Wednesday, February 22, 2012
For and for ill, I suspect that Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu has played a significant role in the popularizing of Lovecraft and the Mythos. Back in 1981, when the game was released, I don't think any of my immediate circle of gaming friends had heard of Lovecraft, let alone read any of his stuff and this wasn't unusual among the younger generation of roleplayers in those days. Even today, I'd hazard a guess that the vast majority of people who read this blog first encountered Lovecraft as a result of Call of Cthulhu rather than being drawn to CoC, because they were fans of HPL first. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, except that, for all my love of Call of Cthulhu, I do think it (necessarily) distorts Lovecraft and his ideas in its presentation of them, so much so that the default assumption is that CoC investigators are Indiana Jones-like globetrotting adventurers rather than sensitive, bookish polymaths for whom merely interacting with other human beings is adventure enough.
I mention this all because it might seem, in retrospect, like Call of Cthulhu always had tons of adventures and other materials to support it; that's not the case at all. Back in the first few years of the game's existence, Chaosium didn't produce a lot for it, which left a void filled by licensees, like Theatre of the Mind Enterprises (TOME). I know very little about TOME, so if anyone has any information about the company I'd be grateful. All I know is that, throughout 1983 and 1984, they produced about a half-dozen different adventure collections for use with Call of Cthulhu. These collections were heavily advertised, including in official Chaosium products as I recall, but I only ever saw one of them, "Glozel est Authentique!," published in 1984. If it's any indication of the quality of TOME's other CoC offerings, I am grateful I didn't acquire them.
"Glozel est Authentique!" is the title of the first of two scenarios included in this book. Written by Stephen Rawling, the adventure concerns a real world town in France, Glozel, which in 1924, became the center of an archeological controversy, when a young farmer discovered a hidden chamber in his field containing a wide variety of seemingly ancient artifacts. The artifacts consisted of pieces of glass and ceramic, human bones, and some clay tablets written in a strange language. The controversy centered on just how these artifacts were and their origins, leading to some outlandish hypotheses, as well as claims of fraud. As you can guess from its title, the first scenario makes the claim that the find is authentic and, of course, connected to the Mythos -- except in a very dull way.
The second scenario, "Secrets of the Kremlin," was written by E.S. Erkes, whose name I recognize from several old issues of Different Worlds magazine. "Secrets of the Kremlin" isn't directly connected to the previous scenario and concerns, as you might expect, a Mythos connection to both the Russian past and present. And by "present," I mean Josef Stalin, who, according to this adventure, possessed a copy of the Necronomicon, as well as a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath, which he imprisoned within the Kremlin. In many ways, "Secrets of the Kremlin" is the antithesis of its companion. Where "Glozel est Authentique!" is boring, even pedestrian in its revelations, "Secrets of the Kremlin" is laughable, a caricature of the kind of pulp adventure Call of Cthulhu frequently inspires.
"Glozel est Authentique!" may not be the worst adventure collection ever put together for Call of Cthulhu, but it's pretty bad. At the same time, I feel for the authors of these scenarios, since I suspect, like so many gamers, they had a very skewed impression of what the game (and Lovecraft) was about. How could they not, when Chaosium's first adventure collection was Shadows of Yog-Sothoth? I love Shadows and have used it profitably several times, but it does tend to diminish Lovecraft's ideas somewhat. The same is equally true of Masks of Nyarlathotep, which many not unreasonably consider the greatest roleplaying adventure ever written. Still, a bad product is a bad product and "Glozel est Authentique!" is bad.