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Sunday 13 March 2022

Mythos on the Miskatonic

New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley
was published in 2008 by Miskatonic River Press. Under the aegis of the late Keith Herber, this anthology would breathe new life into the revered Miskatonic Valley setting for Call of Cthulhu and new life into Call of Cthulhu itself at a time when the venerable roleplaying game’s publisher was not able to fully support it. Both this anthology, and its sequel, More Adventures in Arkham Country, would provide a platform for a new generation of new authors for Call of Cthulhu, many of whose previous works had appeared in Chaosium, Inc.’s long-running series of Miskatonic University Library Association monographs. In terms of content and look, New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley was inspired by the original series of supplements dedicated to Lovecraft Country that Chaosium had published in the nineties, but it had its own look that was fresh and clean, and overall, it felt like the hobby had a publisher for Call of Cthulhu who actually liked Call of Cthulhu once again. Sadly, Miskatonic River Press closed in 2013, its fifth and last book released being Tales of the Sleepless City. All five of its Call of Cthulhu supplements would go on to become collectible.

Fortunately, New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, Second Edition, was published in 2020, this time by Stygian Fox. The British publisher has updated the anthology to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and upgraded it to be full colour, with new maps, handouts, and illustrations, and in hardback format. The new edition has also increased the scenario count from the original’s six to seven, with the inclusion of an all-new scenario from Seth Skorkowsky. This is a collection which will take a Keeper and her players up the Miskatonic Valley, from Arkham to Dunwich and back again via Foxfield to dream-spoiled Kingsport and sea-sodden Innsmouth—the latter the new addition—and so provide both with delicious slices of dark and dangerous horror.

New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, Second Edition opens with a poignant forward from Tom Lynch, the head of Miskatonic River Press, before presenting his ‘The Reeling Midnight’. This is the first of two Arkham-set scenarios in the collection, a piece of louche detective legwork which emphasises interaction and investigation rather than academia. The Wilcoxes are worried that their son, Eugene, is hanging around with the wrong crowd and attending scandalous parties hosted by Hungarian nobility émigrés. They fear the daughter is a gold digger and hire the investigators to look into both their son’s activities and hers. The scenario opens up with a big set piece at one of the parties—the first problem being to get an invitation—which gives the players and their Investigators lots of attendees to interact with, and the Keeper a fun cast to portray. The investigation is nicely detailed and the scenario has a nasty sting in the tale, but ‘The Reeling Midnight’ is primarily a criminal investigation which the Mythos seems to slide into rather than necessarily be the driving force. It possesses a pleasing physicality and would work as an introduction to the Mythos along the Miskatonic Valley.

The second Arkham-set scenario is ‘Wasted Youth’ by Christopher Smith Adair. Again, this possesses both a physicality and a nasty, if not nastier, sting in the tale than ‘The Reeling Midnight’. The physicality here differs though, for it involves a ragged, often grueling chase across the countryside forcing the players to roll checks for skills that their Investigators are unlikely to possess given the typical intellectual, technical, or pugilistic bent of most. This forms the climax of the scenario which begins with Arkham being beset by a rash of dangerous juvenile delinquency, including acts of murderous violence and vandalism. The investigation is made all the more challenging by the fact that it involves children as both victims and protagonists, this also its sting in the tale, as it means directly confronting them. Children being involved may mean it is difficult to get the Investigators involved, but once they are, this is an effectively horrid affair.

Oscar Rios’ ‘Spirit of Industry’ takes the Investigators to Dunwich on a ghost hunt in the company of a journalist (who appeared in the earlier ‘The Reeling Midnight’) in search of a scoop—an old sawmill is reputed to be haunted and there is a reward for proof of the existence of ghosts. This is not necessarily a Mythos scenario in the classic sense, being more like the Stephen King story, ‘The Mangler’, in that the sawmill is possessed and malignly so. However, this is set against the pervading sense of bucolic unease which suffuses through Dunwich, whether from the town’s all too knowing inhabitants or the all too unknowing ones. The scenario is likely to involve two brutal, and potentially, bloody climaxes, but even offers the possibility of a happy ending.

A happy ending is unlikely in ‘Proof of Life’ by Keith Herber. This is set in the small town of Foxfield—introduced here in the pages of New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley—where a disagreement between local farmers and the town supervisor over whether or not to log nearby forests has escalated into blows and a death threat! Investigation reveals that the town supervisor is hiding something and even acting oddly, but the Investigators will need to navigate their way between the town’s factions and interview many of the townsfolk to get this far. This is a type of story which has been told before, that of a Mythos entity or race protecting its long-held presence in an area which annoying ape descendants are now encroaching upon. Fortunately, the scenario never quite tips into cliché, but the motivations of the Mythos threat feel underwhelming given the length to which they go to protect their interests and the monstrous effect this has on the town supervisor and his family.

