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

Friday 25 December 2009

For the One-Eyed Man...

Despite the number of scenarios set in the United Kingdom, it seems an odd omission that there is no sourcebook for the Heart of the Empire in Call of Cthulhu. Not since the greatly missed Green & Pleasant Land, the supplement from Games Workshop that even now has collectors scouring e-Bay.  Not even the relatively recent London Guidebook surpassed the breadth of material found in Green & Pleasant Land, and no book has yet replaced the sublime guide to speaking “Mummerset” which famously, was to be in that book and ended up in White Dwarf Magazine #89.  If Chaosium has yet to offer us a replacement, at least since 2008, the publisher can offer us something else in its stead, the monograph Kingdom of the Blind.

Through its range of Miskatonic University Library Association monographs, Chaosium offers a range of supplements, scenarios, campaigns, and scenario anthologies, which it deems to be of interest to the game’s devotees.  Each is only available via the Chaosium website, and each is essentially self-published.  Chaosium literally prints the books and leaves each monograph author to handle the writing, the editing, the proofreading, and the layout.  Which has not always lead to the best looking or the best written of supplements for Call of Cthulhu.

Fortunately, Kingdom of the Blind: A Guide to the United Kingdom in the 1920s and 1930s is actually reasonably well done in all these regards. The layout is unfussy, and the illustrations, if sparse, are well chosen. That said, the layout does run on, from one section to the next with no real breaks. Their absence and the lack of an index only exacerbates the book’s poor ease of use. Of course, this is a monograph, and the layout lies in the hands of the author, so it does not have to meet such high professional standards.

It is also far more comprehensive than the aforementioned supplements devoted to the United Kingdom, taking as it does all four of constituent nations – England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Or as it would become during this period, Eire and Northern Ireland, which the previous supplements have tended to ignore. In addition, the supplement covers the recent history and politics of the British Isles, her culture and geography, with over half of its contents devoted to the United Kingdom and the outré.

Beginning with the Great War, the book starts out at a canter, detailing in turn the history, the geography, the politics (both the traditional three parties and the extreme left and right), and the legal system, as well as crime in the United Kingdom.  Before going onto the police and the military, it looks at mental illness and registration of births, deaths, and marriages, and then proceeds onto transport and travel, and then society itself.  Covering everything from alcohol and drugs to fashion and entertainment, it also touches upon the place of women during the 1920s and the effects of the Great War.  It is a lot of information but all necessary and all useful.

Hidden amongst all of this information are some interesting little gems. The section on fads, for example, from the introduction of the pogo-stick from France in 1921 and of crossword puzzles in 1924 to the fascination with Egypt and the Orient, can easily be used to add colour to a British-based game.  Similarly, the details on prices and money will add colour (particularly, the fact that notes larger than £1 might not be accepted and will require being signed on the back), as will the short dictionary of English terms and slang.

The treatment of the Mythos in Kingdom of the Blind is divided between places, people, and entities. The places detailed include the expected – Blue John Gap in Derbyshire, home to Mi-Go mining efforts; the infamously haunted Exham Priory (taken from Lovecraft’s story, “The Rats in the Walls”); and Lambton, County Durham, home to the legend of the famous white worm.  Others are less expected, such as Williamson’s Tunnels under Liverpool, which real and currently close off, but herein described as having been built as a route into the Dreamlands.  Wenley Moor is fictional, and while the caverns deep below it are home to a reptilian race, it has obviously been moved to Yorkshire to avoid clashing with the Mi-Go in Derbyshire and to avoid encountering another reptilian race already dealt with by the most famous doctor in British Science Fiction.

The inclusion of persons both real and drawn from fiction does not sit well with those that have been created for this Monograph.  While it can be argued that the inclusion of both Aleister Crowley and Charles Fort is a necessity given that this is England, but providing stats and write-ups for Sir Dennis Nayland-Smythe (of Sax Rohmer fame), for Thomas Carnacki (of William Hope Hodgson fame), and for Professor Nigel Chilton (of Quatermass fame, by way of Journey into Space), does feel as if the author is gilding the lily.  That said, this is the book’s second nod to British Science Fiction and is described under the workings of the British Experimental Rocket Group, currently exploring a “time bubble” under London known as “The Zone,” itself a pleasing meld of Kneale’s own Science Fiction with the Mythos.

Much like the places and the personalities, the cults and groups given in Kingdom of the Blind work better, the smaller and the more self-contained they are.  Having “The School of Night,” a cult founded by Sir Walter Raleigh that worships Britannia be behind everything that goes on in the country seems a stretch too far, and describing any attempt to fight it as being an all-but impossible task, just tips it over the edge into just colour background the Keeper’s benefit only.  Of more immediate use are descriptions of the Tcho-Tcho families operating in London’s Limehouse, of the strange Russian émigré and his used book shop on the Suffolk coast, and of the strange biomechanical artworks of Tristan Sterne.

