I had originally planned on going into the Monographs with the first of the Halloween Horror series, and going from there. However, I have opted to go in a slightly different direction. The Chaosium Monographs are an interesting phenomenon, an opportunity for projects to get a somewhat limited release, allowing a wider audience to function as reviewer and test players. Some have become quite successful as monographs, and a few have advanced to a ‘full release’ which usually involves tighter editing, a bit of a rewrite, some expansion, artwork stepping up, and the like.
I will concede that I have had a ‘hit or miss’ run with the Monographs, but the hits are amazing peaks, and the misses are rarely deep trenches, more often valleys. And I have become a bit voracious, having gathered a good number of the Monographs and planning on continuing to gather them. I review this one first because it is the first Monograph I purchased, my introduction to them overall.
The Halloween Horror series are a contest that Chaosium has run, compilations of scenarios for the Call of Cthulhu game set on or around Halloween, generally released shortly before Halloween. The first, simply titled Halloween Horror contained three scenarios, but each volume since has had more. This one, the fifth in the (so far) ongoing series, stands out to me because it set the stage for me in how I would find things that filled the spectrum of gaming styles, and I readily admit that even the misses for me are well-written scenarios. Without further ado…
First Scenario: Flesh Festival
This scenario involves a travelling carnival that is an active albeit small cult, performing human sacrifices to their objects of worship, picking their victims from among other transients, lower social classes, people they generally think either won’t be missed or connected to the carnival.
This is a good and well-structured scenario, with villains that are a serious challenge without being an overwhelming one. A missing persons case, a few clues, a tight schedule to resolve the investigation. I can’t really go into depth on it because it’s not presented as a deep scenario, these villains should be confronted quickly and dealt with the same. It can be expanded on and these can be made more of an ongoing cast of bad guys, but there is a straightforward mystery to be solved and resolved if you wish it to be, making it a good scenario to drop into a campaign.
Like many of the scenarios, it can be shifted away from Halloween without suffering unduly, but it serves as a great scenario, and one of the few written scenarios I’ve ever encountered that can be dropped into a campaign with almost no alteration.
Second Scenario: You Are What You Eat
This scenario intrigues me on several layers, as depending on which options suggested are dropped into the play of this scenario (particularly if worked into campaign play), can make players walk out of it at the end with a feeling of moral compromise, even if they win completely.
Designed to be sprang on the party as a surprise between scenarios, even to the point of the party being on the road and pretty much tripping over it. A roadside café late at night, (suggested as a place the players may have encountered in one way or another in the past, including possibly using the owner’s home as a hideout in ‘less legal circumstances’ in the past.) the investigators stop in and find hints that there is more afoot than at first seems, a missing person in the diner who it turns out needs rescue from these people who had been something of an ally in the past.
They prove to be cultists and cannibals themselves, and the missing person is a combination of sacrifice and menu item. Minor followers are a potential complication but the game throws its biggest curve when the cultists prove to be victims themselves, having been ignorant of another force that had been feeding off of their sacrifices, other than the nightgaunts they had been worshipping. I have at least minor issues with this aspect, the coincidence of their site being where another force could exploit their efforts, though this can be rationalized to a point (ley lines, points of power, something along those general lines).
The destruction of a small cult, the monsters that they inadvertently awakened, the potential addition of an npc ally if the investigators rescue her in time, all make for a fun scenario. If you work it in the past, the investigators may feel like their moral compass has been compromised, particularly if they ate there in the past and now have to wonder what has been on the menu back then.
A fun scenario, may need a little tweaking to meet your personal tastes, but a good one to spring on players.
Third Scenario: Faculty Party
This is a surprisingly fun scenario in spite of being damn near impossible to survive as written. It involves a cultist exploiting a relationship to try to gain a position on the faculty at Miskatonic (sounds like at least some of the cults have figured out where some of the investigators are gaining knowledge if not members of their own ranks).
The scenario begins with the suicide of a faculty member at a halloween party in one of the buildings. The victim had been seduced and set up to become a snack for a Hound of Tindalos (a tricky creature in any scenario. ) The summoning of a shoggoth turns this into a deathdrap, and a party has to be careful and a little lucky to get through it in one piece.
I’ve made no secret of my feelings about the overuse of shoggoths in scenarios and with another one showing up here, I admit that when I’ve ran it, I’ve altered a lot of this scenario including the presence of shoggy. But the overall structure makes for a good roleplaying experience and I still keep this one in high regard.
