Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2015/02/20/tabletop-review-cthulhu-britannica-london-boxed-set/
From the same publisher that’s been putting out the Doctor Who Adventures in Space and Time RPG that I thought was fantastic, comes another entry in the ever expending Call of Cthulhu settings options. This one tackles 1920s London, and like Achtung! Cthulhu before it is so in depth and well done that you could use it just to run a 1920’s RPG set in London even without the Cthulhu mythos attached. Like Achtung! Cthulhu I’m also really anamored with this set which has some really nice collections of maps and handouts on top of the adventures and two sourcebooks. I’m reviewing the PDF versions here, but just going by the PDF copies, the actual physical set has to be even more amazing. Before I get into gushing too much about this, I will say the $90 price tag might put a few people off. Even if you couldn’t get it for almost half that, which you can, I’d say the physical version would be well worth it. The PDF price tag at full price would be pushing it, but if you wanted to run in this setting, this would not only be recommended, I’d have to say it’d be essential. The books look fantastic and are packed with great material and almost no filler at all and even when there is it’s generally artwork that fits with the books completely. These are solid and well put together sourcebooks for the Cthulhu games and anyone who plays there should pick these up.
02Aside from the three books you get in the set, there are also a few side goodies that can be useful for any campaign. The first up is a set of maps that are actually from the period the game is set in. The first three aren’t print resolution but look decent enough on a computer screen. My only complaint with these maps are that they’re pretty much only good for flavor. To be able to read them on the PDF you have to zoom in up to 400% and that’s when the text starts to break down. The first map is a layout of the London Underground or what’s referred to as the Tube today. The second map is a layout of country bus routes. The third map also looks like it could be for the London Underground but is zoomed in a bit more than the first. The last map for London is a bit more plain looking, but the detail is a bit more impressive especially close up. The last map’s full print size would be 22 by 17 inches and the details remain when you get in close on it even on your computer or tablet screen. All in all I like the inclusion of vintage maps, but I would have liked the first three at a bit bigger resolution with the PDFs to be able to be used a bit more than just fluff or props at the table. That last map is fantastic though.
With the maps, six pages of handouts are also included, all tying into the adventure included with the set which means not having to print them out of the book instead. If you had the physical copy I’m sure this would be more important. It’s less so with the PDF version. They all vary in design and color, so if you want to cut these out and pass them around with your gaming group you’ll need a color printer to get the full effect. They look well-worn when they need to and for the most part definitely feel like 1920’s London. There’s a little too much in a few that looks far too clean lined to be from the time, but they’re for flavor more than anything else as well as conveying some information to your players. That they do beautifully.
01The first of the three books in the set is a set of adventures that runs for ninety-six pages appropriately titled Adventures in Mythos London. There are three adventures inside each of varying length plus the stats you’ll need to finish them along with their handouts. Out of the ninety-six pages that make up the book, eighty-six are direct content and seventy-nine of those are just the adventures minus some of the stats for Sixth Edition Call of Cthulhu. The first adventure takes up the most amount of pages in the book between the NPCs and handouts, but is also the most linear and probably the shortest. Terror on the Thames is meant as an introductory adventure to introduce new players or just to bring a group together so it is pretty straightforward. Set on a riverboat that’s been converted over to run the Thames, things get a little tricky and it goes from there. The second adventure, Those Poor Souls Who Dwell in Light, gets a bit more involved and gets players active in an investigation into a murder and something dark going on tied to that murder. At only twenty-two pages, this one takes up a little over half the pages of the first adventure but there’s far fewer handouts and your investigator’s will be thinking a bit more with this one. This one doesn’t really seem tied to the first adventure in the book at all, but the third adventure, the Non-Euclidean Gate, can and does tie into the second adventure depending on how the player’s got through the second one. The last adventure is dealing with some of the same forces as the second adventure and has the investigator’s looking into some pages stolen from the Mortlake School for Girls and they’re being hired to retrieve them. Things are never simple and there’s a lot of investigating in this one which may not sit too well with player’s who like to engage with their guns or fists. There’s a good variety to the adventures, not just in the events surrounding them, but the way you have to go about trying to solve the problems at hand and make it through them. While I’m more ho-hum about the first adventure as it uses a few game master mechanics I hate doing to player characters but also given that it’s a completely linear adventure I understand why. I really like the other two quite a bit. Either way it’s a good source of NPCs to use on your own and a few fleshed out settings within London if you’re so inclined to make your own adventures to start with.