The Mythos gazetteer includes an examination of how and where the entities of the Mythos, from the Chthonians and Cthulhu to the Tcho-Tcho and Y’golonac can be found in the United Kingdom.  This is a solidly done section of the book, primarily because it draws heavily on already known aspects about the Mythos, although not every Keeper is going to agree with all of the suggestions made by the author. Yes, it seems logical that Ithaqua’s reach extends only as far South as the Orkneys as does the Shan’s fascination with the initial understandings of nuclear physics, but having the Ghouls as Gypsy-like surface tribes is less so, while the author’s over use of the Tcho-Tcho is wearisome.

The monograph comes with two scenarios. The first is “Heartless Things,” an interesting take upon the sorcerer taking his revenge from beyond the grave. In the second, “The Resurrection Men,” the investigators are invited to the Highlands to attend a wedding that is not going to go according to plan.  Not just because the groom is reluctant to marry his bride-to-be, but because the house comes under attack on the day itself.  The first scenario is a very dark affair when compared with the lighter second, which has an air of Wodehousian silliness to it.  While neither is lacking flavour or atmosphere, both contain issues that the author fails to address fully.  For example, in “Heartless Things” it is actually very difficult for the investigators to deal with the villain of the piece, the primary suggested method being heavy-handed and the alternatives being only sketched out. The end problem is that the villain is nigh on unstoppable otherwise... Whereas in “The Resurrection Men,” the villains suffer from a lack of fleshing out.

The supplement is round out with a set of alternative rules for drug and alcohol use, for providing details of an investigator’s service during the Great War, and a list of new occupations.  All of these are very English, from the Anglican Vicar and Barrister to the Union Steward and the Valet.  Not all of them are suitable full time occupations necessarily.  For example, the Potholer is not and nor is Member of Parliament.  As to what the Spiv is doing being included in the collection is another matter.  Over all, these are useful additions.

As good an overview of its subject as Kingdom of the Blind is, it is far from perfect. It is certainly not as comprehensive as its subtitle suggests, all but ignoring the Irish Republic after 1924 and barely touching upon the 1930s as that subtitle promises. Similarly it does not detail the geography of Ireland and it misses out some areas of the mainland too. Its treatment of the Mythos really only feels right when done on a small scale and when mankind is not as intimately involved, and overall, it does feel as if the author has tried to get too many Mythos elements into the book and into the country.  Lastly, there are no maps given of the United Kingdom, and there is nothing in the way of Keeper advice for running or taking a campaign to Great Britain, something that could certainly be of use for those of us not fortunate enough to have been born on its shores and thus steeped in its history.

The real issue is that Kingdom of the Blind provides yet another take on Great Britain and the Mythos, one that is at odds with Green & Pleasant Land, with the London Guidebook, with anything in Masks of Nyarlathotep or Tatters of the King, and with anything mentioned in the fanzines, The Whisperer or The Black Seal.  If a Keeper has access to all of these sources, he is free to pick and choose as is his wont, but if not, which should he choose? What is the official version of the United Kingdom in Call of Cthulhu?  The obvious answer is whatever the Keeper wants it to be in his game, but surely Chaosium should be answering this question to?

Nevertheless, Kingdom of the Blind is all that we have for the United Kingdom and Call of Cthulhu, and while there is a great deal of information between its covers, which is not only useful, but handy to have in one place, the fact that it is all that we have, is also sad and disappointing.  Sad and disappointing because the absence of a British source book is an omission and a missed opportunity, especially given both the number of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu set in the United Kingdom and the game’s popularity in the United Kingdom.  And let us not forget the need for the book for those of us not fortunate enough to have been born on the shores of Albion and I say again, thus steeped in its history.  So it seems strange that Chaosium is not making more of Kingdom of the Blind and does not seem to be pushing towards turning this Monograph into a full book.  After all, there can be no doubt that a full version of Kingdom of the Blind would be far more useful addition (and quite possibly, a better selling title) for Call of Cthulhu than Secrets of Morocco, the first Monograph to be given the full book treatment.

Kingdom of the Blind might not be one of the best Monographs, but it is definitely not one of the worst, and it is definitely one of the most useful.  While its treatment of the Mythos is somewhat scattershot – and the Keeper should pick and choose what he uses – its treatment of the reality of the United Kingdom is excellent.  Better than some of the “Secrets of...” titles, Kingdom of the Blind should be the basis for one of the best “Secrets of...” titles.