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Saturday, 20 June 2020

A Cthulhu Collectanea II

As its title suggests Bayt al Azif – A magazine for Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying games is a magazine dedicated to roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Published by Bayt al Azif it includes content for both Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition from Chaosium, Inc. and Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press, which means that its content can also be used with Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game and The Fall of DELTA GREEN. Published in September, 2019, Bayt al Azif Issue 02 does not include any content for use with the latter two roleplaying games, but instead includes three scenarios—stated for both Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and Trail of Cthulhu, discussion of how to run a specific modern campaign, a review of a recently-rereleased classic campaign for Call of Cthulhuinterviews, an overview of Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying in 2018, and more. All of which, once again, comes packaged in a solid, full colour, Print On Demand book.

Bayt al Azif Issue 02 opens with editorial, ‘Houses of the Unholy’, which really takes stock of the progress of the magazine from the first issue to this one. So it is somewhat reflective in nature before it sets out what the Bayt al Azif Issue 02 is all about, and so is also focused on the job at hand. Its reflective nature is coupled with ‘Sacrifices’ and then ‘Cthulhu in 2018: A Review’. ‘Sacrifices’ is the letters page, which covers the response to Bayt al Azif Issue 01 and so lays the background for the potential community which come to be built around the magazine. ‘Cthulhu in 2018: A Review’ is by Dean Englehardt of CthulhuReborn.com—publisher of Convicts & Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying in the Penal Colonies of 18th Century AustraliaIn Bayt al Azif Issue 01, he presented ‘CthuReview 2017’, a look back from 2018 of the previous year in terms of Lovecraftian investigative horror and its associated segment of the gaming hobby. It covered the notable figures and their doings as well as the various publishers, projects, Kickstarters, and more. Now ‘Cthulhu in 2018: A Review’ does not look at the notable figures in the hobby, so focuses on the releases, the Kickstarters—fulfilled and unfulfilled, the highlights, and the trends. From Masks of Nyarlathotep to the Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Devil’s Swamp to Crawl-thulhu, Sandy Petersen's Cthulhu Mythos to The Shadow Over Dunsmore Point, this is an extensive overview, which again nicely chronicles the year keeps us abreast of anything that we may have missed or forgotten. (An interesting touch is that the author does include links to reviews of some of these titles—including some to Reviews from R’lyeh. Of course these look a little odd in print, but highlight the origins of the article as an online piece.)

Bayt al Azif Issue 02 has a decidedly Germanic feel to it. This is because it follows in the footsteps of Worlds of Cthulhu which adapted over the course of its six issues, content from the official German Cthulhu magazine, Cthuloide Welten. Bayt al Azif plans to draw content from another German Cthulhu magazine, Cthulhus Rus, and to that end, Bayt al Azif Issue 02 includes a number of German-sourced pieces. The first of these is Ralf Sandfuchs’ ‘Who Needs Lovecraft Country? – Why the Weimar Republic is the Best Setting for Cthulhu Games’, which espouses the virtues of interwar Germany as a setting for roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. We have already seen this potential come to the page with the publication of Berlin: The Wicked City – Unveiling the Mythos in Weimar Berlin, but this only focuses on Germany’s capital, so there is yet a supplement dedicated to Germany as a whole to be published. Certainly, this article makes the case that Germany is highly suitable and certainly, Berlin: The Wicked City is good starting point for any Keeper interested in the setting.

The content sourced from Cthulhus Rus continues with ‘False Friends’, a scenario by Philipp Christophel and Ralf Sandfuchs. Set in the 1920s and the university town of Göttingen, ‘False Friends’ is designed as an introductory scenario and is the first part of a campaign, further installments of which will appear in future issues of Bayt al Azif. A young student, recently gone up to university, missing under odd circumstances, and her worried parents ready to engage the investigators to find their daughter, will be familiar to any veteran of Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying games. So on the whole, this is a comparatively simple, straightforward scenario, and whilst the background of Germany after the Great War adds a degree of social conservatism, perhaps an opportunity was missed to frame the differences between roleplaying in the USA or United Kingdom of the period and in the Weimar Republic. Like all three scenarios in Bayt al Azif Issue 02, ‘False Friends’ includes stats for both Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and the GUMSHOE System of Trail of Cthulhu. 

The second scenario is Ash DelVillan’s ‘Nighted’. This is a Cthulhu by Gaslight scenario set in England in 1899, in which the player characters are invited to a masquerade at a country mansion. It is written primarily as a one-shot with pre-generated characters with links to each other and the NPCs. Like ‘False Friends’, the format is very familiar—a country house, a masked ball, a wayward host, and rooms packed with curio after curio. Then of course, it turns into a locked room situation, one with threats from without, and growing within! This drives the second half of the scenario, the first being the invitation and the manners of the player characters to stay in the mansion and await their host. It is fairly tightly plotted in terms of its timing and ratcheting up of the tension. It does deliver a nasty poke in the eye—or two—and will probably have the player characters scrambling to find a solution to their situation as lycanthropic creatures stalk the grounds outside.

