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Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Horrors for Halloween

S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep begins with a lovely conceit. Its foreword bemoans the lack of readily available and credible information—such as that supplied by the original, classic Petersen Field Guides—has adversely affected the current crop of preternaturalists in their field studies and acknowledges that those same original Petersen Field Guides have become collectors’ items. Which is sort of true twice over. Originally published in 1988 and 1989 respectively, S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters and S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands presented various entities—gods, races, servitor species, and creatures—of the Mythos and of the Dreamlands in full colour, with scientific notes on their habitat, distribution, and life cycle as well as annotations and commentaries. Famously, they each included easy identification means for each every one of their entries, such that a user could ask himself a series of simple questions and within moments identify the ‘thing’ before him and so determine whether he was facing a Byakee or an Elder Thing. (Unless of course, the field researcher has gone mad before he had time to answer all of the questions…)

With both S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters and S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands long out of print—and as suggested in the foreword, now collector’s items (in-game and out)—Chaosium, Inc. has taken both and collated them as one single hardback volume, S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep. Originally published as a Stretch Goal as part of the Kickstarter campaign for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the supplement covers Azathoth and Byakhee to Tsathoggua to Yog-sothoth, Abhoth and Atlach-Nacha to Wamp and Zoog, and more, some fifty or so entries cataloguing the monsters of the Mythos and the Dreamlands.

The volume is divided into two halves, one dealing with the Mythos, the other with the Dreamlands, with following the same format. There is a questionnaire for identifying the monsters of each, the answers quickly leading to an identification and a page reference. Every entry consists of a two-page spread which includes an appropriate quote from H.P. Lovecraft, followed by a description of the creature or monster and entries which in turn detail its habitat, life and habitats, and what distinguishes it from similar things. In the majority of the entries, a besuited, behatted sometimes armed, sometimes somewhat relaxed silhouette of a male figure is seen alongside smaller illustration of the monster, echoing perhaps the silhouette cutouts included with the first, second, and third edition boxed sets of Call of Cthulhu. Amusingly, the entry for the Byakhee shows this figure actively running away, being chased by the monster, so perhaps that encounter was one too many for said silhouette?

This is opposite a full illustration of the entry. These are done in full colour, muscular and imposing, weird and unearthly, strange and shocking… Some of the smaller images come from the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook, but the main illustration of each entry is new. Thus S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep is the ‘colour supplement’ to ‘Monsters, Beasts, and Alien Gods’, the fourteenth chapter of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. Here, the illustrations are clearer and more fearsome, and of course, even more horrid. Plus there are no game stats to break the mood.

Rounding out the supplement is a size-comparison chart, in sepia tones, which captures the scale of these entities, the lone silhouette all but lost in the corner of the two-page spread. This is followed by a list of Recommended Reading. It starts with what you would expect—works of fiction by H.P. Lovecraft and gaming supplements by Chaosium. Inc., but then it wanders into the realms of scientific fiction, such as Ivan Mustoll’s ‘Emergency Procedures During Controlled Obsession of Yog- Sothoth’, published in the Annals of the Innsmouth Society and The Natural History of the Leng Spider by Rondo Meeb. None of these books are real of course, but you wish that they were—at least in the context of the Call of Cthulhu game world. (Certainly, one idea for Chaosium would be to develop these titles into Mythos tomes, which themselves would be the subject of their own gaming supplement, in this case, an academic companion to S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep.)

Physically, S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors is a lovely hardback. It is beautifully illustrated, the imagery a worthy accompaniment to the text even thirty years on after this content first appeared.

Of course, there is the question of what to do with S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors. Is it an in-game source? If so, then perhaps it is better suited to a setting where the entities, races, and entities have been more studiously categorised and are thus more of a known quantity and threat? Thus, the Keeper is likely to be happy with the players and their Investigators having ready access to it at the table. Is not an in-game source? Then the Keeper is less likely to want to have it at the table and to have her players readily perusing its pages lest they learn something their investigators are not ready for. Certainly, having it as an in-game resource will change the tone and feel of a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

The supplement lends itself to other options though. Most obviously, as an enticement to play, to show off to prospective players of the roleplaying game some of the mysteries to be encountered in doing so. The other option is as inspiration for the Keeper. Careful reading of the fiction of this as a real-world reference work and certainly of the entries in the bibliography may serve as hooks or ideas source for the Keeper to develop into encounters with the forces of the Mythos of her own design.

On the downside, this supplement is not comprehensive, it does not include every monster that has appeared in a Call of Cthulhu supplement or indeed, every entry in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. Nor could it, for that would result in a tome of massive proportions—and arguably, since S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors is a meant to be field guide, were it to be so large a book, it would be impossible to effectively use it and refer to it in the field. Instead it only touches upon the most commonly encountered creatures and monsters, although the Dreamlands entries are perhaps more obscure, being less well known. For that, the Keeper will have to wait for a second edition of the Malleus Monstrorum. Despite that, one of the most obvious entries a reader, player, Keeper, or investigator would expect to find in the pages of this supplement is an entry for Cthulhu itself, but it is not here—despite there being an entry for Star Spawn of Cthulhu. This then is most disappointing thing about S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors.

S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep is a lovely reprint. Devotees of Call of Cthulhu—old and new—who lack copies of either S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters or S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands will doubtless enjoying having access to this supplement for the first time. Veterans will appreciate it best for having the two original volumes in one and in a sturdier, prettier package. It is not essential to own this supplement in order to run Call of Cthulhu, but S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep is something attractive to own, sometimes to peruse, sometimes to show off, sometimes to inspire.