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

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Cthulhu Without Cthulhu

It is rare to see a release for Call of Cthulhu from PaganPublishing, and even rarer still to see a release from Pagan Publishing that is not for Delta Green. So it is a pleasure to see Bumps in the Night, an anthology of five scenarios for Call of Cthulhu. Yet this is collection is rarer still – and for two reasons. First, it is a collection of non-Mythos scenarios, and rather than drawing upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and his acolytes, it takes as its inspiration the horror of the Americana and the American Gothic to sometimes give a refreshing twist upon traditional horror. Second, all five scenarios are penned by John H. Crowe III, the author of the highly regarded campaigns, Walker in the Wastes and Realm of Shadows. Which as a combination sets the expectations for Bumps in the Night more than a little high.

All five scenarios are suitable for play as one-shots, although one is a sequel to a scenario earlier in the book. At least two would also work as prequel scenarios that could be run to introduce one or more investigators, if not to the Mythos, then at least to the idea that there is something outré out there… All five scenarios take place in the USA, though with some effort upon the part of the Keeper, they could be set elsewhere and possibly else when.

The quintet opens in 1915 with “The Westerfield Incident.” Residents of Westerfield, located in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state, have taken to locking their doors as they fear that the streets of their small town are no longer safe. Three appalling murders have occurred in the past few weeks, the victims having been discovered reduced to nothing but barely identifiable gnawed bones. Local law enforcement believes that a wild animal to be responsible and has placed a sizeable bounty on the head of the predatory creature responsible. Enter the investigators, perhaps as townsfolk not only attracted by the bounty, but gone vigilante to protect their fellow Westerfielders; as county sheriff’s deputies brought into deal with a predator gone rogue; or perhaps even as parapsychologists attracted to the strangeness of the murders.

Much of the pleasure of “The Westerfield Incident” comes from the radically restrained investigative process, the sources of information here in the main not being books and newspapers, but rather local knowledge and gossip. There is a pleasing use of the word of the mouth throughout before the identity of the predator responsible is revealed, this exacerbating the challenge of the scenario in particular if the investigators are not local. As to the predator itself, it is a traditional creature, but provides a refreshing challenge to the players. Given its earlier and mostly isolated setting, “The Westerfield Incident” also works as a good prequel for investigators that will come to be involved in the major Mythos events of the 1920s.

The sense of isolation and constraint continues with the second scenario, “The Vengeful Dead,” which is very much a more traditional horror scenario. The investigators are on holiday, taking a vacation at the rustic retreat of the Grandview Lodge in Virginia. With its numerous outdoor activities – camping, croquet, fishing, hiking, hunting, riding, skeet shooting, swimming, and tennis – this is the chance for the investigators to rest and recuperate, perhaps after some unhealthy investigation into the unknown. Unfortunately, harboured amongst the staff and the guests is a killer whose unwholesome efforts will have consequences for everyone at the Grandview Lodge.

Given the current popularity of its monsters, “The Vengeful Dead” has the feel of a traditional horror movie. It is not all set in stone though, as it is up to the Keeper to decide the identity of the killer from the array of well-drawn NPCs. Further, the Keeper is given room to add the paranormal to the scenario, retroactively prefiguring Pagan Publishing’s non-Mythos, paranormal campaign, Coming Full Circle. There is a certain cosiness to “The Vengeful Dead,” almost like that of a traditional murder mystery set at a country house, but unlike that genre, this scenario is never going to end in a “Tell me Inspector, what I don’t understand is…” moment following its one woeful night.

“The Vengeful Dead” is followed by sequel, “The Bitter Venom of the Gods,” which takes place a roughly a year later and is firmly rooted in the American Gothic. Its set up is more complex though. One of the survivors from “The Vengeful Dead” has accepted the marriage proposal from one Robert Gallery and has even gone so far as to move in with his family in preparation for the marriage. This was of course with a chaperone so as to avoid a scandal, but now she has decided to break off the engagement and wants a friend to go with her to collect some belongings from the Gallery family seat. The friend is there to see her enter, but he does not see her come back out…

“The Bitter Venom of the Gods” is a dense affair, rife with clues, and populated with a gallery of seemingly genial grotesques as well as the actual grotesques. In comparison with the previous scenarios, this is much more of a challenge for the Keeper to run and makes more demands of the players.

The fourth scenario, “Curse of the Screaming Skull,” presents an interesting challenge to the antiquarian and paranormal investigators. They are hired to examine the estate of the late Jacob Withering, an inveterate collector of oddities and curiosities who turned his home into his personal museum. His nephew, John, stands to inherit a great deal of money from his uncle, but only if he maintains his uncle’s house and keeps his collection intact. The collection also needs to be catalogued, but strange events have already driven off one archivist and the current cataloguers are already complaining of odd incidents.

As a haunted house scenario, “Curse of the Screaming Skull” is probably the most traditional of the five scenarios in Bumps in the Night. This is not to denigrate it in any way as it is a worthy addition to the sub-genre; and as an addition to the anthology, it presents a satisfying change of pace in comparison to the other scenarios. Not only is almost languorous in feel, the pacing remaining firmly in the Keeper’s hands rather than with the scenario itself, but the solution to the scenario deliberately flys in the face of player tendencies, there being strong social penalties if they make the wrong choice. In addition to being a well done haunted house scenario, “Curse of the Screaming Skull” is set in Vermont which places it on the border with Lovecraft Country. Thus the scenario makes a suitable excursion from that mouldering corner of New England, and it would also work as fitting addition to Jeffrey Moeller’s Monograph, The Primal State.

Whereas the previous four scenarios had no particular requirements in terms of the player characters needed, the fifth and last scenario makes specific demands. “An Unsettled Mind” is firmly set in Baltimore and casts the investigators as death investigators – homicide detectives and coroner’s personnel – with the Baltimore Police Department. They are tasked to investigate violent and suspicious deaths, in this instance, a fatal car crash. “An Unsettled Mind” is the most modern of the quintet in Bumps in the Night, not just because it a police procedural, but also because it has the feel of an episode of The X-Files. Despite the emphasis on the police procedural, the heart of “An Unsettled Mind” is a moral dilemma that will challenge both the player characters and the players.

The strict requirements of “An Unsettled Mind” make it better suited to play as a one-shot than the other four scenarios in Bumps in the Night. It is the least flexible of the five, and perhaps as a one-shot would have benefited from some pre-generated investigators or some guidance as to creating them. Otherwise, a good one-night one-shot.

Physically, Bumps in the Night is succinctly produced. The layout is clean and tidy, the artwork and the cartography are both excellent. The handouts in particular, are well done and feel in keeping with the periods that the adventures are set in. Overall, this is a book with character, one that is up to Pagan Publishing’s usual standards. If the scenarios lack anything it is the inclusion of playtest notes, only one scenario does when all four would have benefited from the inclusion of such information.

Although Bumps in the Night is not a Call of Cthulhu book as such, but rather a book for use with Call of Cthulhu, it is without a doubt the best book published for Call of Cthulhu in 2012. Each of its five scenarios is well crafted and comes with detail, nicely judged plots, and red herrings aplenty. Of course, it is a pity that Bumps in the Night is not more widely available – it was brought to print via Kickstarter and has not entered distribution outside of the USA and Canada, but hopefully, Pagan Publishing will rectify this. Ultimately, Bumps in the Night is further proof that Pagan Publishing can provide great support for the game, even when not involving the Mythos.