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Monday 6 February 2023

Miskatonic Monday #175: Host and Hostility

Host and Hostility: Three Regency Scenarios for Call of Cthulhu
is an anthology of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, and more specifically, Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England. Published by Chaosium, Inc., Regency Cthulhu presents a narrow world inspired by the life and times and the novels of Jane Austen, in which men and women of good character go in search of a worthy marital match in a highly conservative and disapproving society. Yet this highly stratified world faces a greater danger than simply the loss of one’s good name and fortune, scandal or sobriety, and the like—the insidiously ill-mannered forces and influences of the Cthulhu Mythos. Seemingly good men and women, indeed their whole families can hide the darkest of secrets, as can places and the very land itself. All of which are a threat to King and country, let alone society! Yet it would be scandalous to be investigating, even prying into such matters, so how can men and women of good name and sensibilities bring themselves to do so without imperilling both, let alone their very reputations? This is the crux of Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England and it is again explored in Host and Hostility: Three Regency Scenarios for Call of Cthulhu.

Host and Hostility: Three Regency Scenarios for Call of Cthulhu is published via the Miskatonic Repository, Chaosium, Inc.’s community content programme for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Unlike the pair of scenarios in Regency Cthulhu, the trilogy are not designed for group play, but rather one-on-one player, with a single Investigator and the Keeper. They are designed to be run in a single session each, all have a female Investigator as the protagonist, and are in parts heavily influenced by both Austen’s own fiction and the gothic mysteries that were then in vogue. The set-up is simple. Three young ladies, all of marriageable age, have entered into the Season in 1812 in Brighton in order to themselves a good husband. They are Miss. Janitra Chatterjee, Miss. Marina Garrick, and Miss. Georgiana Dillwyn, and each is of different temperament. In turn they are a social meddler and matchmaker, a spirited and frank outdoorswoman, and an intelligent, passionate reader of books, respectively. They are also, in turn, based upon the protagonists of Jane Austen’s Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. Full Investigator sheets are provided for each and although different, they all designed to be played with the three scenarios in the anthology. A player could simply choose one of the three to play through all three scenarios, play a different one for each scenario, or choose one and keep the other two as eminently marriageable replacements should the first have unfortunate cause to die under mysteries circumstances or be scandalously confined to the nearby infamous Bedlam hospital! Whatever way the trilogy is used, the Investigator is staying in Brighton as the guest of family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hampton, and as the Season draws to a close, attends a public ball at the Assembly Rooms where she will receive invitations that involve three eligible men. Which invitation she accepts determines which scenario the Keeper runs, for all three men have secrets to hide and plans to enact—and they all involve the Cthulhu Mythos.

Inspired by the real-life medical case of James Tilly Matthews, ‘Loom and Lucidity’ opens with an invitation from a handsome naval captain with an oddly mysterious past. Scandal threatens the Investigator almost from the start when Lord Cosgrove, about to utter some truths about the man, drops dead at her feet! Nothing seems quite right at Captain King’s London soirée as evening turns odder and odder until the attendees are begin acting in a decidedly strange manner. ‘Loom and Lucidity’ is a short affair which in parts echoes the influences of the Yellow King, but instead combines the sciences, technology, and fears of the period to expose—literally—the Investigator to radical thought. The end does feel mechanical in nature and the outcome of the scenario, certainly in regard to what happens to the NPCs afterwards, is not explored as fully as it could be. It does include some interesting NPCs for Keeper to portray, notably the scenario’s villains, who surprisingly, are not insane, but merely radical! This does not stop them from being villains though, but they would be suitable to return appearance in a future scenario if they managed to escape.

