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

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Reckon 'ee be a grockle

With no sign of an actual sourcebook on the British Isles for Call of Cthulhu on the horizon, what Cubicle Seven Entertainment is instead doing is releasing supplements in its Cthulhu Britannica line that focus on particular regions of this “Green and Pleasant Land.” Shadows Over Scotland is due in early 2011, but the first is already here in the form of Avalon: The County of Somerset – A 1920s’ Reference for Call of Cthulhu. As the title suggests, this supplement takes us to the West Country and the home of King Arthur renowned for the strength of its cider – or as the locals would say, “zider” – and the tall tales of its natives. Yet this oft ignored rural hinterland hides several millennia’s worth of history, superstition, and folklore, below which runs dark bloody strands of truth and horror that few dare to question.

Written by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams, whose numerous credits include All for One: Régime Diabolique and Slipstream for Savage Worlds, this new Call of Cthulhu supplement presents the history and geography of Somerset, its legends and customs, three scenarios set during the 1920s, along with extra adventure seeds, NPCs, and notes for the setting. Parts of it purport to be based upon a manuscript written by Professor Noah Ainley-Chant, a local historian and scholar of the Mythos who disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century, that the author of the supplement has himself seen and here occasionally annotates the Professor’s comments. Said manuscript has of course disappeared since the author saw it...

Avalon: The County of Somerset begins with a steady canter through the region’s history from Prehistory through the Roman Era to the Dark, Saxon, and Middle Ages, and thence to the Modern Period. Quickly we are onto the county’s geography, focusing in particular on the Somerset Levels, the wetlands bound by hills on every side bar the coast of the Bristol Channel to the West. The gazetteer describes Somerset’s notable places, both mundane and mysterious. The former includes the county’s major towns from Axbridge to Yeovil, while the latter include the triangular folly that is Alfred’s Tower, the caves of Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole, and of course, Glastonbury. The city of Bath receives particular attention, naturally with a discussion of its healing waters that date back to beyond Roman times, and it is suggested that as the county's social heart, the city could be used as a base of operations for a Somerset set game.

Up until this point, sections of boxed text are used to add further detail and give extra scenario seeds. These are much shorter than those given later in the book in their own section. The rest of the book does not have these boxed sections, beginning with the chapter on “Legends and Customs” that explores and explains some of the myths and truths about places such as Alfred’s Tower, Cadbury Castle, Glastonbury Abbey, and Wookey Hole. More outré happenings are likewise discussed, including Faeries, Ley Lines, Wassailing, and Witchcraft, with as the rest of the supplement, Professor Ainley-Chant giving us the Mythos origins for each.

In a nod back to Games Workshop’s supplement, Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s–30s Cthulhu Supplement and its missing article on “Mummerset” that eventually appeared in White Dwarf #90, there are two sections devoted to accents and phrases. The first describes how the Keeper can talk like a local, while the second gives a list of local words and phrases. These are useful and amusing, although in the case of the two derogatory terms given for outsiders and tourists, neither are local, and one dates from several decades after the time that his supplement is set.

The supplement comes with three adventures. Given the prominence placed upon the worship of Mother Hydra and Father Dagon and the influence that comes with the co-mingling of Deep Ones and mankind has had on the county, the danger was that the book’s scenarios would entirely focus upon this aspect. Fortunately, this is not the case, with just the single scenario being devoted to these batrachian horrors, or rather on the all too human cult devoted to them. Set very specifically in 1923 – and it could not be set at any other time, “Blood and Water” could be used as the starting point of a campaign, though there are no notes to that end. The other two scenarios are less constrictive, with the investigators looking into the disappearance of a noted archaeologist in “Strange Little Girl” and undertaking a delve into a cave in “St. Swithun’s Hole.” The latter is more a framework that can be run in an evening, and so would work as a one-shot, but either of two would serve as solid introductions to an ongoing Call of Cthulhu campaign. Both being set in United Kingdom also makes them suitable for use in conjunction with the Tatters of King campaign, especially as Somerset lies all too close to the Severn Valley.

The volume is rounded off with a further six adventure seeds and an appendix that describes several new Mythos tomes and eight NPCs that can be encountered whilst the investigators are in Somerset. What is interesting about these NPCs is that just two of them have any inkling as to the true nature of the Cthulhu Mythos, and this lack of any connection to the Mythos is a refreshing change to the rest of the book.

