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Sunday 20 May 2018

Lovecraftian Western Horror

‘Cowboys and Indians’ lie at the heart of hobby. A great many roleplaying games back in the day began their explanation of what roleplaying was by drawing parallels between roleplaying and games of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ (as well as Cops and Robbers) which we played as children. So, it was no surprise that as the hobby progressed we got roleplaying games set in the Old West, such as Boot Hill from TSR, Inc. in 1975 and Wild West from FGU in 1981, and more recently, Deadlands from Pinnacle Entertainment Group in 1996 and Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier from Kenzer and Company in 2007. Indeed, both of these last two roleplaying games would win the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game a decade apart. Now although Deadlands combined horror with the Old West, there has never been a supplement which took the Cosmic Horror of H.P. Lovecraft way out West. Now supplements and scenarios have certainly visited, such as Adios, A-Mi-Go!, the Dime Novel for Deadlands, ‘Call of Cthulhu in the Wild West: The Good, the Bad, and the Utterly Insane’ from Worlds of Cthulhu #2, ‘And Madness Shall Rise to Devour the West’ from The Red Eye of Azathoth, and the Basic Roleplay supplement, Devil’s Gulch: A Basic RolePlaying Historical and Supernatural Wild Western Supplement. All that changes with the publication of Down Darker Trails: Terrors of the Mythos in the Old West.

Published by Chaosium, Inc., Down Darker Trails: Terrors of the Mythos in the Old West is the official Old West sourcebook for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It is not quite straight Call of Cthulhu though, for it is designed to be used—as an option—with Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, to bring out the Pulp elements at the heart of its inspiration—the horror fiction of author Robert E. Howard. So, this is ‘gritty adventure’ rather than ‘pure nihilistic horror’ and both the mechanics and the setting support this, providing a history that covers the brutality of the period—physical, mental, and social—before it even begins describing the Supernatural West. What this background goes out of it way to highlight is the difference in social attitudes between the classic Call of Cthulhu set in the 1920s and the second half of the nineteenth century in Down Darker Trails. Racism is uncomfortably present in the former—however a gaming group wants to handle it—but in the period of Down Darker Trails, it is more explicit, prevalent, and all of the minorities suffer from it. This includes African-Americans, Chinese, Mexicans, and American Indians, the latter term being used throughout to encompass the many and varied tribes and nations of the continent’s indigenous peoples, but where the supplement can be specific, it uses the appropriate names of tribes and nations.

Character or investigator generation in Down Darker Trails is essentially the same as in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. A player selects an Occupation, rolls for characteristics, assigns skill points, and creates a backstory. Some twenty-six Occupations are listed, including Cowboy/Cowgirl, Dilettante/Greenhorn, Gambler, Outlaw, Rancher, Scout/Mountain Man or Woman, amongst others. A pleasing touch here is that the references to historical figures who had these Occupations as well as fictional figures from film and television are included in the Occupation descriptions. These help player and Keeper alike to visualise the type of characters typical to these Occupations.

In addition, some skills are altered, for example, the base chance for Electrical Repair is reduced as it is a new science and increased for Ride as most people know how to ride a horse. New skills are also added, including Gambling, Rope Use, and Trap. Four tables list Physical, Miscellaneous, Mental, and Combat Talents. These have been adjusted to fit the Old West setting, for example, Hunter’s Blood allows an investigator to spend Luck points to gain a bonus die on Track, Rope Use, and Trap skill rolls. If the Keeper is running Down Darker Trails with Pulp Cthulhu, it is suggested that an investigator start with two as standard. Advice is provided if a player wants to play an investigator of an ethnic background as well as rules for previous experience should an investigator have served in the Civil War.

Our sample investigator is a Civil War veteran left with burn scars on the right side of his face and chest after one charge under enemy cannon fire too many. He returned from the war scarred in more ways than one and disappeared into the mountains. In more recent years, he has worked as a scout and guide in New Mexico when he was not drunk on his own moonshine. About two years ago he found god and a way out of the bottle.

Herman Duncan
age 42, Mountain Man

STR 70 SIZ 65 CON 45 DEX 45
APP 25 INT 75 POW 70 EDU 81
SAN 55 Luck 65 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 8 HP 11

Brawl 65% (32/13), damage 1D3+db
Bowie Knife 65% (32/13), damage 1D4+2+db
Winchester Model 1873 Rifle 65% (32/13), damage 2D6+1 
Dodge 22% (11/04)
Skills: Climb 30%, Credit Rating 20%, Firearms (Rifle) 65%, First Aid 50%, Jump 30%, Listen 30%, Natural World 60%, Navigate 50%, Persuade 30%, Ride 55%, Stealth 60%, Survival (Desert) 40%, Track 67%, Trap 50%.
Languages: Athabaskan (Western Apache) 20%, English (Own) 81%, German 31%, Spanish 20%.

Personal Description: Rugged and stocky.
Ideology: There is evil in society which should be routed out—the demon drink!
Significant People: Reverend Eustace Cardew
Significance: Idolise them
Meaningful Location: Place where the worst thing happened
Treasured Possessions: Bible
Traits: Polite
Notes: Immune to sanity losses resulting from viewing a corpse or gross injury.

