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

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Ignorance Imparted

Traditionally, the first supplement published for a role playing game is a ‘companion’. It collects many, if not all, of the content that was written for, but not included in the core Rulebook. Extra background material, advice, scenarios, and more were the typical content of the RPG Companion. Such supplements are rare these days, for where a Companion will address a number of diverse topics, the modern supplement typically focuses upon particular aspects of an RPG's setting or rules. Call of Cthulhu has received two such ‘companions’. The first, the Cthulhu Companion: Ghastly Adventures & Erudite Lore from 1983 is best remembered for its decent scenarios, its Mythos parody of Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and its list of Mythos adverbs and descriptors. The second, Fragments of Fear: The Second Cthulhu Companion from 1985, is best known for its foldout size comparison of various Mythos gods and entities. Of the two, the Cthulhu Companion is the better regarded and the more useful, but now both supplements stand to be compared by a third supplement of a very similar nature. 

Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion is the first release from new publisher, Golden Goblin Press, the newest Chaosium licensee. At its head is perhaps one of the most prolific of Call of Cthulhu authors – Oscar Rios, best known for The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, the campaign for use with Chaosium, Inc.’s Cthulhu Invictus. The company takes its name from the fictitious company in the Robert E. Howard stories ‘The Black Stone’ and ‘The Thing on the Roof’, and it this name that provides the title for the first of the octet of articles in Island of Ignorance. Geoff Gillan’s ‘The Golden Goblin’ examines the significance and history of the Native American figurine that inspired the founder of Golden Goblin Press in Howard’s stories. As eponymously fitting as this article is in the supplement, it does feel slightly trite, almost as if the publisher had to get the joke out of the way.

Daniel Harms offers the reader ‘The Walshes: A Cthulhu Cult’, a description of what happens when certain New England rumrunners come to worship a certain drowned god and use their gained knowledge to run the dangerous waters along the New England coast. The result is a heavily armed gang with a fast boat and a secret hideout that is feared by rival gangs and the Coast Guard alike – not to say factions native to dread Innsmouth! Now that takes some doing – all summed up in this nicely done write-up. This is followed by ‘Massa di Requiem per Shuggay: A History of the Devil’s Opera’, penned by the creator of the Massa di Requiem per Shuggay, Scott David Aniolowski. Intimately tied up with the history of the Shan, the Insects from Shaggai, the complete history of this three act opera is given here for the first time. Most notably includes the most recent appearance of this banned opera in the pages of Call of Cthulhu, in Mikael Hedberg’s scenario ‘A Night at the Opera’, from Miskatonic River Press’ New York set anthology, Tales of from Sleepless City.

‘When Johnny Came Marching Home’ is the first of two articles in Island of Ignorance by its publisher, Oscar Rios. With it he offers the means to create investigators who served in the Great War. Although the rules cover the military training, the combat experiences, and their possible after effects, and the economic hardships that a veteran might all experience, they are not comprehensive. Primarily because its focus is on the American investigator and again on the American investigator who fought on the front lines, rather than served in a support capacity. Nevertheless, this is a quick and dirty method and handles something not covered in Call of Cthulhu itself. Next, in ‘Dweller in Darkness’, Tyler Hudak brings to light the Great Old One known as Bugg-Shash, expanding up the nature of this entity and its rare cultists to provide enough information for the Keeper to use them in his own campaign.

As described by Eckhard Huelshoff, the ‘The Knjiga Mrtva (or Book of the Dead)’ is collection of Serbian observations and writings that initially focuses on the undead and then later on certain creatures of the Mythos. It feels a little scrappy around the edges, but that comes from its varied content more than the writing. This is a useful addition that opens up the possibility of exploring the Mythos in Eastern Europe. This is followed by Tom Lynch’s description of one the secrets of the infamous Abdul Alhazred, ‘The Silks of Irem’. Not unsurprisingly, these are as potentially deadly as they are useful and they would make for a different MacGuffin. Rounding out the articles section of the Island of Ignorance is Oscar Rios’ second article, ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’. This examines the place of the hobo and his life and how he can be played as a Mythos investigator, covering not only the hobo, but also the tramp and the bum. It is a thoroughly engaging piece that provides enough detail to support the background of any hobo should the reader want to play one of these characters and bring them to life in his next Call of Cthulhu game – and after reading this article, he should. (Although the rules are incompatible, Trail of Cthulhu Keepers and players will find this article of use as the hobo is a given character type in that game, and the background is certainly not incompatible). This is arguably, the highlight of the octet of articles in Island of Ignorance.

Opening up the quintet of scenarios in Island of Ignorance is Brian M. Sammons’ ‘Consumption’, a gruesome sequel to H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Picture in the House’. A grizzly encounter on the road between Arkham and Dunwich puts the investigators in the sights of a set of horribly human monsters with a necrophagous predilection. This set will go to almost any lengths to protect their inhuman habits and this is after having firmly made itself part of local society, making the act of investigating the activities of its members more than a little challenging. Despite there being very little Mythos involvement in ‘Consumption’ this scenario does not feel out of place in this supplement with a strong investigative aspect and suitably nasty secrets to reveal.