The second book in the set, An Investigator’s Guide to London, is mainly for the player’s but there are a few pop-out boxes here and there that a game master might want to check out. Sitting at one hundred and eighty-four pages, this is a very well thought out and thorough book that will really help get your player’s into what life was like in 1920’s London. It reminds me a lot of how the Investigator’s Guide to Achtung! Cthulhu would have worked really well as just a World War II RPG. You could honestly do the same with An Investigator’s Guide to London and run a whole RPG session just set in 1920’s London without even touching the Mythos. I’ll give you that might bore some players, but I know just the right group of people that would get an insane kick out of it at the same time. Know your audience. The book is well written, is pretty engaging for a sourcebook, and has some great design work to it that makes it feel like something you’d pull off the shelf in that time along with some great artwork and sample advertisements and maps that really help sell the mood. This is a great looking book and I’m actually sad that I only have this set in PDF form because the printed versions would be amazing to own even if I never get a chance to play it.
03Breaking the book down a bit, the first section, London in the 1920s, explores the basics of what’s going on in the city at the time and the circumstances that have led to get London where it was at the time. They talk about current currency and where it ended up in the modern setting, different factors at play throughout London including what happened in the war to get them there along with plagues, and then of course making money. They follow this up with The Twenties: Year by Year which is exactly what it sounds like. They go over major events that happen throughout the Twenties up to and including the start of the Great Depression. Getting to London details exactly how one might go about getting to the city and from a variety of locations as well as what you can expect when you actually get there weather wise and where you might be able to stay once you’re in London. Getting Around London details the six different ways to make your way around, including the Underground and taxis, without simply using your two legs which would take a while.
The People of London is where they start to mix in actual game mechanics and descriptions in with the essential details you’d need to realistically play the game. Before they dive into that they break down the Class system for you, how nobility ranks into things, proper forms of addressing someone and degrees of familiarity to help navigate the social scenes, what roles women play in all of this and the fact they had just one a hard fought battle for some very basic rights, and then of course playing a minority in what was an advancing time. All of that before you even hit on what new and modified occupations your character can partake in. There are twenty-one occupations listed here of all sorts of vocations and skill sets. They do offer breakdowns of several of them to better differentiate them. The Religious Official breaks down starting stats for five different religions, the Soldier is broken down by rank and file, and the Spiritualist gets a nice extra section on Summoning and Communing with Spirit Guides. No matter what kind of character you were thinking of playing that’s really associated mainly with this setting, most of what you might find to make that character interesting at least as far as what they do for a living you can find here. The New and Modified Skills only really give options for three new skills including Boxing, Photography and Etiquette. Lastly covered under The People of London are the Notable People of 1920’s London that breaks down thirty three of the more famous London dwellers in the 1920s which includes their birth years along with when they died and a brief summary of who they were and why they’re notable which is good to have if you happen to have an Investigator who’d probably bump into some of the more famous people in their tours around London.
05So we have some of the history, people, occupations and the like covered, but what about equipment? Enter Shopping in London. They cover some of the exchange rates, the economy in London, then dive into some of the more well-known shops along with what you’d be expected to wear as far as a hat, whether you’re in the country, and if you’re a female character how fancy your dress should be, especially if you’re attending something that requires you to be fancy and you’re wearing a dress right off the rack which is a no-no. Auction Houses get a nice blurb and rules for running an Auction for the Investigator’s to attend. Last but not least are the open air markets before they go into the goods and services price guide which includes actual prices from the 1929 Harrod’s catalogue which I thought was a great touch. They cover just about anything in here item wise and also including hiring people to work for you. My favorite side-bar though covered the invention of the gas-powered hand-held chainsaw and when it was available for sale because you never know when you’ll have to drop into a pit of zombies even in 1920’s London.
