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Monday, 24 April 2017

An Arkham Asset #1

The Arkham Gazette Issue 1 is the first issue of the magazine devoted to Lovecraft Country for Call of Cthulhu published by Sentinel Hill Press and the second to see print. Funded following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is, like the other issues devoted to specific aspects of Lovecraft Country, that moldering corner of New England home to old money, old prejudices, and ancient evils. Where the most recent issue, The Arkham Gazette Issue 3—numerically at the very least—explored witches and witchcraft, that most New England of phenomena, other issues have looked at particular locations in Lovecraft Country. The Arkham Gazette Issue o took us along The Aylesbury Pike and The Arkham Gazette Issue 2 will have us pay a visit to dread Innsmouth, but the latest edition to see print is The Arkham Gazette Issue 1 and that starts the magazine in its namesake—Arkham.

Originally released in 2013, but expanded for its 2016 publication, The Arkham Gazette Issue 1 is written for use with earlier versions of Call of Cthulhu rather than Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition—though like all Call of Cthulhu content, it is of course compatible. It opens with Bret Kramer’s ‘Deep Background: Locations in Greater Arkham’, which compiles various locations in the town which have appeared in various scenarios both before and after the publication of H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham and maps them into the town. They date back as far as ‘Gate from the Past’ in The Asylum and Other Tales and as far forward as ‘Consumption’ and ‘Darkness Illuminated’ from Golden Goblin Press’ Island of Ignorance and the article describes each location in some detail, touching upon the influence of Mythos upon only where necessary. Essentially this article maps these ‘new’ locations into the greater framework established by H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham and Lovecraft Country, putting them place for the location-based campaign.

The examination of Arkham’s deeper background continues with two articles, both by Bret Kramer. The first is ‘Deep Background: Arkham’s Markers: A History’, which presents the history of the granite posts erected to indicate the boundary between the town and its neighbours. There is not very much to this article, but it is interesting enough and some decent scenario hooks are provided so that the Keeper can bring them into his game and there is a nice newspaper article as a handout. The subject matter of the second is surprisingly mundane, which is surprising given the length of the article. As its title suggests, the subject matter of ‘Deep Background: Arkham’s Diners’ is the diners to be found on the streets of the town, their owners and staff, the dishes they serve, and their typical clientele. There is also a history of the diner and the typical food served during the 1920s. None of these diners are of any significance in terms of the Mythos, but they are places to meet friends and contacts and to make part of the investigators’ lives. Ultimately, this article adds colour aplenty to a campaign based in Arkham and Lovecraft Country and for all its prosaic detail, is rather delightful.

Bret Kramer also pens ‘The Biblio-file: Thaumaturgical Prodigies of the New England Canaan’. This presents an in-depth examination of the eponymous Mythos tome intimately associated with New England. Besides adjusting the date when this tome was published from the one given by August Derleth to that given by H.P. Lovecraft, this gives a thorough description of the book’s three editions, their content, and their history. Further details are provided about their author, Reverend Ward Philips, as well as one of the major sources he drew upon when authoring this tome. Rounding out the article is a list of the scenarios set in New England in which this book has appeared, each scenario providing both a means of obtaining a copy of the book as well as suggesting its content and a means in which it can be used. If the article is lacking, it is perhaps that a quote or two would have a been a nice addition, but that aside, this is one of those articles that provides much needed further background and detail about a particular element of Call of Cthulhu. Both this background and detail richly enhance the verisimilitude of both Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraft Country. This article feels like an like an extension of the content and format that first appeared the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion for the tomes that appear in the campaign, Masks of Nyarlathotep and that is no bad thing. Indeed, if only all Mythos tomes were accorded this treatment.

While ‘Deep Background: Locations in Greater Arkham’ added old locations anew to Arkham, Bret Kramer’s ‘New Place: The Gladding School’ describes an institution entirely new to Arkham. The Gladding School is a school and hospital for those children who are deemed mentally unfit. Although well-intentioned, the school lacks funding and cares for its patients as best it can, and this being Arkham, there is no knowing what the children might have encountered… or be descended from… Several suggestions are given as to how the school can be used in a Lovecraft Country game, but this is perhaps the article with the most difficult to use content in the issue. 

The Arkham Gazette Issue 1 contains a number of scenario seeds. These start with Chris Huth’s ‘An Encounter: Altercation on West Armitage Street’ which describes a bruising encounter between a wealthy Arkham notable and an unknown man that ends with the death of the Arkhamite. Three quite detailed options are given to explore and explain who exactly committed the murder and why, one of which does limit it to the time-frame when it can be run. Otherwise, this is relatively easy for the Keeper to develop and drop into his campaign. This is followed by ‘Scenario Seed: The Case of the Missing Manhole Covers’ by L.T. Barker. The situation is simple—a thief or thieves are stealing the manhole covers from Arkham’s streets only to return them a few days later. Again, three options are given, though not as detailed and needing more effort to set up by the Keeper. The options are actually lighter in tone than ‘An Encounter: Altercation on West Armitage Street’, one even consisting of a student prank! Actually, this is the sort of scenario that would really only work in a location based campaign where it can probably be best used as light relief to the ghastly, sometimes ghoulish things going on elsewhere in the town. If there is a weakness to the seed, it is that there is no real hook to get the investigators involved and that is probably the first thing that the Keeper will need to add.

