bootleg” book is devoted to covering the rules of the game which are very much in the OSR vein, as you’d expect – one of the notable deviations from traditional western fare is the inclusion of some rather unusual and outlandish character classes. There’s also some great black-and-white illustrations, including a portrait of HPL as illustration for the Occultist character class. While most of the pages are about rules, there is still some background detail on how the world of Dark Trails got infused with Mythos-ness, and a lengthy adventure called “Death Crawls West”. The latter is an introductory funnel – if you’ve played or read the DCC game you’ll know what that means – focussing on a wagon trail that’s moving out into New Mexico Territory, only to find a lot more peril than anyone bargained for.
Leagues of Adventure: Cthulhu Codicil (Ubiquity)
For several years Triple Ace Games has been releasing titles for their Victorian adventure game Leagues of Adventure (which uses their in-house Ubiquity system). While this game covers a lot more than just Lovecraftian horror, it has certainly dipped into that territory for some of its material (most notably 2017’s Leagues of Cthulhu). In 2019, Triple Ace were back for more Lovecraftian goodness, running a successful Kickstarter for the Cthulhu Codicil. It was advertised as an expansion to the Leagues of Cthulhu book, “packed full of new character options, tomes, locations, and monsters.” Examples of new Mythos elements cited on the Kickstarter page seem to be original inventions for this book (as opposed to elements created in the fiction of other writers). The exact status of this book at the time of writing is not entirely obvious – it hit a major snag during the year when it’s principal writer, Paul “Wiggy” Wade suffered a stroke. However, it seems that the majority of the title’s contents had been written well before that time, and the Kickstarter updates suggest that at least some backers rewards have been sent out.
New Titles for The Cthulhu Hack
Just Crunch Games’ Cthulhu Hack is an OSR game, based on a previous game called The Black Hack (itself a kind of retro-clone of 1st Edition AD&D). It’s been around for a few years and there have been a few supplements released for it. In 2019 there were no less than three new titles released for The Cthulhu Hack, one by Just Crunch and two by another imprint called Matakishi’s Tea House.
The release from Just Crunch was titled Mother’s Love and is a substantial book which collects three scenarios, each of which has something to do with concept of motherhood. “Deep Roots” is set in rural Canada and revolves around peculiar incidents involving recently adopted and fostered children coming from a local orphanage. “Ggantija” is set on Malta and is concerned with events surrounding a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The third scenario, “Gifts of the Flesh” sees the players take on the roles of animal activists headed to an abattoir on a privately-owned Greek island to investigate reports of mistreated animals. All of the scenarios are designed to be run in modern(-ish) day, and the influence of Shub-Niggurath flows strongly throughout the book.
The two Cthulhu Hack titles by Matakishi’s Tea House are The Chaos Beyond The Gate and The Flame From Space. Both are shorter and more amateur publications, the former involving some creepy occurrences at a local health-care clinic, while the latter exposes investigators to preparations for a hideous Mythos invasion of Earth from beyond.
I must confess I had never previously heard of the term ChapBook RPG – looking it up online reveals that it’s a term used to describe an ultra-lean type of game where the entire game’s rules take up 30 or so pages, and is intended to be a “pick up and play” experience. Cthulhu Nights definitely fits that mould, providing an ultra-light set of rules in its 26 pages. The creator, Noah C. Patterson, is a fiction writer specializing in young adult horror, dabbling in game writing on the side. In addition to Cthulhu Nights, Noah also released three solitaire micro-RPG-games of a Lovecraftian nature – all under the banner One Page Cthulhu. All of these books are available as Pay-What-You-Want titles on DriveThruRPG.
Inkwell Ideas is a company that produces game accessories which are intentionally system-agnostic. Many of their titles are decks of double-sided cards which contain a variety of different locations or characters that could be dropped easily into a game. Almost all of these Sidequest Decks and NPC Portrait Decks cater to fantasy games, but there are a few that do not – in the latter camp is Sidequest Deck: Lovecraftian/Paranormal which provides 54 cards each with an adventure idea/element on one side and a related map or graphic on the other. You can buy the product as a physical deck of cards, or just grab the PDF and make your own deck.
In my CthuReview of 2018, I mentioned a Kickstarter for a roleplaying game called H.P. Lovecraft’s Preparatory Academy, which promised to be “a cheerfully macabre game of schoolyard horror.” The fulfilment of this Kickstarter was massively delayed – its original target date of April 2018 was missed by a long shot, with the books actually going out mid-2019 instead. The game was originally intended to be released for two separate systems – PDQ and Savage Worlds – and the release of a new (SWADE) edition of the latter game certainly was the cause of some delays. Each different game system received its own separate book: in the end, the publishers (Third Eye Games) also chose to create a version for their in-house “Pip System” as well. All of these books appear to be now available generally. There’s also a short scenario called “With Friends Like These” available as a separate product.
Dwarf Army Games has released a couple of games in the “Pocket Wonders” line. These are designed to be ultra-light rules that can be crammed into a few pages but provide enough “crunch” to allow an experienced gamer to run games in a specific genre. In 2019, the 22-page Pocket Wonders: Dreams of Cthulhu was released. Set in the 1920s and drawing on familiar tropes of Lovecraftian horror, it offers a 3d6-based system which could easily be used to power scenarios of the GM’s own invention.
Future Horrors: Unfulfilled Kickstarters
In addition to looking backwards at what’s already been released, it’s sometimes interesting to look into the crystal ball (or maybe Shining Trapezohedron?) and get a sense of what is coming next. One of the best ways of doing that is to take a look at Kickstarter campaigns for Lovecraftian RPG projects that have funded but haven’t yet delivered their final rewards. Here’s a quick roundup. [We have added some notes to describe the state of each of these campaigns at the time of this blog-article, i.e., late March 2022].
