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

Sunday 31 October 2021

Review 1500: Call of Cthulhu

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Call of Cthulhu was first published in 1981. Written by Sandy Petersen, it is famously, the roleplaying game based upon the works and creations of American horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft, drawing upon the adage, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” from his own essay, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’. Indeed, it is the first roleplaying game to do so as its sole focus—other roleplaying games and supplements included the creatures of Lovecraft’s Mythos within their pages, but not in the way that 
Call of Cthulhu does. The roleplaying game places the action—and by action, mostly investigation—in Lovecraft’s own period of the Jazz Age, the nineteen twenties, and has ordinary men and women investigate the machinations and conspiracies of creatures and entities best left unknown to man, the creatures and entities of the Cthulhu Mythos, as well as their all too human cultists and acolytes, and if not save the world in the long term, at least save the world for now. In doing so, their bravery in the face of Cosmic Horror, will remain unknown and go unrewarded save in the knowledge that mankind is safe—for now, for ultimately the stars will come right, and Cthulhu will rise from where lies dreaming deepest R’lyeh to reclaim what was once his, along with a host of other aliens and beings beyond our understanding who regard Humanity as nothing more than an infestation—if they do at all. In the process, their investigations will see them delve into secret places, peruse and study ancient tomes, learn blasphemous knowledge and incantations, and see things and beings best left unseen, all of which might drive them insane, such is the nature of the truth about the world and the cosmos which has long been forgotten.

An Investigator in 
Call of Cthulhu has nine attributes—Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, Appearance, Education, and Sanity. Of these, Sanity is actually derived from the Investigator’s Power, and plays a major role in the roleplaying game, whilst Education determines the number of points a player has to assign to the skills granted by his Investigator’s Occupation. This Occupation can be Antiquarian/Historian, Author, Dilettante, Doctor, Journalist, Lawyer, Professor, Parapsychologist, and Private Eye (the choices available will greatly expand with subsequent editions and supplements), granting skills such as Anthropology, Archaeology, History, Library Use, Occult, Psychoanalysis, Psychology, Read/Write Other Language, and Speak Other Language for the Parapsychologist occupation. In addition, an Investigator’s Intelligence determines the number of points a player has to assign to personal interest skills.

The skills themselves are very modern and geared towards the investigative playing style of the game. Thus Library Use for conducting research in libraries and newspaper morgues, Read/Write Latin or Ancient Greek for reading ancient or Mythos related tomes, Psychology for determining if a potential cultist is lying or even insane, Credit Rating for getting a loan or moving in the right social circles, and so on. There are combat skills too, such as Handgun or Fist, but these are not always reliable in play, since many of the Mythos creatures are immune to their effects. One notable skill is Cthulhu Mythos, which represents an Investigator’s knowledge of the cosmic horror which threatens mankind’s understanding of the universe, knowledge which will permanently damage an Investigator’s Sanity. Investigator creation is actually very simple, but the range of Occupations and skills lend themselves to a multitude of ideas and concepts for Investigators and their backgrounds all inspired by the historical setting of the roleplaying game.

Our sample investigator is Henry Brinded, a Bostonian from a wealthy family who studied Classics at Yale before serving as an artillery officer with the American Expeditionary Force in Northern France during the Great War. As a consequence he is slightly deaf and abhors loud noises. He owns and runs a small antiquarian shop which specialises in ancient and medieval manuscripts.

Henry Brinded
Occupation: Antiquarian
Strength 11 Constitution 11 Size 12 Intelligence 16
Power 14 Dexterity 13 Appearance 17 Education 17
Sanity 70 Hit Points 11

Archaeology 20%, Bargaining 30%, Boating 30%, Credit Rating 40, Cthulhu Mythos 00%, History 65%, Law 30%, Library Use 50%, Make Maps 20%, Psychology 25%, Read/Write English 85%, Read/Write Latin 50%, Speak French 25%, Swim 25%

Combat Skills
75 mm Field Gun 20%
Rifle 20%

Call of Cthulhu famously uses Basic Role-Playing for the basis of its mechanics, the percentile system derived from RuneQuest. In the earliest editions, it went further though than just using the Basic Role-Playing as the basis for its rules. It actually included a copy in the box and both player and Keeper would need to know these rules before going on to play Call of Cthulhu, which in a way made Call of Cthulhu a supplement for Basic Role-Playing rather than a roleplaying in its own right. In comparison to RuneQuest, the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu are much simpler and would remain virtually the same until their revision with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It is primarily a skills-based game, a player rolling under his Investigator’s skills or if against an object or NPC, on the Resistance Table, using percentile dice. Really, this is not very much more than Basic Role-Playing—a copy of which is included in the box as an introduction to the rules—with a plethora of different skills to account for the change in genre and time period.

The one notable addition to the rules is Sanity. An Investigator begins play with his Sanity equal to his Power attribute times five, and it is tested if he encounters something scary, be it the dead body of a fellow Investigator or a creature of the Mythos. Fail the test and the Investigator might lose a few points for seeing the corpse, eight or ten for encountering a Mythos creature, and even one hundred points for seeing a Great Old One such as Great Cthulhu himself! If an Investigator fails the Sanity roll (and sometimes even when he succeeds), then he can not only lose Sanity, he can go insane, temporarily if he loses five points in one go, but indefinitely if he loses a fifth within the space of an hour, such is the corrosive effect upon the fragility of the mortal mind. Such an Investigator might end catatonic or suffering from amnesia, but one of the probable outcomes is that he suffers from a phobia, and the rulebook includes a lovely list such as Ballistophobia or Teratophobia. Now there are only a few here, but again subsequent expansions to the game would add many more.

Sanity can also be lost for reading Mythos tomes such as the infamous Necronomicon or the dread Revelations of Glaaki, but sometimes they have to be read to learn the means or the spells necessary to thwart the Mythos—at least temporarily. However, doing so means gaining points in the Cthulhu Mythos skill, representing the fundamental understanding as to the true nature of the universe and mankind’s place in it. The more points in the Cthulhu Mythos skill an Investigator has, the lower his maximum Sanity. Now it is possible to regain points of Sanity, typically by defeating or thwarting the plans of a cult or a Mythos creature, but also by undergoing Psychoanalysis. The latter takes a while though, is not guaranteed to work, but is safer than the former option—depending upon the Alienist and the institution of course. In the long term, as an Investigator loses points of Sanity, the lower the chance he has of withstanding shocks and exposure to the Mythos, the greater the chance of losing more Sanity, and so on, until his Sanity is so low, he retires alive but unhinged or it drops below zero and he is insane. Permanently.

Much of the rest of the rest of the core rule book is dedicated to the Mythos itself. This begins with the gods and creatures, from Azathoth, Cthuga, and Great Cthulhu to Y’Golonac, Yig, and Yog-Sothoth, from Byakhee, Chthonians, and Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath to Shoggoths, Star-Spawn of Cthulhu, and Star Vampires. All are given full stats and extensive write-ups, much of which will be familiar from later editions of 
Call of Cthulhu. Here though, Petersen classifies them not once but twice. First into Outer Gods and Great Old Ones as well as Alien Races and Monsters, and second, into classes—Minor, Moderate, Major, Great Old Ones, and Outer Gods. Thus, Shub-Niggurath is an Outer God, Ithaqua a Great old One, Hounds of Tindalos are Major, Shoggoths Moderate (!), and Mi-Go Minor. It does feel oddly forced, but as a way of quantifying them it works well enough. The well-done chapter of the Mythos Monsters is followed by an explanation of how Mythos magic works and the dangers of reading the various Mythos tomes. Again, the explanations are well done, and again, the spells reinforce how this is not a roleplaying game in which the Investigators learn a spell and blast away at their enemies with eldritch power. Most of the spells consist of call, contact, summon, and/or bind the things of the Mythos, which means bringing them to the Investigators and exposing their minds to the unspeakable horrors to the detriment of their Sanity, and many spells cost Sanity to cast. Which is fine if you are an insane sorcerer with no Sanity! Lastly, the Mythos tomes are simply listed and do feel as if they warrant further development—which again, in subsequent editions, they would.

And then there is the ‘How to Play the Game’ chapter. This is a superb chapter—which like so much of the rest of 
Call of Cthulhu will be visited again and again—which explains, if it was not clear from the first six chapters, how Call of Cthulhu is a roleplaying game of a different stripe. With the first sentence it states that, “Call of Cthulhu differs in feel and motivation from other roleplaying games.”, warning that direct confrontation with the Mythos will not only fail, but probably end up with the death of the Investigators involved. The solution is to investigate, to visit libraries, conduct interviews, read arcane tomes, scout out locations, and more. It also advises that the Investigators avoid too much gunplay lest they arouse the suspicions of the authorities. It is a fantastic read and it is followed by good advice for the Keeper of Arcane Secrets—as the Game Master is known in Call of Cthulhu, in setting up and running a scenario and a campaign. As good as the chapter is, the two subject matters—one for the players and one for the Keeper—do not feel as if they should be together, in case of the advice for the player, this far into the book. Nevertheless, this is an excellent chapter, its contents pertinent today as it was in 1981. It is followed by an example play, which sadly does not involve Harvey Walters.

