Beyond the Mountains of Madness

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.

Verdict

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.

Revelations: The Book of Revelation Applied to the Other 65 Books of the Bible

If I’d known adventure scenarios like this existed, I would have widened my scope beyond D&D a long time ago. Revelations brings the bible to life in a horridly twisted version of the apocalypse. The PCs will basically live the book of Revelation applied retroactively to the other 65 books of the bible. If that sounds confusing, read on. If it sounds messed up, it is. If it sounds like a nihilistic death scenario, it’s that too: PCs have a 90-99% of dying as the world goes to hell around them, and they can’t do a damn thing about it. Unless they’re really good.

The adventure is set in the small town of Toil, Illinois in 1938. The Dust Bowl setting and the time of the Depression is perfectly suited for what appears to be the biblical end times. Revelations is about the crushing despair triggered by a preacher’s loss of faith, and the devastating consequences of his attempt to make God active in the world as He was in biblical times. Stop reading now if you think you might play this. From this point on, game masters’ eyes only.

How did the end begin?

The backstory is the tragedy of Andrew Yearta. Andrew is a King-James-Bible-only fundamentalist preacher who believes God has deserted humanity. While biblical scholars and theologians speak of “Remnant Theology”, Andrew has formulated a “Deserter Theology”: that humanity’s sins have so offended the Lord that He has entirely given up on creation. God doesn’t even bother punishing the wicked anymore; there is no salvation to be had for anyone, let alone a faithful remnant. The parental love that sent Noah’s flood is dried up; God has washed His hands of humankind.

Andrew, in his insanity, believes that his own recent sin (fornicating with a young woman) was the straw that broke the camel’s back — the final sin that damned humanity. Instead of showing His love through apocalyptic rebuke, God simply wiped Himself from existence, removing his love and forgiveness from the world. Andrew thus believes that he is the slayer of his own God, and must therefore become the prophet of His resurrection. In desperation and despair, he launches an incredibly obscene plan to “bring God back”. He summons a Cthulhu-like god (Noought-Iss), binds it in a hideous ritual, and molds it into a devastating parody of the Judeo-Christian God. In this way, Andrew hopes to piss off Yahweh, make Him jealous, and provoke His return so that Biblical Truth can again hold sway in the world.

Andrew would infuriate his God back into existence by his blasphemous gall — by worshiping something so abhorrent and base that it escaped the notice of even the most brutal pagans. Thus, in an attempt to save his own soul, Andrew Yearta made Earth a living Hell.”

Andrew does this by sacrificing an innocent farmer and his family (by mutilating and dismembering them), and then casting a spell from an obscure tome found at a college divinity school — nominally a school for biblical studies, but one that also explores the theology of bizarre and heretical texts. The tome in question was written by a certain Klaus von Meinhoff, a German linguist in the early 1800s, who dealt with forbidden knowledge and realized that the god-creature Noought-Iss is the primary catalyst of all existence. Andrew Yearta tapped into this forbidden knowledge, to channel Noought-Iss into a copy of the King James Bible:

“Andrew has used what von Meinhoff called the ‘Objective Tongue’ to bind Noought-Iss to his will. Rather than serving as the bridge between all that IS NOT and all that IS, he has performed a sick, profane ritual that focuses Noought-Iss on a single copy of the King James Bible. His insane hope is that Noought-Iss will then rewrite his ‘Deserter God’ back into existence and save the doomed souls of mankind.”

The problem is that Noought-Iss is not meant for a task like this. The “god’s” intellect, if it has one, is cold and alien. It has no concern for humanity’s survival; no understanding of historical context, subjective interpretation, or inter-textuality. For Noought-Iss to attempt a feat like this would rewrite the laws of reality and result in an explosive apocalyptic nightmare. Reality would become a perversion of everything that happens in the King James Bible:

“Every line of the King James Bible is now being used as the code for a new reality, applied literally and without any regard for possible contradictions. The incongruities are tearing existence apart. Noought-Iss’ chaotic, bloody application of the new reality is causing existence itself to collapse.”

And so the skies are raining hail and fire (Rev 8:7); mobs are slitting people’s throats to perform sin offerings (Lev 10:12-20); people are eating ash as if it were bread and weeping hysterically (Ps 102: 9); other people are eating actual bread, but the loaves are turning to flesh that pulsate with sweaty skin and spurt blood when eaten (I Cor 11:23-32); frenzied worshipers, as they rave about the end of days, clamor to rip chunks from that living bread and guzzle bottles of blood; the weak are becoming slaves on the spot and obeying their new masters (Eph 6:5); the ten plagues of Egypt are decimating life everywhere; and countless other horrors that have been shifted and twisted from every page of the bible.

