Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 13 November 2009

Earl Grey. Milk or Lemon?

If you happen to have played any Call of Cthulhu scenarios at conventions in the United Kingdom over the last decade, you might have been lucky enough to have played in one or more run by the Cult of Keepers. Although the six members of this informal group of Call of Cthulhu Keepers have gone their separate ways, they gained a reputation for running highly effective scenarios, and since the group has broken up, there has been a demand not only to bring them back, but for some of their many scenarios to see print. Already one such scenario Gatsby & The Great Race, has appeared as a Miskatonic University Library Association monograph, but it is not freely available (being only available direct from Chaosium), and to get the utmost out of it, you need lots of players, and ideally, a castle in Bavaria.

Fortunately for those demanding to see more scenarios from the collective minds of the Cult of Keepers, growing publisher Cubicle Seven Entertainment has come to your rescue with the anthology, Cthulhu Britannica. This collects five scenarios set across the ages, from the late Victorian period of Cthulhu by Gaslight to the near future prior to the End Times via Call of Cthulhu's classic period of the 1920s (well, 1930s, anyway), and the here and now. One important consideration for the potential Keeper is that the five scenarios are all based on convention scenarios and thus not all are suited for use with an existing campaign. In fact, the terminal nature of one or two of the scenarios makes them suited only for use as one-shots. This is no bad thing though, and even then one or two of the one-shots herein could be used as the starting point for a campaign.

Starting with its very cover – a tentacular and Punk inspired subversion of Jon Constable’s The Hay Wain, Cthulhu Britannica sticks two fingers up with a very British sensibility, and this wafts from every page. All of its scenarios are set in the United Kingdom, have been written by Britons, and the book itself has been released by a British publisher. Some of the scenarios could be set elsewhere, but some of the feel and the tone to those might well suffer in the process. Nevertheless, all five scenarios come with pre-generated investigators and are relatively easy to run.

The collection opens with “Bad Company” by Alan Bligh, a brutally bloody piece for Cthulhu by Gaslight. The investigators are well-to-do gentlemen of the right sort asked by a junior minister and peer to help locate his son, who has gone missing after having been seen in the wrong company. More importantly they need to do this while avoiding any whiff of a scandal. The “wrong company” in a question is a mysterious young woman of Eastern European extraction who has left a foul trail of defiled and ruined lovers and disciples in her wake. Getting to her leads the investigators through the capital’s seamier side and to their encountering numerous nasty ner-do-wells along the way before the final confrontation. This is a strong scenario, which suffers from being underwritten in places, in particular where the villainess of the piece is concerned. This is the easiest of the book’s scenarios to use in or to start an ongoing campaign, although it does no more than suggest that.

The second scenario is Mike Mason’s “Darkness, Descending,” which is set in 1934 (though it can be easily moved back into the 1920s) with the investigators joining an archaeological dig near the village of Middle Harling where evidence of a Roman settlement has been found. The author describes the setting as being quintessentially English, but it would be best to say that the adventure as a whole exemplifies the “things best left undisturbed” scenario to the point that it might be described as being clichéd. Similarly, the scenario’s NPCs can be best described as being archetypes, such that it would be incredibly easy for the Keeper to ham them up. For inspiration for that I would point the Keeper to episodes of The Archers on Radio 4... This would be an easy scenario to run, and rather complain at the clichés, the Keeper should revel in them.

“Wrong Turn” by John French is the collection’s first true one-shot. It is set in the here and now, and casts the investigators as part of a television crew filming test shots at an abandoned radio telescope. Abandoned after a terrible experiment, one that will come back to haunt the team as darkness falls and something comes back to haunt and harry them. This is a short mood piece, strong on atmosphere and isolation that the author supports with solid staging advice.

It is followed by Keary Birch’s “King,” a very near future set scenario that is the first of the two that open with the characters awakening to find themselves in a strange situation. Here they find themselves patients recovering after eye surgery, the author suggesting that the players wear blindfolds during the initial stages of the scenario to simulate this. Once the bandages (or blindfolds) are off, the characters find themselves trapped in the hospital. The initial exploration of the surgery wing is nicely creepy, but then the scenario wants to wind up the tension and threat level with encounter upon encounter with Mythos creatures. Getting past them will be difficult enough, the scenario ending either in a blood bath or a lot of tense creeping about.

The last scenario is the interestingly named “My Little Sister Wants You to Suffer,” written by Paul Fricker, also the author of Gatsby & The Great Race. This is the weirdest adventure in the book and one that will divide Keeper and player alike (though only the latter after he has played it through and been subject to the scenario’s “big reveal.”), that opens with the characters having no memory whatsoever. Their memories will return as the scenario progresses, providing more background about themselves and their fellows. The adventure takes place for most of its course, aboard a damaged spaceship which the characters will have to fix and finally escape from, all the while with limited equipment and with their memories revealing unsettling facts. Like “King” before it, this is a short scenario and also another one-shot.

Physically, Cthulhu Britannica is a book of varying quality. Certainly the artwork is of varying quality, some of it being a little heavy handed in style, and the book does need another editorial pass. That said, the pre-generated investigators are in general nicely done, the maps all look good, and the writing style is all the better for being sparse and to the point, which along with the regular advice given on staging the scenarios, is not only indicative of the origins of the five scenarios (as convention scenarios), but also of the experience that the authors have in running them.

What the release of Cthulhu Britannica does highlight is the lack of a Call of Cthulhu supplement devoted to the United Kingdom. Perhaps Cubicle Seven Entertainment might be the publisher to attend to that omission. Yet while the collection effectively showcases the efforts of the Cult of Keepers, it does not actually serve the needs of Keeper running a campaign set in Great Britain – in any era. Granted that this is not the aim of Cthulhu Britannica, but a book devoted to scenarios (or a campaign) in Albion in the one period would be a very welcome sight. Perhaps the former members of the Cult of Keepers could devise something...?

I am not necessarily a fan of the one-shot (after all, how many books of one-shots do you need?), but I do like this collection more than others. Despite the unevenness in quality, the scenarios do maintain a strong tone, a solidly British sensibility, and a mood that will appeal to those who prefer not to play their Call of Cthulhu in a Pulp style. Each comes with consistently useful staging advice that will help make any one of their number a memorable playing experience, and that is where Cthulhu Britannica really shines.