Masks of Nyarlathotep: Call of Cthulhu. RPG review

Masks of Nyarlathotep: Call of Cthulhu Scenario, Chaosium, PDF £46

Review by Rick Hudson

Obviously, as this is a review of a Call of Cthulhu scenario, I’m going to start by talking about Dungeons & Dragons, or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons if you want to split hairs. ‘What is this madness?’ you cry, ah – but gentle reader, I beg your patience and promise that all will become clear in time … journey with your author now, if you will, through vertiginous aeons to the ancient days of 1980. Our location is a commuter train that is taking me back from Manchester to the suburb in which I live. The suburb doesn’t have any houses with gambrels, by the way, and very few have gables. It’s the middle of the afternoon, so there isn’t a gibbous moon either. … anyway, I digress. I have just been to Games Workshop and have bought the new D&D book Deities & Demigods. I am dreadfully excited and devouring the pages of this dark tome of arcane lore … ok, I’m stopping this now. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by my new D&D book. What Deities & Demigods did was give information on how mythologies and gods and so on could be introduced into your D&D campaign. By and large it focussed on established mythologies, some of which I was familiar with: Greco-Roman, Norse, Celtic, Indian, Japanese; and some which I was not: Babylonian, Sumerian, Central American (oh, Aztecs and stuff, yeah yeah), Finnish (really?), and Chinese. There was also a section on what was then called American Indian mythology (yes, I know, but this was 1980. What do you expect?) and quite a lot on what it chose to call the Arthurian mythos, quite a cool section giving info on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, even the obscure ones like Sir Bagdemagus and Sir Ywain. There was also stuff about D&D specific gods and info on two fictional mythologies that I knew about: the gods and creatures of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar fiction and the same for Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories. At the very back – and I’m getting to the point at last – was a section on something called the Cthulhu mythos which was entirely new to me.

This mythology, which I was to learn was the invention of some guy called H.P. Lovecraft, was unlike anything I had encountered before in any form of fiction. It was deeply and pleasingly sinister, it was the nearest thing I had encountered in fantasy or horror fiction to the truly alien and it was just so, well, … weird. So began my love of the work of H.P. Lovecraft that I have maintained to this day. But sticking with my reminiscing for just a while, let’s scoot forward just a year to 1981. By now my gaming buddies and I no longer played D&D, we were far too urbane and sophisticated for such childish pleasures. We now played Runequest and other games aimed towards the discerning, educated gentleman who demanded more erudite fair than [pauses to sniff mouchoirs] Dungeons & Dragons.  Chaosium, the company responsible for Runequest, was encouraging players to get more role play into their role play. Their advertising slogans at the time ran – if I remember correctly – ‘Would you rather be role playing than roll playing?’ and, something along the lines of ‘do you role play or do you hack and slay?’ Summat like that, anyway. Chaosium were already steering their players towards more character and narrative driven gaming. After all role playing had, at this point, been pretty much:

DM: You walk along a 10’ wide corridor and enter a 20’ x 20’ room. There are four goblins in the room playing dice. What do you do?

Players (quod simul una voce): We kill the goblins and take their treasure.

Such are the deeds of heroes. (aside: why were corridors in dungeons always 10’ wide? A bit excessive, don’t you think?)

Chaosium’s campaign to up the ante on the role-playing front under went a quantum jump with their release of Call of Cthulhu which was an RPG that could not function without true role-playing. As we all know, a morning star is not going to get you very far with a Shoggoth or Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath, no matter how many pluses it has. Many of us who had been bewitched by the Cthulhu mythos when we encountered it for the first time in Deities & Demigods swarmed in our thousands to our local game shops in 1981 to snap up Call of Cthulhu when it was released.  And thus, a legend was born. There’s no need for me to elaborate on the game itself here, the success of CoC is widely known, as are its key features, what it’s about and how its played etc. etc. However, one thing I will raise is the issue of commercially available adventures for the game. Call of Cthulhu adventures have – in my view – been patchy affairs. There have been good ones, bad ones and middling ones, but only one great one: Masks of Nyarlathotep. Chaosium’s releases on this front got off to a bit of a shaky start. To be fair, the ones in the original rulebook were pretty good. Indeed, two of these scenarios – now generally referred to as ‘The Haunting’ and ‘The Madman’ – have survived in print in one form or another ever since. Chaosium’s first scenario pack, The Asylum and Other Stories (1983), maintained the high standard and a number of the scenarios from The Asylum have made it into the canon of classic CoC adventures. ‘The Auction’ in particular is one that is always spoken of highly by players and GMs alike (look, I’m sorry, but I blindly refuse to use the term ‘Keeper’, OK?). In between the release of CoC itself and The Asylum Chaosium released Shadows of Yog Sothoth (1982). Hmmmmm.  

