Tabletop Review: Horror Stories From the Red Room (Call of Cthulhu)

Call of Cthulhu: Horror Stories From the Red Room
Publisher: Chaosium
Page Count: 108
Cost: $10.97 (PDF)/$19.95 (Physical)
Release Date: 10/24/2013
Get it Here: PDF/Physical

Chaosium Monographs are pieces that are largely edited and laid out by the author(s) in question rather than by the actual employees of the publisher. Because it is generally very hard for a writer to edit or even see their own mistakes, Monographs can be very hit or miss in terms of quality. More often than not, they are filled with typographical, grammatical and editorial errors that would have easily been caught by a different pair of eyes. Now, this is not an across the board condemnation, but rather a generalization. After all, there are some great monographs that have been of a higher quality than some full fledged Call of Cthulhu releases. Just look at Mysteries of Ireland and Children of the Storm. I’d put those up as some of the best monographs, and easily some of the better Chaosium releases, in some time. Unfortunately, Horror Stories From the Red Room is one of those products that gives monographs a bad name, as the adventures are sub-par and the editing is just terrible. I think this is the first Chaosium release in two years that I have to say up front, “Wow, this is a stinker. DO NOT BUY!” to.

You know something has gone horribly wrong the second you go to the table of contents page. Now, the monograph is only 108 pages long, yet the table of contents seems to think this piece is over 150 pages long. “Dear Ladies,” the first adventure in the collection, is the only one listed as starting on the correct page, which is 5. From there on, it goes insane. “Horror Stories From the Red Room” supposedly starts on page 39. It actually starts on page 16. “Northanger Abbey and the Necronomicon” is listed as starting on pages 150-152, and then the next adventure, “Splatter Punks,” is listed as starting on page 154. The final adventure, “Three Maidens of Bingen,” is listed as starting on page 144. Oh my god, how did this get through publishing? There were seven authors on this thing, which implies seven editors, and not a single one noticed how messed up the Table of Contents was? It’s the first thing players and purchasers will see! Unfortunately, I bring up the Table of Contents in great deal because it is a perfect example of how badly done this book is in all respects, with the adventures generally being poorly written and edited with this same lack of regard for quality. I’d actually be ashamed to be one of the authors in this collection, which is sad, because there are some good CoC writers in the mix that simply just half-assed their way through this collection.

The first adventure is “Dear Ladies,” and it’s the best of the bunch. It’s the only one to stick to the original theme of the piece, which is Chaosium’s yearly Halloween offering, and it’s mostly free of errors. I should also add it’s the only adventure any of us found to be any fun to actually play through. “Dear Ladies” is a black comedy about two elderly ladies whose neighborhood feud has gone from petty comments and cruel pranks to a mutual decision to inflict homicide upon the other. One lady decided to just break in and beat the other one down. The second lady decides to use the power of the occult to summon a “demon” from another dimension to commit murder at her behest. A little bit extreme, but hey. This is where the Investigators come in. They’re here for a Halloween party thrown by one of the two women, so they have an alibi when everything goes nutty. Can the players keep both women from fulfilling their murderous desires while keeping a classic Mythos creature at bay? This is definitely a well laid out and potentially amusing adventure, and it’s the crown jewel of the lot. 1 for 1.

The second story is the titular adventure for this piece, “Horror Stories from the Red Room.” Unfortunately, it’s not very well done at all. For example, the piece takes place in a two floor estate, and it provides you with a map of both levels. This is fine in theory, but not in follow through. You see, each room on the map is numbered on the map, but it does not list which room is which. Conversely, the text of the adventure gives a description of each room, but does not correlate to which number on the map they correspond to. Another example of sloppy editing. The adventure is also missing details like the approximate year the adventure takes place (although you can surmise it by reading the text and inferring the author’s intent), and there are some odd decisions, like having the Investigators being paid $20 flat to investigate the history of some paintings and their creator. I have a feeling the author has no idea how long authentication and historical research into little known figures actually takes, as twenty dollars for a group of people to do this would be chicken feed, even in the 1920s. The piece is littered with huge and obvious inaccuracies that a good Keeper can catch and fix before playing, but that should have been the author’s or an editor’s job in the first place. Finally, the adventure relies far too heavily on the idea that the players and/or Keeper have Secrets of San Francisco, and the adventure cannot be played to its potential without it. One of the big cardinal rules of adventure writing is never to make a piece so reliant on a single not core rule book that it can’t be played without it, but that’s the case here. With all the errors in this piece, I’m shocked Chaosium chose it for publication. It’s just bad in all ways across the board, both to read and to sit through. 1 for 2.

