Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Retrospective: The Asylum & Other Tales

The news that Chaosium is reprinting many of its earliest Call of Cthulhu products in celebration of the game's 40th anniversary this year, I found myself thinking back wistfully on my early experiences with the game. Even though Shadows of Yog-Sothoth looms very large in my memories, I also think fondly of other products from around the same time, like 1983's The Asylum & Other Tales. Whereas Shadows of Yog-Sothoth was a collection of seven adventures forming "a global campaign to save mankind," The Asylum was merely seven individual adventures with nothing linking them to one another. Perhaps I shouldn't say "merely," because, despite the tendency to associate long, involved campaign-centric products with Call of Cthulhu, adventure anthologies like this one have long existed and provided much needed support to many a Keeper of Arcane Lore. 

In brief, The Asylum's seven scenarios are as follows:  

  • The Auction by Randy McCall, which involves the investigators traveling to Vienna, Austria to participate in an auction of occult books and artifacts on behalf of a patron. There, they become embroiled in a murder investigation.
  • The Madman by Mark Harmon, takes the investigators to upstate New York to look into the disappearances of livestock and people.
  • Black Devil Mountain by Dave Hargrave (of Arduin Grimoire fame), which takes place in rural Maine, where the investigators explore Howl Mound, an Indian burial mound filled with all manner of monsters.
  • The Asylum by Randy McCall is an interesting scenario in that it takes place inside the Greenwood Asylum for the Deranged to which one or more investigators have been committed. Naturally, not all is well within the asylum's walls.
  • The Mauretania by M.B. Willner takes place aboard a luxury liner crossing the Atlantic and filled with many interesting passengers, including a White Russian count – and a murderer.
  • Gate from the Past by John Scott Clegg concerns the investigation of weird, ghostly phenomena near Arkham, Massachusetts.
  • Westchester House by Elizabeth Wolcott presents us with the eponymous house, reputed to be haunted.
As you can see, the seven adventures of The Asylum are a varied lot, though quite a few of them involve a murder investigation, which is simultaneously understandable and unfortunate. According to the book's introduction, each scenario is intended to deal with a common aspect of a Call of Cthulhu campaign, whether it be insanity ("The Asylum"), sea travel ("The Mauretania"), or a hoax ("Westchester House"). It's an excellent approach for an anthology and it's why I have such fond memories of The Asylum: it's very useful.

That said, not all of the included scenarios are top notch. Dave Hargrave's "Black Devil Mountain" is probably the worst of the lot, being pretty much a dungeon transposed into Call of Cthulhu and not a particularly imaginative one at that. On the other hand, "The Asylum" is solid and "The Auction" contains seeds for many subsequent adventures. I'm also fond of "Westchester House," because there's absolutely nothing supernatural or Mythos-related happening in it; perfectly mundane human criminals are behind the strange happenings at the house. It's a great change of pace and one I recall having great fun with, especially after a campaign has gone on long enough for players to start seeing Lovecraftian entities behind every curtain.

Considering its early release date, The Asylum & Other Tales is quite a remarkable product, filled with lots of modular material for use by a harried Keeper. I learned a great deal about crafting good – and not so good – Call of Cthulhu adventures from it. In fact, thinking back on the book and its scenarios makes me wish I were refereeing a Call of Cthulhu campaign right now. 


  1. "1983's The Asylum & Other Tales... Westchester House by Elizabeth Wolcott" I love these tiny reminders that "roleplaying/videogames/whatever are for boys" is a relatively new and entirely made up concept.

  2. Also one of my fave CoC products. I never ran long drawn out campaigns such as SoYS in CoC. Like Traveller, CoC was always an "in-between", or change of pace for a few sessions to give us a break from our normal longer running "campaigns" of Runequest, MSPE, Espionage and others. The Asylum was right up my alley (though agreed, Hargrave's entry was....less than optimal? Questionable? Ridiculous?. All three? I'm guessing Greg owed him a favor)

    1. I think this was Stafford's way of trying to make up for refusing to publish the Arduin Grimoire material. Dave Hargrave apparently led Stafford to believe that he had an RPG ready for publication rather than the mass of notes that he actually had.

    2. Stafford admits as much in a Q&A:

    3. Thanks for the links- I knew the general gist of Dave's blowup on Greg, but I did not know that the CoC "Dungeon" was what patched them up.

  3. Fond memories of this one, which I used in bits and pieces while running Shadows when I wanted a break from the main storyline. IIRC my group enjoyed Westchester House and the Asylum the most, although I think I'd rate the Mauretania and the Auction as my personal faves to run. Never used Black Devil Mountain (which was apparently for the best, eh?) and if I ran the Madman the details of it are eluding me.

  4. Dave Hargrave’s Cthulhu adventures are all so ridiculous: like killer-DM dungeon parodies of Cthulhu, everything super deadly and impossible to survive. That said, they’re kind of fun…

  5. The first CoC supplement I ever bought. That cover art is one of my favorite RPG covers ever.

  6. Gotta take a stand for Hargrave's scenario. What makes it cool is it goes against the gran of how most CoC's designed and surprises the players with a mini dungeon crawl. Sure, maybe it's a little more deadly then it should be, but any decent GM can tone it down. Plus, if your a fan of Dave's Arduin series, you'll recognize his unique style of writing which is always fun to read. The introductory tale at the beginning feels like the opening of a great horror story.

  7. Assylum is one of the great ones
    wondering if to get this and dump older ones

  8. So, most CoC scenarios are very well done but would qualify more as plot-driven railroads than open-ended location-based adventures, even though many Lovecraft stories feature a strange, unnatural location to be explored.

    And yet I'm still struck by the use of the word 'Tales' in the title. As if to say, these aren't modules or scenarios or investigations, but stories. Fiction.

    Ravenloft also came out in 1983, and set D&D down the ruinous road of story-plots. But if the Hickmans had never come to TSR, it seems that the hobby, at least at Chaosium anyway, was already firmly headed in that direction.