The core rulebook includes not one, but three scenarios. First up is ‘The Haunting’—more recently renamed ‘The Haunted House’, a scenario which inserts the Mythos into a classic haunted house set-up and delivers some great shocks and scares in what has since become almost everyone’s first encounter with 
Call of Cthulhu. It has been developed since, and appeared in almost every version of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook except for the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. (It is instead included in the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Quick-Start and returned to the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook for its fortieth anniversary edition.) It is a creepy little classic, here feeling a little barebones, but effective all the same for a single session.

The second is ‘The Madman’, which is set in the backwoods of Vermont and has one Old Harny Whitaker—renamed Harny Reginald in later editions—acting strangely, attacking a postman for no apparent reason and said to be performing mysterious rituals atop nearby hills. More of a detailed outline, this is something for the Keeper to develop herself, starting with a stronger hook for the involvement of the Investigators. The third scenario is ‘The Brockford House’, which has never been reprinted beyond the pages of the core rulebook, has the Investigators looking into another house and the strange noises coming from underneath. Located just off the coast of Maine, this is a more physical scenario than ‘The Haunted House’, involving little in the way of investigation or research, leaving the Investigators even more ill prepared for what they face than usual. Although it has its moments, ‘The Brockford House’ is unimpressive.

Lastly, the appendices provides a mix of content, some of which would be included in later editions, some of it not, and a fair bit of what would be later reprinted would be shifted to the second book in the Call of Cthulhu box set, ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’. The appendices open with 
‘Notes on a Fragment of the Necronomicon’, penned by Phileus P. Sadowski. This is a delightful in-game examination of the dread tome, which adds detail and history to its listing earlier in the core rulebook. However, the fact that the given date for the article is 1979 and it references Lovecraft: A Biography by L. Sprague de Camp, it does feel out of step with the rest of the game! Otherwise this is an engaging piece with which to draw the rulebook to a close. ‘Rewards for Valor’ suggests the types of rewards the Investigators might gain as a result of their efforts, focusing on the types of loot that they might find in temples or cult headquarters. As odd as this may read to modern players of the roleplaying game, this has a stronger grounding than at first seems, for the Investigators do need a source of income if they are to go off around the world investigating the unknown rather than holding down proper jobs. For the Keeper there is advice on cultists and cults, including primitive cults, and the nature—both benefits and costs—of worshipping the unnamable, and a list of libraries known to contain occult material rules for Sages, from whom an Investigator can learn more of the nature of the world and perhaps gain other help too.

Besides ‘A Timeline for H.P. Lovecraft’ and some Nautical skills, the appendices also includes three further scenarios. Two of these are two scenario vignettes, which can be used to begin or add to a campaign. The first of these, ‘A Beginning Scenario for a Campaign’, involves a deadly encounter on a bus tour in Vermont, leading to the Investigators being hounded by allies of the Mythos, whilst the second, ‘The Cultists Lair: A Scenario’, is a detailed summoning site in the crater of an extinct volcano. The first is the better of the two and works better as the beginning of a campaign, something that the Keeper can take away and develop on her own. The second has plenty of detail, but not necessarily the scope as intended. Between the two is 
‘Shadows Over Hollywood: A Scenario’, which has never been reprinted and switches from typical East Coast setting of Call of Cthulhu to the West Coast. It has the Investigators connected to or working for The New Western Dawn, an occult magazine, sent out to investigate sightings of strange winged creatures dancing at an old mission in the San Bernardino mountains. There is not very much for the Investigators to really learn or do in the scenario and like a lot of early scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, it does over reward the Investigators. If they do insist on getting involved, things get very, very nasty.

If the rulebook for Call of Cthulhu focused on Investigators and the weirdness of the Mythos, the second book in the Call of Cthulhu box provides the context. ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’ is both an almanac for the Jazz Age and an expansion to the rules. Even the cover is put to good use with a set of deck plans for an airship, but inside there are maps of noted archaeological sites—from Ife in Nigeria, Scara Brae in the Orkney Islands, and Çatal Hüyük in Turkey to Moundville in the USA, Pan-P’o-Ts’un in China, and Luxor in Egypt. These in particular are eye opening, in many cases the reader’s first exposure to some of the amazing archaeological sites found around the world, ripe to be visited by the Investigators’ resident archaeologist or used as a site by dread cultists, their accompanying text spurring a Keeper to research more. ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’ also includes timelines ordinary and outré for the decade, thumbnail biographies for the notables of the period, a list of companies with goods and services to add flavour to a game, floorplans of the railway coaches (terrifying train journeys would go on to become a staple of Call of Cthulhu scenarios), travel speeds and times, and goods and prices.

In play, there is the addition of new weapon stats and notes for the war boomerang, the musket, Thompson submachine, and even a 75 mm field gun! The ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’ also provides a short guide to crimes, arrests, and handling bribery too, including notes about the 18th Amendment and thus Prohibition (a subject which the roleplaying game would also revisit numerous times over the next four decades). The guide to handling arrests are really very good, highlighting what might happen if the Investigators’ actions arouse suspicion and the potential consequences are, because ultimately, although their actions may be morally right, legally they may be anything other than right. This enforces the sense of the ordinary world around them versus the Cosmic Horror they face. Organised crime is covered as well, as is the Ku Klux Klan.  ‘Beasts & Monsters’ expands on the list of entities and forces of the Mythos, but with more ‘mundane’ creatures. So crocodiles and pythons, but also the ghost, the mummy, the pixie, the vampire, the werewolf, the wraith, and the zombie. The latter, the more traditional monsters have their own Sanity losses, of course, and their inclusion opens up the realms of possibility and using 
Call of Cthulhu as a more traditional horror roleplaying game, and again, that possibility would be revisited again and again in the next forty years, most notably with the anthologies Blood Brothers and Blood Brothers II.

However, there is some variation between the content of the ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’. Later versions provide ‘Other Occupations’ such as Gangster, Missionary, Policeman, and Soldier, and include content which had previously been included in the rulebook. The most notable inclusion here though, 
is a section called ‘Previous Experience’. This offers a more random means of creating an Investigator, a player rolling to determine his Investigator’s attributes and then gender, starting age, birthplace (in the USA), Education (this can be lower in rural areas) and where he went to school. This will add some points to various academic skills, and then he selects one or more Occupations, and works out his prior experience. This is done in five-year terms (much like the roleplaying game Traveller does, but in four-year long terms), the Investigator receiving the given skill bonuses for the Occupation. For example, for the Gangster this is Climb (5), Jump (5), Fast Talk (10), Credit Rating (10), Drive Auto (10), Listen (10), Bargain (5), Spot Hidden (5), Law (5), Dynamite (5), Sub-Machine Gun (5), Revolver (5), Shotgun (5), and Pick Pocket (5) for each term. It even comes with a complete example, the prior experience of Eben Stone, whose fortunes remain unknown in comparison to those of the perennial Harvey Walters.

Whichever version of ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’ was present in the Call of Cthulhu box, there is no denying the wealth of detail it provides player and Keeper alike. There is so much information in its pages that the Keeper can use to bring her campaign to life and add verisimilitude, and so much of it has since been re-explored and developed—if not by Chaosium, Inc., then by other publishers. Certainly both The Keeper’s Companion vol. 1 and The Keeper’s Companion vol. 2 can be seen as developments of ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’ as well as various aspects of the core rulebook.

In addition to the core rulebook and ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’, 
Call of Cthulhu includes a sheet of Character Figures, which can be cut out and used as figures during play instead of miniatures. Both Investigators and Cthulhu entities are done as silhouettes, those for the monsters the same as their illustrations in the core book. The silhouettes of these Character Figures would also influence the sculpture of the miniatures manufactured Grenadier Models. Lastly, the box contains a poster map of the world, marked with sites of interest across the globe, both Mythos and mundane. It is nice and clear, but perhaps a little large to use easily.

Call of Cthulhu is well presented, it is easy to read, and is broken up by boxed text and the occasional illustration. Actually there is very little artwork in the core rulebook and whilst not all of it is of the highest quality it is in the main effective in evoking a certain dark and lonely mood. The use of a single Investigator, Harvey Walters, as an example throughout the rulebook, from creation to insanity really helps the reader understand the roleplaying game’s mechanics. ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’ feels a little cramped in comparison, but that is down to the amount of content within its pages.

It is difficult to pinpoint any real issues with 
Call of Cthulhu as it originally appeared. There are details which perhaps the reader might feel the designer got wrong about the Mythos, but there are perhaps two issues, one more serious than the other. The lesser issue is that the scenarios are variable in quality, but to be fair, these are the first scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, so cannot be expected to be amazing the first time out. The standout scenario, is of course, ‘The Haunting’, still brilliantly playable and as effective a piece of horror today as it was in 1981. The major issue is the lack of advice for the Keeper on the design and presentation of NPCs, especially cultists. There are some notes in the appendices, but the Keeper is very much left on her own to develop these herself with little real guidance. Of course, in subsequent editions of the roleplaying game, as well as innumerable scenarios and campaigns, the Keeper would be shown again and again what a cultist or other NPC might look like in terms of the rules, but here in the core rulebook, she is left a little wanting.


Call of Cthulhu would go on to win the Origins Awards for Best Role-Playing Game in 1982 and receive the Game Designer’s Guild, Select Award in 1981, and ultimately, be conducted into the Origins Award Hall of Fame in 1995. Within a year of its publication, it would be reviewed several times, some of them in quite lengthy write-ups.

