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Sunday 29 March 2020

Short, Sharp Cthulhu

Collections of short scenarios for Call of Cthulhu are nothing new—there was the 1997 anthology Minions, but that was for Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition. It was also a simple collection of short scenarios, whereas Gateways to Terror: Three Evenings of Horror is both a collection of short scenarios and something different. Published by Chaosium, Inc. for use with either Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, it is a trio of very short scenarios—scenarios designed to be played in an hour, designed to introduce players to Call of Cthulhu, and designed to demonstrate Call of Cthulhu. All three have scope to be expanded to last longer than an hour, come with pre-generated investigators as well as numerous handouts, and are designed to be played by four players—though guidance is given as to which investigators to use with less than four players for each scenario, right down to just a single player and the Keeper. All three are set in different years and locations, but each is set in a single location, each is played against the clock—whether they are played in an hour or two hours—before a monster appears, and each showcases the classic elements of a Call of Cthulhu scenario. So the players and their investigators are presented with a mystery, then an investigation in which they hunt for and interpret clues, and lastly, they are forced into a Sanity-depleting confrontation with a monster.

Gateways to Terror: Three Evenings of Horror starts out though with an extensive introduction—or reintroduction—to the core rules of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. This is to help the Keeper introduce the rules herself to her fellow players, whether sat round the table at home, playing online, or at a convention. In turn it discusses the investigator sheet, using Luck, skill rolls, bonus and penalty dice, combat, and of course, Sanity. Included here are references to both the Call of Cthulhu: Keeper Rulebook and the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set with pertinent points marked. The only thing not included here that perhaps might have been useful is a list of these references, possibly at the end of the section. Otherwise this is all very useful, if not as a reminder, then at least as a means of the Keeper having to avoid flipping through another book.

Each of the three scenarios is tightly structured and follows the same format. This starts with advice on the scenario’s structure, specifically the timings if the Keeper is running it as a one-hour game. Then it discusses each of the four investigators for the scenario, including their notable traits and roleplaying hooks, what to do if there are fewer than four players, and what if there are more than four, before delving into the meat of the scenario itself. All three are very nicely presented, clear and easy to read off the page in terms of what skill rolls are needed and what the investigators learn from them. As well as really good maps—for both players and Keeper, but it has to be said that the maps for the Keeper are thoroughly impressive—which depict the different locations of the three scenarios in three dimensional perspective, each scenario comes with a sheaf of handouts, suggestions as to how each of its four investigators react when they go insane, and lastly, four investigator sheets. What is notable about these is that they are not done on the standard investigator sheet for Call of Cthulhu. This does feel off brand, but presented as straight text, the information that a player would want, or need is easy to find and easy to read.

So to the scenarios themselves. They open with Leigh Carr’s ‘The Necropolis’. Set in 1924 in Egypt this is a classic set-up, four members of an archaeological expedition excavating a tomb in the Valley of the Kings when the worst happens—they are entombed themselves! The quartet are driven to explore and discover as much as they are to escape, but the latter becomes more important when something appears to be inside the tomb with them! First though, they need to stop whatever is in the tomb with them because it seems very, very hungry… Of the three scenarios in the anthology, this has the largest area for the investigators to explore, consisting of five rooms rather than the single rooms of the other two. It is also probably the pulpiest in tone and style, and if the solution for dealing with the monster is a cliché, it is entirely in keeping with the genre. More of a locked room horror mystery than the other two, veteran players will enjoy the links to both Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian lore.

‘What’s in the Cellar?’ by Jon Hook switches to upstate New York in 1929. Arthur Blackwood, a respected local attorney is on trial for the bloody murder of his wife in the cellar of his family’s ancestral holiday cabin and is likely to go to the electric chair. He claims to be innocent, that his family is cursed, that there is a genie in the cellar who murdered his wife. Blackwood’s business and his defence team are desperate to keep him from being given a death sentence, so ask friends, family, a private investigator, and a psychiatrist—the latter to help prove that Blackwood is not deranged—to investigative. Although the opening scene takes place in New York, this is essentially a one-room scenario—the cellar. Here the shelves that line its walls are stocked with clues amidst the tools and bric-à-brac you would expect to find in a rural cellar. Again, there is a race again time—although neither players nor their investigators will be aware of it—before something goes wrong and the investigators find themselves trapped with something nasty in the cellar.

Lastly, Todd Gardiner’s ‘The Dead Boarder’ takes place in Providence, Rhode Island at the start of the Great Depression in an utterly mundane location—a single room at Ma Shanks’ Boarding House. All four of its investigators have rooms here and all four are worried about a neighbour of theirs. Apart from the late-night prayers, he was always nice and quiet, but has not been heard from for a couple of days. So being neighbourly, they gather to check on him, they are aghast to discover when the door to his room is unlocked, him lying on the floor in a bloody mess. Since no one has been seen entering or leaving his room—and everyone would know if they did—what happened to him? Of all the three scenarios in the anthology, this is the most detailed and the richest in terms of its play. All four of the pre-generated investigators have different motives for entering and examining the room, sometimes motives which will clash, so the investigators have more personal drives other than the need to survive. Where in the other the scenarios the investigators do not have an obvious time limit on their actions, here they do, as the police have been called and will arrive within the hour. So this will also drive the investigators to act. Overall ‘The Dead Boarder’ nicely brings the horror home, or at least to the room down the hall.

If perhaps there is an issue with Gateways to Terror: Three Evenings of Horror, it is with the monsters. Now they are not all the same, but they are the same in terms of being unstoppable, appearing from nowhere, and so on. This though comes from the format of the three scenarios and its built-in time limit, and really this would only be a downside were a group to play all three in quick succession. The monsters are also not drawn from Call of Cthulhu canon, so any player expecting them to be might be disappointed, but there is no need for them to be and there are plenty of other scenarios and campaigns where they appear anyway.

Physically, Gateways to Terror: Three Evenings of Horror is very well presented, the choice of photographs is decent, the maps are good, and a great deal of the artwork can be used to show the players during play. In terms of design, the trio are also multi-function scenarios. They can be used as demonstration scenarios, though they are not long enough for the traditional four-slot of a convention game. They can be used as one-shots, as written or expanded in terms of game length by ignoring the suggested timings. They can be added to an existing campaign, but with each being written for their set of pre-generated investigators, this will take some adjustment upon the part of the Keeper. They can be used to introduce investigators, perhaps as flashbacks or prequels, and to explore their first encounter with the Mythos, rather than say, all of them having been run through ‘Alone Against the Flames’ or ‘Paper Chase’ from the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. Lastly, they can be used to introduce players to Call of Cthulhu and how it is played. Each of the three scenarios in Gateways to Terror: Three Evenings of Horror is flexible enough to support these functions and if not in terms of place, could also easily be adjusted in terms of date.

It would be fantastic to see more scenarios written to the format of Gateways to Terror: Three Evenings of Horror, whether as more demonstration games, one-shots, longer convention games, or investigator introductions to the Mythos. Overall, Gateways to Terror: Three Evenings of Horror delivers three, short doses of horror and does so in an engaging, well designed, and multi-functional fashion.

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