It’s like living the book of Revelation retroactively applied to the other 65 books of the bible.

Of course, not everything in the bible is bad, and much of what has been translated into existence is harmless, or even beneficial. There is a Tree of Life (Rev 22:2) outside the agricultural supply store, with fruit that magically heals all physical wounds, insanity, or any mental illness. The grocery store has an endless supply of bread and tuna (Mk 6:41): when a loaf is removed from the shelf, another takes its place; a single can of tuna could feed the entire town, as there is always more tuna in the can. But whatever is beneficial or mundane is hardly noticed under all the calamity.

The earth is now flat, thanks to Rev 7:1: “I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth”. When Noought-Iss made reality of those words, the result was a victory for flat-earthers (if they can live to enjoy it).

The PCs run around town in vain, witnessing horrors on every block, unable to do anything beyond helping an occasional victim. Indeed, the module encourages that the PCs (1) embrace their destruction: the scenario is apocalyptic, and so no one will win; at best, a few might survive. And to (2) accept their ignorance: the atmosphere of the module is one of escalating, unstoppable doom; players should expect not a shred of hand-holding from the game master; the apocalypse plays no favorites. And to (3) enjoy their fall: in good, nihilistic Call-of-Cthulhu fashion.

Impossible to stop?

The apocalypse can be stopped, and Noought-Iss banished back to his base state, but it will take an extremely shrewd group of players, and an altruistic PC. The solution is found at the farm at the western edge of town where Andrew sacrificed the innocent family and conducted his obscene ritual. At the farm the PCs will find an altar made of the family’s corpses:

“Disemboweled and dismembered, the farmer’s wife and children have been arranged into concentric circles around what appears at first to be a miniature tornado. In the eye of the storm, somehow contained by the human remains, a single leather bound book appears to float.”

That book is the King James Bible, and removing it from the vortex will stop the apocalypse. But that’s easier said than done:

“The bible appears to swirl in the vortex, but at the same times it blinks into the shimmering text of the word ‘book’ or ‘truth.’ The words written in the wind just as suddenly translate into hundreds of other languages, shriek the sound of those words, expand into verses that whip around, a dizzying flurry of language, sound, and raw meaning. Beholding the thing as it sprawls into every realm of perception simultaneously is maddening, and approaching the bloody nexus just makes things worse. Characters can feel their skin turn into the mere idea of skin. Each outstretched finger becomes the word ‘finger,’ letters curling away and being ripped into the maelstrom surrounding the book. To reach into the circle flays the body and mind at once, and there is no hope for any who dare to physically touch the nothingness that is Noought-Iss.”

To unmake the apocalypse and return Noought-Iss to his base state, one of the PCs must dislodge the bible from the vortex — which will irrevocably destroy the character’s body, mind, and soul. It’s an automatic act of suicide/martyrdom, and if one of the PCs makes this sacrifice, then he or she is unmade before the other PCs’ eyes. But with the book wrenched free, the day is saved: Noought-Iss expands outward to encompass all and everything again, and the events of the last day suddenly never were.

Which means that everyone who died under the perverted biblical apocalypse is completely fine and ignorant. All are alive and safe — except the person who removed the bible from the vortex. All traces of that hero have been erased from the world. There are no records of the character having ever existed; family and friends of the PC don’t recognize his or her name if mentioned. No one remembers the apocalypse happening, except for survivors who witnessed the removal of the King James Bible. They do remember everything, since it was their perception of the book’s removal that allowed normality to be restored. They live on as scarred witnesses (some of them may be insane by the end), and they must decide what to do with preacher Andrew Yearta, who is also alive and well. He could very well try casting the spell again. Since he doesn’t remember ever having done so, that is probably exactly what he will do… to infuriate his God back into existence…

Learning the Solution

I can guess what you’re thinking. Stopping the end of the world sounds rather easy: one of the players must simply become a martyr and remove the bible from the vortex. But why would any of them think to do that? The PCs will have no idea this bible is the source of the apocalypse. (For that matter, they may not know anything about Andrew Yearta, who is dead at home, unless they’ve searched his house.) There’s crazy shit to be seen everywhere in town; a bible floating inside a mini-tornado surrounded by a hacked up family is just par for the course. The question isn’t so much, “Will a PC be willing to sacrifice him or herself to remove the bible from the vortex?”, but rather, “Why would a PC try?”

