If there was ever a module with a slow build, it’s Call of Cthulhu’s Beyond the Mountains of Madness (1999). It’s a 440-page monster with 17 chapters, and if I were running it frankly, I’d start at the point of chapter 8. The events of the first seven (getting to Antarctica) can be easily summarized as a prologue, and for that matter, the final three (leaving Antarctica) are equally optional. By the end of chapter 14 the players will have been punished by lengthy multiple gaming sessions; any surviving PCs will be exhausted and horrified, not least by their own actions. The module is bleak by even Cthulhu standards, certainly excellent as its reputation suggests, but also a bit overdone.
It was published twenty years ago — exactly twenty years before the recent piece of awesomeness I just reviewed, Berlin: The Wicked City (2019) (they were both released in August) — but I can’t call this a retrospective, since everything about Call of Cthulhu is new to me. Knowing that Mountains of Madness is widely cherished, I will try to offer a perspective on it without simply parroting the standard praise.
First an amusing anecdote. There’s a guy I knew from high school who believes in the conspiracy theory known as Base 22 or “New Berlin”, a lost Atlantis-like city in Antarctica that became a secret Nazi base in 1939. According to the theory, the Germans discovered aliens and alien technology, and there are still in the 21st century Germans working secretly in cahoots with the Illuminati to launch a One World Government from the South Pole continent. Our government has been aware of this and consistently covering it up. Seriously.
In reality, of course, the German expedition of 1938-39 was a whaling expedition and nothing more. In preparing for war, Hitler feared being cut out of the whaling industry by Norway and Britain; whale oil was one of the main ingredients for margarine, and Germans ate a lot of it. But reality is too boring for the crackpot theorist. Others of us relieve our boredom not by rewriting reality but by retreating from it. Into RPGS, for example. Beyond the Mountains of Madness allows role-players to imagine the South Pole continent containing a secret so horrifying and deadly it makes the Illuminati look laughable.
While many Call of Cthulhu modules take direct inspiration from Lovecraft’s tales, this one is an actual sequel to one of his most popular stories. The setting is Antarctica in 1933, three years after the failed expedition narrated in At the Mountains of Madness. For those who haven’t read the novel — and it is a novel, by the way, at 40,881 words, not a “novelette”, as the module keeps referring to it — it’s about an expedition to Antarctica in 1930-31 that ends in a mysterious tragedy, the public account being that the base camp was wiped out by a storm. The real story, narrated by the geologist William Dyer (one of the few survivors), tells of ancient city filled with alien life forms dating to the pre-Cambrian period, about a billion years ago. The Elder Things. They’re not pleasant (see image below on the left side), and there are shoggoths too, either enslaved by the Elder Things, or lurking in rivalry far below the city.
Most of the people on the expedition were slain, and those who survived, like William Dyer, returned home insane. Dyer eventually wrote the truth of the events (narrated in At the Mountains of Madness), and intended to give it to his colleague William Moore, but the manuscript was stolen. Dyer, for his part, became increasingly mad, and took a leave of absence from the Miskatonic University. His current location is unknown.
Three Expeditions: The Follow-Up, the Millionaire Woman, and the Germans
Much of the adventure’s intrigue comes from rival expeditions who are exploring Antarctica for their own reasons. The PCs are part of the main (follow-up) expedition to the disaster of 1930-31. It’s led jointly by a famous wilderness guide, James Starkweather, and geologist professor William Moore (Dyer’s colleague and friend). Starkweather is in it for the fame, and Moore wants to learn what really happened to his colleagues. But their expedition is competing with another one led by a millionaire heiress, Acacia Lexington, who wants to be the first woman to stand at the South Pole. Starkweather despises women and doesn’t allow females on his expeditions. In this case, however, he is more than willing to make an exception and take on a female PC or two (though he will treat them with insufferable condescension), in hopes of beating Lexington so he can have the petty satisfaction of saying that the first woman to reach the South Pole was under his management. Finally, unbeknownst to these two rival groups, the Germans are launching an expedition of their own.
As I said at the start, I would start the campaign at the point of chapter 8, right after the arrival at Ross Island and the grudging alliance formed between the three expeditions. Chapters 8 and 9 deal with the unpleasant discoveries at Lake’s Camp, where the former expedition was wiped out. By the end of those chapters, the PCs will be aware of an unknown and dangerous species that dwells in the mountain range east of the camp. They will find both dead and preserved specimens of that species at the camp, and bloody evidence that these creatures slaughtered the members of the first expedition led by Percy Lake. They will also be presented with William Dyer’s written true account of what happened, and the journey he took with Paul Danforth into the Mountains of Madness. The module even suggests that the players read Lovecraft’s novel at this point (if they never have), once the NPC from the German expedition reveals the stolen copy. (Dyer’s manuscript had been intended for William’s Moore’s eyes, but Moore never got it until this point in the game.) For less ambitious players who don’t want to read a novel in between gaming sessions, the module supplies a helpful one-page summary of Dyer’s account, which the game master can distribute and fill in the gaps and answer questions as he or she sees fit.
