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Saturday 12 November 2022

Propping up Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu
 is a literary roleplaying game. Its play is predicated on the ability of the Player characters—or rather the Investigators—to be literate and so be able to read the array of clues to be found as part of the enquiries into the unknown. Newspaper reports, diary entries, letters, notes and marginalia, books and scrolls, and of course, the much-feared Mythos tomes such as the dread Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Just as the Investigators—or at least some of them—are expected to be able to read them, then so are their players. Thus, we have clues and handouts, especially if the roleplaying game of our choice involves a mystery—mundane or Mythos related. There had been clues and handouts before, for example, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, the 1981 scenario for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition from TSR (UK), included a clue showing the pattern of signals needed to contact a smuggling ship, but Call of Cthulhu took the role of the clue and the handout to new heights as they became more and more integral to game play. And since newspaper reports, diary entries, letters, notes and marginalia, books and scrolls, and more are all modern, the Keeper can create her own—such as soaking paper in tea and then drying it to age it—and easily copy those provided in particular scenarios or campaigns. Which is what the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has done, and not just for its own campaigns, but your campaigns.

Of course, what the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society is best know for is the Masks of Nyarlathotep Gamer Prop Set, a big box of handouts and clues designed to be used with Masks of Nyarlathotep, the classic campaign for Call of Cthulhu, often regarded as one of the greatest ever produced by the hobby. This no mere set of tea-soaked, faux-aged handouts and whatnot, for just as Call of Cthulhu took the role of the clue and the handout to new heights, the Masks of Nyarlathotep Gamer Prop Set takes the clues and handouts for Call of Cthulhu to new heights. There are over one hundred props in the box—telegrams, letters, a match box—just like in the original boxed set for Masks of Nyarlathotep, maps, charts, diary and ledger entries, business cards, photographs, memos, and newspaper clippings, oh so many newspaper clippings. However, Masks of Nyarlathotep is not the only campaign to receive the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society treatment.

The Call of Cthulhu Classic Gamer Prop Set though is not a prop set for the one campaign, although it does include a campaign within its pages. Rather, the Call of Cthulhu Classic Gamer Prop Set literally provides physical support for two supplements, two anthologies of scenarios, and a campaign. All published as part of the Call of Cthulhu Classic boxed set, funded via Kickstarter as part of the venerable roleplaying game’s fortieth anniversary, and consisting of not only the Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition rules, but also the Cthulhu Companion, Shadows Of Yog Sothoth, The Asylum & Other Tales, Trail Of The Tsathogghua, and Fragments Of Fear. Thus the two companion supplements, the two anthologies, and the campaign. Open up the Call of Cthulhu Classic Gamer Prop Set and what you find is sixteen-page broadsheet newspaper, large format maps, a nautical chart, sheaves of handwritten letters, diaries, and notes, numerous brochures and photographs, police forms, legal forms, excepts ripped from terrible tomes, and more. These are all neatly organised into five folders. The first contains all of the handouts from the Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition rules—including the infamous ‘The Haunted House’, home of the late Walter Corbitt, the Cthulhu Companion, and Fragments Of Fear. Both Shadows Of Yog Sothoth and The Asylum & Other Tales have their own folder of handouts respectively, and lastly, the two scenarios in Trail Of The Tsathogghua have their own folders given the sheer weight of clues in both.

The Call of Cthulhu Classic Gamer Prop Set starts with the ‘USER GUIDE: Read Me First!’ which explains how the props are organised, notes that there are clues in code and other languages as per the relevant scenarios, and there are English versions of the clues in other languages in the box, but decoded versions of the encoded clues. The biggest bundle of clues in one prop can be found in the sixteen-page Clipmaster broadsheet newspaper and there are instructions on how to use that. Being broadsheet-sized, the Clipmaster broadsheet newspaper is huge and unwieldy, but can be quickly cut apart so the Keeper has the right newspaper articles in the right folder. Plus, there are numerous other articles in its pages, and very much part of the fun of reading is not finding the articles directly relevant to the scenarios or campaign, but reading the other articles surrounding and the other relevant ones. These add flavour and verisimilitude, as do the various advertisements alongside, to what are intended to be period pieces. Further, open up each folder and there is a Clipping Guide for each scenario which shows the Keeper where to find and then cut out the pertinent articles. This is a very handy piece of backwards design.

Folder Two is far more expansive. Dedicated to Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, the first campaign for Call of Cthulhu, here what were the blandest of handouts in the original campaign, have uplifted with detail and substance. Newspaper articles of course, but also letters and diary entries and book excerpts. There are a couple of points where the props suddenly astound you. The first is the ‘Computer Printout’ from ‘Look to the Future’, the second scenario in Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, which is done as a green bar printout on classic computer paper. It stands out from the other handouts because it is incongruously modern, as it should have done in the scenario itself, but here given brilliantly contradictory physicality. The other is from ‘The Worm that Walks’, the fifth chapter in the campaign. It is a simple letter from Christopher Edwin, inviting the Investigators to join him in Maine. Enclosed with the letter is a set of train tickets, and indeed, they are attached to the letter itself. They add nothing to the story or the plot, but they enforce the message of the letter brilliantly—Christopher Edwin is genuine enough to want to help!

Folder Three, dedicated to The Asylum & Other Tales contains some outstanding props, some of them actually better than the scenario they support really deserve. Starting with ‘The Auction’, set in Austria, at an auction for some quite outré items, there are not one, but two auction catalogues and they are honestly great. This scenario perhaps is the only one where the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society could have gone further, but would anyone have actually wanted a Riveted Brass Head? ‘Black Devil Mountain’ is a poorly regarded scenario, but surprisingly, it has a brilliant set of letters, a death certificate, a mortuary bill of holding, legal invoice, and a deed to a property. It could be argued that the scenario would be worth playing simply to get the props in play, but that is definitely not the case. In addition, the foldout ‘Cunard Line Brochure’ is the only prop for ‘The Mauretania’, but to be fair, it is all that it needs and quite perfect!

Folders Four and Five, rounds out with Call of Cthulhu Classic Gamer Prop Set handouts and props from the three scenarios in Trail Of Tsathogghua. Across the three scenarios, there are loads and loads of newspapers, plus handwritten letters and diary entries. Relatively few of the props here have physical impact found elsewhere in the other folders. They include Morris Handelman’s Notebook from ‘The Curse Of Tsathogghua’ and an actual 8-page legal contract and the awful verse from ‘The Poetical Works of Maurice Van Laaden’, both from ‘The Haunted House’, but in general, the props are not quite as interesting.

Physically, Call of Cthulhu Classic Gamer Prop Set is an excellent presentation of the clues and handouts to the many books supporting the Call of Cthulhu Classic boxed set. However, in comparison, the Call of Cthulhu Classic Gamer Prop Set is not as good as the Masks of Nyarlathotep Gamer Prop Set. This is not to say that the prop set is bad, but rather it does not quite have the heft or physical presence. This is primarily due to the nature of the clues in the individual scenarios and the often plain format of the original clues, although in some cases, the props here gild the lily in turning clues and handouts for poor scenarios into some things compelling.

The Call of Cthulhu Classic Gamer Prop Set is definitely not needed to run the many scenarios and campaigns to be found in the Call of Cthulhu Classic boxed set. It will, though, definitely help and add verisimilitude to any one of the scenarios or the campaign, developing a great many clues and handouts into impressive, in-game items, often from very plain origins. Although it lacks the physical impact of its predecessor, the Call of Cthulhu Classic Gamer Prop Set will still help bring the scenarios and campaigns it is based upon to life.

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