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Saturday 1 April 2023

Corsairs Versus Cthulhu

It is odd to think that in over forty years since Call of Cthulhu was first published, it has been supported by numerous supplements detailing other times and places, from the classic period of the Jazz Age and the here and now to the Roman Empire of Cthulhu Invictus and the more recent late Georgian period supplement, Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England, but not the Age of Sail or indeed, anything piratical. This is not to say that that that have been no scenarios involving both Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying and piratical roleplaying. Arguably, Green Ronin Publishing’s Freeport Trilogy for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition was the first to do it in 2000, but there have been a few scenarios since specifically for Call of Cthulhu, such as Lost Port Royal and The Curse of Black Teeth Keetes, which have involved pirates, if not actual piracy. That changes with Corsairs of Cthulhu – Fighting Mythos in the Golden Age of Piracy, a supplement for Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, published by New Comet Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign. This is a rules and setting supplement detailing the Golden Age of Piracy—between 1650 and 1730 CE, for Call of Cthulhu, and further, it provides a complete campaign in which the Player Characters, or Corsairs, will set sail on the high seas to face and fight the evil of the Mythos. They will chase and board other vessels, encounter strange ice demons in the frigid lands to the far south, sail across the Pacific to make land at numerous islands and encounter strange practices the inhabitants engage in, and travel far beyond their imagination before returning to sail into battle against an alien foe they could never have imagined!

Corsairs of Cthulhu – Fighting Mythos in the Golden Age of Piracy is an ambitious book. Which given that it is published by New Comet Games should be no surprise as the publisher has aimed high with each of its previous titles for Call of Cthulhu. However, in the case of all three of those books— The Star on the Shore – Struggles Against Evil in 1920s New England, Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock, and A Time For Sacrifice—that ambition remained undeniably unfulfilled. The question is, has New Comet Games again sets its ambitions too high with Corsairs of Cthulhu – Fighting Mythos in the Golden Age of Piracy, its first period sourcebook and campaign? If not, has the publisher actually fulfilled those ambitions and presented content that the Keeper can bring to the table with ease, without need for further development, and be both enjoyable and engaging for her players? The answers to those questions are ‘yes, but no’, for although Corsairs of Cthulhu is a very straightforward sourcebook and campaign, explaining how good both the source background and the campaign actually are, is far from straightforward.

It is important to note what Corsairs of Cthulhu is not and that is an examination of the Mythos during the Age of Piracy, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Thus, there is no background at all pertaining to the presence of the Mythos in the Caribbean or indeed what its adherents, races, or entities might be doing during this period. Its background and source material is wholly mundane then. This though does not necessarily mean that it is bad. In fact, the source material is decent enough. There are roleplaying books which do it far better, such as Skull & Bones: Swashbuckling Horror in the Golden Age of Piracy, but nevertheless, Corsairs of Cthulhu is decent enough in terms of background content. It starts with a solid if repetitive overview of both the period of the Golden Age of Piracy and the Caribbean before diving into the rules. Character creation follows the standard rules for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition but adds a wide selection of new Occupations—Adventurer, Boatswain, Coxswain, Criminal, Fisherman, Master Carpenter, Master Gunner, Sailing Master, and more. Many of them are specific to positions aboard ship, although Alchemist and Voodoo Priest/Priestess are included as optional. There is an array of new equipment, as well as skills such as Antiquarian—the equivalent of Archaeology, Artillery—for cleaning and firing cannon aboard ship, Language: Pirate Chant, and Seamanship, whilst Art/Craft (Voodoo Rituals) and Science (Alchemy) are for the optional rules and Occupations.

