Tabletop Review: The Archaeologist’s Handbook (Call of Cthulhu/Trail of Cthulhu)

The Archaeologist’s Handbook (Call of Cthulhu/Trail of Cthulhu)
Publisher: Innsmouth House Press
Cost: £5.99/$9.63 (PDF), £11.99 Print
Page Count: 81
Release Date: 06/11/2013
Get it Here: Innsmouth House Press

An archaeologist is a common NPC, antagonist, plot hook and supporting character in a lot of Cthulhu works, be they fiction, film or tabletop gaming. Yet oddly enough, there has never been a template for the occupation in Call of Cthulhu. The core rulebook? No. The Investigator’s Companion? No. Byhakee? Nope, not there either. It’s so odd considering how important archaeology and archaeologists are to the game and its offshoots, like Trail of Cthulhu, Age of Cthulhu and even other horror role-playing games. Well, author Helen Maclean thought it was about time to give the archaeologist its due and let it take center stage. Innsmouth House Press agreed, and together, they’ve put out a lovely eighty page book entitled The Archaeologist’s Handbook.

I should point out that, although I list the book as a Call of Cthulhu product, it’s actually very system neutral, and could easily be used with everything from Chill or All Flesh Must Be Eaten to Modern d20 games. There are only three pages truly dedicated to any system in this book, and those are the sample player characters included towards the end – although I have no idea what system they are for. It’s certainly not Call OR Trail, and there is no listing or nod to what system they are using here. The rest of the book is more a treatise or collection of essays dedicated to fleshing out what archaeology is and how one goes about doing it as a profession, rather than a collection of game mechanics or rule lists. For a player, The Archaeologist Handbook helps them to understand their character better. By knowing the hows and whys of the profession, they will better be able to roleplay and perhaps even use their allotted skills better. For a Keeper, it lets them flesh out NPCs, digs where something horrible is going to happen and even use real world locations, famous digs, museums and hoaxes as piece of their own homebrew adventures. It’s exceptionally done, but just remember, this is more a tome of essays or papers without footnotes and a proper bibliography than an actual full-on gaming supplement, and because of that, The Archaeologist’s Handbook might not be for everyone.

There are fourteen sections to The Archaeologist’s Handbook. The introduction explains why the book was written and its intended purpose. “What is Archaeology?” explains the history of the profession. As a folklorist, I was glad to see the mention of how archaeology differs from anthropology, as you’d be surprised how often people assume the two are similar. I know about as much on cleaning an ancient relic as an archaeologist probably does about a specific subculture. There is a ton of great information in this chapter, with commentary on how the science evolved and also the large role that the concept of evolution played within it.

Although the timeline paragraphs are interesting, it’s the chapter, “Site Information,” and the one following it, entitled “Techniques,” that will be of the most interest to Keepers, especially those that run their horror/modern era games more like detective work. These chapters explain how an eventual dig location is formed over the years/centuries, and the manner in which the unearthing/exhuming process is begun. Again, for a Keeper, this is a great way to come up with a story of their own; basically, this helps to create a lost city, ancient ruin, relic of unfathomable power and so on, and have it be lost (and found) in a realistic manner. The techniques described in the self-same chapter are a wonderful bounty of ideas on how to add realism to a character or chronicle, especially with the history on how excavation techniques evolved over the years. That way, you can use the right style of excavation based on the time period and location in which your adventure is set. You’ll learn the rudimentary basics of dating, aerial photography, geographical surveying and more. Now, there’s not enough to actually give the ins and outs of their methods; merely enough so that you understand the concept and can use it as window dressing in your adventure(s). This is the second longest chapter in the book, and this is either the point where your imagination will be fueled with ideas, or where you’ll say, “This isn’t a gaming manual/supplement at all!”

“Museums” is simply a collection of some of the more famous museums in North America, Europe and North Africa. Sorry Asia, South America and Australia, but you’re not included. Each museum in this section is given a few paragraphs of detail and a url for its actual real world website. Some of the museum choices are odd. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago over the multiple Smithsonian’s in Washington D.C. for example, will definitely raise an eyebrow, but what’s here is a nice quick snapshot of various locations in which to set adventures.

“Running an Archaeological Excavation” sounds self-explanatory, but it really isn’t. This chapter goes into how to obtain dig funding, dealing with hired workers that don’t have the same sense of regard for history as their employers, and how to close a dig up once finished. “Fakes and Forgeries” talks about the three biggest scams in archaeology, including the Cardiff Giant and Piltdown Man.

“A Geography of Archaeology” takes up twenty-four pages, and is the best section for coming up with adventure ideas. Indeed, this chapter includes multiple story hooks – one after each description of a famous location. Places like Stonehenge, Troy, Easter Island and more can be found in this chapter. The plot hooks are really interesting as well, especially as there are multiple options for each to unfold.

After that comes the aforementioned weird characters for the game (which I wish would have been used for various systems on how to make an archaeologist template instead), followed by “A Day in the Life,” which is three fictional journal entries from various archaeologists to show what a typical day for one in a specific time period (Gaslight, 1920s, Modern Era) would be like. After that, the book winds down with “Famous Archaeologists,” which is self explanatory, “Equipment List,” which gives you a list of what archaeologists from a given era would carry with them, and finally “Further Reading,” which gives a list of books, both fiction and non-fiction for extended reading on the subject matter.

All in all, The Archaeologists Handbook is a fun one. Ten dollars for the PDF is a bit pricey for what you are getting, considering it’s not formatted very well (chapters start in the middle and even sometimes at the bottom of a page! It’s like a poorly done monograph) and there isn’t any art or colour, so this is pricey for what you get. For a comparable price you can easily get a full fledged (albeit it probably drier) book on the subject. The physical version is harder to recommend, become of the price for that (plus shipping costs from overseas), but for those that like in depth gaming supplements that flesh out a particular class or give you more substance for your setting, The Archaeologist’s Handbook is a wonderful foray into an occupation that has somehow been treated as second rate for the past three decades. Content is king here, and I enjoyed the material presented personally, but the cost plus the lack of mechanics may limit who will pick this up – especially the physical copy.

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