Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/08/21/tabletop-review-the-sense-of-sleight-of-hand-man-call-of-cthulhu/
The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man is a Call of Cthulhu campaign that takes place in the Dreamlands. It was originally funded by 403 Kickstarter backers and was scheduled for September 2012. Well, things spiraled out of control and what was to be a 128 page book ended up becoming a nearly three hundred page one and was released in July of this year – almost a year late. Personally, I’ll take a book a year late if I’m getting more than DOUBLE THE CONTENT for the money I paid for it, especially when the content is quite good.
Although labeled as a Dreamlands campaign, The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man is probably more accurately described as a campaign setting. There aren’t any actually adventures in this massive tome. Instead the book highlights a bunch of options for characters to engage in all around the dreamlands. It’s more a collection of plot hooks and story threads than a set of interlinked adventures, but Arc Dream calls it a campaign so just be aware of that fact if you were looking for something more like Masks of Nyarlathotep or Horror on the Orient Express. The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man is nothing like your typical Call of Cthulhu campaign, or a campaign for any setting really. It’s closest to the Shadowrun books Catalyst Game Labs puts out where you have twenty or so rough adventure outlines where the DM (or Keeper in this case) has to really flesh things out to make them playable. Now that doesn’t make SoSoHM a bad book – far from it! You just have to be aware that the Keeper has a lot of work ahead of them and must craft the adventures themselves rather than rely on the book for such a thing. As such, The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man is definitely best in the hands of a VERY experienced Keeper, especially one who has made their own homebrew adventures before.
The hook for The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man is that all the player characters are down on their luck opium addicts. The person who supplies their opium has decided to get their payment by hook or by crook and ends up sending the PCs to the Dreamlands. Unlike most cases where an Investigator’s dream self has been transported and keeps the same stats throughout, in this campaign the bodies and souls of the characters are merged, transported to the Dreamlands and implanted in human cadavers. Thus players will more than likely have very different physical stats in the Dreamlands than they had on earth and could even end up as a different gender. Character creation is also a little different where players will have higher than normal POW and lower that usual starting SAN. They will also gain extra skill and attribute points too. With all this extra buffing for the Investigators and the overwhelming amount of magic and magical items the players can get their hands on in this campaign, The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man almost feels like a D&D-esque Monty Haul campaign at times. It’s not a bad thing and all these little changes add up to make this campaign really stand out, even from other Dreamlands releases for Call of Cthulhu. Some purists may poo-poo the higher stat characters and the sheer glut of magical power a character can amass in this campaign but others will get a kick out of it. It’s just a matter of finding the right audience for this tome.
There is so much content in The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man, it’s all but impossible to talk about it all. The campaign covers every major location, denizen and race Lovecraft ever wrote about in the Dreamlands. You’ll encounter everyone from Randolph Carter to aspects of Nyarlathotep. In fact, the crux of the campaign is defeating the Crawling Chaos (or at least his minions and machinations) and finally finding a way back to Earth. However, that will take many play sessions for that climatic ending to occur, if it ever does. The book is extremely open ended and there is no set order for events to occur save for the initial setup in an opium den. In some ways this resembles a sandbox or open world video game, which is awesome for the players to experience, but it means the Keeper has copious amounts of work to do to make the campaign flow smoothly. The keeper will have to constantly be taken notes in regards to where the players have been, who they have met, what events have unfolded and the like. The vast majority of people who like to run Call of Cthulhu games, even gigantic published adventures may find the layout and format of The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man to chaotic and/or daunting to even try and properly run for their players. For example, The Ten Thousand Steps that lead to the Underworld and the start of events there are brought up on page 44, but then are not mentioned again until page 72. So the layout and order in which things are written could have used some tightening. In some ways, The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man feels like it was edited for grammar and diction, but not for flow. Again, this is one of just MANY examples of how Keepers will have to take notes and spend a dozen, if not dozens of hours taking notes and writing down how best to make this campaign flow. Otherwise it will just fall apart and leave everyone who encounters it with a bad taste in their mouth. Please don’t think this is me poo-poo’ing the book. Rather, this is a warning of how labor intensive The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man will be. Again, this is less an adventure or even a campaign as it is a campaign setting with a set beginning and end, but nothing but hooks and possibilities in between. It’s going to take a VERY specific Keeper to make this work, but for those that play The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man under them, the end result will be a very fun, memorable and awesome gaming experience.
With a current price tag of less than twenty dollars, The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man is well worth picking up, even if you don’t bother to ever play. It’s simply a fun (but sometimes dry or even dull) read and is an obvious labour of love that showcases how awesome the Dreamlands can be. This one purchase will provide enough adventures for your Call of Cthulhu players to last them months or even over a year depending on how much they explore the “landscape.” It’s definitely not for everyone and for many Keepers, the work you have to put in won’t be worth the return you get, but for a very dedicated and detailed Keeper, The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man is arguably the best tabletop release to ever showcase this lesser used Cthulhu Mythos setting.