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

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Arkham Country Six, Sanity Zero

One of the strongest of debut books for Call of Cthulhu since Chaosium, Inc. began letting others publish for the game was New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley from Miskatonic River Press. Conceived the late and much missed Keith “Doc” Herber, this anthology took us back to Lovecraft Country for the first time in a decade with six enjoyably callous scenarios for Call of Cthulhu’s classic period of the 1920s. For its third release – following on from Our Ladies of Sorrow, a classic in the making for Cthulhu Now – Miskatonic River Press goes back to draw from the same source as its debut. As its title suggests, More Adventures in Arkham Country provides further adventures for Call of Cthulhu’s only campaign setting, itself the creation of Keith “Doc” Herber back in 1993. It contains six more scenarios, some authored by Miskatonic River Press stalwarts such as Tom Lynch and Oscar Rios, but perhaps the most notable of contributors in this volume is Scott David Aniolowski. “Shades of Tomorrow Lost” is his first published scenario in fifteen years and comes seventeen years after his contribution to that first Lovecraft Country volume, Adventures in Arkham Country.

Now with just three titles under the Miskatonic River Press belt, it is easy to track the improvements made to the style and look of the publisher’s books. The internal illustrations have been consistently good across the three books – my favourite here being best described as “Bonnie & Clyde & Deep Ones” – but with More Adventures in Arkham Country, the layout has been tightened up and although still kept relatively clean and simple, feels that little more assured. This shows in the use of the illustrations, the maps, and the plentiful handouts to break up the text and so all but avoid the solid pages of text that might have made the book harder to digest. As an editor, I would have liked the book to have been given one more pass, but those issues are unlikely to get in the way of running its contents

The book also highlights Miskatonic River Press’ ties with other publishers. First in the inclusion of a twenty page appendix that provides conversion notes by Christopher Smith Adair for each of the six scenarios for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, and second, in the twenty four pages of fine handouts once again done by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which has also made them available separately and in colour. In addition, the book includes another six pages of nicely done maps by Steff Worthington.

Eschewing the need for a formal introduction, the book is instead topped and tailed with a pair of short vignettes that echoes both Lovecraftian fiction and the play of Call of Cthulhu in portraying the high regard with which those at Miskatonic River Press hold their founder and their determination to do as good as if he were still here. After that the book wastes no time at all in moving on to the scenarios themselves. They include Scott David Aniolowski’s “Shades of Tomorrow Lost,” which takes us back to Kingsport and a plan to spread its dreaming; “Ghosts of the Florentina,” a ghost tale in an old theatre by Bret Kramer, also set in Kingsport; and the hunting of strange beasts in Foxfield in Brian Courtemanche’s “The Crystal Cav-ern.” Meanwhile, Tom Lynch turns a bad trip into the drive from hell in “Engine Trouble;” Adam Gauntlett makes the children suffer in Arkham in “Spare the Rod;”and lastly, in “The Hopeful,” Oscar Rios reveals the true nature of a young man’s benefactor.

Each of the six scenarios is roughly twenty or so pages long and comes complete with its own excellent handouts. It should be noted that whilst some of the scenarios refer to various sourcebooks in the “Lovecraft Country” line, including H.P. Lovecraft’s Kingsport: The City in the Mists, H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham, Escape from Innsmouth, and Miskatonic University, none of them are essential for running any of the scenarios they can be used to add detail as required.

“Shades of Tomorrow Lost” opens the collection. This Kingsport set scenario by Scott David Aniolowski sees the town beset by an outbreak of narcolepsy, with at least one of the investigators being amongst the afflicted. Quarantined at the local hospital in a group that becomes known as the “Kingsport Sleepers,” this investigator has the opportunity to interview his fellow sufferers whilst the other investigators search for a cause elsewhere. The scenario contains sinister, though much underplayed Pulp elements including masked figures and strange Asians both reminiscent of the Sandman and The Shadow. Despite potential staging issues in having the investigators divided, “Shades of Tomorrow Lost” is relatively straightforward affair, lethal in places, but with some high rewards. It is also well supported with background information and a handy list of mental illnesses that an investigator might suffer from after its play through.

