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Friday, 14 August 2015

A sex horrificam

For its third title, Golden Goblin Press returns to the setting of its principal author’s finest hour. That author is the prolific Oscar Rios, that finest hour is The Legacy of Arrius Lurco  and that setting is Cthulhu Invictus. As a setting, Cthulhu Invictus presents an approach to investigating the Cthulhu Mythos shorn of its reliance upon libraries, newspaper archives, and Mythos tomes, instead requiring the investigators to ask others lots and lots of questions, do an awful lot of watching, and sneak about a fair bit. In other words, more detective legwork rather than research. Similarly, the reliance upon firearms found in conducting investigations in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, makes such investigations and confrontations with the Mythos more fraught affairs. Unfortunately, Cthulhu Invictus never quite received the support it deserved from its publisher, Chaosium, Inc., but its potential was certainly realised in The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, published by the late, much missed, Miskatonic River Press, the only campaign published for Cthulhu Invictus, and arguably one of the best campaigns published for Call of Cthulhu in over a decade. Now, having putting out a third companion for Call of Cthulhu in the form of Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion and an anthology of scenarios set in New Orleans with Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans, Golden Goblin Press bring us an anthology of scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus in the form of De Horrore Cosmico: Six Scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus.

Written for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition—in all likelihood one of the last supplements to be so—and published via Kickstarter, De Horrore Cosmico is an anthology of six scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus that take the investigators to southern Gaul, Britannia, Aegyptus, Sicilia, Caledonia, and of course, Rome. What really makes these six scenarios standout is that their inspiration is not just the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but in each and every case, specific works of H.P. Lovecraft. This is no mere matter of updating these stories as if they were being presented for the twenty-first century, but rather a case of their being adapted to fit the history, mores, and culture of Ancient Rome. The danger here is that this is window dressing, merely setting up the means for the investigators to play out the plots of the stories that serve as their inspiration rather than something new. Fortunately, De Horrore Cosmico does not fall prey to such dangers… As this is a review of Cthulhu Invictus scenario anthology, spoilers abound.

The six opens with ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’, Jeffrey Moeller’s interpretation of ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family’. The investigators are hired to go to the city of Massalia in southern Gaul and there investigate the background of Marius Asina to see if he is suitable for elevation beyond his current rank of senator. Rich if modest and thought to be of lowly origins, his background is a mystery and his family secretive. This requires careful and methodical investigation, thus highlighting the primary investigative process in Cthulhu Invictus. There is though, good reason for the family’s secrecy and the family is ready to protect such secrets. At its heart, as with the inspiration, this scenario is about tainted ancestry, one that the family would best prefer kept hidden. This is a fine start to the anthology, a rich re-imagining that presents not a threat as such, but a situation, one that in truth the presence of the investigators will disturb rather than thwart.

‘Doom’, inspired by ‘The Doom that came to Sarnath’, is written by Chad Bowser, the co-author of Cthulhu Invictus. Of the six scenarios in De Horrore Cosmico, ‘Doom’ is the most straightforward and the simplest, and the only one to present a direct threat to Rome. The investigators are again hired, this time by a patron who has been suffering from nightmare that foretell of the destruction of Rome. Perhaps this has something to do with a raid that the patron made upon a village whilst serving in the legions many years past? Although ‘Doom’ has some fine moments—particularly relating to the nature of portents of doom in Ancient Rome and in an encounter with a desiccated magus—but in comparison with the other five scenarios in the collection, it lacks sophistication and depth, and underwhelms because of this.

Publisher Oscar Rios’ contribution to the anthology is ‘Murmillo’. Its inspiration is ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ and its structure is not dissimilar to that of the earlier ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’. Here though the investigators are directed to go after a young man who is determined to become a gladiator, against his father’s wishes lest the boy bring disgrace upon the family name. The trail leads from one gladiator school to another and eventually to the doors of an isolated school dedicated to producing one type of gladiator for the arena—the Murmillo or ‘Fish Men’. The school values its privacy—and for good reason—but much like the town of Innsmouth that inspires the scenario, ‘Murmillo’ presents another situation that if not benign, at least keeps its inherent malignancy self-contained.