Fourth Scenario: Return of the Magician
This one is a wonderful scenario, well written, a nice investigation, with a red herring that the players can easily let themselves get distracted by (and wind up a quarter of the world in the wrong direction in the process)
Half of the estate of a magician is to an extent up for grabs as a challenge had been presented to summon the spirit of said magician, and the widow is facing a challenger just shy of the deadline. She seeks the investigator’s help to try to debunk this challenger, a former assistant to the deceased magician.
Of course, in this game, not all is at it seems at first, and the actual assistant is living in relative seclusion in Morocco. There are secrets in the past, the death of the magician’s son, the reasons behind the magician’s own death, and the mysterious force behind the son’s death, which is behind the assistant’s imposter.
A mythos creature called ‘the worm that walks’ is the force behind the current situation, and it has settled on the widow as its current prey, being behind the son’s death some time before. The players have a very short time to unravel as many of the secrets as they can in order to understand what’s going on. The extent they learn these secrets of monsters, infidelity and suicide will impact their success or failure in this. If played ‘in period’ as written, the Morrocan sequence can be an entertaining diversion, which actually can give a lot of the scenario’s backstory, so I have to concede that calling it a red herring may be a misnomer, but the party can resolve the problem without going there.
I really like this scenario, and I’ve enjoyed running it twice so far, with it building up both times to a last minute showdown that challenged everyone.
Fifth Scenario: Halloween Nuit
This is the first flat out miss for my tastes, but it’s well done and it may suit other Keepers just fine. Treasures of an Egyptian mummy have been appropriated, and it animates itself and some allies to seek revenge and its missing items. This is occurring on a college campus and the mummy ends up crashing costume parties as it does its work.
We see a different side of Miskatonic University in this scenario, the excesses of collegiate youth innocent of the dangers lurking about. In effect, we have something of a mummy movie going on. I can’t really get into this one, and it isn’t the lack of a hard Mythos connection.
It’s a good scenario if you can get into the concept, and it has a bit of a feel of a “Blood Brothers” scenario (which I will elaborate on that distinction when I get to the first volume of those books), but ultimately with a monster wandering undetected in a costume party environment I was not able to buy into it enough to consider running this one.
Sixth Scenario: Must the Show Go on?
Another great scenario, this time dealing with Hastur and the Unspeakable Promise, with a stage magician having made the promise and hoping to cheat the Promise, with somewhat disastrous consequences.
This magician had become involved with a cult of Tcho-Tcho worshippers, who pushed this man’s sanity o the breaking point, and to teach him the Unspeakable Promise. Following through to some extent, he performs the last part of his ritual as a bit of his stage show, having set his assistant up to recite the last parts of the ritual and become the one receiving the price tag of the Promise.
Mayhem results, and the assistant gradually becomes an Unspeakable Possessor. The investigators eventually become part of what horror fans tend to refer to as a ‘bug hunt’ nowadays. The magician may be of some use, but his mind has gone and there is limited use of him in the time left.
And speaking of time, this is a scenario where delay has huge consequences as the Possessor grows more difficult to deal with over time. A very good scenario with a ticking clock, and a sense of urgency, even if it does end up as said bug hunt (and there’s nothing wrong with an occasional bug hunt in Call of Cthulhu).
Seventh Scenario: The Dead School
This Monograph concludes with this scenario, another that I consider a miss. It’s a one shot. The concept is well handled, and it’s a good read, it would be a good scenario for the type of Keeper and players who can relate to and enjoy it, just not my cup of tea.
The player characters are students who were subjected to a detention in an exclusive school, and miss a mass sacrifice of the students that was sprung on the student body by the Principal of the school, who led a small group to perform this horrific ritual in a bid for eternity, not knowing that the ritual was actually a trap.
The players end up in a realm of the dead and are given a small chance of finding their way back to the realm of the living by basically running a gauntlet of dead, making a tentative deal with the ruler of this realm, an avatar of Nyarlathotep named Baron Samedi (an extrapolation of the loa of voodoo by the same name). The pattern of events is fairly linear, the players pitted against the ‘survivors’ of the group who cast the spell, and the deal with Samedi is, as with most bargains with a Mythos entity, one sided and less of a bargain than it seems.
If everything goes right, the scenario ends with the survivors of the scenario to this point returned to life, but only as the sole survivors of the massacre and being surrounded by police with an implication that the survivors are the prime suspects in the slaughter.
I can accept a bleak ending in a scenario (in a one shot more readily than a campaign scenario), but while I acknowledge the skill of the writing of the scenario, it just doesn’t resonate for me personally. I have a fondness for Baron Samedi, so I found this scenario particularly frustrating.