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

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Three by Three

While the bulk of campaigns and scenarios published for Call of Cthulhu are set during its Classic period of the 1920s – and to a lesser extent in the contemporary period of Cthulhu Now, the growing number of scenarios set outside of those two periods are indicative of both the malleability of the Mythos and the ability of authors to set it elsewhere and else when. The first scenario anthology to showcase the possibilities of both was Strange Aeons, a trilogy that explored the Mythos in Elizabethan London, Inquisition era Spain, and on a United Nations Moon base in the near future, but it has been followed by numerous MULA monographs doing the same thing, and now, it has a sequel. As its subtitle suggests, Strange Aeons II: Nine Forays into Unusual Times & Places ups the ante by three. With Chaosium’s newest anthology, the Keeper and his players get to experience the Mythos in the prehistoric past, the Far East, the Classical World, both the English and the American Civil Wars, plus the far future. And after all of that, everyone gets to go to Woodstock.

This is another anthology of one-shots then, but the theme connecting all of them is that they are all set in different eras. All can be played in about an evening or in one good session, perhaps two at the very most. Each one comes with not only six ready to play pre-generated investigators, but the rules to create more and an introduction to the setting itself. Thus with some effort upon the part of the Keeper, the players could continue playing within the setting described in any one of the scenarios given in
Strange Aeons II, either with the pre-generated investigators or newly generated characters. The quality of the pre-generated investigators varies from scenario to scenario with the best having characters who are just slightly at odds with each other.

One issue with the collection is that few if any of the scenarios come with female investigators, but this is more a reflection upon the attitudes of the periods portrayed than those of the authors. The scenarios vary in structure between traditional linear affairs and more freeform affairs that provide a set up, various locations and events, and advice on how the scenario can be concluded. In general, the more linear scenarios will easier to run than those with more open structures. Another issue is some of the scenarios can involve massed combat and no rules are given to allow the Keeper to handle such a situation.

The nine scenarios in Strange Aeons II are not presented in chronological order, so while the last scenario is set in the 1950s, the first is actually set in Ancient China, not the prehistoric past. That first scenario is “Master Wu’s Marriage” by Alessandro Mana, in which the characters have been sent by Master Wu to escort his bride to his home. Nothing can go wrong of course, but when the party is forced to take shelter in an ancient monastery, people start disappearing. In tone, this has the feel of the film Alien, but with a hint of the Wuxia genre. It does not help that some of the skills necessary to complete the scenario are misspelled and misnamed – “natural philosophy” versus “philosophy” – but this gets the anthology off to an entertaining start.

This is followed by Christopher Smith Adair’s “Children of a Starry Heaven,” which is set in the Ancient Greek world and involves the characters being initiated into a Mystery Cult. Of course, there is much more to the cult’s mysteries than the mere esoteric, and there is something horribly inevitable about the final initiation rites. The initiates must brave the cult’s inner secrets ahead of time if they are to avoid these rites, but there is a danger that they will fail in this and bring the scenario to a hurried close. Apart from this, “Children of a Starry Heaven” is a good investigative scenario with an interesting background.

Cursed Be The City” by Davide Mana is described as “cavemen versus Cthulhu,” but this is something of a simplification. Yes, it does involve the players taking the roles of cavemen, but not against Cthulhu, but another Mythos entity. It drifts back into the very ancient past and into the future, and in doing asks the players to roleplay against their own knowledge as their tribesmen characters must first find their lost tribe and then bring their strange behaviour to a stop. “Cursed Be The City” nicely asks for some clever roleplaying upon the part of both the Keeper and his players and is probably the most challenging scenario in the book because of that.

With “To Hell Or Connaught,” Eckhard Huelshoff takes us to the Ireland of 1649, just after the end of the English Civil War and during Cromwell’s invasion. This pitches the Protestants against the Catholics, the English against the Irish, and Christianity against the old ways, and so is perhaps the most controversial scenario in the book. That it also frames a murder mystery against this backdrop and adds in legends of both Saint Patrick and “Little People” and it all feels as if the author has over egged the pudding. Likewise, the plotting of the scenario feels heavy handed and overall, “To Hell Or Connaught” is just a little too rich for my tastes.

