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Sunday 23 February 2020

Abnormal Once Again

Like any roleplaying game with its own set of monsters, familiarity breeds contempt. One exposure to them too many and they become less impressive, less of a threat, and so they lose their impact. So it is with Dungeons & Dragons and the contents of the Monster Manual and so it is with Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu and other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Now for Dungeons & Dragons the common solution is to provide an ecology guide to a particular monster or a whole new bestiary, but for roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror there is less obvious scope for creating and adding more monsters to the canon of the Cthulhu Mythos. There is though, plenty of scope for variation, reinterpretation, and making connections, which is exactly what Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos does.

Published by Pelgrane Press, it should be made very clear from the start that whilst the mechanics of Hideous Creatures are designed for use with the Gumshoe System of Trail of Cthulhu, the rest of the supplement’s content will work with just about any roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror. And even then, adapting the mechanics of 
Hideous Creatures to any other roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror should not present too much of challenge given that for the most part the creatures and monsters it presents and re-presents are already present in those other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. So whether for Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Hack, Delta Green or FATE of Cthulhu, this is a supplement which should prove useful to the Keeper or Game Master of those games, not just Trail of Cthulhu.

As the title suggests, Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos examines the creatures of the Mythos—not the gods and deities, but the various races, beasts, things, and horrors. It builds around some fifteen or so such examinations previously available as single write-ups, all written by Kenneth Hite, to which Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Becky Annison, Helen Gould, and Ruth Tillman have added another sixteen. So some thirty-one of them, from Bat-Things, Bholes, and Black Winged Ones to Wendigo, Worm-Cultist, and Y’m-Bhi. Many of them will be familiar, such as Byakhee, Deep Ones, Ghoulds, or Shoggoths, but others are new. Yet whether old or new, all draw inspiration from and are described to some degree in some of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and others. Each entry comes with an overview of the hideous creature, accompanied by its stats in the game. After that, each and every entry in the book gets a whole not more interesting, for overview and the stats mere serve as the chassis upon which is mounted various ideas, developments, and suggestions. They include possible alternative abilities; variations upon the explanation and interpretation of what each hideous creature is; Mythic Echoes draw parallels between the hideous creature and monsters and creatures of various myths around the world; the ‘Investigation’ second provides clues for each and every one of Trail of Cthulhu’s investigative abilities; ‘Scenario Seeds’ are adventure ideas; and lastly, the Bibliography provides a thumbnail description of the hideous creature’s source in the Mythos fiction as well as other works of note in which it—or an alternative version—has appeared over the last century. 

So, what Hideous Creatures provides is not just thirty-one horrible monsters and alien races, but over three hundred possible extra abilities across the thirty-one entries, over three hundred variations, over one-hundred-and-fifty parallels and connections with the Mythic Echoes, over nine hundred clues tied into Trail of Cthulhu’s Investigative Abilities, ninety or so scenario seeds, and thirty-one bibliographies and sample clues. It should be noted that the variations are designed to be ‘intentionally self-contradictory’, whilst the scenario seeds are based upon the classic or baseline versions of the Mythos creatures and monsters. It seems churlish to reduce the supplement to just numbers, but what it showcases is the scope of the supplement’s imagination and just the sheer number of ideas on show. 

So for example, Night-gaunts, the winged creatures with barbed tails, prehensile paws, and inward horns upon their heads, traditionally known for their blankness of their faces and their predilection for tickling their victims are suggested as having a face like a roiling storm, a shifting plasticity, or a void which opens onto a Great Abyss. They might not be slender, but as their name suggests—gaunt, with wings like a moth or a flying squirrel or… Instead of simply tickling to make a victim laugh, a Night-gaunt’s barbed tail renders him agonizingly breathless or recoiling in helplessness as spiders scuttle over the skin. New possible abilities include Chest Crunch as a Night-gaunt lands upon a victim’s chest and crushes his lungs, or Tracking, enabling a Nigh-Gaunt to track a victim it has already touched via its sense of smell, whether on the Earth, the Moon, or in Dream. Variations include Night-gaunts capable of assuming the faces of those it has killed or of anyone currently dreaming, actual investigation of or curiosity about Night-gaunts enables them to filter into the dreams of the foolish and so attract their attention, and Night-gaunts themselves are immune to the most harrowing of Mythos manifestations or locations. Mythic echoes draw parallels between the Night-gaunt and the legend of the Night Hag, amongst others… Amongst the Clues, Anthropology links cultures around the world with traditions of dark shapes crushing or tickling their victims, whilst Cop Talk reports many people hearing the missing girl laughing ‘from upstairs’, but can she have been upstairs from everyone on the whole block? Of the three scenario seeds, ‘Precious’ looks to be highly entertaining, as the 1928-1929 archaeological dig at Lydney Park by Tessa Wheeler and Mortimer Wheeler unleashes something which haunts and hunts those associated with the dig, including one J.R.R. Tolkien! The bibliography starts with H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ before suggesting authors as diverse as W.H. Pugmire, Brian Lumley, Gene Wolfe, and more. Lastly, the handout takes the form of a flyer put out by a husband whose wife disappeared upon Silverstrand Beach, warning others and calling for the attention of the authorities.

As well as examining many of the familiar, Hideous Creatures examines nine new creatures—Bat-Things, Black Winged Ones, Gaseous Wraiths, Medusas, Raktajihva, Ultraviolet Devourer, Vampirish Vapour, Worm-Cultist, and Y’m-bhi. Of these, Raktajihva actually comes from a letter written by H.P. Lovecraft and is interpreted as an avatar of the Bloody Tongue, whilst for Call of Cthulhu purists, whilst the Worm-Cultist may not necessarily be new. Something similar, named the Crawling Chaos, does appear in Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, the very first campaign for Call of Cthulhu.

Physically, Hideous Creatures is as well laid out and as well written as you would expect for a book from Pelgrane Press. If there is a downside in terms of the presentation, it is that the artwork is not quite as good as in other supplements for Trail of Cthulhu. That said, the handouts for each and every one of the entries in the supplement are excellent.

Ultimately, Hidden Creatures takes its inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s own assertion that stories of vampires, werewolves, and even ghosts had become too familiar and too formulaic to evoke true horror—“Horrors, I believe, should be original – the use of common myths and legends being a weakening influence.” Unfortunately, with the proliferation of the Mythos in fiction, games, and other media, the authors of Hideous Creatures suggest that, “Almost a century after he wrote, his own monstrous races have likewise begun to seem like comfortable story furniture rather than unnerving signals that the world is horrible and wrong.” Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos is a counter or solution to this problem, presenting a plethora of ideas and variations which successfully makes the familiar unfamiliar, and providing inspiration upon inspiration for the Keeper or Game Master—whatever the roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror.

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