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Wow. What can be said about Masks of Nyarlathotep that hasn’t been said before. It’s one of the longest published adventures of all time, regardless of systems. It’s one of the most famous adventures of all time. Having won many awards and is often cited as one of, if not THE best adventures of all time. As a long time Call of Cthulhu fan, it may surprise you to learn my first exposure with Masks wasn’t until the third edition, otherwise known as The COMPLETE Masks of Nyarlathotep as the Australian chapter was excised from the campaign since it was crazy long already and placed into Terror Australis: Cthulhu Down Under. Despite my love of Call of Cthulhu, I only ever picked up one boxed adventure and that was Horror on the Orient Express, which still remains my favorite Call of Cthulhu product of all time and it vexes me that it’s not in PDF. Maybe someday…
I love the third printing of Masks of Nyarlathotep, but it’s been out of print for wow…at least a decade now, so it’s wonderful to have it back in print and in PDF format. Let me start by saying I’m exceptionally pleased with the price tag. In the mid 1990s, this thing went for $40 for the printed version, so with time and inflation being considered, paying less than twenty dollars for this Fourth Edition is such an insane deal that every Call of Cthulhu gamer should be thrusting money towards Chaosium, begging for them to take it. Masks of Nyarlathotep is that good. It’s also THAT LONG. Masks of Nyarlathotep is a massive undertaking. It covers an entire year of in game time, which each of the six sections taking multiple play sessions to get through. If you game once or twice a week with your friends, expect to be playing this adventure for months if not a full year yourself! It’s an awesome experience, but for people who can’t make the time commitment to the campaign, you might be better off just reading the adventure and enjoying it that way instead.
Two other quick words of advice on actually running Masks of Nyarlathotep. The first is that the Keeper should make a lot of the random based rolls ahead of time to streamline things and keep the game moving. This is a long undertaking after all, so if you have everything prepared ahead of time, you won’t have to stop in the middle of a gripping scene and roll to see how many cultists there are, or how many people hear the Investigators breaking and entering. The other piece of advice would be to make sure players realize their original characters will probably not survive the full campaign. There is a LOT of PC death in this, so make sure they are prepared for back-ups based on the location where the PCs currently are in-game. Masks of Nyarlathotep involves a lot of globe-trotting so if a character dies in say, Shanghai, it doesn’t make all that sense to replace him with a Samoan cricket player. I remember one time, I actually had a player sacrifice his beloved character, so he could make someone new with a few particular skills they knew they would need to properly proceed. A bit too meta for my liking, but you’ll see things like this happen in order for the team as a whole (and the world) to survive the machinations of the Crawling Chaos. Also, it made for a great scene that evening. ;-)
This fourth edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep is wonderfully done. The artwork is amazing and there’s so much detail in the little things, from character statements to scrawled insane blathering meant to be written by one of the NPCs. The Keeper is going to have to print a decent amount of the PDF off as handouts for players though, so don’t try running it straight from your Kindle Fire, Ipad or other e-reader type device. It’s important to print these bits off as it really makes the game cover alive for the players. Masks of Nyarlathotep can be a very tactile adventure at time so have some paper and scissors ready in preparation for your trip around the world. The only downside to the fourth edition is the same as the third in that the box set was truly something to behold. The box set consisted of
2 business cards & 1 matchbox kit on glossy card sheet
1 booklet of handouts
1 New York booklet (blue cover)
1 London booklet (maroon cover)
1 Cairo booklet (yellow cover)
1 Nairobi booklet (brown cover)
1 Shanghai booklet (green cover)
…and of course the box. Everything is still here (along with the Australia bits), but from an aesthetic standpoint, the first two editions were just amazing for the level of detail and the all the different booklets. On the other hand, this fourth edition is much cheaper and far easier to keep a hold of everything, especially if you get the PDF. No worries about losing the handouts or business cards here! I do miss the first edition box art though…
So what is Masks of Nyarlathotep about? It’s hard to explain without completely spoiling the story. After all, a good deal of the fun is figuring out all the crazy conspiracies going on, which ones tie together and how, and then stopping the literal decimation of the planet. The stakes have never been higher in a Call of Cthulhu adventure, because if Nyarlathotep succeeds in its plans, not only does the world get ravaged by the Outer Gods, but by the Great Old Ones as well. This my friends, is a big deal.
What starts off as a routine meeting with a friend of the Investigator(s) quickly spirals into a horrifying murder mystery with only snowballs into something much bigger from there. Players start off in New York City, but from there the adventure becomes amazingly free-form (especially for the time period in which MoN was originally written. This was light years ahead of what was being done for RPG tabletop scenarios). Investigators can find themselves visiting London, Cairo, Shanghai, Australia and Kenya (Not necessarily in that order) Each leg of the adventure contains red herrings and/or side quests to trip players up and keep the clock counting down to doomsday. Player death and Insanity are commonplace here and the end results is one of the most memorable adventures ever written for Call of Cthulhu or any other RPG system. Even if you don’t play Call of Cthulhu, you should be picking this up simply to see both how a large scale adventure is done and why so many people in the industry consider this one of the best things the entire industry has ever produced. If you read this review and don’t outright purchase the PDF or the physical copy of Masks of Nyarlathotep, then shame on you.
If you are looking for an adventure that will keep your players (and their characters) busy for months, the opportunity to save the world while fighting off legions of cultists (in proper Call of Cthulhu fashion), or you simply want to see why so many people consider this one of, if not THE, greatest adventures for an RPG system ever written, then go purchase Masks of Nyarlathotep the second you get done reading this. This will easily be the most intense, as well as the most memorable, published adventure you’ll ever experience. Just get it. Just get it and experience it. That’s all I can really say.