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Monday 20 April 2020

2009: Madness in London Town [Review]

Yesterday I was interviewed for the Grogpod podcast about me and my gaming history, my reviews and editing and so on. One of the topics of conversation was a review I wrote back in 2009, which at the time caused a slight controversy and upset the publisher. Thanks to the efforts of the Grog Squad it has been relocated and I have been asked to repost it on the blog.

Before anyone makes a fuss about this review, please in mind that it was written over ten years ago and the book is now out of print. Further, the publisher and I have a cordial relationship and I had the pleasure of meeting him at Gen Con 50 in 2017. We also have a good working relationship as I first proofread and then edited the rest of the titles in the Age of Cthulhu line. The authors of those books are now friends because of working with each other on those books.

The posting of the review again is purely to assuage my readers’ curiosity and to preserve a little bit of my reviewing history.


Age of Cthulhu Vol. II: Madness in London Town is the second scenario to be released by Goodman Games for Call of Cthulhu, the RPG of Lovecraftian horror published by Chaosium, Inc. It follows the first scenario, Death in Luxor, set in the same shared world of the late 1920s. Possessing the same high production standards, Madness in London Town comes with five pre-generated investigators, excellent maps and handouts, and a fairly straightforward adventure that can be played through in no more than two sessions of play. As the title suggests, the adventure takes place in London, where the investigators are invited to attend a gala at the British Museum by an old friend. Unfortunately, he is dead before the end of the first act…

Mechanically, Madness in London Town is a better scenario for Call of Cthulhu than its forebear, primarily because it includes the necessary NPC stats and Sanity losses. Yet beyond that, Madness in London Town is outclassed on most counts. Its plot, of a friend’s death putting the investigators on the track of a cult of black druids racing to summon a Great Old One on the right date, is linear in structure and superficial in nature, assumes that the investigators are American and will come armed, lacks the historicity of Death in Luxor, and lacks the sort of historical (not to say geographical) detail and accuracy that many Call of Cthulhu devotees appreciate. The unfortunate truth is that this an adventure set in England written by a non-native, and it shows. Age of Cthulhu Vol. II: Madness in London Town works best as a pulpy, brawns-over-brains adventure, but a Keeper will have to work very hard to make it fit the Classic mode and style of Call of Cthulhu.

To begin with, this is a review of a scenario. There will be spoilers.

Madness in London Town opens with the player characters invited by an old friend, Doctor Vernon Whitlow, to attend a gala dinner at the British Museum. Arriving in something of a hurry, the characters barely have an opportunity to speak to the other guests before the good doctor enters the room and after a few moments’ raving, slits his own throat. Already forewarned that something is amiss at the museum, the scenario’s pull is the mystery behind Whitlow’s death. Clues found at his flat (one thing that the author does get right, as flat is the term used in the United Kingdom) point back to odd goings on at the British Museum, below which the investigators will have a strange encounter with even stranger cats. Even nastier encounters take place at a waxworks museum (no, not Madame Tussaud’s) and at the chief villain’s country dwelling, before the final showdown on Salisbury Plain at England’s most famous monument, Stonehenge.

The cult concerned is a revived ancient order of black druids, using the henge to summon their lord and mistress, Shub-Niggurath. Putting aside the fact that the use of the monument and the druidic faith in this way could be found offensive by some, the plot and cult are both very sketchily detailed. There is very little to either, and apart from the investigative dog work, there is very little for the more scholarly investigator to do throughout the adventure. That the cult’s efforts can be simply stopped by bashing the chief over the head just seems almost anti-climatic.

This being a Goodman Games book, where Madness in London Town does shine is in the quality of its handouts and its maps. It is a pity no map of England could have been provided, as this would have given the adventure a sense of scale and place (or at least shown the distance between its primary locations), and the map of London does feel jumbled. The scenario’s NPCs are nicely presented with plenty of detail, and it includes one or nasty little set pieces – most notably in the waxworks museum, surely a nod to the 1953 film House of Wax, starring Vincent Price. Beyond the adventure itself, Madness in London Town offers a new take on the Milk of Shub-Niggurath and a new spell.

