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

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Pagan Publishing's Peculiar

The early years of the 21st century was a fallow period for Pagan Publishing with no new material for Call of Cthulhu from the highly regarded publisher until the publication of the scenario, Final Flight, in 2007. That one-shot would be followed in 2009 by a sourcebook, which if it had been released by its intended publisher, would have meant that Pagan Publishing would have gone the whole decade without releasing any new material, let alone a sourcebook. The Mysteries of Mesoamerica began life as a project for author and illustrator, by Blair Reynolds’ RM308 Graphics & Publishing. Unfortunately, RM308 was unable to complete The Mysteries of Mesoamerica and it would be Pagan Publishing that brought the sourcebook to fruition, though five years on, the same cannot yet be said of The Mysteries of Mesoamerica’s sister book, Mysteries of the Old West. Despite his not publishing the book, Blair Reynolds’ touch is indelibly worked into every one of the sourcebook’s pages—The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is beautifully and thematically illustrated and laid out. This should be no surprise given the visual quality of Pagan Publishing’s earlier The Realm of Shadows, but to date, certainly no English-speaking Call of Cthulhu publisher has managed to release a book as visually appealing and as visually well designed as The Mysteries of Mesoamerica—though certain titles from Miskatonic River Press have come close.

The Mysteries of Mesoamerica: 1920s Sourcebook and Mythos Adventures for Mexico and Central America is a supplement devoted to the burgeoning field of Mesoamerican archaeology during Call of Cthulhu’s classic period of the Jazz Age. It has thus a diverse number of subjects to cover, both ancient and modern. These subjects include the various cultures that dominated the region of Central America prior to the coming of Christopher Columbus—the Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and others; their numerous deities and their religion—with its fixation upon blood, sacrifice, and death; their weapons of war and how they fought their wars; and calendrics, the highly involved means used by the pre-Columbian inhabitants to keep the time and organise their society. It brings the history up to date, covering the status of the countries of Central America—British Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—during the first three decades of the twentieth century, as well as their geographies and politics. The Mysteries of Mesoamerica also details various figures of note that travelled throughout the region and brought to light the fantastic historical finds long left hidden under the region’s thick jungle canopy.

So what of the Mythos and The Mysteries of Mesoamerica? Right from the outset, its intent, as made clear in the introduction, is not to equate the deities of the ancient Mesoamerica with those of the Cthulhu Mythos. Rather, as the introduction also states, this is left up to individual cults and cultists to interpret however the Keeper wants. Examples of this underwrite several of the supplement’s scenarios. The supplement though, does present a means of combining Mesoamerican archaeology with Mythos in the form of glyphs for seven of the most notable deities of the Mythos. These can be used add flavour and detail to a Keeper’s scenario without his having to equate the deities himself.

The setting material in The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is supported by four scenarios. Three of these are set during the 1920s, so can be slotted into an ongoing campaign with little difficulty. The first though, is set in 1914, so is more difficult to run as more than a one-shot, though it might work as a prequel adventure that introduces a group to the dangers of, if not the Mythos, then at least that there is something outré out there and that it is very, very dangerous. (Indeed, it would make for an interesting first encounter for the investigators with the late, much lamented, Jackson Elias of Masks of Nyarlathotep fame). This first of the four is ‘The Well of Sacrifice’, which in the years since has gained a reputation as a sanguinary party killer. Written by John H. Crowe III—an author best known for the campaign’s Walker In The Wastes and The Realm of Shadows as well as the recent anthology, Bumps in the Night—it initially feels underwhelming with the investigators having already arrived in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán in Mexico, having already worked at various archaeological sites in the region. The investigators have the opportunity to explore and catalogue a previously unknown city, but its ruinous condition leaves only one site of interest. Shorn of the Mythos, ‘The Well of Sacrifice’ is a survival horror scenario, one that is short and sweet, so it would actually work well as a one-shot or convention scenario.