William Barton, who would go on to write Cthulhu by Gaslight, reviewed 
Call of Cthulhu in Space Gamer Number 49 (March, 1982) and said, “Overall, CALL OF CTHULHU is an excellent piece of work.” He noted that there were several inconsistencies in the interpretation of the Mythos, but considered, “Petersen’s depth of research in the books and in the Mythos is next to remarkable.” and despite a number of failings overlooked in the simplification of Basic Role-Playing into Call of Cthulhu, concluded that, “The worlds of H. P. Lovecraft are truly open for the fantasy gamer.”

In ‘Call of Cthulhu is a challenge’ in Dragon #61 (May 1982), David Cook was critical of the rules, especially what he called, “[T]he incompleteness of the combat system.” with its small list of weapons, and a lack of rules for cover, movement, surprise, and the like. He was particularly critical of ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’, complaining that, “It, like the appendices, appears to be notes and unfinished design work.” and suggested that it could have been better used to present the background to Lovecraft’s stories for those unfamiliar with them. His most serious complaint was that “The most serious flaw in the game is the lack of rules for NPC’s. The rules do say, and quite rightly, that Investigators should seldom meet any of the monsters listed. Doing so will often result in Investigator death or insanity, not a pleasant prospect for a player. Therefore, the Investigator will be dealing with and battling NPC’s. However, there is nothing given in the rulebook about creating interesting NPC’s. There is no quick system for generating NPC characteristics and skills. There are no suggestions for what NPC’s will know, how they will be armed, or what (or why!) they are doing. This lack of information puts an extremely large burden on the Keeper and makes it especially hard to create NPC’s that will keep the players’ interest. There should have been a section devoted to this in the rules.

Although Cook’s initial conclusion was initially less than positive, “It is difficult to either love or hate the game.”, but ultimately said, “It is a good game for experienced role-playing gamers and ambitious judges, especially if they like Lovecraft’s type of story. However, those players and judges just getting into roleplaying or who have never read a Lovecraft story are well advised to wait on this Game until they have more experience.”

Call of Cthulhu in Open Box in White Dwarf No 32 (August 1982), Ian Bailey wrote, “Sandy Petersen has faithfully reproduced the tone of Lovecraft’s with the Call of Cthulhu game system and as a result, it is not about hacking and slaying, it is about investigation, which boils down to a rewarding battle of wits between the players and the Keeper.” He also noted that, “The game encourages good role-playing from the players. The rules embody a number of deterrents for the would be ‘fighter’.” His only criticism was that the sourcebook was too “U.S. orientated and consequently any Keeper ... who wants to set his game in the UK will have a lot of research to do.” Before concluding that, “Call of Cthulhu is an excellent game and a welcome addition to the world of role-playing.” and awarding it a score of nine out of ten.

Call of Cthulhu would be voted number one in ‘Arcane Presents the Top 50 Roleplaying Games 1996’ in Arcane #14 (December, 1996). The article summed it up as “Call of Cthulhu is fully deserved of the title as the most popular roleplaying system ever – it’s a game that doesn't age, is eminently playable, and which hangs together perfectly. The system, even though it’s over ten years old, it is still one of the very best you’ll find in any roleplaying game. Also, there’s not a referee in the land who could say they’ve read every Lovecraft inspired book or story going, so there’s a pretty-well endless supply of scenario ideas. It’s simply marvellous.”


It is surprising to note that when 
Call of Cthulhu was published, there was no other horror roleplaying game on the market. There were plenty of roleplaying games with horror elements in them—primarily classic monsters such as werewolves, vampires, and zombies—but none dedicated to the genre itself, so when Call of Cthulhu was published in 1981, it was not only ground-breaking, but it was also ground-breaking in its genre again and again. To begin with, it quantified the Mythos, its creatures and gods, spells and tomes, not as something to fight and defeat as was the case in their previous appearances in roleplaying games and supplements, but as something to be scared of and thus avoid, as a real threat to the Investigators and humanity, and in doing so elevated the Mythos in the hobby into something more than just fodder for sword and spell. The general lack of familiarity with the Mythos also meant that the creatures and gods presented in the pages of Call of Cthulhu were also all the more unknowable, so the scares and the horror that the Keeper could bring to her game were all the more effective. Arguably, this presentation would spur interest anew in Lovecraft’s fiction and ultimately lead to the popularity that his creations have today. It presented a whole new way of roleplaying and game—investigating, researching, interacting with NPCs to get information, and attempting to find a means to defeat the ghastly enemy using the mind and knowledge rather than brute force. It emphasised the skills and the knowledge of the Investigators, who are just ordinary men and women, rather than the might and powers of adventurers in other roleplaying games. When combined with the fact that the roleplaying game was set in the real and comparatively modern world, although one several decades before, it made the Investigators all the more human and relatable. 

It also inverted the way in which the roleplaying game was traditionally played. In most roleplaying games, the Player Characters gain in power and heroic stature, becoming better warriors, learning more powerful spells, and gaining more wondrous magical artefacts or other equipment. Not so in Call of Cthulhu. In Call of Cthulhu, the Investigators can improve their skills, but they do not gain amazing powers or even better equipment, or even increase their Hit Points. There is no ascending spiral of heroic power. Instead, the more the Investigators learn of the Mythos, whether through encounters or research, they may gain secret, arcane knowledge, but they suffer for it, becoming mentally unbalanced, even insane if they learn too much. Theirs is a descending spiral of insanity, theirs is at best a desperate and secret battle to save humanity, heroic but still unknown.

Lastly, of course, there is Insanity. 
Call of Cthulhu introduced a Sanity mechanic and it was simple and elegant. No more could a roleplaying game get by without addressing the mental fortitude, or lack of, of its Player Characters, and although there have been many ways to handle fear and being scared half to death in roleplaying games since, Call of Cthulhu did it first and did it simply and elegantly.

In the years since it was first published, 
Call of Cthulhu has been presented in multiple new editions, and its concepts explored again and again, in ways that the original designer probably never envisioned, in hundreds of scenarios and tens of campaigns, from the ancient past to the here and now (and even beyond). Call of Cthulhu is and has been incredibly well supported in its forty years of being in print. And the great thing is that the content from forty years ago can still be played using the rules presented in the original edition of the roleplaying or the latest. Which is a testament to the firm foundation that was laid by Sandy Petersen for Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying with the first edition of Call of Cthulhu.

There is a reason why 
Call of Cthulhu is regarded as one of the greatest roleplaying games ever published. It is a classic piece of design that successfully emulates the singular genre it is inspired by and in doing so, introduced new ways to roleplay and tell amazing stories as well as innovations to the roleplaying hobby that are still influential today. It is always going to be the greatest horror roleplaying game there is, not just because of the Mythos, but because of its influence, innovations, and the simple fact that it can still give you a great playing experience.

Saturday 30 October 2021

Universal Horror Co-op

Monsters have arisen and the village is under attack! Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster—and his Bride, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon are all on the rampage and it is up a dedicated team of heroic monster hunters to keep the villagers safe from their predations, find the means to thwart each and every one, and then put an end to their reign of terror! This is the set-up for Horrified, a co-operative board game from Ravensburger, designed for between one and five players, ages ten and up, in which they face the classic foes of the Universal monsters series of films from the nineteen thirties and nineteen forties. If you are a regular player of board games, then you will definitely spot the architecture and design elements of the first classic co-operative board game, Pandemic, but Horrified is far from a drily themed race to find the cure to four different diseases! It is a desperate race to defeat classic monsters, each of which is very different in terms of what they do and what the players need to do to defeat them, it oozes both theme and charm, and its horror is scary, but not terrifying, so it can be played by the family as well as the dedicated horror fan—and both will enjoy it.

Open up a copy of Horrified and the first thing you see is a warning about the potentially horrifying experiences to be found in the box. Of course it is a little tongue in cheek and so perfectly in keeping with the tone of the Universal Monsters, but what is clever is where this warning is placed. Not on a separate sheet of paper or the back of the rulebook, but on the back of the game’s board. It is a clever use of space and points to the degree of thought and detail which has gone into this game. The board itself depicts various locations within a village, a curious mix of the American small town and the European Gothic, so there is a precinct and a mansion as well as an abbey and a tower with an adjacent dungeon. A river runs through the village, connecting a lagoon and the waterfront. At the top of the board is the Terror Track.

The Heroes in Horrified—and there are seven of them—are each represented by a Hero Badge, essentially character cards detailing their abilities and their playing pieces. Each has good illustration, a number to indicate how many Actions he or she can take a turn, and a special action or ability. For example, the Mayor has five Actions per turn, but no special action or ability, whereas the Courier has four and can travel to any location where there is another Hero, and the Professor, also has four and can move any Hero or Villager one space.

The Universal Monsters in Horrified—and there are six of them—are each represented by plastic playing piece of a different colour and a Monster Mat. Each Monster Mat details what the Monster can do and how it is defeated, the latter requiring two steps. For example, Dracula can use his Dark Charm to pull a Hero to his space, and to advance to point where they can him, the Heroes need to visit each of the four locations where his coffins and destroy them, before confronting the vampire prince directly. At least six points of Red Item Tokens are required to destroy a coffin, and six points of Yellow Item Tokens to destroy him. The Mummy has a tablet on which Scarabs can be moved, the number of moves determined by the value of Yellow Item Token used. Move them into the right order and the curse is broken, and the Mummy can be entombed by confronting him and expending at least nine points of Red Item Tokens. However, the Mummy can fortify the curse by turning one of the Scarabs upside down! Perhaps the most interesting Monster to defeat, at least thematically, is that of Frankenstein and his Bride. Both have to taught to live peacefully together, Blue and Yellow Item Tokens being expended to increase their Humanity on a dial for each of them in their respective spaces. They constantly move towards each other, and can be ‘defeated’ if they have sufficient Humanity when they meet, if not, they flee back to their starting positions and the Terror Level goes up by one.

