Saturday, September 24, 2011

The New Publication: RED EYE OF AZATHOTH

So, Thursday the 15th I got together with friend Wolf* at a restaurant he'd recently introduced me to in downtown Renton called Naan 'N' Curry (which I highly recommend, if you're (a) in or passing through the Renton area and (b) like Indian food). Along with the chance to catch up on things, I was pleased to get my contributor's copy of RED EYE OF AZATHOTH, Open Design's first CALL OF CTHULHU release, which I edited.

This is an unusual C.o.C. campaign for several reasons. First off, all five adventures are episodes in a larger story. Also, despite being set in five distinct time periods and milieu, in a sense the Investigators are the same people in each, being linked across time and space. Third, the settings are highly unusual for C.o.C., which usually sticks to the 1920s, with some Victorian (CTHULHU BY GASLIGHT) and modern (CTHULHU NOW) adventures for the occasional change of pace.

The five settings are
(1) Lindisfarne, 887 AD, where the Investigator group is composed in equal parts of monks and of Viking raiders, who naturally enough find it hard to work together in a common cause.

(2) feudal Japan, 1287, where the Investigators are samurai and court officials sent by the shogunate to find out why one obscure remote village pays its taxes, in full, every year, year after year, without fail. I wonder if the Japanese of that era had a proverb equivalent to 'ignorance is bliss'.

(3) Valencia, 1487, where the Investigators start out as prisoners in the hands of the Inquisition, and things go downhill from there. This one involves a lot of running away (hence its new mechanic, a 'Chase Table', to judge whether or not those attempting flight succeed in evading pursuit), and even more not being able to run away.

(4) Roanoke Colony, 1587, where the worst of the Old World and New come together with horrific results.


(5) Arizona Territory, 1887, where the Wild West and Cthulhu horror come together in truly apocalyptic fashion: I don't think I've ever read an sequence of descriptions that matched the climax of this adventure for conveying this-is-the-way-the-world ends, with neither a bang nor a whimper but a scream.

All of these have in common one element: isolation. In most Cthulhu adventures Investigators don't call on the authorities for help because it'd be hard to get them to believe what was going on or because said Investigators don't want too much scrutiny of their own actions. In these they're well and truly on their own: allies are few and far between, and any authorities either hostile or wholly absent. I have to say that, overall, I was impressed: there's been an Azathoth campaign before, back in 1986, SPAWN OF AZATHOTH, but that was the worst of the classic Chaosium C.o.C. campaigns.* I do have to warn, though, that the adventures in RED EYE OF AZATHOTH are gruesome, violent, and unforgiving; it's a style of play that owes a lot to early PAGAN P. adventures,** and the body count in the major encounters in each scenario are likely to be high.

It's a polar opposite to the way I usually play Cthulhu, which emphasizes role-playing, exploration, and investigation and has a high Investigator survival ratio (though their sanity tends to fray after an adventure or two, and the occasional Investigator deaths tend to be spectacular when they do occur). But I think the authors pulled it off: if you like that style of play (and a lot of people do), RED EYE OF AZATHOTH is an excellent and sustained example.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who actually plays through these to find out how well they worked at the gaming table for your group.

Good gaming!

--John R.

*SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH [1982] being by far the best, THE FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH [1984] a worthy second place, and MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP [1984]*** rounding of the top three; after this there's a falling off with HORROR ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS [1991], an impressive project whose reach exceeded its grasp, and then SPAWN OF AZATHOTH, which was just a mess that reads like an attempt to re-hash MASKS.
Of course, if you go beyond Chaosium, Pagan P. produced not one but two superb campaigns: WALKER IN THE WASTES [1994] and COMING FULL CIRCLE [1995], which learn all the right lessons from SHADOWS and DAY OF THE BEAST and apply them with impressive results. Highly recommended.

**i.e., before they got swallowed up by DELTA GREEN, when they still did an interesting variety of settings & approaches). There's not a lot of Library Use here (though at times it's vital

***most aficionados rank MASKS the top. I don't agree. It's v. good; SHADOWS and BEAST simply happen to be better.

*a.k.a. Wolfgang Baur, The Monkey King, Kobold-in-Chief at Open Design, Editor of KOBOLD QUARTERLY, famed rpg designer, former editor of both DUNGEON and of DRAGON, and once upon a time fellow 'New Fish' at TSR with me in October 1991.


Ben said...

Where does _Beyond the Mountains of Madness_ rank in that list? I'd understood it was rather seminal? I ask as someone assembling his CoC library for an epic trip through the best. :D


pookie said...

