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Monday 18 November 2019

A Cthulhu Collectanea I

As its title suggests Bayt al Azif – A magazine for Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying games is a magazine dedicated to roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Published by Bayt al Azif it includes content for both Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition from Chaosium, Inc. and Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press, which means that its content can also be used with Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game and The Fall of DELTA GREEN. Published in October, 2018, Bayt al Azif Issue 01 includes four scenarios, reviews of classic titles for Call of Cthulhu, new rules, interviews, an overview of Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying in 2017, and more. All of which comes packaged in a solid, full colour, Print On Demand book.

Bayt al Azif Issue 01 opens with an editorial, ‘Houses of the Unholy’, which manages to explore both the meaning and origins of the magazine’s title and perhaps suggest a possible scenario seed drawn’ like said title, from the life of eighteenth century novelist and antiquarian, William Thomas Beckford, and the infamous gothic folly, Fonthill Abbey. This would some development upon the part of the Keeper, but the editorial certainly provides some pointers. It is followed by ‘Sacrifices’, the magazine’s letters page, the missives here posted in response to the preview of the first issue, and ‘How to play’, by the editor, Jared Smith. This is serviceable enough, starting with the fiction and a discussion of the themes found in Call of Cthulhu, but it has dated given that it does not take into account the number of scenarios available from various publishers to help prospective players and Keepers started.

Dean Englehardt of CthulhuReborn.com—publisher of Convicts & Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying in the Penal Colonies of 18th Century Australia—presents ‘CthuReview 2017’, a look back from 2018 of the previous year in terms of Lovecraftian investigative horror and its associated segment of the gaming hobby. It covers the notable figures and their doings as well as the various publishers, projects, Kickstarters, and more. It is a rather useful overview which nicely chronicles the year keeps us abreast of anything that we may have missed or forgotten. It is notable for including several Kickstarter projects which have to be fulfilled.

In terms of gaming content, the first scenario in Bayt al Azif Issue 01 is ‘A Conspiracy in Damascus’, again by Jared Smith. It casts the investigators as members of the Diwan al-Barid, the courier service of the Muslim caliphate in the eighth century, tasked with discovering the nature of a large object a group of Bedouin from an unknown tribe transported to the city and then transfered to a local merchant who bribed a guard to let it pass through uninspected. This is a swords and sand investigation, with opportunities for roleplay and combat and a nice feel for the history of the city which goes all the way back to Roman era. This period of history, post-Cthulhu Invictus, but pre-Cthulhu Dark Ages is is sadly unexplored in terms of Lovecraftian investigative horror, so this scenario is to be welcomed. That said, advice is given on how to adapt it to other periods, including Cthulhu by Gaslight and the relatively recent here and now.

The second scenario is also by Jared Smith, as is the third. ‘Double Dare’ is a modern-set, single-night one-shot scenario, initially written for play on Halloween. It casts the investigators as teenagers, bullied into spending a night in a reputedly haunted schoolhouse on Halloween. This is a thoroughly creepy piece with a constricting mechanic driving the narrative, necessary for a one-shot. Not a scenario for anyone who suffers from automatonophobia. This also benefits from a good handful of handouts. The third scenario. ‘Overdue’, is a short, fifty-entry solo adventure set in the library at Miskatonic University where the player character is a custodian, cleaning and tidying up after the students and academic staff each day. Of course, nasty thing are afoot as the library lives up to its terrifying reputation. This is a short, brutal scenario, stripped down in its mechanics to really just sanity, but easy to replay if the investigator dies.

The fourth scenario, ‘Easier to Fill the Ocean with Stones’ is written by Rich McKee rather than Jared Smith. This is set in Vietnam in 1968 and sends the investigators into a war zone where American forces may have committed an atrocity. Tasked with determining what happened, the investigators must chase after the potential perpetrators as North Vietnamese and other forces descend on the region. This is a murky, messy scenario and suitably so. It can be run on its own or adapted to run with Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game or The Fall of DELTA GREEN, made easier by having GUMSHOE System mechanics.

Stu Horvath offers two reviews under the ‘Vintage RPG’ title, one of Arkham Unveiled, the other of Escape from Innsmouth. Each is only a single page, and unfortunately, with both pages in each case consisting of more pictures than text, there is little depth to either. Disappointing in both cases when really two pages could have been devoted to either and even then neither would have been  explored in sufficient depth or thought. Fortunately, Jason Smith’s ‘Sites of Antiquity’ more than makes up for it, exploring the much re-purposed archaeological site of Husn Suleiman, as well as suggesting some Mythos connections. The inclusion of actual photographs of the site and a map adds to the verisimilitude. Equally, Catherine Ramen’s ‘Rebooting Campaigns with a Modern Sensibility’ is just as good, if in a different way. It highlights some of the prejudices and discrimination present in the classic period of the 1920s (and elsewhen) and thus, if unintentionally, in Call of Cthulhu and its supplements, and then addresses how to adjust what has always been a historical game by increasing diversity and representation. A welcome companion piece to Darker Hue Studios’ Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games.

The full title of ‘Clerical Cosmic Horror: The Brief Era of the Cthulhu Mythos as Dungeons & Dragons Pantheon’ gives away the subject of Zach Howard’s article. It is a good history of the Cthulhu mythos in the hobby prior to the publication of Call of Cthulhu in 1981, and again, a good companion piece to the more recent The Making and Breaking of Deities & Demigods by James M. Ward.

There are two interviews in Bayt al Azif Issue 01. The first and longer one is ‘Going Rogue – An interview with Rogue Cthulhu’. This is a team of Keepers and scenario authors who run their creation at conventions such as GenCon and elsewhere. Based and operating solely in the USA, this is a good look at the fan side of the hobby and Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. It gives the team their due and highlights how the fans bring Call of Cthulhu to life. Sadly, the interview with Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios in ‘Harlem Renaissance’ is half the length of the other interview and as informative as it is, the length of the first interview does leave the reader wanting more. 

Jensine Eckwall’s ‘Character Creation’ is the first of two cartoons in Bayt al Azif Issue 01. It is short and sweet, but the horror is decently done. The likewise short ‘Grave Spirits’ takes the central character of a doctor into Red Hook, but lacks the punch of ‘Character Creation’. Hopefully future installments will develop from the set-up presented here. Lastly, ‘Run for it! – Random Tables for Chases’ provides obstacles, hazards, and barriers for chases on foot. This is very useful article, handily supplementing the chase mechanics in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Physically, Bayt al Azif Issue 01 lacks polish, having the somewhat rougher feel of a fanzine. In another publication, this might be seen as charming, but here it is more something for the publisher and authors to strive to overcome. It could also benefit from a better choice and use of artwork, some of it feeling as if it is there because the designers could rather than because it is suitable. In general, the layout of Bayt al Azif Issue 01 feels inconsistent and could do with a stronger layout style.

Ultimately, the originality, and in some cases, the unique nature of the scenarios make the first issue of Bayt al Azif worth the price of admission and all come with pre-generated investigators ready to download, whilst many of the extras are informative or useful, if not both. If this first issue lacks polish, then that means that future issues can only look and feel better, for Bayt al Azif Issue 01 is a solid first issue. And that bodes well for Bayt al Azif Issue 02

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