Over-ambitious is the term that comes to mind when one is called upon to describe Shadows of Yog Sothoth. Although Shadows had its charms it was really a clanky piece of work that needed a lot of effort from the GM to make it work. It was an attempt to do the big CoC scenario: adventurers infiltrate a masonic organisation, slowly put clues together and go on a trek around the world to foil the evil plans of insane cultists and end up attempting to prevent the baddies from freeing Cthulhu (not Yog Sothoth). Like a lot of American produced game material that takes place in the real world but outside the US it suffers from portraying non-US nationals and non-US nations in a painfully awkward and stereotyped way. The foreign locations in Shadows, which claims to be ‘A global campaign to save mankind’, are presented in a manner more befitting of an Abbott and Costello movie than an H.P. Lovecraft adventure (Say Bud, we’re in Scotland. Watcha reckon the chances of the creature in this adventure being the Loch Ness Monster?). The major problem here is that the adventure just didn’t work because the individual sections did not gell into a whole. The guys at Chaosium probably should have gained more experience in writing CoC scenarios before having a go at ‘the big one’. Shadows taught us all two things: Chaosium should stick to producing short CoC adventures, and they should stick to American settings.

During this period – early-mid 80s – the really good CoC scenarios which showed what really could be done with the game and how it really could be an evocative and atmospheric horror game, were appearing in White Dwarf magazine: this is back in the day when it was an open house RPG magazine rather than a publicity brochure that you have to pay for.  But in 1984 everything changed: Chaosium released Masks of Nyarlathotep.    

Masks was everything Shadows wasn’t, although in essence there are similarities between the two.

Like its dodgy predecessor, Masks was a series of linked adventures in which players pieced together clues and followed a trail around the globe in order to prevent wicked baddie cultists summoning Nyarlathotep. The adventure took the players through New York, London, Egypt, Kenya and China on their quest to thwart the villains. An additional supplementary adventure set in Australia was also produced and appeared in another scenario book (possibly Curse of Azathoth, but I can’t remember to be honest) but this wasn’t required to play the adventure through. The principal difference between Masks and Shadows was that Masks was coherently written and held together as an adventure that could actually be played rather than being a shambolic well-intentioned attempt. Also, the non-US locations in Masks were presented with a great deal of detail and colour which meant that it was a CoC adventure set in authentic environments and less like being Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in R’lyeh Bound.  The background detail provided on these locations was also extensive enough for Masks to serve as a campaign sourcebook (or rather source books – each location was detailed in an individual booklet) after the actual adventure had been played. Additionally, and very importantly, the big finale of Masks is not only spectacular but actively involves the players. There are many CoC scenarios which – after having involved the players throughout – climax rather anti-climatically by having the big finish unfold before their eyes as they stand around rather passively. Masks was not one of those. Masks was great. It was what a professionally produced adventure should be. It was everything Shadows promised but failed to deliver. If Call of Cthulhu adventures were Pink Floyd albums, then Masks of Nyarlathotep would be Dark Side of the Moon whereas Shadows of Yog-Sothoth would be Ummagumma.

A couple of years or so ago Chaosium released the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu (I’m not getting into that one here, maybe some other time) and have recently released a re-vamped Masks of Nyarlathotep to be run with the 7th Edition rules. The first two things to strike me about this new edition of Masks are:

  1. Its size. This new edition, not including the various additional bits and bobs that come with it is 669 pages long. It’s massive. Currently this edition of the adventure is only available as a PDF; indeed, I can’t imagine that it would be cost effective to produce it in any other form.
  2. The artwork is good. Internal artwork in Call of Cthulhu has always ranged from the mediocre to the poor; the artwork in the new Masks is actually excellent. This is particularly true of the illustrations of the various avatars of Nyarlathotep: the image of him in his ‘Black Pharaoh’ guise is particularly striking. This high standard of art also extends to the player handouts which, again, look magnificent.

