Saturday 27 June 2009

Unplugged Gaming Reviews

Terrors From Beyond
Call of Cthulhu Scenario Compilation

There is a wealth of source material out there for Call of Cthulhu, probably second only to D&D in terms of the amount of fan-created scenarios and campaigns there are flying around the Interweb. On the one hand, this is great, as I think that the number of ready-made scenarios around is pivotal to the success of any RPG system. It encourages new blood in, and is great for lazy bastards like me who have neither the time nor the talent to come up with stuff to play. On the other hand, it means that any professionally published campaign or scenario has to be pretty good to justify people forking cash over for it. Does Terrors from Beyond, the latest offering from COC publishers Chaosium cut the mustard?

Containing six scenarios, and running in at 212 pages, this is a chunky compilation. Several of the scenarios would easily entertain for two sessions or more, so that's a lot of entertainment you're getting.

The first scenario, Ghost Light deals with the investigators investigating strange happenings at a light house. What struck me whilst reading through this scenario was the sense of isolation that permeates the story - something that Lovecraft himself used often, to great effect in stories such as The Whisperer In Darkness and At the Mountains of Madness. Overall, the scenario is solid, but it's not anything that hasn't been done a hundred times before.

Likewise, the second scenario, A Method to Madness is okay...but there's a hundred other scenarios that deal with the exact same monster doing a very similar thing. I'm not saying I'd never run this one for my group, but it's unlikely. There's so much stuff out there for Call of Cthulhu that life's too short for anything less than great. The one thing that really grated in this scenario, however, was the dumb naming conventions. Whenever anyone writes a scenario, they seem to feel a need to pepper it with little in-jokes. Please, don't...characters called Joan Carpenter and Stephanie King aren't clever - they're fucking moronic and kill the atmosphere.

Some of the scenarios featured in this compilation are either light on Mythos creations, or feature no Mythos monsters at all. Personally, I think this is excellent. The scary becomes mundane when it's encountered too often, and Call of Cthulhu certainly seems to suffer from this at times. Once the players are expecting a Shoggoth or Mi-Go or Deep Ones or whatever, then throw them a curve ball and have them run into a vampire, or (even better) a genuine nut-job with no real grasp of the supernatural.

As mentioned earlier, though...there's a wealth of material available for free for Call of Cthulhu. So, is this book worth buying? The answer is a solid yes, but only really as a result of the last two scenarios in the bundle.

"The Dig" by Brian M. Sammons is a huge, sprawling adventure taking in extra-dimensional interlopers, crytozoology and, bizarrely for Call of Cthulhu, some nice combat set pieces. A bunch of students from Miskatonic University head off into the woods for a dig, to discovers some ruins and what-not; the real strength of this scenario isn't in the plot - it's in the characters. There are seventeen characters statted out - and even more who aren't. I can see this game being a nightmare to keep track of for the Keeper, but definitely worth it, as this one looks like it could offer a game quite unlike any other.

The final scenario, "The Burning Stars", whilst relatively simple and reasonably short, compared to some of the scenarios, may actually be the most inspired and imaginative scenario I have ever come across - not just for Call of Cthulhu, but for any system. I can't mention too much here for fear of giving any spoilers, but the plot involves amnesia, voodoo and a trip to Haiti. In addition to the incredible nature of the narrative, the source material here is very in-depth, and so inspiring I wanted to run off and write a campaign set in Haiti!

All in all...what do I think? I think this book has a few minor stumbles, but when these scenarios are good, they're mind-blowing. Ladies, Gentlemen...I think Call of Cthulhu is open for business once more. - 8/10

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