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Friday 30 October 2015

Cthulhu Classics IV

From one week to the next, Reviews from R’lyeh writes reviews of new games and supplements with an emphasis on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. The Cthulhu Classics series concentrates on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but not those recently released, but those of the past. There have been innumerable titles published over the years and this is an opportunity to appraise them anew, often decades after they were first released.

For the fourth entry in this series, Reviews of R’lyeh turns to another innovative title, The Asylum & Other Tales. When this was published in 1983 by Chaosium, Inc., it was the second release for Call of Cthulhu following the first release and first campaign for the RPG, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. This was at a time when scenarios—typified by those published by TSR, Inc. for Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons—appeared as single adventures. Not collections, not anthologies, but single affairs that if there were follow-ups, then they too, would appear as single adventures. So a collection of unconnected scenarios was something of an innovation in 1983. Subtitled “Seven Common Situations as Viewed through the Cthulhu Mythos”, The Asylum & Other Tales was also innovative in terms of the stories it was telling, presenting themes and ideas that were new to roleplaying and to Call of Cthulhu just two years after the RPG’s publication in 1981, but which have been revisited again and again in the three decades since the publication of The Asylum & Other Tales. Thus we have scenarios that deal with auctions, madness—yes, literally, a sea voyage, and a haunted house. If these sound like cliches, remember that in Call of Cthulhu terms, these scenarios were here first.

The Asylum & Other Tales opens with Randy McCall’s first contribution to the anthology. ‘The Auction’ is about an auction, but one set in Vienna, Austria, where there will be an array of occult artefacts and tomes available to bid upon. The investigators are invited to attend, either as proxy for another party or in their own right. This is a high class soiree where the investigators need to mind their manners, but their reputations and even their uncouth skills are put to use when the head of the auction house asks them to investigate the death of an employee and the theft of one of the artefacts up for auction. ‘The Auction’ has the reputation of being a classic scenario and it is a reputation that it still deserves. It comes with a decent cast of well drawn NPCs—an absolute must at an auction, it includes enough detail to touch upon the difficult economic conditions in Austria following the Great War, and the murder mystery is creepy and atmospheric—and ultimately sad.

If there is an issue with ‘The Auction’ it is the number of ‘magical’ items on display. In any other scenario they would probably overwhelm the adventure, but here they are the point of the scenario. All of them are nicely described, their descriptions adding further depth to the scenario and possibly future scenarios should they come into the investigators’ possession. ‘The Auction’ is still a classic and undoubtedly the star of the anthology.

It is followed by Mark Harmon’s ‘The Madman’ which is set in the quiet town of Black Knob. It is here that a friend of the investigators, Adam Smythe, has retired following one too many a mental shock after an investigation into the unknown. Unfortunately a series of disappearances in the town forces Adam to alert the investigators, but as they will soon discover, Adam has another side to him. Scenarios for Call of Cthulhu rarely deal with the effects of investigating the Mythos and the resulting loss of Sanity as directly as this, but as simple an idea as ‘The Madman’ is, the execution required is more complex than it at first seems. The Keeper needs to be careful in portraying this NPC without giving the game away, whilst the option of having a player bring out an old investigator out of retirement again needs careful handling for the same reasons. One issue with ‘The Madman’ is that it does overegg the Mythos slightly, but the removal of a single Mythos creature is easily done and should be enough to address this issue.

The third scenario, ‘Black Devil Mountain’, has a justifiably and uneviable record as one of the worst scenarios ever published for Call of Cthulhu. Written by Dave Hargrave, the designer of The Arduin Trilogy and author of ‘Dark Carnival’ from Curse of the Cthonians, ‘Black Devil Mountain’ opens with much promise. The brother of one of the investigators has died, leaving him a cabin and some land on the side of Black Devil Mountain in New England. The circumstances behind the brother’s death are not exactly clear and when the investigators begin to look into it, they find themselves shunned by the local townsfolk. Yet careful interaction with some of the more welcoming townsfolk will grant them some information, whilst a guide, Ol’ Tom, promises to take them up the mountain to the brother’s land. Up until this point, the scenario has been progressing well, providing various avenues of investigation and several nicely done encounters with the townsfolk. Sadly, with the arrival of Ol’ Tom the quality of the scenario plummets. The depiction of this NPC verges on racism and then there is the Mound atop Black Devil Mountain. Within is not the lair of some dark beast, but a veritable menagerie of Mythos creatures, seemingly added without rhyme nor reason. Not only is the effect of this—along with various traps—to turn the investigators’ delvings into a series of deadly encounters, it essentially turns the Mound into the equivalent of a Mythos dungeon, home to enraged bears, zombies, ghouls, and cthonians of different sizes, which the investigators are expected to return to again and again in order to deal with the problem. Which is unlikely given that the investigators are unlikely to survive their first delve let alone a second…

