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

Saturday, 20 February 2016

There, but mostly Back Again

2013 was an exceptional year for Lovecraftian investigative horror for it saw the release of not one, but two campaigns. Both start from, and take the investigators in, radically different directions. One is Eternal Lies, written for Trail of Cthulhu and published by Pelgrane Press, whilst the other is The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man: A Dreamlands Campaign for Call of Cthulhu, published by Arc Dream Publishing. Written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is radical in three ways. First, it is set in the Dreamlands, that realm of dreams that can be accessed by many Earthly sleepers, and is thus only the second campaign to be set there after Chaosium, Inc.'s The Dreaming StoneSecond, it begins where many Call of Cthulhu campaigns end up (see spoiler below). Third, it forgoes the traditional onionskin format that have underpinned the majority of the fifteen or so campaigns published for Call of Cthulhu since 1982.

Originally published as a scenario in Worlds of Cthulhu #6 in 2009, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man has since been expanded and published as a full campaign following a successful Kickstarter campaign. For its inspiration it draws from H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle of stories—‘The Doom That Came to Sarnath’, ‘The Cats of Ulthar’, and ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ in particular, as well as being inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem of the same name, ‘The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man’. Despite the majority of the campaign being set in the Dreamlands, it actually begins in New York in 1925. Here the player characters—they are not investigators in the traditional sense of Call of Cthulhu nor are they yet Dreamers—begin the campaign as opium addicts, driven to their addiction by trauma suffered in the Great War, by artistic temperament, by delving too deeply into things that man was not meant to know, and so on. They all also owe their supplier money and it is the payment that he extracts that initiates the campaign proper. He does this by flinging them into the Dreamlands and it is from here that the player characters must find their way back to Earth. What follows is a languorous, almost Arabesque campaign that sees the Dreamers trek back and forth across the northern regions of the Dreamlands, all the whilst being taunted and manipulated by the Black Man of the West. It is a standalone campaign in two senses. First, because it is set in the Dreamlands—not the most normal of campaign settings, and second, because the campaign set-up calls for characters with addictions—not the norm in investigators either, though the campaign being set in 1925 does mean that it can lead into some of Call of Cthulhu’s major campaigns. Should the Dreamers find their way home, that is...

Although The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man takes place within the Dreamlands, the Keeper need not own a copy of H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands: Roleplaying Beyond the Veil of Sleep to run it. Rules are provided for handling Directed Dreaming, the ability to manipulate dream world around the Dreamers, which replaces the Dreaming skill from H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands. Also absent is the Dream Lore skill, but the Cthulhu Mythos skill is retained and the campaign provides multiple means to learn more of it. That said, having access to H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands will be useful in terms of background material.

So that SPOILER…

In most Dreamlands scenarios, the Dreamers’ dream selves travel nightly to the Dreamlands whilst leaving their physical, Earthly bodies behind. In The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man, the Dreamers are flung bodily into the Dreamlands, but not in their own bodies—and not even their own genders. Now Miskatonic River Press’ The Legacy of Arrius Lurco did something similar and just like in that campaign, this is an audacious piece of campaign design. One that is not done ‘just because’, but rather because it means is that the Dreamers arrive doubly disconcerted, first from being literally in a strange new land, and second from being in a strange new body. It also drives the Dreamers on through the campaign to escape their brave new world and reclaim their bodies.

Once in the lands of dreams, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man takes place in the North and West of the Dreamlands. It begins in Sarkomand and from there the Dreamers are free to search for a way out of the Dreamlands wherever they want… The city of Inquanok is nearby, but the best routes seem to lie south, possibly near the cities of Lhosk, Ilek-Vad, Sarnath, and Ulthar. Suggested routes take the Dreamers by road, by sea, and by underground and there is also the suggestion that events will take them down one route, but divert them into another, and so on. Along the way there are likely to be encounters with the Men of Leng, Gugs, Moonbeasts, and Ghouls amongst other denizens of the Dreamlands. There are also plenty of strange encounters to be had, some dangerous, some whimsical, and some helpful. Then there are opportunities to interact directly with elements drawn from Lovecraft’s fiction, most notably Earth’s greatest Dreamer himself, Randolph Carter.

