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Sunday, 1 July 2018

The Greatest Roleplaying Campaign Ever?

Masks of Nyarlathotep is widely regarded as the greatest campaign ever written for any roleplaying game, let alone Call of Cthulhu. If not that, then by any stretch of the imagination it rightly deserves to be in the top three, for it is truly epic in scale—on any scale. Its scope is epic, being a global campaign which takes in seven locations, from New York to Shanghai via London, Egypt, Kenya, and Australia. Its antagonists are equally as epic, consisting of multiple cults dedicated to the various aspects or ‘masks’ of the Crawling Chaos himself, Nyarlathotep. Its plot is thus also as far reaching to match that scale. Likewise, the players and their Investigators will be faced by a huge number of clues that will enable them to deduce the true nature of the foes they face and what they are working towards. Which is of course, to bring about a Great Plan that will see the Great Old Ones walk the Earth once again. Masks of Nyarlathotep presents challenging foes, challenging investigations, and challenging game play which can last for some seventy hours—and more. If the first campaign for Call of Cthulhu, 1982’s Shadows of Yog-Sothoth set the blueprint which all subsequent campaigns for the roleplaying game would follow, then 1984’s Masks of Nyarlathotep set the standard by which every single one of those subsequent campaigns would be measured.

The campaign itself concerns the fate of the Carlyle Expedition. In 1919, notorious playboy Roger Carlyle left New York on an archaeological expedition to Egypt by way of London to conduct some research. He was accompanied by Hypatia Masters, society photographer, Doctor Robert Huston, psychiatrist to the rich, and Jack Brady, his bodyguard and confidante. In London, the party was joined by famed archaeologist, Sir Aubrey Penhew, and together they went on to Egypt where it is claimed that they made great archaeological finds. After some months the expedition decamped to the Crown Colony of Kenya, ostensibly to allow Roger to rest and the party a chance to get away from the glare of the press. Unfortunately, tragedy struck, as the entire expedition was first thought to lost on safari, but then then discovered to have been massacred by local tribesmen.

Five years pass and enter globetrotting author, Jackson Elias. In the January of 1925, he contacts a number of reliable friends—the investigators—and asks them to meet him in New York as he has information concerning the fate of the Carlyle Expedition. Jackson is able to provide the first in what will become a profusion of pointers: cult activity in New York, the trail left behind by the Carlyle Expedition as it travelled east, the trail left by Jackson himself as he followed the route taken by the Carlyle Expedition and beyond, building into a web of connections that will ultimately reveal a threat to mankind. Over the course of 1925, the investigators will travel the world, researching, uncovering, and encountering dangers both large and small, suffer losses in terms of their well-being, their sanity, and their friends. If they prevail—and enough of them survive—perhaps the investigators can thwart the plans of the Dark God and his minions, and so save the world!

Yet for all the high regard in which Masks of Nyarlathotep is held—it would win the Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Adventure in 1996—it is not a perfect campaign by any means. First and foremost, it is a large campaign and it is a complex campaign, with multiple threads and numerous clues and NPCs for the Keeper to keep track of. Second, the campaign is correspondingly complex in terms of its multiple thread, plots, and clues for the players to handle. Third, it sets up an NPC—Jackson Elias—as a friend and makes that motive enough for the investigators to become involved in the campaign. Yet it never really identifies who he is and what his relationship is with the investigators, so he never really rises above being plot hook. Fourth, it never addresses how the investigators are expected to go around the world, let alone pay for it. Fifth, it cannot escape the fact that in many cases its depiction of the cultists at the heart of each chapter is as stereotypes, which some have found uncomfortable. It should be clear that this is neither intentional nor is it a case of racial stereotyping, but rather that all too often they often come across as skeevy natives, mad with dark power and knowledge. Much of this is really due to the sixth issue with the campaign, which are its Pulp undertones. Such stereotypical depictions are often part of the Pulp genre. That said, Masks of Nyarlathotep is not explicitly a Pulp campaign, but it certainly leans that way, though without really supporting it.

