Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2015/06/03/tabletop-review-nameless-horrors-call-of-cthulhu/
While we are close to the two year past due date anniversary of Horror on the Orient Express to fully ship and the one and a half year late anniversary of 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium is at least still churning out the freebies for backers. Case in point, Nameless Horrors, which came about as a stretch goal for the 7e CoC Kickstarter. This collection contains six adventures from different time periods. There are two things that make this particular collection stand out though. The first is that the artwork is VERY different than a lot of recent releases. That’s not to say that CoC’s art has been lacking as of late or that the art in Nameless Horrors is bad. Art is very subjective. It’s more just to give you a head’s up that it look different from even other 7e releases. The cover is extremely striking too.
The other thing worth noting is that none of these adventures contain any traditional Mythos creatures, gods, monsters or beasties. Now obviously there are alien, eldritch and bizarre goings-on within Nameless Horrors, but you won’t find any ghouls, Deep Ones, shaggai, Mi-Go or other familiar Lovecraftian tropes in this collection. In many ways, it is similar to Pagan Publishing’s Bumps in the Night, which was a hit-or-miss piece that I reviewed three years ago. With Bumps in the Night, I adored the concept because it got writers to use the system everyone loved, but also forced them to be creative with their story ideas. Unfortunately the end result was two adventures I liked, one I hated and two that were merely okay. Does Nameless Horrors follow suit, or does it prove that a first party release can take the same concept and do it better?
As mentioned there are six adventures in Nameless Horrors. Each one takes place in a different time period and location. Each adventure is also designed specifically as a one-shot, but some of them do make attempts to be useable in an established campaign. I know some of you hate one-shots and prefer more flexible adventures. If that is the case, Nameless Horrors is probably not for you. As well, these adventures are designed for use with pre-generated characters (there are six for each adventure) and again, I bring this up since some gamers hate pre-gens and prefer to only make their own character. In this case, once again, Nameless Horrors is not something you should pick up. Sure, the adventures could be used with original characters, and each one tries to accommodate games that NEED their own characters, but these work best with the characters that are provided. Granted that between the one-shot experience of the adventures and the pre-generated characters, you will feel like you are “on-rails” for each of these adventures, but that’s not always a bad thing. If you and your gaming friends don’t get together that often, one of these would be perfect for that rare chance when you get to actually play a tabletop RPG. As well, the pre-gens and one-shot combination means you can start right up instead of spending hours rolling up characters. It’s also better for newer or casual gamers that are learning the game. You can focus on playing a role and understanding the mechanics instead of character creation to boot. So yes, Nameless Horrors is for a specific section of Call of Cthulhu fans, and there is nothing wrong with that. In some ways, this is like the Halloween or Blood Brothers collection in that you are acting a character someone else has designed and thought up. Much like a play or movie. Again, there are positives and negatives to this. It just depends on the type of gamer that you are.
Our first adventure is, “An Amaranthine Desire,” which can be described as “The Crucible meets Groundhog Day.” It’s an interesting adventure that involves characters going back in time from the Gaslight to 1283. Players will find themselves in a familiar city-at least in name only- trying to end a time loop that has them repeat the same day over and over again. Unlike Groundhog Day though, the time loop is slowly eating away at the characters, causing them to rapidly age, so the characters are on a definite timeline here to solve the mystery or dissipate into the ether. It’s an odd adventure where characters won’t die by conventional means, but it is all too easy for characters to simply cease to exist because the solution isn’t that obvious to those that play things out. There are a very limited amount of “nights” to complete the adventure, so more often than not, the adventure will just kind of…end unless the Keeper is very hand holding. Even if characters do achieve their mission, they can still cease to exist as they escape the time warp and the eventual ending of the adventure is very unsatisfactory to me as it involves some more time travel shenanigans that just didn’t do it for me.
That’s not to say the adventure is a bad one. Far from it. It’s just unforgiving and drops the ball with the possible endings. I love the rest of the adventure. The characters are very interesting, the mystery is fantastic, the setting and time period are something I wish we’d see more of in Call of Cthulhu and most of all, it involves the lost crown of Saxony. Long time Diehard GameFAN readers are probably familiar with a video game entitled The Lost Crown which is perhaps the best modernization of the three crowns legend. I reviewed the original release back in 2008 and Aaron Sirois reviewed the HD remake in 2014. Both versions of the game won awards from us in the years they came out and I was overjoyed to see the crown finally show up in an official Call of Cthulhu adventure. The adventure details the history of the actual real world crown nicely. Sure only the Keeper gets to enjoy the folklore bits behind the inspiration for the adventure, but I love when they put that stuff in here. After all, more adventures are read rather than played. Overall, “An Amaranthine Desire” is an interesting adventure. Keepers will more than likely tweak rather than play it as is, but the core of the adventure is a really nice, outside the box piece that I enjoyed for what it is.
