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Sunday 2 February 2020

Danger Down Under

Terror Australis - Front CoverOriginally published in 1987, Terror Australis, for use with Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition, the supplement was always, much like its source material, something of an outlier in comparison with the venerable roleplaying game’s focus on North America and Europe. Indeed, Terror Australis was perhaps best known for the inclusion of the scenario, ‘City Beneath the Sands’, the Australian chapter of the highly regarded Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. Of course the removal of ‘City Beneath the Sands’ for its inclusion in The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep left scope for Chaosium, Inc. to revisit Terror Australis, but that opportunity did not come until the publication of the Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World and the revised edition of Terror Australis, both of which have been written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and updated, revised, and expanded in scope to make their respective contents more accessible and playable.

Notably Terror Australis: Call of Cthulhu in the Land Down Under is double the size of the original Terror Australis. In fact, it includes half as much again in terms of background and source material in comparison to the original Terror Australis—and that is in addition the supplement’s two scenarios, both new and both lengthy. From the start, Terror Australis takes a mature and respectful attitude towards its subject matter. It identifies the continent’s  indigenous peoples throughout as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it acknowledges the racism prevalent against by those peoples by White Australia through much of its history, and it explores the presence of LGBTQI subculture to be found Australia’s big cities. Of course, not as prevalent as in Berlin as detailed in Berlin: The Wicked City – Unveiling the Mythos in Weimar Berlin in this period, but present nonetheless.

Terror Australis opens with an examination of Australian history, which of course begins with the arrival of the Europeans, there being no recorded history before that, looking at turn with the initial European exploration, the founding of the British penal colony—a period which has been looked at in greater detail in Convicts & Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying in the Penal Colonies of 18th Century Australia, the Gold Rush of the 1850s, and so on, right up to the Commonwealth of Australia’s involvement in the Great War and its effects. It is followed by a guide to the continent’s geography which also touches a little upon its archaeology.

Where the history starts with the arrival of the Europeans, Terror Australis’ coverage of the Australians as a people starts with the indigenous peoples, identified throughout as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It covers their history, culture, art, spiritual beliefs, and world-view, information enough for the Keeper to create interesting NPCs and the players create interesting investigators. White Australians receive similar treatment, the supplement noting that most will be British and that the Mother Country dominates Australian life and society, whilst highlighting the dominant male culture with its love of the working man, drinking, and gambling. It includes a guide to Australian slang and pronunciation, plus new Occupations and skills. For the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples there are the Hunter/Gather and Clever Man/Woman, whilst the broader Occupations are all support the working class nature of Australian society. They include the Boundary Rider who tours and repairs the boundaries of cattle stations, the Bushranger  or Outback outlaw, the Camel Driver who acts as guides and escorts in the Outback, the Digger or former miner or soldier, the Jackaroo/Jillaroo who are working cattle or sheep stations for the first time, the Stockman/woman who have more experience than the Jackaroo/Jillaroo, and the Swagman/woman or itinerant labourer. Of course, the many other Occupations from Call of Cthulhu are suitable for inclusion in a scenario or campaign set in Terror Australis, although it does discuss the nature of the Private Eye in Australia during this period, highlighting how they are unregulated, distrusted, and sometimes guilty of criminal acts themselves in pursuit the evidence or proof their clients want. The Relativists—mostly physicists and astronomers—is given as an investigator organisation with an interest in the unexplained, whilst The Theosophical Society is given later on.

As well as giving thumbnail portraits of some twenty or so Australians of note, ranging from artists, scientists, and journalists to politicians, activists, and aviators, the supplement details Australia’s police and legal system, healthcare, transport networks, and communications. Given the nature of Call of Cthulhu, it is likely that the investigators will find themselves ‘going Bush’ or mounting an expedition into the Outback, so there is advice on handling expeditions and ensuring their survival in the harsh environment beyond Australia’s settled coasts. Similarly, for players and their investigators, there is most obviously a guide to law as it related to firearms and the institutions, all museums, where research can be conducted. Australia’s five main cities are described—the two largest, Sydney and Melbourne in some detail, as well as Perth, Adelaide, and Brisbane. Each starts with a pair of handy references, one a guide to portraying the city, the other a guide to the city at a glance, plus places of note, criminal underworld, and more.

As well as detailed city maps, it is here that Terror Australis begins to explore the weirder side of the Land Down Under. Initially, this is via the ‘Strange Australia’ sidebars such as the river monster said to inhabit the Hawkesbury River and the fate of the Alert, the ferry which was used to ram great Cthulhu himself as described in Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. The presence of various cults in each of the cities are also covered, the homegrown Cult of the Sandbat from Masks of Nyarlathotep being joined by the Cthulhu Cult and the acquisitive New World Incorporated from Day of the Beast. A good sixth of Terror Australis is specifically dedicated to the Mythos in Australia. Understandably, its initial focus is upon the Great Race of Yith, their place in Australia’s prehistory, their great city of Pnakotus, and their enemy, the Flying Polyps, exploring how both inhabit (or have inhabited) the very geography of Australia itself and this continues with the Great Hive of the Sand-dwellers. In addition various sites of Mythos interest, Terror Australis describes threats brought to the continent by Europeans. These include Ghouls, cultists from the darkest part of Gloucester, and a cult in the Barossa Valley sure to put off any oenophile. The Mythos bestiary adds a variety of different creatures and entities as well as discussing the presence of more traditional Mythos creatures and entities in Australia. So Ghouls and Hounds of Tindalos as well as Bunyips and Yowies, the latter akin to the North American Sasquatch or Himalayan Yeti, and Dark Spirits of Earth, which inhabit or haunt particular features of the land. No one Dark Spirit is the same as any other and the Keeper is given the means to create her own, for which she will need access to the Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic.

