Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 8 August 2020

Hollow Earth Horror

To date, Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, Chaosium, Inc’s supplement of Pulp action set during the nineteen thirties for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition has been supported by not one, but two campaigns. The better known of these is The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu, a campaign in the traditional sense of Lovecraftian investigative horror. It presented a world-spanning conspiracy, which took the heroic investigators from Bolivia, New York, Borneo, and Oklahoma to the Belgian Congo, Iceland, and Brazil—and beyond! The other campaign is A Cold Fire Within: A Mind-Bending Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu, which although like The Two-Headed Serpent is set in New York and takes place in the nineteen thirties, is very different in tone and scope.

A Cold Fire Within: A Mind-Bending Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu takes place in 1935, ‘technically’ never leaves New York State, and focuses on investigators with Psychic abilities—using the optional Psychic ability rules from Pulp Cthulhu—or have an interest in Parapsychology. It takes two works of fiction as its inspiration. The first is ‘The Mound’, the horror/science fiction novella ghost-written by H. P. Lovecraft for Zealia Bishop, which tells of a mound that conceals a gateway to a subterranean civilization, the realm of K’n-yan. The second is Sinclair Lewis’ alternate history satire, It Can’t Happen Here, in which populist demagogue Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip is elected President of the United States and with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force imposes totalitarian rule similar to the Germany and Italy of the Desperate Decade. Against this febrile background, the campaign draws links between the fringe science—whether Parapsychology or Occultism—and the fringe politics of the period.

Campaign set-up is supported by six pre-generated Investigators. They include a diverse range of backgrounds, from a Russian Cult Leader, an African American female Mechanic/Aviator, and a female Investigative Journalist to a Hispanic ex-Soldier, a female Scientist, and an Explorer. Only two of them have Psychic Talents, but the campaign can be run with the optional Psychic Talents rules from Pulp Cthulhu or without. It also adds a new Investigator Organisation, The Open Mind Group, a hero organisation whose members are fascinated by the possibility of powers of the mind—whatever their source. In general, the organisation is apolitical and politely asks members who are overtly political to refrain from discussing their views or leave.

The structure of the campaign, over the course of five of its six chapters, is linear. It takes the Investigators from New York City upstate into New York state’s Catskill Mountains, and from there, it takes a turn for weird as it plunges deep into the bowels of the Earth and across the sybarite and immortal remnants of the K’n-yan Empire. It begins with a missing persons case, a fellow member of The Open Mind Group approaching the Investigators because Brendan Sterling, her husband, has gone missing. He has a greater fascination with the outré than she does, and this has led him to participate in experiments in past-life regression. Investigating Sterling’s disappearance will first lead them to his links with various populist fringe political movements and then to the scientists who associate with them. Unfortunately, no sign of him has been seen either, and following him will lead the investigators upstate and into the Catskills. From there, the path literally leads inexplicably into the depths and the strange realms of the Empire of the K’n-yan. By now the Investigators will have already encountered some strangeness, most notably their  suddenly being cast into space and having to find their way back—being chased by some very strange cats—and ghosts haunting the halls of a centre for parapsychological studies in what is arguably one of the most bizarre encounters in Call of Cthulhu. These and similar encounters hint at the things to come in later chapters—far below the surface.

What lies below is the remains of the K’n-yan Empire, its immortal survivors divided between indolent sybarites residing in the mouldering towns and plantations, their buildings a combination of gold and weird science, and religious fanatics out in the surrounding wilds. Often cannibals and evilly indifferent, they are not perhaps the worst that the Investigators will encounter for there are surface dwellers other than their quarry down here and some of are looking to re-establish the K’n-yan Empire… It is here too that the Investigators will learn perhaps of the ultimate aims of the campaign’s antagonists and just what they will have to do to stop them. The culmination of the campaign itself is a suitably over-the-top drive further into the depths of the Earth to confront the villains of the piece and prevent their plans. The sixth chapter takes the campaign in an even more radical direction and can be run at any time in the campaign once the Investigators have sufficient means and motivation—even in the middle of other chapters.

As a campaign, A Cold Fire Within does something different. There have been plenty of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu which deal with the Science Fictional aspects of Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror, but not a campaign. It is very much not a campaign of Lovecraftian investigative horror in the eldritch sense, but rather one of fringe science—or ‘Science!’ and fringe theories ranging from Theosophy to the Hollow Earth. A campaign which sees one ancient subterranean scientific empire attempt to rise again, aided by zealous surface dwellers, as the power and influence of Fascism grows and spreads on the surface world. However, as linear and as straightforward as the campaign is, and as solid a hook it provides to pull the Investigators into its events, the Keeper will need to work hard to keep the players and their Investigators on track and motivated. Especially to the point in the campaign where they learn what is really going on and then have a few more options in what they can do. The Keeper also has a lot of NPCs to portray, there being quite a large cast given the relatively short nature of the campaign. If the campaign misses an opportunity, it is perhaps the chance for a flashforward to see the consequences if they fail to stop the antagonists’ plans—this is only hinted at in the conclusion.

Rounding out A Cold Fire Within: A Mind-Bending Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu is a set of four appendices. These collect the campaign’s handouts and maps for easy copying by the Keeper, new tomes and spells, new skills and psychic power, and K’n-yanian Equipment and Vehicles. The new skills include Lore (K’n-yan) and Language (K’n-yan), and Science (Parapsychology), whilst the new Psychic Powers are Dematerialisation and Telepathy. The section on K’n-yanian Equipment and Vehicles details all of the devices and artefacts which the Investigators will discover in the subterranean world of the K’n-yan and any Investigator with a mechanical bent—especially if he falls into the Grease Monkey archetype—will undoubtedly want to tinker with and repair. Lastly, the six pre-generated Investigators are given.

Physically, A Cold Fire Within: A Mind-Bending Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu is a slim, full colour hardback. In keeping with the other Call of Cthulhu titles, the book looks superb, the layout is clean, the artwork—whether black and white, two-tone, or full colour—is superb throughout, though the cover is not necessarily as eye-catching as could have been. The maps are excellent throughout though, although perhaps the campaign could have benefited from better maps of the Catskill Mountains, New York state, and New York City.

There is a Science Fiction genre called Planetary Romance—best typified by the Barsoom-set of stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs—in which much of the story’s action and adventure takes place on exotic alien worlds, noted for their distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds. Now A Cold Fire Within is not set on another world, but it is set in another world, one which also has distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds in the form of the differing groups of the K’n-yan. Further, A Cold Fire Within is a Science Fiction campaign, involving as it does ‘fringe’ science and strange technologies, but of course against a background of Cosmic Horror. What this means is that A Cold Fire Within is a campaign of ‘Inner Planetary Horror’, one which both proves the existence of fringe science and to the horrific applications it can be put to. 

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