There are two places where the PCs can learn the nature of what’s going on. The first is in Andrew Yearta’s house. Andrew himself is dead, having drunk the toxic “eucharist” wine appearing in bottles all over town. In his bedroom can be found the German tome (by Klaus von Meinhoff), which takes considerable time to read through and make sense of — and that’s assuming at least one of the PCs knows German. But there are also Andrew’s journals and notes, written in English, which describe Noought-Iss’ powers and what the preacher hoped to accomplish by channeling him through a King James Bible.

The second way to learn the truth is much more easy, though instantly fatal. Just as there is a Tree of Life (Rev 22:2) at the agricultural shop, there is a Tree of Knowledge (Gen 2:17) by the river running through the town. While the Tree of Life is beneficial, the Tree of Knowledge is beneficial and fatally terrifying at once:

“As this is the Tree of Knowledge, anyone eating of the fruit will get just that: Knowledge. Of everything. All at once. The omnipotence provided by the fruit is mind-meltingly powerful and utterly deadly. Characters eating of the fruit are doomed to a writhing, poisonous death on the ground, but they will learn all about preacher Andrew Yearta, the god Noought-Iss, and how to stop what is happening around town. Essentially the player is granted access to all GM information about the plot, and then told that they are very soon to die. What remains to be seen is if eater of the forbidden fruit will be able to convey this information to someone else before dying in agony from internal hemorrhaging and madness.”

If the PC can convey the solution — removing the bible from the vortex at the farmer’s house — before dying (and that’s a mighty big if), then the group may just succeed in stopping the apocalypse.

Verdict

Revelations is everything demented I could ask for in a horror module. It’s perfect for Call of Cthulhu, and a special treat for game masters and players who are familiar with the more dramatic elements of the bible, of which there are plenty.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Berlin: The Wicked City

I confess I’m blown away. Weimar-era Berlin (1919-1932) is a perfect setting for Call of Cthulhu, and I’m a bit surprised it took 40 years for someone to pitch the idea to Chaosium. David Larkins explains why he designed it:

“I feel like the city at this time provides an outlet for exploring particular modes of horror centering on themes of shifting identity, humanity’s capacity for depravity, body horror elements like mutilation and mutation, the collapse of ordered society, and the like. It is certainly not a setting for everyone, as it necessarily deals with issues of sexuality and hedonistic behavior that not every group wants in their horror games, but if that’s something your group is comfortable tackling, the experiences baked into a Berlin-centered campaign promise to be quite removed from your classic games. I also like to amuse myself by thinking that Lovecraft himself would have been repelled by the contents of the book! If the idea of partying with Anita Berber and Conrad Veidt, punching out literal Nazis, getting impregnated with yard-long owl-headed maggots, ducking the attention of gnostic Saturn-worshippers, matching wits with a coven reality-bending witches, being turned into a living doll, or foiling a Communist shoggoth sounds like fun — Wilkommen, Liebchen!”

A GM after my own heart. I used to design transgressive campaigns like this for AD&D, populating my scenarios with all sorts of demented elements that were, well, not to everyone’s taste. But the world-building of Berlin: The Wicked City is on such a staggering scale, and something I’ve rarely seen in any RPG supplement. The geographic and historical detail alone is worth the price of admission.

A full-scale color map of the city is provided, and keyed with important sites, many of which are zoomed-in throughout the module. Notable personalities, and plenty of real-world historical people, are given helpful bios and gaming stats. There is a section on crime and punishment, Berlin’s dark underworld, and the many political factions before Hitler’s takeover in 1933. The section on LGBT issues is remarkably informative, and explains how people of unconventional sexuality can find a welcoming place in Berlin.

Noteworthy are the three camps of gays at this time: (1) the “militant homosexualists” (Nationalists who esteem strong blue-eyed and blond-haired masculine gayness), (2) the “Third Sexers” (Socialists who view gay men as having female souls and lesbian women as having male dispositions as naturally occurring facets of evolution), and in between these right and leftists, (3) the “libertarian gays” (the largest and most general group, who have no use for basing sexual orientation in any political organization, or clubs or rallies). Again, there’s pretty much a place for anyone in Weimar Berlin, except perhaps for trans people who are widely derided by all (which is ironic, considering the drag-queen cabaret is a visual symbol for Berlin; a reminder of prejudices from all sides).