In addition, there are Monster tokens which are added to the game when particular Monsters are selected as the foes. For Dracula, this is his four coffins and for Frankenstein and his Bride, it is the dials to tack their Humanity, but the Creature from the Black Lagoon includes an overlay piece which replaces the Camp location and instructs a player what to do to direct the boat counter—which also comes with the Creature from the Black Lagoon—ever closer to its lair where it can be defeated. Essentially, the means of defeating each Monster is different and requires the Heroes to collect and expend the different coloured Item Tokens.

As well as the game pieces for the Heroes and the Monsters, Horrified comes with ten Villagers. When they appear on the board, they always want to reach their safe locations and the Heroes can guide them there. If they do, then they will be rewarded with a Perk Card. If a Monster reaches a Villager and defeats him, the Terror Level is increased. The Item Tokens come in three colours—red for physical items, blue for intellectual, and yellow for spiritual—and range in value between one and five. There are Markers for both Terror and Frenzy, the former used on the Terror Tracker, the latter to indicate when a Monster is Frenzied. Along with three dice, there five Reference Cards, one for each player; thirty Monster Cards to indicate Monster actions; and twenty Perk cards, awarded when a Hero gets a Villager home. Each Monster Card indicates how many Item Tokens are drawn from the game’s cloth bag and added to the board and gives an event such as ‘Thief’, in which case, the Invisible Man appears at the location where there are the most items and steals them, forcing them to be discarded. The Monster Card also reveals which of the Monsters move on a turn, including the Frenzied Monster—which can mean that a Monster can move and act twice in a turn, how many spaces, and how many dice it rolls to attack. Some Monster Cards can be beneficial, for example, the ‘Sunrise’ Monster Card will force Dracula to flee back to the Crypt, which might be away from a Hero or a Villager, and some might not have any effect, either because the Monster is not being played in the current game or because it has already been defeated. The Perk cards provide single benefits, like a ‘Taxi Ride’ which gets a Hero to any non-water location or ‘Late into the Night’, which grants the current player two further actions.

Horrified has one win condition and two loss conditions. The Heroes triumph and the players win the game if they defeat all of the Monsters. However, they lose if the Terror Level reaches its maximum level, forcing everyone in the village to flee in horror and allow the Monsters to take over. And they also lose if the Monster deck is emptied and one more Monster card needs to be drawn, the Heroes and thus the players having taken too long to save the village.

Game set-up is simple enough. The Terror Marker is set at zero and the selected Monsters set up as instructed. Then each player selects a random Hero, receives a Perk card, and the sixty Item Tokens placed in the cloth bag. Twelve of these are drawn at random and placed on the board. The rule quickly guides the players through the process, but goes not one, not two, but four steps further. It suggest that the players’ first game be against Dracula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, any two Monsters for the Novice game, any three Monsters in the standard game, and any four in a challenging game. Thus it eases the players into the game and its play whilst showing them how to make the game more difficult.

A player’s turn has two phases. In the Hero phase, a player expends his Hero’s Action Points to move, guide a Villager to or from an adjacent location (a villager will accompany a Hero and move with him), take a Special Action, pick up Item Tokens or share them with a Hero on the same location, Advance a Monster’s task, or Defeat a Monster. The latter two task are different for each Monster and are given on their respective Monster mats, and require the Hero to be in specific places. In the Monster phase, a Monster Card is drawn from the Monster card deck, and the number of Item Tokens given on the Monster Card placed, its Event carried out, and then any movement and attacks conducted. The latter requires rolling dice, which have exclamation point and star symbols on them. Rolls of the exclamation point active a Monster’s power, such as Dracula’s Dark Charm, whilst rolls the star symbol force a Hero to discard Item Tokens, and if a Hero has none, defeats him, sending him to the Hospital and raising the Terror Level one step!

Physically, Horrified is a well-presented game. Everything is in colour, the board is painted in dark shades with pools of light to suggest that it might be midnight, the Item Tokens and cards are all easy to read, and the rules are well explained. In fact, the rules are very well written, with plenty of clarification and explanation of how each Monster works and can be defeated, along with several good examples of play. A player with some experience of playing board games could easily open up the box to Horrified, read the rules, and be playing within a relatively short time. Plus there is a little advice here and there on playing again, strategy, playing it solo—which is even more challenging, and so on. Another nice touch to the graphic design is the inclusion of an explanation of who the Monsters are on the outside of the inner box, also done in colour. However, the production values are not high as they could be. The plastic miniatures for the Monsters lack detail and the card stock for the game’s various cards is thin and will not stand up to too much handling.

In terms of game play, where in Pandemic, as members of the CDC, the players are travelling the world, visiting cities and treating diseases, and drawing and swapping city cards of the right to cure the game’s four diseases, in Horrified, the players as the Heroes, are moving round the village collecting as many Item Tokens as they can in order to have enough of the right colour to first advance the condition on each Monster Mat to the point where the Monster can be defeated. Hindering the players in Pandemic is the constant appearance of new cases the four diseases, and worse sudden outbreaks where a disease spreads to other cities, whereas in Horrified, the Heroes need to track where both the Monsters and the villagers are, because if the Monsters get to the Villagers, they kill them and so drive up the Terror Level. The Heroes also need to avoid the Monsters themselves until the time is right to confront them directly and defeat them. Of course, if a Hero can get a villager to his or her safe location, that earns him Perk card.

However, defeating two Monsters—the base difficulty in Horrified—is fairly easy. Defeating three, though—the standard difficulty—is challenging. Four is another matter altogether! The difficulty will also vary slightly depending upon the Monsters in play, plus the more players a game has, the more Monster cards are drawn and the more Villagers appear to be taken by the Monsters and so increase the Terror Level. The higher difficulty levels may not necessarily suit all players though, casual or family players potentially finding Horrified too difficult at three Monsters, and more so at four.

Horrified is a good game for a number of reasons. In terms of game play, it is relatively light, suitable for casual players and the family, but offering enough for the hobbyist player as a lighter option. Its theme is really well handled, from the different means of defeating the various Monsters and the inclusion of the villagers from the films those Monsters appeared in, to graphical design and the attention to detail which evoke a sense of nostalgia for the Universal Monsters. It offers a decent degree of replay value too, with seven Heroes and six Monsters to choose from, enabling players to mix and match both. However, it would be great to see an expansion with even more and different Monsters. In terms of value, Horrified is a game you can buy on the high street and specialised game shops, and as a mass market board game, it is not just a good game. In fact, it is fantastic game, because as a mass market board game, it is not only inexpensive, but it combines its theme and its mechanics really well. No longer do we have board games based on intellectual properties that are just throwaway ‘roll and move’ designs, but like the earlier Jaws: A Boardgame of Strategy and Suspense, we have mass market board games designed to fit their themes and make use of their themes, that are readily available and consequently, make you want to play again. Jaws does that, and so does Horrified. Lastly, it is also great to see a horror themed board game which involves neither zombies or Cthulhu, and so Horrified is not just nostalgic, it is also a refreshing change.

Thematically, Horrified is a great piece of design and it showcases just how modern game designers have been able reach beyond the hobby and bring thematically appropriate design and game play to the general audience. Horrified is a light co-operative game that horror fans will enjoy for the nostalgia and the family can play for the fun and the scares.

Friday 29 October 2021

[Free RPG Day 2021] Achtung! Cthulhu 2d20 Quick-start

Now in its fourteenth year, Free RPG Day in 2021, after a little delay due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday, 16th October. As per usual, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases, which traditionally would have been tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Of course, in 2021, Free RPG Day took place after GenCon despite it also taking place later than its traditional start of August dates, but Reviews from R’lyeh was able to gain access to the titles released on the day due to a friendly local gaming shop and both Keith Mageau and David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3 in together sourcing and providing copies of the Free RPG Day 2020 titles. Reviews from R’lyeh would like to thank all three for their help.


For Free RPG Day 2021, Modiphius Entertainment released not one, but three titles, two for existing roleplaying games, one for a forthcoming title. The first for the existing roleplaying game is the Star Trek: Adventures Quick-Start, an introduction to Star Trek Adventures, whilst the release for the forthcoming title is the Achtung! Cthulhu 2d20 Quick-start, which includes the scenario, ‘A Quick Trip to France’. This is an introduction to the 2d20 System version of Achtung! Cthulhu, the roleplaying game of pulp action fighting a Secret War during World War II against the Nazi organisations who have harnessed the forces and entities of the Cthulhu Mythos. Originally published in 2013 following a successful Kickstarter using Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, Savage Worlds, and other rules systems, Achtung! Cthulhu was supported with numerous supplements, miniatures and miniatures rules, board games, and more, all presenting a more muscular and action-orientated take upon Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. In 2021, Achtung! Cthulhu returns using the 2d20 System first seen in the publisher’s Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game and Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, and since developed into the publisher’s house system.

