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Saturday 10 September 2016

Cthulhu Without Cthulhu II

Nameless Horrors: Six Reasons to Fear the Unknown is an anthology of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and is indeed the first anthology of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, having been published as a stretch goal for the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Kickstarter. It brings together both the co-author and the editor of the new edition of the original RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, plus a prolific scenario writer—in order, Paul Fricker, Scott Dorward, and Matthew Sanderson, who are together the hosts of the podcast, The Good Friends of Jackson Elias—to pen two scenarios each for a total of six. What marks this anthology out in comparison to previous releases for Call of Cthulhu is that none its scenarios involve traditional horrors of the Mythos. No Nyarlathotep or the King in Yellow, no Elder Things or Shoggoths, no Ghouls or Byakhee, and so on. This is not to say that none of the scenarios in Nameless Horrors are Lovecraftian, for many exude a sense of the greater or cosmic unknown and embrace the fragility of humanity in the face of this unknown. In this they differ from the scenarios presented in Pagan Publishing’s similar Bumps in the Night, which presented a quintet of non-Mythos scenarios, but the intent of both collections is to present situations and scenarios that veteran players of Call of Cthulhu can enjoy and be challenged by shorn of their familiarity of the Cthulhu Mythos. Hence the subtitle, ‘Six Reasons to Fear the Unknown’.

Where Nameless Horrors really differs over the earlier Bumps in the Night is that its six scenarios are all one-shots, that is, not specifically designed to be slotted into a campaign. Each comes with a set of six pre-generated player characters, player characters rather than investigators since these are not scenarios in the traditional sense of Call of Cthulhu and thus the characters are not investigators in the traditional sense. Each player character comes with his own objectives and motivations and relationships—both positive and negative—with the other player characters and the NPCs. This enables the players to engage with each scenario relatively easily and gives them reason to get involved in its plot. All three authors have extensive experience with this type of scenario, having run these or similar ones at gaming conventions over the past few years. The scenarios take the players to Cthulhu by Gaslight—and earlier, to the Jazz Age of classic Call of Cthulhu, to the opening years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and lastly to the modern day.

It opens with the two scenarios by Matthew Sanderson and gets off to bad start with ‘An Amaranthine Desire’. Not necessarily the scenario itself, but rather its presentation, which begins with a thick wodge of history about the medieval seaport of Dunwich, that is, the ‘other’ Dunwich. Although it becomes clear later in the scenario, initially it is unclear as how the player characters are involved, nor is it clear whether the scenario is set in the eighteenth century (from the introduction of Nameless Horrors), the nineteenth century (from the player handout which is not presented until ten pages into the scenario), or the thirteenth century, which the bulk of the scenario is devoted to. Once it does become clear, what is actually happening is that for reasons beyond their understanding, a band of smugglers from the Victorian era have been cast back into medieval Suffolk and must prevent a great evil from happening that threatens the future of the region.

Specifically, the smugglers find themselves washed ashore in medieval Suffolk amidst a plot involving greed, witchcraft, and murder. Besides the characters being fish out of water, the other intriguing fact about ‘An Amaranthine Desire’ is that the player characters can make multiple attempts to thwart the plotting of its villain as the night loops and repeats itself in Groundhog Day fashion—a comparison that the author makes himself. This looping of time is not without its consequences as the characters will discover, so giving the scenario its urgency. The plot is relatively straightforward given the amount of background, but it may take the players a few times to work their way through it to understand what is going on and the final resolution should be influenced by the pre-generated characters, not all of whom have Suffolk’s (or England’s) best interests at heart. Feeling not a little like Groundhog Day meets Macbeth, the danger with  ‘An Amaranthine Desire’ is that it may fizzle out if the players fail to grasp the plot, but its structure should make it a memorable affair and should the characters survive, the scenario does throw one final loop when they return to the future...

Sanderson’s second scenario is ‘A Message of Art’ for use with Cthulhu by Gaslight. It is set in Paris at the height of the Belle Époque. The year is 1892 and the characters are involved in the avant-garde art world of the City of Light. All are invited to the closing party of the Salon de la Rose + Croix, which has become known for its prominent Symbolist painters, writers, and composers. Each has his own reason to attend, whether that is to gain access to the Mystic Order de la Rose + Croix out of which the Salon grew, looking for art to purchase or confirmation of rumoured disharmony within the Salon, to gain membership, and so on. Equally, the members of the Salon have their own reasons for attending, most of them at odds with each other and there is opportunity in the scenario’s opening scenes for the characters to become involved in various intrigues and rivalries. To an extent the Keeper will have to push these rivalries to the fore and pull the characters into the scenario as the characters’ own motives may not be strong enough to initially involve in the scenario’s plot. Later in the scenario this will not pose as much of a problem.

