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Saturday, 12 March 2016

Cthulhu Classics V

From one week to the next, Reviews from R’lyeh writes reviews of new games and supplements with an emphasis on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. The Cthulhu Classics series concentrates on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but not those recently released, but those of the past. There have been innumerable titles published over the years and this is an opportunity to appraise them anew, often decades after they were first released.

For the fifth entry in the Cthulhu Classics series, Reviews from R’lyeh continues its examination of titles released by Games Workshop, this time the scenario duology, The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer. Published in 1986, The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer presented the eponymous scenarios, back-to-back, in the one book. Thus the book had two front covers, one for each of the scenarios. ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’, written by Mike Lewis and Simon Price runs to twenty pages, whilst ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ by Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards is thirty-one pages in length. Between the two scenarios are eight pages of nicely done handouts.

The first of the two scenariosand because the scenarios in The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer are presented back-to-back rather than sequentially, the use of the term ‘first’ is somewhat arbitraryis ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’. This is set in the early 1920s in London. The investigators are contacted by a theatrical agent friend who is concerned that, Phillip LeClair, a promising young magician on his books has disappeared and it appears that another magiciana German, no lesshas stolen his act! Both men were members of the Inner Brotherhood of Magic, a relatively recent society headed by the inscrutable Chinaman, Ching Lung Soo. In order to determine LeClair’s fate, the investigators will need to enrol in the Inner Brotherhood of Magic themselves and to do that, they need to be able to perform a magic trick or two. The authors even suggest that the players learn a card trick or two and perform it in character. To that end, the scenario gives several that they might perform.

Once they are members, the investigators can explore the society’s headquarters and search for clues, in the process discovering the possible fate of LeClair and Ching Lung Soo’s dastardly plans. These are surprisingly ambitious, but on a small scale. Ching Lung Soo and his fellow cultists worship not a Great Old One, but a Star Vampire! His ultimate plan is to summon it at a charity theatre performance that will be attended by members of both the government and royalty.

The obvious problem with ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ is what happens if none of the investigators get into the Inner Brotherhood of Magic? Well, the Keeper will just have to arrange so that they do, but in the meantime, what do any female investigators do? It turns out that the Inner Brotherhood of Magic does not accept women as members and there are limited avenues for investigation outside of the Inner Brotherhood of Magic itself. The primary avenue of investigation is not straightforward and the investigators will find their path blocked at various times, especially as the climax of the scenario approaches. Further, ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ feels like a campaign in miniature, or rather one collapsed into a single scenario with a heavy nod to ‘The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight’, the first part of the campaign, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. The overall effect is somewhat underwhelming as if there should be something more to the scenario, especially given that the fate heads of government and the state are threatened by something bordering on trivialat least in Mythos terms.

There is some saving to ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ in its slightnessit is easily adapted. Obviously back to the 1890s for Cthulhu by Gaslight and thus to an era where its inherent misogyny is more in keeping with the society of the day. Keep it in the Jazz Age of the 1920s though and ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ has the potential to slide easily into the London chapter of the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. There perhaps its plot works as a chaotic distraction from the activities of the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh. Of course, were a Keeper to do so, then perhaps the guests at the Royal Charity performance would best be limited, say perhaps the Prince of Wales, rather the whole of the British government. 

Fortunately, the second scenario, ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ is a much better affair, although it has a less flexible lead in. Set in San Francisco in 1925, one of the investigators, a student of paleolinguistics at the University of San Francisco, is contacted by no less a person than Dashiell Hammett over the strange death of an ex-colleague. What caused him to explode on the streets of downtown San Francisco and what is the strange puzzle found on his person? From this promising set-up, the investigation leads from a case of alleged plagiarism to the doors of a theologosophical society, its charismatic head, and the pre-American history of California.

One would think that with the appearance of Dashiell Hammett in its opening scenes, that ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ would be a pulp affair, all two-fisted action and excitement. Nothing could be further from the truth. The scenario is heavy on research and investigation rather than anything else. The scenario is quite tightly structured, switching back and forth between sections involving research and those involving more physical investigation. It does this by having the villain of the piece adhere to a strict timeline, a timeline that gives plenty of room for the investigators to follow up on their leads. The adventure is odd in that it does not come with any stats, but then it really does not need them and once the players realise the inspiration for the scenario, it will be obvious why. There is only one moment where the scenario stalls and that is in the preparation for the final denouement. Much more of this could have been made of this in the scenario.

Unlike ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’, ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ is less flexible and less easily adapted to other settings or periods. It is very much tied to San Francisco, although it could be shifted to Los Angeles with a little effort. This means that Secrets of San Franciscoor Secrets of Los Angeles as the case may bemight useful in running the scenario, as might ‘Ghost Jackal Kill’, Graeme Davis prequel to ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ which appeared in White Dwarf #79. It is very much the case that ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ is the better scenario of the two, better plotted and better written, with an almost dreamy quality that requires much more of the investigators than its opening scenes would suggest.

Whilst both scenarios require an edit, they are chalk and cheese in terms of artwork. Where the illustrations for ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ are scruffy, even scrappy, they are of a much better quality for ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’, in places possessing a dreamy quality. The handouts though, are excellent. A more pressing issue is the way in which both scenarios are written. They are written in linear fashion, so that their plots are not readily apparent until much near the end of the scenarios in either case. Which is one reason to adhere to both sets of authors’ advice to read through each scenario thoroughly before running either.

Writing in White Dwarf #82, Richard Meadows said of ‘The Vanishing Sorcerer’, “The plot is tight and a little linear, but on the whole this is an ideal adventure to introduce players to the game.” Of ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’, he wrote, “The plot runs between a good mix of research and action, with very many subtle leads requiring some careful thought by the investigators. Everything is handled with a subtlety I’ve not seen in a CoC adventure for some time, and in a way that rewards intelligent deduction and penalise the usual blundering idiocies of  poorer players.” This is a fair assessment, though more so of ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ than ‘The Vanishing Sorcerer’. 

Much like the rest of Games Workshop's published scenarios, The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer feel much like magazine scenarios like that seen in White Dwarf. ‘The Vanishing Sorcerer’ is the lesser of the two, underwhelming despite its odd ambitions, whereas ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ feels rightly fogbound in the ‘City by the Bay’, hardboiled, if underplayed. As a pairing though, The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer is more a title to add to the collection than to be run readily and willingly.