In Achtung! Cthulhu, players take the roles of soldiers and agents seconded to services more secret than SOE or the OSS—Section M in the United Kingdom and Majestic in the USA. They face the forces of two even more secret Nazi organisations. One is Black Sun, which through Hyperborean magic and dark pacts with the ancient gods of the Mythos, practices foul sorcery and summons evil creatures from other dimensions to rule the battlefields of men and delves into the Dreamlands. The other is Nachtwölfe, the Night Wolves, a splinter organisation which scours the world for the rare mineral Blauer Kristall and even rarer Atlantean technology, and employs it to develop science, technology, progress, biological enhancements, and wonder weapons powered by Blauer Kristall.

What this means is that Agents of both sides, Player Characters and NPCs, can use magic. This comes as two forms, one is ‘battlefield magic’, shorter-term enchantments, spells, curses, hexes, charms, and blessings, which are primarily used to aid forces involved in combat. The other is ritualistic magic, which is much more complicated and intricate, and thus more potent and powerful. It is used to contact and communicate with the forces and entities of the Mythos, to summon them, and even change the world! Either is learned through the traditional means of studying an occult path for years or researching forbidden tomes, occult lore, and fragments of precious knowledge, but dabblers might pick up fragments and spells that might be of use… Of the three, traditionalists and researchers are the more powerful, but all battlefield spells cast by the three types are stored in the sorcerer’s mantle, a token, fetish, icon, or wand, from which it is cast—and once cast, it must be stored again. In the midst of battle, a spell must be prepared—which in game terms, takes an action, and can inflict mental stress upon the caster when actually cast.

A Player Character in Achtung! Cthulhu is defined by Attributes, Disciplines, Focuses, Values, Traits, Talents, and Truths. The six Attributes—Agility, Brawn, Coordination, Insight, Reason, and Will—represent ways of or approaches to doing things as well as intrinsic capabilities. They are rated between seven and twelve. There are twelve skills—from Academia, Athlectis, and Engineering to Survival, Tactics, and Vehicles—which are fairly broad, whilst Focuses represent narrow areas of study or skill specialities, for example, History, Occultism, Handguns, Leadership, Instincts, and Battlefield Tactics. Truths are single words or short phrases, which describe a significant fact or aspect about its subject, such as ‘British’ or ‘Glimpsed What Mortals Should Not Know’. A Truth can make an action easier or more difficult, or even simply make it possible or impossible.

To undertake an action in the 2d20 System in Achtung! Cthulhu, a character’s player rolls two twenty-sided dice, aiming to have both roll under the total of an Attribute and a Skill. Each roll under this total counts as a success, an average task requiring two successes. Rolls of one count as two successes and if a character has an appropriate Focus, rolls under the value of the Skill also count as two successes. In the main, because a typical difficulty will only be a Target Number of one, players will find themselves rolling excess Successes which becomes Momentum. This is a resource shared between all of the players which can be spent to create an Opportunity and so add more dice to a roll—typically needed because more than two successes are required to succeed, to create an advantage in a situation or remove a complication, create a problem for the opposition, and to obtain information. It is a finite ever-decreasing resource, so the players need to roll well and keep generating it, especially if they want to save some for the big scene or climatic battle in an adventure.

Now where the players generate Momentum to spend on their characters, the Game Master has Threat which can be spent on similar things for the NPCs as well as to trigger their special abilities. She begins each session with a pool of Threat, but can gain more through various circumstances. These include a player purchasing extra dice to roll on a test, a player rolling a natural twenty and so adding two Threat (instead of the usual Complication), the situation itself being threatening, or NPCs rolling well and generating Momentum and so adding that to Threat pool. In return, the Gamemaster can spend it on minor inconveniences, complications, and serious complications to inflict upon the player characters, as well as triggering NPC special abilities, having NPCs seize the initiative, and bringing the environment dramatically into play.

Combat uses the same mechanics, but offers more options in terms of what Momentum can be spent on. This includes doing extra damage, disarming an opponent, keeping the initiative—initiative works by alternating between the player characters and the NPCs and keeping it allows two player characters to act before an NPC does, avoid an injury, and so on. Damage in combat is rolled on the Challenge dice, the number of Achtung! Cthulhu symbols rolled determining how much damage is inflicted. A similar roll is made to resist the damage, and any leftover is deducted from a character’s Stress. If a character’s Stress is reduced to zero or five or more damage is inflicted, then a character is injured. Any Achtung! Cthulhu symbols rolled indicate an effect as well as the damage. In keeping with the tone of the various series, weapon damage can be deadly (and nearly every character—Player Character or NPC, is armed with a firearm of some kind), melee or hand-to-hand, less so.

Lastly, the Player Characters all begin play with several points of Fortune, which can be used to pull off extraordinary actions, perform exciting stunts, make one-in-a-million shots, or provide an edge during life-or-death situations. These can be spent to gain a Critical Success on any roll, reroll any dice, gain an additional action in a round, to avoid imminent defeat, and to add new element to the current scene. More can be earned through play, and although how is not explained in Achtung! Cthulhu Quick-Start, there are numerous opportunities presented in the accompanying adventure, for the Game Master to award them to her players.

The rules themselves in the Achtung! Cthulhu Quick-Start take up a quarter of the quick-start. ‘Mission: A Quick Trip to France’ takes up more than a third, begins en media res, with the Player Characters about to parachute into France in the Rouen area. This is in response to a coded, but garbled message from a local resistance leader about a Black Sun Master, Jans Stöller, spotted in the village of Saint Sulac, leading a detachment of Black Sun troops. Essentially, the agents once on the ground, have to locate the resistance leader, investigate the Black Sun activities in the village whilst avoiding their attention, and ultimately thwart whatever dark plan Jans Stöller is concocting. Players expecting something akin to The Dirty Dozen or a host of war movies will probably be disappointed by ‘Mission: A Quick Trip to France’. A stand-up fight or going in all guns blazing will very likely get the Player Characters killed, and the adventure very much leans into the stealth and guile of secret missions in enemy territory, so the Player Characters will be sneaking around the village, trying to find out what is going on, before striking…! Overall, ‘Mission: A Quick Trip to France’ is a good adventure, does a decent job of showcasing the rules to Achtung! Cthulhu, and should provide a solid session or two’s worth of gaming.

To go with the adventure, the Achtung! Cthulhu Quick-Start provides a sextet of pre-generated Player Characters. The six are all members of Section M or Majestic, and include Agent Daphne Rogers, an Occultist Investigator; Sven Nilsen, Norwegian Dauntless Resistance Leader; Captain James Swann, a British Officer; Private Dan Gregg, a Genius Mechanic; and Corporal Sarah Walker, an Australian and Fearless Soldier. Two of these use magic—Daphne Rogers and Sven Nilsen, whilst Corporal Sarah Walker is accompanied by her loyal companion, a mutt called Crook. These are comparatively more complex than the other Agents—especially the two users of magic—and that means they receive double-page spreads each. Their players should be aware of their relative complexity ahead of time.

Physically, the Achtung! Cthulhu Quick-Start is well presented and easy to use. The artwork is excellent, and includes a number of illustrations which depict scenes from the scenario. That said, it is not as sturdy as it could be as it does not have a card cover. In comparison to other d20 System roleplaying games, Achtung! Cthulhu is more complex, crunchier even, but it has to handle the action of World War II, and more. Nevertheless, the Achtung! Cthulhu Quick-Start is a solid introduction to Achtung! Cthulhu, providing an excellent explanation of the core rules and showcasing them in an exciting and terrifying adventure.

Dungeons & Jinkies!

Zoinks!! Someone has gone and turned Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! into an adventure for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. In fact, that someone has gone and turned it into two adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—of which A Night of Fright! is the first. However, this is not a straight adaptation of the long running cartoon, so not a modern-set adventure. Rather, it is a parody adventure, ‘A haunting adventure of meddling heroes and their talking gnoll’! And since you get a talking Gnoll, it can only be Dungeons & Dragons fantasy, but that is Dungeons & Dragons fantasy with the aforementioned talking Gnoll, The Clue Cruiser,* five pre-generated Player Characters, four Subclasses, ghosts, a mystery, and of course, an opportunity for the Dungeon Master to utter the classic line, “And I'd have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling kids!!”

* Sorry, no Mystery Machine, this is a parody, remember?

A Night of Fright! casts the not-Scooby gang—or rather the S’koobi gang—as members as Mystery LLC, the area’s leading mystery solving meddlers. Together, many years ago, Sha-Gi, Sir Frederick, Dafni, S’koobi, and Vell’mah, helped a man named Uldryn Beauregard who believed his vineyard to be haunted, until the team that there were no ghosts, but rather a rival winemaker attempting to drive him from his property. Now they have received a mysterious invitation from Uldryn Beauregard—if they can spend a full night in a haunted house, they will receive one million gold pieces!

Thus we have a classic set-up—and of course, it only gets worse. For not only do the team have to spend the night in a haunted house, it also has to do it with some thoroughly unpleasant members of the Beauregard family! Then it only gets worse, for the team find itself trapped in the haunted house, of course, still with some thoroughly unpleasant members of the Beauregard family! With nothing else to do, the team begins do what it does best, and that is, investigate the greatly dilapidated house, dusty, grimy, strewn with cobwebs, and worse… All the classic elements of a haunted house are here—secret doors, paintings in which the eyes move, ghostly moans and arms reaching out of mirrors, faces in mirrors, books that float in the air, and more. Plus, there are traps and puzzles to discover and deal with, clues to find (because this is a mystery after all), and this being a S’koobi mystery, villains to run away from and ultimately unmask.

