Pages From the Bayt, part 5

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 …

As with last week’s postings … please keep in mind that this retrospective was written in early 2021 (even though the magazine pages they graced were only published in the past month or so). Some things — especially as they relate to Kickstarter fulfillment — might have changed since then.

Introduction to CthuReview 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Black Sites

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.

Mansions of Madness, 3rd Edition, Volume 1 – Behind Closed Doors

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.

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