The tone and feel of The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is also slightly odd in comparison to traditional Call of Cthulhu campaigns. It is at times languid, at others frantic, but for a fair amount of the time it does not feel as if the Dreamers can do much beyond being led around by the nose. This is understandable since the Dreamers do need a guide and it does give the Keeper a key NPC or two to roleplay almost throughout, but it does limit player agency. Likewise in comparison to standard Earthbound Call of Cthulhu campaigns, the number of ‘magical’ items and artefacts that the Dreamers can have access to in The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is astounding, almost as if they are not playing Call of Cthulhu, but Dungeons & Dragons. Yet again this is understandable. After all, the Dreamers are in a strange and wondrous land, a fantasy of the mind; none of the magical items are really all that powerful; and they do fit the dark, ‘swords & sorcery’ style of the campaign.

Further, in comparison to standard scenarios set in the Dreamlands, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is a deadlier affair. In most of those scenarios, the investigators are doing no more than endangering their dream selves, but in this campaign, the Dreamers are in danger of losing their physical bodies—not just the ones in the Dreamlands, but the ones in the waking world also. A way is provided to overcome both the physical and mental damage that is likely to be suffered by the Dreamers, but this does not stop the campaign from dangerous if not outright deadly in places. 

There are two definite issues with the campaign. One problem not dealt with in a satisfactory fashion is that of replacing lost characters. There is a means late into the campaign, but it does feel as if it is a little too late by then. The other is an odd ommission, that of the details and stats of the Dreamlands counterpart to the Dreamers' supplier on Earth.* Although he is mentioned in passing, he is ignored for the rest of the campaign. This is not an issue if the Dreamers focus entirely upon getting out of the Dreamlands, but the likelihood is that most players will want answers as to why their characters are in the Dreamlands and what their characters can do to get their bodies back. Now to some extent some of these questions are answered by other NPCs, but the even greater likelihood is that other players will simply want to have their Dreamers take revenge upon said counterpart. This is disappointing since the roleplaying opportunities afforded by allowing the Dreamers to hunt down and confront the counterpart could have been interesting.

*Note: I am indebted to Mr. Mike Mason for reminding me of this ommission. I successfully made my Spot Hidden roll to note the ommission, failed my Idea roll to realise its full significance, and then failed my Own Language roll to include in the first draft of the review.

Now The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is not an easy campaign to run and that is primarily due to its structure. The issue is that this structure is not linear as more traditional onionskin style campaigns for Call of Cthulhu tend to be as their investigation process takes the investigators from the start of the mystery to its resolution. Here there is no one path from the start of the campaign to its end. Rather, there are multiple, almost parallel paths and the Keeper will need to prepare more than one to account for his players’ choices. This is compounded by the fact that the Keeper can do a bait and switch with these routes—send the Dreamers down one route before sending them down another. Indeed, the inference in the campaign is that this is what the Keeper should do, compounded by the emphasis upon one particular route. To an extent there is nothing wrong with this, in part because the campaign has a story-like quality which means that it should weave back and forth a little and also because the direct route is likely to be the least interesting story to play out. The advice for handling this could have been stronger and easier to use.

Physically, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is ably, even spaciously presented, with wide margins and the author’s own artwork. The wide margins are a useful space for supplementary information, but do make the pages of the books look underused when the margins are left empty. Another issue is that it could be better organised, but proper preparation will get around this hindrance. It should be noted that although it is written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, like all good releases for the RPG, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man could be run using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Similarly, the campaign could be run outside of the 1920s with relative ease.

Where scenarios for Call of Cthulhu set in the Dreamlands have been about getting into the realm of dreams, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is all about getting out. It is as fresh and as original a treatment of the Dreamlands as there has been in over three decades of Call of Cthulhu being in print and without a doubt is the best book ever published for the Dreamlands. Unfortunately, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man stands out for those reasons rather for the quality of the campaign. This is not to say that The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man: A Dreamlands Campaign necessarily a bad campaign, but it needs a very good Keeper to really bring out the best of that quality.