Masks of Nyarlathotep remains a great campaign though, great enough for many a Keeper to attempt to fix these issues herself in preparing to run it. Indeed, the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion is an attempt to address and answer many of the questions which have been asked over the years about Masks of Nyarlathotep and how to run it. That tome though, remains a fan-based corollary to the campaign and not the official answers to such questions. (This does not stop it from being a useful reference work running the campaign though.) However, such official answers do exist, for Chaosium, Inc. has undertaken the ambitious and daunting task of updating the campaign.

Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World, the fifth edition of the campaign, has been redesigned for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. The most obvious change to it is its size, up from of the two-hundred-and-twenty-four pages of the fourth edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep, released in 2010, to a total of six-hundred-and sixty-nine pages for this the fifth edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep. Almost three times the length. In fact, it is so large that it has been split into two volumes, the first covering up as far as Egypt, the second the rest of the campaign, with the resulting print version coming in a slip case. The other obvious change is that like all releases from Chaosium, Inc. now, it comes in full colour, including both layout and illustrations. This has enabled the artists to approach the campaign anew and provide some effective new illustrations, whether of the members of the Carlyle Expedition, the infamous scene in Jackson Elias’ hotel room, of Shantaks at Misr House, Miles Shipley’s paintings, or the Dark Pharaoh in all his menacing majesty. The result is sure to be a handsome and heavy pair of tomes, but these are the very least of the changes to Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World.

Fundamentally, Masks of Nyarlathotep consists of a sandbox adventure which contains several smaller, though still large sandboxes. Within each of these ‘smaller’ sandboxes—the individual America, England, Egypt, Kenya, Australia, and China chapters—the investigators are free to follow what clues and lines of enquiry they have as is their wont, though of course, certain clues will reveal certain information and so take them down certain paths. Yet the larger, overarching nature of the campaign also means that the investigators are free to go where they want. The investigation will start in New York in the America chapter, but the clues point to locations far and wide, and whilst there is a natural path to the campaign—the aforementioned order of chapters—the investigators are free to go where they will and to whichever chapter they want. Every campaign needs a beginning though and that is the first of the changes to the Masks of Nyarlathotep, Fifth Edition campaign.

In previous editions of the campaign, events began with the investigators arriving at Jackson Elias’ hotel door. That still happens in this edition at the start of the America chapter, but it also includes a prologue where the investigators can come together on an expedition of their own and first meet Jackson Elias as a fellow expedition member. This takes place in Peru in 1921. Here each investigator, for their own reasons—ten pre-generated investigators are provided to that end—has signed up with Augustus Larkin to locate and conduct an archaeological examination of a lost pyramid in Peru’s southern highlands. Larkin seems an odd sort, sweaty if enthusiastic, whilst his assistant, Luis de Mendoza, is gloweringly taciturn, but the other expedition member, Jackson Elias, is friendly and curious. If the investigators do not note the oddities concerning the expedition then Elias certainly will, for it seems that someone—or something—is taking a keen interest in the expedition and in preventing anyone from learning too much about it. Just who is stalking them and what does this have to do with the local legends of white vampires?

What the Peru prologue is, is a rehearsal for the forthcoming seven chapters of the main campaign. Like those, it does involve a ‘mask’ of Nyarlathotep, but a relatively minor one in comparison to the Bloody Tongue, the Black Pharaoh, the Horned Bat, and the Bloated Woman. Similarly, its scale is regional, rather than global, and it is all together a much smaller affair. It adheres to the template set by those seven chapters though—a distinct locale, a indigenous cult of a singular nature, locals afeared of said cult, academics will help with some persuasion, and so on. Then by introducing Jackson Elias it lays the groundwork for the campaign to come and forges the link that is fundamental to the campaign. The scenario itself is a nice play upon a traditional monster given a Mythos twist, which is accompanied by some well done illustrations. Throughout there is also good advice on handling Jackson Elias and keeping him friendly without becoming too overbearing, as well as how to keep him alive ready to request the investigators’ aid four years later.

