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Friday, 31 December 2010

Reviving the Unspeakable

Almost ten years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing the last issue of Pagan Publishing’s The Unspeakable Oath, the fanzine for Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu that for a decade had been bringing a more adult approach to both the game and the Cthulhu Mythos. The fanzine, by then more of a professional magazine than something that a fan might publish, had already been on hiatus for four years when issue #16/17 appeared. Sadly it was to go on hiatus again, this time for even longer. Its absence has been much mourned, so it was with no little joy that the game’s devotees greeted the announcement of its return. Even better, the new issue, #18 is now available as a PDF and physical copies will be wending their way to subscribers and contributors shortly. Mention of those contributors does mean that I need to make a confession as being amongst them, having contributed several reviews to the magazine’s regular reviews column, “The Eye of Light & Darkness.” Given how much I like The Unspeakable Oath and always have, and in particular, always liked its reviews, I do feel ever slightly both humbled and pleased to have so many of my own appear in this issue. Fortunately, Brian M. Sammons provides a pair of frothier film and book reviews to counterpoint my all too dry game reviews.

The subtitle for The Unspeakable Oath #18 is “A Digest of Arcane Lore for Cthulhu Mythos Roleplaying Games,” thus reflecting the changes in the gaming hobby since its last appearance in that there are five games available that do Lovecraftian Investigative Horror as well as a handful of publishers supporting Call of Cthulhu itself with new scenarios and sourcebooks. While this subtitle suggests much, only Call of Cthulhu itself is supported within the pages of the magazine. Perhaps future issues will do more than that, but that it only supports Call of Cthulhu should not be held against The Unspeakable Oath #18 as the ideas and material to be found within its pages are easily adapted to most of the other games of Lovecraftian Investigative Horror.

Physically, The Unspeakable Oath #18 is available as an eighty-two page greyscale magazine or as 13.06 Mb PDF. Its layout is clean, simple, and tidy compared to the most “recent” issues, its look echoing the fanzine styling of early issues. If on the one hand there is perhaps a little too much white page evident, then on the other, at least the text has room to breathe rather than having been crammed into its pages. One issue is with the art which sometimes feels overused – not repeated, but rather given too much space.

As ever the magazine consists of several regular features – Arcane Artefacts, Mysterious Manuscripts, Tales of Terror, and of course, the aforementioned, The Eye of Light and Darkness – slotted around a set of feature articles. Of the Arcane Artefacts I prefer Adam Gauntlett’s “The Chinaman’s Screen” to Dan Harms “The Forgotten” if only for the fact that it is designed to be just and implementing that in game is never going to be easy. The issue’s single Mysterious Manuscript, “The Branchly Numbers Edit” by Pat Harrigan gives such an obvious take on a very modern phenomenon, that of the Numbers Stations [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numbers_stations], that I am surprised that nobody has thought of it before. Nevertheless, a pleasingly modern manuscript is the result. John Scott Tynes contributes the first of the scenario seeds that are the Tales of Terror with “Mr. Popatov,” a puppet that could be something more, while Pat Harrigan’s second contribution, “Slight Return,” is an intriguing situation perfect for a long running Delta Green campaign. Crossroads are always dangerous places, and nevermore so – or not in “House of Hunger” by Monte Cook. Much the same can be said of art galleries, at least in Call of Cthulhu, as evidenced by Nick Grant’s “The Art Show.” All four Tales of Terror come with multiple explanations, enabling to the Keeper to run them as mysterious or as mundane as is his wont.

The first two of the issue’s features are perfect for anyone wanting to delve back into Call of Cthulhu canon. Curiously, given how he has figured in two classic Call of Cthulhu campaigns – Masks of Nyarlathotep and Day of the Beast (a.k.a. The Fungi From Yuggoth), it is surprising how little we know about the Black Pharoah himself, Nephren-Ka. In “Tales of Nephren-Ka,” James Haughton expands and develops what we do know, suggesting that he might actually be the Monotheist Akhenaten and adding tomes and spells devoted to his legend. Notable amongst these is the Book of Thoth, one tome that only the foolishly curious would ever want to read. There is plenty of background information here for the Mythos and plenty with which to dangle in front of the all too curious investigator.