Some optional rules are provided for an Old West set campaign. These include increased Hit Points—needed because of the setting’s lethality and lack of good medicine, Being Quick on the Draw, Fanning, Dual-Wielding with Two Weapons, amongst others. The latter comes with a decent example too, but essentially dual-wielding involves a Penalty die being applied to both weapons, whether they are pistols or blades, and this of course, means that there is a significant increase in the chance that something will go awry… Guidelines are provided for handling chases with both horses and horse-drawn vehicles; for the treatment of insanity in the Old West—the cure rate is not high, unsurprisingly; and optionally, alcohol consumption, this actually a potential positive effect upon temporary insanity at least. This is all in addition to the expected lists of equipment, weaponry, and beasts of burden.

The history of the Old West begins with the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century and ends with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Its primary focus is on the period after the Civil War, covering the war in some detail before exploring the primary period subject by subject. So, everything from buffalo hunting and cattle drives towns and town life and trails across America are covered in enough detail to help the Keeper to ground her campaigns and describe any necessary details for her players. This is backed by descriptions of each of the frontier states and territories and some of the major locations and events there, such as the town of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory and the Lincoln County War in New Mexico. There are some notes on ‘Back East’, the states and cities east of the Mississippi, but they really just showcase how much the region deserves a supplement of its own.

Balancing this is an excellent section detailing each of the major ‘culture groups’ and tribes to be found west of the Mississippi. Some twenty tribes are described in detail sufficient to create an investigators or investigators from any these tribes and again some notes are given on running an American Indian campaign. As with the notes on ‘Back East’, they are really only a starting point and they are deserving of a supplement or scenario anthology of their own. Rounding out the Old West section is a who’s who of the period, including American Indians, Civil War generals, lawmen and outlaws, and more. For Mythos devotees, the inclusion of Ambrose Bierce is a nice touch, as is Stagecoach Mary, and again the authors do make every effort to highlight figures of note of all ethnicities and genders, not Caucasian men.

The Old West takes up roughly half of Down Darker Trails, setting everything up for the second half, the Supernatural West. This begins with an examination of the possible creatures and entities of the Mythos to be found in the Supernatural West. In general, most of the entries, like Sand-Dwellers, Serpent People, K’n-yanians, and Yig, are what most devotees of Lovecraftian investigative horror world expect and so it feels slightly underwhelming, but there are a few surprises. For example, The Faceless God, an avatar of Nyarlathotep, better known to be found as a Sphinx in Egypt, might be found in the western deserts by some unwitting traveller… One issue with many of the entries is that they are not listed in the Keeper’s Rulebook, but in the Malleus Monstrorum, a supplement which is not in print at this time (a reprint and upgrade to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is planned). Various Mythos tomes are suggested which might be found in the Supernatural West along with several new ones. In addition, several new cults and secret societies are described, as shamanic or folk magic, should the Keeper want to include that option.

Things take a turn for the weird with ‘Lost Worlds of the Old West’, four locations either lost or somewhere to get lost in. Two are based on short stories. ‘Lost Valley’ is based on Robert E. Howard’s ‘The Secret of the Lost Valley’, whilst ‘K’n-Yan’ is based on ‘The Mound’ by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop. The other two are new, ‘The Shadow-Desert’ describing a bleak parallel version of our world which can be entered physically and in dreams, whilst time has stood still in ‘El Canon De Los Viejos’ for millennia. So is perfect for a Weird West Valley of the Gwangi-style games. The advice on designing adventures might be a bit short, but it certainly showcases the author’s knowledge of the genre and there are plenty of suggestions here on campaign set-up and possible scenarios.

Rounding out Down Darker Trails are detailed descriptions of two towns, along with two scenarios. Pawheton is rough and ready gold-rush town in Dakota Territory a la Deadwood, more a tent town than an established city, whilst San Rafael is a long-established cattle ranching town on the Texas-Mexico border. If the first is inspired by the television series, Deadwood, then the latter is drawn from the Spaghetti Western trilogy, so Pawheton feels like a modern take on the Old West setting, whilst San Rafael feels like a nod to a classic take. Both though, are riven by factions and both have their secrets and rumours, some of them Mythos related, and in San Rafael, there is at least a connection to a classic Call of Cthulhu scenario from The Cthulhu Companion. The first of the two scenarios, ‘Something from Down There’ can be outside either town and sees the investigators hired to check on some miners working a nearby claim who have not come into town recently. The challenge here is in dealing with what the miners have unfortunately dug down to, but this is in general, a straightforward affair which echoes the tales of Robert E. Howard. ‘Scanlon’s Daughter’ is set in San Rafael and is not so straightforward. It is best described as a Mythos tinged version of Romeo and Juliet and requires much more in the way of roleplaying than does ‘Something from Down There’, and so is the more sophisticated and interesting of the two.

Physically, Down Darker Trails is nicely presented as you would expect from Chaosium these days. It is liberally illustrated, with lots of period photos and classic art of the Old West. In comparison, the new art is not quite as good—and in the case of the NPC collages for both the towns and the scenarios, utterly useless. Both the old and the new maps are good, although the map of San Rafael is much, much better. The book is also well written, providing a balanced approach to what is potentially a contentious subject matter.

Unlike previous attempts to bring the Cthulhu Mythos to the Old West, Down Darker Trails is unarguably more comprehensive and better researched—at least going by the extensive bibliography at the back of the book and the references scattered throughout its pages. It provides a solid foundation upon which a Keeper can build and run her Supernatural West campaign, providing plenty of suggestions and ideas along the way. If it falters slightly in its examination of the Mythos, then the supplement more than makes up for that when it applies both genre and Mythos knowledge in the two settings and the two scenarios. Overall, Down Darker Trails: Terrors of the Mythos in the Old West is a balanced and mature take upon the Old West with some great examples of how to twist it into the Supernatural West.


Chaosium, Inc. will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

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