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Sunday, 21 January 2018

Cthulhu Classics VIII

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. This 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.

Having looked at the releases from Games Workshop, culminating with Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s-30s Cthulhu Source Pack, Reviews from R’lyeh now moves on to another early licensee for Chaosium, Inc. This is T.O.M.E. or Theatre of the Mind Enterprises, a publisher best known for the five titles it released for use with Call of Cthulhu and Gardasiyal: Adventures in Tékumel, the 1990s roleplaying game set in the world of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. Between 1983 and 1984, T.O.M.E. would publish five collections of scenarios—The Arkham Evil, Death In Dunwich, Pursuit To Kadath, Whispers From The Abyss And Other Tales, and Glozel Est Authentique!—for use with Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition. The second release though, and the subject of this review, is Death In Dunwich.

As with The Arkham Evil, it is initially difficult to determine what Death in Dunwich actually is. The extent of the back cover blurb runs to, “The Nightmare Continues . . . The police aren’t talking . . . The coroner is terrified . . . But it’s Business as Usual in Dunwich! Another macabre adventure from: Theatre of the Mind Enterprises, Inc.” Not only is this unhelpful, elements of the blurb are inaccurate. There is no indication as to what nightmare is continuing from, is it H.P. Lovecraft’s story ‘The Dunwich Horror’, or is it from The Arkham Evil? It is certainly no sequel to The Arkham Evil and despite being set in Dunwich, it has very little to do with that story. As to the inaccuracies, the police will tell the investigators what they want to know, so they are talking, and as to the coroner, he is more mystified than terrified.
So what is Death in Dunwich? Well, it is a scenario set in 1922 which takes place in Massachusetts and New York. The mystery at its heart is the death of Dale Plunckett, an art expert with French citizenship whose body has been found a few miles outside of the Massachusetts town of Dunwich. The investigators are hired by a mysterious stranger to determine how he died, who killed him, and why he was killed. They are given a week in which to conduct the investigation and paid handsomely for it. Exactly what the interest of this mysterious stranger has in the fate of Dale Plunckett is unclear, adding further to the number of obfuscations littering the pages of Death in Dunwich.

The investigation begins with the state police in Springfield, Massachusetts and they will be happy to answer the investigators’ questions as will be the coroner. There are one or two clues to be found in Dunwich, but the next step of the investigation hinges on the discovery of a key. If this is found, then the investigators can access a treasure trove of clues—some twenty-five or so individual clues across some eight pages, nearly a quarter the length of Death in Dunwich’s thirty-six pages. If the investigators do not get the key, then both they and the scenario are basically derailed. There is a way to get them back on track, but it essentially involves the investigators being arrested after the disappearance and death of the investigating officer and the Keeper having the interrogating officers drop enough clues for the investigators to know where to go next.

As to what is going on in Death in Dunwich, this kept hidden from the Keeper, let alone the players and their investigators, for nearly all of the book, and even then it is barely spelt out. The background to the plot begins with two brotherhoods. The Right Hand is good and seeks to protect various relics and artworks against the Left Hand, which of course being ‘sinister’, is dedicated to evil. This background has no relevance to the plot of Death in Dunwich, except that Roland Dunkelherz, an agent of the Left Hand has enveigeled himself into the service of the world’s richest man, the octogenarian, J.D. Rothenfelder, and found a way of providing him with unique works by the Old Masters that he so craves. This is by resurrecting Old Masters, including Da Vinci, Rubens, Caravaggio, and so on, and forcing them to create new masterworks. Somehow, Dale Plunckett came across one of these unique works of art, a previously unknown painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and was investigating its provenance when he was killed.

