Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Retrospective: The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island

Grenadier Models is remembered today for its various lines of licensed RPG miniatures, particularly for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, Grenadier was the first company to produce official AD&D miniatures, which placed it in a very advantageous position. Not having been a miniatures wargamer (or indeed any kind of wargamer), I didn't feel a need to use minis when playing RPGs the way that some of my older contemporaries did. However, seeing those yellow Grenadier boxes with the AD&D logo on them was a powerful lure and I bought quite a few of them, despite the fact that we never used them as anything other than props for illustrating our marching order in a dungeon.

Grenadier lost the AD&D license in 1982, as TSR wanted to maximize its profits by producing its own line of official miniatures. As I recall, this proved to be a poor decision, as the TSR-manufactured minis were fewer in number, more expensive, and less well sculpted. Given that Grenadier employed such notable sculptors as John Dennett, Julie Guthrie, and Sandra Garrity, among others, I guess that should come as no surprise. Presumably to make up for the loss in revenue from the AD&D line, Grenadier soon acquired numerous other licenses, including Traveller and Call of Cthulhu, two other games I adored and played regularly. So far as I can recall, there were only a couple of boxed sets and some blister packs released for either line, which suggests they didn't prove very successful.

In a similar vein, Grenadier tried its hand at becoming a publisher of written RPG support materials. In 1984, they produced several 48-page adventure modules, including one for Call of Cthulhu entitled The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island. Written by Gary Pilkington, the module is an interesting snapshot of the state of gaming at the time it was written. The product is an anthology consisting of two scenarios, the main one being the eponymous "The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island" and the shorter one being "The House in the Woods." Both are highly derivative of Lovecraft stories, with the first taking its cues from "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and the second from "The Whisperer in Darkness."

At the time I bought this, I remember being confused as to why these two adventures seemed so derivative. If you'd already read the two Lovecraft stories in question, why would you want to play out scenarios that are so similar to them? I suspect that it's because, even then, the number of gamers who'd actually read Lovecraft was small. To them, these derivative scenarios would seem quite new and original. And I have to admit, for all their cribbing from HPL, they have the virtue of being "small" adventures, which is to say, localized and modest rather than globe-trotting Derlethian pulp adventures after the fashion of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth or Masks of Nyarlathotep. The "Horrible Secret" is about the restoration of an ancient Deep One-related ceremony in a remote fishing community in Maine and "The House in the Woods" is about an investigation revolving around the Fungi from Yuggoth. Consequently, they possess a "short story" quality to them that makes them easy to drop into an existing campaign -- unsurprising, I suppose, given their literary antecedents.

Re-reading this product reminded me of the strange place Call of Cthulhu has always occupied in the gaming world. Despite the centrality of the Sanity mechanic, the game has rarely supported the kind of cosmic horror on which H.P. Lovecraft's best stories focused. Instead, the Investigators usually come off as crosses between Sherlock Holmes and Indian Jones, piecing together scraps of ancient texts from around the world to find the clues necessary to stop some black hatted cultist from Doing A Very Bad Thing. This approach seems to be one that's struck a chord with a lot of gamers and I'll admit it can be a great deal of fun.

Still, I can't deny that it's disappointing that Call of Cthulhu so rarely does more than this. I've stated before that I find the central premise behind the game to be one of the more "adult" I've ever encountered in a RPG. Call of Cthulhu needn't be a power-trip fantasy in order to be heroic. Indeed, I think it's at its most heroic when it's exactly the opposite of that: ordinary people sacrificing body, mind, and soul in order to stave off oblivion for just one more day. The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island doesn't even begin to approach that type of play in its two scenarios, but, seeing as Chaosium often does not either, this is no crime.


  1. "Indeed, I think it's at its most heroic when it's exactly the opposite of that: ordinary people sacrificing body, mind, and soul in order to stave off oblivion for just one more day."

    Not related to Lovecraft directly, but this made me wonder if you've ever read Mieville's Bas-Lag books. This is pretty much exactly how I see them: the absolute best the protagonists can hope for is to maintain the (already soul-crushing) status quo, and that only temporarily, and they have to give up everything they are and everything they care about to do it. He's obviously influenced by Lovecraft, but approaching some of the same themes in a fantasy-world environment.

  2. I think one of the reasons we don't often see that kind of play in COC is the serial nature of a campaign; it's hard to sustain horror of any kind, let alone cosmic-existential horror, in a series format. You could do a fine Lovecraftian tournament or single-adventure campaign, but once you do more than one adventure it's hard to avoid the "paranormal investigators" syndrome. Another factor is the multiple players: one of the common characteristics of Lovecraft protagonists is that they are almost always utterly _alone_, which is part of what makes them doubt their sanity. If you and five of your best buds all saw the same tentacled monstrosity, though, it's pretty easy to establish that it really did exist, and then it just turns into a nasty monster to be killed/bluffed/run away from.

    Verification: Urref -- the long-forgotten original referee who inspired both Dave and Gary

  3. Yes, the adventures are run as: "Sherlock Holmes and Indian Jones, piecing together scraps of ancient texts from around the world to find the clues necessary to stop some black hatted cultist from Doing A Very Bad Thing." however the feeling that you leave with playing CoC is very different for its mechanic steers you into feeling something different. Sure there will be always the Hack & Slash type who will dynamite or bazooka everything in sight but the essence of a good CoC game is the horrible realization of horror around us unfolding.

