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Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Call of Cthulhu II Starter

Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers has the distinction of being the first anthology published by Chaosium, Inc. for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition not funded via its Kickstarter campaign. As its title suggests, it contains five scenarios designed to be run by those new to being a Keeper in Call of Cthulhu, but it also promises horror, mystery, investigation, ghastly monsters, strange magicks, and forgotten secrets. The five scenarios are designed to be challenging, but not necessarily lethal, and to introduce concepts core to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition through example and play. To that end, each scenario includes especially marked sections of advice for the Keeper on everything from research and player character motivation to staging advice and handling both mystery and menace. Further, the supplement also comes with a guide to running Call of Cthulhu. Yet as much as the quintet of scenarios in Doors to Darkness are designed to be run and played by those new to Call of Cthulhu, they are also suitable to be played by those new to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but who have plenty—sometimes decades—of play with the previous editions under their belt.

Doors to Darkness opens with ‘Sharing Nightmares: Tips for Gamemastering and Playing Call of Cthulhu’. Written by Kevin Ross, the veteran designer best known for the scenario ‘Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Sign?’, originally published in the anthology, The Great Old Ones, and most recently seen in the collection Tales of the Crescent City from Golden Goblin Press along with its sequel, ‘Asylum: The Return of the Yellow Sign’. The ten or so pages here gives advice on a diversity of topics, from styles of play and investigator motivation to Lovecraftian plots and atmosphere, via learning the rules and creating and investigating mysteries. This is an excellent introduction to the themes and elements common to the game, nicely building on the Keeper’s advice given in the Keeper Rulebook. It is worth reading by veteran Keepers too, even if just as a refresher, but then further essays might be of use too, covering these and more advanced topics in more detail. (Perhaps therein lies an idea for another supplement?)

All five scenarios in Doors to Darkness are set in the default period for Call of Cthulhu, that is the Jazz Age of the 1920s. They are also set in New England. What this means is that the scenarios can easily be run as part of a campaign set in Lovecraft Country. That said, any of the five scenarios can be updated to the modern day or moved to another location with relative ease.

The first scenario in Doors to Darkness is ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ by Christopher Smith Adair. Set in the rarely visited city of Providence, Rhode Island, the investigators are asked by an old writer friend, Josh Winscott, to come to the house he is renovating. He has discovered a series of tunnels beneath his house and he wants the investigators to come explore them with him. Of course, they lack the equipment necessary to go spelunking, so they decide to come back tomorrow. When they do, Josh Winscott is nowhere to be seen. What has happened to their friend?

‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ is simple and straightforward. It is almost too basic—a friend in need, an underground complex to be explored, things in the darkness, and a foe ready to take advantage of the investigators’ curiosity. There is relatively little research for them to do and the main focus of the scenario is the going underground. In some ways, ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ looks and feels looks like a ‘dungeon crawl’, a type of scenario not seen in Call of Cthulhu since The Asylum & Other Tales and Curse of the Chthonians: Four Odysseys Into Deadly Intrigue. Yet the simplicity and the straightforward nature of the scenario does not mean that it is a poor scenario. The plot is well handled and the absence of complexity means that it is both easy to run and easy to play, making it suitable to new players, Keepers, and investigators alike. More interesting though, is the fact that ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ harks back to an older style of scenario, much like that found in The Cthulhu Companion, and it feels pleasingly refreshing for all that. In this way, ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ sets the tone for the other four scenarios in Doors in Darkness.

Brian Courtemanche’s ‘Genius Loci’ is the second scenario and revolves around events at the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum. A friend of the investigators, Lawrence ‘Larry’ Croswell, a local author and folklorist, has signed himself into the local asylum to rest and recover from his researches and sends them a letter telling that there is a certain wrongness at Danvers State Lunatic Asylum. This letter though, is followed by another informing them that everything is okay at the hospital. Is there something going on at the facility?

The most obvious thing that a more seasoned Keeper might do with ‘Genius Loci’ is change the identity of the self-institutionalised inmate. Possibly to that of Josh Winscott from ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ or even Jackson Elias if the scenario is run as part of the lead into Masks of Nyarlathotep. Equally, it could be an ex-investigator. After ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’, this a much more traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario—there is more investigation involved; there will be consequences for the player characters for their investigative efforts, including several that the Keeper will have fun with; and the antagonists will do their best to hide and deny their outré activities. The result is a much creepier scenario and a more challenging one. Veteran players will probably identify the Mythos culprit with ease, whilst less experienced players may find the experience of not being able act directing against this foe a little frustrating. Nevertheless, this a nicely moody piece that takes advantage of our fears of the asylum and whilst its set-up may have been seen before, this take upon the ‘friend in peril in an asylum’ is anything other than tired or overdone.