The spiritual beliefs and existence of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are explored in some depth in ‘Alcheringa’, also known as ‘Dreamtime’. A spiritual space which surrounds everything, this is where the world can be explained, not as a creation myth, but as the world is, has been, and always will be. It is also a space which can be entered via ‘song-lines’, not just to learn how the world is, but also for learning knowledge, for revealing the secret nature of the world, and for bringing about supernatural changes to the world. This is done via specific rituals and requires the participants to follow each song-line fairly tightly if they are to gain the desired rewards, otherwise there is a chance that they may get kicked out of Alcheringa rather roughly. Following a song-line and entering Alcheringa is not without its dangers, which is even worse should an investigator actually enter physically. There is even the possibility that participants can alter and even twist a song-line, although this is not easy and is not without its consequences. 

Song-lines are in some ways a Mythos tome which an investigator can experience spiritually rather simply read and which a player can roleplay that experience. Further, there is a social roleplaying aspect to Alcheringa in that the investigators will need to find someone who will teach them the ritual or allow them to participate in the ritual. The rules for Alcheringa are supported with sample rewards—either internal and personal or changes to the world and external, artefacts which help in the Dreaming, and sample stories which can be used as song-lines, including an expanded one which shows how they work in play. Four examples of megafauna, long extinct, but of course still alive in Alcheringa where the investigators might encounter them… The rules for Alcheringa and song-lines are an impressive addition to Call of Cthulhu, helping to bring an aspect of Aboringal culture and spirituality to life and mark investigations in Australia as being different to those in other countries. They literally add another dimension to Lovecraftian investigative horror and as a side note, there are parallels between the song-lines of Alcheringa and the heroquests of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha—also published by Chaosium, Inc. 

The two scenarios in Terror Australis are both new. The first is ‘Long Way From Home’ is radically different to almost every scenario before it. Taking a leaf out of the Old School Renaissance, it is a ‘sandbox’ scenario in which the player characters—or investigators—are free to wander as they please and engage with the elements of the scenario as is their wont. Now Call of Cthulhu being a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, ‘Long Way From Home’ provides multiple lines of investigation into the scenario. Set in the Northern Flinders Range to the north of Adelaide, these lines include a strange shower of meteors, a growing pattern of earthquakes, a spa deep in the outback providing miraculous cures, and a job offer to look after a copper mine which has been put into mothballs. Each of these strands are standalone, but all have links to Australia’s deep past and H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Out of Time’. There is a certain benign quality to the nature of the Mythos and a scientific feel to it at the heart of this scenario. The multiple strands means that there is also a flexibility to it also, because the investigators are free to follow whichever strand they want in whatever order they want. The strands include some pleasingly creepy scenes—one of which is archetypically Australian—and the final series of encounters have a surprising grandeur.

The second scenario, ‘Black Water, White Death’, feels more traditional in terms of Call of Cthulhu, possessing an onion skin layering of its mystery. Even its beginning is traditional, the investigators being asked to attend an auction on behalf of a client. He is a professor of anthropology with an interest in cannibalism in tribal society who wants the diary of a convict who escaped prison on the island of Tasmania in the 1830s and is reputed to have involved. Not everyone wants the diary to end up in his hands, but should the investigators get it to their employer, he further wants their aid in following up the information and that means they get to visit wintery Tasmania. Essentially a scenario of two halves, ‘Black Water, White Death’ is more confrontational than ‘Long Way From Home’, with a potentially bloodier ending which comes out of nowhere after strong investigative, almost academic, focus.

These are both good scenarios and worthy replacements for those which appeared in the original Terror Australis. Hopefully the two scenarios from that supplement—‘Pride of Yirrimburra’ and ‘Old Fellow That Bunyip’, the third, ‘City Beneath the Sands’ appearing in Masks of Nyarlathotep—will be revised and revisited in an Antipodean-themed anthology of further scenarios. Of the two, ‘Black Water, White Death’ is the easier to run, being more direct and straightforward than ‘Long Way From Home’, which will require greater preparation upon the part of the Keeper because there are more plots and they are separate plots. If there is a weakness to the pair of scenarios in the revised Terror Australis, it is that neither involves Alcheringa, although there is an option to include it in ‘Long Way From Home’. In addition to the two scenarios, it should be noted that the supplement is strewn with scenario hooks ready for the Keeper to develop, which would provide multiple sessions of play. Rounding out Terror Australis is a set of four appendices, containing in turn a list of equipment prices, a bestiary of Australia’s mundane, but often deadly wildlife, timelines mundane and fortean, and a good bibliography. All useful content.

Terror Australis being from Chaosium, Inc., this means that this is a good looking supplement. The layout is clean and tidy, done in full colour, illustrated with a wide range of artwork and period photographs. The cartography is also good and the writing excellent.

In 1987, Terror Australis was a decent supplement and thirty years on, it could simply have been a case of Chaosium, Inc. publishing a straight reprint, probably with the addition of a new scenario to replace ‘City Beneath the Sands’, but doing so would have been a missed opportunity. Thankfully, Chaosium has not missed that opportunity and has taken it to publish more than just a reprint, allowing the original authors to revisit, update, and greatly expand upon the original. The result of that effort is undeniably impressive and it almost goes without saying that this is another great supplement from Chaosium, Inc. Terror Australis: Call of Cthulhu in the Land Down Under fully fleshes out the continent, not just in mundane and Mythos terms as you would expect, but in magical terms with the extra dimension of Alcheringa. 

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