Phredd Grove’s ‘Kith and Kine’ takes the investigators to southwestern Britannia and is inspired by both ‘The Rats in the Walls’ and ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’. With the legions busy elsewhere in the province, rumours have surfaced of a rebellion in the south, and with no-one to hand to suppress this uprising, the investigators are sent to look into these rumours. The question, do the potential rebels have cause? If not against Rome, then against those that Rome has put in charge?  ‘Kith And Kine’ pitches the investigators amidst inter-cult rivalries and feuding, which they will need to thread their way through in order to reveal the secrets in this scenario. The inspirations are less obvious in ‘Kith And Kine’ than the other entries in the book, and unlike the majority of those other scenarios, there is more agency at work upon the part of the antagonists. This is also the author’s first published scenario, but is a solid affair that has the feel of its setting despite being written by an American.

The penultimate scenario is ‘The Devil’s Mouth’. Written by Stuart Boon, it should be no surprise that this takes the investigators beyond the edge of the known world and the Wall of Hadrian into Caledonia, given that he is the author of the Origins Award winning Shadows Over Scotland. Assigned to a diplomatic mission, the investigators find themselves having to delve deep below the mountains of Scotland in order to perform a rescue mission in this scenario inspired by ‘At the Mountains of Madness’. The effect of which is make it feel like a mini-version of Beyond the Mountains of Madness and as with that campaign, the exploratory nature of ‘The Devil’s Mouth’ means that in places, play may slow to a crawl and the Keeper may have difficulty maintaining the interest of his players. Nevertheless, this focuses on the alien and the weird aspects of the Mythos and the exploration may be an interesting experience for any investigator who has some scientific knowledge.

The last scenario is written by the authors of the recently re-released Horror on the Orient Express, Penelope Love and Mark Morrison. Their inspiration for ‘The Case of Tillius Orestes Sempronius’ is ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ and finds the investigators in Rome where they are asked by a patrician to check upon his son who is convalescing at the family's country estate. The son has been ill for some time and has suffered from memory lapses. Given the inspiration it will be obvious that something is amiss fairly quickly, but proving it is another matter and that where the scenario’s challenge comes in and where it gets interesting.

Lastly—as raised by a Stretch Goal reached by the kickstarter—De Horrore Cosmico presents another sextet, not of scenarios, but of Patrons. The role of patronage played in Ancient Rome cannot be overestimated and that carries over into Cthulhu Invictus, where it provides investigators a degree of protection, financial support, and in many cases, direction. They include an attorney who serves as the intermediary for various peoples, including one that will amuse any theory conspiracists; a general with contacts throughout the empire; a poet with a penchant for the esoteric; and more… Any one of the six would serve as the driving force behind any campaign or ongoing game, either send the investigators off to the mysteries and missions described in De Horrore Cosmico—or any other collection of Cthulhu Invictus scenarios. This in fact, would be the only way in which the six scenarios in De Horrore Cosmico could used together as a campaign and to that end, it would have been nice if possible links to the six scenarios could have been given for each of its six patrons.

Physically, De Horrore Cosmico is reasonably presented. The choice of a marble effect behind the text does give the book a rather gray appearance, an effect not helped by the art and maps being too dark in places. That said, both the art and the cartography are well done, the former in particular capturing some of the anthology’s more notable revelatory scenes.

De Horrore Cosmico is a solid sextet of scenarios that successfully avoids the dangers of simply rewriting its stated inspirational sources, in most cases cleverly combining them with aspects of Roman culture. For example, the vetting process as seen in ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’ and the combination of the Murmillo class of gladiator with certain type of batrachian threat in  ‘Murmillo’. For the most part, another aspect of Call of Cthulhu that De Horrore Cosmico also avoids is presenting its Mythos elements as threats, this being partly down its sources as much as it is its authors. This means that the anthology places an interesting take upon the Mythos, less confrontational and more passive in its malignancy. Though of course, this does not mean that the Mythos ‘dangers’ presented in De Horrore Cosmico will not react should the investigators uncover their secrets. It also means that De Horrore Cosmico: Six Scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus is mature set of scenarios, its horror pleasingly understated and awaiting discovery by the investigators.