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Sunday 31 July 2011

The Curse of Chaosium

Imagine you have an anthology of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu that has not been in print since 1984 and as a publisher you decide to reprint the book. When choosing what to do with the book, you decide that the only changes necessary are several bits of new artwork, not all of it in keeping with the style original artwork; the changing of any references to other campaigns and anthologies to take account of the fact that some of those originally referenced are no longer in print; and the doubling the size of the fount to ensure that the new book is double the size of the original book. What you do not do is examine the scenarios to ensure that they have stood the test of time or to check that they are entirely playable by contemporary standards. Nor do you edit the book or even mention the name of the artist whose new work graces the pages of your substantially fatter book.

Such is the case with Curse of the Chthonians: Four Odysseys Into Deadly Intrigue, a collection of scenarios that has not seen the light of day as a whole in almost thirty years. Released at a time when scenarios for Call of Cthulhu were few in number, the four were described as being the “most detailed scenarios ever published for Call of Cthulhu.” They take the investigators to Rhode Island, New York, Egypt, and deep into the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula for confrontations with the Mythos, common and uncommon. By contemporary standards, the common include Ghouls and Nyarlathotep, whilst the uncommon include Chthonians and the Horror from the Hills, Chaugnar Faugn, as well as a once in a life time opportunity to visit, Irem, the City of a Thousand Pillars.

The quartet opens with David A. Hargrave’s “Dark Carnival.” This describes an amusement park in Rhode Island that is not only home to any number of oddballs and freaks, but is also plagued by strange incidents and deaths over the years that despite having been investigated remain unsolved. It is these incidents and deaths that are supposed to draw the investigators to the amusement park, but after that, the Keeper is left to his own devices. The problem is that “Dark Carnival” is all setting with neither narrative nor background; the setting populated by a gallery of grotesques devoted to an unexplained cult – the Society of the Great Dark – and sitting over what is essentially a dungeon. Without advice or a suggested narrative, the Keeper is left with a lot of work to do in order to make this into something playable.

If “Dark Carnival” is lacking in narrative, it could be said that “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn" by Bill Barton has too much. It is an ambitious affair that relies upon a player character accepting a previous relationship between his character and an ex-girlfriend, the beautiful Violet Staunton, the latter very much wanting to re-establish the relationship. She fears for the safety of her father, Henry, a famous anthropologist who is not only ill, but was attacked by a strange oriental. The author warns the Keeper that he will be leading his players through the scenario by the nose and the warning is not unwarranted as there is little room for the investigators to deviate from the given plot. Plus there is a grating moment at which the Keeper is told to tell his players what their investigators think in order to meet a particular NPC so that they can obtain a potential means of defeating the threat at the heart of the scenario. There are some nice moments in “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn," but for the most part this is so heavy-handed and needs so much effort to work.

The last two scenarios in Curse of the Chthonians are by William Hamblin and can be run singly or as a pair. The first is "Thoth's Dagger" which begins with an auction and a murder before getting bogged down in three-week trip during which time the Keeper takes a brillo pad to the Sanity of one investigator. This is essentially Masks of Nyarlathotep in miniature, taking the investigators from Boston to Egypt as they attempt to remove a curse from one of their number. The Keeper advice suggests that he should avoid having the end of the scenario end in a “Dungeon Crawl,” but in some cases this is unavoidable. The scenario has its moments of horror and intrigue, most notably a blistering and probably not survivable encounter with the Crawling Chaos, but overall feels like the end of a campaign rather than a standalone scenario.

Nevertheless, "Thoth's Dagger" is followed by a sequel, "The City Without a Name." It can be run as a standalone, but really requires that the investigators be staying with their allies from the first scenario. In a process of delivering a package to a Rabbi in Jerusalem, one of their number suffers a vision, which the Rabbi tells him can only be explained through Gematria, a form of occult arithmetic associated with the Kabbalah. Then he drops dead, leaving the investigators to do the numbers themselves and hopefully determine the threat that the vision hints at. This should lead them to Yemen and from there into the Empty Quarter to discover what lies in Dread Irem. This unfortunately, is another dungeon. Like "Thoth's Dagger," this scenario has its moments, but is hampered by the need for the dull arithmetic exercise of decoding the vision – itself supported by the article “The Occult Science of Gematria” at the end of the book – in the middle of the scenario.

