To preface this one, this campaign for Call of Cthulhu is currently out of print and only available from collectors through the various means, Amazon, ebay, and any shops where gaming collectables may have a copy or two tucked away.
I wrap up the current ‘nostalgia’ riff with this full campaign for the game that was released in 1990. This campaign has a bit of a tarnished reputation and I have to concede that at least some of it is deserved. I will, however, also state that there are gems to be found here, and I will break down the good, the bad, the mixed, and I will go over what I feel can be brought out of this campaign.
Like the other ‘modern’ scenarios from this time frame, it feels strangely dated in a way that the scenarios set in the ‘Classic Lovecraft’ decades doesn’t. Also like the other ‘modern’ scenarios, it can be updated with some effort, and in my opinion, there is quite a bit that can be brought forward, though I will concede large parts of this campaign would end up unrecognizable with the work I would tend to perform on it at this time.
Quick overview, the scenario is brought into a conflict between a rabid conservation organization, and a biotechnical company that is gaining access to secrets that are purely from the Mythos. As the story progresses, the party finds themselves digging deeply into secrets on both sides, and eventually find themselves caught in a crossfire as the two organizations that have resolved their differences to a point, and the party has become largely superfluous. En route, they find themselves at odds with a few nasty predatorial monsters, a victim of inhuman experimentation who is rapidly becoming a monster as well, and a natural disaster that proves to not be so natural. The scenario is largely set in the fictitious city of Samson, California, which connects it to the scenario “Nemo Solus Sapit” from “The Stars are Right”
Opening Scenario: Full Wilderness
A missing scientist who was turning whistleblower is one of the things that pulls the investigators into the campaign, hired by an organization devoted to ecological awareness, named Full Wilderness. The fact that this organization has a deeper agenda is something that may not come out in the course of play, but it is present to be uncovered, and the simple fact that from the beginning, the player’s employer is not a simple heroic force forms part of the backdrop, even if this only comes as a shocking revelation further down the road.
In the process of the initial assignments for Full Wildernes, the party gains clues on the missing man, and a bizarre creature, believed to be the result of unethical (if not illegal) experimentation by a biotechnical/chemical firm is to be escorted from one location to another. This transportation is interfered with by a biker gang (who may or may not be discovered to be the gang “God’s Lost Children”, a callback to the rock band of the same name from “the Evil Stars” scenario in Cthulhu Now. What the creature turns out to be may not be uncovered by the investigators, though experienced players may decipher its nature and origin.
Assorted clues in the scenario lead the players on the trail of the missing scientist, and one of the first logical steps is a farm that the scientist rented briefly. This leads directly to the next scenario.
This scenario is not in and of itself bad, but it is setting the stage, and to be honest a Keeper can use most of this information to go in a lot of other directions,
Second Scenario: Landscrapes.
A scenario that was imported into the campaign, tweaked to fit into it, and based in part of the writings of T. E. D. Klein, this is the most self-contained of the campaign and also my favorite single scenario in it. Tracking down the rented farm leads the party first to the owner, a rather unsavory sort with secrets of his own, and a bit of madness about him. We have a ‘mad scientist on a budget’ who has a current project, and left a project behind him, which proved a major problem to our missing scientist target.
How much of the landowner’s present situation the players get involved in is open for the Keeper to play with or not, and is to me fairly irrelevant to the rest of the scenario, let alone the campaign, but could be amusing to bring in or at least to leave a taunting unknown.
The farm leaves us a few more clues for our missing scientist’s trail, but presents a mystery of its own. The landowner’s abandoned project is a monster that has infested the farm itself, the local flora and fauna, as well as at least one human victim, become an ongoing concern and threat for the party to deal with.
The monster here is creative, creepy, and the players find themselves quickly involved in a struggle for survival and containment of this potential threat. As I’ve said, I like this scenario a lot, and frankly have very little trouble with the idea of minimal tweaking it and incorporating it into any campaign.
There is one minor element I find a bit annoying, but this is hardly the first place it’s happened, and to be honest, I don’t always have a problem with it. Acting as a background character, one of our favorite ‘Big nasty guys’, Nyarlathotep (one of the ones most likely to act on human affairs in an indirect but still actively interested role), has coordinated the now missing scientist to rent this particular property, using an alias and basically being unreachable. He also used an anagram of Nyarlathotep for this appearance. I tend to find the anagrams a bit annoying with one exception, the saxophonist “the Royal Pant”, who actually does show up later in this campaign. The Royal Pant is the one anagram manifestation I find okay, I find it being done more often makes it not only less effective, but a bit irritating, and predictable (“oh, a mysterious person whose name is a bit nonsensical with an n, a y, and two t’s?’ I hear the players mutter. “wonder who that could be?’)