‘Servants of the Lake’ by Glynn Owen Barrass is a missing persons case that will probably take just a session to play through. A student at Miskatonic University, James Frazer, has gone missing and his father, a local banker, asks the investigators to try and find them. Following his trail leads them to a motel on a lonely road to Kingsport standing on Squatters Lake. Did James ever stay at the motel and has anyone at the motel seen him? The closed environment of the scenario means that the investigative process involves interaction and stealth rather than strict research. Here the Keeper can have fun roleplaying the various NPCs and the players get to roleplay their investigators a bit more than in the previous two scenarios as this much more of a character piece. There is a sense of the American Gothic to the scenario, particularly in its sense of location that invokes the film Psycho just such a little… 

‘Ties That Bind’ by Tom Lynch marks the return of the head of the late, much lamented Miskatonic River Press to Call of Cthulhu. The investigators—perhaps members of law enforcement, hired private investigators, or journalists in search of a story—are called to the home of Mrs. Enid Carrington, the wife of a wealthy banker, whose latest renovations to her house involved the installation of a very expensive Italian fountain. Unfortunately, someone has vandalised the fountain and left behind strange banana-shaped rocks—like no rocks that anyone has ever seen. Mrs. Carrington, of course, wants the vandals found and the rocks identified.

The truth is that author has not written very many scenarios for Call of Cthulhu and they can be both direct and a bit punchy. Here though, this works because of the back story and the motivation it gives the antagonist. This combined with the reactions of the NPCs and the scenario’s inbuilt schedule actually means that the directness of plot is more appropriate, whilst also being a more sophisticated affair.

The last scenario in the anthology is Brian M. Sammons’ ‘None More Black’. Set in Arkham at the heart of Lovecraft Country, the scenario begins with the recent death of Walter Resnick, a student at Miskatonic University. Formerly diligent and friendly, in the few weeks before his death, he became dismissive and distant, before losing weight and then dying. The investigators might be friends of Resnick’s, local medical examiners, or private investigators hired by his family, all concerned at change in his nature and the nature of his death. What they quickly learn is that Resnick was killed by a new drug known as ‘Black’. The question, what is this new drug and who gave it to him?

‘None More Black’ is again a fairly straightforward scenario, but in dealing with drugs and drug abuse, its subject matter is the most mature in the anthology. It is more overtly combat orientated than the other scenarios and the climax is likely to be deadly and difficult, probably more so than any of the other scenarios in the book.

The supplement itself is rounded out with ten pages of handouts and ten pre-generated investigators. The former are well done, simply being better presented versions of the ones given in each scenario. The pre-generated investigators feel a bit underwritten and veer towards the cliché, but to be fair, this gives room for players to develop their investigators as they wish.

Physically, behind Victor Manuel Leza Moreno’s imposing cover, Doors to Darkness is maturely presented in full colour and is to date, quite possibly the best looking book published for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, if not Call of Cthulhu. The artwork is used sparingly and has both the room to breath and illustrate specific points in each scenario—the full page illustrations of the investigators and others in peril are particularly effective in their horror. There are certainly several pieces here that worth showing to the players during their play of the scenarios in this anthology. The cartography by Dean Engelhardt also good, some of it aping the early years of Call of Cthulhu with its ‘Old School’ feel. One minor point in terms of organisation is that almost every scenario has an Appendix A, in each case, its only appendix. This sets up a situation where the book has multiple Appendix A’s. Nevertheless, Doors to Darkness is a very handsome book.

As one scenario follows another in Doors to Darkness there is a progression in terms of complexity. So one scenario begins by introducing the basic concepts behind Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian investigative horror, the next introduces more complex investigation and human involvement, the next deals with a Mythos god more directly, whilst another introduces greater human involvement or a programmed plot and so on. As this complexity increases, it feels as if the scenarios in Doors to Darkness are introducing players and Keepers alike to the standard conventions and tropes of Lovecraftian investigative horror and that is no bad thing. In doing so, the collection harks back to the early days of Call of Cthulhu, but brings a freshness to them that comes from examining them through the new rules.

Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers is exactly the book that Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition needs. The scenarios it presents are not necessarily better than those given in the Keeper Rulebook, but they are better introductions and they are better supported with advice and suggestions. They present situations that are challenging, but not difficult to play or run, and as much as they introduce the game, they still represent a challenge that the experienced Call of Cthulhu player can also enjoy. In revivifying the standard conventions of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers manages to feel old fashioned and new at the same time.