"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

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, October 31, 2020


I’ve also been digesting something of vast interest as background or source material... ...the Atlantis-Lemuria tales, as developed by modern occultists & the sophical charlatans. Really, some of these hints about the lost “City of the Golden Gates” & the shapeless monsters of archaic Lemuria are ineffably pregnant with fantastic suggestion; & I only wish I could get hold of more of the stuff. What I have read is The Story of Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria, by W. Scott-Elliot.

HP Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Jun 1926

MYTH MAKER, PSUEDO-HISTORIAN, and professional digger of rabbit holes Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) casts a long shadow.  The co-founder of the Theosophical movement, her best known works are the sprawling, convoluted, and completely bonkers Isis Unveiled and the less sprawling, but arguably even more convoluted and bonkers Secret Doctrine.  These are works which purport to reveal the "secret history" of the world, a saga that covers millions of years and a half-dozen "root races," including Hyperboreans, Lemurians, and Atlanteans.  A seventh race is predicted on a continent or island that will rise in the Pacific, before everyone ascends and migrates to Mercury.

Still with me?

The "long shadow" I referred to extends far beyond the Theosophical Society, which continues to exist today.  Blavatsky's influence on Western esotericism is evident in both the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley, with their reliance on ascended "Secret Masters" guiding the destiny of the world, as well as the Aryan pseudo-anthropology that fueled the Nazis.  Her ideas also appear throughout 20th century weird fiction, all the way from the pulps to works like the Illuminatus! trilogy.  There are shades of Blavatsky in Robert E. Howard, in Clark Ashton Smith, and of course in Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  Yet to my mind Blavatsky's most significant influence was on bringing Hinduism and Buddhism into the West.  Now, I would be remiss as someone who started his career in the field of religious studies (specifically in Eastern religions) if I didn't mention she got everything all wrong (I did mention bonkers twice), but the fact remains that she did ignite tremendous interest in Europe and America in things like reincarnation, the kalachakra or "cycles of time," and even in mythical cities like Shambhala and Argartha.

Which brings us, at last, to The Children of Fear.

Roughly the same size as Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, this massive 418 page campaign takes Call of Cthulhu east into China, northern India, and Tibet, and is rooted in the mythology of that region...well, sort of.  Because this is Call of Cthulhu, not Eastern Studies 101, so naturally the campaign leans heavily on the pseudo-history and weird fiction traditions inspired by Theosophy.  A telegram drags the Investigators into the struggle between Shambhala--the Land of Living Fire--and Argatha, the City of Fear.  Mentioned in both the Kalachakra Tantra and the Vishnu Puranas, Shambhala is spoken of as a city or kingdom which will be the birthplace of Vishnu's final incarnation before the end of the current world.  For Theosophists, it was the city of "the Sons of the Fire Mist," godlike beings who overthrew the evil empire of Atlantis 12,000 years ago.  In The Children of Fear, however, Agartha replaces Atlantis as Shambhala's rival.

While Shambhala is generally regarded as the "good guys," Agartha gets cast as both good and bad.  In some legends Agartha is an advanced empire inside the hollow Earth, of which Shambhala is the capital.  For Theosophists, Agartha was a subterranean kingdom beneath Tibet and populated by demons.  This is more the treatment it gets in The Children of Fear, where the plot revolves around preventing the sealed gates of Agartha from opening and releasing the King of Fear from emerging and ending the current age of the world.

Now I have been yammering on about Theosophy for a reason.  The Children of Fear is refreshing in that it is not necessarily about the Cthulhu Mythos at all.  It could be run as an occult thriller, with nary a reference to Outer Gods, Old Ones, or familiar alien races.  Compatible with both standard Cthulhu and Pulp Cthulhu, the Keeper could easily portray the antagonists here as Buddhist demons, wicked ascended masters, or one of Blavatsky's Root Races run amok.  They could just as easily make the cities the strongholds of Lovecraftian gods or Old Ones.  The book contains comprehensive guidelines on going in either direction and in shaping the campaign into exactly what you want.