The menu for prostitutes is damn impressive. No less than 19 types are detailed: boot girls, chontes, demi-castors, doll boys, dominas, fohses, grasshoppers, gravels, half-silks, kontroll girls, line boys, medicines, munzis, nuttes, race horses, t-girls, table ladies, telephone girls, and wild boys. No, I won’t explain each of these here. Suffice to say, whatever the sexual appetites of your PC, if you can’t find what you want in Weimar Berlin, good luck elsewhere.

The section on drugs (cocaine, heroin, morphine, cannabis, etc.) describes the levels of addiction one can expect, and whether or not the drug aids or hinders in use of Cthulhu like visions or spells. The libraries and museums of Berlin are all helpfully described, as they are sure to be invaluable sources for PC investigators. And the list goes on. For RPG city supplements, Berlin sets a new bar.

But how well is the gazetteer put to use? A Cthulhu source book is ultimately judged on the strength of its adventures scenarios — the application, in other words, of its own source material. Trust me when I say the three Berlin adventures are among the best I’ve seen for any Cthulhu setting, and I’ll now describe them. From this point on, game masters’ eyes only. If you think you might want to play any of these, you should stop reading now. Don’t ruin the surprises in store for you.

The first scenario, (1) The Devil Eats Flies, is grounded in the theme of lustmord (sexual murders and pleasure killings), and is set up as a dark crime procedural involving multiple factions, with the PCs having almost no idea who they can trust. The second one, (2) Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy, is about uberschreitung (sexual transgression and depravity), and involves a secret club who want to create a sex goddess, and eventually succeed, but the cabaret members get far more than they bargained for, leaving the PCs to clean up an orgiastic disaster decimating the city. And the last adventure, (3) Shreckfilm, taps into algolagnia (the craving of pain for sexual pleasure), expressed through the machinations of a witch cult that has eaten its way into Berlin’s power structures, particularly with Nazis on the rise. I’ll review them all.

(1) The Devil Eats Flies. Setting: 1922. It starts with the suicide of the real-life Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Großmann, who murdered and raped and cannibalized countless victims, many of them children. As in our real world, Großmann hangs himself in his jail cell, but in the Cthulhu game his suicide turns out to be the final stage of a magical ritual that he has been building to over the past five years. His death disperses his spirit across Berlin, and in spirit form he is able to instantly possess anyone who ever ate the flesh of his victims that he peddled on the black market and his own hot dog stand (yes, he actually did this in real-life). That’s thousands of people, and he can possess multiple hosts at once. The goal of Spirit-Großmann is to use these hosts to continue his legend of murdering, raping, and molesting kids on a wide scale. In order to defeat Spirit-Großmann, the PCs must enact a banishment ritual that, if it goes wrong, will backfire and summon Großmann back into the world as a shoggoth-like creature and probably kill most of the PCs. If it goes well, then Großmann’s spirit is banished, but (unless the PCs are very shrewd) by partaking in this ritual the PCs end up unwittingly accelerating the events that lead to the horrible year of 1923 and the Great Inflation, when the German mark becomes so valueless that Germans start burning their paper money to keep warm or use it to wallpaper their homes. That’s when the young Hitler tried to seize power in Munich — failing, though gaining the platform that would become crucial to his later success. So, unless the PCs are really on top of their game, they could have an indirect role in accelerating Hitler’s rise to power. And that’s assuming they are able to save Berlin from a massive onslaught of murder, rape, and baby rape enacted through innocent people by Großmann’s spirit.

This scenario is by far the most “realist” of the three, in that the majority of the NPCs are based on historical people with the same names. Not just Großmann, but “Anna Tchaikovsky” (Anna Anderson, who pretended to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia), Pyotr Shabelsky-Bork (the right-wing Russian officer, and anti-Semite who killed the father of Vladimir Nabokov), Walther Rathenau (German Foreign Minister of Jewish heritage, doomed, probably, to be assassinated on June 24), and others. At first the PCs investigation seems mundane and straightforward: they are hired to simply find out if a missing Russian woman was one of the late Carl Großmann’s victims. But as the PCs investigate all of Großmann’s haunts (his old apartment, whore plazas, his “garden colony” of black-market meat) it becomes clear they are being manipulated, and they soon get wind of (and encounter themselves) multiple attacks from people who ate Großmann’s meat in the past, and are now possessed by his obscene spirit. Soon there are mass assaults, all of them executed in unspeakable fashion, and the police have to cover most of it up to prevent a public panic. By the evening of June 23, Berlin is in a state of alarm; children are forbidden to play in the streets; doors are locked and barred. The PCs are driven to the banishment ritual — which involves the use of a talisman-like fetish — and that ritual has the potential to go horribly wrong and make things worse for them and the city.

