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

Friday, 12 February 2010

Madness Begins With The Author...

"Blah, blah, blah. Secret Plans.
Blah, blah, blah. Submarine off the coast.
Blah, blah, blah. Bent pyramid.
Blah, blah, blah. Omar Shakti's Cat."

The very title of Five Go Mad in Egypt might well be the finest thing about this recent Monograph for Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium. It is a homage to Five Go Mad In Dorset, the infamous parody of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five children’s stories from the early 1980s, so that title is redolent with comedic possibilities. Unfortunately anyone coming to Five Go Mad in Egypt expecting a send up of the British stiff upper lip and the hypocrisy and ridiculous nature of British attitudes to the world in general will surely be disappointed. My own homage at the top of the review is about as funny as Five Go Mad in Egypt gets. 

Since the beginning of the Miskatonic University Library Association series, the issue has always been one of quality. In fact, this issue has been built into the line, because each Monograph is published by Chaosium with the understanding that while its content will be of interest to the Keeper, such elements as layout and editing are left up to the author to handle. This has led to some quite terrible Monographs being published by Chaosium and because few if any are reviewed; too often the purchaser is expected to buy them sight unseen. This all too often leads to disappointment. Fortunately the good floats to the top and there are indeed Monographs worthy of a Keeper’s attention. Titles such as The Pastores, Primal State, and Kingdom of the Blind all spring to mind. 

Unfortunately, Five Go Mad in Egypt does not reach such lofty heights. It is far from being truly terrible, so it is no Mystic Alliances, but its author commits a number of errors so basic as to hamstring what could have been a decent, if Pulpy adventure.

In terms of layout, Five Go Mad in Egypt manages to be both neat and tidy – and both terrible and ugly. The first and most obvious problem is that the book is entirely laid out in double space type, making it actually awkward to read. Second is the problem that the text just runs on with no attention paid to section or chapter breaks. Third, all of the book’s visual elements, whether illustrations (predominately comprised of actually quite suitable photographs) maps or handouts are either too small, too dark, or just plain indistinct; sometimes a combination of all three problems.

The author’s worst sin though is the fact that he does not know how to write a scenario. Any piece of writing for a roleplaying game is actually two things. First and most obviously, it is a work of the imagination. Second it is a piece of technical writing, because it has to impart particular pieces of information at a certain time so that the referee, or in this case the Keeper, can easily digest and prepare this information to impart to his players.

From reading Five Go Mad in Egypt, there can be no doubt that the author has an imagination and that he has applied it to the scenario, although rarely is it well expressed. This lack of clear expression only compounds the lack of technical skill in terms of writing scenarios. For example, there is no scenario background – the background section being given over to the history of an NPC who appears in the scenario’s opening scene as the investigators’ patron and then never again; the villain of the piece is not mentioned until page nine of the scenario at the end of said opening scene and you do not learn that he is undead until page sixty-four; six pages each are devoted to a chase through the halls of the British Museum and to just walking up the drive of the villain’s London home – six pages including photographs; important NPCs appear without rhyme, reason, or explanation, and events occur in a similar fashion...

The problem is this: the author is writing in a stream of consciousness. He has not given thought to how the Keeper is going to run Five Go Mad in Egypt, leaving the Keeper to make much, much needed reference to the sections at the rear of the Monograph. Primarily this will be to find out anything about the scenario’s plot which is outlined in the description of its main two NPCs – Doctor Nyugati and Marlene Delamere. In addition, the author is all too often concerned with how the investigators might think or feel, and with suggesting where they might like to go, such as the tentacle plant filled maze in the gardens of the villain’s London house.

The subject for Five Go Mad in Egypt comes from its subtitle, “Investigating the Sphinx Tomb.” The investigators are invited to attend a dinner at the British Museum where they will be hired to work as archaeologists, occultists, or security on the expedition to investigate a tomb beneath the Sphinx. While at the dinner, an artefact in possession of their host has to be stolen so that the investigators can run around the museum at night and discover that the thief was a Mummy donated to the British Museum by an American millionaire and philanthropist, Doctor Nyugati. The remainder of the scenario concerns itself with the chase after the good Doctor, encountering the various zombies and death traps that he has left in his wake. Eventually, the investigators will follow him into the Sphinx Tomb and there try and prevent him from summoning great Cthulhu and so ending the world.

Leaving the terrible writing and the linear nature of the scenario aside, the author’s grasp of the Mythos, at least as far as Call of Cthulhu is concerned, is poor. Why is Cthulhu being summoned in Egypt? Why is he being summoned in Egypt below the Sphinx, an artefact and monument known to be important to Nyarlathotep in Call of Cthulhu? Further, why coin a servitor Mythos race – the “Black Winged Ones” – when already suitable species exist, such as Byakhee and Hunting Horrors? Not to worry, because the Black Winged Ones are identified as Hunting Horrors at the rear of the book.

One area where Five Go Mad in Egypt attempts to outshine virtually almost every other release for Call of Cthulhu is in the number of handouts. None are included in the book itself, but the purchaser can download a 10.44 Mb, 140 page PDF that contains 138 handouts, most of them repeated from the book, but here repeated in full size. The problem is that, yes, you can have too much of a good thing. Nobody actually needs five photographs of Croydon Aerodrome, not the Keeper and certainly not his players. Croydon Aerodrome might, but no one else...

There is one last problem with Five Go Mad in Egypt and it is not the fault of the author. Rather, it is the fault of the publisher. Chaosium is supposed to exercise some control over the quality of the Monographs that it publishes. There is no evidence that any such quality control was exercised as far as Five Go Mad in Egypt is concerned. Further, because Monograph prices are set by their page count and because the text is double spaced and interspersed by innumerable photographs, the price of Five Go Mad in Egypt has been severely inflated.

Despite all of these issues, Five Go Mad in Egypt has the potential to be the “outline” for a very Pulpy scenario. Potential because it is not yet a fully fledged outline just as it is very far from being a proper scenario.


Ultimately, and despite the fact that its title is both brilliant and meaningless, Five Go Mad in Egypt: Investigating the Sphinx Tomb is underwritten and over padded, under organised and overpriced. That it is so bad is down to the author, but that it is so bad and available to buy is the fault of everyone at Chaosium.