Tabletop Review; Bumps in the Night (Call of Cthulhu)

Bumps in the Night (Call of Cthulhu)
Publisher: Pagan Publishing
Page Count: 120
Cost $24.95 (PRINT ONLY)
Release Date: 09/04/2012

Bumps in the Night is a print-only (No e-book or PDF versions, sorry) adventure collection for the Call of Cthulhu gaming system put out by Pagan Publishing, who are best known for their Delta Green system. Bumps in the Night was originally schedules for a 2009 release but it silently and mysteriously disappeared off the radar. Then in March of this year, Pagan Publishing resurrected the book via Kickstarter. I, along with 249 other Call of Cthulhu fans threw money at Pagan Publishing to get this released. Although they were asking for only $2,500, then ended up getting over $12,000!

Now while this was supposed to be released in June, it wouldn’t be Pagan without even MORE delays. On September 4th, they had announced it had finally shipped and it arrived at my home on the 6th. Now after a week of reading it over I can honestly say I’m happy to have supported this as it’s another decent, but not great, addition to the Call of Cthulhu releases that have blown me away this year. My biggest disappointment is that Kickstarter backers were charged between thirty and thirty-five dollars for this (depending on if you had it signed or not), while the actual cover price is $24.95. That’s a bit of a kick in the butt to the people who made this possible. Well, at least for our extra money we got extra copies of the play aids, some pregen characters for one of the scenarios and creator notes. Something is better than nothing and I’m just happy to have this thing published.

Bumps in the Night was of special interest to me because none of the five adventures included within use Cthulhu Mythos creatures. So you won’t find anything by Lovecraft, Derleth, Bloch, Chambers or the like. Instead all the monsters are from folklore or are of a more classical motif. I enjoyed this as I love the Call of Cthulhu system, but I try to use Lovecraftian beasties sparingly. Otherwise they become old hat to players and the Keeper and that’s the exact opposite of what you want. So these adventures were right in line with myself of “DM’ing.” After reading through, I can say that all five adventures are interesting, but I’d probably only run two of the five. Maybe a third with a little extra planning. Still, the collection is fun to read and at five dollars per adventure (or six if you’re a Kickstarter backer like myself), it’s a pretty good deal. It’s not the best collection of Call of Cthulhu adventures released this year (I’d give that to Mysteries of Ireland or Children of the Storm, thus proving Monographs are an underrated offering), but it’s still worth picking up if you’re a fan of the system.

The first adventure is “The Westerfield Incident” and it takes place in New York State during 1915. There have been a series of mysterious (and gruesome!) murders in the small mining community of Westerfield and the PCs have to figure out who is behind the slayings. Or course this being Call of Cthulhu the WHO quickly becomes a WHAT. It’s an interesting little adventure with an interesting locale. Factor in the politics of a mining community and a nice twist on a classic monster and you have a fun little adventure. The problems are that like all adventures by John Crowe III, there seems to be an inordinate attempt to make life hard for players. A lot of rolls call for skills at half to twenty percent of their actual rating. That’s a little insane in my book. There’s also several rolls that can only be done by very specific skills that aren’t on Call of Cthulhu character sheets, so you pretty much have to push a player to be say…a forensic pathologist or an extremely highly skilled doctor to make much of this scenario work. “The Westerfield Incident” definitely needs a bit of revision to make it playable by anything other than pregens that the Keeper comes up with. It’s doable without them, but only with a lot of frustration on the side of the players and a lot of handholding or coaxing by the Keeper. It’s an adventure I would honestly considering running, but only after doing some notable modifications to it.

“The Vengeful Dead” is the second adventure in the collection and it’s my second favorite in the entire book. Here characters are taking a nice relaxing vacation down to Floyd County, VA (Near the WV and NC borders)where they will be staying at the Grandview Lodge, a luxurious hotel. Unfortunately for the players one of the guests is a serial killer who engages in ritualistic homicide in an attempt to curry favor with the dark gods. To makes things worse, it’s also Walpurgis Nacht, which should be a familiar holiday to fans of Stoker, Goethe and Bunnicula. So it should really be no surprise to anyone when the dead rise from their grave and surround the lodge with intent on settling some old scores.

“The Vengeful Dead” is a lot of fun, not only because players are trying to figure out why a horde of undead have descended upon them, but why. This is one of those adventures where the more experience a player has with Call of Cthulhu, the more they will probably overthink things and even cause themselves more harm than good. Even more interesting is that the scenario is open ended enough that the Keeper can pick who they want to be the killer. There are several options, all of them good, and thus a lot of red herrings sending the PCs on a wild goose chase more often than not. Best of all Crowe knows the difference between revenants and zombies and actually makes the clarification. As a folklorist, that is ALWAYS a huge pet peeve for me, so nice to see someone else in the industry insist on that distinction. Overall, “The Vengeful Dead” is definitely an adventure I’d love to throw at gamers at some point.