Adam Crossingham’s “They Did Not Think It Too Many” is not set in Ancient Rome, but in the Roman province of Britannia with the players cast as Roman envoys negotiating the entry of a minor into the Empire. The talks do not go well though, as not everyone in the tribe wants join the Empire under the current king and the players could be allies with either side... This nicely portrays the clash of two cultures with not just the fate of the characters being at stake, but also the future of the Empire. Make the wrong choice and the Empire might adopt a terrible goddess... There are no character rules or campaign guidelines included with this scenario, so a Keeper will need to refer to
Cthulhu Invictus. This is the one scenario that could be easily be worked into an existing campaign world.

In “The Iron-Banded Box,” Michael Dziesinski -- the author of
Secrets of Japan – attempts to show what would have happened if Akira Kurosawa had directed an adaptation of a H.P. Lovecraft story. Despite being set in the Sengoku “warring states” Period, the scenario makes repeated reference to Secrets of Japan, which given that enough necessary information is included and that Secrets of Japan is really for Cthulhu Now, such references seem like advertising. Anyway, in “The Iron-Banded Box,” the players are ronin who come to the aid of a town threatened by more than gangsters... Since the release of Secrets of Japan, the concept of a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in Feudal Japan has remained a fascinating possibility, but the scenario does not live up to the opportunities that such a possibility suggest. More Chambara or “Samurai Cinema” an exploration of the Mythos, this is the least interesting scenario in the collection.

Despite its excellent title, “Three Days Of Peace, Music, And Tentacle Love,” Shannon M. Bell’s scenario does not have any tentacle love on offer, or indeed much in the way of the promised sex either. Set at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, it instead offers drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and black magic with the players as Miskatonic University students trying to track down both a bad batch of drugs and a missing friend. Given as a framework with the characters free to roam the festival over the whole three days, their failure at Woodstock to prevent a very dangerous performance could derail history... Although the threat is in keeping with the setting, it never quite feels real or demands all that much of the players. Perhaps I am influenced by my lack of interest of Woodstock, but this is the scenario I would be least likely to run.

Set during the American Civil War, the characters are Union cavalrymen sent to round up deserters in “A Hard Road to Travel.” Gary Sumpter’s scenario takes the player characters into a blighted Arkansas valley where they must face a foe that has sadly been used in a similar fashion in other scenarios, most notably in the excellent monograph,
Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37.

The last scenario in the book is “Time After Time” by the collection’s editor, Brian M Sammons. It opens in splendid fashion, with the players as FBI agents in 1954 sent in to a seaside town to deal with a Communist plot, before everything takes a turn for the weird. It is a pity that the paranoid muscularity of the opening scenes had to be ditched for the turn to take effect, but the characters have plenty of potential still as they explore their strange new environment. This scenario also provides a potential framework for all nine scenarios.

Strange Aeons II
is a decently presented book. It needs an edit here and there, but the layout is clean and unfussy. David Lee Ingersoll’s cover is eye catching as is some of the internal artwork, though some of it is a little too dark and inconsistent in terms of tone and feel. That said, a thumbnail portrait of each of the pre-generated investigators in all nine scenarios would have been both useful too. The cartography also suffers from being too dark in places, but is otherwise well done, the best of it having an architectural feel.

Of course, the scenarios given in this collection need not quite be standalone affairs. There are Mythos entities aplenty who could pitch the investigators through time in space, having them bounce from scenario to scenario. Indeed, one of the scenarios actually hints at such a possibility. If the collection has a theme beyond that of “the Mythos through time on Earth,” it is “Melee versus the Mythos,” since few of the scenarios include the use of firearms, and where they do, such firearms are not capable of automatic or even semi-automatic fire.

All right, so
Strange Aeons II is yet another collection and I have said in the past that something with more meat and depth to its bones is wanted, but in truth the diverse nature and the short length of the scenarios in Strange Aeons II means that it is relatively easy for a Keeper to pick one its nine to run. Quality varies between the scenarios and some are probably too obvious in their plotting and choice of Mythos threat for Call of Cthulhu veterans, but the better adventures are at their best when in exploring a well realised historical period they make you want to play in that time again. Certainly, the scenarios “Master Wu’s Marriage,” Children of a Starry Heaven,” “Cursed Be The City,” “They Did Not Think It Too Many,” and the start of “Time After Time” make me want to do that. It would be interesting to see these periods portrayed developed into something more, or at revisited in a third volume.

Overall, the better scenarios in
Strange Aeons II: Nine Forays into Unusual Times & Places far outweigh the less interesting ones making this a worthwhile addition to your Call of Cthulhu library.