If you’re new to the world, you may not realize that we didn’t always have television and cell phones, so the section on Technology, Communication, and News will open your mind to the new inventions of the corded home telephone, the radio and the BBC which didn’t have a twenty-four hour broadcast cycle, telegrams and the good old Post to deliver messages in writing by hand, messenger boys and then of course actual newspapers that relied on pulped paper to deliver the goings-on in the world. There are some neat write-ups here on how to use them effectively and what you could and couldn’t do with them in 1920’s London along with a way to use the classifieds to your own ends. Always good to have options. So along with technology, you have to know what’s available to keep your characters engaged without that smart phone, and that’s where Entertainment in London comes in. They cover the popular sports from the time, and yes football, soccer for those in the U.S., is one of the huge ones. Theatre and the new cinema are covered with a rather extensive list of theatres and a bit about how the cinema was choking the life out of the Music Hall which used to be the more popular venue for the poorer people of London. If those aren’t to your characters liking there’s always the Gentleman’s Club with a rather extensive list for those and summaries of what the clubs actually allowed in and what they tried to do. Still not finding something to your liking? Well how about the exorbitant nightlife with clubs catering to the rich because of their questionable legality with out of date laws still on the books from the War? Well then there’s the Pubs and the London Season where people would descend on London for different events in the 20s because it was the in thing to do during the times.
04I mentioned the questionable legality of nightclubs, and well that leads right into Law and Order which covers a range of topics in 1920s London. You get sections on the London Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard, the City of London Police, the ranks of the Police there, who was in charge, the corruption within the different departments, and then of course what they carry. From there we get a rough overview of the English Legal System including some of the criminals of the day and what punishments you might incur for not exactly being a law-abiding citizen as well as some of the more cozy locales you’ll be held in should you be convicted. This is the first 111 pages of the book. There isn’t much filler at all. I can see you using most of this. The next section though is going to be used a bit differently as you may not need swaths of it if you never go there.
The London Guide section of the book covers sixty-four pages and is the single largest section of An Investigator’s Guide to London. This is probably also the more important one in figuring out where you want to go, or if you’re from London, where you’ve lived. They’ve broken the city down into sections in this, Central, North West, East End, South West, South East, and then a section on Expanding London that goes into the growth of the city and differences in how it’s grown and how fast. Each of these goes further into different places within those areas and pulls up the big London map and drops numbered markers that correspond with what they’re talking about within that particular section which is helpful to both the players and the game master. They cover estates, museums, anything and everything you might need to deal with during a session. The book also goes into Royal Palaces, the University of London, Graveyards, an overview of the River Thames, and then a quick dip into the Sewers and Lost Rivers of London. An Afterword, some references and Recommended Reading and the Index follow. I do have to say I’m enamored with the book and what they’ve pulled off with this. Like the previous World War II addition, they’ve been excruciatingly thorough with this and the effort shows. But wait, there’s more. I haven’t even tackled A Keeper’s Guide to London yet.
A Keeper’s Guide to London is fifty-six pages shorter than An Investigator’s Guide to London, but don’t let that get you down, because much like the Investigator’s book, they haven’t wasted space and you’re getting a lot of information in that one hundred twenty-eight pages. So if the Investigator’s Guide is for your player’s, the Keeper’s Guide is all about the person running the show. There’s lots of great information in here. Where they went super accurate with the Investigator’s book, this one gets into what the Mythos side of London is getting up to during the 1920s. It follows the same aesthetic as the Investigator’s book, but the artwork is certainly more gruesome.
06The book is divided into sections again, although these are far more broad than the Investigator’s Guide. The Introduction is pretty straight-forward but has a great three page short story in it to help set the mood. I really recommend reading it. Great stuff. From there we go into the basics with a section on Bringing Mythos London to Life with some great titles that go from London’s Dreaming to London’s Screaming. They discuss some of the ways to bring the real threats to London in line with the Mythos threats as well as some great examples to broaden or even kick off a campaign or session with. The last chapter in this section covers what might happen in an area based on which of the Mythos big bads are involved.