Where ‘The Madman’ overeggs the Mythos, ‘Black Devil Mountain’ shovels in the Mythos equivalent of a full English breakfast. This only serves to highlight a lack of understanding upon the part of the author as to what a Call of Cthulhu adventure is not. Sadly not even its decent beginning can rescue what is a deadly, dull adventure written in the mode of Dungeons & Dragons rather than Call of Cthulhu which deserves all of the opprobrium heaped upon it.

Randy McCall’s ‘The Asylum’ is his second contribution to this anthology, but it is a less interesting and less effective affair. It is set in an asylum where its psychiatrist has been conducting experiments into the Mythos. Thus it is just the place to send an investigator once he has been sent insane by one too many an encounter with the Mythos, but this really is the only way to use ‘The Asylum’. Otherwise, this is more of a set-up or situation awaiting some kind of a hook to get the investigators involved. Another issue is that it overdoes the Mythos in the number of books and artefacts to be found and they feel too much like random treasure rather than things to worry the investigators and their players with.

Similarly, ‘The Mauretania’ by M.B. Willner suffers from the same problem, but it is a case of too many Mythos Tomes and too many artefacts. Plus ‘The Mauretania’ also has a plot or two strand too many which if used makes the journey presented in ‘The Mauretania’ all too busy for just a six day voyage. Nevertheless, ‘The Mauretania’ is regarded as another classic, though more because it concerns itself with a voyage across the Atlantic aboard one of the ‘Queens of the Sea’ as a means of getting from New York to England (and Europe)—typically as part of The Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign—rather than taking the trip for one's health—as suggested in the text. What ‘The Mauretania’ packs into the six-day trip includes assassins, scholars of the Mythos, cultists of the Mythos, investigators of the Mythos, and a mad killer in the mode of Jack the Ripper. (See what I mean by “a plot or two strand too many…”?) Shorn of the extraneous plots and ‘The Mauretania’ is a solid affair.

In the introduction to The Asylum & Other Tales, it states that “The Gate spell has proved to be one of the more durable spells in Call of Cthulhu.”, which sort of suggests that players are having their investigators cast Create Gate and the consequences be damned. In John Scott Clegg’s ‘Gate from the Past’, the investigators are hired by Miskatonic University after strange lights on a hill outside town have sent a local man mad. The problem with ‘Gate from the Past’ is that it throws the investigators up against a threat that they are entirely unprepared for and even if they were, are wholly incapable of dealing with it. This threat comes in the form of Elder Things escaping from the past who due to a mix up with the Create Gate spell are followed by a dinosaur and six Shoggoths! Really!? The investigators could easily follow the ceratosaur back into the past and this is certainly hinted at by the scenario’s artwork, which depicts the investigators dressed for a safari being chased by the ceratosaur. Sadly though, as much as ‘Gate from the Past’ is an interesting idea, here its execution manages to underwhelm the Keeper and player alike as much as the investigators will probably be overwhelmed by the Shoggoths. Interestingly, this scenario includes playtest notes, surely a first…?

Rounding out The Asylum & Other Tales, ‘The Westchester House’ is a ghost hunt written by Elizabeth A Woolcott. Part of the pleasure of this scenario is that it is based upon a real location—the Winchester Mystery House—and a real person—Sarah Winchester. The action though is moved to San Francisco rather than San Jose where the investigators are hired to investigate strange knocks in the home of a wealthy heiress who has an unwavering belief in ghosts. This combines strange goings on with a backstory that involves murder, forgeries, and weird child mediums. What the scenario does not involve is the Mythos, the result being a deliciously frothy mix that can serve as a ‘vanilla’ palate cleanser between more ‘mundane’ confrontations with the Mythos.

Physically, The Asylum & Other Tales, like many of Chaosium Inc.’s early books for Call of Cthulhu has a slightly rough around the edges feel. Both the artwork and cartography are a little scrappy, but a lot of it is nicely atmospheric. The writing though could be much tighter and there is a lot information—particularly in the form of spells and books—that is repeated again and again from the core rulebook. The book also includes a selection of handouts stapled into its centre, the best of which is the catalogue for the auction in ‘The Auction’.