The second feature addresses an issue so obvious it is a wonder that it has never been answered in the thirty years that we have had Call of Cthulhu, so be thankful that Dan Harms finally has. In those thirty years, the beginning scenario in the core rulebook has always been “The Haunted” (or “The Haunted House” as it was once known, though the scenario remained the same despite the change of name), and the likelihood is that more players have been run through that scenario than any other. Yet beyond the confines of a Keeper’s home grown campaign, no official source for the game has ever asked what came next or explained what the Chapel of Contemplation was. In “The Chapel of Contemplation: A Cult for Three Eras,” Harms expands on what little do know to lay bare the dark fraternity’s secrets and history from the middle of the nineteenth century until just the other week with story hooks in turn for Cthulhu by Gaslight, the classic period of the 1920s, and the here and now. Given that the cult is an offshoot of the Church of Starry Wisdom and has broken such ties with that organisation is all the more interesting were it to learn that a group of investigators was attempting to thwart the plans of the Crawling Chaos. What an interesting ally might The Chapel of Contemplation make in the fight against Nyarlathotep?

Rounding out the features is a slice of dark, all dusty history. In “Black Sunday” C.A. Suleiman and George Holochwost examine one of the worst natural side effects to hit the Dust Bowl – a blizzard of silt that got into every crevice and scoured every surface that it could. The facts about this day in particular and other chilling details about this ghastly natural disaster are kept short and sweet, and so are easy to bring into a game should the investigators come to visit the Oklahoma Pandhandle. Four such reasons are given, complete with story hooks, which either give a Mythos explanation for the Dust Bowl having occurred or a way in which elements of the Mythos have taken advantage of it. There is a nice balance between fact and fiction here, and while its contents might be set too late for most campaigns set in the Classic period of the 1920s, it should definitely be read by any Keeper running a Trail of Cthulhu game, which is indeed, set in the “Dirty Decade.”

This issue’s scenario is a detailed affair set in the Louisiana bayous after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The Keeper might want to consult the recently reprinted Secrets of New Orleans for background detail, but Richard A. Becker’s “Dog Will Hunt” – the title a fitting inversion of the Southern US expression, “that dog won’t hunt” – can be run without. More specifically, it is set in and around the township of Montegut which literally lies on the edge of the bayou. Not long having suffered an influx of Cajun refugees from the flood and anticipating the benefits that an oil rush might bring, the town has recently been beset by the disappearance of three of the refugees. Getting the investigators to Montegut and thus involved in the scenario is always going to be awkward, and the author gives several possibilities, but once there, he gives the curious a reason to stay, a man being harried to death before their very eyes.

Long on field work and short on academic research, “Dog Will Hunt” is, despite its not unwelcome degree of detail, a relatively simple scenario. The bulk of that detail is devoted to describing its various elements and suggestions as to what might occur, the scenario being more of a framework than an actual plot line with most of what might occur being due to investigator action. Identifying and getting to the villain of the piece will not be easy given the recalcitrant nature of the locals, but once found he should prove to be a memorable figure. It is a pity that the author could not have provided samples of his dotty dialogue, so the Keeper will have to be inventive here. There are one or two nice scenes written in though and another side effect of the degree of detail is that the author never strays into character cliché.

It has been both a long time since we have had a new issue of The Unspeakable Oath, and equally, it has been a few years since we have been able to hold in hands, any magazine, with any Call of Cthulhu content. So the return of that most professional of Call of Cthulhu fanzines is doubly welcome. Echoing more its early days in feel and style, The Unspeakable Oath #18 is the perfect forum for the type of shorter work that might not otherwise make into print. Long may the magazine continue its self held high standards, though for all games of Lovecraftian Investigative Horror, rather than just Call of Cthulhu.

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