Tales of the Crescent City (spoilers avoided)

First off, this is one of the few times I will be reviewing an entire product, including parts not relating directly to the scenarios. This is because this volume is a brand new product, literally just a few days into release for those who signed up for the Kickstarter at a pdf level. I will be going into the layout, the art, the non scenario sections, this is a full product review. Also, since this is so new, I will be endeavoring to avoid any spoilers. There will be at least a hint of them, this is unavoidable in reviews, but I will work hard to avoid them in this instance. I am also using this opportunity to test my ability to avoid spoilers and still give a fair review. I had been toning it down last few, a bit, and still trying to fine tune the ‘spoiler light’ aspect.

This book, for those who have not heard of it yet, is a compilation of scenarios, all but one new to the book, set in New Orleans in the 20’s, the classic setting period for Call of Cthulhu.   The one scenario that isn’t new is a reworked scenario, updated by the original author. (and I assure you, it is a welcome thing, will go into it more when I get to the scenario).

The book has a great look, a red leather look to the cover’s background, a color image on the front cover that is a montage of imagery that comes up through the book, hinting at what awaits. If I were to make any negative comment about that it would be that it seems to be a busy environment, but it is a montage, and a good one, the coloring is viable, not overdone, and it gives a welcome pulp magazine feel to the cover imagery. The layout of the cover is sharp and elegant. The back cover has a similarly elegant look, nice layout, when you get your hard copy, this is one of the covers that is good enough you won’t mind it being ‘front visible displayed.’

Page layouts are sharp, well presented, the art always close to the text it reflects, sibebars of relevant information to the topics in slightly grayed boxes on the outer edges of the pages, but never contrasted so sharply that it’s hard to read.

The art is good, quality art, relevant to the stories, crisp imagery, even in the pages where we have a lightly grayed image for a background type image. Because of the nature of some of the imagery, I don’t think the word ‘tasteful’ is the right one to use, but the imagery never feels gratuitous, and stands out in quality, consistently good work by Reuben Dodd.

Photographs sprinkle the book as well, if not actual period photographs (which most of them seem to be), appropriate to period images, and they are always placed to compliment the text they are near. While space is taken, it never feels wasted in this book.

The scenario aids are presented in the relevant sections of the book, at the point where they are appropriate to occur in the scenario as written, and in the case of handwritten text it is reproduced in typeface in the scenario’s body. The scenario aids section at the back includes all of this gathered appropriate for printing or other reasonable reproduction, including material that is as helpful to the Keeper overall as it is to the players.

Immediately following the basic backers acknowledgement page are a gathering of portraits of the upper tier backers, appropriate to use them as npc portraits. I do hope these images remain in the non-backer release, I can’t see them not being included, they are wonderful, and makes me wish I could have afforded to hit that level.

Before the scenarios, we are given quick glances of the backdrop for the city, a one page ‘hint sheet’ to remind of the culture of the era, and some rudimentary points of how New Orleans has, and always has had, variations in its culture from pretty much anywhere else. After this one page, we get a somewhat more involved breakdown in how New Orleans is laid out and a quick summary of the environment. It focuses on the era, but it presents the city in a way that makes sense and is very welcome and a fascinating ‘quick guide.’ This, the Investigator’s Guide to 1920’s New Orleans, gives you a nice feel for the city as a background. (having said this, I will still recommend picking up Secrets of New Orleans if you can find it for any Keeper wanting to use it as a setting, but you can easily find the Secrets book supplementing this one as much as the other way around.)

Next, we get a nice article by Kevin Ross giving us background and presentation of one of the prime NPC’s for New Orleans from the writings of HPL himself. Well, from the Randolph Carter stories, some of which were collaborations where I did feel that he was collaborating more than ghost writing. Etienne-Laurent De Marigny is presented in a way that Keepers can use him as an ally, a scenario source, a font of knowledge, and possibly as the cavalry if the party is in extremis.

The last thing that comes up is a few notes about the play “the King in Yellow” in another article by Kevin Ross, a slightly in depth summary of what is known and consistent about the play, and hints about what isn’t. This is a very logical thing, since it does relate to at least two scenarios in the book, and New Orleans is a logical place for the play to show up, since its original (and theoretically lost) version is in French, and its limited release is in English, making New Orleans very apropos in many ways.

I am trying to be objective here, but I think we can see that I like this book.

Now the scenarios begin.

First Scenario: Tell me Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?

We begin with the revamped scenario, re-edited from its original appearance in Chaosium’s ‘the Great Old Ones’

The death of a reporter during his digging into a story leads the party into a nice adventure set against the carnival atmosphere of the Mardi Gras season. The title of the scenario lets you know that Hastur is involved to some extent.