However, as much as A Night of Fright! is a parody of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, it is no straight parody of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! Being written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition means that the Player Characters are a lot more powerful than the members of the actual Scooby gang, but equally they are not up against ghoulies and ghosties as those that appear in A Night of Fright! In addition, the Dungeon Master gets to fling encounters at her players. These come in three flavours—Scary, Very Scary, and Important. These scale up, so that Scary encounters are simple parlour tricks intended to scare the members of Mystery LLC out of the Beauregard mansion; Very Scary encounters are actually real, definitely sinister, and potentially deadly; and Important events are story events, important plot points upon which the story turns.

In addition, the mansion is laced with traps, some of which are designed to separate the members of the Mystery LLC. Of course, this runs counter to the play of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition in which you never split the party, but it is perfectly in keeping with a Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! mystery. However, this means that the duties of the Dungeon Master are doubled up as she has to keep track of where each group of Player Characters is and which of the three flavours of encounters—Scary, Very Scary, and Important—apply to which group. It also means that the Dungeon Master will need to give the scenario a very careful read through so as to understand how they work and when they apply, especially as once the Player Characters are separated, the advice for the Dungeon Master is to switch back and forth between the various group so that neither focus nor tension is lost. Ideally, the Dungeon Master should prepare some floor plans of the Beauregard mansion and plot the movement of the Player Characters as they move about the house or suddenly shifted from one part of the house to another. Fortunately, A Night of Fright! comes with several maps of the mansion, including plain and squared, as well as a set of tokens for all the Player Characters and the NPCs in the scenario. Which means that with a little bit of effect, the scenario is ready to be set up and run online.

Included with the scenario are five, ready-to-play pregenerated Player Characters. These are the five members of Mystery LLC or S’koobi gang, all of Fifth Level. It is possible to play the scenario using other characters, in which case, they also should be Fifth Level. The provided Player Characters come as ready-to-play character sheets or in plain text, although the latter will need some adjustment in terms of their layout. All five use the standard character Classes from the Player’s Handbook, although S’koobi is designed as a talking Gnoll, and all have their own Subclasses. The four new Subclasses are ‘The Way of the Coward’ for the Monk, the ‘Oath of Traps’ for the Paladin, ‘The Damsel’ Otherworldly Patron for the Warlock, the ‘College of Snacks’ for the Bard, and the Bespectacled Sleuth for the Rogue. Which correspond to Shaggy Rogers, Fred Jones, Daphne Blake, Scooby, and Velma Dinkley, or rather in A Night of Fright! to Sha-Gi, Sir Frederick, Dafni, S’koobi, and Vell’mah. Thus, ‘The Way of the Coward’ is all about running away, including being able to run away so fast that you temporarily leave an Afterimage behind you; the ‘Oath of Traps’ favours nets and snares and spells such as alarm and ensnaring strike; ‘The Damsel’ Otherworldly Patron receives Distress Points whenever she activates a trap or is restrained or grappled, which can then be spent to increase damage from the spells she casts; the ‘College of Snacks’ specialises in magical cooking such as Courage Crunch treats that grant allies Advantage on the next attack or end particular Conditions they are suffering from; and the Bespectacled Sleuth has to wear glasses that there is chance of being knocked off, has a keen ear for catching lies, can use insight to gain a tactical advantage over an opponent and make a Sneak Attack from any angle, and of course, has Advantage on Investigation and Perception checks. Now because A Night of Fright! is designed for Player Characters of Fifth Level, none of the pregenerated characters—Sha-Gi, Sir Frederick, Dafni, S’koobi, or Vell’mah—have all of their Subclasses’ abilities, but in A Night of Fright! campaign?

Physically, A Night of Fright! is decently presented. The cover is very nicely done, but the rest of the scenario uses publicly available artwork, which though all appropriate to a haunted house is a little disappointing after the tone set by the cover. The floor plans are decent too, though the Dungeon Master will find herself flipping back to them a lot. The layout is busy and that does make finding things and quite grasping what is going on a little more challenging.

A Night of Fright! does have something of a split personality, that of Dungeons & Dragons versus the Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! Or in other words, the not really being scared of Dungeons & Dragons versus the ‘Zoinks!!’ and you are definitely going to be scared of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! The designers of A Night of Fright! push the latter rather than the former, with lots and lots of fear checks, the failed outcome being that the Player Characters will flee—if only for a little while. This may become a little tiresome in play, the advice is that the players should lean into them as much as they should be leaning into their characters and genre, and anyway, the scenario very quickly turns up the scares all the way up to the climax.

A Night of Fright! is a fun, silly parody of its source material that goes not just one step further in turning up the scares and the horror, but several. Doing so means that the Player Characters have to be lot tougher to face the blood and the monsters that the scenario also throws at them, and the nicely done members of Mystery LLC are exactly what is needed. Players and Dungeon Master alike should enjoy the knowing mix of horror and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! coventions in A Night of Fright! before the Dungeon Master really turns up the genre!

Monday 25 October 2021

Miskatonic Monday #88: La Recette

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Repository.


Name: La Recette
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: G.A. Patrick

Setting: Jazz Age Louisiana Bayou Country

Product: Scenario
What You Get: Sixteen page, 5.29 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Voodoo treasure hunt hoedown with a corpse in the trunk.
Plot Hook: When you need a dead man to talk, sometimes you got to do the voodoo that you do.
Plot Support: Detailed plot, one good handout, five NPCs, one spell, and three pre-generated Investigators
Production Values: Good.

# Short, one-session, one to three Investigator scenario
Suitable as a one-shot or first part of a very dark campaign
# Solid NPCs the Keeper can sink her roleplaying teeth into
# Strong Pulpy plot confronts the Investigators with the Mythos
# Entertainingly sweaty set-up and plot
# Advice on using the plot with another backstory
# Scope for the set-up to be played out
# Set-up begging to be told in a flashback in a roadside interrogation
# Whole scenario begging to be told in a flashback in a police interrogation


# Requires a strong edit
# Requires access to the Malleus Monstrorum (alternatives suggested)
# Does involve human sacrifice upon the part of the Investigators
# Adult tone means it may not be suitable for all players
# Begins en media res

# Requires a strong edit
# Whole scenario begging to be told in a flashback
# Entertainingly hot, sweaty, and desperate zombie noir set-up and plot

Sunday 24 October 2021

[Free RPG Day 2021] Into the Würmhole

Now in its fourteenth year, Free RPG Day in 2021, after a little delay due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday, 16th October. As per usual, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases, which traditionally would have been tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Of course, in 2021, Free RPG Day took place after GenCon despite it also taking place later than its traditional start of August dates, but Reviews from R’lyeh was able to gain access to the titles released on the day due to a friendly local gaming shop and both Keith Mageau and David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3 in together sourcing and providing copies of the Free RPG Day 2020 titles. Reviews from R’lyeh would like to thank all three for their help.


Into the Würmhole is a disgusting adventure set in the Vast Grimm universe, a standalone, art-filled, punk-fuelled Old School Renaissance role-playing game about the few humans remaining in a universe being consumed by growing parasitic würms. Some time in the future, the Earth has been shattered, carved up, and gnawed upon by würms such that all remains are vestiges. All that remains of humanity resides in habitats and spaceships, scavenging what it can, surviving the best that it can, everyone hoping that they will not fall prey to the infestation that will turn them into one of the würms, that they can find some kind of surviving civilisation, or perhaps they can find escape via the Gate of infinite Suns. In ‘Into the Würmhole’, the Player Characters are members of a Legion, investigating an urgent distress call from inside a dark and foreboding asteroid… 
Into the Würmhole includes every necessary to play—an explanation of the rules, the short four-page ‘Into the Würmhole’ scenario, and four ready-to-play pre-generated Player Characters.

Published by Infinite Black, Vast Grimm shares its mechanics and much of its tone with Mörk Borg, and indeed they are compatible, although not from the same publisher. Thus it is player-facing in that the players do almost all of the dice rolling, a test requiring a player to roll equal to, or greater than, a given Difficulty Rating, typically twelve, usually modified by the appropriate attribute—either Strength, Agility, Presence, or Toughness—which ranges from -3 to +3. Thus in combat, a player will roll for his character to avoid being attacked as well as his character making an attack. A Player Character also has a Tribute, for example, Grimm Reaper enables the character to command Grimm (Grimm those infected by parasites and würm things) for a number of rounds, whilst Strength of 1,000 Würms lets the character increase the strength of another character or creature. Tributes are the equivalent magic in Mörk Borg and cost Neuromancy Points to use, whereas Skillz, which represent skills and other abilities. For example, ‘Schwarze’s Stoogie’ is a mechanical cigar that always tastes like a fine Cuban and once per day its ash can be flicked at an enemy to blind him for a short while, whilst ‘Last to Die’ means that the character is weak and puny, never seen as a threat, and always the last to be attacked! Lastly, a Player Character has a number of Favours each day, which might grant maximum damage, allow a reroll of any dice, reduce damage taken, neutralise a critical strike or a fumble, or lower the Difficulty Rating of a test. 