(2) Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy. Setting: 1926, 1928. The second scenario is set in the golden era of the republic: after the Great Inflation of the early ’20s, and before the knock-on effects of the American stock market crash of the early ’30s. It starts in 1926, and then jumps to 1928 when the PCs are rudely displaced across time. This is after they participate in an orgiastic dance at a night club and later attend an unnerving piano performance. The somber magic of the piano shifts the PCs to an alternate version of Berlin that’s completely deserted; the only noise on these streets are rhythmic sounds like a thousand hinges creaking, and the only living entities are demonic zombies that soon come pouring out the buildings and giving chase. If the PCs survive this horrible shadow trip, they find themselves back in their own Berlin again, but two years later on November 10, 1928 — the day before Armistice Day, the 10th anniversary of the end of WWI. Much has transpired in their two-year absence: the stage dancer who cast the orgiastic spell on them has been reborn as Abyzou, the Mother of Abominations, and has taken over the Großes Schauspielhaus (the public playhouse) as her obscene temple of worship. Thousands of Berliners come to the playhouse to revel in mindless orgies. Her pestilential influence is all pervasive: cold winds snap across the city constantly and drive people insane. The city is filled with public drunkenness, brawls, exhibitionism, mating rituals, swarms of flies and cockroaches, and the unexplained death of infants. Hospitals report miscarriages up the wazoo. Funeral processions with tiny children-caskets are seen everywhere, and the police, flooded with calls for help, have their hands full every minute. Within days the Bacchanalian revelers who follow Abyzou are openly raping and killing anyone weak and helpless, especially children, wherever they can find them. The corpses of children and infants are being dumped into mass graves.

The PCs, if they play their cards right, may eventually receive help from a young phone girl (a teenage prostitute catering to the elite), who is actually a manikin that was given life as part of the ritual that summoned Abyzou. For the past two years, these manikins — hundreds of them — were planted in the streets, brothels, and private backrooms of Berlin’s underworld, to absorb life essence from their clients, creating a battery of magical power that finally allowed them to be animated, and which allowed Abyzou to be incarnated. Most of the manikins have no clear conscience, but the one who gets involved with the PCs (Erma Kore) has achieved more self-awareness than the others, and feels terrible about what she helped bring about. Abyzou’s goal is to beseech the Cthulhu goddess Shub-Niggurath to give her the power to bridge two worlds — of shadow-Berlin with the PCs’ Berlin — with an act of mass human sacrifice. The PCs best bet in defeating her is to somehow throw her into a Pit of the Dead, which devours even demigods, and above which floats a giant godlike tree (see left). The tree is composed of a fleshy, organic substance, with leaves that are lobe flaps, roots that are mummified flesh, nine eyes that glow, and a serpentine shape slithers among the pulsating limbs. The mere sight of the creature causes most people to go mad and hurl themselves at the tree, falling to their death in the Pit. Seriously, this is Call of Cthulhu raised to the nth.

(3) Schreckfilm (“Horror Film”). Setting: 1932. There are two plots of equal threat in the final scenario. One is intensely personal, the other global. On the one hand, the PCs are threatened by a certain movie actress, Countess Agnes Esterhazy, and her witch cult. The only way to save their lives and sanity is to destroy this bitch-woman, which ironically, the PCs have the means to do from the very start; they just don’t know it. On the other hand, the PCs also need to prevent a certain filmmaker, Baron Grunau, from completing his next film. Should that film (Das Necronomicon) reach completion, it will spread madness and despair far and wide, and send Berlin and the entire world spiraling far deeper into chaos and bloodshed. There’s a lot of that coming anyway — the Third Reich is around the corner next year — but the film has the capacity to terrify and demoralize humanity on unprecedented levels, both psychologically and spiritually. As if to presage this, suicides have been on the rise in Berlin, thanks to the grim economy. While there was a brief respite since the Great Inflation of ’24 (from ’26-’28), the economy has tanked again, thanks to the American stock market crash of ’29. The game master is directed to emphasize that the PCs receive word every single day that someone they know in the city (an NPC not crucial to the scenario) has committed suicide.

