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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Curse of Chaosium V

I begin this review with a confession. As much as I love reading and reviewing titles for Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, and other RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, I have become loathe to review titles released by the premier publisher for Call of Cthulhu, such that I have two outstanding titles to review – The House of R'lyeh and Atomic Age Cthulhu. The issue is that with each of the previous four titles I reviewed – Curse of the Chthonians: Four Odysseys Into Deadly Intrigue, the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen, the Cthulhu Invictus Companion, and Terror from the Skies: A Race to Save Humanity from a Dark Future – have warranted a singular label, ‘Curse of Chaosium’. In each and every case of these reviews, the titles have been flawed, mishandled, and ill judged, issues that in each and every case can solely be placed at Chaosium’s door. Having to write reviews of such books – books from a publisher whose previous titles I hold in high esteem – is a thrillingly unpleasant exercise in pedantry. Not only do you have to tell the reader that such a book is dreadful and anything other than worthwhile purchase, but you have to catalogue exactly why. To do otherwise, would be a disservice to anyone reading the review.

Thus the ground is laid for me to review the very latest scenario to be released by Chaosium, Inc. for Call of Cthulhu. I approached the prospect of reviewing Canis Mysterium: A Scenario With Bite, which at just thirty-two pages, is perhaps the shortest single scenario ever published, with a certain weariness for Call of Cthulhu. After all, how bad could it be? It certainly could be no worse than the execrable Terror from the Skies, a book so incompetently handled that Chaosium owes an apology to the campaign’s authors. On the other hand, it might surprise me and be as joyously rife with potential as say, the Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep or Tatters of the King. Sadly, Canis Mysterium is nowhere as good as either of those, but then neither is it as appallingly awful as Terror from the Skies. In truth, it is something else, something that we have seen before.

Canis Mysterium is the first scenario to be published by Chaosium in over a decade that visits Lovecraft Country during the Jazz Age, though very late in the Jazz Age, being set in late 1930. True, there have been visits paid by scenarios in Chaosium’s Miskatonic University Library Association Monograph series, though none of those have reached the shelves of your local friendly gaming store; and true, the soon to be lamented Miskatonic River Press has published two excellent books set there – New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley and More Adventures in Arkham Country. Still, Canis Mysterium is the first scenario to be published by Chaosium in over a decade that visits Lovecraft Country during the Jazz Age. It also takes the Keeper and his players to a wholly new part of Lovecraft Country.

Coldwater Falls lies to the lies west of Arkham on the Aylesbury Pike road and Miskatonic River between Dean’s Corners and Dunwich. Primarily a farming town with a textile mill, there is little to distinguish it from its often dark, dismal, and dangerous neighbours. That is until the investigators are summoned to the offices of the University President of Miskatonic University. They are members of the university’s School of Biology, specifically the Department of Psychology, who are asked by the University President to visit Coldwater Falls where the local constable wants help in dealing with a madman who has murdered and partially eaten a young girl.

What the investigators discover is a madman, one who is suffering from the delusion that he is a wolf! The mystery and direction of the investigation in Canis Mysterium concern themselves with how the madman came to suffer his delusion. Discovering this information will require their talking to a few of the inhabitants of the town. For the most part, this is fairly straightforward process apart from getting to one NPC, though this addressed somewhat bluntly towards the scenario’s end.

Canis Mysterium is not a subtle affair. True it foregoes much of Call of Cthulhu’s traditional investigative process, with little in the way of books or newspapers for the characters to peruse, instead opting for a more interactive means of gathering clues. Yet these all but matter not, for in the penultimate scene an NPC that has been pointedly kept away from the investigators, simply turns up and hands them the clue they need. Then in the scenario’s dénouement, the only means presented of the investigators defeating the threat is through violence. Given that in the default set-up for the scenario, the investigators are meant to be students and doctors at Miskatonic University’s Department of Biology, they are very probably ill-suited to such a situation. A situation that is deadly and likely to result in fatalities.

Not that the villain of the piece, or his Ghoul ally – and that is not a spoiler, it appears on the cover – and their plan for revenge on Coldwater Falls are particularly interesting or subtle either. In fact, the plan is straight off of page one of the horror villain’s book of revenge plans. What is vaguely interesting is that if the Keeper wants the investigators to experience this revenge being brought to fruition, he will have to do it all by himself. There are no notes included as to how to do it. That said, if the investigators do bypass the showdown with the villain, then the epilogue at least sees them suffer the consequences of their inaction, though even that is underwritten.

Another problem with Canis Mysterium is Coldwater Falls. It is barely sketched out and leaves little for the Keeper to work with. This raises the question as to why the town is located in Lovecraft Country. It has no bearing upon the scenario such that its plot could be moved to any other town without any changes whatsoever and the investigators could simply work at or be studying at a university other than Miskatonic. 

Physically, the problems with Canis Mysterium start with the cover. It is not a bad cover per se, nor a particularly good cover, it simply gives the scenario away. Inside, the book is neatly and cleanly laid out, though let down by oppressively unsubtle internal illustrations and inexpertly applied editing. Further, the scenario completely lacks maps. There is no plan of the town and there is no floor plan of any of the locations that the investigators will visit. Now the Keeper can get away with running the scenario without any maps, and if it helps, he could just point to the book’s front cover and say to his players, “Your investigators are fighting here!” at the dénouement of Canis Mysterium. Yet if the Keeper wants his investigators to visit Coldwater Falls again, and the means are provided with the scenario seeds included at the back of the book, it would have been useful to have had maps included.

In tone and feel, Canis Mysterium wants to be a Purist affair, but its plot and antagonists are Pulp. It also has the feel of something else, that of a scenario to be found in one of Chaosium’s Miskatonic University Library Association Monographs. Which is not necessarily a sign of quality. Had  Canis Mysterium appeared in a Monograph, then the scenario would not have really stood out from the others in such a volume. Releasing it as a single scenario means it is placed centre stage where its flaws can nothing but stand out. Canis Mysterium: A Scenario With Bite is underdeveloped in terms of support and it underwhelms as a whole, failing to stand out from the pack and more gums at you than bites.