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Sunday, 11 October 2015

Mythos Meanderings

Whether it is At the Mountains of Madness or DagonHorror on the Orient Express or Beyond the Mountains of Madness, much of both Lovecraftian fiction and Lovecraftian investigative horror has to do with journeys and expeditions. Such journeys and expeditions are either great affairs sponsored by universities sent out in the name of science or museums or desperate dashes by amateurs to save friends or colleagues. Either way, they become gruelling exercises in survival, even terror, fraying the nerves and sanity of the participants and so preparing them for the terrors they will face at their destination. Given the prominence of these great undertakings, of how many scenarios involve expeditions, it seems surprising that in over thirty years of Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying, there has been not been a single sourcebook devoted to this subject. Fortunately, Mythos Expeditions rectifies this omission.

Published by Pelgrane Press, Mythos Expeditions is a supplement for the clue orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu. It provides mechanics for handling the challenges and difficulties faced by an expedition along with ten scenarios that showcase these mechanics. This is a supplement in which the investigators must survive the extremes of the cold and the heat, the wind and the rain, the jungle and the arctic, the swamp and the desert, the open sea and the barren highlands—and all that before they confront whatever mystery or danger it is that drove them to their final destination!

Mythos Expeditions provides a set of rules for handling expeditions under the GUMSHOE System. Whether the classic archaeological expedition, military raid, or research trip, their supplies and equipment are represented by a Survival Pool, whilst the progress of the expedition is broken is down into ‘Travel Increments’. From one ‘Travel increment’ to the next, the members of the expedition will face encounters and potential loss to the Survival Pool, though the investigators’ General Abilities and Investigative Abilities will both be put to the test in alleviate the difficulties of the Survival Tests. The Outdoorsman Ability in particular, figures strongly in these tests as well as increasing the actual Survival Pool itself. Overall, the new rules are clear and simple, as well as supported by the numerous examples in the supplement.

One option presented in Mythos Expeditions is to tie its ten scenarios into the Armitage Inquiry campaign framework as detailed in the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook. This is no surprise given that Miskatonic University has launched numerous expeditions, in particular, the Pabodie Expedition of 1930 to the Antarctic. The aim is not to make the contents of this supplement into an Armitage Inquiry campaign just as the supplement’s aim is not for its contents to be run as a campaign on its own, but rather to use the contents to supplement an existing campaign. Nevertheless, what it talks about are the Occupations and Drives that would send members of the Armitage Inquiry and its associates—that is, the investigators—on these trips. It also covers the skills necessary to such expeditions.

Together the rules and the expansion upon the Armitage Inquiry campaign framework take little more than a tenth of Mythos Expeditions. The remainder consists of ten scenarios, each an expedition to one of the far corners of the world—and sometimes even beyond… The ten scenarios are not designed to be played one after the other, lest the novelty of both the travel and the destination becomes pedestrian. Rather, they are written to be slotted in between other, hopefully different scenarios, of an ongoing campaign, or to be used as one-shots. Either way, none of the ten are particularly long, with most unlikely to last longer than two or three sessions. Lastly, none of the ten are designed specifically for use with Trail of Cthulhu’s Pulp or Purist Modes, but rather leaves this up to the Keeper to decide upon and set in each case. Each scenario follows the same format, first delivering a hook, setting up its spine, and exposing is horrid truth, then presenting its Survival Pool and Expedition Personnel, all before each of giving encounters on the way to the final showdown.

The expeditionary series opens with ‘The Dwellers in the Dunes’ by Steven S. Long. It sees the investigators join Roy Chapman Andrews on a final visit to Mongolia. Having already found amazing dinosaur fossils on previous expeditions, the famed explorer and palaeontologist wants to confirm his hypothesis that humanity evolved in Central Asia. Yet when the expedition is beset by a series of deaths following the uncovering of hominid fossils, is it a mere coincidence or are Chapman Andrews’ theories about to be confirmed? This sends the investigators to the Gobi Desert in the face of banditry and unstable politics, but unlike the scenarios that follow, ‘The Dwellers in the Dunes’ underplays the expeditionary rules and aspects of Trail of Cthulhu. It feels like a more traditional Lovecraftian investigative horror scenario, but it uses the new rules enough so as to ease the Keeper into their application. For the traditional take upon the expeditions of Roy Chapman Andrews in Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying there is mention of the infamous ‘Mongolian Death Worm’, but this is a minor element in what is a solid start to the ten scenarios in Mythos Expeditions.