Alchemy is based on Hermetic sorcery and practitioners study a variety of formulae—divine and greater and lesser arcane, but can only learn a relative few. For example, Transmutationibus, one of the Arcanum Mortis Divina Formulae, creates a salve which can be spread over lead to turn it into gold as per the legendary aims of the science of alchemy, whilst the Orbis potion, one of the Arcanum Mortis Luminare Minus Formulae, allows the imbiber to always know magnetic north. What an Alchemist knows in terms of formulae is very much limited by his skill rating, and learning more as the Alchemist gains in skill will be a challenge in itself and for the major formulae, likely SAanity draining. Finding ingredients and mixing up the potions also takes an Alchemist time and effort, countering their often-powerful effects. Voodoo practitioners—known as Bokor or Caplata—call upon the deities and saints known as Loa, through song, dance, and other rituals to cast rituals such as Create Zombie, Curse of Misfortune, and Gift of Tongues. All rituals cost both Magic Points and Sanity to cast, and like Science (Alchemy), a practitioner’s skill in Art/Craft (Voodoo Rituals) limits the number of rituals he can perform. Learning a new ritual takes time, but are faster to cast than creating potions. In addition, Bokor or Caplata may begin play with an understanding of the true nature of the world and thus the Cthulhu Mythos. The rules for Alchemy and Voodoo are optional, but workable enough should a Keeper decide to bring them in to her game.

For all things nautical, Corsairs of Cthulhu details the ship’s crew and their duties, pirate culture and life, as well as the major parts of a ship, ship types and sizes, ship’s weaponry, as well as how to handle ship-to-ship combat. The rules for chases and combat are succinctly described, but an example of combat does help the Keeper understand how they work. Once ships start exchanging volleys of cannon fire, combat can become very deadly for the crew. Unfortunately, the critical result tables for combat do not include the possibility of the Player Characters killed unless they hold one of the important positions aboard ship. This is not all of the background content in Corsairs of Cthulhu, although the rest of it is at the back of the book, separated by the campaign itself and placed in a series of appendices. ‘Ports of Call’ details several notable pirate ports across the Caribbean, ‘Pirates and NPCs’ give stats and write-ups for notable pirates such as Anne Bonny and Edward Teach, and ‘Slang, Swears, Songs & Shanties’ is exactly that and can be used to add colour and flavour to a Corsairs of Cthulhu campaign. Apart from rules for using Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos in Corsairs of Cthulhu and ‘More Adventures’ which provides several extra adventures for the Keeper to develop, the rest of the appendices support the campaign. They consist of the ‘Bestiary’, which has full stats for the monsters and NPCs in the campaign, plus the officers of the ship in the campaign, whilst ‘Pre-generated PCs’ provide read-to-play Corsairs, and finally, all of the handouts. One change to the ‘Pre-generated PCs’ which is absolutely necessary is to ensure that one of them speaks Ancient Greek when transposed onto Investigator sheets as none of them do, and for the campaign, they do need to be able to read Ancient Greek.

The Corsairs of Cthulhu campaign is set in 1697 and begins en media res in exciting fashion, chasing down another vessel and about to engage it in an exchange of cannon fire. The Corsairs are crew members recently hired, aboard the Cronos under the command of Captain Kristoff, who is in search of a treasure known as the Astronomer’s Map. This treasure plays a major role in the campaign. It has been broken into multiple pieces and as the Corsairs locate more and more sections of it, they will gain further clues as to what the campaign is about and where the next sections are located. Full colour illustrations are provided for the various sections of the Astronomer’s Map, but the Keeper can also use STL files to print copies of the section as physical handouts so that the Corsairs can piece the artifact together as they progress further into the campaign. As members of the crew of the Cronos, the Corsairs are directed, if not led, by Captain Kristoff, and as members of the crew they sail from capturing the ship in the first scene to shore leave in Nassau and then onwards into the Pacific after a difficult journey through the Drake’s Passage. From Easter Island—visited by the Cronos some twenty-five years before Europeans actually visited it historically—to Galapagos and beyond, the Corsairs track the sections of the Astronomer’s Map across the Pacific to experience one extremely strange encounter after another. This includes hunting wererats on Easter Island, dining with the vampire daughter of Nyarlathotep in the Dreamlands, freeing and being thanked by Mother Hydra, being transported into a post-apocalyptic future of a city that is yet to be, and so on. Ultimately, as written, the Corsairs will discover the true nature of the Astronomer’s Map and the identity of the villain of the piece, and sail on the risen isle of R’lyeh, ready to unleash volleys of cannon fire upon Great Cthulhu himself!