Another possible danger with a supplement such as Avalon: The County of Somerset is that its focus could have fallen too much upon a certain legendary figure. For example, the danger in Cthulhu by Gaslight supplement is that the focus will be upon the period trio of Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Jack the Ripper, here in Avalon: The County of Somerset, there is just the one figure and the one place, King Arthur and Glastonbury. This is always a danger when you have such icons associated with a place or time, but it is one that the author avoids, and rightly so. The two are of course, irrevocably linked, but their place in the collective imagination is not as prominent, and so neither are overused here, although Glastonbury figures in one of the scenarios. There is a Mythos explanation for the legends surrounding King Arthur, but these are pleasingly underplayed.

So the question is, what role has the Mythos played in the history of Somerset? It suggests that the worship of Mother Hydra and Father Dagon and the influence that comes with the co-mingling of Deep Ones spread in from the coast across the Somerset Levels, driving out and up on to the surrounding hills worshippers devoted to Shub-Niggurath and to Eihort. In turn, the Romans stamped out or co-opted these pagan practices; the Normans stamped them out; and then draining of the Levels drove the Deep Ones back into the sea. Beyond this long presence of the Deep Ones, the influence of other Mythos entities on the county is very much left up to the Keeper to decide and develop, whether from the various scenario hooks and seeds, or from his own ideas. Even though Avalon: The County of Somerset is a relatively short book, gaining a grasp of the influence that a Mythos entity or species has over the county is made all the more difficult because it is written into the narrative rather than being broken down case by case. Nor does the all too exhaustive index help. For example, it is mentioned in the text that the county was home to a Celtic tribe that worshipped Cthugua, but since it is not mentioned in the index...

As a gazetteer of Somerset in the early years of the twentieth century, Avalon: The County of Somerset is underwritten. In comparison with earlier ages, the modern period of the 1920s is barely touched upon, which when combined with the lack of period photographs, details such as the local newspapers, and how to get to the county, only serves to isolate the setting. Within the context of the game itself, this is not entirely a bad thing, but as far as the sourcebook is concerned, it isolates the setting from the reader, or rather the Keeper. As does the absence of a map that shows where Somerset lies in England, and that in addition to the lack of a map showing transport routes into and across the county. The likelihood is that this isolation will force the Keeper to rely upon existing what he knows already of the West Country, and that will be cliché ridden. I can count myself fortunate here in that I am, if not from Somerset as is the author, but at least from the West Country and can piece these missing details together, but anyone not native to these isles will only be at a disadvantage.

Physically, Avalon: The County of Somerset is decent looking book. The cover is pleasingly batrachian, the internal layout is clean, and the artwork reasonable. Yet it misses a trick in terms of design. As already mentioned, it is written as a manuscript with commentary from the missing Professor Ainley-Chant and then from the author himself. In effect, this gives three layers to the book. At the base there is basic fact, over which you have Professor Ainley-Chant’s interpretations, and then over that, you have Wade-Williams’ annotations. Yet because the extra comments from both men are never separated from the main body of the book’s text, merely being italicised, the supplement never transforms itself away from being a mundane text book. Had some graphical device such as handwriting in the margin or post-it notes being used to box text, it would have made the book look more interesting and made some use of the idea of commentary upon commentary.

The other issue with Professor Ainley-Chant’s interpretations is that anything odd to be found in the county of Somerset has a Mythos explanation. Now in places the author of the book dismisses some of the Professor’s suggestions, but if a Keeper were to ignore that, then the presence and explanation of the Mythos is the reason behind everything threatens to overwhelm, well, everything! It is as if nothing has a mundane explanation. The solution of course, is for the Keeper to pick and choose the Mythos elements that he wants in his campaign, but more mundane explanations should have been offered as well.

Ultimately, this is a supplement full of detail and brimming with scenario ideas and hooks. The scenarios themselves are playable and would slot easily into most English set campaigns. Yet – Avalon: The County of Somerset – A 1920s’ Reference for Call of Cthulhu is a book with a few problems, mostly stemming from a design and an intent that were not as well executed as they could have been. In places it obscures the setting for the reader with not enough of the mundane, while in others it overwhelms the reader with the overly outré, the effect being to force the Keeper to find his own clarity with the contents, and this will only be exacerbated if the Keeper is not of native stock, but rather an “Emmet” or “Grockle.”