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Sunday, 9 January 2011

Ghosts Not At Their Most

Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium, Inc.'s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic Role Play. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so the quality of entries in the series varies widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Fortunately, The Ghosts in the House is not amongst those releases.

What marks this monograph for Call of Cthulhu as being different is that it is a campaign designed for beginning investigators set in the contemporary period. Its emphasis is upon data collection and interaction, rather than on going mad and running way. Thus it is written to be a gentle introduction to the game and to facilitate that, has a thoroughly modern set up and familiar setting. This is the Oak Grove Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in northern Wisconsin. Its administrator has hired the investigators to debunk the rumours of ghosts that Oak Grove is plagued with. As “ghost hunters” the investigators might be graduate students doing Summer work for their anthropology or psychology department; work for certain television series about “ghost hunting;” or simply be just professional “ghost hunters.” Given the theme and period, the most obvious option would be for the investigators to be employees for “Saucer Watch” or “Phenom X” from Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green.

The campaign is divided into four parts, beginning with the longest, “The Man in the Hat.” This takes place over the course of three weeks in which the investigators must conduct their activities without alerting the authorities beyond the confines of Oak Grove, provide a daily report to the nursing home’s administrator, and deal with Oak Grove’s decidedly cantankerous residents. It is also the most detailed scenario in the book, complete with particulars about the local accent; possible ghost hunting gear, though a Keeper will probably want more detail than is given here; information that can be researched with varying degrees of difficulty; and a number of events that will be triggered by the investigators’ actions. The bulk of the scenario is devoted to describing the nursing home, its residents and staff, and events day by day. Although designed for beginning characters, this is not a scenario bested suited for the neophyte Keeper, there being a fair number of NPCs and events to keep track of. Nevertheless, the Keeper should have fun with this lengthy affair, there being numerous NPCs for him to get his roleplaying teeth into.

Yet so far, so good. Running the first scenario is hampered by several problems. The first of which is the nature of the haunting. If it has a Mythos explanation, it is never fully explained. There are references and in particular, page numbers, to particular spells and entities of the Cthulhu Mythos, but none of them tie up with the copy of Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition that I own. The second is the way in which the campaign is presented. Everything seems to going along swimmingly until the campaign appears to a completely unexpected turn with events described that appear of the blue. This is on page forty-six. Fortunately, what exactly is going on is explained on page forty-seven. Up until this point, which is that the scenario should be written so as to surprise the investigators and their players and not the Keeper, the campaign appears to completely lack any Cthulhu Mythos elements, and even when the background is explained it never quite rings true. The actions of the campaign’s villain and the reasoning behind them are essentially undeveloped and ill thought through. Not that it is a case of the Cthulhu Mythos being subject to reinterpretation, but rather that the interpretation here, the one that explains the villain’s motivations, just does not work.

Similar issues occur in the subsequent scenarios. For example, the third scenario, “The Hole in the Attic” explains and wraps up elements hinted at, but not explained in the campaign’s first and main scenario. Worse, the fourth scenario, “The Last Gasp” has another element turn up out of the blue – again. This time it is a group of cultists that turn up, threaten the investigators, and then leave. Some of them appeared in previous parts of the campaign, but their true intentions are only revealed in this last part. And then they go away again leaving the Keeper, let alone his poor players, none the wiser.

In terms of structure, the campaign is unbalanced. The first part takes place in September over the course of three weeks, while second takes place a month later, the third in the following Spring, and the fourth a year after the first. It does not help that each of the subsequent parts is more than a single session scenario, but none of these later scenarios have been afforded the same degree of detail as the first.

As with any monograph, The Ghosts in the House needs another edit, but what is actually a solid investigative scenario is hampered by issues with its structure and background, most of which could have been addressed had guidance been given. Given some effort upon the part of the Keeper and it would actually be suitable for beginning investigators and possibly, beginning players too. Part of that effort would also include more information on modern day ghost hunting, though The Parapsychologist’s Handbook might be of use in that. One interesting option for The Ghosts in the House would be to downplay its Mythos aspects and use it as the lead into Miskatonic River Press’ Our Ladies of Sorrow, a fully fledged campaign that also does not involve the Cthulhu Mythos.

In its current state, The Ghosts in the House is not entirely ready to be run, not without the aforementioned effort upon the part of the Keeper. Not enough explanation, not enough explanation in the right places, and not enough background, but not without promise.