The scenario describes itself as a “social, sandbox environment”. What this means is that the characters are free to visit and interact with whomever they want and whatever order they want. This is not a scenario about exploring Paris, but rather the inhabitants of a small world within the city. This will become increasingly necessary as one by one each of its members—and quite likely one or more of the characters as well—falls victim to an existential threat: inspiration made physical. Essentially, once infected, a character is driven create the most perfect piece of art he can or die. Thematically this is a perfect fit for the avant-garde art world of the 189os, but it feels highly exclusive and ill-suited for use with Call of Cthulhu investigators from a more traditional campaign, despite the suggestions given to that end. Further, once one of the player characters becomes infected or inspired by his muse, then the scenario becomes somewhat heavy handed in its use of timing mechanism in pushing it to the climax.

Where neither ‘An Amaranthine Desire’ nor ‘A Message of Art’ could be moved to another location without great difficulty, this is much less of a problem with ‘And Some Fell on Stony Ground’. This is the first of the two scenarios by Paul Fricker and is nominally set in Stowell, an archetypical American small town, but it could be relocated with relative ease. That said, it is heavily built around the pre-generated player characters and they are specifically pushed at certain points in the scenario. The player characters are simple townsfolk—waitresses, teachers, barbers, and so—whose quiet lives are thrown out of kilter when other townsfolk begin acting oddly. Initially this might be seen as the eccentricities of small town life, but the inhabitants of Stowell soon become divided between those who driven because they suddenly have some great gift and those that lose much of their will because they do not, the latter often becoming enslaved to the former. This effect ripples across the town and can come to include the characters, and as this exacerbates, the town’s once stable society collapses.

There are multiple paths to uncovering what has befallen the small town, most initially built around the links that the pre-generated characters have with their families and other townsfolk. The investigation itself is loosely structured around Call of Cthulhu’s classic onionskin format with the characters peeling back layer upon layer to reveal the mystery at the heart of ‘And Some Fell on Stony Ground’. Resolving it though has its consequences as the situation in the town will break out into the brutal survival horror it has been hinting at all along. Arguably ‘And Some Fell on Stony Ground’ harks back to the core of play in Call of Cthulhu, that is, ordinary men and women forced to contend with and confront the extraordinary—and there are no more ordinary characters than those presented here. The scenario is all the more refreshing and all the more intense for it.

Scott Dorward’s first contribution to the anthology, ‘Bleak Prospect’ is perhaps the most obviously Lovecraftian, but then it does draw upon H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, From Beyond for its inspiration. It is set during the Great Depression and as it opens the characters find themselves all but destitute, forced to live in the Hooverville or shantytown on the edge of the New England town where they once had successful businesses and nice homes. (Perhaps this might be the eventual destination for those investigators who stalwartly faced the unknown in the previous decade and have now found their retirement not to have lived up to their hopes?) Yet their mouldering lives are further beset by a strange, almost desiccating disease, supposedly faceless men preying upon the camp in barely remembered attacks, and one of the children also living at the camp is also missing.

From the start, the efforts of the characters to determine the cause of both the malaise and the attacks, as well as locating the missing children are hampered not just by their newly suffered lack of social status, but also mechanically in game terms. Quite literally, they are down on their luck. Although they have their allies, it seems as the whole of their world is against them and to be fair, it is. Though there is good reason for this within the scenario, it still seems unfair, but the destitute world of the characters is an uncaring one and so unfair it should be. There is no doubt that ‘Bleak Prospect’ lives up to its name, right up to its horridly organic climax.

The penultimate scenario is the second by Paul Fricker. ‘The Moonchild’ is a contemporary set affair that is nominally set in the town of Milton Keynes and nearby Northampton, although this really has no effect upon the scenario whatsoever and it can easily be relocated to the town and country of the Keeper’s choice. (That said, it would have been interesting if the author had involved the setting in the scenario.) The players take the roles of very ordinary middle-aged folk whose lives never lived up to the hopes they had in college. Once members of the college occult society, they decide to come together again after making contact again on social media. One of their number wants their help. She is still involved with the leader of the occult society from two decades and he is not only threatening her and her family, but now she tells them, he is threatening them, the other former members of the society.