The second scenario is also set in Lovecraft Country, but in little visited Aylesbury rather than in Arkham, where several the town’s children, all of them poor workers at a local textile mill, have vanished under mysterious circumstances – only to appear a few days later seemingly unperturbed. ‘Let the Children Come to Me’ by Mark Shireman forces the investigators to make a ghastly comparison. Which is worse – the evils perpetrated by mankind on its own kin or the uncaring entities that would take advantage of such crimes? Again, the perpetrators hide behind a façade of respectability, making getting to the truth another challenge. The scenario’s denouement feels a little complex and needs careful handling upon the part of the Keeper as there are several possible outcomes. Equally, in coming to the climax of this scenario, the investigators will find themselves facing a moral dilemma in trying to determine the right outcome for this scenario.

Oscar Rios’ own contribution to the scenarios in Island of Ignorance is ‘The Lonely Point Lighthouse’, which will again present a moral dilemma to the investigators come its climax. They are hired by the city council of the port of New London, Connecticut to determine if the Lonely Point Lighthouse, located some three miles offshore, is haunted. After all, the last two keepers quit after supposedly hearing moans, tapping, and scratching sounds inside the lighthouse, plus when the investigators start asking around town, there are rumours about a sea monster haunting the waters around the lighthouse. Is there really a monster or is this an attempt to drum up the tourist trade? Of course, the investigators have to visit the lighthouse, so the time they have to unearth more facts in town is short. The investigative process adheres to the author’s trademark penchant for legwork rather than poring over books and nicely sets everything up for the isolated investigation at the lighthouse and another good dilemma for the investigators to solve.

The investigators find themselves solving another haunting in ‘With Blue Uncertain Stumbling’ by Jeffrey Moeller, and again, it takes place offshore. Not at a lighthouse, but on the island of Key West in Florida where the ghost of a woman has been seen in the mirrors of a hotel. This is not an easy investigation to get into and once a few facts are known, finding a solution to the mystery is not easy either. It makes much of the folklore of the island to present a twist upon the ‘returned from the grave’ story, but one that is pleasingly original and creepy. 

The last scenario in Island of Ignorance is Jon Hook’s ‘Darkness Illuminated’. Returning the quintet to Arkham, this is the most Pulp of the scenarios in the supplement, combining as it does John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos with the Mythos. The investigators are hired by the parents of a student at a local school for the blind to find out why their son has become withdrawn and distant from them and if it could be as the result of a new drug administered by Doctor James Herrington. Equally, the school for the blind does not want to talk about its students or indeed its doctor… Despite its pulp leanings, ‘Darkness Illuminated’ is a surprisingly sophisticated affair, but in places it feels rushed and very much in need of another edit. Again, it establishes a satisfying moral dilemma at the end and this more than makes up for the sometimes eyebrow raising Pulp elements.

Rounding out Island of Ignorance is ‘Heroes and Heroines of the Lovecraft Country’, a collection of eighteen pre-generated investigators already to play or drop into a scenario. The collection is decent enough, and despite having been thoroughly playtested at innumerable conventions, they amount to just the numbers. It is a pity that none of them comes with their own background to help ease their use in play or help spark a player’s imagination. Only one investigator comes with any background and that is Walt ‘Mashed Potatoes’ Johnson, a Hobo who is discussed in the earlier ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’. In some ways, the accompanying checklist of typical investigator equipment is of more use. It rules are simple – an investigator just uses his Credit Rating score as points to spend on the listed equipment, so if he wants camera and film it will cost him four points, whereas a bottle of fine wine or brandy will cost five points. It is a pity that this sheet has been specifically designed for use with the eighteen listed pre-generated investigators as it would work well in general for any game set during the Roaring Twenties or the Desperate Decade of the 1930s.

Physically, Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion is neatly and cleanly presented in a style that feels reminiscent of the original Cthulhu Companion as well as the books published by the late Miskatonic River Press. This is no surprise since Oscar Rios was heavily involved with Miskatonic River Press. The supplement’s illustrations by Reuben Dodd are well done and nicely capture the action within the scenarios and whilst Alyssa Faden’s exterior cartography is excellent, her interior cartography is pedestrian at best. Where Island of Ignorance suffers is in its editing, which feels rushed in places and could have been done one more time.

So the question is, how does Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion compare with the earlier Cthulhu Companion: Ghastly Adventures & Erudite Lore and Fragments of Fear: The Second Cthulhu Companion? It is far superior in every way to Fragments of Fear: The Second Cthulhu Companion, so that is not a fair comparison. A fair comparison would be with the Cthulhu Companion: Ghastly Adventures & Erudite Lore and in doing so, the articles are broadly superior – though some of the content has since been superseded – to those in Island of Ignorance, but the scenarios are better in Island of Ignorance. Indeed, all five scenarios are mature and sophisticated affairs that handle their often adult themes in a suitably restrained fashion. The best of them challenge not only the investigators’ ability to withstand creeps, shocks, and scares, but difficult choices too. Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion is a good first book from a new publisher. All that publisher needs to do with its next books is maintain the quality of the material and match it by giving them the editorial polish that they need and they will be very good books indeed.