Before we move on from this point, I need to add that it is about d*** time.  Call of Cthulhu says, right on the cover, "Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft" (emphasis mine).  Long before "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror," or "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," Lovecraft was writing weird fiction that arguably had nothing to do with what would come to be known as "the Mythos."  It really wasn't until late in the game that the concept of a unified universe of horror emerged.  It is easy to see The Children of Fear as being inspired by something he wrote in his earlier pre-Mythos days.  If your characters roll their eyes and say "oh no, not another shoggoth, this might be the campaign for you.

Across eight-chapters, which like Masks of Nyarlathotep are explored or not explored in an order determined by the player character Investigators and not the Keeper, The Children of Fear explores a setting that has nothing to do with Arkham or Miskatonic University, and that is refreshing too.  Loaded with hand-outs, pre-generated characters, new monsters, new spells, and a ton of resources, The Children of Fear is more evidence that Chaosium has cracked the code on how to make a massive, sprawling campaign accessible.  There is some terrific storytelling in there as well, none of which I can give you without spoilers.

With art by Kristina Carroll, Caleb Cleveland, Mariusz Gandzel, Doruk Golcu, Katy Grierson, Sija Hong, Victor Leza, Pat Loboyko, Magda Mieszczak, and Mali Ware, it is also another example of Chaosium putting together a gorgeous looking book.  Given the setting, it is also a very different style of art, much of it reflecting local sensibilities.  This gives it a fresh, vibrant look and feel.  Nicholaus Nacario's lay-out is terrific as well, fitting this book in nicely with the other recent 7th edition titles.

This is another campaign you are going to want, especially if you have any interest in a Call of Cthulhu campaign that shakes things up a bit.  Full of colorful detail and explanation, you need know nothing about Theosophy, esoteric Buddhism, Chinese legends, or Tibet to run it.  It has all the detail you need.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020


“For I have promised to do the battle to the uttermost, by faith of my body, while me lasteth the life, and therefore I had liefer to die with honour than to live with shame ; and if it were possible for me to die an hundred times, I had liefer to die oft than yield me to thee; for though I lack weapon, I shall lack no worship, and if thou slay me weaponless that shall be thy shame.”

Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur, Book IV Chapter X

IF YOU HAVE READ any of the reviews here, you know I like setting the stage with backstory.  Games, like films or novels or any other sort of story, don't exist in a vacuum but have history and context.  In talking about The Adventure of the Great Hunt, a quick-start scenario that gives us a preview of next year's King Arthur Pendragon 6th edition, things are a little different however.  I've pretty much already set the stage in my 2019 review of the current edition.  If you would like more context, gentle reader, I refer you there.

The Adventure of the Great Hunt (hereafter just Hunt because nothing is as unlovely as typing TAotGH over and over again) is a free 26-page PDF released for WeAreAllUs 2020, a celebration of the life and work of Chaosium-founder and master game designer Greg Stafford.  Again, I have already written about Greg and how his passing affected me, so we can move on.  Greg considered Pendragon his masterpiece, and that is saying something.  Aside from creating Glorantha and Chaosium, his contributions to the hobby are staggering.  With Ghostbusters he gave us dice pools.  With Prince Valiant, the storytelling game.  As John Wick (Legend of the Five Rings, Houses of the Blooded, 7th Sea etc etc) put it, "if you believe you've come up with a clever mechanic, Greg Stafford already did it."  So it seems right for Chaosium to remember his passing this year with a sneak peek at what he considered to be the "ultimate edition" of his greatest game.