The adventure begins with a strange dossier acquired by the PCs — either given to them on purpose or left near them by accident; it’s not clear which. Whichever it is, it must be valuable, because people immediately try killing them for it. The folder’s six contents are baffling: (1) a photograph showing the PCs in the company of two men and a woman… none of whom the PCs have ever met before in their lives; (2) a photograph of the movie star Countess Agnes Esterhazy; (3) a calling card with odd sequence of letters and symbols; (4) a postcard of a tall brick tower looming up from a woodland surrounding a lake; (5) a newspaper clipping with the headline, “Murder in the Library”; (6) a curious filmstrip about six inches long. Figuring out what these items are and mean — while dodging assassination attempts — plunges the PCs into a world of witch covens, seances, and spiritual assaults that leave them questioning the fabric of reality. If they survive this mess, they still have a worse mess to deal with at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Turm (the Grunewald Tower in Berlin’s southwestern forest), where Baron Grunau is doing his daily shoots for his catastrophic horror film, Das Necronomicon. The true enemy turns out to be the specially treated film in the baron’s cameras, which steals the souls of all whose images it captures, and whisks them into a parallel dreamland, devoid of color, and where everything (trees, ponds, buildings, etc.) seems artificial and fake; there is is no sky, just diffused light and overarching darkness without stars; and there are phantasmal horrors and doppelgangers that drive everyone mad. To escape the horrid dreamworld may require the PCs to use a ritual — which will also summon Yog-Sothoth and stands a good chance of driving them permanently mad.

Verdict

Not only are the three adventure scenarios among the best I’ve seen for Call of Cthulhu, the detail provided for Berlin is on par with the best city modules or gazetteers for any RPG — my personal favorite after AD&D’s Lankhmar. It’s that good; that inspired. Don’t wait. Buy it here.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Tabletop RPGs of the 70s and Early 80s

As an old-school gamer, I seldom bother with any of the modern RPGs flooding the market. But last week, for the first time, I found myself making an exception when someone called my attention to a game called Tales from the Loop. It may not come from the ’80s, but it’s set in the ’80s, and made me an instant fan. Here’s a look-back on all the classic RPGs that I either played, or owned, or now wish that I had. Tales from the Loop ranks here as well. It may as well be a classic RPG.

1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977). 5 stars. Obviously, everything on my list is overshadowed by this one. 95% of my gaming career has been devoted to old-school D&D. The Golden Age, that is, which lasted between ’74-’83. I began playing at the end of the age, in ’81, and up through ’87, by which time the game had become hopelessly commercialized. The influences of the golden period were the pulp fantasies and morally shifty heroes: Conan, Elric, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, characters from the Dying Earth, etc. Despite D&D’s repeated comebacks (especially with the 3rd and 5th editions), it’s never been what it was, and today’s players don’t necessarily esteem it as the ultimate RPG. A google search will turn up lists of “RPGs way better than D&D”, and the reason isn’t hard to see. Pulp fantasy is long out of vogue, and today’s teens don’t have the touchstones that made D&D so great and accessible. And not just pulp fantasy, even Lord of the Rings, which despite Gary Gygax’s protests, had at least some significant influence on his early design. It’s been almost a decade now since Peter Jackson’s films, and Tolkien doesn’t inspire the same levels of awe that it did in previous years. The pulps themselves are a distant memory, and are even deemed offensive in the politically correct era of woke culture. It’s a shame. The best gaming adventures are the old-school D&D modules, and my coming of age years would have been much less inspiring and imaginative without them.

2. Call of Cthulhu (1981). 5 stars. Of all the RPGs I regret never playing, this one looms large. If I could go back and redo my coming-of-age years in only one way, I would be sure to play Call of Cthulhu. And it says something that I feel comfortable ranking it with highest honors outside the top slot, when I’ve never seen it played, let alone play it myself. Back in the day I learned about it through Dragon articles more than anything, and only in the recent decade have I delved thoroughly into the rules and adventure modules. It’s well known that Cthulhu is a horror game that turned D&D’s heroic fantasy on its head, prioritizing investigation over combat, with PCs who are inherently weak: librarians, doctors, professors, amateur detectives, etc. You don’t play Cthulhu to become a powerful knight or wizard, but rather with the dismal expectation that your character will likely go insane, as your character learns about the horrors of the world and the complete irrelevance of humanity. Using the tools that are needed to defeat the horrors (knowledge and magic) will most likely plunge PCs into mental illness. The infamous sanity score has become the game’s hallmark. Horror reduces your sanity points like weapons reduce hit points. PCs acquire phobias, fetishes, obsessions, hallucinations, amnesia, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, and psychosomatic reactions that make them dysfunctional. They can learn magic, but this hardly amounts to a benefit, as magic just immerses them more in the horrors, and makes them panic more, drop things, go catatonic, or experience any number of mental problems. It’s a thoroughly nihilistic game, and the nice thing is that, unlike D&D and Gamma World, it has remained stable and consistent through all the seven editions. While I would surely use the 1st edition if I ever started playing, I have it on good authority that it really doesn’t matter which edition you play.

