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Monday, 12 August 2013

Four for War

Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium’s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic RolePlay. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so far the quality of entries in the series have varied widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Fortunately, Shadows of War: Four Scenarios Set In and Around the Second World War is far from dreadful in terms of both editing and layout, or indeed storytelling and writing.

World War Two would seem to be ripe ground upon which to roleplay games of Lovecraftian investigative horror so it is surprising that no publisher has released either scenarios or a campaign during that period. Yet despite there being three supplements forthcoming that support for Call of Cthulhu campaigns during World War Two – Achtung! Cthulhu from Modiphius Press, World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, and Pagan Publishing's Our Darkest Hour, it is oft forgot that the premier RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror actually has already visited the world's biggest conflict – five times. Not though in the form of something that could be purchased via your local friendly gaming store, but in Monograph format. One is in the obvious ‘Where Byakhees Dare’ from Toying with Humans, the other is in the form of Shadows of War, a quartet of scenarios that comprise the longest Monograph to date.

The anthology opens with a crisis before quickly coming, quite literally down to earth. ‘Goodnight Vienna’ begins aboard a B24 Liberator, its crew being forced to bail out over North Africa after getting lost and running out of fuel on the return leg of a mission to bomb Italy. Initially the crew’s focus will be on their survival in the harsh desert environment and on their drive to get to somewhere safe. Along the way though, evidence begins to mount that they are following in another group’s footsteps and that at least one member of that group suspected that something was amiss. Are the downed airmen destined for the same fate?

Once past the heavily scripted opening, care needs to be taken that the characters do not wander off and die in the desert – that would make for a dull game. Designed to be played by as many as eight participants, a smaller group is catered for with a smaller bomber and a set of British characters. If the characters can be kept on track, then ‘Goodnight Vienna’ is a pleasing slow burn survival horror one-shot.

‘No Pasaran!’ turns the clock to 1938 and the later stages of the Spanish Civil War. The characters are radicals and idealists serving with the International Brigades against the Fascists. They are stationed in Barcelona, members of the Friederich Engels Brigade, ill-equipped, but welcomed and saluted by the local populace, the characters get to experience life in the barracks, in a city under war time, and on check point duty. The city is rife with rumours about the war, about the political situation, and about the recent murder of a much respected bookseller. Eventually, the characters get what they want – a posting to active duty!

Sadly the posting is not to the front, but to a backwater region known as the Sierra Verde. The journey up country begins a descent into hell that intensifies and mirrors the horrors of war that have been visited upon the region in the past, leading to a confrontation with both the natives and those who have gone native! That this has a cinematic feel to it is no surprise given its primary sources of inspiration – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. ‘No Pasaran!’ suffers from the lack of a map or two and some will decry that it is all too obvious in its inspiration, but is otherwise an effective homage adapted to a usually ignored period of history.

‘Thracian Gold’, the third scenario, turns the clock forward towards the end of the war. It is 1944 and news has come to Allied intelligence of an incredible archaeological find in Bulgaria, a country which though nominally allied with the Axis powers, is likely to tip into anarchy as partisans, monarchists, and the invading Soviet army vie for power. Were any one of these factions to gain possession of these artefacts, the possibility that they might never be seen again represents a terrible cultural and scientific loss to both the world and Bulgaria. Fortunately, the Area Head of Intelligence for Allied Command is an archaeologist and expert on the region so wants to lead a mission to snatch the artefacts before anyone else can. 

The resulting scenario has some parallels with the Balkan section of Horror on the Orient Express in that it concerns eyes, multi-angular viewing, and caves, but here the characters find themselves chasing a Great Old One’s thralls out of Bulgaria in order to prevent its summoning – and that in the midst of a war zone. Initially, the scenario feels vague, but this is in part intentional and it takes a shock or two to pull events and the investigators together.

The last scenario in the book is set after the war and has the most traditional Call of Cthulhu feel of all of the scenarios in the book. ‘Isle of Lost Souls’ is set in 1952 and casts the investigators as a relief team sent by the University of Bristol to determine both the fate of, and continue the work of, an archaeological expedition it sent to a Greek island. Although much of the investigators’ efforts will be spent in continuing the dig, the scenario also presents them with a greater freedom than in the preceding three scenarios. The scenario is also the most complex of the four, requiring careful staging upon the part of the Keeper as he places one strange incident after another, often repeating and building on those that occur before. The latter serve to build a strange almost ghostly atmosphere towards the scenario’s potentially bloody climax.

Although events in World War Two have a bearing on ‘Isle of Lost Souls’, its post-war setting mean that it feels a little out of place as part of the Shadows of War. Its inclusion is in keeping with the other three scenarios in the anthology in that they all have a Mediterranean setting, but the truth is that ‘Isle of Lost Souls’ could have been included in any ‘general’ anthology and not felt out of place. 

Physically, all four scenarios are well presented, well written, and come with reasonable hand-outs and pre-generated investigators. That is, for a Monograph. Some of the artwork has not been reproduced as clearly as it could have been and the maps are muddy in places. Like nearly every Monograph, Shadows of War does need an edit in places.

One criticism of this anthology is that the first three – ‘Goodnight Vienna’, ‘No Pasaran!’, and ‘Thracian Gold’ all suffer from being too linear, but in their defence, the situations they describe do limit the actions of the characters. Another would be the lack of investigation involved in the first three – hence the use of ‘character’ over ‘investigator’ in this review, but again the situations do not allow for much in the way of investigation in the classic Call of Cthulhu sense. Of the four, ‘Goodnight Vienna’ provides a short, sharp effective shock, but ‘Isle of Lost Souls’ is probably the best of the four, which being the most traditional scenario in terms of play and setting is at odds with the war settings of the previous three. Otherwise, Shadows of War is a solid anthology of one-shots for Call of Cthulhu.