It feels a bit pointless reviewing free downloads.  If you are reading this review you probably already have it.  If you don't, I am not sure why you are reading the review.  Yet if for some reason you haven't gotten a copy yet, I urge you to do so.  Written by Stafford with assistance from David Larkins, layout by Simeon Cogswell, and art by Riley Spalding, Kalin Kadiev, and Eleonor Piteira, Hunt is a splendid little treasure, and eight-page scenario steeped in both the medieval tradition of the Hunt and in the Arthurian tradition of symbolic and/or magical beasties.  Set nominally sometime in the Conquest Period (519-530 AD) of the The Great Pendragon Campaign, the player character knights are guests of Sir Servause le Breuse, a renowned hunter.  After feasting his guests, Servause's household unexpectedly receives Sir Ector, foster-father to the King.  His lands are being ravaged by a dragon, and being of advanced age, no true knight could forgo aiding him.  Yet dragons are not easy creatures to beat, and Servause comes up with a novel suggestion that sets events in motion.

This is Stafford at the height of his Pendragon powers.  The set-up, where Servause makes his suggestion to the players, could easily come out of the pages of Le Morte d'Arthur.  For example;

“The panther is a great cat of variegated color, known for its kindness and gentility. All beasts are its friend—save for the dragon! When the panther has eaten its fill, it sleeps for three days. When it wakes, it emits a belch of sweet perfume, not unlike the aroma of all-spice..."

Much like Glorantha, the Britain of Pendragon is not the typical fantasy world of "mostly sciencey with a dash of magic added."  It is what Malory and other medieval romanticists thought it to be.  Hunt evokes this marvelously.  Playing through it, there is no doubt you are playing Pendragon.  It simply could be nothing else.

In addition to the scenario, there is a two-page appendix of hunting rules, three pages of pregenerated player character knights, and--in what I suspect many of you have been waiting for--a six-page preview of next year's 6th edition rules.

From the taste we have been given here we are looking at more of a refinement than an overhaul.  There are tweaks, but nothing quite like the changes between, say, the 3rd and 4th editions (yes, "Celtic magic system," looking at you).  The Appearance Attribute, for example, is now "Appeal," but functions the same way.  The most interesting tweak is the apparent highlighting of "Honor."  Always a vital part of the game, it now seems to have been elevated up beside Glory in what drives and motivates a knight.  Glory accumulates, but Honor can be lost, and if too much is lost, the character is no longer recognized as a knight.  As I said, this was in Pendragon before, but it seems spotlighted in this preview.

There are a few other surprises, but people new to Pendragon will not notice and experienced players should probably just download the PDF and take a look.  One thing that should be said, however, is that the look of this PDF bodes very well for the new edition.  Pendragon 5.2 is a fine looking book, but the design here suggests the new Pendragon will be more like Call of Cthulhu 7th edition or the new RuneQuest in being laid out with richer backgrounds and better art.  The PDF genuinely looks like an illuminated manuscript.  

This is a terrific Arthurian adventure, and the perfect example of why Pendragon remains one of the best loved and most celebrated games of all time.  Veterans will love it, and it is just light enough to introduce new players to the game.  As a free gift to fans, it is a perfect way to remember Greg for 2020's WeAreAllUs.  I suspect that watching us from distant Avalon (or probably, knowing the old shaman, from visions in his Crystal Cave), Greg is grinning.


Saturday, October 17, 2020


WE PROBABLY HAVE TWO "STEVENS" to thank (or, depending on your tastes, to blame) for the quaint and curious genre that--if it had a name--would probably have to be called "Eighties Pre-Teen Adventure Horror."

The first would be the "ph" Stephen, the right honorable Mr. King, whose 1982 novella "The Body" was adapted into the immensely popular film Stand By Me.  While "The Body" didn't contain any supernatural elements, it set a mold for coming of age tales which pit pubescents against the macabre, including the obligatory bully.  Building on the elements in "The Body," the prolific King unleashed his 22nd novel, It, the same year Stand By Me hit the screens.  This was a supernatural tale, and an extremely Lovecraftian one as well.  In it, we see a group of middle school outsiders struggling against an ancient, extraterrestrial horror.  While neither "The Body" nor It were actually about 80s kids--both have the kids in the late 1950s--their appearance in the 1980s link them indelibly to the decade, so much so that when It was remade in 2017 and 2019, this time it was updated to have the young protagonists in Reagan Era America.

