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Sunday 9 June 2019

Miskatonic Monday #15: The Saltwater Inheritance

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share them with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu Invictus, The Pastores, Primal State, Ripples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in Egypt, Return of the Ripper, Rise of the Dead, Rise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition content including scenarios, settings, spells and more...” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.


Between June 1983 and March 1988, the British roleplaying magazine White Dwarf  supported Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium, Inc.’s roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror with almost thirty-five articles and scenarios, beginning with the first part of Marcus L. Rowland’s ‘Cthulhu Now!’ in White Dwarf #42 and ending with the scenario ‘Spirit of the Mountain’ by Graeme Davis in White Dwarf #99. But there should have been one more.

Treasure Trap was regular department in White Dwarf which included content based on readers’ idea. In January 1985, in White Dwarf #61, the department instead offered a scenario design competition in which the winning submission would garner the winner £150 and three runners up a year’s subscription to White Dwarf. The adventure was to be based around a map showing Saltwater Village and nearby Saltwater Bay as well as d’Estrier Manor on a headland. The winning entry was ‘Plague from the Past’, an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure which would appear in September 1985 in White Dwarf 69, but devotees of Call of Cthulhu, the entry by one of the runners up, Mark Morrison, was far more interesting.

Except the competition entry by the co-designer of Horror on the Orient Express was never published—until now that is. Instead of being published in White Dwarf—and of course that would never happen today—the scenario has been published as part of the Miskatonic Repository and is available as a fifteen-page, 8.45 MB, full colour PDF. It has been updated for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, presented with new artwork, and given a new map that is almost, but not quite the same as the one that appeared in Treasure Trap in White Dwarf #61. This is, of course, for copyright reasons.

The Saltwater Inheritance takes place in 1925, probably on England’s East Coast. The investigators—presumed to be academics at some university or other—are given a paid holiday in the village of Saltwater in return for conducting some research at the nearby D’Estrier Manor. In particular, the English History Department is interested in the family library as it may contain further information about William D’Estrier, a supposed sorcerer of no little skill and power in the medieval period. Thus they might be historians, parapsychologists, researchers, librarians, philosophers, cataloguers, and so on. Whatever their exact occupation, their host, Simon D’Estrier is welcoming and takes an interest in their researches in the family library

Arriving in early October, the players will actually have very little to do at first. In fact, the first half of the scenario is rather mundane, really only turning up one or two oddities amongst all of the research and a rash of recent drownings—including their host’s late father. Beyond that, their host is welcoming and most of the villagers are friendly, and really, there is very little going on. Even unearthing hints that William D’Estrier might actually have been a sorcerer—hints that will be accompanied by knowing nods round the table from experienced Call of Cthulhu players as will the fact that someone named Baskerville owns an isolated farm outside the village—will not get the investigators very far. In fact, there is very little for the players and their characters to react to or against in the scenario’s opening scenes.

One possibility to make this more interesting might be to focus on the finds at the D’Estrier Manor and increase the number of them. These should not necessarily be tomes or artefacts of actual Mythos nature, at best they should hint at it as several of the handouts do in The Saltwater Inheritance. One useful supplement to that end would be the Keeper’s Compendium, which includes an extensive list of non-Mythos tomes. (As an aside, the emphasis on the library in The Saltwater Inheritance along with this extra focus on old books would make the scenario suitable for play using the Bookhounds of London campaign framework for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu.)

All that changes though come the end of the month. One of the villagers approaches the investigators and warns them that whatever they have uncovered in their researches is real and he fears that it is returning to the village of Saltwater. This marks an abrupt change in tone and content in The Saltwater Inheritance. Previously, it was mundane and bucolic—even boring—now weird events come crashing down again and again upon the investigators and villagers, driving both player characters and plot to the scenario’s denouement.

Had The Saltwater Inheritance been published in 1985 or 1986, it would be remembered as one of several scenarios published in White Dwarf magazine during its first incarnation. It would not have been remembered as a great scenario or a classic scenario—look to ‘The Curse of the Bone’ and ‘Draw the Blinds on Yesterday’, both by Marcus L. Rowland, for that—for the truth is, The Saltwater Inheritance is the author’s second Call of Cthulhu scenario and it is rough around the edges. As stated at the start of the scenario, “At first, there is no scenario as such…” and until such times as the villager approaches the investigators three weeks almost nothing happens and there is almost nothing for the players and their investigators to do. Once the villager does approach them, the scenario is a pell mell race to the climax.

Now where The Saltwater Inheritance is interesting is not in the scenario itself, but in its afterword. Here the author explains the scenario’s history, how it came to be submitted to White Dwarf magazine back in 1985, and how it came to be published as part of the Miskatonic Repository some thirty years later. Here he highlights in hindsight how impressed he was with the sandbox nature of the initial part of the scenario—and yes, despite very little of interesting going on—this is decently done. Likewise, he highlights and is annoyed by his “...[U]tterly lazy Mythos Monster Manual approach.” to his choice of antagonists in the scenario—a mix of Deep Ones and the Crawling Chaos. Whilst there is an element of truth to this, it is unfair, if you take into account the then experience of the author, the amateurish nature of the scenario, and the fact that professionally published scenarios have actually taken what he calls his “Mythos Monster Manual” approach and applied it to its utmost. Plus, given the scenario’s east coast of England location, one does have wonder about the influence of ‘The Watchers of Walberswick’, the first scenario for Call of Cthulhu to appear in the pages of White Dwarf in its fiftieth issue and which also involved Deep Ones.

Physically, The Saltwater Inheritance is decently presented, it is an easy read, and it is nicely illustrated. A good job has been done of representing the map from White Dwarf #61. As to the scenario itself, The Saltwater Inheritance is not unplayable—at worst it is amateurish, at best, a rough and ready affair. That though just reflects its origins and its provenance which are more interesting than the scenario itself. 

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