The denouement of Death in Dunwich essentially involves the investigators arriving at the door of J.D. Rothenfelder who has moved to the tiny, isolated town of Dunwich, discovering something that there is something odd going on, the least of which is the fact that he has a pet gorilla. Then having a fight. Getting there is an awkward journey as without the clues from the trove, the investigators will have no reason to visit him, or indeed, stay in Dunwich once they have learned all that they can. This is despite the scenario devoting a lot of space to detailing the town and its inhabitants, who will not have a bad word to say against him. The investigators may learn about the events which Lovecraft described in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and which the inhabitants of the town are reluctant to talk about, but of course, this is just one more aspect of the Death in Dunwich which is irrelevant to the scenario’s plot.

If The Arkham Evil has a poor reputation, then Death in Dunwich deserves an equally poor, if not a worse, reputation. At the back of the book, in the ‘Advice to Keepers’ section, the designer states, “This scenario should be run as follows: the Introduction should be intriguing, the Middle Game should be frustrating, and the End Game should be an orgy of violence.” The scenario more than lives up to all three claims. The set-up is intriguing of that there is no doubt. After all, there is the dead body of man who died under mysterious circumstances and that of course, raises questions. So having got the players and their investigators intrigued with a set-up, the scenario literally locks the second two thirds of the scenario away unless the investigators find the key. What this means is that this physical key is the literal key to completing the scenario.

This also has the effect of undermining any semblance that the scenario has of a second act. If the investigators do not get the treasure trove of clues, they have nothing to do except wander around Dunwich not being told anything by the inhabitants because they lack the questions to ask and so cannot move onto the third act and its climax. This is unnecessarily frustrating and even if they do find the treasure trove, then the players and their investigators spend the entire second act sifting through a lot of clues before moving onto the climax.

The climax itself is likely to be violent and it has the possibility of being somewhat creepy, but whether or not it turns out to be horrifying is all down to the players. To begin with, they might not even encounter the resurrected artists. This might be because they simply never discover where they are being held captive, but it might because they kill Dunkelherz and since he was responsible for their resurrection and is now dead, they crumble back into dust. If the investigators do encounter the resurrected artists, it suggests that they stab them and send them back to dust. Whilst this is the humane thing to do, it ignores the fact that the first thing that the investigators will want to do is ask questions and then stab later…

This highlights another pair of issues with Death in Dunwich. One is that whilst there is mystery, there is barely any horror present and that in the scenario’s third act only. There is absolutely none in the first and second acts, and just the single Sanity loss mentioned in the scenario at all. The other issue is that there is barely any Mythos in Death in Dunwich, instead just dancing around the events of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and using the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu to design Roland Dunkelherz as a difficult opponent to beat in a fight. So in a sense it barely qualifies as a Call of Cthulhu scenario and the fact that it uses the backdrop of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ as window dressing means that the scenario could just as easily be set in any small town. Certainly nobody would notice the difference just as they would not notice that the irrelevant links to ‘The Dunwich Horror’ have been removed.

Physically, Death in Dunwich is surprisingly well presented. The artwork is okay, but the cartography is clear and simple and there is some semblance towards creating some decent handouts. Many of them though will need to be photocopied and cut out, and there is rather a lot of them, but they do work as a set of handouts and clues. One annoying aspect of the writing is the use of slightly silly names of NPCs which serves to undermine the tone of the scenario. Right the middle of the adventure is a screen of sorts. It is a nice idea, but really all it does is reprint the maps that appear elsewhere in the book. The scenario also comes with some pre-generated investigators, though they will need fleshing out, and an envelope. This contains further information for the Keeper, in fact, the stats and description of the bad guy at the heart of the scenario. Its inclusion feels more like the designers forgot to add these details during the writing of the scenario.