    Many times it is the investigators who play a central role in releasing the evil which in contrast to D&D and other games it is not about containment. And, because the odds are stacked against the players surviving the encounter people play it with a different emphasis.

    Also the game mechanic having the search for clues embedded (even Trail of Cthulhu does this) it is also a sleuth game akin to Clue which never was about the accumulation of more tokens but to uncover the mystery.

    I am not saying D&D or FRPGs cannot do this but when they do try they end up copying the CoC formulae...and if the highest form of flattery is ________.

  4. I think that one of the DM for Dummies books writen by the WoTC guy states that the main purpose of the D&D adventuring is to fight the Evil Outsiders and to keep them outside.

    I never looked aT AD&D or AD&D combat in that way.

  5. "I suspect that it's because, even then, the number of gamers who'd actually read Lovecraft was small."

    So I take it that you think this is still the case today?

    I was always under the impression that Lovecraft was the one authentic "pulp" fantasy writer that gamers did widely read.

    Maybe it's just me, but I've never encountered one who hasn't read his stuff.

  6. "Indeed, I think it's at its most heroic when it's exactly the opposite of that: ordinary people sacrificing body, mind, and soul in order to stave off oblivion for just one more day."

    Which Lovecraft stories do you have in mind for such a scenario/theme?

    As I've been making my way through his stories, I've been struck by the fact that very few of Lovecraft's stories (that I've yet read) involve anything that resembles people discovering a threat and deliberately acting to stave it off (or deal with its local manifestation). "The Dunwich Horror" is the only one I've read so far that really hits all those marks.

    Word verification - Resswole, surely a place-name of some ill portent.

  7. I think of Lovecraft as more than a pulp fiction writer. He was actually writing about pockets of rural New England dressed up in horror. Take away the horror, and he turns into an excellent writer of a geogrphic region. I mean I traveled through rural Maine in the mid 1990's and there were pockets of small towns and wilderness that had Lovecraftian feel to it. Most of Lovecraft's characters are reflections of himself - a very conservative, backwards looking aristocratic type (Lovecraft was heavily influenced by his old fashioned mother, who may have had heavy Puritan roots), and you mustn't forget the time he lived in: It was the Roaring 1920's! The Jazz Age! Casual sex was becoming accepted! Freud was widely read and flappers (liberated women of the decade) were into psychoanalyzing their men, as well as playing golf with them, and learning to handle aircraft. The hot concepts of the time in the pop culture were liberal childrearing practices and getting to know your man by getting into the same things he did - i.e. his politics, his golf game, his stocks. And AGAINST ALL THAT, you have Lovecraft's morose ourtlook and glorified feudalism of JRR Tolkien. Nothing against high fantasy and horror, just that it starts looking odd when you look at the societal backdrop when these guys were writing...

  8. crosses between Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones... This approach seems to be one that's struck a chord
    ...and it's still working for Dan Brown. I think commercially this was a smart direction to pull CoC in, and it's not like the idea of cosmic horror isn't preserved in the rules. Arguably, everyone who was going to play a game of pessimistic heroism did so, using CoC in homebrew campaigns. As a CoC player since my mid-teens I could say of my own experience: I came for the two-fisted tentacle-fighting, I stayed for the crushing existential nihilism.

    Re Brooze's point, I don't find anything very surprising in conservatives and reactionaries making the best fantasists: arguably the sensation of horror is "reactionary:" a recoil, while conservative visionaries are the people most in need of escape. Progressive visionaries tend to become architects, so their fantasies wind up being consumed in a different genre.

  9. Sherlock Holmes meeting Indiana Jones, I'd love that element even in a D&D game!

    Speaking of progressive visionaries, who become architects, Ken Follett is one progressive who also happens to be a successful author. He was active in the British Labor Party and ended up marrying a Labor member of British Parliament. He was known for spy thrillers, until he wrote The Pillars Of The Earth, about building of a Cathedral in the medieval England. It was his best selling opus and even though it can claim to be a historic novel, it covers the same ground as fantasy (about a decade ahead of bernard Cornwell writing about medieval England). This style of wriing has definitely influenced my DMing style.

    With regards to the other authors of fantasy, Fritz Lieber was liberal/apolitical, his family was involved in theater and his writings in Lankhmar reflect his adventures in prohibition-era New York with his friend Harry Otto Fischer. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, and a few other more radical satires, was politically active and anti-establishment. Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusose) and Christopher Marlowe (contemporary of Shakespeare, who wrote the original Faust) were professional spies. During the 1920's and 1930's progressives were actively involved in the American Sci-Fi radio theater in the 1920-s-1950's. The female ghost writer, who penned most of the original Nancy Drew stories was a social progressive and a radical feminist, hell, based on her views, she would be considered a feminist even today. When the publisherre-wrote the Nacy Drew stories to get rid for the racist stereotypes, they also significantly toned down Nancy Drew's charater, to make her more palatable for the mainstream parents of the child readers. So, the best escapists might be conservatives, but for the sheer fire and inspiration, you might wanna read progressive fantasists.