“A Message of Art” is the second adventure in the collection and it takes place in Victorian Paris. The adventure bills itself as a sandbox piece, but it is anything but. The jargon “sandbox” refers to an adventure this is wide open where the player(s) can do whatever and whatever they want to the point of completely ignoring the core story hook and instead choose to do any number of side quests without time limits or worries about how said jaunts will affect the core story. I’m always disturbed when I see adventures thrown out the terminology without actually using it properly. It’s how you know they’re just trying buzzwords like “proactive” in the 90s. It’s a red flag that something is going to suck. In truth, “A Message of Art” is perhaps the most on-rails adventure in the collection. Even more so than the previous adventure, you have a very strict timeline characters will have to follow or they will simply die. There is very little to no room for deviation because so much of the adventure involves you have to follow the timeline exactly. In many ways, “A Message of Art” is more the tabletop equivalent of a visual novel because while entertaining, you’re more or less along for the ride with the Keeper having to control nearly everything for this adventure to work properly. It’s by far the weakest (and my least favorite adventure) in the collection and if you want an actual sandbox piece for Call of Cthulhu, might I suggest The Sense of Sleight of Hand Man.
Again though, this doesn’t mean the adventure is all bad. I utterly love the premise behind this piece, which is that art in all forms is actually an alien sentient virus of sorts. It’s an intriguing concept as is the core antagonist in this piece. It’s just too bad the seeds of inspiration germinate so quickly in this adventure. Had it been weeks, months or even years, this adventure would have a lot more potential and could even have a full campaign wrapped around the idea. Instead everything is just too rushed to really have the effect the concept should have. To make this enjoyable, a Keeper is really going to have to put some time in and rewrite huge parts of this adventure from the ground up.
Adventure number three is “And Some Fell on Stony Ground.” It takes place in small town North America during the 1920s. It can be in any state really. It’s a hard adventure to explain without giving up complete spoilers, but I’ll try. The Investigators are run of the mill townfolk who just happen to be unlucky enough to live in a town slowly dividing in two. Now, I know since it’s the 1920s, you might think the divide is racial or political, but it’s between two very different groups – The Blessed and the Broken. The Investigators are not members of either group, but can end up in one or the other as the adventure progresses. The first half of the adventure has players trying to figure out the mystery of the town and why people are changing in personality. The second half is a survival horror romp akin to Resident Evil (4 or 5, not 1-3) where players are trying to get out of town or be brutally murdered. It’s a really fun adventure and the fact the two halves play so differently but come together so seamlessly, I can assure you that the piece is a fantastic one. Whether your players prefer talking head adventures or combat oriented affairs, this adventure has something for everyone. I really enjoyed it, although there is a chance for PvP to come about, so if you have gamers that are drastically opposed to competitive instead of co-operative tabletop gaming, you might want to avoid this one simply for that reason.
“Bleak Prospect” takes place in the days of the Great Depression. My favorite monograph from Chaosium, is Children of the Storm, which takes place during this era and “Bleak Prospect” can actually be fit with that set of adventures nicely. Characters will be residents of a shantytown/Hooverville in Massachusetts as winter is about to come rolling in. New England winters are horrible enough if you have a secure warm home, yet there is something even scarier awaiting the downtrodden. A strange disease and faceless men are rumored to be spreading through the shantytown. Children are missing, the remaining wealthy of the town seem to actively oppress the have-nots and yet all of this pales compared to what else awaits the Investigators who just want a nice meal and a warm bed. I should also add that “Bleak Prospect” is a quasi-sequel to “From Beyond” (the story, not the movie), by HP Lovecraft and it’s a wonderful homage to the original. Unless you read the adventure or have “From Beyond” memorized, you probably won’t notice the subtle hints in the piece.
I really enjoyed “Bleak Prospect” as it’s super creepy on multiple levels and I haven’t even talked about the freakiest part of the adventure. Alas, I can’t because of spoilers, but rest assured, this is my favorite adventure in the collection.
