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Sunday, 3 November 2013

Halloween Horror 2


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 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. Unfortunately, whilst Halloween Horror 2: Eight Horrors for One Special Night is far from dreadful in terms of both editing and layout, or indeed storytelling and writing, it is lacking with regard to all four aspects.

Halloween Horror 2 dates from 2006 and collates eight of the entries in Chaosium’s 2006 Halloween Adventure Contest, following on from the trio collected in the previous year’s Halloween Horror monograph. It presents three scenarios for the classic Call of Cthulhu period of the 1920s, three for the contemporary period of Cthulhu Now, one for the contemporary period of Secrets of Japan, and one for Cthulhu Dark Ages. The anthology would be followed by Halloween Horror Returns! in 2007 and then Bride of Halloween Horror in 2009.

The octet opens with Brandon Hanlan’s ‘Of Angels and Bones’, which is designed for two to four players and is set during the 1920s. Specifically it is set in the Illinois town of Totun in 1924 a year after the head of the Church of the Loving Saviour, Pastor Gene Pleate, was killed following a protest against the celebration of Halloween and then several years old corpses were discovered in his basement. The cause of their deaths could not be confirmed, let alone the circumstances, but the scandal was enough to drive his flock to disband. In the year since, almost nothing of note has happened in the town, although as Halloween approaches, strange lights have been seen in the skies nearby. Which is something of a problem, for ‘Of Angels and Bones’ suffers from a problem to all too many Call of Cthulhu scenarios – not enough of a hook to entice the investigators to well, investigate. This is not to say that there not uninteresting things to investigate and not uninteresting NPCs to interact with, but getting the investigators to Totun is an issue, as is the fact that the scenario’s actual climax and ending are extraneous. It feels as if the author felt that the ending was not strong enough and essentially came up with a variation of the town under siege by zombies. ‘Of Angels and Bones’ is a situation in search of a scenario…

‘The Devil’s Agents’ by Shawn Proctor is designed for a similarly sized group and is also set during the 1920s. It takes place in Lovecraft Country and casts the player characters, of which there are four pre-generated ones provided, as ne’er do wells and potential cultists devoted to Shub-Niggurath. Under the obedient sway of Simon, the cult leader, they are tasked with a number of assignments necessary to build towards Simon’s first great undertaking. This includes robbery, murder, and more, all acts that will attract not only the police, but also the attention of a very atypical investigator party. This situation presents a potentially interesting roleplaying challenge and is supported by a new Sanity mechanic that allows the Sanity of the player characters to dip far below zero. Unfortunately, the mechanic is not fully developed as it lacks an explanation of how Sanity is lost once it reaches zero, especially when it is gained for successfully undertaking actions that further the cult’s aims. This is not helped when the four pre-generated characters begin play with no Sanity and no suggestion given as to how this Sanity was lost. It should be noted that naming these after the cast and characters of the film Shaun of the Dead is not conducive to serious play. Again, there is an interesting set up and set of possibilities in this scenario, but both are hampered by poor development.

Brian Hensley's ‘Haunted Molesbury’ is a modern set Call of Cthulhu scenario, nominally set in the United Kingdom, but really in a small piece of the USA. It is specifically about Halloween or at least a Halloween event organised by the men and woman of RAF Molesbury, a US airbase in the United Kingdom. The investigators are the guests of a friend who is serving at the base and are asked to enjoy the festivities. The scenario is linear and limited, being primarily designed to get the investigators through and involved in the scarefest. This scenario is pleasingly straightforward and easy to run and as much as its Americana feels false, it is actually befits the scenario.

‘Way Down. In Ioway.’ by X.D. Eness is designed for three to six investigators and takes place in rural Iwo in the 1920s. It takes a radical approach to the Cthulhu Mythos and builds the scenario around two falsehoods. First, that the Mythos is nothing but a construct, and second, that its adherents can lured into a trap. Then it involves the player characters. They are employees at Viscill Countywide Press who are asked by the company’s owner, Sherwin Farne, to housesit for a week. Then strange things start happening, all culminating on the night of Halloween. The problem is that there is little that the player characters can do bar wait it out and then be told what is going on. There is little that they can find out themselves and this is bound to be an exercise in frustration upon the part of the players.

John Kennedy’s ‘The Smokestack Horror’ is set in the modern day and is set in a high school where there is a new report that a teacher has had a nervous breakdown, screaming about “…[K]ids being in league with worms…”. This is deemed sufficient reason enough for the investigators to visit the school and attempt to find out what is going on. The problem is that from almost any angle, this would be all but impossible. The investigators have to come up with a reason why they would on school grounds let alone be investigating given the school is unlikely to let anyone lacking any kind of authority just wander around. That said, once a means has been found, there are still plenty of human obstacles in the way before the investigators can unearth what is going on and the horror is reasonably handled.

The tone is turbo-charged by Oscar Rios and Walter Attridge in their modern set scenario, ‘Halloween Candy’. The investigators are agents of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security who on Halloween are suddenly given a new assignment – go to the town of Cogan Springs and determine who has been ordering rare compounds that can be combined to produce a dangerous drug and why. This is not so much a scenario of ‘Survival Horror’ as ‘Action Horror’, unashamedly and unsubtly so, one that would make for an all action ‘Night at the Opera’ for Pagan Publishing's Delta Green. That is if the investigators survive and the world does not end…

Simon Yee’s ‘Enter the Gaijin’ is also a modern set scenario, but one that makes use of the supplement Secrets of Japan rather than Cthulhu Now. It is thus a rare incidence of scenario using that supplement. Beginning with a series of home invasions and a bank robbery, it takes the investigators from Arkham, Massachusetts to Japan and suitable for investigators who are Federal agents, so as with ‘Halloween Candy’, would with Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green. Although short, it involves some solid investigation and unlike several of the other entries in Halloween Horror 2 does not overdo the horror.

Rounding the supplement is ‘A Ring of Toadstools’, a Cthulhu Dark Ages scenario by Oscar Rios. The scenario can take place anywhere in the British Isles, but has an obviously Celtic feel to it, involving as it does faery folklore. The investigators are visitors to Sogailraugh and so are invited to participate in the town’s All Hallows Festival. This gives them the opportunity to interact with the inhabitants before events take a strange turn. Noreen, the daughter of the local lord and lady is to be christened on the day, but her mother claims that she has been kidnapped! The player characters need to take all of folklore to heart if they are to find out what happened to Noreen and get her back. In some ways this feels like a Dungeons & Dragons scenario given its fantastical rather than Mythos elements, but in places it is no less horrifying and in comparison to many of the scenarios in the anthology, ‘A Ring of Toadstools’ is the most rounded out piece in the book. If there is an issue with the scenario, it is its lack of Mythos content and it is the lack of parallels drawn between the folklore and the Mythos. Otherwise, ‘A Ring of Toadstools’ at least brings Halloween Horror 2 to a satisfying close.

Physically, Halloween Horror 2 is simply laid out and simply uninteresting. The editing is imperfect, but not exceptionally so… Only ‘A Ring of Toadstools’ is illustrated, but again, not to any great standard. Then again, the standards for the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs is not high.

Unfortunately, there is little to really to distinguish Halloween Horror 2 from any other Miskatonic University Library Association Monograph. Too many of the scenarios need work, especially in their hooks, which at best makes Halloween Horror 2: Eight Horrors for One Special Night something for a Keeper to tinker with.