A Keeper’s History of London is the other side of the coin from the brief history and chronology we got in the Investigator’s Guide. It’s far more in depth and deals with a lot more things leading up to the 1920s and of course the Mythos end of things. This detailed history starts back with the founding of Londinium with the Romans and heads all the way up through the 1920s. This is important because they’re always digging up something from the past in London. I just read an article about them discovering something as they were working on a new roadway now, so I imagine in 1920s London this would be just as prevalent as they’re building new roads, homes, sewers and so on. This gives you a massive amount of history to pull from and really opens up your options with what you might infuse your game with. There is a detailed chronology with the major Mythos events up until the 1920s that includes the major normal events as well as a better gauge of where things happened. From there they move into the Notable Historical Occult Figures in London which includes past and what was then present figures in London. In all you get sixteen of these to learn about and any number of them may have some kind of effect on your game should you choose to include their teachings or maybe there was some clue to some kind of artifact in their writings. The write-ups are mostly summaries but cover the important topics of what they were all about. From there we get the Mythos events from the 1920s to cap that off with.
07Unusual Locations is precisely what it sounds like. These are locations that were purposefully omitted from the Investigator’s Guide because they can be strange and unusual places and can have their own fair share of mysteries or secrets that should be left up to the Keeper. They cover the old homes of notable occultists, a railway designed just to move corpses, plague pits and even Tower Bridge. It’s a smaller but decent portion of histories for the locations along with an idea or two for using them in a campaign. The People of London section though is the biggest of the book weighing in at thirty-one pages. It starts off listing your standard occult organizations you’d have running around London, because it’s the Mythos, you need those. These wouldn’t all have to deal with the Mythos in general but could be a thorn in your Investigator’s side or be allies. There’s a section later just for the Mythos. They cover a lot of the clubs, even a section on what the Chinese traders in London may have set up to deal with. There are a few people noted within the organizations, but it mainly covers the organizations. From there, they move into potential allies or associates for an Investigator. You get nineteen different NPCs that you can use with full stats and write-up for each of them along with portraits to put a face to the name. It’s a really good range and I’m sure the stats will be welcome for anyone needing to add one of them on the fly. The last and probably most important part of the People of London is about two of the clubs you’d probably end up using more in your campaigns as they deal directly with what your player’s will be trying to do. They go into resources for each as well as how to use them and ideas for putting them as the focus of a campaign.
08Mythos Threats is the chapter that gets more into things that go bump in the London night and people as well as creatures your Investigator’s will want to be dealing with before they become a bigger problem than they already are. They outline nine specific groups or threats with a few people and monsters mixed in there with each. It’s the tenth one that gets the most attention as it can be used as both something as a benefit to and as an antagonist for the Investigators and that’s the Society of London for the Exploration and Development of the Esoteric Sciences. The Society gets a full ten pages dedicated to it, talking about its scientific and not so scientific pursuits, Fellows of note in the Society, their experiments, and then a few scenarios seeds you can use to get this rather interesting group involved in your campaign. I really love the SLEDES write-up. It’s a great evil group that you can have go either way on your players. They are trying to better mankind by any means after all. That can’t be all bad can it?
Mythos Spells and Tomes covers some of the new spells they’ve created for this setting. It’s not a big section detailing seven tomes which mainly means a brief history and the spells you’d find within, and then the five new spells specifically dealing with this setting. There are some great things to use here, but most of the meat of this volume is in the setting and people and not new monstrosities or magics to throw at your players. The last section, the Appendix, covers all the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition Stats for every living named person with a pulse that’s listed in the Keeper’s Guide. I really like this addition to the back of the book as you won’t have to flip pages to find them when they’re all just listed there at the back for ease of use. That’s a great design choice right there. That’s of course followed by the Index.
Overall, I am in love with this set. The PDFs are fantastic and are marked just where you need them to be for actual use by an Investigator or Keeper. They look amazing, the art is fantastic, and they’ve done an incredible job gathering everything you’d need to just crack these open and play along with your Call of Cthulhu main books. I’d love to have a set of these physically and I don’t even have a gaming group in my area that would regularly play the game. If you’re looking to try a really detailed and thought out setting or just a change of venue and time for your Call of Cthulhu game, then you really need to give this a look.