There is one other thing that the Peru chapter and Masks of Nyarlathotep, Fifth Edition does for Jackson Elias and that is to define him as a character. Notably this includes making him an African American. Previously, the assumption was that he was Caucasian like his inspiration, Percy Harrison Fawcett, but this decision is an interesting one and it explains how Elias Jackson was able to go where other explorers might not have been able to. The following chapter, America, will also list Elias’ books. With the expedition in Peru having formed the basis for, and cemented their friendship, the investigators and thus their players do have a motive, an actual sense of friendship instead of a supposed one, for them to aid Jackson in his enquiries. It helps of course that Jackson, thanks to treasure found in Peru, can fund their investigations. This is the first of many additions to the campaigns.

These changes continue with more background on Harlem in the America chapter and expanding upon the activities of the Cult of the Bloody Tongue in Harlem. The inclusion of a scapegoat for the cult’s predations provides another plot strand to follow in New York and shows more of the cult’s machinations in the city. This extension of the background continues in the England chapter, with the authors revisiting ‘The Derbyshire Monster’ set in Lesser Edale. One of a number of sidetrek scenarios in London, this one always felt out of place because of its non-Mythos antagonist. In Masks of Nyarlathotep, Fifth Edition, the scenario is renamed ‘The Derbyshire Horror’, the nature of the threat is changed in a nice piece of ‘bait and switch’, and a second reason is provided for the investigators to go to Derbyshire with the introduction of Henson Manufacturing, which has been making the components necessary for the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh to complete its dastardly plan. The additions in the America chapter to Harlem and to Derby in the England chapter are more than welcome as they add depth and detail to their respective cult’s doings, serving to make them more than just murderous thugs.

The authors address the perceived stereotyping by emphasising the fact that cult membership is open to all, not just those native to a region and that if they can, the cults at the heart of campaign will prey on anyone, no matter their background or status. Also, changes are made to two important NPCs. In England, Tewfik al-Sayed, the proprietor of the Soho spice shop and rival priest to Edward Gavigan, is now Zahra Shafik, proprietor of Empire Spices and rival priestess to Edward Gavigan. Her motives and plans are also provided. In Kenya, the sadly named Tandoor Singh, proprietor of a Nairobi tea emporium and agent of the Bloody Tongue, is renamed Taan Kaur, female proprietor of a Nairobi tea emporium and agent of the Bloody Tongue. As well as avoiding stereotyping, this redesign enables the authors to re-examine these NPCs and their motives, making them more interesting, more rounded, and easier to bring into play.

To help and aid the Keeper run Masks of Nyarlathotep, advice is provided throughout the campaign. This starts with preparation and goes on to cover the campaign’s famed lethality, how to handle both its history and settings, and creating and replacing investigators. Within each chapter, connections are made to the greater campaign, clue diagrams show where each clue leads to, and at every location, the clues which lead to that location are listed. Which all helps the Keeper to keep track of the campaign’s very many clues. Similarly, all of the NPCs who will appear in a chapter are listed at its start, each accompanied by a thumbnail portrait in frame coloured according to their allegiance. Four appendices also cover travel in the period, as well as collating all of the campaign’s artefacts, spells, and tomes. There can be no doubt that there is a lot of things to keep track of in Masks of Nyarlathotep, but these changes address this challenge and make it easier to deal with. Another nice touch is that at the start of each chapter suggestions are given as to what books to read or television shows or movies to watch to get the feel of the forthcoming chapter.