Oscar Rios’ second contribution to the anthology is ‘Malice Everlasting’, which is the first of two scenarios set in Kingsport, City of Dreams. Like the earlier scenario, this is a tale of possession and possession of a teenage antagonist, but it comes with a classic Lovecraftian ‘revenge from beyond the grave’ plot. There is nothing childish about this villain as he unleashes his revenge upon the descendants of those who hunted him down and executed him in the seventeenth century by striking them suddenly blind. As the Investigators get closer to making this connection, they come to the attention of the antagonist, who begins to hinder their progress to varying degrees—as both eager ally and vengeful villain. The weakest point of the scenario is when that connection is made, and it could have been better handled. Otherwise, this is an excellent combination of investigation and desperate action which climaxes with bang—a summoning of Y’golonac. Unlike ‘Wasted Youth’ where the Investigators are likely to have proof of the antagonists’ actions (or at least witnesses), here they do not, and ultimately, they will be faced by a dilemma which if they get wrong will land them in prison—or worse.

The second scenario set in Kingsport is ‘The Night War’ by Kevin A. Ross, which takes full advantage of the port’s reputation as the city of dreams. Inspired by the works of William Hope Hodgson, the Investigators begin experiencing seemingly realistic nightmares in which they fight in the trenches of the Western Front, night after night, men and women, quickly followed by the rest of Kingsport. The action switches back and forth over the course of several days and nights, the Investigators spending their nights surviving and hunting for clues in this unreal landscape haunted by monsters unknown on the battlefield, and their days following up on those clues in the hope that what they find out will help both them and the people of Kingsport back in the nightmare. A darker and grander depiction of a Dreamlands than that typically seen in Call of Cthulhu, its subject matter and its staging, imposing and perhaps heavy-going rather than delicate, may be off-putting for some players. Seen though as a desperate mission to save a man’s mind in somewhere the Investigators either never thought they would return to or even thought they would have experienced, and the scenario is an interesting take on what a Dreamlands scenario could be like.

New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley ended with ‘The Night War’, but New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, Second Edition has one more scenario. This is ‘A Mother’s Love’ by Seth Skorkowsky, which brings crime to Innsmouth. The Frog Gang, led by Tobias ‘Frog’ Sisk, has robbed a local bank and hightailed it into his hometown of Innsmouth, with the local police and Federal agents on their tail. The officers of the town’s police department are prepared to help—to an extent—but their main motivation is avoiding bringing further attention to Innsmouth and its secrets. Not the first time that crime has come to Innsmouth—it did that in ‘The Innsmouth Connection’ from Before the Fall, but to much lesser effect. 
‘A Mother’s Love’ is a short, slightly strange investigation that will quickly lead to a blazing shootout between the Innsmouth Police Department, the Federal Agents, and the survivors of the Frog Gang. Of course, if the Federal Agents learn too much, it could turn into a shootout and clawfest between them and the Innsmouth Police Department (as well as others). Unlike the other scenarios in the anthology, ‘A Mother’s Love’ is best suited as a one-shot, perhaps as a prequel to Escape from Innsmouth, as it works best with one Investigator being a member of the Bureau of Investigation and so is more difficult to work into a campaign. ‘A Mother’s Love’ is punchier than most scenarios set in Lovecraft Country, but it has a nice sense of tension to it though, whether that is between the Federal Agents and the Innsmouth Police Department, or between what the players are likely to know and their Investigators otherwise.

Physically, New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, Second Edition is hit and miss, though more hit than miss. Behind the bland cover, the layout is clean and tidy. It needs a slight edit in places and the illustrations vary in quality, some of them bland and muddy, some of them decent, plus the internal cartography is more serviceable then characterful. Unfortunately, the colour artwork in this second edition does not have the charm of the pen and ink illustrations of the original. However, the regional cartography is decent, the handouts are excellent—especially the newspaper articles which are hidden in full page handouts, and town vistas of Arkham, Dunwich, Foxfield, Kingsport, and Innsmouth that preface their respective sections, are handsome indeed. Included in the new hardback is a set of six pre-generated Investigators (including one from my hometown) which again, are decently done and all on a new, alternate version of the Investigator sheet for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley was the best supplement published for Call of Cthulhu in 2008. In fact, it was the best release for the roleplaying game since 2007’s Secrets of Kenya and 2006’s Tatters of the King. It gave a platform for new voices and new ideas for Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying and proved that the then new rash of third-party publishers could produce content that was mature and sophisticated. Not every scenario in New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley could be regarded as perfect in 2008, or indeed perfect with the publication of the second edition in 2020, but it was an audacious debut. New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, Second Edition returns that audacity to print, bringing back support for Lovecraft Country just as it did in 2008.

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