A man who had been lost in grief is recovering, he believes, under the guidance of a Voodoo priest. Most others consider the priest a con man, but there is much more involved. Part of his efforts to rejoin society, under this guidance, includes helping a group prepare a float for the parade (a nice summary of the krewes behind this is part of the scenario).

The scenario ties into Legrasse’s adventures in the Lovecraft story “Call of Cthulhu”, using that as backstory, and the party’s investigation leads them to a confrontation with the ‘Voodoo priest’s’ schemes, and there is no single ‘best approach’ to beat this scenario. From relatively quiet investigation in New Orleans, a confrontation in the swamp, a possible encounter that can lead to Carcosa itself, and a climactic confrontation at a Masque, including a confrontation of a different sort (the players will be up against a hard conflict if it gets to that point).

The course of events is essentially the same as from its original appearance, but fleshed out better, with the investigative phase having more detail, with more npc’s to deal with, a better feeling of backstory. The threats feel more wicked as well, though a casual read doesn’t see a significant altering to their level. There is an overall more organic feel to it. It’s an upgrade not a complete rewrite. An excellent scenario in either place, but here it feels more complete.

Having said that, there are a couple of possible resolutions to the scenario, if the party is unable to stop the plans of the villains before fruition. One of these is very combat heavy and the party may have trouble surviving it. The other is a bit surreal and has an anticlimactic feel at the moment, but sets the stage for a campaign changing feel. I remember when I first read the scenario that the surreal non-combat ending lingered with me more and puzzled me, but at the same time, in retrospect, and in reading it now, it sets the stage nicely to make continued gameplay in a New Orleans very intriguing. Players may end up confused if this ending plays out, though, have a feeling of anticlimax, so when the impact of it starts to play out, a keeper should help them realize that the changes in the game world are connected.

Second Scenario: Bloodlines

Family secrets lurk in this scenario, secrets buried so well that the family doesn’t even know them. The players get manipulated pretty wickedly in this scenario to get involved. We do start with something frequent in a scenario, the death of an npc who leaves us clues into something that leads us deeper into the story. This npc was doing some research at the behest of a third party, and this person essentially browbeats the party into picking up the task to protect the livelihood of a relative of the deceased npc. A family’s history and secrets must be uncovered, and since we are in CoC, the secrets are dark and dangerous.

The feeling of genteel families in decay, Louisiana swamps, the wildlife of said swamps, all if this permeates the scenario to great effect. There are sympathetic characters, there is a somewhat dastardly person who has some influence on the investigators, and the more the party learns, the more they have to question the right and best course of action. The drawback that they may have to make a decision without a complete understanding of what they’re dealing with may be less of a hindrance than in other scenarios.

This scenario has something in common with scenarios in the previous Golden Goblin Press book, Island of Ignorance, where you are given a great scenario with a moral ambiguity and potentially tough decisions for the player characters to make. Defining who the good guys are…is easy, it’s the investigators. The rest, deciding who the bad guy you want to favor and who you want to struggle against, that’s a tougher call. But as with scenarios from that other volume, sometimes the worst monsters are totally human, and the most right thing to do is not the easy choice.

There are a few different possible outcomes to this scenario, and the players’ actions lead to them naturally, but there are bits that the players will be unable to change, once the final paths come around.

If I were to have any negatives to say about this scenario it would hinge on the ‘rewards vs penalties’ portion, but I don’t see this as a negative. Given the complex moral compass of the story they’re dealing with, I think this is presented right, but you will have some players questioning it. But a good keeper will stand firm on this one, I think, the final numbers are more than justified in the way it plays out.

I have heard one who has an issue with a Great Old One who is cited in this scenario, and is a distant influence on the story, an entity that was introduced into the Mythos by Robert Bloch as I recall, an entity taken from a historic belief system. I will concede this entity isn’t high on my list, but is so far in the background that it can be pretty much ignored if it’s a problem for a Keeper.

Third Scenario: Needles

This one is intriguing, it is a short read, a good scenario, more clearly defined foes in the sense of you know who your foes are. But figuring out WHAT they are becomes the trick here, and the players are given a challenging foe and his allies while they try to protect an innocent and defeat the bad guys. This one is a lot of fun to read, I think the combats in this one are fairly unavoidable, but if the players do their research it will give them their best chance at victory. Short review, but this is a pretty straightforward scenario.

The threat is hard to get all the needed info to solve, but not unreasonably so. Some of the info is hidden in the class and racial tensions of New Orleans in the era, and can be harder to uncover depending on the characters and the group’s composition.

This scenario uses a technique I have commented on to some length in my keeper’s blog, to a point. Take an established Mythos creature, present it in such a way that it is harder to identify or easy to misidentify and let the players find out the deeper darker truths.

I think that a well prepared party can take this one on, but has to be fairly rounded in playing style to really have a chance to win, here.

