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

Saturday 15 April 2023

Review 1999: Cthulhu Companion

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.


Cthulhu Companion – Ghastly adventures & Erudite Lore was published in 1983. It was the first supplement for Call of Cthulhu, a roleplaying game which in its forty-year history has had relatively few supplements compared to the number of campaigns and scenario anthologies. It brings together a collection of essays and scenarios, some of which are drawn from the pages of Different Worlds, providing the Keeper with source material and extra scenarios, all set within the classic period of the Jazz Age. The supplement actually opens with a quick guide to adapting a Keeper’s campaign from the first to the second edition of Call of Cthulhu. The changes here are to what is recognisably the version of Call of Cthulhu which would form the basis of the roleplaying game for the next few decades until the advent of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

The opening essay in the supplement is ‘The Cthulhu Mythos in Mesoamerican Religion’ by Richard L. Tierney. This builds on Zealia Bishop’s novella, ‘The Mound’, to draw correlations between the Cthulhu Mythos and the religions of Mesoamerica. Thus, Cthulhu is the Aztec Tlaloc, Yig is Quetzalcoatl, Nyarlathotep is Tezcatlipoca, Shub-Niggurath is Coatlique, and more. It suggests that there are signs of Cthulhu worship at Chichen Itza, explores the role played by the Mythos in the Aztec religious practices, and so on. A more contemporary sourcebook, for example, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica: 1920s Sourcebook and Mythos Adventures for Mexico and Central America from Pagan Publishing might not necessarily equate the deities of Mesoamerica with those of the Cthulhu Mythos quite so readily, instead leaving it up to individual cults and cultists to interpret however the Keeper wants. Nevertheless, as one of the first articles on comparative theology for Call of Cthulhu and on Mesoamerican religion, there is much here for the Keeper to work with if she wants to develop the parallels for her scenarios.
This is followed by William Hamblin’s translation [sic] of the Bulgarian scholar, Phileus P. Sadowsky’s ‘Further Notes on the Necronomicon’. This is a linguistical examination of the Kitab al-Azif or the Necronomicon which works from Arabic through Greek, Latin, and Egyptian to explain the meanings derivations of the names of various Mythos entities and races. It is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of faux scholarship which could worked into a campaign or scenario as a lengthy handout.

One of the great additions to Call of Cthulhu is ‘A Sourcebook For the 1920’s’, both an almanac for the Jazz Age and an expansion to the rules. The Cthulhu Companion expands upon this with ‘Sourcebook Additions’. These include a range of prisons by Lynn Willis, such as H. M. Deathoak Prison, Great Britain and the American Wayshearn Co. Work Farm. Each includes a physical description, the penal theory in force, routine functions, staff, and more. These are all horrid places and the Investigators best hope that they never end up behind the walls of any of these establishments, but in case there is plenty of detail here to help the Keeper bring them to life should an Investigator end up a prisoner for crimes he did, or did not, commit. Keith Herber details two skills, Photography and Lock Picking. The former is more interesting than latter, hinting at the difficulties of taking and developing photographs of the Fungi from Yuggoth, ghosts, and similar entities. This is an aspect, if only a small one, which Call of Cthulhu would revisit later. Sandy Petersen pens a ‘Lovecraftian Timeline’ for the various works of H.P. Lovecraft, running from the disappearance of the Starry Wisdom cult in Providence, Rhode Island in 1877 (from ‘The Haunter of the Dark’) to the autopsy performed on the Eridanus mummy in late 1932 after its attempted theft and deaths of the would-be thieves (from ‘Out of the Eons’). It is a handy little thing for the Keeper who wants to tie her scenarios into particular events depicted in Lovecraft’s fiction.

The ‘Rulesbook Additions’ gives new content to supplement the core rulebook for Call of Cthulhu. Glenn Rahman provides a long list of ‘New Phobias’, everything from Acrophobia, Ailurophobia, and Algophobia to Verbophobia, Vestiophobia, and Zoophobia. More phobias are always useful, as are the two Insanities—Quixotism and Panzaism—which Sandy Petersen contributes before working with Alan K. Crandall and Glenn Rahman on ‘Additional Deities, Races, and Monsters for the Cthulhu Mythos’, an expanded ‘bestiary’ of more Mythos entities for the roleplaying game. Many, like the Atlach-Nacha, Gnoph Keh, Gugs, Moon Beasts, and Lloigor will be familiar in the Call of Cthulhu canon today, but this article marks their first appearances and they would have been welcome additions, though not necessarily what the Cthulhu Companion would be remembered for.

