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Sunday 11 September 2016

Shining for Cthulhu Dark

Sun Spots is the second scenario designed by Dave Sokolowski following on from He Who Laughs Last. Like He Who Laughs Last, it is another scenario written for use with Cthulhu Dark – A Rules-Light system For Lovecraftian Horror, the stripped down RPG designed by Graham Walmsley, the author of Stealing Cthulhu, but unlike Like He Who Laughs Last, it is not set in the here and now, but in the heyday of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the Jazz Age of the 1920s. More specifically, it takes place in 1926, west of Boston in Massachusetts, so in a period and setting that will be familiar to most players of games of Lovecraftian investigative horror.

As it opens, the investigators are on that journey west of Boston, driving in midwinter to Red Valley. They are in the employ of Daniel Peterson, a prominent New England banker, accompanying him to the mountain resort where he believes  that has his daughter has fallen under the influence of a cult, perhaps a pagan one or a Communist collective after having failed to return to college. He has already been to the town to speak to his daughter, but now he hopes that the investigators will not only be able to help him talk to his daughter again, but also help extract her too and get her back to college. Yet when the party reaches the high mountain valley, they find themselves not in town drawing itself in ready for a worsening winter, but inhabitants and visitors alike in turns praying and cavorting under clear blue skies and bright sunshine as if it was the Fourth of July. Having come dressed for the season, are the investigators ready for a day at the beach?

Upon investigating the balmy situation—a matter of talking to the town’s now many inhabitants rather than delving into musty tomes—the player characters will learn that that they have become worshippers of the Sun. Upon closer examination, this worship seems not to actually centre on the sun itself, but upon stones that they meditate upon. Known as Sunstones, these play a central role in the scenario, the inhabitants of the town becoming increasingly obsessed with them as they come to represent a source of power and influence. As this escalates, where Sun Spots gets interesting is in two ways… First is in the rising religious mania and feuding between rival interpretations of how the Sun should be ‘correctly’ worshipped. Second is in how the investigators are likely to need to obtain Sunstones of their own—a challenge in its own right as the various faiths feud over possession of these artifacts—if they are to truly understand the threat that the Sunstones represent. There are of course dangers inherent to this in that any investigator who examines a Sunstone is likely to become obsessed with the artifact himself and hinder, if not outright endanger the investigation and the other investigators… There is even an opportunity for the investigators to become involved in the religious mania in way or another, right up to them actually leading their own Sun-worshipping cult. 

Although the Mythos is having a direct influence upon the events in Sun Spots, its effect is more a force of the natural universe and whilst that effect is catastrophic in the long term, in the short term the primary is represented by the religious mania that sweeps Red Valley. There is of course a Mythos explanation to the events in the resort town, but these are quite underplayed. This explanation revolves around a new interpretation of Azathoth, the Blind Idiot God, one that is more stellar than interstellar in nature. In some ways, the powers presented in the scenario might be more readily said to belong to the purview of Cthugha, and should a Keeper not agree with the author’s interpretation of the Daemon Sultan, then perhaps Cthugha might be a suitable substitute. 

In addition to the scenario itself, Sun Spots also includes two appendices. The first presents the rules for Cthulhu Dark – A Rules-Light system For Lovecraftian Horror, a set of simple rules that in three or so pages gives everything needed to play a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror. What this means is that Sun Spots comes as a complete package. That said, the second appendix includes some of the scenario author’s house rules for Cthulhu Dark. These cover the use of skills and particular skills and a means to advance your surviving investigators. Both are simple enough, but both slightly move the rules away from the rules light, bare bones, horrifyingly uncaring simplicity of Cthulhu Dark.

Physically, Sun Spots is well presented, though it could do with a little more organisation to better order its information and a slightly tighter edit. It is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is reasonable. The one map, a topographical map of the town of Red Valley and its environs, is nicely done, though what it really highlights is the need for a map of the town itself, which is not included in the scenario. Of course, the Keeper can run Sun Spots using just the description of Red Valley included in the scenario, but a map would be a sufficiently useful aid. There are some elements where the scenario could be developed a little, particularly to present the rival religious factions, but there is perhaps still time for this.

Interestingly, Sun Spots did not begin life as a scenario for use with Cthulhu Dark, but rather as a submission for The Outer Gods, a cancelled scenario anthology for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition that would have been published by the late and much lamented Miskatonic River Press. Although it was never published, in the decade since, the author has had the time to develop the scenario and then develop it again for use with Cthulhu Dark. Much of this is chronicled in the author’s introduction, the inclusion of which provides the interesting backstory for Sun Spots.

What this introduction does highlight is that Sun Spots can be run using the game system of your choice, so long of course, as it has mechanics for handling mental states and shock and loss of sanity. The inclusion of skills—a house rule variant rather the standard rules for Cthulhu Dark—is actually helpful to that end, but since Cthulhu Dark is such a light system, there is very little impediment for the Keeper who wants to run the scenario using any RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, whether that be Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, or Realms of Cthulhu. All he has to do is create the stats for the various NPCs and artifacts.

The history behind Sun Spots presents a moment to reflect upon what might have been had Miskatonic River Press remained in business. Although the publisher released a limited number of books not a single one of them was a bad book. In fact all of them were good—even great books—the latter including a campaign in the form of The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, to date the best support for the Cthulhu Invictus setting. Further, Miskatonic River Press has spurred further publishers such as Golden Goblin Press and Stygian Fox. In looking back and thinking about the scenarios that appeared in New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley and More Adventures in Arkham County, it is not difficult to see why Sun Spots would have been a suitable inclusion in a Miskatonic River Press anthology.

In presenting a new interpretation of an Outer God, Sun Spots brings an uncaring and elemental influence to bear down on New England, but this is pleasingly manifest in an all too human a fashion—pride, belief, and religious mania that are as much a threat to the investigators as the Daemon Sultan is himself. Sun Spots is a delightfully balmy investigation into the dangers of sun worship.


This review is of the pre-release version of Sun Spots. This is of the version of the scenario written for use with Cthulhu Dark – A Rules-Light system For Lovecraftian Horror. As of Tuesday, 13th September, 2016, Sun Spots will be published for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. The scenario is currently on Kickstarter.

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