The only way to find out if Dyer’s stupendous tale is true is to fly out to the mountain range (about 200 miles east of Lake’s camp). Assuming there are 6 PCs, they prepare to fly out with 12 NPCS, all divided into three prop planes (Boeing 247 models). Starkweather and Moore each command a plane (the PCs are divided between these two), and Lexington has her own; she takes three Germans, so that all of the expeditions are represented. Chapter 10 then takes the 18-person mission to the mountains — to an ancient city (at almost 25,000 feet altitude, requiring oxygen masks) and, of course, the Elder Things.
The City of the Elder Things
The city is vast: 300 miles long and 30 miles wide (see the purple strip on the above map; click to enlarge the map), and the PCs and their comrades will only have enough time and oxygen to investigate a small part of it. The surface level of the city is conveyed in majestic prose, with a blinding sense of desolation. One of the problems with Lovecraft is that for all his strong ideas and gifted imagination, he couldn’t write. The module authors can:
“The explorers stand on ancient ice, hard and smooth and clear. Everything is still, frozen in time for unguessed ages. The weight of years lies heavy on the City, thick and dark with forgotten lives. Change seems blasphemous here, human voices and movement unwanted intrusions in the sad dreaming of the stones. Overhead, thin high wisps of vapor are the only things that move, like fine veils drawn across the City, hiding it from the eyes of time. A thin high singing is the only sound, constant and eerie and mad, the sound of the wind in the high peaks, piping from far away.”
And at first, probably for a full day, the PCs can enjoy this wondrous interlude. The city they explore is a dreamlike testimony to a lost greatness. But that greatness wasn’t human-friendly, and there’s an unshakable feeling of being watched. Wherever the PCs walk, they sense covert movement in their peripheral vision and behind their backs — which vanishes immediately when they turn to look. They also experience weird time slips (fleeting glimpses of the city in ages past) and tempus fugits (seconds that feel like minutes).
Eventually the Elder Things strike, but slyly. They are a terrifying species (see left image), more intelligent than humans, and far more interested in abduction than slaughter — though they don’t hesitate to do the latter if necessary. Unless the party is really lucky, at least one member, and probably two, will be captured, and the party will need to give chase. That chase will take them further east to an immense tower in the middle of a storm vortex — though the chase will be complicated by the likely sabotage and destruction of one of the party’s three planes. And with the party down a plane, some will have to stay behind in the city (unless things go so catastrophically wrong that at least six people die).
The Tower and Wall of Skulls
Chapter 11 covers the Construct Tower and is the critical part of the campaign. The tower basically functions as a “God Trap” that has been caging a horrible entity for millions of years. If released from the construct cage, this god would wipe out all life on earth. What holds the cage in place is a bio-mechanical structure of mammal and human skulls requiring constant replenishment:
“… a massive structure of crystal, stone, and living tissue. Partly living, partly machine, it squats in its clearing like a massive pile of corrupt flesh, twitching and breathing slightly in the still air. Moisture glistens down its flanks and pools upon the floor; it smells of ancient disease. The hideous artifact stares at the intruders from thousands of dead staring eyes. Embedded in the fleshy frame are great numbers of heads. Some are the heads of birds; others belong to seals and walruses; but many are of men. They stare blindly in all directions, flesh blackened and withered with age beneath a protective coating of slime. Most are little more than grinning skulls, the flesh long sloughed away, and these no longer move. A few, however, show faint signs of life. They are the most horrible of all. In the center of the mass at eye level, facing directly toward the investigators, is all that is left of [a recently abducted PC or NPC]. His eyes are wide and empty, his slack jaw agape. Runnels of glistening moisture slide unnoticed across his eyeballs and pool inside his open mouth. His lips purse and twitch in time with the pulsing of the plants, as if he is trying to speak but cannot remember how.”
This “Wall of Skulls” is kept functional by two shoggoths: a corpse-eater and a gardener, both specially bred and enslaved by the Elder Things for particular tasks. The corpse eater dwells in a tub on the tower’s middle level, and is the one who removes the flesh of its victims, in preparation for their installment. The shoggoth crawls up a victim’s limbs and inside his/her clothing, eating away the flesh (except the face, which remains recognizable) until nothing is left but loose bones, the head, spine, and nervous web. The shoggoth then delivers this mass to the gardener shoggoth on the level above. The gardener plants the remains of the victim into the skull network, another “battery” to keep the cage secure.