At times, the scenario feels rushed as if the author wants to get onto the next scene. He also rushes into the scenario, never quite setting it up, and it will take a careful reading of the first few pages for the Keeper to grasp what is going on. The inclusion of a better summary would have solved this. The history that the scenario is based upon – the disappearance of a legion during the Roman conquest of Britain – is almost irrelevant, whereas in Death of Luxor, the background is very much part of the story.

So, having told you what the adventure is about and given you some hints of its pluses and minuses, allow me to dig a little deeper and address some of the issues that Madness in London Town raises. To that end I will list them as do’s and don’ts, each highlighting the various issues, before I come to a conclusion. We start with a long “do” before the shorter do’s and don’ts take us to the finale.

Do get your pre-generated investigators right. One of the first things that I do with any scenario for Call of Cthulhu is check its pre-generated investigators – if provided. I do this not just for the benefit of a review, but also out of semi-professional interest, having provided 27 pre-generated investigators for the forthcoming The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. So I know how to put an investigator together in terms of the mechanics, how to tie him into the story, and how to use history to make him interesting. As with Death in Luxor before it, Madness in London Town has its own set, and fortunately, the five given are much, much better than those provided in Death in Luxor. They are not as broadly drawn and they are not as absurdly pulpish, being much more like something that a player would create himself. They are still pulpish enough, several having daftly, but not ridiculously, high combat and Dodge skills. That does not mean that any one of the adventure’s quintet is perfect…

Let us examine said investigators from the top, then. First, if you describe an investigator as having dedicated himself to archaeology, actually give him some points in the Archaeology skill – especially if you describe him as having authored two academic papers on the subject with the scenario’s lead NPC. Oh, and learn to spell Archaeology, it really is spelt the correct way in Call of Cthulhu. Second, older characters get extra points to add to their Education attribute. Either these were not added to the Big Game Hunter’s Education or (a) his creator really did roll an Education of 5 – which is impossible (bear with me, but the explanation goes like this: base age of character is Edu+6, so his given Education being 8, his base age is 14, and for each decade after that, an investigator receives +1 Education, so at 50, the Big Game Hunter receives +3; so taking this away from his Education of 8 gives a basic roll of 5, which is impossible on a roll of 3d6+3), or (b) the character really should be 14 years old and a crack shot with an Elephant Gun. My suggestion is that his Education should be 11, not 8, and the extra points should have been assigned to his Dodge skill and some languages beyond the one he learned traveling from one end of the continent to the other. Third, if a character is described as having spent his days racing automobiles (among other activities), why does he not have the Drive (Auto) skill? Plus, if the search for answers to the mysterious nature of said investigator’s parents has led him down many dark roads, why does he have the Cthulhu Mythos skill and not the Occult skill? Then again, why does he have the Mythos skill at all? Fourth, why does an author who follows a solitary life dedicated to intellectual pursuits and her writing need particularly high skills in Dodge and Handgun? Has she been dodging the barbed comments of her critics, and practicing shooting at targets in preparation for her revenge? Fifth and lastly, the average of 12 and 12 is 12, not 13 – Call of Cthulhu is not the sort of game where you give the player characters extra Hit Points…

Don’t make the staff of the British Museum look like idiots. You might not know where lions and tigers can be found in the wild, but the odds are high that the staff of the British Museum does, even in the 1920s. If the staff is setting up an African themed diorama, it is unlikely that they will include a stuffed tiger as part of it, since the tiger is found on another continent altogether. Unless of course, you want everyone viewing the diorama (and indeed reading Madness in London Town) to exclaim, “Tigers! In Africa?”

