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THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP: THE REVIEW

To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night...

...(a)nd it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt.

Lovecraft, "Nyarlathotep"




The Crawling Chaos

IN THE COSMIC IMAGINARIUM of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the gods have a great deal in common with Ebola. Having the misfortune of coming into contact with any of them will very likely result in your unspeakably messy death, but this isn't because of any conscious malevolence on their part. They bear you no more ill will than you bear the demodex brevis breeding right now in your sebaceous glands. You don't even really exist to them. Your hideous demise is not something they notice or take pleasure in.

Except, of course, for him.

He is not like the rest.  When you look at him, he looks back.  He sees you.  He knows you.  He is the only one of them with anything even approaching a personality.  In fact, he has a thousand personalities, each more psychopathic than the last.  Azathoth and Shub-Niggurath and Yog-Sothoth will crush you in passing, but he will find out where you live, drive your wife to suicide, and make cannibals of your kids...just so he can hear you scream when you come home to find little Andy and Jenny eating the baby under the hanging corpse of your missus.    

He is the Crawling Chaos, the Messenger and Voice of the Outer Gods.  

His name is Nyarlathotep.

Nearly as dark and twisted as the black god himself, Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu campaign, Masks of Nyarlathotep, descended upon the world back in 1984.  It was not the first campaign for this classic RPG--both Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and Fungi from Yuggoth preceded it--but Masks of Nyarlathotep redefined campaign design not just for Cthulhu but gaming in general. Dennis Detwiller (of Delta Green and Godlike fame) calls Masks of Nyarlathotep the "holy grail" of horror.  Ken Hite (Trail of Cthulhu, Night's Black Agents, The Dracula Dossier, GURPS Horror) says it has "to be in anyone's top five" of greatest RPG adventures.  And long-time Dragon magazine game critic Rick Swan, in his classic Complete Guide to Roleplaying Games, cut to the chase and simply named Masks the best RPG supplement ever.  The list of accolades goes on and on.

One of the thrills of the campaign was the Dark God Himself. Because of the mindless (or at least, so utterly alien as to appear mindless) nature of Lovecraft's deities, Call of Cthulhu usually pit Investigators against rabid cultists, alien races, or mad sorcerers. Masks was the opportunity to literally match wits with a god. If we accept the maxim that a story is only as good as its antagonist, Masks of Nyarlathotep was off to a brilliant start. Original authors Larry DiDtillio and the late (great) Lynn Willis delivered brilliantly on this promise, serving up a complex, multi-faceted campaign stretched across five (at that time) corners of the 1920s world. As Investigators peeled back the hideous conspiracy at the heart of it all, the masks of the various cults fell away to reveal a single malevolence plotting the end of the world.

Over the decades subsequent editions of Masks manifested themselves like further avatars of the god.  There were tweaks and changes to each of these, the eventual edition of the "Australia" chapter, and so on.  The tale generally grew in the telling.  Yet, because Call of Cthulhu was itself so resistant to change, none of these new editions of Masks was terribly necessary.  You could have easily pulled out your first edition of the campaign and played it with any of the current iterations of the core rules (and this reviewer did exactly that three times).  The new bits were nice, but not a must-have.  

All this changes, however, with the newest (fifth) edition.  As part of what can only be described as a renaissance over at Chaosium, the release of the new Masks of Nyarlathotep is a vast improvement over previous editions, and something that you are going to want to risk life, sanity, and hard earned cash to possess.  It replaces the original Masks as the definitive edition. 


Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why...

Lovecraft, "Nyarlathotep"




The New Edition 



THREE THINGS DISTINGUISH the new edition of Masks from its predecessors (aside from much higher production values).  For starters, it is fully compatible with the new, seventh edition, of Call of Cthulhu.  Those who have perused this blasphemous tome will know that the seventh edition is the first major rules upgrade the game has seen since Cthulhu first heaved its cyclopean bulk up from the depths of Sandy Petersen's fevered imagination (I reviewed it here). While even the seventh edition, with all its tweaks, has a high degree of backward compatibility, Masks of Nyarlathotep is a massive campaign with a bewildering array of NPCs, and it is nice to have all the conversion done for you.



Second, the new edition of Masks also makes it compatible with Chaosium's 2016 release, Pulp Cthulhu Pulp Cthulhu is a variant play style, more two-fisted action and Indiana Jones intrigue than the purer Lovecraftiana of Call of Cthulhu.  Masks has always had a very pulp element to it, and the new edition contains extensive support to help Keepers increase those elements and run the campaign as cult-busting action.  NPCs and pre-generated characters have both pulp and core stats, and combats have lethality sliders to up the ante for pulp games.  This gives Masks two very different play styles.  You can approach this campaign, via Call of Cthulhu, as the more traditional exercise in Lovecraftian horror, or use Pulp Cthulhu to make it a gangbusting (cultbusting?) crusade against the Dark God.