One other aspect of the campaign is addressed throughout its very many pages—Pulp or not? With previous editions of the campaign and of Call of Cthulhu, this was not a question that a Keeper could have made with anything other than great difficulty. With the long-awaited publication of Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, not only could the question be answered, it was a question that had to be answered. Thus, Masks of Nyarlathotep, Fifth Edition includes numerous options and suggestions for running the campaign in Pulp mode. Not just adding Pulp Talents to both the pregenerated investigators and a great many of the campaign’s NPCs, but also suggesting how to up the ante in a situation, whether that is arming cultists of the Bloody Tongue with African throwing knives, foregoing customs inspections when entering certain countries, moving the more dangerous aspects of Miles Shipley’s paintings to the Pulp mode, adding an NPC from a pair of Cthulhu by Gaslight supplements, or suggesting that of course, the best way to stage the events aboard the Mombasa to Nairobi journey is atop the flaming train! These all help the Keeper run the campaign in Pulp mode.

Rounding out the campaign is the ‘Grand Conclusion’, examining what happens in the wake of the campaign’s climax at the end of each of its seven main chapters. It also provides ‘The Ultimate Outcome’, a means to track the investigators’ progress and the outcome of their actions, so that ultimately, the Keeper can determine how well they and their players have done. This is a handy tool providing a concrete means of measuring their actions where previously it was down to the Keeper to judge.

Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World always was a campaign of herculean proportions, but now it becomes physically herculean in terms of its format. So what accounts for the huge increase in page count—by some 298%—from the previous edition? Obviously, the new chapter and scenario detailing the investigators first encounter with Jackson Elias in Peru, but also the additions to each of the seven main chapters and locations. Then there are the appendices—nine pages of spells, ten pages of tomes, and six pages of artefacts—and an index nine pages long! Across the campaign whole, there are forty-five pages of thematic handouts, thirty-eight pages of maps, thirteen pages of portraits, and eighty-five pages of NPC stats. (It should be noted that the handouts, maps, NPC portraits, and pregenerated investigators are available as separate PDFs for ease of reference.)

In terms of production values, Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World has never looked like this and has never looked as good. As with all new titles from Chaosium, Inc., it is done in full colour with some excellent, often dynamic new illustrations and maps. That said, some of the full colour illustrations are really rather ordinary in comparison to the sepia ones. The full colour cartography, in general, is also very good, especially of the various countries and regions, but there are maps which could have been better done. For example, the maps of M’Weru’s Cavern and The Great Temple in the Mountain of the Black Wind in the Kenya chapter are murky messes, whilst the map of the Great Chamber of Nyarlathotep in the Egypt chapter is just a bit too small for easy reference. Another issue with the maps is that locations on many of them are numbered in an odd order, making them a little cumbersome to use. The campaign though is well written, though a minor edit is needed here and there. Overall though, these are all minor issues in what is a well produced and presented pair of volumes.

In many ways, Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World, the fifth edition of the campaign, is the first major change to the campaign in some twenty years, following the addition of the scenario, ‘City Beneath The Sands’ from the supplement Terror Australis, to create 1996’s award winning The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep. But that was one substantial change, whereas multiple substantial changes have been made to Masks of Nyarlathotep, Fifth Edition, but like that change twenty years ago, these changes are all for the better, with many of them coming from the authors having run or played the campaign multiple times. As a result, the Keeper knows who Jackson Elias is and the players and their investigators can learn who he is by actually encountering him; there is more advice on running the campaign, whether in Pulp mode or not; there is more detail to add depth where needed; there is more structure for handling the campaign’s many clues and links; and the treatment of its huge cast is more balanced.

At the heart of all of the changes there remains the campaign itself. Masks of Nyarlathotep always was the ‘Grand Master’ of campaigns for Call of Cthulhu. The updates and adjustments to the campaign which take account of over thirty years of campaign design and play, ensure that the fifth edition, Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World, not only maintains that status, but is more accessible, easier to run, and better presented. If Masks of Nyarlathotep is the campaign by which all other Call of Cthulhu campaigns are measured, then Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World just raised the bar.