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

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Five by Five

To date, the third party supplements published for Call of Cthulhu have been scenario or scenario anthologies, but the latest from Super Genius Games is actually a sourcebook. In fact, A Peculiar Pentad is only a mini sourcebook, but one whose contents can be used not only in the game’s classic period of the 1920s, but also in the 1890s of Cthulhu  by Gaslight and in the 21st century of Cthulhu Now. It is a collection – five in number as the title suggests – of weird establishments. Not so weird that they stand out, but weird enough that the services that these establishments offer are spoken of in hushed tones. That is, if they are known about, for while each outlet outwardly offers a specialised if mundane service, they also offer something more outré. Of course, learning about this outré knowledge or facility will prove to be something of a challenge for the investigators. It is all a matter of gaining the proprietors’ trust, which means that A Peculiar Pentad is anything other than a supplement to take down off the shelf, read, run, and put back on the shelf. Thus, each of the places described in this supplement is intended primarily for campaign use, but that is not the only thing that sets A Peculiar Pentad apart from its ilk. That is the fact that each of the establishments described within its pages has been created and written up by a different author.

The quintet opens with a Call of Cthulhu standby, a rare book dealer. “The Biblioporium” by Thomas M. Reid sells exactly what you would expect, books old and valuable, but it also sells fine stationery. The proprietor, Doctor Alfred Granger, is a true bibliophile and likes to preserve and repair the tomes that pass through his hands. His interest extends into the esoteric and the occult, though this is not something that he likes to advertise. Eventually the investigators will learn of this interest, probably after making inquiries about certain obscure tomes themselves, which if Granger can obtain them, will probably cost the investigators thousands of dollars. Continued custom in this fashion might result in Granger employing the investigators and eventually in finding who he really works with. “The Biblioporium” is one of the more low key establishments described in A Peculiar Pentad and as such will have relatively little impact upon a campaign.

“The Biblioporium” is followed by Jeff Grubb’s “Fixx’s Fixxit,” a veritable cornucopia of mechanical knickknacks and gewgaws owned and run by Simon Fixx, a dwarf with a flair for mechanical repair. Beyond his ability to repair various items, Fixx might be able to sell black market items – including reconditioned weaponry – and just like Doctor Alfred Granger, Fixx has his own fascination, though with the mechanical rather the bibliographical. Given that Fixx is a fine mechanic, it is no surprise that this entry veers just a little into Science Fiction.

The third entry is “Healing Herbs” by Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel. While most customers will be purchasing culinary ingredients or medicinal remedies, the Chinese and Italian married couple that own “Healing Herbs” are capable of mixing some very interesting concoctions. These are as a result of their combined knowledge of herbs and the Mythos, resulting in elixirs that heal the body and the mind; that provide a defence against certain creatures – such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies; and even replicate the effects of certain Mythos spells. This replication of Mythos spell effects is an interesting idea, but this is tempered by the inclusion of potions that effect non-Mythos creatures. For the Purist Keeper this is likely to be at odds with his game, and the likelihood is that the Keeper will need to prune some of the entries accordingly.

John D. Rateliff’s “Húbert’s Fine Arts” is the penultimate establishment described in A Peculiar Pentad. This art gallery sells and showcases both sculpture and paintings, with a sideline speciality in outré object d’art, including the works of Richard Upton Pickman. “Húbert’s Fine Arts” is even more low key than “The Biblioporium” and suffers for it. In comparison with the other entries the Keeper is given little in the way of advice on how to use “Húbert’s Fine Arts” and he will probably have to work hard to bring it into his game.

The supplement is rounded out with “The Sleipnir Club” by Jeff Quick, a old fashioned European style gentleman’s club. There is almost nothing out of the ordinary about the “The Sleipnir Club,” and if its members know anything more about the occult or cults in the city at large, they do not bring this knowledge or any associated practices to the Club. In fact, technically no-one at the Club knows anything about the occult and that is a problem because one major NPC happens to know an incredible amount about the Mythos. In fact, he knows more Mythos than he has Sanity and more Mythos than he had Sanity to begin with, both near impossible feats for an investigator to achieve and survive. When the improbability of this Mythos-Sanity perfect balance is combined with the NPC’s complete lack of the Occult skill the result is incongruous at best, preposterous at worst. What “The Sleipnir Club” is meant to do is provide a place of rest for the investigators, but it is too quiet and thus too uninteresting.

The supplement comes with decent general advice on using each location, on how the investigators might learn of each establishment; place their custom there, from first time shopper to regular customer and beyond; and eventually, gain the trust of the proprietor in question. All five entries are primarily written for the game’s Classic period of the 1920s, but each comes with advice on how to set the store in either the modern period of Cthulhu Now or in the 1890s of Cthulhu by Gaslight. Lastly, the description of each business is rounded out with several adventure seeds.

In addition to discussing where any one of these businesses might be located, A Peculiar Pentad also provides a single location where all five emporia described can be found together. Continuing the pentamerous nature of the book, this is a cul-de-sac of canting buildings known as Pentagon Place, once the home of the well to do, but now forgotten and ignored by the urban decay beyond its dimly lit recesses... In addition to the businesses described, there is room enough for the Keeper to add others to Pentagon Place, and so make it not just the city’s occult quarter, but also its esoteric quarter too. The exact nature of Pentagon Place is up to the Keeper to decide, whether that be mostly retailers of the esoteric with one or two places run by persons with actual knowledge of the Mythos, or the Mythos equivalent of “Diagon Alley.”

A Peculiar Pentad needs a little editing here and there, but in terms of production, the book is very readable. Unfortunately, in terms of presentation, it suffers from the problem that has blighted previous products from Super Genius Games – a lack of maps. The issue here is that the book presents five different places intended to be used by a Keeper again and again, who will have his player characters visit the place over and over. This makes the book almost a reference work, and if a Keeper is going to be referring to it with any regularity, he will want plans of each building not just for easy reference, but also to help him visualise the inside of each establishment and so convey this information to his players. The lack of maps does anything other than make this easy.

This lack of maps is compounded by the book’s poor handling of its interior art. Only one illustration is given per location, each a black and white reproduction of each establishment’s owner or owners which has been reproduced from Aaron Acevedo’s full colour cover. In colour each piece is dark and moody, but in black and white, they are dark, muddy, and a waste of space – space that of course, could have been devoted instead to providing useful items such as maps.

Despite its cartographic inadequacies – and how often am I going to have keep mentioning such inadequacies when it comes to books from Super Genius Games? -- A Peculiar Pentad is actually a decent sourcebook. It tends towards the Pulp in tone, a that tone is understandably uneven given its quintet of authors, but which means that the likelihood is that a Keeper will not find every entry to be to his liking. Certainly one of the entries happens to be preposterous in terms of Call of Cthulhu, let alone in terms of game tone, and suspect that it like several of the other entries will be modified by a Keeper to fit his campaign. This is no bad thing, as the contents of this supplement are geared towards the Keeper building a world, an aim that is rarely addressed in Call of Cthulhu, but is possible for example, in a Lovecraft Country or Miskatonic University based campaign. Uneven, but still interesting, A Peculiar Pentad is something for the Keeper and his players to invest in if they are to get the fullest out of its pages.