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Sunday, 8 July 2018

Miskatonic Monday #11: Tomes of Terror

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise ofthe DeadRise ofthe Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.


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It is usual practice for entries in the Miskatonic Monday series to be laid out as series of quick to read and understand bullet points, the aim being for the reader to get the gist of the review and make an informed purchase decision as easily as possible. Although this review is of a title released via the Miskatonic Repository and is thus part of the Miskatonic Monday series, it adheres to the discursive format used for other reviews. This is because the title being reviewed is no mere single scenario, but rather a mini-campaign comprised of multiple parts.

Tomes of Terror: A Quest for Forbidden Knowledge is a campaign for the modern day set in and around Arkham in Lovecraft Country. Although designed to be used with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the campaign can be enhanced with the use of the Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition supplement, Arkham Now. Reference may also be made to Miskatonic University: Dire Secrets & Campus Life, although that supplement is really set in the Jazz Age. Suggestions are also included should the Keeper want to run Tomes of Terror in conjunction with Delta Green, the setting from Pagan Publishing for use with Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition and later editions or the more recent Delta Green roleplaying game from Arc Dream Publishing.

The default set-up for the campaign has the investigators as employees or investigators working for the Eagle Bond private investigation agency in Boston. Their latest assignment is to investigate the theft of four valuable and rare books from the Restricted Section of the Jeremiah Orne library at Miskatonic University in Arkham. The Dean dissatisfied with the progress of the investigation by Arkham PD has hired the agency to locate and recover the books. Not only does he emphasis the danger of the books falling into the wrong hands, he provides details of those who have and have had access to the Restricted Section.

From this introduction of the case, the investigators have free reign to follow the clues as is their wont. They can do this overtly, covertly, or a mix of the two, but may need to come up with a cover story or two to explain why they are investigating the thefts rather than the police. The four books are The Necronomicon, Cultes Des Ghouls, The Book of Eibon, and The Revelations of Glaaki (Volume IV), which is a powerful and perilous quartet of titles to steal. Who would benefit from stealing such diverse and such dangerous tomes? All the evidence points towards an inside job given the nature of security measures installed at the Jeremiah Orne library, so the academic staff, the student body, and the university staff. Initially, there are relatively few clues, especially physical ones, and much of the investigation in Tomes of Terror will involve interviews, interrogations, and other forms of interaction, though these will often be punctuated by periods of surveillance. The campaign allows for modern means of investigation too, including the use of mobile phones, the Internet, and so on, most notably here though, the use of the credit check (the latter means is supported by the handouts, as are a sheaf of emails).

The campaign is divided into five scenarios, all with a suburban feel to them. It opens with ‘Cthulhu 101’, before expanding out to encompass ‘Overdue’, ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’, ‘Rare Finds’, and ‘The Calling’. The clues found in ‘Cthulhu 101’ will point towards the separate lines of enquiries in the other four scenarios. Each of the four involves a different cultist and different aspects of the Mythos—which the four tomes hint at if you are a student of Call of Cthulhu in any incarnation—but all four are linked through the initial scenario. The second, third, and fourth scenarios can tackled in any order, as can the fifth if the investigators prick up on certain clues. That said, each of the four scenarios has its timeline and these run in parallel to each other, so the likelihood is that if the investigators make progress with their enquiries in one, the likelihood is that events will be getting away from them in the remaining scenarios. As time passes, the new owners of the tomes are learning more and more, their madness growing as they work to put their ghastly ambitions into practice. Clever play and luck though, may result in the investigators preventing these antagonists from progressing too far with their plans, but the likelihood is that they will be too later and the investigators will find themselves confronting some very nasty things… As the author points out—and as a result of Tomes of Terror being mainly set in suburbia—his players quickly learned to be wary of basements.

With multiple lines of enquiry, each represented by a scenario, the Keeper is left with a lot to keep track of. Not just the activities of the antagonists as they pursue their respective plans, but also some sixty-four NPCs! Many of them play minor roles in the five scenarios, some are red herrings, but many provide information that will help with the investigators’ efforts. Likewise, the players will find their investigators confronted with several dozen persons to question and follow and look into… Keeping tracking of who their investigators have talked to and what they have found out are challenges in their own right.

The Keeper is supported by a timeline tracker—the players are provided with a blank one too, but the Keeper should be wary of letting them have it lest it indicate that their investigators are up against some hidden deadline. She also has access to some nine pages of full colour maps and thumbnail portraits for each NPC, plus nine pages of handouts. She is also given advice on how to run each scenario, noting the weirdness of Arkham even in the modern age and including good advice on what happens if there is a Total Party Kill. She will need to read the campaign with care to keep track of everything. If there is an issue with the advice, it is that there is little as to how the investigators go about their enquiries, especially given that they lack the authority to conduct such enquiries and that there is a duty of care to be accounted for when it comes to many of these being questioned. That is, the student body. A set of pre-generated investigators would have been useful too.

Physically, Tomes of Terror: A Quest for Forbidden Knowledge is simply and cleanly presented in full colour. The portraits for the NPCs are nicely done, though the clip art often feels like placeholders or text breaks. Some of the fuller pieces are decent though. Overall, the campaign is well presented given its amateur origins.

Tomes of Terror: A Quest for Forbidden Knowledge is challenging investigation with the players and their investigators having to work through a multitude of clues, witnesses, and suspects. It presents these in an interesting structure of parallel investigations which although they do exacerbate the challenge, they also serve to give the campaign a sophisticated, more modern feel. Overall, Tomes of Terror: A Quest for Forbidden Knowledge is a solid mini-campaign worth downloading from the Miskatonic Repository.