The remaining scenario seeds are built around items of one kind or another. The first is Aleolex’s ‘Documentary Evidence: Report of Delusions of an Invisible Monster, which builds plot seeds, mysteries, and horror around an article in The New England Journal of Medicine which describes a series of delusions in the Arkham area. They might be actual delusions or they might be encounters with a Star Vampire, this being up to the Keeper to decide, but either way, the prop article is very well done and provides a convincing verisimilitude to base his scenario upon. It also manages to be brilliantly boring, which is quite an achievement. The second is ‘New Items: Arkham Curios’, penned by Evan Van Elkins, Chris Huth, and Bret Kramer. This describes seven interesting objects that can spur the investigators to make enquiries. For example, ‘The Night Flyers’, bill posters popping up all over Arkham might be for a theatrical performance, a piece of Dadaist propaganda, a prank, or the influence of the Yellow Sign, whilst ‘The Witch Doll’ might be a genuinely creepy little toy doll or it might be something more sinister with a connection to New England’s dark past. These are interesting items in and of themselves and their inclusion can only serve to make Arkham and Lovecraft Country a place of dark, moldering secrets... 

The issue’s main scenario is Ben Wenham’s ‘The Bosworth House’. This is written to be played by just a few investigators of any experience and should work particularly well with just the two investigators, neither of whom needs anything in the way of combative or physical skills. The investigators are asked to look into why Margaret Hannigan, housebound and resting following her first pregnancy, murdered her doctor husband. This is a scenario heavy on investigation, interaction, and ultimately mood, as the investigators examine the case and ultimately, the house itself. The scenario is written with a particular artifice in mind, one designed to build its mood of strange horror, though how much this is due to the influence of the Mythos is up to the Keeper to decide. The murder might simply be due to Margaret Hannigan’s depression following her pregnancy, but it might be the influence of the house itself, much like the mansion in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Alternatively, the house might have fallen prey to the influence of Hastur and the King in Yellow. Either way, the horror and shock are nicely handled, kept to a small scale and allowed to scratch at the sanity of one of the investigators rather than rend. The issue here is that the players do need to buy into the scenario’s artifice as it proceeds, because it will quickly become apparent to both players that one investigator is being targeted and affected whereas the other is not. Otherwise, this is a pleasingly underplayed scenario of quiet horror that feels more like a short story than a roleplaying scenario.

Rounding out The Arkham Gazette Issue 1 is an ‘Annotated Scenario Bibliography: Arkham’. Assembled and commented upon by Bret Kramer and Dean Engelhardt, this details the some fifty or so scenarios that have been published for Call of Cthulhu and set in the town of Arkham. They range as far back as ‘Abduction in Arkham’ from the fanzine Dagon Issue 6 and ‘And the Dogs Shall Know You’ from Theatre of the Mind Enterprises’ The Arkham Evil and are as up to date as you can get with ‘Crimson Letters’ from the Keeper Rulebook for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Along the way, it takes in magazines as well as monographs, listing for each scenario its author, a summary, and its setting, locations, entities, and tomes, as well as any notes. Also included are two further lists, one of scenarios connected to the town and the other of scenarios set in Arkham, but not in the classic era of the Jazz Age. Much like the earlier ‘The Biblio-file: Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New England Canaan’, this feels like an extension of the content and format that first appeared the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. This is a highly useful reference that in some ways is the most useful article in the issue of the magazine, especially if the Keeper is running a Lovecraft Country campaign.

Physically, the layout of The Arkham Issue 1 is consistent with the style of The Arkham Issue 0 and The Arkham Issue 3, echoing as it does the layout of Call of Cthulhu supplements from the 1990s. The artwork is excellent and the use of photographs never less than appropriate. The cartography is perhaps a little bland in places, but is fine elsewhere. The handouts though, are uniformly excellent. It does need a stronger edit in places though.

As with other issues, The Arkham Gazette Issue 1 is a thoroughly useful magazine to have if the Keeper is running a Lovecraft Country campaign, though articles like ‘The Biblio-file: Thaumaturgical Prodigies of the New England Canaan’ will find a more general usefulness and many of the other articles can be adapted to suit other relatively small town locations. It is of course of even more use if a Keeper is running a campaign in and around Arkham and whilst it could not be described as being indispensable for running such a campaign, The Arkham Gazette Issue 1 is a worthy companion to H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham.