Pages From the Bayt, part 6

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.

Stygian Fox

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.

Fox Country #8: The Foulness Island Vanishings

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.

Fox Country #9: Under A Winter Snow

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.

Fox Country #10: The Darkness Over Eaglescar

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.

Fox Country #11: Salo’s Glory

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.

Fox Country #13: Whatever Happened to Alicia Thorne?

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.

Fox Country #16: Station S

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).

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