Given all this background material and the great scope of its campaign, the actual campaign itself in Corsairs of Cthulhu should be good. Yet it is not. In fact, it is far from good. The idea of sailing the high seas to ultimately face Cthulhu as pirates sounds good, but in practice, the campaign is linear and the Corsairs themselves have no agency over the direction of the campaign. Instead, the Corsairs essentially island hop back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, first at the direction of the captain of the Cronos, then from clues given on the Astronomer’s Map, until the final confrontation. Much of the action in the scenario takes place in the Pacific and thus away from the Caribbean. Consequently, barring a couple of scenes, the Corsairs have extraordinarily little opportunity to engage in piratical activity of any sort. And although they start play aboard the Cronos, the Corsairs have little motivation to be aboard to begin with or to really engage with the campaign except for the fact that Captain Kristoff will them throw overboard if they do not swear to remain aboard as part of the crew. This applies to the pre-generated Corsairs, let alone what the players might come up with. Once under sail, there are all too often scenes where the Corsairs have to stand around and await until some ceremony is over and an NPC can advise them before they can act. Then there are scenes which are more plot fiat rather than actually adding to either play or plot, such as automatically, but accidentally killing a cat in the Dreamlands or when sailing through the Drake’s Passage to the Pacific, the crew of the Cronos have the choice of sailing the quicker, but more dangerous route closer to the shallows of the coast of South America or the calmer, slower, but much colder waters to the south. It does not matter what choice they decide on as ultimately the Cronos will be driven south into the colder waters where they will be attacked by Ice Demons which skip across the sea to board the ship. The encounter is pointless, an excuse for some combat and dice rolling which only serves to scrape some Hit Points and Sanity Points from the Corsairs—and that is ignoring the fact that Ice Demons add nothing to the Mythos. Similarly, there are points where one of the Corsairs has to sacrifice himself to in order for the campaign to progress, and whilst there are ways round this, it makes progress that much more difficult. Then, when the Corsairs do encounter the Mythos, it is with Elder God after Elder God—Nyarlathotep, Nodens, the Yellow King, as well as Father Dagon, and Mother Hydra—all put in an appearance, like some sort of Mythos medley. Father Dagon and Mother Hydra do make sense, but the others? Lastly, the campaign drops hints as to who the villain of the piece is, mostly coming from the dead Corsair who can appear in his former comrades’ dreams, but never really lets the Corsairs act on it as if trying to forestall the inevitable showdown at the end of the campaign.

Physically, Corsairs of Cthulhu – Fighting Mythos in the Golden Age of Piracy looks clean and tidy, and for the most part it is. Unfortunately, the layout is not always consistent and certainly early on in the book, Corsairs of Cthulhu needs the input of a professional editor, as the content is repetitive and oddly phrased. The maps are actually nicely done, but the artwork is highly variable in quality. Some of it is good, the rest is often just artless.

Yet for all of its faults, Corsairs of Cthulhu – Fighting Mythos in the Golden Age of Piracy is not necessarily a bad campaign or a bad supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It does provide the rules for running a pirate scenario or campaign for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and it does provide a campaign that can be played. In that, New Comet Games has achieved its aims and definitely fulfilled its ambitions. However, that does not mean that those ambitions have been in any way exceeded, or as the publisher’s best book to date, that Corsairs of Cthulhu is a good supplement. The new rules and background included in the pages of Corsairs of Cthulhu are undoubtedly fine. A Keeper can take those and can run a scenario or campaign using them. The campaign though, is not fine, and definitely not good, but at the same time, not terrible. Fundamentally, it is too linear and does not give the players and their Corsairs enough agency, and it is more like a heavily plotted Derlethian video game than a roleplaying campaign. Ultimately, Corsairs of Cthulhu – Fighting Mythos in the Golden Age of Piracy is arguably the best book for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition that New Comet Games has published to date, but then only for part of the book and in comparison to the quality of the previous books.

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