Do get your geography right. I was not personally aware that during the 1920s that Scotland was in the West Country, specifically, the southern English county of Wiltshire. Then again, as an issue it was probably fixed when the Scotland Act of 1998 was passed and Scottish devolution was allowed, enabling the glens of Salisbury Plain to be returned to their rightful place north of the border. The point is that Salisbury Plain is a chalk plateau not known for glens or wooded river valleys, and that could have been ascertained with a modicum of research. Or just looking it up on Wikipedia.

Don’t name one of your NPCs, even if only a minor character, after a historical figure. This is especially important if that historical figure was a leading member of the German Nazi party.

Do get your geography right. The drive via taxi cab from the docks where the investigators disembark from their transatlantic liner to the gala at the British Museum cannot be in any way, shape, or form be described as short. This is even assuming that their transatlantic liner docked in London, which given the fact that as every good Call of Cthulhu player knows, transatlantic liners docked at either Liverpool or Southampton, is highly unlikely because London is primarily a goods port.

Don’t, and this is more of an aesthetic issue, provide thumbnails of your scenario’s NPCs that are cliches and so enable the audience (that is, the players) to identify which one of them is the bad guy at a single glance. It might well be that my partner is particularly perceptive, but she was able to identify the villain of the piece just by looking at the thumbnails.

Do get your geography right. Soho is not in Bloomsbury.

Don’t assume that the investigators (pre-generated or not) will be armed. Many of the pieces of artwork do, showing an investigator holding a handgun of some kind. The England of the 1920s is not an armed England, and pistols are uncommon compared to shotguns and rifles. Further English Customs take a dim view of Americans attempting to enter the country armed for bear, and not just because bears have been extinct in England for centuries.

Do get your geography right. And do check your maps. Like most European cities, London was not built by design, but rather evolved and is not laid out on grid pattern. The term “city block” is not English.

It should be pointed out that the scenario ends with a note about historical accuracy. Here the author states that although he has taken pains to utilize real locations, businesses, societies, and historical events, the adventure is not meant to present a wholly accurate representation of England during the 1920s and that details have been changed to aid the adventure plot or facilitate play. This rather misses the point of Call of Cthulhu, a very, very historical game, played by many not only for its fine elements of Lovecraftian horror, but also for its history. Further, I would suggest that this is very much the cause of so many of the scenario’s do’s and don’ts.

The other cause is the lack of experience that Goodman Games has with writing for Call of Cthulhu. Not just upon the part of the author, but also upon the part of the editor, who should have been able to spot and correct the do’s and don’ts listed above. Worse still, if you go back to the review of Death in Luxor, there is a note at its end from its author suggesting that I look at a preview of the publisher’s next release (which, of course, is this scenario). I did not see such a preview, but if I had, I would certainly have raised all of the issues above, and no doubt some of them would have been corrected. I want to make clear that my tentacular dissection of Madness in London Town is due my wanting the scenario to be better, not an unhappy response to not seeing that preview. My tentacular dissection, though, is certainly the reason why this review will not be quoted on the Goodman Games website.

Long has the roleplayer of these fair isles, by which I mean, the British Isles, suffered at the hands of authors from the colonies. If you are English, Irish, or Scottish, then the likelihood is that you will have read one or more supplements written about your country by Americans containing groan-worthy – if not highly laughable – facts about your country. The unfortunate fact is that Age of Cthulhu Vol. II: Madness in London Town is just one more addition to that list of supplements.


Please note that I did not mention the Welsh at the end of this review. I could have put them in and everybody would have been none the wiser. I have instead left the error in and proffer an apology to any Welsh reader. Sorry. Please believe me when I say that I did not intend to omit you from that final list at the end of the review.

1 comment:

  1. “Tigers! In Africa?”
    In the original 1912 Magazine publication of "Tarzan of the Apes" Burroughs had both Lions and Tigers in Africa - which is why, when every other species just has one name, (Mangani for the great ape, Tantor for the Elephant etc) Lions have separate names (the Lion is Numa, while the Lioness is Sabor)