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Friday, 4 April 2014

Cthulhu Classics III

These days Grenadier Models, Inc. is better known for its miniatures, whether for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu. What is oft forgotten is that the company also branched out into becoming a publisher. These included the adventure Cloudland and the bestiary, the Monster Manuscript, both lesser known releases for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; Raid on Rajallapor for Flying Buffalo’s Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes RPG; Disappearance on Aramat for GDW’s Traveller RPG; and of course, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island for Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu. As with the previous entries in the 'Cthulhu Classics' series, spoilers abound in this retrospective.

The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island was published in 1984. This was a year in which four of the eight titles published for Call of Cthulhu were not released by Chaosium, Inc. This should not diminish Chaosium’s output by any means—after all, those four included the classic campaigns, Masks of Nyarlathotep and Fungi from Yuggoth as well as the lesser regarded Curse of the Chthonians and The Trail of Tsathogghua anthologies. A slim, a forty-eight page book, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island is actually an anthology, consisting of two scenarios. The first is ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’, the second, ‘The House in the Woods’. Both are short affairs—‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ can be played through in two sessions at most, whilst ‘The House in the Woods’ will last no more than a single session. Each is also heavily inspired by a single H.P. Lovecraft story. In the case of ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ it is ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, whilst the inspiration for ‘The House in the Woods’ is ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’. For veterans of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the menace at the heart of either scenario should be obvious—Deep Ones in ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ and the Mi-go in ‘The House in the Woods’.

Remember though, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island was published in 1984. Such inspiration would not have been familiar as it is today when Lovecraft’s influence is near ubiquitous and his fiction is deemed worthy enough to published as part of the Penguin Classics imprint. Thus what could be seen as derivative, even unoriginal, with the benefit of three decades’ worth of hindsight, would have seemed fresh and original at the time of publication. Further, and with four decades’ worth of hindsight, ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ feels derivative of something else, but we will get to that…

As its title suggests, ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ takes place on Monhegan Island, an isolated and insular community just off the coast of Maine. In June, 1924, a young girl is reported missing, but the Maine State Police has been unable to do no more than report her as “missing and presumed drowned”. Nevertheless, the head of the island, Roger Martinson, believes that the girl was murdered and wants her disappearance investigated further and so hires the player characters. They have little time to conduct their investigation on the mainland—and this does feel rushed—before being whisked away to the island where they find that the dissipated lifestyle of both Martinson and his lady companions seems at odds with his interest in determining the girl’s fate. 

The investigation process is relatively slight. By the time the investigators get to Monhegan Island, they should have done the bulk of the investigative paperwork. This leaves the physical process and here the investigators come up against the bulwark of the insular nature of the islanders. Few if any of them will talk and the likelihood is that the physical investigation will end up with the investigators being led on a wild goose chase before being herded to the scenario’s denouement. The truth of the matter is that the islanders are making human sacrifices in return for bountiful harvests from the sea—and guess who the islanders plan to sacrifice next? 

This is not an original idea. In fact it is all but a ‘pulp’ trope, but ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ feels like the plot of the 1973 film, The Wicker Man. Admittedly, this is as fine an inspiration as you could wish, but here it feels leaden and somewhat plodding. The problem is that there is relatively little for the investigators to do and the effect is likely to be frustrating for many. The other issue with ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ is a problem endemic to early Call of Cthulhu scenarios—the need to award the player characters with physical treasure. A hangover from Dungeons & Dragons, a game in which loot is everything, what the investigators receive in ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ is a tumult of tomes. Three classic Call of Cthulhu Mythos tomes can be found in the scenario and that in addition to the other texts to be found.

Again set in 1924, ‘The House in the Woods’ takes place in Maine. Jeffrey Winter, a Professor of American Indian Archaeology has gone missing. Recovering from a nervous breakdown, he has not returned from a weekend away at his doctor’s holiday home and the Maine State Police have pronounced him a missing person. The investigators are hired by one of Professor Winter’s friends to determine what has happened to him. If the degree of investigation required in ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ is slight, then it is absolutely brief in ‘The House in the Woods’. This is no surprise. ‘The House in the Woods’ is intended to provide a beginning encounter with the Mythos for Keeper and players alike, and this it does reasonably well. There is the opportunity for a little investigation, the Keeper to ham it up with an NPC, and then short creepy encounter. 

Where ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ definitely comes to strong and definite denouement, the climax to ‘The House in the Woods’ is underwritten and gives a somewhat fleeting experience. That said, this ‘fleeting’ experience befits the scenario and the foes that the investigators face.

Accompanying The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island is a set of pre-generated investigators. What is interesting about the six is that they are written, as are the scenarios, for Call of Cthulhu, First Edition, and this shows most clearly in the pre-generated investigators. For example, each has ‘POW POINTS’ rather than Magic Points, and the skills are listed not in alphabetical order, but by type—Knowledge Skills, Perception Skills, Manipulation Skills, Stealth Skills, Communication Skills, and Agility Skills. The six point to an age when investigators were slightly more powerful and physically capable, this time a hangover from the Basic Roleplay mechanics of the period from which the Call of Cthulhu rules are derived. Of course, this is before the paring down of investigator skills and capabilities that would come with Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition and subsequent editions. Of course, rounding out the book is an advert for Grenadier Models, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu miniatures.

Physically, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island feels well-produced. In particular the artwork has a pleasingly oppressive feel to it and the maps have both character and detail. Advice for the Keeper is light, but what is given is in keeping with that given for scenarios and campaigns of the period. Notes are included should the Keeper want to run other scenarios after running ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ and ‘The House in the Woods’, though those for the latter are slight at best.

At the time, Stephen Kyle, writing in White Dwarf #59 (November, 1984) described The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island as being “more down-to-earth” and that ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ “shows that simplicity can work to a story’s advantage, and manages to reproduce that strangely disturbing atmosphere of such Lovecraft tales as The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Pointing out the relative cheapness of book, Kyle suggested that The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island presented “a very useful package”. Conversely, John Dark, writing in Different Worlds #40 (Jul/Aug 1985) was less kind, stating that, “Sadly, these scenarios are just not very interesting.” and that “To sum up, Monhegan Island has nothing outstandingly bad with it.  But there's nothing outstanding about it at all.” (Thanks to Allan Grohe of Black Blade Publishing for providing access to the relevant issue of Different Worlds).

The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island is neither a forgotten gem nor instantly forgettable. That said, it has none of the arch, sometimes absurd, Pulp propensities of the T.O.M.E. titles of the period. Neither of its scenarios is without its faults, but both do work as introductions to playing the game. Of the two, ‘The House in the Woods’ feels better for its ‘fleeting’ nature—indeed it would make for a suitable prequel to the scenario, ‘The Madman’ from the Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition rule book. Overall, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island is a pairing of the serviceable with the familiar, notable more for its publisher than for its content.