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Sunday, 11 June 2017

Caribbean Consternations

The attraction of the Caribbean lies in its promise of tropical paradise, under bright azure skies across hundreds of islands with different cultures and traditions, lying within easy reach of the American mainland. Cuba is within easy reach by boat trip, promising sun and in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, booze and dancing aplenty, presenting an enticingly exotic alternative to Prohibition America, but beyond there are islands still under colonial rule, offering a free and easy lifestyle. To some, such islands are a sleepy backwater of empire, but many are home to dark secrets and mysteries. Such secrets as those revealed in Tales of the Caribbean. This is the fourth tome from Golden Goblin Press, released following a successful Kickstarter campaign and following on from Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion, Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans, and De Horrore Cosmico: Six Scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus. Like the second and third of those releases, Tales of the Caribbean is an anthology of scenarios for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

The seven scenarios take the Investigators to the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad. Although each scenario provides some background on the isle upon each is set as well as a map of said isle and there is a broad overview of the region given at the start of the anthology, it is important to note that Tales of the Caribbean is not a sourcebook for the region. That said, the geographical proximity of the Caribbean to the USA means that the scenarios in the anthology are relatively easy to add to an ongoing campaign, especially if the Keeper is running a campaign based in New Orleans or Miami, so Tales of the Caribbean would work with Golden Goblin Press’ own Tales of the Crescent City anthology, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica supplement from Pagan Publishing, or SixtyStone Press’ Magic City campaign.

The anthology opens with ‘The Devil Cuts In’ by Phredd Groves, which is set on the island of Montserrat. The investigators might be tourists, anthropologists, or similar, who are perhaps visiting the island to speak to Doctor Oscar Lucknow, a noted local historian and occultist or to enjoy the Galbraith Masquerade, an annual and unique Christmas festival held at a village in the centre of the island where the good doctor lives. Welcomed as guests and then celebrants in the festival, its normal course of events do not go as planned and as a result unleash a surprisingly sorry Mythos entity upon the island. What ‘The Devil Cuts In’ explores is the Mythos not as a benign influence, but rather its application for a benign effect rather than a malign one. This is both a small affair and a race against the clock, nicely contained, quite underplayed, and an entertaining twist upon a setup that has been seen before in Call of Cthulhu which benefits from a unique Mythos entity.

It is no surprise that one of the scenarios in Tales of the Caribbean involves zombies and that one of the scenarios is set on the island of Haiti. That scenario is Jo Kreil’s ‘Toil in the Fields’ in which the investigators are asked by an old friend at Miskatonic University to collect the body of his late son, a missionary who died in a malaria outbreak. When they arrive, discover the island is not only dominated by U.S. interests, but also rife with corruption, disease, and fear. In this febrile atmosphere, they quickly learn that the body they came for is missing and nobody has any interest in another missing body—this is Haiti after all! Or perhaps somebody has a great deal of interest in the missing bodies, which leads the investigators deeper into the island. This is the first of the scenarios in the anthology to deal with the obvious sources of horror in the region—Haitian folklore, zombies, and Voodoo—and like the others, it does not draw or make any links with the Mythos. In fact, the practitioners of Voodoo stand opposed to the Mythos and if they do not stand against it openly, they can in many cases be called upon for help in thwarting the forces of the Mythos. The scenario also introduces a Pulp element that makes ‘Toil in the Fields’ suitable for use with Chaosium’s Pulp Cthulhu, so this is much more of a physical scenario than the others in the anthology. ‘Toil in the Fields’ is a solid affair which makes good use of traditional horror elements and nicely paints the atmosphere of a country under American occupation.

Jason Williams, the author of Secrets of Tibet, takes us to the Bahamas with ‘Crimson Eyes & Azure Pools’. The investigators are hired—perhaps by Miskatonic University, perhaps by the Bahamas government—to locate a missing retired Miskatonic University botanist and his three students after their boat turned up shipwrecked and empty. This is a relatively straightforward affair, involving a number of elements that occur again and again in other scenarios in the anthology, including island hopping from a major to minor and more rural island and warnings from the local inhabitants not to investigate any further. The clues reveal that Professor Dinsdale and his students were attempting to locate and confirm the existence of a strange bird-like creature on Andros Island. Unfortunately as they look into the disappearance of the Dinsdale expedition, the existence of these strange bird-like creatures is all but confirmed when they take an interest in the investigators which begins with a scary, out of nowhere encounter with them. It contains the Pulp tone of the previous scenario, this time with odd encounters with the natives, both benign and malign, culminating in a confrontation in a weird cave in the trees. The scenario introduces a local Mythos creature, one based on the myths and legends of  Andros Island and of course one twisted to darker ends.

‘Wrath of the Sulfurer’ is by Dave Sokolowski, the author of Sun Spots and is specifically set in 1922 on the island of St. Vincent. The infamous volcano, Soufrière or La Sulfere, is about to erupt again, so is of interest to scientists, reporters, and humanitarians. As the surprisingly angry inhabitants of St. Vincent flee the brooding eruption, the investigators learn that there is an evil influence at the heart of the volcano, which if not stopped, threatens the island and perhaps more… Getting to the island, finding further information, and perhaps further help is beset by nightmares and inhabitants of the island beset by their own nightmares. Much like the earlier ‘The Devil Cuts In’, this scenario has its own time limit, and like many of the scenarios in the anthology it has a definite climax and ending. Although the scenario does build to an effective climax—and a memorable one inside a volcano—it probably does involve one too many dice rolls to get to that climax.