Echoing films such as The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, ‘The Moonchild’ is a nasty, grim affair on several levels. One because it twists the characters’ beliefs and sense of what is real; two, because it grounds the scenario in the sordid underbelly of recession-set United Kingdom; and three, because none of the pre-generated characters are innocent in either the events that set up the scenario or those that have occurred since. Lastly, because it should be noted that ‘The Moonchild’ does deal with issues of child abuse, possible incest/molestation, and sex with a minor, making it the most adult of the scenarios in Nameless Horrors. Fortunately, a warning is given, but a Keeper may need to make adjustments so as not to upset or offend his players.

The plot to ‘The Moonchild’ feels much like that of a film and more like a traditional horror scenario rather than one that is strictly Lovecraftian. Nevertheless, it is the most horrifying of the six scenarios in Nameless Horrors, primarily because the pre-generated characters are the most involved in the horror.

Rounding out the anthology is ‘The Space Between’, Scott Dorward’s second contribution. It takes place in Los Angeles where the player characters are the cast and crew of the eponymously named movie which will showcase the teachings of the Church of Sunyata, a popular faith in Hollywood and beyond. The player characters also are members the Church and keen to prove their loyalty to the Church by getting the film finished and released when its leading actress fails to report to the set and its director has gone into hiding. Scenarios set in Hollywood tend to be quite fun and there is a certain frisson to ‘The Space Between’ because of the parallels between the fictional Church of Sunyata and a real world cult noted for having various Hollywood stars as leading members and there is a certain wry amusement to be had in spotting the various parallels as they appear.

Getting to the heart of ‘The Space Between’ means getting to the heart of Church of Sunyata and learning its secrets. This should be a profoundly shocking experience for the player characters who have obviously invested their faith and their lives in the Church and those secrets are likely to shatter both. Worse is the possibility that the player characters become true converts to the Church and so hasten the spread of the Church’s teachings. This is in turns a funny and a horrid scenario, one that takes the idea of the emptiness at the heart of Hollywood to its furthest extent...

Physically, what sets Nameless Horrors apart from other titles for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is that it is wholly done in black and white. Indeed, it is the last black and white book to be released for Call of Cthulhu. That said, the scenarios are themselves cleanly presented and each comes with well-done cartography, some decent artwork, and a relationship map, the latter showing the relationships between both the player characters and the NPCs. In places the book needs another edit and the relationship maps—as useful an idea that they are—would have worked better if they had not been placed at right angle to the page. It is also a pity that the various handouts, although serviceable, are presented in as pedestrian a fashion as they could be. Perhaps the least attractive aspect of Nameless Horrors is the player character thumbnail portraits which are bland and characterless in comparison to the depictions of the various NPCs.

For many, the problem with Nameless Horrors is twofold. First, these are scenarios aimed more at veteran players of the game rather than than those new to Call of Cthulhu and whilst this does not mean that players new to Call of Cthulhu cannot play them, it does mean that they do present a challenge to anyone who is new to being a Keeper. Second, these scenarios are all one-shots and despite the notes included in several of the scenarios, not really suited for play as part of an ongoing or existing campaign. This means that the entries in Nameless Horrors may not get as much play or as much use as those in other collections beyond serving as a source of ideas for the Keeper. The advantage of the format of course is that the authors can create tighter setups with stronger reasons for the investigators to get involved. In that case, perhaps one of the ways in which any one of the scenarios contained in Nameless Horrors might be used is as the setup for continuing investigations? Depending upon the outcome, of course...

If there is another linking element to this sextet of scenarios, it is perhaps the built-in timing mechanisms—different in each case—that pushes the plot of each scenario forward. This comes primarily from the authors having run these and other scenarios at conventions in limited timeslots and whilst it works in all cases, it is not always subtle. Nevertheless, there is not a bad scenario in this anthology, though perhaps the scenarios in the second half of the book are the more interesting ones. All six though, succeed in meeting the remit of Nameless Horrors: Six Reasons to Fear the Unknown—presenting threats and dangers that are original yet still Lovecraftian in tone and challenge.

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