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Saturday, 8 June 2013

A Restricted Dig

The Archaeologist's Handbook: A Guide to Archaeology for Roleplaying Games is a curious beast. It reads in part like a supplement for Call of Cthulhu, but is not written for that RPG despite the significance of that role in both the RPG and the fiction that inspired it. It also reads and feels like one of the Miskatonic University Library Association monographs that Chaosium, Inc. publishes in support of its primary RPG, Call of Cthulhu, but is instead published by Innsmouth House Press, an imprint of the website, yog-sothoth.com, which is specifically devoted to all things Lovecraftian, role playing in particular... Thus it feels like it should be a Call of Cthulhu supplement, but is not, and it feels like it should have been published by Chaosium, but was not.

So the questions arise, just what is The Archaeologist's Handbook: A Guide to Archaeology for Roleplaying Games, and who is it written for? As the title suggests, its presents an examination of the study and practice of Archaeology, its history, notable techniques, a discussion of noteworthy proponents of the science, as well as sites and forgeries, and so on, with the aim of making this information useable by roleplayers. In the main it covers the Victorian period, the 1920s, and the roughly contemporary here and now – the three eras that dominate Lovecraftian investigative horror.

The history begins in the antiquities before coming up to speed with archaeology’s founding as a field of study and its practise since the eighteenth century. Although it comes up to the modern day, it is a pity that it does not cover the rise in popularity for all things archaeological in the wake of television coverage – essentially the Time Team effect. Thus it covers both the Grand Tour and the research conducted in Egypt during Napoleon’s occupation; the archaeological scholarship that would lay the foundations for Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Ordnance Survey work that would reveal much of Great Britain’s hidden history; and how archaeology has moved from the province of the scholarly gentleman and his wealthy patron to the aegis of museum, university, and government. Numerous techniques used to dig and excavate a site are described, as are various means of scientifically dating a site and its finds. This is followed by descriptions and histories of some of the world’s more notable museums along with some of their exhibits. None of these are covered in extensive detail, but the balance is about between having enough information to make use of in-game and having enough to serve as pointers should further research be required. Of more practical use is the guide to actually running an archaeological excavation which gets into the logistics of the affair, period by period.

Up until this point, the tone The Archaeologist's Handbook is a little dry and technical, but this changes with a discussion of infamous fakes and forgeries, such as Glozel and The Cardiff Giant. The lighter tone continues as the book begins to support its roleplaying aspect – for example, each notable site, from Stonehenge and Pompeii to Petra and Great Zimbabwe is accompanied by a juicy plot hook that a referee could easily develop into something playable. It is a pity though, that the array of notable sites and accompanying plot hooks ignores Asia. Rounding out The Archaeologist's Handbook are some diary entries that nicely capture the life of an archaeologist in each of the book’s three eras, a list of notable archaeologists – none are given stats though, and a list of possible equipment for each era.

Although not written specifically for Call of Cthulhu, the contents of The Archaeologist's Handbook are probably more applicable to that game than any other. After all, the archaeologist is one of the game's signature Occupations, which means that Call of Cthulhu players and Keepers alike will probably get the most out of the book’s contents. Plus there is plenty of evidence in the book to suggest that it was written with Call of Cthulhu in mind. In particular, it focuses upon the RPG’s three core eras – the Victorian period, the Jazz Age of the 1920s, and the modern day, plus the sample NPCs its provides for each era are written up in a fashion that apes Call of Cthulhu characters rather than matches them exactly. Thus you have Stamina instead of Constitution, Willpower instead of Power, Library Usage rather than Library Use, Take Notice rather than Spot Hidden, and so on. Adapting any one of the three NPCs to Call of Cthulhu, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The Laundry RPG, or any Basic Roleplay RPG is anything other than a challenge. That said, given the fact that both skills and the stats for all three characters are expressed as percentile figures actually makes them more compatible with the forthcoming Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition rather than the current Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition. Adapting the characters to Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu or RealityBlurs, Inc.’s Realms of Cthulhu is more challenging, but certainly within the bounds of possibility.

The Archaeologist's Handbook comes a seventy-six page A5 sized spiral bound book. This format makes it easy to flip through and read, the former necessary due to the lack of an index. That said, the format does not withstand much in the way of handling, and perhaps a plastic cover could have been included for the back cover as well as the front. The book is illustrated throughout with a range of black and white drawings and photographs, all of them appropriately selected. It is a pity that the book does not come with any maps as subject matter certainly lends itself to those. The writing is a also perhaps a little dry in places, but once the author begins to talk about sites and museums and forgeries, she warms to her subject and is more engaging. Still the book could have done with a closer edit.

More of an issue is that The Archaeologist's Handbook is underdeveloped in places. As a consequence its stance is strongly Anglophile in places. This is understandable given that the author is English, but that does mean that this guide to playing an archaeologist is tailored to English characters. Given that the Call of Cthulhu playing audience for this book is primarily American, it would have been useful if the author had been able to present information on how to play an American archaeologist, let alone say a French or German one.

Where The Archaeologist's Handbook is at its weakest is the fact that it is a generic supplement. Had it been specifically written for Call of Cthulhu then it could have better explored its subject and thus have better applied it to excavating the Mythos. Or least reference any one of the innumerable scenarios written for that the game that involve Archaeology or an Archaeological dig of some kind. Whether that is “The Clive Expedition” from Chaosium, Inc.'s Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, TOME's Glozel est Authentique, and “Darkness, Descending” from Cubicle Seven Entertainment's Cthulhu Britannia anthology. Of course, it could also have covered how to create an Archaeologist character in each of RPG’s three core eras.


Had it been allowed to develop that much further – with maps and more scope than its current Anglophile stance as well as applied its subject to Lovecraftian investigative horror, then there is no doubt that this supplement could have been a very useful sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu. Despite these limitations, there is no denying that The Archaeologist's Handbook: A Guide to Archaeology for Roleplaying Games is a meaty introduction to its subject – and is thus of use to players and Keeper referee alike.