The other Steven is the one with the "v."  Richard Donner's The Goonies was something of a cultural phenomenon, an immensely popular 1985 film that earned six times its budget in box office returns and has since been marked by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  But The Goonies came from a story by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose film company Amblin also produced the film.  The Goonies is about--no surprises here--a group of nerdy middle school outcasts who this time end up in a wild adventure to win a pirate treasure.  While again it is not strictly supernatural, there are enough pulp fiction elements in it to see how it feeds into the genre.  Spielberg, like King, was extraordinarily adept at using kids as protagonists, the epitome of which was probably his 1982 film E.T. (speaking of cultural phenomenons).  The immense success of The Goonies threw open Pandora's Box, and out would spring films like Monster Squad, The Gate, and The Lost Boys (all, curiously, in the very busy year of 1987).  A genre had emerged which fused the elements of King's fiction with the young adolescent horror/mystery comedy of The Goonies.  The genre experienced a resurrection of sorts in the second decade of the 21st century, with JJ Abrams 2011 Super 8 (produced again by Spielberg), three seasons of the Netflix smash Stranger Things (2016-present), and the aforementioned big screen adaptation of King's IT.  All of these were tales of school age outsiders in the 80s caught up in the weird and the unnatural.

Like the two new It films, The Dare (Sentinel Hill Press, PDF, 70 pages, $14.99 US) is itself a remake.  Originally released back in 1990 as a Call of Cthulhu tournament module, this Kevin A. Ross classic has returned re-imagined and greatly expanded for the 7th edition rules.  With Bret Kramer riding shotgun, Badger MacInnis on layout, art by Ian MacLean and Katie von Csesfalvay, and Dean Engelhardt, Richard LeDuc, and Clint Cronk providing handouts and character sheets, The Dare is more than the sum of its parts.  It's a Cthulhu scenario, yes, and a terrifying one at that, but it also is a terrific introduction to the venerable old RPG, a new interpretation of the rules, a love letter to the films mentioned above, and a sound foundation for a unique Call of Cthulhu campaign.  

Let's take those in order.

I am not, obviously, going to tell you too much about the scenario.  River Song would scold me.  I will tell you that your "Investigators" will all be a group of preteen kids back in the 1980s, dared to spend the night in the town's obligatory haunted house by a slightly older bully.  What comes next is itself a bit of an homage, a salute to Lovecraft (especially "The Dreams in the Witch House"), King (It and especially his 1984 short story "Gramma"), and the iconic Call of Cthulhu scenario "The Haunting."  Ross pulls no punches here, and The Dare wisely comes with two modes of play, PG and R.  The PG mode is a bit lighter and suitable for younger players, while R serves up very adult levels of terror.  

Which brings me to the next point; The Dare is a perfect introduction to Call of Cthulhu, particularly for younger players.  The reason for this is that the book contains a new, streamlined version of the 7th Edition rules called--brace for the eye roll--"The Call of Kid-thulhu."  Geared specifically for portraying kids rather than crusty-old academics or hard boiled detectives, this is a fast and easy-to-learn presentation of the rules with an abbreviated skill list heavy on charm.  Be A Pal, Be Sneaky, Gym Class, Science Class, and my personal favorite Play With Matches are all prime examples, condensing the Call of Cthulhu skill list to about 15 things.  "The Call of Kid-thulhu" rules make The Dare more than a scenario, because a Keeper could easily take them and spin out an entire campaign of kids versus the Mythos.  Stranger things have happened...like Stranger Things.

