Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Retrospective: Arkham Unveiled

I got into Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu almost immediately upon its release, having been ensnared by the advertisements for the game that appeared in the pages of Dragon. I was, by that time, already a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, so a roleplaying game based on his ideas was an easy sell for me. Once I had my copy, I ran it relentlessly for my friends, using all the adventures I could get my hands on, as well as those of my own creation. Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is one I vividly remember using, though there were many other less memorable ones of which I also made use.

Much as I loved Call of Cthulhu, one of the things that's always mildly irked me about it is its focus on globetrotting Indiana Jones-style romps rather than the slower paced, more introspective yarns of HPL himself. I know now, as I knew then, why this was the case: those pulpy, around-the-world situations simply made for better adventures, particularly when there are multiple investigators. An adventure true to Lovecraft's own works would, with a few notable exceptions, be a solo scenario (of which Chaosium did produce a few) and would – again, generally – stay fairly close to the protagonist's home. Even the eponymous "The Call of Cthulhu" involves a man adventuring only by proxy, as he goes through his deceased uncle's collection of notes about the cult seeking to bring about the advent of the Great Old One.

Consequently, I was very pleased when, in 1990, Arkham Unveiled was released. Like most CoC supplements, it was written by a large number of different people, though Keith Herber gets the principal credit, along with Mark Morrison and Richard Watts. Arkham Unveiled provides extensive details on Lovecraft's most famous fictional Massachusetts town, with the goal of providing investigators with a home base from which to launch their adventures. Though it's my opinion that Call of Cthulhu, as usually played, is fundamentally Derlethian, there are things one could do to push it in a more authentically Lovecraftian direction. One of these is shifting the focus toward smaller, more personal adventures. That's exactly what Arkham Unveiled endeavors to do, at least in part.

The supplement includes plenty of details about what it's like to live – and work – in Arkham. There's also information on the importance of one's local reputation (and how to improve it by, say, joining a local club). These are great details and vital to setting up a campaign in the town. The bulk of the book, though, is made up of descriptions of nearly every building in Arkham, along with information about any inhabitants of note. Many of these descriptions are very brief, as one might expect in cases like the Jenkin Public School or the University Shoe Store. Others, such as the famed Miskatonic University, have much more extensive entries, complete with NPC write-ups and other details. The NPC descriptions are useful and occasionally amusing, particularly when it comes to their skills. For example, Willard Peck, a journalist at the Arkham Gazette, has the skills "Cast Trout Fly 40%" and "Wear Tweeds 47%," while a typical street hood has the skill "Lie Creatively 20%" and "Strut 40%." Though funny, these odd skills do serve the useful purpose of providing the Keeper with some idea of how a given NPC might behave when encountered.

The final third of the book's 160 pages include four adventures set in and around Arkham. "A Little Knowledge"  is intended an introductory adventure and its events connect to those of "Herbert West – Reanimator." "The Hills Rise Wild" take the characters into the country beyond Arkham, where a bolide meteorite is reported to have fallen recently. "The Condemned" is my favorite adventure and involves an 18th century sorcerer's revenge against the descendants of those who condemned him. Finally, "Dead of Night" deals with the discovery a human skeleton at a demolished mansion, leading to the re-evaluation of a crime from a generation before. 

I really like Arkham Unveiled and have used it to good effect several times. It's a solid stab at lowering the stakes of a Call of Cthulhu campaign by providing a small, relatively constrained setting for the game. It's not perfect by any means – I think some of the material is a bit too derivative of Lovecraft's own stories – but's a good effort that has inspired me over the years. If I were ever to run a Call of Cthulhu campaign in the future, I'd be sorely tempted to set it in Arkham or a similar locale rather than opting for the world-saving style of so many of the game's classic adventures.


  1. ive run sandboxes with the series - so many weird folk, ppl you can meet as students, easy to slip in adventures or trip to dunwich

    they need to redo this line

    i wanna run arkham county sandbox again

  2. I love CoC, it is my goto now. no campaigns, sadly, just one offs, most of which do not get finished.

    But I love the handouts, and do prefer the investigations over the globetrotting. a decent police procedural would work just fine for me. I have two players who love playing cops.

  3. While the system may not be everyone's proverbial cup of tea, Trail of Cthulhu has a couple of really good campaigns with a similarly "narrowed focus".

    Notably: Bookhounds of London and The Armitage Files

  4. Have you played or run any of Pagan Publishing’s CoC campaigns or adventures, James.

    By the late ‘90s it felt like they were eating Chaosium’s lunch with every book they printed—they still stand out as among the best CoC products in my mind.


    1. I have read several Pagan Publishing campaigns/adventures and thought most of them very good. I've unfortunately never had the chance to use any of them.