We remain in fog-bound Kingsport for Bret Kramer’s “Ghosts of the Florentina,” a ghost tale that hides strange things behind more mundane goings on. The owner of the dilapidated Florentina Theatre wants to renovate the building and turn it into a modern picture house, but there are rumours that it is haunted. Finding themselves attending a séance at the theatre, a town landmark, the strange events that bring it to an end should be enough to peak the interest of any red blooded investigator. Any player with a penchant for investigative research will relish the opportunities afforded him here, the clues eventually revealing the presence of creatures from one of Lovecraft’s most well known stories. For a Mythos threat they prove to be very knowable, enabling the investigators numerous options in terms of dealing with them and the danger that they represent, all of which are supported and detailed by the author. This is a more free-form scenario, its events primarily led by the investigators’ actions.

Brian Courtemanche’s “The Crystal Cavern” takes us to Foxfield, a town invented by Lovecraft, but never the setting for one of his stories. An out of town developer recently bought land outside of the town and wants to mine the extensive quartz deposit located there, but progress has been halted after a spate of vandalised machinery and a death at the hands of a large bear or wolf. Wanting work at the site to continue apace, he hires the investigators to determine the cause of both. Their efforts though will be hampered by the scared and jumpy townsfolk, furtive locals, and a pompous big game hunter wanting to bag the “Beast of Foxfield.” Again, this is a straight forward, uncomplicated adventure, but one who’s ending is not actually determined by the investigators, which some players may be adverse to...

“Engine Trouble” by Tom Lynch is designed to run between other adventures in Lovecraft Country, beginning in media res with the investigators having got lost and discovering their way blocked by a crashed truck. With the driver and one passenger dead at the scene, and their cargo missing, where exactly do the tracks lead to in the surrounding woods? All too quickly the investigators will find themselves facing the Mythos equivalent of velociraptors, and what is the likelihood that the investigators are travelling armed for bear, let alone velociraptor? The shortest scenario of the six, this has the potential to get very, very bloody... It is stated that the author channelled his “inner slasher-film monster” to create “Engine Trouble,” and this shows. The scenario feels at odds with the bulk of the others in this collection, and despite the strong set up, it will only find favour with those who prefer their adventures Pulpy

Adam Gauntlett brings us home to Arkham itself for another ghost story in “Spare the Rod.” A New York author of supernatural fiction – the author giving one Eric Adams, but suggesting that he could be replaced another, including our good friend Jackson Elias of Masks of Nyarlathotep fame – to conduct some research on New England folklore. At the height of heat wave, the investigators are tasked with following down the author’s leads and in doing so, determine that there might more than a grain of truth to one of them. Has a vengeful ghost returned to exact bloody revenge, or is it a simple case of children having run away? If there is an issue with “Spare the Rod,” it is that it involves a nearly unstoppable foe, but there is at least more than a single solution to this problem if the investigators look hard enough. Otherwise, this makes excellent use of its source material to present a chance for the investigators to explore Arkham.

Rounding out the collection is Oscar Rios’ “The Hopeful,” a scenario that will take the investigators from Arkham to shunned Innsmouth in search of a young man’s benefactor. Andrew Fisher is a swimming sensation, certain to represent the USA at the Amsterdam Olympics, but a background check might reveal the unknown source of his trust fund, and so jeopardise his chances of making the team. With clues pointing towards Innsmouth, “The Hopeful” serves as an excellent means to introduce the investigators to the town and its batrachian inhabitants, giving them a crash course in its secrets via a well realised set of mundane clues that point the investigators in the direction that they need to go rather than simply informing them. Once in Innsmouth there are opportunities aplenty for the Keeper to roleplay some of its inhabitants and thus make it a worthy prequel to the events described in Escape from Innsmouth. In comparison to the other scenarios in the collection, the Sanity rewards for successfully completing “The Hopeful” feel a bit light, but this is another fine piece of work from the prolific Rios.

When Miskatonic River Press’ first book, New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, was released, it was an impressive debut. As follow up to that anthology, the truth is that More Adventures in Arkham Country does not quite match its standards, the book lacking just a little of that debut’s drive and energy. This does not mean though, that any one of the six scenarios can be considered as bad, the least interesting being merely average. They are all at least, solid affairs, with “Shades of Tomorrow Lost” marking the welcome return of Scott David Aniolowski to the Call of Cthulhu fold with an eerie visit to Kingsport and Bret Kramer providing a pleasingly low key investigation in “Ghosts of the Florentina.” The stand out scenarios both come at the end. Adam Gauntlett’s “Spare the Rod” would stand out in any collection, being an excellent introduction to Arkham and exploration of its history, but it is eclipsed by “The Hopeful.” Oscar Rios’ scenario is a delight, edging us ever closer to Innsmouth, but without revealing its full horrors. Despite reservations about some of the scenarios herein, More Adventures in Arkham Country is a decent collection and solid support for Lovecraft Country.