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Saturday, 27 February 2021

Making Mesoamerica Mundane

Almost from the start, Call of Cthulhu has been fascinated by South and Central America. From the Peru chapter in the original The Fungi from the Yuggoth in 1984, the scenarios ‘The Pits of Bendal-Dolum’ and ‘The Temple of the Moon’ from 1986’s Terror from the Stars, all the way up to the Peru prequel chapter found in Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World and the Bolivia chapter of The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu. Perhaps the best treatment of the region is The Mysteries of Mesoamerica, published by Pagan Publishing in 2009. What has run through each of these scenarios and support is a fascination with the strange, complex, if notoriously bloodthirsty stone age cultures found throughout the region, with their rich pantheons of gods, and the sophisticated structures they left behind in the wake of their societal collapses and later subjugation at the hands of the Spanish invaders. The latest supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition to visit the region is A Time for Sacrifice.

A Time for Sacrifice is published by New Comet Games, following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It is the publisher’s third title for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, following on from The Star on the Sure – Struggles Against Evil in 1920s New England and Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock, both of which were ambitious in terms of their production values, but ultimately let down by their lack of development and editing. A Time for Sacrifice is an anthology of five scenarios set deep in the jungles of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, in Honduras, and on the island of Cuba during the nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties. It is not, however, a sourcebook on the region with regard to the Cthulhu Mythos or Call of Cthulhu, with the aforementioned The Mysteries of Mesoamerica probably the best source as well having its own excellent scenarios. Otherwise, as the publisher mentions, the Keeper will need to do her own research with regard to the region and its history. As with the previous two books for Call of Cthulhu from New Comet Games, the production values for A Time of Sacrifice are high, including full colour throughout and glossy paper, but it remains to be seen if the issues with editing and development.

A Time for Sacrifice opens with ‘Egg Out of Time’, the first of three scenarios by the anthology’s publisher, Ben Burns. It opens en media res, the Investigators members of an expedition on the Yucatán Peninsula, running to the rescue of a college professor and fellow expedition member who has fallen ill mysteriously at the entrance to a ruin, and then racing him to the nearest hotel. Then upon receiving a note intended for their ill colleague, they come to the aid of an expedition which has been attacked by the locals who appear to be performing a pagan summoning of some kind. Of course, it turns out to be a bait and switch and the likelihood is that the Investigators will need to find a way to stop the terrible danger they have unleashed. ‘Egg Out of Time’ does have an entertaining idea at the heart of its plot, but as presented it never really lays out the groundwork for the plot and it compounds this problem with a page-and-a-half of exposition explaining the plot which the Keeper is expected to read out to her players. In terms of a story, this works fine, but in terms of a roleplaying scenario, it is unengaging and breaks the narrative. This combined with the underwritten set-up, the insufficient advice on who the Investigators might be and why they are on the expedition, as well a lack of information that they might know at the start of the scenario—instead the Investigators are expected to research much of it—and ‘Egg Out of Time’ launches A Time for Sacrifice in underwhelming fashion.

It is followed by Brian Courtemanche’s ‘Pyramid Scheme’, which specifically takes place after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, at the start of the Desperate Decade of the nineteen thirties. The bulk of this scenario is again set on the Yucatán Peninsula, but it begins in New York. Here the Investigators—who are presumed to have conducted numerous previous enquiries into the outré—are hired by a lawyer to infiltrate Ritterville, a company town in Mexico belonging to Ritter Nautical and Industrial Supply, a rival to his employer’s company. Research soon reveals that the owners of Ritterville suffered terribly during the Wall Street Crash and possess some outré interests, so the lawyer wants the Investigators to determine what is happening in the town. The set-up leads to delightful opening scenes which capture the desperate nature of life during this period, but which otherwise set the Investigators on a linear path—and not just because they will be taking a number of train and boat trips to get to their destination. The timing of these journeys structures the scenario quite tightly, so that the Investigators will have limited scope for optional activities throughout. Consequently, the scenario feels like a connected series of scenes, but many of them are at least engaging and there is a constant sense of the Investigators being toyed with throughout and this sense of being played continues right into the dénouement which has the Investigators actually engaging in a pok-ta-pok faceoff! The scenario has a knowing title and borders on a Pulpy sensibility and would not be too difficult to adapt to be run using Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos.