In terms of actual content this adventure basically takes something great and makes it even better. Each section of the adventure and each location is given both more depth and greater breadth than they had in the original. Characters are fleshed out more; the locations are given not only greater detail but greater atmosphere; and both main plot and sub-plots are expanded to varying degrees. Also included here is the Australian chapter, which is fully fleshed out and now quite convincing, contributing to the on-going story of the adventure, whereas previously it was a bit superfluous. We also have a ‘prologue’ adventure set in Peru. Like the other sections this is a very strong adventure in its own right, full of flavour and mystery. Although not connected to the Masks campaign directly, it does some nice foreshadowing of what is to come.  However, it also serves another important function. One thing that always was a bit of a chink in Masks’ armour was that it depended upon the old ‘a long-term friend of the adventurers contacts them asking for help and then is brutally and mysteriously murdered’ trope to hook them into the story. While this isn’t a major issue, by the time you’ve played your tenth adventure in which a long-term friend (who has been notable by their absence in your life so far) asks you for help and then is brutally and mysteriously murdered, you are having to accept this with a shrug of the shoulders. Rather nicely, this prologue introduces this friend prior to them getting brutally and mysteriously murdered, and as such deals rather well with this clumsy deus ex machina which has plagued many a game of CoC.      

Masks has always been a complex adventure that is a challenge for even experienced GMs to run. The new Masks is even more so, but fortunately it now includes advice on how it should be run as a campaign and this is also assisted by the key plot points and characters being summarised and all the necessary information being set out and presented in a clear and orderly manner throughout. Also, and this is a really nice touch, there are notes on how to play Nyarlathotep as a character in the game. Included here are ideas on how to deal with his often contradictory ‘personality’. Why, for example, would he perfectly happy to chat away merrily with the players as an intelligent and sentient being on one occasion, only later to be a chaotic and mindless force motivated only by destruction? Running Nyarlathotep has always been a tricky one for GMs in CoC. The great paradox of Call of Cthulhu as a game is that on one hand it is the role-playing game in which role playing plays the greatest role, yet on the other hand the adversaries with whom the players interact with are by and large mindless: whether this be insane cultists or cosmic entities that are either literally mindless, or so alien that their consciousness are beyond the capacity of humans to interact with. Nyarlathotep has always been a useful tool for GMs to introduce when he or she wants a bit of villain banter with the characters. This is absolutely in keeping with the game of course, after all Nyarlathotep is meant to be a kind of mocking emissary of the Outer Gods who – at least sometimes – has something vaguely resembling sentience and is willing to communicate with humans in some form or other. It can be great fun of course to include a Nyarlathotep appearance in a CoC game and have him toy with the players. Most CoC GMs I know – and I include myself in this, may I add – include Nyarlathotep in their games as a kind of Gestalt entity comprised of Moriarty / Blofeld / and a Roger Delgado era Master from Dr Who. This is great fun, but I have found that when I include Nyarlathtep too frequently he can end up more like Dick Dastardly than a cosmic being whose mind and motivations are beyond the understanding of primitive organic beings. The ideas in Masks help out here and gives advice on how to handle Nyarlathotep as a character, even when he doesn’t have one.

Playing this version of Masks of Nyarlathotep is going to be a big challenge, and running it as a GM is going to be a much bigger one. If you are going to run this adventure you are going to have to invest a great deal of time and effort into doing so. You are going to have to be prepared to do far more ‘backstage’ work than you usually do for an RPG. You are also going to have to have players who will commit to the game and take it in the right spirit. Don’t use it with novice CoC players who haven’t got the game yet, that’s to be sure.    

£46.00 is a lot for a PDF. But you get a lot for your 46 quid. Should you get Masks? If you have never played it before and are prepared to put the work in, and you and your players are relatively experienced with Call of Cthulhu, yes. This will be an adventure you and your RPG friends will be talking about 20-30 years after the event. If you played Masks years ago and want to play it again, yes. The best commercially available RPG scenario has got better.  

Editor’s comment: Please note that a physical slipcase version of the new edition of Masks will be released in October. The print version will consist of a slipcase containing Vol I and II hardback books, plus a carton containing the keeper screen, 1925 calendar, and 96 pages of handouts and maps.

The price is USD$129.95. Purchasers of the PDF version from Chaosium.com get the full price of the PDF off the physical version.