Where ‘Loom and Lucidity’ combined Science Fiction horror with period radicalism, ‘Curate and Curability’ combines classic Lovecraftian horror with classic gothic melodrama. In this scenario, the suitor is the Reverend Henry Mortimer, a widower who recently lost his wife, who invites the Investigator to stay with him and his sister. The vicarage though is dusty and uncared for, perhaps a sign of the reverend’s grief, perhaps something more. There are odd signs about the house that something amiss, which perhaps crystalise when the Investigator sees a ghost in the churchyard! Could the house be haunted by the ghost of the reverend’s late wife? This scenario is linear in nature, although there is room for the Investigator to make enquiries and snoop about, and again, mechanical in terms of handling its denouement. This one is much more physical and combative in nature and the Keeper will need to be conversant with the Chase rules for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Overall, the scenario has a nice sense of loneliness and another presence in the house, as well as a certain ghoulishness, but again, does not really fully address what happens if the Investigator escapes the Reverend’s clutches and wants to do something about him.

In the third and last of the anthology’s scenarios, ‘Note and Notoriety’, the Investigator is invited a ball hosted by renowned aristocrat Sir Jasper d’Ulfrey. It promises to be a lavish affair, and will end with the performance of a new dance that the baronet has devised! What promises to be an exciting night, culminating fireworks, turns out to be so for all the wrong reasons. Sir Jasper’s demeanour veers between the oddly distracted and the oddly excitable, only coming alive when talking of the new dance which is due to take place in the ballroom under a ceiling newly painted with stars. Meanwhile his aunt looks on with disdain, likely to relate the strange family history as dismiss the Investigator out of hand, and Sir Jasper’s cousin, Harriet’s infatuation may lead her into folly and ruin. Then at heart of the family estate is a maze which has an otherworldly feel to it… There is a certain heady rush to the events of ‘Note and Notoriety’, the plot lightly tripping forward to a momentous event liked to the d’Ulfrey family history. This has the feel of more classic Call of Cthulhu scenario and it does a better job of dealing with its possible aftermath and in giving the Investigator multiple methods of foiling its plot.

One similarity that the three scenario shares is the procedurally mechanical nature of their final scenes. This would be less of an issue if there was more than the single Investigator involved as it would lessen the chance of complete failure upon the player’s, and thus the Investigator’s part. A way around that would be to have a companion accompany the Investigator, perhaps a chaperone and one of the other two pre-generated Investigators given in the anthology, portrayed by another player. However, there is no advice provided to that end in Host and Hostility, and only ‘Note and Notoriety’ has any advice on running it with more the single Investigator. Otherwise, the player had better be prepared to spend some Luck in completing any one of the three scenarios.

Host and Hostility comes with a lengthy set of appendices. In turn, these provide a further glossary to add to that of Regency Cthulhu, a description of Brighton during the period, reprints of the handouts, and an Investigator sheet each for Miss. Janitra Chatterjee, Miss. Marina Garrick, and Miss. Georgiana Dillwyn. However, these are only the fronts of each sheet and the Keeper and her player may want to develop the content on the back. The scenarios are themselves well written, the various NPCs decently presented, including roleplaying notes.

Physically, Host and Hostility: Three Regency Scenarios for Call of Cthulhu is genially and genteelly presented. Period-style artwork is used throughout and both the handouts and the maps have a suitably period feel. Although the anthology occasionally includes the manipulated portrait, one engaging touch is that where the outré does occur it is always depicted in a style akin to that of the cartoon satirist, James Gilray. It appropriately undermines the sobriety of Host and Hostility as much as the Mythos does society. Also enjoyable is the silhouette of bonneted member of the Great Race of Yith!

On one level, the title of Host and Hostility is a delightful play on words, highlighting the difficulty and unnatural natures of each of the places where the Investigator is invited to stay. On another, it is an exercise in misogamy, since any one of the three scenarios is likely to put the Investigator off the idea of marriage—let alone the player! Overall, Host and Hostility: Three Regency Scenarios for Call of Cthulhu is congenial trilogy of one-on-one scenarios for Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England, their engaging plots and menaces all superbly supported and presented in period style.

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