By modern standards, these scenarios are definitely detailed, sometimes overly so. By modern standards though, they are too linear and too heavily influenced by a style of adventure that predates the publication of Call of Cthulhu. By modern standards, their means of delivering information is woeful, constantly having to rely on turgid exposition rather than hand-outs. Ideally, part of making this a second edition, would have not only involved these scenarios being edited, but also being given both some hand-outs and some advice on how to deal with the issues with each.

Physically, the changes made to Curse of the Chthonians are minor, though they have major ramifications. Most obviously, the size of the fount has been changed from the original book, which at best has made it easier to read for anyone with visual difficulties whilst also doubling both the length and the cost of the book. New artwork has been added, all by the unaccredited Bradley K. McDevitt, and whilst it is not bad work, in the scenarios where Lisa M. Free’s original artwork remains, the two styles clash. Worse, in one scenario, a major NPC is illustrated by both artists, neither image alike. Where the book has been edited, it is only to update the suggested scenarios that could be run during an interlude rather to correct the errors that have been introduced with the new version of the book. Further, Curse of the Chthonians has not been edited to enable the correction of mechanical and rules errors, leaving the Keeper to make the corrections, usually to the impossible numbers assigned to the NPCs.

If you already own a copy of Curse of the Chthonians, and you are not a completest, there is no need for you to own a copy of this reprint. For it is a reprint and not a second edition, as a second edition implies that some changes have been done to the book, and whilst changes have been made, all are minor, ineffectual, and pointless. Even if you do not have a copy of this anthology, none of its scenarios are wholly worth your attention without an awful lot of effort upon the part of the Keeper. They either lack narrative, have too much narrative, or possess moments that suspend the narrative, and all four are too brutal in their approach to gaming the Mythos.

Ultimately, for Chaosium, Inc. to have re-released this collection unedited and with no major change having been made except to increase the fount size, and so increase both the length of the book and its price is both shameful and disrespectful to any Call of Cthulhu gamer. Right now, copies of the original version are cheaper than this reprint on e-Bay – and a lot more attractive than this charmless reprint. The reprint of Curse of the Chthonians not only feels cheap, but makes you wonder if Chaosium, Inc. has the interests of both its customers and fanbase at heart. Did either really want to see this book come back into print? Lastly, Chaosium, Inc. needs to realise that it takes more than the tawdry effort done here to call a book a second edition.


  1. That review is right on the money. I picked up a copy, but I find it a little disappointing that more wasn't done.

    I find Chaosium's whole model really outdated in contrast to Pagan Publishing, MRP Pelgrane Press who are putting out some really interesting products.

  2. I played through all the scenarios... God, was it really 27 years ago?.... Yes, it was. I really enjoyed all of them. But I understand your point. That was 27 YEARS AGO! Reprinting them in this cheap way is awful. Since Lynn Willis fell ill and had to quit, there does not seem to be a hand at the helm of this ship. What's more, I remember a time when Chaosium hailed its artists, and their lives. When Kevin Ramos died, it was duly noted in a Chaosium book, with pride and sadness. Has any tribute to the ailing genius that is Lynn Willis been made by Chaosium?

  3. Christian, if I was coming to these fresh as a new Keeper today, I would find them most frustrating. None of them are exactly unplayable, but they do need more work than most scenarios.

    I agree that Chaosium needs a stronger hand on the editorial tiller. Who exactly, I know not, but hey, I am unemployed and at least aware of the line.

    I do not know of any direct tribute to Lynn Willis. Perhaps the most recent version of Masks of Nyarlathotep can be seen as that? Anyway, thank you for reading the review and taking the time to comment.

  4. Like Christian and Andy, I find the current business practice of Chaosium unfathomable. I have to say--and this is not a popular view--that I found even the latest version of Masks of Nyarlathotep problematic, but this incarnation of Curse of the Chthonians seems, well, pointless apart from the obvious profit agenda.

    As to solutions, I think you are quite right that Chaosium should invest in seeking out an individual with the fortitude, experience and business savvy to put the company back on track. Perhaps it comes down to simple headhunting or finally recognizing the talents of one Pookie, but it is an exercise long overdue.

    One might hope that Chaosium are listening to their stakeholders, but sadly there is little proof of that. The Curse of the Chthonians is followed by the 30th anniversary edition of the Call of Cthulhu core rules which introduces no significant changes or updating. Yet more convenient recycling for profit.

    This is not a sustainable practice and Chaosium seems desperately in need of a renewed vision.