Third, while the new Masks of Nyarlathotep is bigger than Great Cthulhu and has more moving parts than Yog-Sothoth has congeries of iridescent globes, it manages to be more accessible than any edition before it.  Weighing in at 666 pages (an entirely random number, I feel certain...), the campaign introduces a new location to the Masks mix (Peru, in a prologue set a few years before the rest of the campaign).  Even with this new material swelling its bulk, features like the comprehensive index, detailed appendices of things like Spells, Tomes, and Artifacts all catalogued by location, and innovative "clue diagrams" at the start of each chapter, ensure that Masks has never been easier for a Keeper to navigate.  The clue diagrams function much like old school dungeon maps, carefully and effortlessly detailing which clue leads to which location or NPC.  So don't let the bulk intimidate you, potential Keeper; this Masks handles much more smoothly and should be a joy to drive.



I remember when Nyarlathotep came to my city--the great, the old, the terrible city of unnumbered crimes.  My friend had told me of him, and of the impelling fascination and allurement of his revelations, and I burned with eagerness to explore his uttermost mysteries...

Lovecraft, "Nyarlathotep"



Behind the Mask

I AM REVIEWING Masks in a PDF package form.  It consists of the 669 page complete campaign PDF, 10 separate pre-generated character sheets, a 96 page PDF of hand-outs (!), an 85-page Keeper reference booklet, and 13 pages of superb NPC portraits.  If you own or have seen the seventh edition, the layout and graphic design is up to those standards.  The pages are full color, clean, and easy to read without being sparse.  The art is glorious (you have been losing sanity looking at it at the head of each section).  I can only imagine how sensational it will look on paper.

The best way to regard Masks is as both a campaign and a worldbook.  The campaign tells a story that I will not be spoiling here.  Those returning to Masks will already know the tale, and it would be serious spoilers for those coming to the Court of the Crawling Chaos for the first time. Essentially it involves the Investigators being asked by a mutual friend to look into the disappearance of the (in)famous Carlyle Expedition.  Founded by a millionaire playboy suddenly and inexplicably turned amateur Egyptologist, the entire expedition vanished on the African continent.  This request leads a to globe-trotting tale of horror, cult activity, and conspiracy as the Investigators realize they are racing against time to stop an alien god from damning the entire world.  Masks brings this world to life, as well as each of the seven hotbeds of cult activity the Investigators might be drawn to.  Each area is extensively detailed, and attention is given both to accurately portraying the historical ethos of each locale and to sidestepping the same; Lovecraft's world was one deeply racist and sexist by our standards, and the text draws attention to these things so that a play group can remain faithful to them or gloss over them as they like.  These seven locations are basically mini-campaign regions, not just with adventures that further the Dark God's insidious plot, but also delicious distractions.  Masks was doing "side quests" long before "side quests" were a thing.  

The marvel of the original, and it is a feature accentuated greatly in this edition, is the "sandbox" nature of it all.  The players go where the clues they discover lead them, and can choose what avenues of inquiry to go down and which to walk past.  You could fight your way though all seven locations, or just two or three.  Keepers can add their own devious tales to each region as well.  Masks is not a railroad...it's a landscape for players to explore (and go horribly mad in).

Probably the only "key" region is the first, set in America.  As mentioned, there has been a prologue added to this game, set in Peru four years earlier than all other events.  The purpose of this episode is to introduce the Investigators to the friend who will later call them together again to chase the lost Carlyle expedition...but it is an entirely optional prologue.  It never existed in previous editions and they all worked just fine.  The second region then, America, provides the clues that can point the players to the other five areas.  From there, the direction of the campaign is really up to the Investigators.  The number of adventures, their scope, is up to the Investigators and Keepers.

Think of Masks as a massive, hideous playground you have an all-access pass to.  Go where you wilt, stay as long as you like.  But be warned; the park will eventually close when darkness falls...

...And through this revolting graveyard of the universe the muffled, maddening beating of drums, and thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time...the gigantic, tenebrous, ultimate gods--the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep.

Lovecraft, "Nyarlathotep"




The End is Here

The fifth edition design team of Mike Mason, Lynne Hardy, Paul Fricker, and Scott Dorward has managed to the unexpected; they have released an edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep that actually improves upon the original. This is the same thrilling--and often terrifying--Masks that you know and love, but in every measurable way it surpasses any iteration before it. It looks better, reads better, and with massive amounts of support for the Keeper, runs better. If you play Call of Cthulhu, you need to own it. If you don't play Call of Cthulhu, now is the time to start. Masks of Nyarlathotep once again sets the standard for what a complex, lengthy RPG campaign should look like, and with products like these Chaosium reminds us exactly why it is as storied an institution as it is. Masks is a classic car rebuilt from the ground up with modern parts and the original's soul.


Masks of Nyarlathotep retails at $59.99 US and is worth every single penny.  Get it at Chaosium.com or at DriveThruRPG.





             

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