Third Scenario: Dawn Biozyme
The mysterious biotech company that the whistleblower was gathering information on is the focus of this scenario, and this scenario covers the party’s investigation of the company and its secrets. The primary villain of the piece is a man named Dr. Finley, who has no idea of the dark nature of the secret he is working with. Summoning Shub Niggurath, but only perceiving it as an extradimensional entity that has excretions with properties he sees as having immense value and potential.
Leaving the magic vs. physics discussion aside, Finley has no real belief in the magic side of it, and the fact that they may be related in a way is of no interest to him. His wife, however, has become quite enthralled with the Tcho Tcho culture, which brings up a point I will cover shortly.
This scenario is something of a framework, with a tough security, a vague set of goals, but it does cover the bulk of the likely range of player actions, with high risks in most of them, but considerable information uncovered.
I have to admit I’m somewhat indifferent to most of this scenario, though if you wish to play the campaign as written, it is a major point to deal with and a logical source of information and action.
This is the first part of the Tcho Tcho involvement in this campaign, and has been criticized by some for making a somewhat racist presentation, comparing the Tcho Tchos as refugees to the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugee influx of the Seventies and Eighties. While at first glance, this is a valid comparison, this actually forms a good foundation for the Tcho Tchos in ‘western civilization’ as a campaign element.
The Tcho Tcho are not fully human, this is established, and their culture lessens that connection. While there is in the “Lovecraft canon” a placement of the Tcho Tchos in the Plateau of Leng, which is presumed by most to be located in the Dreamlands, there are also places where the Tcho Tcho have made incursions into various locations, and taking on some of the characteristics of the humans of the regions they are expanding into (Spawn of Azathoth as a prime example). So, having extrapolated that, is it unreasonable to postulate that the Tcho Tcho, seeing the way that refugees from the Southeastern Asian region were welcomed (even if not wholeheartedly) in the West, opted to present themselves in the same manner, and while knowing they would not find any warmer welcome if they were honest about what they were, using their insular culture to try to protect their secrets while they spread their presence among an unsuspecting populace? (Apologies for the convoluted sentence). If you cannot accept this postulate, then the politically incorrect accusation stands with some merit.
Scenario Four: No Pain, No Gain.
Usually, when people deride this campaign, this becomes the focal point of the criticism, and justly so, for the most part. Can it be salvaged? Possibly, but to be honest, I am unsure if it is worth the trouble for the most part, though we do have an interesting ‘creature’ in this one.
Clues from the missing scientist and from Dawn Biozyme can lead to another person who has dropped off the map, so to speak, another person who worked at Dawn Biozyme, then vanished. Researching into this woman’s story reveals an interest in bodybuilding, and her changing into something other than human gradually, first playing into her avocation of bodybuilding, until she changed to a point where she was unable to continue competing as a bodybuilder. The fact that she was trying a substance that makes steroids seem like caffeine supplements (and its ultimate source), brings us into CoC territory, particularly when the party finds her, sequestered in a cave where she has grown into a full scale giantess, with additional limbs on the verge of sprouting.
As written the party becomes captives of her and her similarly altered pet, a dog that is now larger than a dog and capable of speech, and the time scale of the campaign goes askew as the party has to endure prolonged captivity with this entity, something that is herself equal parts victim and monster, and who in her madness will try to keep the players her captives in accord with her conflicting emotions and thoughts.
The idea of the players being kept for a prolonged period has an appeal, forcing players to drop the mentality of ‘hit and run’ scenario play. Jenny (the giantess) is an interesting creature, and a complex character, but I am, even now, unsure if this is the best presentation for her as a villain/victim. The dog seriously doesn’t help matters, and the scenario creeps into territory where it is hard to take seriously if not impossible.
The lead in to finding her was good, Jenny is an interesting monster, but in the end, this scenario is more of a ‘pass’ than ‘play’ in my book.