The designer of the GUMSHOE System, Robin D. Laws, sends the investigators in deepest, dampest Africa. In ‘The Mother of Malaria’, they join Professor H. C. Kelston of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on a mission to North Rhodesia where he wants to examine the mosquitos in order to find a cure for malaria. Following some interesting interaction with various members of the dissolute expat community, the investigators must track deep into the swamps where they will suffer various fetid, fecund encounters. The scenario includes some nicely drawn NPCs and pleasingly combines real history with a natural threat. Adam Gauntlett is on home territory with ‘Lost on a Sea of Dreams’ as the investigators set sail from Kingsport to Bermuda to deliver a bathysphere to naturalist and oceanographer William Beebe, who is conducting a study of undersea life off Bermuda. Unfortunately a terrible storm blows them off course and leaves their ship becalmed below unknown stars. Can the investigators survive long enough to navigate their way out of a ‘sargasso’ off Bermuda? ‘Lost on a Sea of Dreams’ forces the investigators to face more than just the perils of the sea…

The little known Chaco War is the background for ‘An Incident at the Border’, written by Kenneth Hite, the designer of Trail of Cthulhu. This conflict, which drags on for most of the 1930s, is fought between Bolivia and Paraguay over the disputed border territory of Gran Chaco, the highland destination for Professor William Moore of the Miskatonic University—yes, that Professor Moore! There he wants to examine the possible impact site of a Perseid meteor shower and hopefully recover extraterrestrial material. The investigators will be faced with dangers of the barren highlands as well as those of a protracted war before coming upon the sites of the meteor strikes. Here they face a war of a far from mundane nature.

Central America—Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula—is the investigators’ destination in Tristan J. Tarwater’s ‘The Jaguars of El-Thar’. Here, Professor Henry Rutherford Stapleton has been excavating what he calls the Cenote of El-Thar, but with Hurricane Season closing in and the Miskatonic Department of Anthropology concerned for his health, the university sends the investigators down to help. Not only do they have to hack their way through the jungle, they have to contend with odd repatriated Mexicans before discovering the importance of the Cenote of El-Thar. In Bill White’s ‘Tongued With Fire’, the investigators and Miskatonic University are presented with a strange artefact taken from a temple in northwest India, one that might have links to the early history of Christianity and possibly the legend of Prester John. To learn more, an expedition must be mounted to the Punjab of the Subcontinent. Getting there involves some enjoyably colourful encounters, some of them pointing towards a pulpier style than the other scenarios in Mythos Expeditions, and the Keeper is presented with several options as to Mythos connections for the scenario.

‘Served Cold’ by Jeff Tidball begins with the death of two members of the expeditions led by the arctic explorer Robert Peary. What caused their deaths is a mystery, but surely their link cannot be a coincidence—and if not, are the other surviving members also in danger? In order to find out, the investigators will have to retrace Peary’s steps in a long cold traverse over the ice. There is solid investigation to conduct here and much like the journey itself, this is perhaps more interesting than the scenario’s dénouement. Where ‘Served Cold’ takes the investigators onto the ice, Emma Marlow’s ‘Whistle and I’ll Come’ takes them into the jungle. In particular the deep jungles of New Britain (New Guinea), from where the Miskatonic University obtained an oddly carved whistle from the region’s Stone Age tribes. Travelling into the interior of the island has feel of the ‘Heart of Darkness’, but has a more explosive climax.

Lauren Roy takes us to the Irish Republic in ‘A Load of Blarney’ to track down the origins of another artefact—this time an idol salvaged from the wreck of a steamship that went down with almost all its crew in the Irish Sea. A scholar at Dublin’s Trinity College believes that the idol might be connected to Newgrange and other Neolithic tombs and invites members of the Miskatonic University faculty to join her in further investigations. The resulting ‘expedition’ is more of a bucolic meander, the expedition members equipped with flasks of tea and sandwiches rather than quinine and hunting rifles, but is no less arduous. The scenario’s set-up is underwhelming, but it does build towards a dream-like climax.

Lastly, ‘Cerulean Halo’ by Matthew Sanderson sends the investigators off in pursuit of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s patronage. He is planning to return to Clipperton Island in the South Pacific as both a scientific endeavour and an opportunity for some deep sea fishing. Thus he is seeking scientists and naturalists who can join him—and for that he requires a report. This is why the investigators are making a week long survey of the lagoon island. Unlike the previous scenarios, this is more of a sandbox than an expeditionary scenario as the investigators have greater flexibility in what they do on the island. Unfortunately, the scenario could have done with a better map to support that style rather than the expeditionary style used elsewhere, but the change in format shows how the Expedition Rules can be used in less ‘straightforward’ scenarios. The scenario itself feels slightly old fashioned with a pulpier climax.

Physically, Mythos Expeditions is decently presented. The artwork has an eerie quality and the cartography captures some of the feel of maps of the period. A nice touch is that the footers for the book’s pages varies from one expedition/scenario to the next. Each of these different footers nicely encapsulates the expedition from beginning to end, and whilst the players may never see this, it is a pleasing addition that the Keeper can enjoy. Where the supplement does suffer is in the writing and editing, which towards the end of the book is definitely rushed. Elsewhere the book is up to Pelgrane Press’ usual standard of editing and writing.

One of the clichés of pulp adventure movies is the stand-in for long distance travel, a red line stretching from one destination to the next as the heroes travel round the globe. Mythos Expeditions takes that red line and draws it away from the abstract to make it very real—in some cases to make the ‘expedition’ the ‘investigation’ rather than the traditional set-up and process. It is oft said that it is not destination that matters, but the journey, and that is exactly what underpins this supplement. In some places, overly so, but Mythos Expeditions does a fine job of taking a set of new rules and sending them off the map.