3. Gamma World (1982). 5 stars. Basically the Dark Ages of Our Future. Growing up in the Reagan era meant ongoing fears of an apocalypse that would turn our globe into a radioactive wasteland. But what raises Gamma World far above other post-apocalyptic fantasies is that its apocalypse takes place in the very far future — the 24th century (2322 AD) — which means that the pre-apocalyptic world is just as futuristic and alien. There are high-tech artifacts like blaster pistols and robots, and cars that fly. The world of the ancients is filled with mystery and wonder, which makes the game a lot like D&D. Most of the pulp fantasies that shaped first-edition D&D were post-apocalyptic (Conan’s Hyperboria, Dying Earth, etc). The worlds of D&D were “fallen” in some way, and Gamma World aligns with this, the only difference being that there are techno-gadgets instead of magic items, and mutant powers instead of spells. But the earth is a global sandbox — just like Greyhawk and Mystara — in which PCs move from one pocket of civilization to another, plundering lost wealth and artifacts. The default start date in this world is 2450 AD, about a century and a half after the nuclear wipe-out. The game is in its 7th edition now, but I won’t touch anything beyond 2nd. The 2nd edition (1982) is the best, perfecting on the first that came out in the ’70s. After these two classics, Gamma World became increasingly commercialized.

4. Tales from the Loop (2017). 4 ½ stars. The only entry on my list which post-dates the ’80s is set in an alternate ’80s world, and it deserves to stand proud in the surrounding company. Tales from the Loop followed the overnight success of Stranger Things and takes direct inspiration from it. In the game you play kids between ages 10 and 15, and solve science-fiction mysteries that involve the Loop, a massive particle accelerator that is nearby the town you live in. The Loop causes aberrations like corruption of the earth’s magnetic field, warping wildlife (even dinosaurs emerge around the Loop), and animating robots in dangerous ways. The rules come with two default locations: the Malaren islands of Sweden, and Boulder City Nevada. But the rules also emphasize that you can set the Loop anywhere you want. I’d use my old hometown of Lyndeborough NH, where I grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s. A crucial aspect of this game is that adults are absolutely useless when it comes to helping out, so the kid PCs have to do all the leg-work and solve mysteries on their own. Around the mystery solving, there are the normal trials that kids suffer: bullies, school tests, crushes, and heartbreak. It’s such a terrific idea for an RPG, it’s a wonder it took so long for a TV-series inspiration. Best of all, the rules are easy to follow, and flexible enough to cover virtually any situation that comes up in the game. There are eight archetypes (“character classes”): Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker, and Weirdo. Seriously, who among us who came of age in the ’80s doesn’t want to play this? Tales from the Loop recreates an age I miss sorely as I turn 51 at the end of this month. It takes me back to my reckless attitudes and thinking as a kid, and, incredibly, it provides the mechanics for tapping into that heart and drive.

5. Traveller (1977). 4 stars. Even dinosaurs my age tend to forget Traveller. It wasn’t very user-friendly and assumed a significant amount of player knowledge of physics and astronomy. I remember trying to understand the ramifications of zero-g combat, and those weren’t defined anywhere; then also wanting to know what the hell a mass driver was. Without internet forums and google capabilities back then, you were pretty much left to make sense of the rules as you could. Oddly, there was much I loved about that open-ended aspect of the game and ended up playing it a lot with a cousin who preferred space travel to D&D’s wizards and warriors. One thing that struck me was the fact that PCs start out with loads of experience. In most RPGs the characters start at beginner levels, but in Traveller you come out of the military with years of skills under your belt. In most other ways, though, it shares plenty in common with D&D. Both games assume the characters are roguish adventurers “on the make”. The adventures involve shady activities in order to acquire money, and the characters are outsiders (“travellers”) without commitments to local planetary societies. (The Raza crew in the TV series Dark Matter remind me very much of Traveller.) The space world is a lawless frontier where authorities are distant and corrupt. That’s really the same basic framework of old-school D&D. My greatest Traveller memory is the point at which my cousin was finally able to design and purchase his own ship — and then all the mileage he got from it.

