Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/04/24/tabletop-review-the-ghosts-in-the-house-call-of-cthulhu/
Ghosts in the House is the latest Call of Cthulhu monograph put out by Chaosium. For those of you who have never picked up a monograph before, these things are bare bones pdfs where the author of the piece has also done the editing and layouts. Sometimes they even do the art. Chaosium is pretty hands off on these, publishing the pieces for the sake of getting more Call of Cthulhu adventures and/or supplements out there. Sometimes this turns out wonderfully. This can be seen in pieces like the recently released Children of the Storm or The Abbey. Sometimes it goes spectacularly, horribly, awry like the awful train wreck Mystic Alliances. Usually though, you get a decent little piece that has merit but, in the end, really needed an editor to guide the piece so that it doesn’t fall short of its potential. Ghosts in the House is just such a monograph.
Ghosts in the House is meant to be a full campaign taking place in upper Wisconsin near the upper peninsula. The location for all four adventures? A sub-par nursing home. It’s an interesting location, but to set a full campaign around a single building is stretching things. It also risks boring the hell out of the people playing the campaign. Four adventures revolving around any single location, no matter how cool or outside the box it is, is going to get dull. A nursing home wears out its welcome pretty quickly.
An odd thing about this monograph is that, although it contains four adventures, the first fifty four pages of the monograph contains a single adventure, leaving thirteen pages for the other three. While the first adventure is pretty interesting, the other three adventures end up feeling thrown together without any real substance. This is especially true of the fourth and final adventure in the campaign, which feels like it belongs more in something like Shadowrun then Call of Cthulhu. I can’t see any party of Call of Cthulhu players wanting an adventure that is not only primarily about violence and little else, but one that is stacked in such a way that the players can’t “win.”
Perhaps the oddest thing about the monograph is how the first adventure is laid out. I’ve never seen a more disorganized or jumbled up adventure that actually made it to publication IN MY LIFE. The thing reads horribly – as if the person writing it for the adventure wrote it specifically for themselves, and so it all made sense to them because they knew everything already. For everyone else who picks this up, you’re going to be sitting here wondering why random events are mentioned before you have any plot synopsis, while important details about specific characters are mentioned before you’re even introduced to characters, and why the thing jumps around so much without any real cohesive writing. It’s as if sections were put into the pdf in the wrong order. Again, this is where we see the flaw in many a monograph. Ghosts in the House desperately needed an editor and didn’t get one. The other three adventures are lucky that they had such little detail spent on them; otherwise they too would have fallen prey to the same fate.
There are two big problems with the adventure, however. The first is that the adventure is geared primarily for "beginning characters." However, this and the proceeding adventure both really need the "Summon/Bind Ghost" spell in order to truly ensure success. The adventure even suggests having it at points. Yet, the adventure gives no real way for the Investigators to ever get this spell. That's bad planning. As the adventure proclaims itself to be for brand new characters, this means they won't have access to magic, or have any Cthulhu Mythos exposure. Yet it still wants you to have that spell. Catch 22. Again, more proof this thing needed a professional editor to vet this stuff out.
The other problem is that the adventure feels like it is meant to be read rather than played. There is a whole bunch of information and back story that players will never encounter. Only the Keeper will know what is going on because they read the little "What's Really Going On" section. There's no way for players to ever learn this information unless the Keeper just gives it to them (which will ruin the adventure) and the way the adventure ends, the players, both in and out of character, will be left with more questions than answers, no closure and a sense of "well, that came from out of left field." It ends up being an unsatisfactory experience, and even afterwards, when you explain what actually happened to your troupe, the reaction is... less than thrilling. There's a lot of potential in this adventure and the majority of it is quite fun to run, but the ending is just terrible.
The second adventure is "A House Full of Ghosts", a direct sequel to "The Man in the Hat." How the adventure goes down depends on how "The Mat in the Hat" ended with your players. I loved that the adventure takes nearly all possibilities into consideration and gives you different ways to run it based on what your players did. This is exceptionally well thought out and is definitely the best adventure in terms of writing and cohesion. Playing the adventure though... that's where the problems begin. Again, you really need the “Summon/Bind Ghost: spell to make this adventure a success. However, the writers went a bit overboard and decided to throw TWENTY-THREE ghosts at you. What the hell? No Call of Cthulhu adventure should have that many paranormal creatures in it, especially in such a small location. What the hell were they thinking? Less is more with this system after all. It gets even weirder when the players are offered two $50,000 goals for this adventure. That’s an insane amount of money for a group of four to six players to spend a week or two in a nursing home. Honestly, I love Shadowrun, but the writers seem to think that they can write missions with monetary figures and the sheer number of enemies you encounter in that system and port it over to Call of Cthulhu without any problems. I love the idea of the story (much like “The Man in the Hat”), but there’s too much going on and at only three pages long, there’s really not enough for a Keeper to go off of. They’ll have to make up the majority of the adventure themselves, and at this point, they might as well make up something from scratch instead. Once again, this is a middle of the road affair. Great ideas, but poor follow-through. I like the emphasis on following up the first adventures and all the possibilities, but the writer really needed an experienced Call of Cthulhu editor to say, “Wait. Hold up.”
“The Hole in the Attic” is the third adventure that brings the players back to Oak Grove, and this time, it’s in an attempt to find a weird goblinoid creature. The adventure is pretty cut and dry. It’s very quick and the premise is simple. It wouldn’t be a “Ghosts in the Home” adventure without some big problems, however, and in this case, it’s about providing proof of the supernatural to the employer. Again, the adventure feels more like a Shadowrun affair. You have a Mr. Johnson, a specific extraction run, and some violence for the sake of violence. I suppose it’s fine for what it is, but “The Hole in the Attic” just doesn’t feel like a COC affair. Maybe a Chill adventure, but not something Chaosium would want its name attached to. It’s the best written of the adventures, but the least Cthulhoid. Like everything else in this collection, it’s a thumbs in the middle.
The final adventure is “The Last Gasp” and it’s outright terrible. I honestly can’t see any self-respecting Call of Cthulhu player wanting to sit through this. For an Monograph that says “The adventure emphasizes data collection and discussion over running and screaming,” they sure missed the mark big time with this one, as the entire adventure is once again, you guessed It, far more Shadowrun than Call of Cthulhu. Here players return to the “Yupper Pensinula” one last time into what will surely be their deaths. Investigators are given a MacGuffin and have to figure out what it is. Then a mysterious cult that is not given any back story (nor is even seen or heard from again) tries to take the item, by force if necessary. There are as many cultists as the players plus five and they all have twenty hit points (which is an insane number for CoC and almost impossible for a human to have). It’s almost a given that the PCs will die or lose the object and then… the adventure just ends. It’s violence for the sake of violence with no actual substance behind it. Not only is this contrary to what Call of Cthulhu is all about, it is also contrary to what the monograph espouses to be. It’s just a terrible adventure in every way possible.
All in all, I can’t really recommend Ghosts in the House. The majority of the piece is cluttered and unorganized, while the other three adventures are too short and bare bones. There are huge problems with each adventure that even a Novice Keeper will instantly see, and the overall content is just too weak. Now, there IS a lot of potential here. With a good editor re-arranging the contents of the first adventure, fleshing out the second, leaving the third alone and either excising or outright replacing the fourth, there could be something here well worth investing in. As it stands, Ghosts in the House is an example of where Chaosium’s monograph series falls short of its intended existence. For seven dollars, this isn’t a HORRIBLE purchase, but you can definitely find better CoC collections to spend your hard earned money on.