Fourth Scenario: The Quickening Spiral

This scenario deals with an epidemic spreading through New Orleans, with horrible effects and at least one of the investigators catching the illness. But since it is a CoC scenario, it isn’t that simple (You knew it wouldn’t be), and the players are racing against time to find a cure of one kind or another.

A tale of misguided vengeance, of a spell cast in ignorance, of repercussions unexpected, as written the scenario is strongly set in the time and location. There are innocents caught in the crossfire, and the player characters are their best hope.

I think this is an amazing scenario, it has a distinct possibility of the players to miss important hints if they don’t pay attention (and at the least remember that they’re in Call of Cthulhu). The final confrontation is one the players would find a major challenge if they don’t prepare well, to be honest, even if they do prepare well.

Fifth Scenario: Song and Dance.

This scenario brings in a metaphysical element that I’m not completely thrilled about overall, but it does it in such a way that I really enjoyed it and found it acceptable. If the players push matters, I may rationalize it with some elaborate footwork, but to be honest that part of it, I suspect is less likely to come up from any others, just an issue of mine. Having said that, I have to say it is a great scenario with a strong villain, a good concept, and an eerie feeling that poured out from the first sentence to the last line.

Dilettantes with more power than judgment, a spell with repercussions that spread worldwide, and while the first part of it is not Mythos per se, the impact of it rivals any scenario’s opening for horror, and when the true villain of the piece, one of the Big Nasties in the game that takes an active interest in humanity (No I’m not going to name names), things go to a new form of hell quickly.

The odds of the party getting through this without some mortality is small, but the game is almost guaranteed to be a fun ride. And you meet some characters who can become amazing allies down the road (I think it would be better to keep them as such, however, and not let them become ‘replacement pcs’, though some of them may have some employees to replace the fallen….)

Again, while I like the scenario to some extent, something of a different mythos is called in, and to make the scenario work, for me, I would have to make a bit of a metaphysical leap.

Sixth Scenario: Five Lights at the Crossroads

In this scenario, a mysterious death leads the party into a strange scenario where a person’s selfish drive for self-healing has initiated a course of events that lead to more deaths and lead to the summoning of one of the Big Bad Ones, a scenario where an amateur trying to cast what he thinks is just a special Voodoo summoning is tapping into far different powers than he believes, and the consequences are, naturally, far from what he expects.  

This scenario seems to me to be extremely hard to solve, the clues are light and vague, the amount of information has so few sources they are easy to completely miss. In addition, the probability of the players to be able to prevent the outcome are very slim. The scenario feels more than just linear because of this, it borders on being players are part of a narrative instead of an interactive scenario. Having said this, I want to like this one, and I would feel a need to do some major tweaking to make it more ‘solvable’.

The scenario includes a magic item from traditional magics, empowered in this scenario with some amazing attributes that make it a serious challenge for players to deal with a villain using it. The item in question is a bit grisly, and while it makes a villain very tough to defeat (a nice and wicked touch to gameplay), I would worry about it being something that may be a bit too powerful if the players were inspired to keep it for their own use (at the very least I would make it a limited use item).

Seventh Scenario: Asylum—the Return of the Yellow Sign.

A scenario that is presented as at least an indirect sequel to Tell me Have you Seen the Yellow Sign goes back into the mysteries surrounding the play The King in Yellow. We are given to understand that the play is, even with its contradictory interpretations and content, a piece of historical fiction, and in a strange way, history is determined to repeat itself.

A fugitive from the play’s original source is living in hiding in New Orleans. This doesn’t sit well, and he is being hunted by one of the focal points of the play. The presence of the two together in the city begin to push matters to a point where the city becomes somewhat surreal.

This scenario is deadly but fun, and like a few of the others in this collection, the moral compass is somewhat subjective. The player characters decide who to favor and can have a major impact on the course of the game. It may not be a scenario for everyone, but it is a very good one, and stands very well as one of two scenarios in this book that can be used as a climax for a campaign. Unlike the other one, this one can also function as the opening of another, depending on how it plays out.

Overview of the work on the whole:

I have to admit I had trouble being completely objective, I like this book on just about every level. Very few scenarios need much tweaking for me to want to run them as a Keeper. I have issues with some of the concepts of a few of them, but nothing that would keep me from being willing to run them, just may have to tinker with. The presentation is good in every sense. There are only a few typos, no misspelled words, just a few things that got past spell check by being other legit words, I can only think of maybe three in the entire book, not bad for almost two hundred pages. And to be honest, those typos are the only thing I really saw wrong. I actually began to be upset as I got closer to the end because it was almost over. This is something that happens with the best scenario compilations for me, much like a very good book or film. I recommend this wholeheartedly. The New Orleans feel is strong enough that if you wanted to transplant any of these scenarios to a different setting (and to a lesser extent, a different era), you would likely have to make some major alterations, the setting is very much a part of them.

A definite winner.

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