‘Excerpts and Prayers’ collects pieces drawn from the works of H. P. Lovecraft, J. Ramsey Campbell, Frank Belknap Long, and Clark Ashton Smith and includes excerpts from the Necronomicon and Revelations of Glaaki as well as others. Much like the earlier ‘Further Notes on the Necronomicon’, these are all begging to be used as handouts in a campaign or scenario where they would add to their flavour and sense of verisimilitude.

If the Cthulhu Companion is remembered for anything, it is its four scenarios. These begin with John Sullivan’s ‘Paper Chase’. This is a then rare, one-on-one, one Investigator, one Keeper scenario in which the Investigator is hired to find out who is stealing some books. The trail quickly leads to a nearby cemetery where the Investigator will encounter the ghoul who is not only responsible for the thefts, but was the previous owner of the books! This is a classic which would be included in ‘Book Three—Paper Chase and Other Adventures’ of the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. ‘Paper Chase’ is fairly benign scenario, really only deadly depending upon what the Investigator decides to do. Of course, there is the sanity-sapping realisation that the truth of the world is not as the Investigator knows it be, but this is a gentle introduction to Lovecraftian investigative horror and shows how although the Mythos is antithetical to mankind, aspects of it are not necessarily actively working against mankind.

The first long scenario in the Cthulhu Companion is ‘The Mystery of Loch Feinn’ by Glenn Rahman. Set in Scotland, it concerns the death near Loch Feinn of Professor Willard Gibbson, a noted palaeontologist working at the British Museum, whose last words were that he was onto “the biggest scientific discovery of this century or the last!” Putting aside the fact that ‘Feinn Loch’ is actually in the west of Scotland rather than due north of Inverness in the east as ‘Loch Feinn’ here, the scenario brings together the Loch Ness monster (or its equivalent) and the Mythos, a backward Scottish clan, a gothic ruin, and the first appearance of the Lloigor in a scenario. There are moments of silliness, such as giving an NPC the surname ‘MacGuffin’, but there is lots to investigate here and the scenario has an eerie, mystery of the moors feel to it, with very nasty encounters both below the castle and—if the Investigators venture out—on the waters of the loch.

Lynn Willis’ ‘The Rescue’ is a much more linear affair, taking place in the Appalachians where a US State Department official has been found dead and his daughter has gone missing. Joining the search party leads to encounters with the lowlife and the poor of the nearest town before the search sends them into the nearby hills, where the culprits behind the death and the abduction are lurking. The scenario turns feral as those responsible decide to hunt the Investigators. This is physically brutal confrontation with a Wild West style shootout in a ravine as the culprits—now revealed to be werewolves—stalk the Investigators. The scenario funnels the Investigators into this confrontation and that and the fact that it involves Lycanthropy is a potential issue. This may or may not fit the Keeper’s view of the Mythos, but the scenario gives a means of passing the Lycanthropic curse, treating it as a form of rabies.

The longest and grandest scenario is ‘The Secret of Castronegro’ by Mark Pettigrew and Sandy Petersen. Intended for moderately experienced Investigators, it sends them to the town of Silver City in New Mexico where there has been a rash of disappearances, including a Professor of Psychology, an anthropology student, and a local man from the nearby town of Castronegro. The clues should lead the Investigators to Castronegro, an odd, out of the way place dominated by two corrupt Spanish families, the de Diaz and the Vilheila-Pereira families, noted for their long teeth, black hair, and vibrantly green eyes. The Mythos seems to have run quietly wild in the town, a weird combination of Port Merion and Innsmouth, but both set in the desert. One notable establishment in the town is ‘The Tomb’, bizarrely stuffed with Mythos gewgaws and doodads for sale! The town’s inhabitants reactions to the Investigators’ presence and questions will be slow at first, but ramp up to daily pot shots and nightly bad dreams and then a kidnapping. The latter is unfortunately, a deus ex machina, that the player and his Investigator can do nothing about once it happens, forcing the player to create a new Investigator. Looming over the town is the Casa de Diaz and it is here that the Investigators will confront the scenario’s ultimate villain. Unfortunately, he only ever appears in the confrontation, never taking an active part in the scenario until the very end, which is a waste of a good villain. 
If the preceding investigation has been weird and creepy, the confrontation is likely to be physical and combative and this perhaps is the biggest weakness of the scenario. It either ends in combat against tough opponents here in the almost dungeon-like or lair-like house or not at all.