Ben Burn’s second scenario in the anthology is ‘Space Between Time’, which at first is not set in Central or South America at all, but on the island of Cuba, before actually switching to the island of Cozumel, off the coast of Mexico. The Investigators are hired by Miskatonic University to attend a cultural exchange conference in Cuba, but the team leader, Doctor Donald Sanderson has other plans. He has evidence that his father, William Sanderson, whom everyone claims to have been killed on an expedition when Donald was a boy, is still alive and he wants the Investigators’ help in finding him. If the Investigators agree—and there is no scenario if they decline—he takes them to where his father disappeared, and into the strangeness that is the ‘Space Between Time’. This is a space between from travellers can access any world, any time, and any dimension, and contained within are any number of dangers and things best left untouched, although Investigator and player curiosity may dictate otherwise. Apart from one or two interesting interactions with the Mythos, ‘Space Between Time’ is primarily the equivalent of an escape room made all the more dangerous because something is hunting the Investigators. There is very much the danger of a ‘Total Party Kill’ here if the Investigators do not solve the mystery to the scenario, and even if they do, the end result may not be all that satisfying given that one Investigator may need to sacrifice himself to let the others escape.

The fourth scenario is ‘The Thirteenth Bak’tun’ by Jonathan Bagelman. Set in Mexico, this is the best written of the five scenarios in A Time for Sacrifice. The Investigators are hired by Miskatonic University to join an expedition already in the field as experts and extra security, but by the time they reach Vera Cruz, they learn that it has been attacked by bandits and the task becomes a rescue mission. The scenario nicely brings in Mexico’s febrile interwar politics—the one scenario to really make use of the setting in the anthology—and comes with a lot of backstory and a solid plot. However, in places it feels a little like a tourist handbook and the plot itself is essentially a variation upon one which has been seen again and again in Call of Cthulhu, that of a Serpent Person wanting to restore his people to greatness after their millennia old slumber. Overall, the scenario is decent and could even serve as the lead into a campaign of the Keeper’s own devising, or even perhaps tied into The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu.

The anthology ends with ‘Doorway of the Gods’, Ben Burns’ third scenario. Again, linear and again, the Investigators are hired by Miskatonic University to join an expedition, this time in Honduras. After another sea voyage beset by strange dreams, the Investigators arrive in Honduras to learn that contact has been lost with the expedition and once at the site—at the base of a step pyramid with a strange doorway, that everyone is missing. However, the author drastically ups the action in this scenario—first, crew and passengers on the sea voyage from Boston being hunted by something which returns to the ship again and again; second, the Investigators and their guides are hunted at the site of the missing expedition; and third, the head guide, having learned that his men have been snatched, is not only determined to enter through the strange doorway, but has come armed for bear! Or is that Dimensional Shambler? M1921 Thompson Submachine Guns with drum rounds, Short Magazine Lee–Enfield Mk III rifles, twelve-gauge shotguns, .38 automatic pistols, and grenades! It is such a radical change of tone after the previous four scenarios, but ‘Doorway of the Gods’ essentially becomes a ‘Search and rescue’ mission combined with a ‘bug hunt’, and with such an emphasis on action and combat, is really better suited to Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos than standard Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

As with previous titles for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh edition from New Comet Games, A Time for Sacrifice is physically ambitious. So, it is full colour throughout and fairly heavily illustrated. However, the artwork varies greatly in quality—some being quite decent, some bland, and a lot of it being quite dark and murky, whilst the numerous handouts, also in full colour, are dull and rarely benefit from being in colour. Similarly, the maps vary in quality, many being quite plain, others having something of a period feel. Of course, it goes without saying that all of the scenarios in A Time for Sacrifice demand another edit, let alone the need for further development in some cases.

As an anthology, A Time for Sacrifice is at best uneven in tone, plotting, production values, and support. In addition to preparing any one of the five scenarios in its pages, the Keeper will need to research some basic background on the Mayans, and both the Mexico and Honduras of the period—not just for herself, but for her players and their investigators too. As a campaign, which the publisher suggests that the five scenarios could form if run in chronological order, A Time for Sacrifice would need a great deal of work upon the part of the Keeper. Although they share a general location and themes—the Mayans and Mesoamerica in common, there is little here to hang a campaign on. Better still to use them as one-shots or pick and choose the ones that a Keeper wants to run, just as she might with any other anthology. Whilst there are perhaps one or two decent scenarios in the collection, in the main, their set-up is too similar and their plots linear, such that running one too soon after another would make it too familiar. Ultimately, it is difficult to get really excited or enticed by A Time for Sacrifice, and the combined effect of the anthology is to make Mesoamerica mundane.

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