The gardener shoggoth knows that the survival of the Construct Tower (and the world) is all that matters, and will defend the skull shrine to the death. What that means is that PCs may just as likely receive the creature’s help — if they are trying to patch up their own stupid attempt to rescue anyone from the skull network, which is what they will probably initially do.
The likely chain of events is that at first the PCs will try rescuing whoever from their party was captured in the City and is now in the skull structure. Such rescue attempts — or any attempt to move or dislodge a part of the corpse network — will call the shoggoth down on them furiously. Should they succeed in removing anyone, or dislodging any part of the network, then the apocalypse starts: earthquakes rip through the tower valley, all the way back to the City and even Lake’s Camp; the entire face of the mountain range crumbles, falling in on itself, and the sky grows wild with flickering auroras; time slips accelerate, warping one’s sense of time, occurring every three to five minutes; the Unknown God pushes out from its cage, tasting a freedom almost within reach; the PCs feel its presence by some malignant poison or vapor seeping out of the tower walls and into their very flesh. Some of them will surely have gone insane by this point — if not from encountering Elder Things and shoggoths, then surely from confronting the Wall of Skulls and feeling the Unknown God on the verge of breaking free. They have a very short time window to fix their blunder before the entity escapes the Construct and devastates the planet.
The PCs then might offer to fix the damage they caused, which means sacrificing one of themselves or one of their NPC comrades to the corpse-eating shoggoth. That’s assuming they can figure out what the hell is going on, and the function of the tower and the wall of skulls. If they do decide on this course of altruism, the gardener shoggoth will assist them in every way, and take on the delicate task of networking the martyr’s flesh-eaten corpse into the skull-structure. If the PCs have killed either shoggoth, then that’s not good. Without the corpse-eater, the PCs will have a messy time shedding someone’s flesh down to bones and nerves. Without the gardener shoggoth, they will have an extremely hard time installing a flesh-eaten victim into the skull network where it must be lodged with precision (something the gardener has trained on since birth).
The PCs, in other words, could all too easily hand over planet earth to the god of annihilation.
Back to the camp, then the City again
If the PCs patch up their own damage in time, they do stop the apocalypse and keep the Unknown God caged, but they aren’t done yet. The Elder Things are mighty pissed at them, and to make things worse, two terrified members of the German expedition have fled the tower in a plane without waiting for anyone else, intent on telling the world about all the horrors they’ve seen in Antarctica — the aliens, the City, the Tower, and the Wall of Skulls. If the players have any brains at all, they will realize this is to be prevented at all costs. It’s imperative that humanity doesn’t learn of the City of the Elder Things or the Tower. Scientists and military would descend in droves, and it would be a matter of time before the God was released. The Elder-Thing City isn’t meant to be seen by human beings.
The module presumes that the PCs will have the guts to do what it takes, even if it means murdering in cold blood anyone from the three expeditions who won’t swear to keep silent about the mountains’ horrors. Dyer’s original story — not the truth he related in At the Mountains of Madness, but the story he went public with, about a natural disaster — must be upheld. Chapters 12-13 deal with the PCs chasing the Germans back to Lake’s Camp, and perhaps even further west, in order to persuade, or more likely kill, any who won’t keep quiet.
Whatever the outcome of the players’ difficult decisions at this point, they will have to return to the City of the Elder Things to rescue those who were left behind. Chapter 14 is a tense one. The Elder Things are on full alert now and at an ugly standoff between those who remained behind. They will make a priority of destroying any other plane that returns to the city, dooming the PCs for good. By now, everyone just wants to go home, but there’s no escaping the standoff so easily. The Elder Things still want captives, but they will just as happily go for slaughter. If the party escapes the city, this is where I would end the campaign.
This is a rare campaign-sized module that actually feels Lovecraftian. Most lengthy scenarios fall short in reaching too high. Masks of Nyarlathotep is a fan favorite, but that’s really more an Indiana Jones adventure than a Cthulhu Mythos piece. Escape from Innsmouth is also widely loved, but it’s like Aliens — a lot of pumped up battle, with the PCs assisted by the military. Beyond the Mountains of Madness exudes the proper Alien-vibe that aligns with Cthulhu horror. It isolates the PCs in a terrifying setting, and guarantees that many (if not all) of them will be killed, driven mad, or forced into actions that will make them loathe themselves for the rest of their lives.
It’s not perfect though. It details too much supplementary adventure as if it were part of the main course. Those beginning and end chapters should have been condensed into a prologue and epilogue.
Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.