Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Lovecraft City

The year is 1937. At the prestigious Miskatonic University, a pernicious Communist criminal conspiracy operating out of the Orme Library has been smashed by the joint forces of the Arkham Police Department and the FBI, forcing its leader, former esteemed academic, Doctor Henry Armitage to go into hiding. Overhead, dark roiling clouds hide both the sun and things that flit and slither… Outside, cyclopean skyscrapers of windowless black stone loom over the streets, their entrances oddly inhuman and never used or totally absent. Vehicles dawdle along the streets, models such as the Nightgaunt and Witch, unseen elsewhere in the USA, their engines sounding like the scuttling of insects. At night, no good Arkhamite goes out, lest they never return or get lost on streets whose buildings change or disappear during the hours of darkness. Crime is rife—the breaking of the Gilman House hold on city hall means that the Marsh family out of Innsmouth Docks where strange black steamships regularly dock, is free to go to war with the rival Malesta family—and no-one can bring heavies to the fight like the Marsh family! This is the situation in Great Arkham, the major city of the North-East that has grown to encompass the once separate towns of Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport, now a malevolent metropolis where cabals and cultists—always a lurking presence in Lovecraft’s fiction and Lovecraft Country—have power and influence like never before! Yet, the city of Great Arkham remains all but unknown in the wider USA and thanks to an outbreak of Typhoid Fever and subsequent quarantine maintained by the mask-wearing and disinfectant tank wielding Transport Police, it is rare that anyone leaves…

This is the setting for Cthulhu City, a campaign framework published by Pelgrane Press for its clue-orientated roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu. It is a setting in which the Mythos is never far from an explanation as to what is going on, the Mythos and its various worshipers hold positions of power, and if the investigators begin to look into any of their activities, they have the power and influence to move against the investigators without fear of repercussion. As each of the city’s cults—the Witch Coven of Old Arkham, the Necromantic Cult originally founded by Joseph Curwen, the Church of the Conciliator which has come to dominate Christianity in the city, the Esoteric Order of Dagon of Innsmouth, and the necromantic scientists of the Halsey Fraternity, as well as the lesser students of the mystic arts of the Brethren of the Silver Lodge, the unknown Pnakotic Cult, and the outlawed Armitage Inquiry work towards their own aims, the investigators face not one threat, but many! Whilst their aim might be to restore some semblance of normality to the city, the enemy of their enemy might just be their friend and help might come their way from unexpected, esoteric quarters… That though, means helping an ‘enemy’ in a city where the Mythos has all but won and the Stars are just shy of coming right.

With a noir sensibility, Cthulhu City also has a sense of unreality to it that feels like the film Dark City meets Lovecraft Country. In terms of what Great Arkham might be, the most obvious answer is a terrible reflection of the modern world in an unpleasant update of the Dreamlands, but it might an Arkham that somehow orbits Aldebaran on the shore of Lake Hali or simply an alternate timeline. It is also a setting where the investigators are the outlaws. In most settings involving Lovecraftian investigative horror, it is the cultists that the criminals, even if it the player characters who are investigating them rather than the legal authorities. Cthulhu City inverts this, making the investigative efforts of the player characters illegal and the player characters the criminals, with the reins of justice and the laws ententacled in the clutches of the cabals and cults.

Mechanically, this is reflected in Suspicion, a measurement of how much the activities of the investigators have come to the attention of the authorities and their true masters. For example, merely being out at night without good reason accrues an investigator one point of Suspicion gain, but engaging in a gun battle or revealing the truth of a Mythos attack would accrue him four points. As an investigator gains Suspicion, the more he comes under greater scrutiny, from a simple increase in the number of rats around him and his home at a Suspicion of one, his phone being tapped at a Suspicion of two, up to an actual manhunt for him at a Suspicion of five! The increased scrutiny also leads to increased watchfulness by the authorities and more General Ability tests to avoid the scrutiny. Now Suspicion can be lost—by an investigator waiting it out if the current value is low enough, or by buying it off or making a deal. The later of course, enables the Keeper to bring the other cults and cabals into play and get them involved in the investigators’ activities.

In terms of what the players roleplay, investigators in Cthulhu City are as per standard player characters in Trail of Cthulhu. They are though, citizens of Great Arkham and will have extra build points to devote to District Knowledges of the city and they are allowed to possess Pulp abilities like Hypnosis. This reflects the lurid nature of a Cthulhu City campaign. It is also possible to bring in existing investigators, perhaps if the city is part of the Dreamlands, though they will not have the District Knowledges. Several set-ups are suggested to bring them together, such as Miskatonic University students and faculty, immigrants of one neighbourhood weathering institutional prejudice and neglect—for which the excellent and award-winning Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games would be particularly useful, as dreamers and artists of Kingsport, and so on… Other suggestions include working for a patron like Father Iwanicki, last Catholic priest in a city dominated by the Church of the Conciliator or being members of the same organisation, like a newspaper. Whatever the set-up, each player needs to answer a few questions about his investigator. These include how the investigator came to be in Great Arkham, why he cannot leave, what chief weirdness of the city haunts him the most, and what he fears.

