Pages From the Bayt, part 7

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.

Dark Worlds

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!

Standalone Scenarios

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”.

Smaller Publishers

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”).

Cthulhu Reborn

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.

Magazines

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.

Other Zines

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.

Honorable Mentions

As well as the books mentioned above, the following Miskatonic Repository titles struck me as notable for one reason or another – The Harlotville Horror by Andy Miller, Cages of Light and Lenses by Alison Cybe, For The Love of … by Jon Hook, The Big Game Hunt by Danial Carroll, Little Torches by Heinrich D. Moore, Georgia On My Mind by Steven Goodison, The Room With No Doors by M.T. Black, Cthulhu Null by JP Stephens, and pretty much all of the translated Zgrozy supplements.

CthuReview 2020 will conclude … tomorrow

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.


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