The penultimate adventure is “The Moonchild.” It takes place in modern times and revolves around a group of men and women in their 40s whose collegiate hijinx in an occult club of sorts comes back to haunt them. Whoops. The story is a new twist on things like The Omen, Lucius, Rosemary’s Baby and the like. It’s also interesting to see that the Investigators are pretty much completely to blame for everything that happens in this adventure, even if the mistake was made during a drunken sex orgy in their college years. Having a cast of middle-aged screw ups is a very different atmosphere than the usual Investigators you find in Call of Cthulhu. There are no Dilettantes, private investigators, Miskatonic professors or the like to be had. Drug addicts, child abusers and more make up the main characters and friends in this adventure. Although it is set in modern times, it feels more like a 1970s horror film in tone and characters. I’m not sure if that is intentional or not, but it’s a nice change of pace. The adventure also does give a trigger warning because there are subjects like child abuse, possible incest/molestation, and sex with a minor going on (although with the latter the adventure tells you to make the younger of the pair juuuuust old enough to be legal). I appreciate whenever an adventure provides trigger warnings to its audience although in this case, I think people who are usually squicked out by stuff involving minors will be okay here. It’s not like five year olds are being sodomized and beheaded.
“Moonchild” is an interesting look at what is real and what isn’t and also makes for a nice juxtaposition between Lovecraftian style magick and the version of occult magic people have picked up from horror movies, Simon’s the Necronomicon and Anton LeVay. In many ways, “Moonchild” doesn’t feel like a Call of Cthulhu at all, which helps to make it stand out from the pack. It could easily be ported to other horror games like Chill, Cryptworld and even something by White Wolf/Onyx Path. In fact, a White Wolf World of Darkness is an apt comparison for this adventure as it contains little to no violence and/or detective work. Much of the adventure is purely social interaction amongst old friends. If you’re looking for a good adventure to convert to Cthulhu Live!, this would be an excellent choice.
All in all, “The Moonchild” is very different from most CoC adventures, but that’s the point of Nameless Horrors. I quite liked it for what it was, even though I recognize the style and atmosphere might be TOO different for people that want only Lovecraftian adventures. Still, I loved how this piece took old horror movie themes and turned them into something fresh, new and fun.
Our last adventure in Nameless Horrors is “The Space Between” and it takes place in modern day LA. On the surface it feels like a dark satire of Scientology and its hold over some bad Hollywood movies, but it is more than that. In many ways this adventure feels like, “What if a mythos cult had the Hollywood ties Scientology has?” Instead of a play like The King in Yellow, they instead have a movie – In the Mouth of Madness style. Well, they’re TRYING to have a movie anyway. The cast and crew are members of the religion, the Script is based on its principal scripture and even the investigators are members of the religion, known as The Church of Sunyata. With everyone being of a similar background, you would think production would run smoothly. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Instead, things are going wrong. Chief amongst the problems? The female lead has gone missing. Oops. It’s up to the players to figure out what is going on while also protecting their religion from scandal.
This is a fun little adventure for many reasons. The first is the obvious parody of Hollywood culture. The second is that technically the investigators are the bad guys, even if they are unwittingly so. After all, they’re members of the cul…church. The third is that at, some point, some, if not all, of the investigators, will stop being human and become…something else. It’s fun to play as a fiendish thingie from time to time especially in a piece like this. Finally, the potential for playing this piece as a bit of comedy-horror is there. It just depends on the personalities of those playing it. Whether you play it straight or as a farce, the adventure is still a lot of fun and well worth experiencing.
Overall, I really enjoyed Nameless Horrors. Out of the six adventures, there were four I really liked, one I liked but felt needed a little bit of work and one I like the concept of, but not the follow through. Obviously, these are just my opinions and how much you enjoy Nameless Terrors will really depend on how much you NEED actual Lovecraftian monsters and themes in your Call of Cthulhu adventures. As I play a lot of different games and grow tired of tropes/stereotypes quickly, this was a nice breath of fresh air and really did what I had hoped Bumps in the Night would accomplish several years ago. With only a $14.97 price tag, you’re paying about $2.50 an adventure, which is a fantastic deal, no matter how you slice it. For those looking for something outside the box instead of the usual Mythos rigmarole, definitely consider picking up Nameless Horrors. It should sate you until the rest of Horror on the Orient Express or CoC 7e finally gets here. I hope.