There is lycanthropic theme—more obviously so, in the third scenario, ‘Beasts of Gévaudan’. As the name suggests, Bridgette Jeffries’ scenario is set in 1760s and is inspired by real events. The investigators are tasked by the crown—and some by other interested parties—to travel to the region and determine the cause of the attacks. Again, this is a one-shot, its pre-generated investigators each having their motives which should add to the tension as the relatively simple investigation is carried out. The scenario should involve a high degree of action and horror, but ultimately will present the players and their investigators with a moral choice. ‘Beasts of Gévaudan’ has enjoyable historical feel to it and should derail anyone coming to it thinking that it will be like the film, The Brotherhood of the Wolf.

A whole campaign comes under scrutiny in Lisa Padol’s ‘Adapting a Scenario – Our Ladies of Sorrow’. The editor examines the non-Call of Cthulhu modern horror campaign published by the much missed Miskatonic River Press in 2009 in some detail, highlighting some of the difficulties faced in both adapting it to Trail of Cthulhu and to the early nineteen-sixties. It is  a highly detailed, often character-focused piece that is worth the time of any Keeper wanting to run the campaign. Or indeed get some idea how to individualise any campaign, although it is very specific to Our Ladies of Sorrow. The issue with the article is that the campaign has been out of print for a decade and unless it is reprinted or a copy can be found on the second-hand market, its contents are not immediate use.

There are just two reviews in Bayt al Azif Issue 02—and they are a huge improvement upon the two reviews in Bayt al Azif Issue 01. First, Stu Horvath discusses Masks of Nyarlathotep in ‘Vintage RPG’. If his reviews in the first issue were slight and image heavy, here the author is given the space cover the history of, as much review, the new edition and it shows in being a better written, more detailed, and interesting article. For veterans of Call of Cthulhu, there will be much here that is familiar, but for anyone new to Call of Cthulhu will nevertheless, this is informative and interesting. The second review is actually of Call of Cthulhu itself, but not of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Rather, ‘“It is not dead which can eternal lie…” Game Review: Call of Cthulhu’ is actually a review of Call of Cthulhu, First Edition by J. Eric Holmes, the editor of the 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set RPG. This is fascinating continuation of Zach Howard’s ‘Clerical Cosmic Horror: The Brief Era of the Cthulhu Mythos as Dungeons & Dragons Pantheon’ from Bayt al Azif Issue 01 and he adds a commentary to the end of the review. Together they provide a contrast between a time when Cthulhu was just beginning to appear in the gaming hobby and its prevalence today.

Jared Smith, the editor of Bayt al Azif conducts two interviews in this second issue. The first, ‘Die Gesellschaft – An Interview with Cthulhus Rus’ is with the team behind Cthulhus Rus—Stefan Droste, Daniel Neugebauer, and Marc Meiburg, whilst ‘Cracking Adventures – An Interview with Lynne Hardy’ is with the Associate Editor for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Both are interesting and informative, the one with the team behind Cthulhus Rus only slightly more interesting because it is with players and authors from another Call of Cthulhu community. Jared Smith also contributes another entry in the ‘Sites of Antiquity’ series, this time ‘Temple of Melqart at Marat’ and suggests how the ruined Phoenician temple could be used with the Mythos.

Rounding out Bayt al Azif Issue 02 is the next part of Evan Johnston’s ‘Grave Spirits’. In Bayt al Azif Issue 01, this story took the central character of a doctor into Red Hook, but it was very much set-up and needed more episodes to develop the story. This part does and so delivers more impact and horror. It will be interesting to see where the story goes.

Physically, Bayt al Azif Issue 02 is a step forward in terms of production values and look. The layout is cleaner, tidier, and not as cramped or fiddly. The images are better handled and the is writing better.

Bayt al Azif Issue 02 is a better issue than Bayt al Azif Issue 01. It benefits from longer articles and a more diverse range of voices. In particular, the content from Cthulhus Rus opens up an aspect of the Call of Cthulhu community which would otherwise be inaccessible to the predominately English-speaking community, and of course, the scenarios are not only well done, but they also highlight Bayt al Azif as a vehicle for scenarios that whilst good, are not necessarily commercial enough to be published by Chaosium, Inc., Pelgrane Press, or a licensee. If there is perhaps an issue with the series it is that many of the articles around the scenario are about Call of Cthulhu rather than for Call of Cthulhu. So, there is no mechanical, historical, or background support for the roleplaying game and that does mean that neither a Keeper nor player has reason to come back to Bayt al Azif Issue 02.

Overall, Bayt al Azif Issue 02 is a good second issue, much improved on the first. Its better sense of professionalism is combined with a good range of voices, scenarios, and articles about Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. 

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