If there has been a Pulp sensibility running throughout the various scenarios in Tales of the Caribbean, then Oscar Rios punches it up a notch or two with ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’. Set on Trinidad, it involves two feuding cults, two opposing aspects of the same god, a large dose of colonial history, though not necessarily Caribbean history, and some Pulp staples as the bad guys. This has the potential to be a big pulpy mess of a scenario, but the author keeps everything focussed and well ordered, as well as including some very sticky encounters. One issue is that being more Pulpy in tone, the scenario is more physical and more combative in nature than the traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario and that may put more investigative characters at a disadvantage as there is a lot of fighting involved in the scenario. Again this builds to a set climax and again, the climax does involve more than a few dice rolls, but the climax is a memorable one. Arguably, this is more of an adventure than a scenario and it is one that fans of certain fedora-wearing, whip-cracking archaeologist will enjoy. This is fun and creepy in equal measure and is supported by some thoroughly nasty new spells and monsters.

Up to now, the scenarios in Tales of the Caribbean have been a little linear in structure, with relatively little investigation, but that changes with Jeffrey Moeller’s ‘Servant of God’. The investigators are quickly hired to come to Cuba and investigate a ‘locked room’ mystery. A Postulator for the Vatican, a Catholic official tasked with investigating a candidate for sainthood, has been found dead in his locked hotel room in Cuba, Havana. The candidate is a sixteenth century Spanish colonist and member of the Inquisition who founded a holy order popular on the island, fought against the colonial administration and was regarded as a sort of Robin Hood figure, and was reputed to have performed miracles before his death. Getting to the heart of this involves more investigation than the previous scenarios in the anthology and feels much more like a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario. Their inquiries will take the investigators back into the island’s colonial past as several motifs occur again and again to taunt the investigators—weddings, the sound of bells ringing, the need to sign names over and over, and anti-colonial/American sentiment. Containing more of an urban element than the other scenarios in the anthology, there is a real mystery to be solved in ‘Servant of God’ and it is a richer, deeper scenario that long time players of Call of Cthulhu will enjoy getting their teeth into.

The last scenario in anthology takes the investigators to Puerto Rico. ‘Night Forms a Cover for Sinners’ is Oscar Rios’ second contribution to Tales of the Caribbean and like the earlier ‘Crimson Eyes and Azure Pools’ deals with the disappearance of a number of academics. Hired to find them, the investigators quickly learn that the missing men were interested in a regional legend, that of the Fountain of Youth, and if they are to locate them, they too will need to follow in their footsteps. Unfortunately this is not as entertaining a scenario as Rios’ earlier ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’. From their initial inquiries, the scenario ambles along in too linear a fashion, playing out as a series of reveals and warnings for the investigators not to proceed any further. This is done via an NPC who appears under a different guise each time, but whose true nature remains a secret until revealed at the end of the scenario. Until then, the investigators have little chance to really learn much about this NPC despite said NPC being nicely described and her motives well presented in the scenario. Overall, ‘Night Forms a Cover for Sinners’ has some entertaining moments, but ultimately the players may not enjoy finding out that their investigators have more or less been manipulated at almost every turn.

One issue that runs from one scenario to the next, is how to get the investigators involved in each situation. The anthology also includes an NPC who can be used a means to bring the investigators into each scenario, as American colour for each scenario, and even as a source of replacement investigators. Named for the backer on Kickstarter who pledged at a certain level, Morgan Matthews is an American film Director from New Orleans—another potential link to Golden Goblin Press’ Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans—who tours the Caribbean looking to film scenery for stock footage and folklore to adapt into his next big movie. Several members of his staff are also included and they could easily be replaced by, or used to replace, the investigators. It would have been useful if the anthology had included reasons to include Matthews and his team in each of the scenarios, but the Keeper is left to devise such reasons himself.

Physically, Tales of the Caribbean is a decent looking book. It only needs an edit here and there and the artwork, all by Reuben Dodd, gives the anthology a consistent look throughout. It varies slightly in quality, but some of it is very good and some of it points to the Pulp sensibility that runs through the anthology's seven scenarios. Within the pages of the scenarios, the book’s maps and handouts are often too small and too dark to see and read clearly, but this is countered by their being included in the book’s appendix which gives much more space to both.

Tales of the Caribbean is not the best book to be released by Golden Goblin Press—that accolade still falls to Tales of the Crescent City—but it is certainly a close second. Many throw up refreshingly interesting situations and twists upon the Mythos, ‘The Devil Cuts In’ and ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’ in particular, whilst all remain respectful of the setting and its culture. If ‘Night Forms a Cover for Sinners’ underwhelms, both ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’ and ‘Servant of God’ are the collection’s standout affairs, one a fun adventure, the other a good investigation. Of course, the quality of both scenarios is to be expected from their respective experienced authors, and this certainly does not mean that any of the other scenarios are bad. Tales of the Caribbean is an excellent first tour around the region, showcasing some entertaining scenarios and adventures for Call of Cthulhu, and with some seven hundred or islands still left unvisited, hopefully laying the path of for Tales of the Caribbean II.