Yet much like The Arkham Evil before, Death in Dunwich is not without its merits. It is of course the first scenario to present Dunwich for Call of Cthulhu. It has some good clues and they do support the mystery at the heart of the scenario. Further, they support what has the potential to be an interesting mystery, but not without a rewrite. 
Reviewing Death in Dunwich in Dragon #91 (November, 1984) in ‘The butler didn’t do it: Mysterious adventures in role-playing’, Ken Rolston made several criticisms of the adventure, most notably, “No summary of the narrative is provided, and no chronology is listed, so it is difficult to get an orderly sense of the whole adventure. The gamemaster must pay close attention when reading the background information, and I often found it necessary to backtrack and scan ahead to make sense of what I was reading.”, but he was surprisingly positive, finishing the review by saying that, “The mystery itself is detailed, challenging, and dramatic. The horror is satisfactorily evil and gruesome in the Cthulhu style, and the setting, background, and characters are effectively detailed.” Similarly, Jon Sutherland, reviewing both The Arkham Evil and Death in Dunwich in Open Box in White Dwarf #48 (December, 1983), described Death in Dunwich as “...a much shorter, ultimately more satisfying adventure; the compactness of the information is useful, as is the Keeper’s screen which is stapled inside the book.” and in comparing it to The Arkham Evil said, “Death in Dunwich can be interesting, frustrating and terminal and consequently is the better of the two.” He gave the scenario an overall score of eight out of ten.

Death in Dunwich was discussed not once, but twice in the pages of The Space Gamer. The first time was in The Space Gamer #71 (Nov/Dec 1984) by William A. Barton, the designer of Cthulhu by Gaslight: Horror Roleplaying in 1890s England. In ‘Whispers of Things Lovecraftian: TOME’s Cthulhu Modules’ Barton provides an overview of the line published to date before reviewing, the fourth release from T.O.M.E., Whispers from the Abyss and Other Tales. As well as highlighting the scenario’s deficits and some of the criticisms made elsewhere of the scenario, Barton’s opinion was that “...[T]he scenario could also be viewed as an interesting change of pace for experienced CoC investigators (similar to a couple in Chaosium’s The Asylum and Cthulhu Companion). With a few changes, it could even prove suitable for use as an occult-oriented scenario for such systems as Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes, Daredevils, or Tri-Tac’s Stalking the Night Fantastic.” This was followed up with a capsule review in The Space Gamer #73 (Mar/Apr 1985) by Russ Williams  who pointed out that, “Unfortunately, most of the scenario’s background is hidden from the players, so from the point of view of this adventure, it is wasted space.” In general though, he was more positive than most reviewers of the day, ending with, “I recommend Death in Dunwich for players with  bit of experience and tact who are ready to concentrate on a murder mystery instead of the Cthulhu mythos.”

The scenario was reviewed in Different Worlds #32 (Jan/Feb 1984) by Larry DiTillio—the designer of Masks of Nyarlathotep—no less! He was enthusiastic about the plot, describing it as a “dandy idea”, but of the overall scenario, he wrote, “Summing up, Death in Dunwich leaves a lot to be desired in terms of a Cthulhu scenario.” but that the best thing about it from a Cthulhu standpoint, “...[I]s the detailing of Dunwich itself.” He finished by writing, “...with a little bit of hole-plugging and expansion, the mystery itself might make a good change of pace scenario in a Cthulhu campaign. My recommendation: think it over before buying it and if you do buy it, keep a grain of salt handy for the designer’s suggestions.”

It is difficult to sum Death in Dunwich up as anything more than a failed attempt to both write a mystery and provide the means to investigate it. Obviously, the scenario was released at a time when the concept and art of writing investigative scenarios was relatively new, but Chaosium was also new to the process and it was providing solid investigative scenarios at the time when T.O.M.E. was not. Ultimately Death in Dunwich feels like three parts—the opening mystery, the clues, and the climax—which were designed separately before being brought together to see if they work as a whole. Which of course, they do not—not without a lot of redesign upon the part of the Keeper. To return to the designer’s statement that “This scenario should be run as follows: the Introduction should be intriguing, the Middle Game should be frustrating, and the End Game should be an orgy of violence.” Well, Death in Dunwich is all of those things, but mostly an exercise in frustration.

—oOo—

With thanks to Brandon Blackmoor and Stephen Ward for providing access to Dragon #91 as well as to Darren Happens for access to Different Worlds #32.