6. Middle-Earth Role-Playing (1984). 3 ½ stars. I never played the actual system, but I played the modules all the time by adapting them for D&D. So this one was hard for me to rank. Frankly I don’t like MERP as a gaming system (nor Rolemaster from which it derives), but the campaign modules and adventure modules are top-notch, and I wrote retrospectives of them all (starting with Rangers of the North). When I learned in the ’90s that Tolkien Enterprises finally revoked ICE’s license to produce gaming material for Middle-Earth, I went ape shit. The MERP modules were nothing less than scholarly, as fun to read as to play. They came to dominate my role-playing years in the late ’80s, and I even kept buying them in the ’90s when I wasn’t playing much anymore. I would check in at the local comic store religiously to grab every new release, and I’m glad I did: thanks to the Tolkien-Enterprise fascists, the modules are now collector’s items. It’s a shame, because they’re probably the most academic accessories ever written for any RPG. It’s as if Tolkien himself had taken up D&D and poured his linguistic and cultural scholarship into the hobby. The irony, of course, being that the high fantasy setting of Middle-Earth is on the face of it so at odds with D&D’s pulp fantasy roots. But I never saw a contradiction. Anyway, the MERP rules and gaming system would fall at the bottom of this list, while the adventure modules themselves would place very high; so a ranking of 6 feels about right.

7. Stormbringer (1981). 3 ½ stars. This one’s like Call of Cthulhu. I never played it, and like Cthulhu it’s a Chaosium publication. There are strong literary vibes in the Chaosium RPGs, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been so turned on to them in recent years. Stormbringer is, as you might expect, set in the world of the Young Kingdoms, the realm from the Elric novels. It deals with a failing empire in conflict with the powers of chaos. The world is plunging into an apocalypse that has been foreseen, but which the PCs are utterly powerless to prevent. It’s a nihilistic game, again like Cthulhu, though in a more overarching abstract way. It does have its problems, and I can understand why it never became as popular as other RPGs, despite the fact that Moorcock’s novels were widely loved. The sorcery rules are very detailed, but it’s all a virtual waste, as PCs will rarely if ever have the chance to use sorcery. Magic in this world is brokered by demons, because humans can’t wield magic on their own. They have to bind and command demons to use power; so for example, to cast a fireball would require summoning a fire elemental and using its powers, or throwing its energy, at a target. And the ability to bind demons and other creatures is extremely rare, if not suicidal. On top of that, and in accordance with the predestination of Elric’s world, players have very little say in what their characters will be like. When they generate the characters, the dice determine their class and race as much as they determine their attributes. But there is a lot to admire in this game, and I wish I’d played it at least once.

8. Top Secret (1981). 3 stars. This is the most realistic RPG I ever played, though that’s perhaps not saying much. The early ’80s was the age of the Roger Moore James Bond films, and Top Secret plays on some of those extravagant plot lines. The PCs are field agents for a governmental agency, and they are assigned missions falling into one of three general categories: assassination (killing), confiscation (stealing), or investigation (spying). One might say loosely that it’s D&D in the modern world, for assassins, thieves, and rangers. The problem is that these character professions aren’t fleshed out too well; the professions mainly determine if the PC receives bonus experience points for succeeding in a mission that pertains to their profession. In other words, a field agent specializing in assassination would get bonus points for carrying out a kill, but that’s not to say that confiscators and investigators can’t assassinate. The game is purely percentile based: 2d10 for everything — attributes, skill checks, and combat. I have fond memories of skyjacking a 747 (I was a confiscation agent), though I botched the job by killing more innocent passengers than was necessary; it didn’t go well for me in the end. Alas, that was the only time I played Top Secret.

9. Star Frontiers (1982). 2 stars. This is the Star Wars of early RPGs, so it’s no surprise I never got around to playing it, given my constant dislike of George Lucas. I owned Star Frontiers, to be sure, and read through the Alpha Dawn rules many times. I even went through phases when I was inspired to play, but ultimately never did. Bubblegum space opera was never my thing. If I wanted outer space and star travel, I had the more solid and gritty approach of Traveller. (A reviewer in Dragon back in the day said that comparing Star Frontiers and Traveller is a bit like comparing Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey; and yes, that comparison is bang-on.) Probably the most compelling thing about Star Frontiers is the Sathar, the worm-like race trying to conquer the galaxy. The Sathar are elusive and seldom appear. They aren’t good at military combat and rely on hypnotic powers to recruit from and corrupt the four player character races: humans (of course), dralasites (giant amoebas with a prankish sense of humor), vrusks (huge insectoids that are team-driven, though not quite hive mind), and yazirians (flying wookies, who are easily enraged and go berserk). They live in an area of the galaxy as part of a multicultural federation that works against the Sathar. There are plenty of old-school gamers who rhapsodize about Star Frontiers. I’m not one of them.