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Sunday, 24 September 2017

Cthulhu Classics VII

From one week to the next, Reviews from R’lyeh writes reviews of new games and supplements with an emphasis on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. This series concentrates on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but not those recently released, but those of the past. There have been innumerable titles published over the years and this is an opportunity to appraise them anew, often decades after they were first released.

Having looked at the releases from Games Workshop, culminating with Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s-30s Cthulhu Source Pack, Reviews from R’lyeh now moves on to another early licensee for Chaosium, Inc. This is T.O.M.E. or Theatre of the Mind Enterprises, a publisher best known for the five titles it released for use with Call of Cthulhu and Gardasiyal: Adventures in Tékumel, the 1990s roleplaying game set in the world of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. Between 1983 and 1984, T.O.M.E. would publish five collections of scenarios—The Arkham Evil, Death In Dunwich, Pursuit To Kadath, Whispers From The Abyss And Other Tales, and Glozel Est Authentique!—for use with Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition. The first release though, and the subject of this review, is The Arkham Evil.

From the outset it is difficult to determine what The Arkham Evil actually is. The extent of the back cover blurb runs to, “THE STAGE IS SET… THE CURTAIN RISES… ON A MACABRE MYSTERY FROM THEATRE OF THE MIND ENTERPRISES, INC.” So there is no suggestion as whether it is an anthology of scenarios, a series of linked scenarios, or a campaign. In fact, it is actually more the latter than either of the former, a campaign to prevent the creation of a bridge into the physical world which will enable Nyarlathotep to enter our world. It is divided into three scenarios or acts—‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’, ‘Act II: The Wanderer’, and ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’. The campaign also requires the players to use the pre-generated characters, a team of geologists, mining engineers, palaeontologists, cavers, and so on, who work for the College of Sciences at Miskatonic University.

The campaign begins with ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’, which is set in 1919. The team is asked to go to Gibsville, an Appalachian coal town in Pennsylvania where a strange crystal cave has been found inside of which are several sets of bones. The team is to investigate and survey both the caves and the bones, for both scientific and commercial reasons—the mine owners want the miners’ fears about the bones allayed so that coal can continue to be dug. The task is hampered by three factors. First is the political situation in the region, with the Molly Maguires conducting armed operations against the mine and its owner, whilst the owner has employed a detective agency to protect the mine, the miners, and suppress the Molly Maguires’ insurrection. Second are the suspicions of the miners themselves—the team works for the mine owner, so they are not to be trusted. Third is the worry amongst the community at the recent rash of disappearances of young girls from the surrounding area, each at the new Moon.

Over the course of a fortnight or so, the team will survey the cave, perhaps get involved in a local romance, and even get caught up in the local politics. At the end of this, the player characters are likely to come away with some knowledge of the weird crystal cave and the bones there, but it is unlikely that they will learn very much about the ghastly and inhuman plot that swirls about the region. ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’ keeps a great number of its outré events off camera—something which will become a feature of the campaign—and whilst it is possible to find evidence of them, the scenario makes it very difficult to do so. This is done to further the campaign’s and the cultists’ greater plot which the player characters will not really be facing until ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’. What this means is that there is very little threat to be faced in ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’, certainly in terms of the Mythos, and thus little in the way of Sanity loss or reward.

If the campaign at least starts well with ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’, then it seems to take a tangent—or possibly a nosedive—in terms of both tone and quality with ‘Act II: The Wanderer’. This second part of The Arkham Evil is notorious for the fact that it takes place in 1923, some four years after the first part. This is not its only problem. ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ sees the team being sent to Arizona to collect fragments of asteroid which have fallen to the Earth after its brush with with the Earth’s atmosphere on its highly unusual orbit. First the team will need to purchase—and even design as the fragments are likely to be highly radioactive—the equipment it will need to collect the fragments. In the process, the player characters are likely to come to the attention of—and learn of—others who are interested in obtaining the fragments. Who these others are is where 'Act II: The Wanderer' gets silly. One is a German Baron who is a member of the Bavarian Illuminati leading a force of ex-Great War Storm Troopers along with a circus of Fokker aeroplanes; one a French sorcerer-count of dubious reputation; and one a Serpent Man. It all seems a bit much, more so when the text states that the Baron, whose father served at Castle Zenda, learned of the coming of the asteroid from the mad ravings of one Professor Moriarty. None of which is relevant to the plot of The Arkham Evil, which itself of course, does not provide a means of the player characters finding this out.

At the end of ‘Act II: The Wanderer’, the player characters are likely to have got their chunks of highly radioactive rock and have managed to transport it back to Miskatonic University. They are not the only ones. Having acquired a chunk or two, the Baron now exits The Arkham Evil with the authors’ promise that he will return in a future supplement. The Count will also acquire his own chunk, but in the process will leave the team with a terrible gift—a traitor amongst their midst, which will have repercussions in the third act. What purpose either of them intends to use their chunks for is left undeveloped. Unfortunately, ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ feels little more than an excuse to present the player characters with a race and an excuse to have a fight. It does at least include an encounter with the Mythos and at least that Mythos threat has a credible motive compared to the human opponents in the act.

‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’ at last brings The Arkham Evil and the player characters back to Arkham and Miskatonic University. A great scientific symposium is to be held about the returned radioactive rocks complete with prizes for the best papers presented during the event. With fierce competition for the best scientific papers, the player characters are encouraged to research and write an anthropological and historical paper on the rocks. Which would be okay except that none of the player characters are anthropologists or historians and their having to write a paper on those subjects undermines both their role in the campaign and their backgrounds. This is the initial focus of the scenario, but it quickly becomes a murder mystery as victim after victim is found dead on the streets of Arkham, having died of old age—despite the very youth of many of the victims. The number of murders will escalate, with the player characters possibly becoming suspects themselves, impeding their progress on their paper. There is little investigation to be had in ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’ despite it being a murder mystery and ultimately, the title of the act gives it all away in preparation  for showdown with the perpetrator.

The Arkham Evil has a reputation for not being a very good book. One definite issue with each of the three scenarios is their organisation. Each is roughly divided into two sections. The first section provides a rough timeline of scenes, whilst the second, actually an appendix—a very full appendix—contains descriptions of the NPCs and the locations. It also contains further details about background and the other storylines to each scenario. This not only gives The Arkham Evil three appendices, it also sets up the need to flip back and forth between the two sections for each and every scenario, making each awkward, if not outright difficult, to run.

Another issue is that the three scenarios and the role of the player characters in them are very much underdeveloped. This leaves the Keeper with a great deal to do in order to involve them in the events of each scenario and even despite that effort, the trilogy of scenarios keep their Mythos elements so much off stage that the player characters are unaware of them, let alone be placed in a position where they can thwart them. There is also relatively little investigation to be found across the three acts, such that for the most part, the player characters are called ‘Players’ through most of the book rather than the Investigators of traditional Call of Cthulhu, let alone player characters. Lastly, there is no advice for running the campaign with Investigators of the players’ own creation and the included pre-generated investigators are severely under-designed.

Physically, The Arkham Evil is disappointing. It needs editing, the organisation is terrible, and the artwork scrappy at best.

Yet The Arkham Evil is not without its merit. The campaign includes rules for improving skills in between scenarios, for suffering severe wounds, and for suffering the effects of radiation. The latter, in all likelihood, for the very first time—Cthulhu Now would not be released until 1987. Further, in ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’ there is the basis of a not unreasonable, even decent scenario. If a Keeper were to develop the missing girls plot strand further, setting both it and the Molly Maguires plot up with newspaper handouts and some clues and encounters, then the investigators could have stronger reasons to follow this up when the next girl is abducted. This could lead to showdown with the perpetrators of the plot and potentially, a chance that the player characters might defeat them and save the girl. Of course, this would as the scenario makes clear, thwart the plot which continues in ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ and ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’ and therefore negate the need for either act to be run. To fair, this would no bad thing as it at least involves the player characters in the plot and it highlights the best means of getting anything out of either ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ or ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’. Which would literally be to rewrite them.

Reviewing the campaign in Space Gamer #64 (July, 1983), William A. Barton—notable as the designer of Cthulhu by Gaslight—wrote, “The main problem I find in The Arkham Evil is with its organization. Too much important information is placed at the end of each scenario, requiring a lot of page flipping.” and “Some of the literary and historical references seem thrown in as references…” Despite describing it as not being as “well conceived or executed” as Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, Barton was positive about The Arkham Evil and the “sanity-threatening sessions” it could offer in the hands of a competent Keeper. Similarly, Jon Sutherland, reviewing both The Arkham Evil and Death in Dunwich in Open Box in White Dwarf #48 (December, 1983), was not wholly taken with the campaign. He highlighted the tendency of the campaign’s second act to lapse into farce with “…[T]he idea of cavorting across Arizona avoiding German stormtroopers is pretty hard to swallow.”, describing the fact that it takes place four years after the first as awkward. Ultimately, Sutherland concludes that, “Arkham did not really live up to the expectations or the quality of the first part of the adventure.”, but despite this, he did award The Arkham Evil seven out of ten.

By the standards of the time—1983 with Call of Cthulhu just barely two years old—it is not difficult to see The Arkham Evil as a decent little mini-campaign. In fact, it might very well have been the first from a third party publisher for Call of Cthulhu. Yet even by the standards of the day, The Arkham Evil feels very much like the first release from a new company. Which it is. In  ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’ can be seen the beginnings of an ambitious campaign idea, supported by a scenario that it is not without promise. Yet it never delivers on that promise, primarily because it does not develop the hooks that would lead into a proper confrontation with the Mythos and worse, it shunts any confrontation with the Mythos as far from the investigators as it can, all in the service of a plot that the players and their characters are essentially kept away from until the ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’. And the less said of both ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ and ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’, the better.

It would be easy to wholly write The Arkham Evil off as an early, failed exercise in scenario and campaign writing. Which it is… Yet there is a kernel of something in there that could have been decent, even by the demanding standards of the here and now. It would though, take a great deal of effort upon the part of the Keeper to really develop that kernel into something more memorable for the better, rather than for the worse as The Arkham Evil is now.


With thanks to Soren Boye Petersen for his aid in tracking down the review of The Arkham Evil from Space Gamer #64.