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Sunday, 23 May 2021

The Devil in the Dreamlands

Since the publication of Call of Cthulhu in 1981, the Mythos has proliferated into numerous other genres and roleplaying games, including the fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons. For example, Wizards of the Coast published Call of Cthulhu d20 in 2001, whilst Realms of Crawling Chaos from Goblinoid Games explored the Mythos for the Old School Renaissance. More recently, Petersen Games presented the entities, races, gods, and spells of the Mythos for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, enabling the Dungeon Master to bring those elements of cosmic horror in her fantasy campaign. What though, about using Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition to run campaigns involving cosmic horror in the more modern periods normally associated with Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying—much like Wizards of the Coast did with Call of Cthulhu d20? For that, there is Whispers in the Dark from Saturday Morning Scenarios, also the publisher of Harper’s Tale: A Forest Adventure Path for 5e, a campaign for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, suitable for a younger or family audience. Whispers in the Dark is definitely not, being a horror setting in which stalwart Investigators confront the forces of the Mythos or ‘Yog-Sothothery’, and do not always succeed or come away unscathed—physically or mentally. The starting point is Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e, and although there is not yet a full roleplaying rulebook for Whispers in the Dark, there is a combined setting and novel.

Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting and its novella, The Devil’s City, which explore the early history of the city of Chicago through its rise and explosive growth to prominence as an important trade and transport hub on the Great Lakes to the Worlds Columbian Exposition, the most influential world’s fair in history in 1893 and the horrors which would be revealed within the walls of the Worlds Fair Hotel at the hands of Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as H.H. Holmes, arguably Americas first and most notorious serial killer. Inspired by Eric Larsons The Devil in the White City, the novella serves as a prequel ‘Welcome to my Parlour’, introducing the reader to the five pre-generated Investigators who one-by-one fall prey to Mudgett’s dark desires and those of his master, Atlach-Nacha. It is dark and ghoulish piece, which can be read on its own, but should really be read by each of the five players in readiness to roleplay through the scenario. And of course, the Game Master should also read it as part of her preparation to run it. Overall, it sets the tone for the scenario, which like the novella, combines elements of both survival and body horror. Neither the novella nor the supplement are for the faint-hearted.

Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting opens with ‘People of Color in Late 19th Century America’, an essay written by Doctor Robert Greene II, Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University to share the perspective of those African Americans who were resident in Chicago and helped to build the city. It is accompanied by biographies of the leading Black figures of the period, including Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Nancy Green. No character write-ups are provided of these figures by intention, but the essay encourages a Game Master to use them and the lives of Black Chicagoans to add veracity to her game. Unfortunately, as interesting as the essay is, the authors of the supplement do not support it with scenario hooks and advice, which is a missed opportunity and would have helped a Game Master develop the veracity that Doctor Greene II suggests is possible. One interesting involvement of the leading figures profiled here is that they and other African American activists protested at the lack of an African American pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition, but again, this is not something that the authors of the supplement support.

There are plenty of scenario hooks throughout the rest of Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting. As it progresses through the founding and history of the city, covering in turn the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the founding of Montgomery Ward, the first mail order catalogue in 1872, the Unsightly Beggar Law of 1881, and more. Of course, this includes the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. This is almost the centrepiece of the supplement, and so is explored in some detail. This includes write-ups for many of the figures involved in the event, including its architect, Daniel Burnham, Harry Houdini who performed there, William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody and Annie Oakley of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West & Congress of Rough Riders of the World, which also performed there, but was not associated with the event. Numerous tents are placed along the Midway for Investigators attending the World’s Columbian Exposition to encounter and enter, experiencing bright, sometimes strange proprietors and incidences in an almost carnival-like atmosphere, including cockroach races and the Light of Ra. These are more odd than Mythos.

The various districts and places of the city are presented, including Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, the Yard which form its meatpacking district, Bubbly Creek, a foul, bubbling arm of the Chicago River, Cabbage Patch or Old Town with its St. Michael’s Church built as a haven for German immigrants, and Lincoln Park with its zoo, before expanding out to the surrounding states. However, as interesting as these descriptions are, they lack geographical context as the period maps are too small to use effectively. Numerous organisations—clubs, cults, and coteries are detailed, which can become allies, enemies, and even patrons. They include the Nightworms, dedicated to the preservation, protection, and provision of books of all kinds; the Whitechapel Club, the informal counterpart to the social club of the Chicago Press Club, fascinated with some of the ghoulish incidents its members have reported on; and the Black Star Society, dedicated to spreading the influence of the Yellow Sign. Some of these are aware of the strangeness going on in the city, most are not. The various gangs and organised crime is given a similar treatment, the Italian mob in particular.

Although several of the story hooks in Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting hint at the Mythos, the supplement is not a full treatment of its presence in the city and there is no overview of it in the city. Notable inclusions include the Grobowskis, a pack of Ghouls which police the Yard district with an iron for both mundane and Mythos incidents, and the Chicago Athletic Association, a private club whose inner circle worship Ithaqua and spread his worship through tonics of disreputable source that enhance the athleticism of other members. Its treatment gets fully underway with how parts of the city have influenced the Dreamlands—Abattoir Fields, an unsettling hunting ground overcast with rusty brown, bruised clouds and smelling of copper created by the slaughter of animals in the stockyards; the Conflagration—a land of smouldering rubble and whirling ash created by the Great Fire of 1871; and of course, the World’s Fair Hotel, its presence dedicated and reinforced to Atlach-Nacha by Mudgett. In return, the Dreamlands intrudes into the mundane world, especially in the World’s Fair Hotel.

Besides the main scenario, ‘Welcome to my Parlour’, Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting includes a story arc and a campaign jump-start. The story arc, ‘Hot Night in the Olde Town’ is a tale of gang revenge which begins with a bombing, whilst ‘Procurements & Acquisitions’ is the campaign jump-start. The Investigators are hired by a Chinese man to locate some artefacts that he cannot due to the difficulty of manoeuvring in American society and the racism he faces. The set-up can be tied into the organisations previously described as well as Mudgett and the World’s Fair Hotel, and gives the starting point from which the Game Master can develop further using the material in the supplement.

The main feature in Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting is the ‘World’s Fair Hotel’, its ‘Hotel Staff’—including Mudgett and his co-conspirators, and the scenario, ‘Welcome to my Parlour’. The hotel itself is extensively mapped and detailed, there being some eighty locations across three storeys and the basement. The ground floor consists of retail premises, a hotel on the first floor, and Mudgett’s rooms and other facilities on the third, whilst in the basement, nastier rooms can be found. Extensive descriptions are given of its ordinary rooms, strange locks, chutes, extensive secret doors, odd plumbing, locked rooms which cannot be opened from the inside—some airtight, others connected to pipes which pump gas into the room, surgical tables, acid vats, hanging rooms, and more. The descriptions are clearly marked in red, whilst throughout sidebars discuss other features and rules, such as the infamous lockable chute which delivers bodies from the top floor to the basement, gambling, and the intrusion of the Dreamlands into the hotel. It is its own little world, a murder hotel in which the supernaturally enhanced Mudgett sees all and controls much, and into which the authors want to drive the Investigators…

The scenario, ‘Welcome to my Parlour’, is best played using the given pre-generated Investigators whose backgrounds have been presented in the novella, The Devil’s City. They are Fourth Level Player Characters, each of whom has fallen prey to Mudgett’s predations and awake to find themselves trapped in the basement of their hotel. They must face their own nightmares as well as the horrors of the hotel, and perhaps may learn of their captor’s secrets before they can escape. Essentially, ‘Welcome to my Parlour’ presents another way of approaching the set-up of the hotel and its murderous proprietor, one that confronts the Investigators with the existence of the Mythos much earlier on and more directly than the options elsewhere in the supplement. The scenario is likely to take two or three sessions to play through at most, and leaves what comes next up to the Game Master.

The scenario, whose title references Mudgett’s arachnid master, includes and highlights a number of trigger warnings, including body horror, child ghosts, torture devices, forceful imprisonment, human experimentation, cannibalism, and emotional abuse. This is appropriate and there is no denying the number of strong subjects and themes entailed in ‘Welcome to My Parlour’, but there is potentially another issue with the scenario, that of using the Mythos in this fashion. In other words, using it to explain Mudgett’s monstrous crimes. This is not uncommon in Lovecraftian investigative horror set in the nineteenth century, especially when it comes to the use of Jack the Ripper (and also Sherlock Holmes), the use of which is simply trite. The use of Mudgett and the World’s Fair Hotel does not feel that, primarily because the subject matter is unfamiliar, but that still leaves the matter of using the Mythos in conjunction with both. Fortunately, Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting does not employ the Mythos to explain or provide a possible excuse for Mudgett’s crimes, but rather has the Mythos take advantage of someone who is already a monster and exacerbates his true nature. Of course, running and playing a campaign set in Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition means it is difficult to avoid Mudgett and the World’s Fair Hotel, nevertheless,  both the Game Master and her players may want to be aware of the nature of the crimes before beginning play.

Rounding out Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting is a quartet of appendices. For the Game Master there is ‘Welcome to My Parlour Statblocks’; a ‘Gamemaster’s Toolbox’ of Hit Dice, Creature Size, and Challenge Ratings; a list of ‘Publications of the 19th Century’ and ‘Patent Medication Names’; and the ‘World’s Fair Hotel Maps’. For the players it includes ‘The Devil’s City Pre-gens’—the five pre-generated Investigators for the scenario, ‘Welcome to My Parlour’ and ‘New Investigator Options’, which adds a new Ancestry in form of Tcho-Tcho, new Backgrounds including Athlete, Explorer, Religious Scholar, and Teamster, new Feats, and a new Alignment system. The latter switches from the traditional ‘law versus chaos’ and ‘good versus evil’ axes to ‘good versus evil’, ‘order versus chaos’, and ‘selfless versus selfish’. A Player Character typically has one or two of these, and can add another as a result of a major, usually traumatic, life event. Each axis is a scale, designed to provide a player some flexibility in how his Investigator reacts and changes over time. A player is expected to write a narrative description of his Investigator’s Alignment, again providing a player with greater flexibility in how he portrays his Investigator. Although the five pre-generated Investigators are nicely presented, they could have done with clearer backgrounds for players who have not necessarily read The Devil’s City.

Physically, Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting is a well-presented book. The artwork is decent and the maps excellent. It could have done with an index, and in places the writing could have been clearer. The organisation does not always feel logical either, the Mythos sitting alongside the mundane at times when it feels it should have been placed later in the book. In places it feels as if the content has been developed in fits and starts, like Kickstarter stretch goals, and whilst everything seems to have good reason to be in the book, it feels fragmented in places.

Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting is not the definitive supplement for Chicago during the nineteenth century or the World’s Columbian Exposition, whether for Whispers in the Dark or Cthulhu by Gaslight. Which leaves the problem of quite identifying what it actually is, because its focus is ultimately not on the city itself and the great events of World’s Columbian Exposition, but rather on the World’s Fair Hotel, Herman Webster Mudgett, and the scenario, ‘Welcome to my Parlour’, as well as supporting it with encounters and campaign frameworks which lead back to the World’s Fair Hotel. So it feels like three books—one devoted to Chicago, one to the World’s Columbian Exposition, and very much the largest one to the World’s Fair Hotel, Herman Webster Mudgett, and the scenario, ‘Welcome to my Parlour’—rather than just a single, large book. It does not help that there is no real overview of Chicago in 1893—mundane or Mythos related, no clear, easy to use map of the city, and as well-intentioned as the opening essay ‘People of Color in Late 19th Century America’ is, it is disappointing that as upfront as it is, the supplement just does not bring that into play.

There is a lot to like about Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting. The authors provide plenty of information, scenario hooks, and playable content for Chicago, describe the World’s Fair Hotel and Herman Webster Mudgett in ghoulish detail, and present multiple means to bring the Investigators to his murder hotel, but the supplement only feels like a whole sourcebook when it focuses in on World’s Fair Hotel, Herman Webster Mudgett, and the scenario, ‘Welcome to my Parlour’. More of a scenario and a potential campaign set-up, Horror in the Windy City: A Whispers in the Dark Setting needs the hands of an experienced Game Master to develop it into something more than that.

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