The rules are explained in a single page of a small booklet, so there is a certain brevity to them. However, anyone with any roleplaying experience should have no difficulty picking one of the pre-generated Player Characters and beginning play, whilst the potential Game Master will need a little experience under her belt. Both will find Into the Würmhole easier to play or run if they have any experience with Mörk Borg—or any of the more minimalist retroclones. In fact, an experienced Game Master could easily pick up Into the Würmhole, read through it in five minutes, brief her players how everything works, and be running the scenario in ten.

The scenario, ‘Into the Würmhole’ sees the Player Characters descend into the carcass of a dead Würm which had burrowed deep into an asteroid. This is in answer to a distress call from another Legion, and inside the decaying corpse of they will encounter former members of the Legion turned Grimm, a variety of foul stenches and miasmas, and giant Leukocytes and Immunigoblins—humanoid defence mechanisms that attempt to immobilise any intruders, such as the Player Characters, so that the body of the Würm can digest and decompose them.

To play the ‘Into the Würmhole’ scenario, Into the Würmhole provides a quartet of pre-generated Player Characters. These include an Emo|Bot, a former communications ’bot which suffers from kleptomania, but which can access any computer; a Treacherous Merc; a Lost Technomaniac, who is accompanied by a Borg Bat, a cybernetic bewinged rat who acts as a scout; and a Soul Survivor. These are a mostly rotten bunch, intentionally so, desperate survivors, attempting to get by, make it to the next mission…

If there is an issue with Into the Würmhole, it is that it does on occasion refer back to Vast Grimm. So it suggests referring to the rules for further random monsters and it does not include any rules on what happens when a player fumbles a test for using a Tribute. Really it could have done with one less encounter table and a table of fumble results instead.

Physically, Into the Würmhole takes its design cues from Mörk Borg in its use of strong colours. Here they are done mostly as text boxes of psychedelic blue and pink, typically against a black background or swathes of bloody, meaty pink, suggesting something intestinal… The writing is generally clear, but given the short length of the booklet, does suffer from a certain brevity.

Except with a minor issue or two, Into the Würmhole and its scenario is incredibly easy to grasp and easy to bring to the table. Its scenario is short, probably offering no more than a couple of hours’ worth of play, but will nevertheless, provide a taster of the future that Vast Grimm has for us—an icky, festering, vile future with what is essentially a grim and perilous version of Fantastic Voyage.

Saturday 23 October 2021

1981: I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is important for several reasons—all of them firsts. It was the first scenario written by David ‘Zeb’ Cook for TSR, Inc. It was the first scenario in the ‘I’ series—I for Intermediate, designed for Player Characters of between Fourth and Seventh Level. It marked the first appearance of the monsters, the Aboleth, the Yuan-ti, the Mongrelmen, and the Tasloi in Dungeons & Dragons, whilst many of its other monsters would be drawn from the then recently published Fiend Folio. It was one of the first scenarios for TSR, Inc. to be heavily influenced by the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard. And if it was not the first sandbox scenario for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, then it was one of the earliest. For many reasons, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is regarded as a classic and in 2004, was ranked the thirteenth greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventure of all time by Dungeon magazine for the thirtieth anniversary of the Dungeons & Dragons.

I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City began life as a tournament scenario for 1980 Origins Game Fair and when originally accepted, was intended to be part of the ‘C’ or Competition series of scenarios. This is very much evident in the design of the module and has profound consequences upon its play and its development. Similarly, its inspiration—the Conan short story, Red Nails, has profound consequences upon its play and its development, though nowhere near as much as its origins as a tournament scenario. (Notably, Cook would later design The Conan Role-Playing Game published by TSR, Inc. in 1985.) It is set in a deep rift valley in a faraway jungle, a lost city in the vein of the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, and of the story of archaeologist and explorer, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who would inspire Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Indiana Jones (and notably, Cook would also later design The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game for TSR, Inc. in 1984), and the character of Jackson Elias in Masks of Nyarlathotep, the genuinely classic campaign for Call of Cthulhu. It has pulpy undertones which are just a little bit at odds with the cod-medievalism of traditional Dungeons & Dragons—and certainly, of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition.

The adventure takes place in the far south amidst a mountainous jungle region. The Scarlet Brotherhood, a 1999 supplement for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, would later set the module in the mountains south of the Pelisso Swamp in Hepmonaland in the World of Greyhawk. The supplement would also identify the Forbidden City as Xuxuleito and place it in Xaro mountains and previously ruled by Batmen and Olman before the Yuan-ti as detailed in I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City. From this region come reports of bandits waylaying and attacking caravans, the few survivors from the ambushed merchants and guards letting slip tales of strange flora and dangerous fauna, but having no idea as to who took the goods or where. Certainly the goods have not appeared in the markets since, so the question is, where have they been taken and by whom? Further, since the goods included singular pieces of treasure, including books, scrolls, and other items, all of them identifiable and valuable, somewhere to the south, someone is sitting on a hoard of treasure. This has been enough to spur multiple parties of adventurers to venture south into the jungles, though again, little has been heard of them since. The latest band of adventurers to travel south in search of these riches are the Player Characters, who after a long and perilous journey, have reached a village home to native people who are both friendly and happy to share information about the dangers of the surrounding jungle. The village chief tells them of creatures called the Yuan-ti and their servants, the Tasloi, lamenting that they recently kidnapped his son before retreating back into the jungle. The village shaman also warns them about a ‘forbidden city’ that lies deep in the jungle, which the village inhabitants believe houses the ghosts of their dead enemies. In return for their rescuing his son, the village chief will provide guides to the entrances to the ‘Land of the Demon-men’, but will go no further.

From here, there are two stages to I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City. The first is getting into the city. The second is exploring the city. Five entrances to the city are described. Some are mere paragraphs, simple descriptions of how the Player Characters might use vines or a tall tree to climb or lower themselves down into the valley below, but two are detailed entrances into the valley. Both are long tunnels, mostly linear in nature, consisting of ten or so locations. Both are notoriously challenging, but for different reasons. The Forgotten Entrance is guarded by the Yuan-ti and their minions, the bugbears, and features two grand set pieces. One makes sense, the other does not. The encounter which makes sense is a great swinging or rope bridge across a chasm, guarded by Tasloi on an upper platform who will fling rocks down onto the Player Characters as they make their way across. The bridge is sturdy enough, but if it takes enough damage, it will splinter and fall, dropping everyone on it to the bottom of the chasm. This will inflict the maximum amount of dice rolled for falling damage—probably enough to kill most of the Player Characters. Despite this potentially total party killing—and thus scenario ending—outcome, this is a grand, pulpy encounter, much like the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (though of course, that was not released until 1984).

The encounter which makes far less sense takes place in the Hall of Meditation. Here the Player Characters must get through a locked door in order to proceed on towards the city, but the key has been locked in a chest to prevent the Bugbear guards from simply deserting their post. In order to make even more difficult for the Bugbears to get hold of, the chest has been stuck upside down on the ceiling in an anti-gravity sphere, and is not only locked, but trapped with fear gas. Rungs on the ceiling enable the Bugbears, the Yuan-ti, or the Player Characters to swing out to the anti-gravity sphere and the chest. The intention is that if the trap is triggered and the saving throw failed against the fear gas, the Player Characters will run away, out of the anti-gravity sphere, and thus fall to the floor and take damage. Which is a clever trap, but it makes no sense in context as it simply blocks the Bugbears from attempting to warn their Yuan-ti masters against any intruders, such as the Player Characters. The whole encounter feels much more like an excerpt from a funhouse or death trap dungeon rather than a logical piece of design for this adventure. The encounter, and indeed, the whole tunnel entrance, is in fact, a holdover from the origins of I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City as a tournament module and can be better viewed as the next stage in a competitive event, presenting the Player Characters with a puzzle or thinking challenge rather than another combat encounter. The tournament origins are further emphasised by the fact that the chief’s son—whom the Player Characters have agreed to rescue—can be found outside the exit into the city at the far end of the forgotten entrance. In effect, the culmination of the tournament would be the Player Characters rescuing the chief’s son, thus marking their ultimate success.

The other tunnel entrance, the Main Entrance, does not lead to where the chief’s son is and is wilder in tone and in content, having fewer guards to encounter, but nevertheless still very dangerous. In fact, it is very dangerous from the start. The very first encounter in the Main Entrance tunnel will be with an Aboleth—the very first encounter with an Aboleth in Dungeons & Dragons!—and it is a tough encounter. Worshipped by the Mongrelmen of the Forbidden City as a god, the Aboleth has four attacks that can inflict a disease which turns the victim’s skin membranous, inflicting further damage if not kept wet, and which takes a Cure Disease spell to deal with. So the Player Characters need to have a Cleric or Druid who can cast Third Level spells amongst their number. Then, the Aboleth also has Psionics, which is a serious problem for the Player Characters if they do not have them. The other encounters in the Main Entrance tunnel are not necessarily as tough, but they are challenging, and when compared with the Forgotten Entrance, there is much more logic to them. One of the more entertaining encounters is with a Xorn who is not interested in attacking the Player Characters, but wants food—ideally precious metals—before it will let them pass. This presents a fun roleplaying challenge and a monster with much less of a lethal motivation.