Arkham City itself, is unsurprisingly, described in some detail. This starts with a brief history of the metropolis, from its founding through its incorporation of both Innsmouth and Kingsport to the madness and suicides of 1925 and beyond to the recent and mysterious death of Mayor Upton just two years ago. Over half of the book is devoted to the ten districts of the city, from Old Arkham, the University District, and Sentinel—the old parts of Arkham, to the incorporated parts like Dunwich, Innsmouth Docks, and Kingsport, plus totally new districts like Chinatown. Each comes with possible encounters, stock locations, landmarks, and stock characters, as well as named characters. These are not written as is, but rather accorded options so that, for example, every NPC comes in three versions with the suggested adjustments to their abilities. These are as a Victim who needs the investigators’ help; as a Sinister figure in league with one of the city’s several cults; and as a Stalwart, potential ally in their efforts in the face of the Mythos. Similarly, locations are treated as Masked or Unmasked. A Masked location appears to be relatively untouched by the Mythos—though it may be present and well hidden, whereas Unmasked, the location is tainted by the Mythos and the horror is very present.

So in Old Arkham, the stock location of a mansion, if Masked, is high-ceilinged and brightly lit, the windows thick curtained and a jaunty piano tune plays out on a gramophone as if warding of the city’s weirdness outside. Unmasked, the house is dark, a pale face appears at the windows, and inside the rooms are given decay over which ugly idols loom over the piles of ancient books. Stock character, the Gadabout Henry Billings, is twenty and fashionably drunk by lunch, a graduate of Miskatonic University. As Victim, he is being blackmailed by a cult after one too many a drunken debauch; as Sinister, he hides his Mythos activities behind his drunken debauchery; and as Stalwart, he is a jolly, good-hearted drunken fool, ready to leap into help in what japes his new-found companions—the investigators—get up to!

The treatment of the cults and cabals covers their leaders and members, aims and responses, and clues to their activities. Their influence is also set district by district, which enables the Keeper to track their reactions to the investigators’ activities. There are even guidelines as how they can be joined and what the benefits and responsibilities of membership are! The approach is  more straightforward and lacks the options given for Locations and NPCs. Instead, where the variability in these organisations comes is that what they do and what they want varies from cult to cult, rather than their having any internal variability.

There is good advice for the Keeper on how to run the campaign, with discussions of the type of horror and the mysteries to be found in Great Arkham. Connections are made to other campaign books for Trail of Cthulhu, some of them stronger than others—Arkham Detective Tales, The Armitage Files, Cthulhu Apoclaypse, and Shadows Over Filmland being the more workable suggestions. Ultimately though, it is up to the Keeper to decide what the actual nature of Great Arkham is, which of the cults she wants to focus on, and the connections between persons and places from district to district. This though is where Cthulhu City comes slightly unstuck, because as a campaign setting it is not actually written in stone, which leaves a lot of extra work for the Keeper to undertake in terms of her preparation. Especially in making the connections since the supplement does not really come with as thorough an index as it could or should have. The supplement includes appendices listing their main mentions, but this is not quite up to the task that the preparation for a Cthulhu City campaign really warrants.

Rounding out Cthulhu City is the scenario, ‘The Whisperer in the Light’, which is designed as the investigators first foray into Great Arkham. They are asked to look into a haunting and in the course of their investigation will discover strange science, bright spirits, and desperation on several levels. As good and as horrific the situation is in the scenario, it is not a good introduction to the powers lurking behind the facade of Great Arkham, although it does take the investigators on a short tour round the city. The problem is that it is not specific to the city and all too easily could be run in almost any town or city, but to be fair, this is a consequence of the ‘construction kit’ nature of Cthulhu City. If the scenario had been too specific in its links to the occult factions present in Great Arkham, it would have limited the Keeper’s choices. That said, advice could have been provided to help the Keeper link its events to each of the cabals and cults to help her draw her players further into their machinations.

One other aspect of Cthulhu City is how light the new mechanics it includes actually are, really no more than tracking a few numbers in the form of the Suspicion rating of the investigators and the degree of influence each cult or cabal has over each of Great Arkham’s ten districts. Although there are a few new spells, there are easily adapted, so that effectively, this supplement is very accessible if the Keeper wants to run it using a ruleset other than Trail of Cthulhu.

Physically, Cthulhu City is a sturdy hardback. It is engagingly and imaginatively written, but as mentioned it feels somewhat undone by its lack of index. The other issue is that a lot of its artwork is not as good as that which appeared in previous supplements for Trail of Cthulhu. In fact, a lot of it is uninteresting and feels like it is simply taking up space.

Most updates of Lovecraft Country maintain the dark region’s towns and villages—Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport—as discrete and isolated. Cthulhu City ignores this in favour of urbanising the region and bringing both its dream-like nightmarish feel into the Desperate Decade of the 1930s and the forces of the Mythos all but out into the open. It then provides the building blocks for the Keeper to create a campaign that is Kafka meets the Mythos, cult hoedown by streetlight, and a pre-war American Maquis against the Mythos, all played out in a dream… Although requiring hard work to prepare, Cthulhu City is an engaging modernisation of Lovecraft Country that gives the gives the Mythos muscle and turns​ noir's nightmares up to eleven​.