Essentially, ‘The Well of Sacrifice’ sets the pattern for the following three scenarios—the investigators visit somewhere ancient, investigate the site, and then discover something inordinately evil that will probably be their undoing. Now to extent, this is symptomatic of the archaeologically themed scenario and whilst it is difficult to get away from, at least one of the other scenarios offers a variation upon this.

Brian Appleton’s ‘Menhirs in the Grotto’ moves the quartet on to 1923 and a dig near Texcoco, not far from Mexico City. Here a new Aztec site has been uncovered and the investigators and their employers have been permission to excavate it, although under the close supervision of the University of Mexico City. In comparison to ‘The Well of Sacrifice’, this is much more of a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario, complete with strange deaths, curious lights over the site, and a cult with its own agenda. It is a well-executed affair, with much more going on around the site than in the other scenarios, but it is not quite as interesting as the third scenario, ‘The Heretics’. Written by John H. Crowe III, it is set in 1925 and as the title hints at, it casts the investigators between two rival Mythos sects, each with a radically different interpretation of a certain deity. It begins in the city of Mérida, where unlike ‘The Well of Sacrifice’, the investigators have time to conduct some research and enjoy some local colour—and are given the detail to do so—before moving off into the jungle. Once at the site, the ancient city of Mayapán, the investigators will eventually find themselves caught between the two cults as they battle for possession of a certain sacred site… Like ‘Menhirs in the Grotto’ before it, ‘The Heretics’ is an involving scenario, one which has a good build up to its hectic climax.

Rounding out the quartet is ‘The Temple of the Toad’ by Brian Appleton. A sequel to the Robert E. Howard story, ‘The Thing on the Roof’, it is set in Honduras in 1927. The investigators are asked by a colleague to join him in the search for the Temple of the Toad. A short if somewhat linear affair, it has some pleasing connections to the Call of Cthulhu canon, and a pulpier feel than the previous three scenarios. The scenarios in the quartet are a bit too spread out to be run as a continuous campaign and probably too similar in structure.

As good as the background information is and the scenarios are in The Mysteries of Mesoamerica, it is not a perfect sourcebook. The problem is one of support for the Keeper in helping him run scenarios and campaigns set in Central America during the period. There is no guidance as to how to set up a campaign in the region and no advice as to how to involve the investigators in general, let alone information about how they might reach the region. Some of this appears in individual scenarios, just as information about how to set up an archaeological expedition and its requirements are covered in one of the scenarios, but not in any campaign or setting advice. Outside of this, there is no advice as what types of characters are needed to play The Mysteries of Mesoamerica or what Occupations would be appropriate for the setting. Certainly, there is no advice on playing investigators or portraying NPCs from the region, whether of Hispanic or native origins.

This lack of application also applies to the scenarios themselves. All four do take place in Mesoamerica yes, but they feel isolated from their contemporary settings. There is little within each of the four scenarios to indicate what is going on in the countries when and where they are set. Which seems a pity given the setting material presented earlier in The Mysteries of Mesoamerica.

Physically, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is, as has already been mentioned, a beautiful book. Its layout is thematically crisp with rich detailed artwork. A nice touch is the R.I.P. notices for the investigators who died in the process of playtesting the four scenarios; each includes illustration of the investigator—or investigators, the dates of his or their deaths, and a poignant quote. The only downside to the layout is that the boxed text is slightly difficult to read, especially if the Keeper needs to refer to it in a hurry. The book includes an extensive bibliography, but sadly not an index.

The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is thus incomplete. Its source material is excellent, its scenarios are solid, and it is beautifully presented, but its lack of application, its lack of advice, and its lack of support for the Keeper, all undermine the intent of the designers and the publishers. Perhaps the most disappointing book published by Pagan Publishing, it nevertheless contains content that is solid and useful. Thus, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica: 1920s Sourcebook and Mythos Adventures for Mexico and Central America is Pagan Publishing’s curate’s egg.