The real issue with The Asylum & Other Tales is that too many of its scenarios overuse the Mythos. Typically, one type of Mythos entity too many—especially Ghouls, too many Mythos tomes lying around for the investigators to find them, and the NPCs knowing far too much Cthulhu Mythos skill. This of course does not affect ‘The Westchester House’ and of course ‘Black Devil Mountain’ is case all on its own, but this is certainly the case in scenario after scenario in this anthology. That said, The Asylum & Other Tales was written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition at a time when the only model for writing scenarios was Dungeons & Dragons and the proliferation of Mythos artefacts and tomes does feel like treasure waiting to be found…

Anders Swenson reviewed The Asylum & Other Tales in Different Worlds #35 (July/August 1984), stating that “The Asylum has some of the same problems as its predecessor Shadows of Yog-Sothoth: some of the scenario chapters are poorly organized, and some sanity-loss situations are down-right silly.” before concluding with “Overall, this is a fine collection of Lovecraftian adventures will worth the attention of enthusiastic keepers and completist fans of H.P. Lovecraft.”

The author of Cthulhu by Gaslight, William A. Barton, reviewed The Asylum & Other Tales in Fantasy Gamer #5 (April/May 1984). He described the scenarios as “well thought out” and found “"The Auction" and ''The Asylum" perhaps the most interesting.” He did however, have minor problems with the anthology—“The "weird geometry" of the Winchester House would be easier to portray had plans of more than one hall been provided. Several Mythos books in "Mauretania" have more spells listed than the game rules allow.” and he would “...[H]ave rather seen more scenario description and fewer notes on the playtests in "Gate," given the scenario's shortness. Nevertheless, he concluded with “In spite of these minor flaws , The Asylum & Other Tales is a worthy addition to the Cthulhu Mythos and should be snatched up hand and tentacle by all CoC Keepers.”

Writing in White Dwarf #47 (November, 1983), Jon Sutherland gave The Asylum & Other Tales nine out of ten and wrote, “In conclusion Asylum is a neat collection providing short interesting adventures. I have always thought that scenarios go on too long and the vitality of the story and the players tail off. Black Devil Mountain and Asylum are the strongest of the group. Quality-wide it compares very favourably with Shadows. Don’t get put off the price!” (Note that the price for The Asylum & Other Tales was £7.95 in 1983 and by ‘Shadows’, the reviewer is referring to Shadows of Yog-Sothoth.) It is fair to say that with the benefit of hindsight, The Asylum & Other Tales does not deserve so high a grade and ‘Devil Black Mountain’ cannot be described in any way shape or form as “...the strongest of the group.” Never have I disagreed with the opinion of another review more than I do with Jon Sutherland here. Even if you consider that in 1983, there was so very little for the reviewer to compare one Call of Cthulhu scenario with another, comparing ‘Black Devil Mountain’ with the other scenarios in this anthology would have been enough to determine how dreadful this scenario is.

All seven scenarios from The Asylum & Other Tales would reprinted in 1990’s The Cthulhu Casebook along with ‘The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn’ and ‘Thoth's Dagger’ from Curse of the Cthonians. Looking at them thirty years on, the seven scenarios in The Asylum & Other Tales are a mixed bag. ‘Black Devil Mountain’ was and still is a contender for one of the worst scenarios ever published for Call of Cthulhu, but the remaining six are solid affairs of which ‘The Auction’ and ‘The Mauretania’ are classics. Certainly both of the latter could be run today using the new Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition without the players noticing any difference—and arguably any of the scenarios could being updated and published for the new edition.‘Black Devil Mountain’ being the notable exception as it would require a lot of effort, but then all of the scenarios here would require an edit and a scaling back of their Mythos quotas before being published anew.

All together the seven scenarios in The Asylum & Other Tales present a snapshot of Call of Cthulhu writing as it was in 1983, just as the writers were laying down many of the ideas that authors have since revisited again and again. They feel rough and ready, but no less playable and whilst it it might one of the worst scenarios ever published for Call of Cthulhu, it is fortunate that all of the other scenarios in The Asylum & Other Tales more than make up for ‘Black Devil Mountain’.


With thanks to Dean Engelhardt and Chitin who both graciously took the time to provide access to contemporary reviews of The Asylum & Other Tales. Dean was able to furnish me with the review from Fantasy Gamer #5 and Chitin Proctor with the review from Different Worlds #35.

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