Scenario Five: Where a God Shall Tread
There are a few ways for players to end up in this campaign, but most of them are a bit tenuous, and this scenario, while pivotal, is hard to tie in directly if left as written. Set in Toronto, the party finds themselves caught between a serial killer who is a shape shifting Mythos monster, and the enigmatic Mr. Shiny (who is himself inspired by the wonderful Michael Shea story ‘Fat Face’), the players find themselves in a deadly game of corporate sabotage, a ‘frozen’ Great Old One (RhanTegoth) in a museum as a bit of a backdrop,, and the recurrence of the Tcho Tcho elements. This scenario has many places and means for the party to trip themselves up, but also means to start putting the pieces together of the campaign’s themse.
Having said that, the scenario is still a bit disjointed, and some of it seems unnecessary to the campaign as such. The addition of the serial killer, and his secret is at least a bit unneeded, however well it is put into the campaign. The relocation to Toronto seems equally arbitrary, there is no solid reason for the campaign to have relocated to another city, except to distance the players from the support network they may have established up to this point, and to allow for the players’ employer (Full Wilderness) to have made its bizarre peace with Dawn Biozyme, and the forces behind it.
Toronto as the specific location seems equally arbitrary but is acceptable.
Up to this point, I have avoided mentioning one of the other critiques thrown at this campaign, in part because it seems rare for any campaign not to have this to a point, usually referred to as ‘creature of the week’. The addition of monsters, and seeking to add new and different monsters each time the setting changes. Now, almost every campaign will do this, and sometimes it is hard to not make the transition feel or look arbitrary. It takes work to avoid this feeling, and At Your Door is not as good at this work as many campaigns. Part of the reason I bring this up at this point is that the critique has some validity, and this scenario intensified the feeling. The scenarios often link together tenuously, leaving a disjointed feeling to the campaign, and in this scenario it starts to come to a head. But it goes over the top with the conclusion, which is a problem, because the last scenario also has a lot of the best potential in the campaign.
Scenario Six: After the Big One
What can you say about a scenario that begins with a massive earthquake, and throws the party into trying to cope with the aftermath, particularly when the scenario’s developments brings all the other matters of the campaign to a head?
Returning to Samson just in time to be caught up in the quake, the party finds themselves trying to simply survive among the less than adequate emergency responses and communicate with their employers, most likely unknowing that their employers are no longer allies. Gradually learning that the earthquake was no accident, and caused by entities far removed from humanity, finding surviving villains from various parts of the campaign up to this point, and uncovering a conspiracy to use the survivors of the quake and the wreckage left behind as a refuge for Rhan Tegoth (they have plans to fully revive that entity by this point), the players have to try to head off a climactic meeting that boils down to a huge battleground if the meeting is allowed to happen, and preventing it from happening is at best problematic.
I have commented, in this blog and the Keeper’s blog, that certain monsters kind of put me at arm’s length when they show up in a scenario because of their extreme difficulty in being beaten, that they should almost never be presented in a combat situation. This scenario has three different types of this kind of creature, notably Chthonians, shoggoths, and Dark Young. Two (and a half) of these kind showing up in that climactic meeting, along with human cultists. This is, to me, overkill, flat out, and a party has to be almost preternaturally ahead of the ‘game’ to be able to get through this intact.
The intermittent presence of The Royal Pant in this section I find intriguing, as his presence here is less as a foil than as Lear’s Fool to the villains of the piece, content to let the players act as a fly in the ointment, accentuating his known tendency to be contemptuous of his Masters’ goals and schemes, even as he advances them.
The final battle is a bit much however it is played out, to my taste, and is at best problematic.
However, there are aspects of the ‘life in the ruined city’ section of the campaign that I find quite good.
The missing scientist from the beginning of the campaign is finally found, but ultimately the trail that led to him proves far more significant than he himself, by this point. Some of the potential allies for the players are a mixed bag, and at least one organization strikes me as bit nonsensical, but not in a way that I have to cite as useless, just something I would tweak if I were to try to run this one again.
I ran this campaign pretty much as written back in the early 90’s, and I did everything in my power to get the players informed enough to try to circumvent the final conflict. While there were survivors, I can’t say that they won that final scenario, though.
So…ultimately, there are some great elements to pull out of the campaign, and incorporate into your own, at least one scenario viable on its own, a few very nice villains, a good idea setting or two… I can’t say this was the high point of Chaosium’s run, and I often have suspected that the reaction to this one was one of the reasons that Chaosium didn’t do more with modern scenarios at that point in their history.