Which leaves us with the love letter.  From the front and back covers that have been made to look like battered old 1980s video cassette boxers (right down to the "be kind, rewind" sticker), to the character sheet, The Dare absolutely nails its source material.  And I mean all the source material; The Dare is painstakingly authentic to 80s adventure horror but it is also genuine Call of Cthulhu.  We are not talking Blood Brothers here, this is full-on Mythos horror.  Indeed, the layout and fonts are designed to look like Call of Cthulhu books from the 80s.  On the other side of things Brian M. Sammons closes the rules off with a terrific little survey of the 80s horror films that inspired The Dare, reminding us what a neat little trick the Sentinel Hill team has played here.  Like Pulp Cthulhu, The Dare manages both to be Cthulhu and to be its own thing.  If the gang is planning any follow up releases in "The Call of Kid-thulhu" subgenre, all I can say is "rad."    

Tuesday, October 6, 2020



THE STORY IS SO WELL-WORN every child on a playground knows it.  Intrepid explorer digs around in Egypt.  Intrepid explorer finds a mummy's tomb.  Intrepid explorer disturbs said mummy and triggers the "mummy's curse."  The mummy then rises from the dead to strangle the intrepid explorer or he and his assistants all meet a grisly and macabre end.

It's a surprisingly modern fable though.  The ancient Egyptians didn't inscribe curses on the walls of tombs for the same reason gravestones do not typically read "John Smith 1818-1898 - Rob this grave at your own peril."  The idea is generally so taboo people A) don't expect it to happen and B) don't like to talk about it if it does.

The stories really seem to begin around the 17th century, long before anyone could read the tomb walls to know whether they were cursed or not.  One story speaks of a Polish traveller who purchased a pair of mummies in Alexandria, storing them in the hold of a ship on the journey back home.  In a Dracula-esque turn the ship was plagued with storms and fog the entire voyage, and the crew haunted by nightmares of a pair of specters roaming the vessel.  This all ended when the mummies were tossed overboard.

In the Victorian Era, the idea became a staple of the gothic novel, beginning with Louisa May Alcott's (yes, THAT Louisa May Alcott) Lost in a Pyramid and culminating in Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars, which did for the mummy legend what Stoker had done for vampires six years before.

The story didn't really enter popular consciousness until the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1923 by British Egyptologist Howard Carter, however.   The deaths of Lord Carnarvon, his financial backer, Carter's secretary, a member of the excavation team, and even a visitor to the tomb ignited a mummy's curse media frenzy.  Nine years later Universal's The Mummy made the mummy's curse a horror film staple (though to be fair, the 1911 silent film of the same title was the first to show a revivified Egyptian corpse.  The rest as they say is history.


All this having been said, when Type 40's new Miskatonic Repository offering, The Mummy of Pemberley Grange, asks us "Jessica Pemberley, rich socialite and Egyptophile, has shipped a mummy all the way from Cairo and has invited you to an exclusive "unwrapping party" at her manor house in the country...(w)hat could possibly go wrong?" we all know exactly what could go wrong.  That is exactly the point.  Written by Allen Carey and Nice Holland, Pemberley Grange is one of the "Seeds a Terror," a series of concise, easy-to-run Call of Cthulhu scenarios that can be prepped and played in a single session.  Part of the package is that these stories are built around well-known tropes...but come with an unexpected twist.  This time it is the old "mummy's curse."  Yes, Pemberly Grange comes with a deadly twist on this.  No, I am not going to tell you what it is.

Your purchase includes an 11-page PDF, a pair of well-rendered hand-outs, 5 pregenerated 1920 Call of Cthulhu characters ready for play, and really fantastic blueprints of Pemberley Grange, the setting.  A Keeper will be literally ready to run this in ten minutes, a feature that brings a sort of fast and ready Dead of Night approach to Call of Cthulhu.  My first thought was that Pemberley Grange ( and presumably the rest of the "Seeds of Terror") would be an ideal introduction to Call of Cthulhu paired with the Starter Set.   I mean let's face it, Masks of Nyarlathotep is not exactly what you would call beginner friendly!

By relying on a trope we all know and love, The Mummy of Pemberley Grange is able to tell its story from start to finish in four pages, and the twist here is simply delicious... If further "Seeds of Terror" contains similar clever twists, count me in.