The third adventure is “The Bitter Venom of the Gods” and not only is it a quasi-sequel to “The Vengeful Dead,” but it’s also the worst adventure in the book and one I really can’t recommend to anyone. It feels more like a 1920s version of Shadowrun than a Call of Cthulhu adventure. It’s also especially telling that even in the notes for the adventure (a Kickstarter exclusive that I read have the actual book so that I wouldn’t be influenced by outside commentary) that even the playtesters had to basically resort to a nonstop shoot ’em up to get through this. Don’t get me wrong. There are some systems that are wonderful for that, but Call of CthulhuVampire: The Masquerade LARP without an angst or political backstabbing.

In “The Bitter Venom of the Gods,” a NPC from “The Vengeful Dead” has left her domineering fiancĂ© but has to return to his ancestral home to get her property back. Once inside, she doesn’t come back out. This is of course why she asked the Investigators from the previous adventure to accompany her. From there, your players have to sneak into a mansion populated by an insane inbred family who worships a Sumerian god of pestilence via acts of sacrifice. Yeesh. This whole adventure smacks of a bad survival horror game rather than something Lovecraftian. I’m definitely not a fan and although Crowe does try to come up with some scenarios that won’t end in a shoot ’em up rampage with a lot of dead bodies lying everywhere, things just don’t come together very well in this one. Honestly, considering this has been on the shelf for over three years, Pagan had plenty of time to jettison this adventure and replace it with something else. Crowe can write some truly great adventures, but this one is easily his worst.

The fourth adventure, “Curse of the Screaming Skull” is my absolute favorite in the collection and is one I definitely want to inflict on some friends and/or fellow DHGF staffers. It’s a very memorable adventure with some truly striking moments. This is all the more impressive because it relies on one of the most common tropes of the system – investigating a haunted house. Look, as a published CoC writer myself, I know how hard it is to make a haunted house style adventure entertaining – ESPECIALLY for veteran players of this system. They know what to look for, how to react and can pretty much suss things out from the get go. Thankfully “Curse of the Screaming Skull” turns the entire genre on the head. Often times players will think the absolute worst thing to do is the right and logical choice and well…more’s the pity for them. Much like “The Vengeful Dead,” longtime vets may have the hardest time with this adventure due to overconfidence and a knowledge of the system’s tropes. It’s a very nice compact adventure with very few NPCs to have to worry about and most of the action occurring in a single local (the haunted house). Of course there’s the added complication that nothing in the house can be destroyed, sold or given away or the person hiring the Investigators will lose his entire newly acquired fortune. This means the PCs will really have to come up with some clever solutions to make it through this adventure with their sanity and pocketbooks intact. Again, this is by far the best adventure in the collection and between this and “The Vengeful Dead,” Bumps in the Night is well worth tracking down.

The final adventure in this collection is “An Unsettled Mind” and I’m still torn about how I feel toward it. In all honestly, it feels more Delta Green than Call of Cthulhu. PCs work as government agents, (The Baltimore Police Department), the adventure revolves around psychic abilities rather than some hideous monster and it just doesn’t FEEL like a Call of Cthulhu adventure should. That said, it’s a very well done adventure except for the conclusion which comes off creepy levels of preachy and almost like Michelle Bachmann wrote the thing, which is NOT a compliment. Basically you have Terri Schavio all over again, except in turns out she has extremely powerful psychic abilities, that in her vegetative state, cause murder and mayhem. The Investigators have to figure out how to deal with this young lady and every decision seems to be a wrong one. If you let her live, the psychic murders continue and the PCs lose sanity. If you kill her to stop the slaughter you lose 1d20 sanity! This is so unbalanced in terms of sanity loss it’s not even funny and I can’t believe these penalties made it through the editorial process. I Formless Spawn encounter is 1d10 sanity loss if you fail the roil. Are we honestly saying that a mercy killing of a vegetative serial killer is twice as encountering a hideously alien race is? Especially since all the PCs are police officers that specialized in gruesome or mysterious killings. This part just doesn’t sit well with me at all. Much like “The Westerfield Incident,” this adventure really needed to be edited and playtested more before being published. Most Keepers are going to look at this thing and heavily modify the ending, the rewards and the penalties before unleashing it on their players. Again, with this book having been waylaid for over three years, there was plenty of time to fix the glaring issues with this adventure. The fact that things weren’t is more on Pagan Publishing that on John Crowe III.

All in all, Bumps in the Night contains two exceptional adventures, two mediocre ones that really needed a good editor and/or some more playtesting instead of being released in their current condition and one really bad adventure. In the end, there is more positive than negative and the two mediocre adventures can be fixed/improved by a veteran Keeper. I’d still probably only play the first, second and fourth adventures in this collection, and do my best to ignore the existence of the third and fifth. Still, three out of five isn’t bad. Again, it’s not as good as other collection of adventures released this year for Call of Cthulhu, but it’s still good enough that fans of the system should try to pick it up if Pagan ever buts it up for sale on its website and/or Arkham Bazaar. Right now the only way to have a copy of this is through the Kickstarter and your chance for that was over half a year ago. Websites like Paizo, Amazon and Cool Stuff Inc. have it listed but as “out of stock,” so perhaps soon you’ll get your chance.

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