First off, it’s probably worth reviewing the list of Kickstarters that funded in 2018 or earlier, but which didn’t manage to deliver in 2019 due to project delays. These are:
Horrors of War (Adam Scott Glancy): This book project has become sadly synonymous with delayed Kickstarters, having funded back in 2014 with an original delivery estimate of February 2015. Nothing much has changed with this project since I wrote its status and history in the CthuReview of 2018. [Update Note: this campaign HAS NOT yet delivered its rewards (as per March 2022)]
The Dare (Sentinel Hill): This is another project that hasn’t moved much since last year’s review. It must be a frustration to backers and the publisher that the production of this title has reached the 90% done mark and then been stymied by a series of small mishaps and delays. Finger-crossed this one will be in backers’ hands soon. [Update Note: this campaign HAS delivered its rewards since this article was published]
Unspeakable Sign & Sigil (Cubicle 7 & Make Believe Games): I also wrote about delays on this project in the 2018 review, and while there has been some evidence of progress I believe that the books still have not found their way out (far overshooting the original target date of March 2018). [Update Note: this campaign not only failed to fulfill its rewards, but the project was ultimately cancelled altogether]
The Cthulhu Idol (Delphes Desvoivres): This is yet another delayed project included in my list from last year; and once again there’s still no concrete timeline on when either the idol or the scenario book parts of this project will be released. [Update Note: this campaign HAS NOT yet delivered its rewards (as per March 2022)]
The Wild Hunt and Occam’s Razor (Stygian Fox): Both of these Stygian titles were mentioned in last year’s review, and both have now passed their original estimated delivery (Wild Hunt was due in January 2019, Occam’s Razor in June 2019). The changes in Stygian business model have placed additional pressures on finalizing all the company’s outstanding Kickstarters, but to their credit they are pushing onwards and adapting to their changed environment with some success. [Update Note: these two campaigns HAVE PARTIALLY delivered their rewards since this article was published; PDFs of bothtitles have been released, but the print version of “The Wild Hunt” is still in progress and the printed “Occam’s Razor” is being (slowly) distributed around the world (as per March 2022)]
Delta Green: The Labyrinth (Arc Dream; core book delivered, others still forthcoming): Although the main book at the heart of this Kickstarter (the titular “The Labyrinth”) is now out in PDF, it still hasn’t made its way to print. Also, there are quite a few unlocked add-on books and scenarios associated with this campaign that have yet to appear – these were always planned to come out much later than the core book (so aren’t necessarily running late). By my reckoning, the list of future titles includes: Bleeding Darkness (scenario), Final Passages (scenario collection + handout kit), God’s Teeth (campaign + handout kit), The Horned God (scenario), In The Stillness (scenario), The Language of Stars (scenario), Schemata (scenario), Those Who Come After (sourcebook + handout kit), and Undertow (scenario). [Update Note: these two campaigns HAVE PARTIALLY delivered their rewards since this article was published; the main Labyrinth book and its associated handout kit have both been released, but everything else is still in progress (as per March 2022)]
The following four new Kickstarters for Lovecraftian RPG products were run in 2019:
Hudson & Brand: Shadows of the Past (Stygian Fox): This successful fundraiser was to create a book of three linked scenarios for Stygian Fox’s popular “Hudson & Brand” setting in Gaslight London. It was envisaged as a 150-page book, with estimated delivery in February 2020. Original Kickstarter link.[Update Note: this campaign HAS NOT yet delivered its rewards (as per March 2022)]
An Inner Darkness (Golden Goblin): This book was advertised as a scenario anthology featuring subject matter relating to social inequalities or injustices of the past. By the time it closed it had stretched to include seven scenarios. This was estimated to be delivered in November 2019 but actually came out in PDF form around March 2020 and will probably be distributed in physical form in May. Original Kickstarter link.[Update Note: this campaign HAS delivered its rewards since this article was published]
Lovecraft Holiday Collection (Golden Goblin): This was a campaign to create an anthology of four Lovecraft Country scenarios, each themed to a different holiday season (Halloween, Christmas, Easter, and Independence Day). Two of the scenarios were formerly published in Miskatonic University Library Association Monographs many years ago. The campaign is forecast to deliver its books in June 2020. Original Kickstarter link. [Update Note: this campaign HAS delivered its rewards since this article was published]
A Time For Sacrifice (New Comet Games): Back in 2018, New Comet Games published Devil’s Swamp. This new Kickstarter seeks to recreate that success with another book of 1920s scenarios. The campaign had an original estimated delivery of May 2020. Kickstarter link.[Update Note: this campaign HAS delivered its rewards since this article was published]
There’s no question that 2019 was another strong year for new Lovecraftian RPG material, with a broad variety of new books being released to cater to many different settings and styles of game. The overall trend away from one publisher being the “dominant voice” in how Lovecraft games should look, has continued. Chaosium is still the biggest contributor to the number of new titles (they released around 1100 pages of new non-Repository material in 2019, slightly down from 1200 in the preceding year), but other publishers still create significant amounts. The altered operating arrangements of Stygian Fox in 2019, for example, generated about 750 pages of new game material, while Arc Dream’s Delta Green released about 550 pages of new content. All this points to a healthy and continuing trend of “Lovecraft taint” infecting gaming products far-and-wide. Doubtless this will continue, even though global events are certain to significantly affect all game producers publishing in 2020. Cthulhu will prevail.
The CthuReview will return …
Next week we will serialize the “year in review” article that I wrote for the recently-released Bayt al Azif #4. That piece covers all Lovecraftian RPG releases for 2020.