Whatever route the Player Characters take into the city, what they discover is a set of vast ruins stretching across a steeply walled rift valley in the mountains, one part of it under a swamp. Just as the vista has opened up after the linear nature of the tunnels, so too, do the play options of I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Here is where the module’s inspiration of Red Nails comes into play, although Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, all have similar set-ups. The Forbidden City is home to several factions—Bullywugs and their god, a Pan Lung dragon, the Tasloi and their Bugbear minions, and the Mongrelmen. At the heart of it is Horan, an evil Magic-User, who resides in a compound in the city almost like a Bond villain, and who has been manipulating the factions in an attempt to control them all and take power. Ultimately, it is Horan who is responsible for directing the attacks by the Yuan-ti.

Although there is no great metaplot or story line to I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, the broad idea is that the Player Characters will set up camp in the city and begin investigating, dealing with the factions in turn, and ideally, either leading one or more against the others, or driving them to attack the others. Typically, this will be during the day when the city is quiet, whilst the Player Characters rest and hold up in their hopefully defensible base of operations when the inhabitants of the city are active at night. How the characters go about this is up to their players, and they could easily ignore this in favour of taking out the factions one-by-one. To support whatever course of action the players and their characters decide to take, locations are described for each of the city’s factions—the Bullywugs, the Tasloi, the Bugbears, and the Mongrelmen. Some of these are more detailed than others in terms of story and plot. For example, if the Mongrelmen capture the Player Characters, they are expected to select a champion from amongst their number and wrestle the Mongrelmen chieftain to the death, or go willingly as sacrifices to the Mongrelmen god. If the champion wins, he becomes the new Mongrelmen chieftain, and is expected to lead them, for all intents and purposes, a hostage. Amongst the Bugbears is Shruzgrap, a rebellious and deceitful young warrior, who wants to be chief of his tribe and who offer to make a deal with the Player Characters if they help him. Of course, if they do, he will betray them.

In addition, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City offers four backgrounds or reasons to use the Forbidden City in campaign play and four adventure ideas. The former include merchants hiring the Player Characters to investigate and put a stop to the raids as detailed in the background to the module, rescuing victims kidnapped from the surrounding lands, scouting and clearing the city ahead of an invasion, and recovering important papers stolen from a courier before other interested parties do. The adventure ideas include investigating the city’s sewer systems, home to jungle-ghouls, demonic leaders, and the fabulous, lost temple of Ranet; stopping a vile tentacular creature from another plane which the Yuan-ti have summoned and begun to worship from destroying the city; investigating and destroying a spy network which is organising the raids on the caravans—this idea will take the Player Characters out of the Forbidden City; and being thrown back in time to explore the city before its fall…

Rounding out I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City are the complete stats and writeups of the new monsters presented in its pages—the Aboleth, the Mongrelmen, the Tasloi, and the Yuan-ti. Also included are stats for the Pan Lung and the Yellow Musk Creeper from the Fiend Folio. Finally, there is a roster of ready-to-play Player Characters, the first six of these having been used in the original tournament of the module.

Physically, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is a mix of the good and the bad. Errol Otus’ front cover depicting a desperate fight between a Bullywug and Fighter with the Fighter in its clutches and drives his sword into its belly as a Gnome Wizard blasts another Bullywug in the background is superb. In fact, all of the artwork is excellent in the module. In general, the module is well written and presented, though some of the monster descriptions and stats are repeated in the main body of the text, and the individual maps of the locations in the city are nice and clear. However, the map of the city itself is difficult to read, despite it being a stunning piece.

I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is a module with a huge number of problems. In terms of its most basic design, it has a split personality between the tournament play elements (with advice how to run the entrance tunnels as a tournament, but not the means, since the module is not part of the part of the ‘C’ or Competition series of scenarios) and the sandbox aspect once the Player Characters are in the Forbidden City. The former is highly detailed where the latter is not, the former has the players pushed in one direction, whereas the latter does not. Now whilst at least one of the encounters in the tunnels makes sense, the actual city is underwritten, with little description as to its current state or background as to its origins or who its original inhabitants were, with only the bases for each of the factions receiving any real attention or detail. And of those factions, the Yuan-ti suffer from the same issue. The module also treats its NPCs badly, few of them being named—even at the start the unnamed chieftain is not given the name of his son (when he is found, it is given as Zur), and few of the monstrous NPCs are named. So Shruzgrap the Bugbear is, as is the shaman who will secretly support him, but not the chieftain he wants to overthrow. Further, even the one named NPC in the scenario who will readily come to the Player Characters’ aid, an Elf Magic-User who is the only survivor from a previous expedition, has an unpleasant manner which will only serve to at least annoy the Player Characters, if not completely drive them off. Of course, none of her former companions are named.

Worse, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City ignores the primary reason for the Player Characters to travel as far south as the Forbidden City—the treasure from the caravans. It is completely omitted from the scenario, leaving a motivation to be unfulfilled. And without that, once the chieftain’s son has been rescued, there remains little motivation for the Player Characters to stay in the city. Now, there are plenty of potential motivations and adventure ideas given at the end of the module, but these are not used in the module as written despite the fact that they are infinitely more interesting than the very basic ones of searching for treasure (which does not exist) and rescuing the chieftain’s son given at the beginning of the module. As a consequence of their not being written into the module, there are no sewer systems filled with jungle-ghouls, no lost temple of Ranet, no temple to tentacular thing from another plane, no spy network, no travel back to explore the city in its prime, and so on.

The fact is, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is begging for all of these—and more. The module is begging for development, for the input of the Dungeon Master, and then the players and their characters. The scope for development and thus for storytelling and adventure in I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is huge, but like that potential, the tools to do so are all too often severely underwritten.


I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City was extensively reviewed at the time of its release. Anders Swenson reviewed it in Different Worlds Issue 16 (November 1981) and was in the main positive about the module, concluding that, “Overall, the module is a good buy – there is a lot of interesting text crammed into the pages, and most of it is useful right off. The Forbidden City can be played as written, and if you want to jazz it up, so much the better.”

However, Gerry Klug, writing in ‘RP Gaming’ in Ares Magazine, Number 12 (January 1982) was not as positive. He described I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City as being, “…[I]llconceived, disorganized and, in some places, so ridiculous as to make me think TSR has lost editorial control over their product.” before lamenting, “TSR has set a standard in the FRP-ing community which the rest try to keep up with. If Dwellers of the Forbidden City is any indication of what is coming, they may not live up to their own standards. E. Gary Gygax, where are you?” (With thanks to Luca Alexander Volpino for access to Ares Magazine, Number 12.)

Writing in Open Box in White Dwarf #40 (April, 1983), Jim Bambra gave I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City average scores for playability, enjoyment, skill, and complexity, before giving it an overall score of five out of ten, and said, “To give the module its due it does offer a mini-campaign setting and many ideas of how to expand it. Any DMs using it, however, are going to have to put in a lot of work to make it more than a series of encounters and you’re prepared to this you may as well design your own from scratch!”. He concluded by saying that “… I1 is just not worth considering.” (With thanks to Emma Marlow for access to White Dwarf #40.)

More recently, I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City was included in ‘The 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time’ in the ‘Dungeon Design Panel’ in Dungeon #116 (November 2004). It was ranked at number thirteen with Eric L. Boyd describing it as classic adventure in which Cook created a “[L]ost city jungle in the great tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs” and “The PCs can battle their way into the city through a labyrinth of traps and monsters or find their own way into the sprawling, jungle-cloaked ruins... Cook provides a host of backgrounds to motivate exploration of the city, but the map itself is inspiration enough.” Wolfgang Baur, editor of Dungeon magazine, added, “This adventure may be best remembered for its monsters—it was from Forbidden City that D&D gained the Aboleth, the mongrel-man, the tasloi, and the yuan-ti. The aboleth that guarded one of the entrances to the city was worshipped by the local mongrelmen as a god.”(With thanks to Paul Baldwin for access to Dungeon #113.)


Wolfgang Baur is right to suggest that the module is best remembered for its monsters. Of course, it is memorable for introducing the Aboleth, the Yuan-ti, and other monsters, but I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is neither a classic, nor does not deserve its revered status, and it certainly does not deserve to rate as high as thirteen on the list of greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures of all time by Dungeon magazine for the thirtieth anniversary of the Dungeons & Dragons. As written, it simply is not that good, its tournament versus sandbox style of play giving it a split personality and its sandbox elements severely underwritten and underdeveloped in far too many places for the Dungeon Master to bring to the table and make playable without undertaking a great deal of development work. Yet if she can, there is a fantastic adventure to be got out of I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, the setting has both Lovecraftian and Pulp sensibilities—the Yuan-ti essentially being Robert E. Howard’s Serpent Men, and the factions, the plots, and the setting are all ripe for development, such that it could form the basis of its own sandbox mini-campaign. There is room aplenty in the Forbidden City for this and more, including the Dungeon Master adding factions and locations of her own, whether that is in caves along the wall of the valley, in or underneath the ruined buildings of the city, and even outside of the city. This suggests then that I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is ripe for another visitation and development, expanding upon what author David Cook began with, and notably, Wizards of the Coast would do this with Tomb of Annihilation for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, a campaign which would work in S1 Tomb of Horrors as part of the Forbidden City.

Ultimately, if I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City is remembered as a classic for more than its monsters, it is not because of what is written on the page, but because of what the Dungeon Master did to make the adventure playable—and what she had to do to make it playable.