I vehemently disagree with you about Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. I grant you that it was the first, but its set up is weak and it is difficult to get experienced investigators involved. The links between the chapters are flimsy, awkward, and the constant use of the letter as a plot device is wearisome. The fifth part, “The Worm that Walks” is notorious as an exercise to kill player characters at a point when their knowledge and experience is needed for the last two scenarios. The campaign lacks Keeper advice and having been written by different hands, has a rough, incohesive feel.

pookie said...

I would also recommend three other campaigns of more recent vintage. The first is Pagan Publishing's Realm of Shadows, a nicely played campaign against the ghouls on the eve of World War II. Unfortunately it is long out of print and the price likely to be long in the pocket.

Chaosium's last best campaign is Tatters of the King. Not perfect, but at least subtle, purist, and British!

Away from the traditional periods for Call of Cthulhu, I thoroughly recommend Miskatonic River Press' The Legacy of Arrius Lurco. Written for Cthulhu Invictus (Call of Cthulhu in Ancient Rome), it might well be the best Call of Cthulhu product of the year!

In the meantime, I too have a copy f Red Eye of Azathoth and will be writing a review as soon as I can.

pookie said...


John will have and no doubt give his own opinions on Beyond the Mountains of Madness, but myself, I think it an incredible piece of work. Well researched, detailed, and exhaustive, and perhaps the best equal that Call of Cthulhu has given to any of Lovecraft's stories.

Unfortunately, it is very linear, the level of detail threatens to overwhelm the players (let alone the Keeper), and in some ways there not really a lot that the investigators can do. Still, playing it is an experience.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Ben
Yes, I shd have included BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, which is superb. I was lucky enough to play through it with Jeff Grubb as our Keeper, and I'm proud of the fact that my character (Dr. Lucius Tarr) not only survived but returned home sane, providing a future home for some of his unluckier fellows in his asylum. And yes, I do own an I-survived-the-Starkweather-Moore-expedition t-shirt.


John D. Rateliff said...

Hi 'Pookie'
We agree on MOUNTAINS but not on REALM OF SHADOWS or SHADOWS OF THE KING or, most emphatically, SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH (the Cth. Invictus adventure I haven't read or played through, though it is in our queue, so I have no opinion there yet).

I really shd make a separate post re. YOG-SOTH; for now I'll just stand by saying here we completely disagree.

MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS is brilliant; a great improvement, in fact, over the original subject matter (the most tedious of all Lovecraft's longer fictions). I held off reading it for two-three years, and was well rewarded by thus getting to play it as one of the Investigators. After we finished, I read the whole thing through, and think it both reads* and plays well.

REALM OF SHADOWS was a vast disappointment: the defeat of substance by style. Having been based on the work of Clark Ashton Smith (a favorite of mine, who actually wrote 'Lovecraftian' fiction far better than HPL himself did)** and having the game run by Wolf Baur, this shd have been a winner. It wasn't. A fairly dull plot drowned in a mass of inconsequential detail. In most Cth. scenarios, players can tell when they've gotten back on track when suddenly there's descriptive text and handouts and the like. Pagan P. redressed this problem by providing detailed information about every irrelevancy and red herring imaginable, and it had the ultimate effect of trivializing the whole adventure. I had a good time playing it, but that was due to my fellow players (a good group!) and the Keeper, not the adventures.

SHADOWS OF THE KING I've posted about elsewhere; basically again I got to play through it with an excellence Keeper (Jeff again) and a great group of fellow players, but I cd never get a sense of the story as a whole: it felt to me like a bagful of unrelated adventures rather than a campaign. Recently I bought a copy and plan to read through it to see if it makes any more sense from behind the screen than it did as a player. We'll see. I did enjoy playing my Investigator v. much indeed, but that's not due to anything in the published text.

By the way, I'm reliably informed that HORROR ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, while underwhelming when read, is GREAT (an exact quote) from an Investigator point of view, particularly in the hands of a master Keeper -- in this case, Zeb Cook's legendary campaign back in Lake Geneva. And since I've heard the same from three different players in that campaign over the years (Wolfgang Baur, Dale Donovan, Stephen Schend), I have to believe it.

Fortunate are those players in whom a great campaign (WALKER IN THE WASTE), great Keeper (Monte Cook), and great group of fellow gamers (Sue Cook, Bruce Cordell, Ray Valese, et al) come together. Good memories; good times.


*all but the Poe pastiche

**cf. my 'Classics of Fantasy' column on CAS (and the one on HPL, for that matter)

pookie said...


We will have just to agree to disagree then. I am most jealous of your gaming group though.