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Monday 11 September 2023

Miskatonic Monday #216: In Strange Seas

Between October 2003 and October 2013,Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Repository.


In Strange Seas: Horror in the Royal Navy for Regency Cthulhu takes Call of Cthulhu in a new direction. Or rather, In Strange Seas: Horror in the Royal Navy for Regency Cthulhu takes Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England in a new direction and over the horizon. Regency Cthulhu took Call of Cthulhu back to the Regency era where men and women of good character must find a way of confronting the Mythos without the loss of their character and their reputation, let alone their sanity. In Strange Seas takes that sensibility and sets sail with it on to the high seas during the war with France and Napoleon. As crew and officers face death from storms and disasters, let alone battles with the French and her Spanish allies, as well as poor food and rigorous discipline, there is chance of promotion, opportunities to be brave, hope that prizes will taken and fortunes won, and perhaps the happenstance that their names will be made and they will ascend the social ladder and acquire status that their births never gave them.

In Strange Seas introduces the Royal Navy of the later Napoleonic Wars, that which Horatio Nelson served in. In parts more readily egalitarian than the rest of Georgian society, the nature of the Royal Navy of In Strange Seas is more readily egalitarian still, allowing all genders and orientations to serve, but taking a more modern and inclusive approach as modern-day Navies do. This is undeniably anachronistic and as an extension of Regency Cthulhu it goes further than that supplement does in terms of inclusivity, so that adjustments would have to be made to the core Regency Cthulhu setting were an Investigator shift from one setting to the other. Ultimately, the choice whether to accept the anachronism of In Strange Seas will be down to the Keeper and her players and there is nothing wrong in that. However, In Strange Seas could—and certainly should—have handled the issue in a less proscriptive way, and discussed the choices between running In Strange Seas in a historical fashion or a non-historical fashion, so that the Keeper and her players can make the choice.

For the most part, In Strange Seas presents the historical nature of life aboard ship and in the Royal Navy as you would expect. Covering daily life, positions amongst both commissioned and uncommissioned officers as well as the crew, clothing, meals, and discipline, the Admiralty, and the various types of ships serving in the Royal Navy and their typical duties, as well as a tour of a frigate, all of this will be familiar to anyone who has read the Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester or the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian or the various nautically themed roleplaying games released in the past few decades, starting with Privateers and Gentlemen, published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1983. For the uninitiated landlubber, it is another matter. The content is informative and useful, as are the details on the superstitions and then the prejudices, etiquette, and traditions for landlubber and jack tar alike. It notes that life aboard ship for those that ignore these prejudices, etiquette, and traditions can be worse than for those ashore who simply have their reputations damaged, and that does not take into account the nature of punishments which can arise should the Articles of War be contravened.

Mechanically, naval combat can be complex. In Strange Seas presents a more narrative approach, though one still driven by the Investigators’ skills and time in the spotlight. The advice is to keep it moving, keep orders coming, emphasise the horror—since the noise and the chance of bring crushed by fallen rigging or having a leg blown off are ever present, and keep it fresh and varied. Anyone coming to In Strange Seas expecting detailed naval combat will be disappointed and will have to look elsewhere. The ‘Naval Combat Cheat Sheet for Keepers & Investigators’ does instead, listing the broad actions that the Investigators will take, such as manoeuvring, firing the cannons, boarding, avoiding flying splinters and falling, and suggesting the appropriate skills to roll. For the savvy shipmen, this will be enough, but for the nautical naïve it is likely too little, but after watching some of the suggested viewing given in the bibliography, he should be fine.

In terms of creating an Investigator, In Strange Seas suggests that skills and occupations be adjusted by age. Sailors tend to be young and often lack the more refined skills their land-going counterparts might have. The Occupations include Commissioned Officer—which needs to be adjusted according to rank, Bosun, Carpenter, Chaplain, Gunner, Marine, Master, Purser, Forecastle Sailor/Topman, and Afterguard/Waister. It is otherwise unchanged from Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It does, however, give two means of handling Reputation. One is ashore reputation, the other at sea. The first is in line with the Reputation rules for Regency Cthulhu, whereas the latter is Reputation at sea only. Included alongside this are some possible losses and gain in service, from “Dropping your messmates’ Sunday plum duffs on the way back from the galley” to “Taking a severe punishment without complaint or crying out”. The campaign advice is similar to that of Regency Cthulhu, in that Investigators should be roughly of the same or near rank so that socially they can converse and interact, or at least in the same working party otherwise; use other ships or posts of call as a ready source off news and rumour; and of the Mythos, that again, like Regency Cthulhu, the Keeper should allow space in which the social ramifications of encountering the Mythos can be explored. How will affect the more of the crew? Will the Investigators be believed? Of course, defeating the forces of Cosmic Horror cannot be reported in the London Gazette, the Admiralty remains willfully ignorant of such forces. The supplement also include some handouts, a recruiting poster for His Majesty’s Navy and a number of recipes for shipboard food to add that little bit of extra detail.

Scattered throughout In Strange Seas are several Mythos Hook scenario seeds. Some are better than others, but all require full development upon the part of the Keeper. Fortunately, In Strange Seas comes with a separate, eleven-page scenario. ‘Wonders in the Deep’. Set in 1811, the HMS Caliban is sent to the Spanish coast in search of the French brig Prodige. Aboard is an important passenger, who unfortunately is killed on the voyage and the Investigators have to step up and fulfil his mission. With the curse of being an unlucky ship, the HMS Caliban chases down its quarry and battle ensues. It is a solid scenario which combines the ordinary life aboard ship with the thrill of battle and an encounter with a strange adversary. It comes with two, somewhat plain handouts, and a nice selection of new nautically themed spells, such as Bait Humans and inflict Scurvy!

Physically, In Strange Seas is presented tidily enough. It needs editing here and there, but it is neatly illustrated with a series of period pieces.

In Strange Seas is in some ways only an introduction to roleplaying in the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic War. It could have done with more detail about combat to help the Keeper visualise it, and much like Regency Cthulhu, there is no guide to Mythos activity—human or otherwise—during this period, and certainly not as it relates to His Majesty’s Navy. This is despite the far-flung operations of the Royal Navy meaning that the Investigators could find themselves very far away from Bath and its restorative waters. Which gives it potential for a very nautical globetrotting campaign!

A most serviceable supplement—though a Keeper will probably need to do much more research on the setting that a fuller book would avoid needing—In Strange Seas: Horror in the Royal Navy for Regency Cthulhu pressgangs Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England into the Age of Sail and In-Sanity.

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