The Cthulhu Companion draws to a close with ‘Poetry’. This includes four poems by H.P. Lovecraft taken from The Fungi from Yuggoth and Other Tales, but also includes the one item that the Cthulhu Companion is really remembered for. This is ‘The Lair of Great Cthulhu’, an eyebrow raising set of Filk lyrics by Joan Carruth and Larry Press set to the tune of Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Lastly, Morgan Conrad’s ‘Sanity Quiz’ which anything other than that, but instead a lengthy, two-page listing of every adjective that H.P. Lovecraft used in his fiction to describe his unworldly creations. It is either useless, or a priceless list of descriptive words for the Keeper to add to her vocabulary with describing the monsters of the Mythos at the table.

Physically, the Cthulhu Companion – Ghastly adventures & Erudite Lore is very well presented. The artwork is uniformly good and the cartography, if a little quirky, is as good. The cover depicts a desperate explorer trying to climb up out of a walled pit, chased by grasping tentacles. The inclusion of the fedora being knocked from his head hints at Indiana Jones, if only a little…


Cthulhu Companion – Ghastly adventures & Erudite Lore was first reviewed in ‘Open Box’ in White Dwarf Issue No. 51 (March 1984) by Jon Sutherland. He awarded it 7 out of 10 and ended his review with, “In conclusion, this tome is really of use only to the Keepers of Arcane Knowledge and given that this does not set out to fundamentally change any of the basic rules themselves, again this will limit appeal. The scenarios are quite good and altogether, this represents a predictable package and is reasonable value for money.”

Graeme Davis reviewed ‘The Cthulhu Companion’ in the Game Reviews department of Imagine No. 15 (June 1984). He was slightly dismissive of the supplement’s poetry, ‘Sanity Quiz’, and other bits and pieces, and said, “Apart from these, there is nothing which is not immediately useful to any campaign, and it is to be hoped that future supplements will maintain the very impressive standard of the Cthulhu Companion. The value for money is excellent, and no Call of Cthulhu referee can afford to be without it.”

Lastly, it was reviewed in Different Worlds Issue 36 (Sep/Oct 1984) by Steve Marsh. He said, “I liked the Cthulhu Companion. For a keeper who uses a great deal of background and whose investigators live for giblets of lore, it is easily worth the price. For a keeper who uses preset scenarios (I rarely do but will use some of these) it isn’t bad deal excepting for the hack-and-slash elements of the last scenario. Pricewise a keeper might be better off purchasing one of the scenario packs available for Call Of Cthulhu if not inclined to use the material in the Companion except such are by far too rare.” He expressed disappointment that more of the source material could not have been integrated into the supplement’s gaming content, but concluded that, “However, on the net, it is a good buy for the money. It meets Chaosium’s demanding physical product standards. Every article can be easily understood. Everything does have a use even if requiring a bit of work. Its only failure is that it is merely a good solid work instead of the brilliance I was expecting.”


The Cthulhu Companion would be reprinted in the 1986 collated Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition, which for the British audience would be the definitive edition of the roleplaying with hardback from Games Workshop. ‘The Secret of Castronegro’ would be reprinted in 1989 in Cthulhu Classics, along with Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, and of course, in ‘Paper Chase’ in the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. The other scenarios and the rest of the volume’s content has not.

In 1983, there can be no doubt that the Cthulhu Companion – Ghastly adventures & Erudite Lore greatly added to Call of Cthulhu—new supplementary information, new Mythos monsters, and four scenarios—and all of it useful in some ways. It was a good supplement, which set the blueprint for the subsequent, but nowhere near as good, Fragments of Fear: The Second Cthulhu Companion, and the superior, Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion. Today, the content of the Cthulhu Companion – Ghastly adventures & Erudite Lore is still playable, although by modern standards too many of scenarios emphasise combat solutions over other means of resolution. Yet the Cthulhu Companion – Ghastly adventures & Erudite Lore genuinely added to Call of Cthulhu, expanding its background material and exploring the types of scenarios which the roleplaying game could support.


An unboxing of the Cthulhu Companion – Ghastly adventures & Erudite Lore can be found here.

The previous release
in 1982 from Chaosium, Inc. for Call of Cthulhu was Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. The next would be the anthology, The Asylum & Other Tales.

No comments:

Post a Comment