Next up is “The Inheritance,” and while it is a fairly standard, paint by numbers haunted house adventure, it’s well written (especially by the standards of this piece). It uses a lot of tropes such as time loops (It felt like I was reading about The 7th Guest at times…), an inability to leave once Investigators have entered the building in question and a ghostly mystery that only the players can solve. Again, all stuff we’ve seen before numerous times, but the adventure is laid out well, organized nicely and it flows properly. It might make a good adventure to start a campaign or to introduce people to Call of Cthulhu, but more experienced players may find it dull and too familiar. 2 for 3.

Our fourth adventure is “His Pleasant Dream Was Shattered” and it’s not very good. The premise is that an eccentric alcoholic millionaire has caused a bit of trouble and may be sent to Arkham Asylum due to what appears to be a tenuous grasp on reality. Investigators are hired to… well, do a lot of crap actually. They have to keep him out of the asylum, keep him from going to jail, break his ties with local mob affiliates and help him confront the root of his once subtle madness. This adventure is just far too busy and all over the place, with tasks that the Investigators have to accomplish. Worse, if the players fail at a single task, the adventure ends in spectacular failure, and that’s just nonsensical. So are some of the solutions to these tasks, one of which involves taking the client, somehow finding family remains that were eaten by ghouls FOUR YEARS AGO, and then killing one of the ghouls whose only offense was being seen by this schmuck and whose pack actually went out of its way not to kill him when they met previously. This is just so stupidly written, and the goals the author has set out to accomplish wouldn’t actually cure the client of his depression, madness, alcoholism and more. For the ghoul goal, why not just show him they are real? Hell, any experienced Cthulhu character would go, “Oh, there are absolutely ghouls in this crypt? Let’s bring some assorted meat based leavings and bargain with them to go somewhere else.” If only, because human on ghoul violence generally turns out very bad for the humans in this game. Randomly murdering something, even a Mythos Creature, that is just doing what comes naturally to it would be a sanity loss in any other adventure, but not here. No, this really needed an editor to straighten out a lot of plot incongruities and issues that are quite obvious just in reading the piece, much less trying to make it playable. This really needed two or three passes by an editing table before being considered fit to print. 2 for 4.

“Northanger Abbey and the Necronomicon” is adventure number five, and it’s in the same vein as the terrible mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters or Wuthering Heights and a Werewolf that were all the rage several years ago and quickly burned out. Not only is this adventure riding on the coattails of an idea that has long since become passé, the author picked yet another Jane Austen novel to mashup with something horrific. If you’re going to ape an idea already done by someone else, why not pick an author from the same time period who has been overlooked? Even the Restoration period! That hasn’t been touched except for Samuel Pepys, who’s diary has already been used in numerous horror and mythos mashups. Edmund Burke, John Locke, Samuel Johnson, John Bunyan, William Blake, Hugh Walpole. Get creative people!

The adventure itself is loosely based on the novel Northanger Abbey, but mashed up with Cthulhu Mythos references like Hastur worship, byakhee summoning, vengeful ghosts from beyond the grave and mind swapping rituals. It’s interesting, but unless you know the book, the adventure loses what little charm it has, and if you or any of your players do know the book, you risk someone nitpicking the adventure to death or complaining about where and how the adventure deviates from the book. It’s kind of a lose-lose situation here, and the adventure is best read rather than played… but then that’s not a good thing to say about an adventure. I will say that the adventure can be a lot of fun if played with a very specific makeup of players and a Keeper that knows his or her Austen in addition to CoC mechanics, but that’s just too niche of a target audience to make this recommended. 2 for 5.

The sixth adventure is “Splatterpunks” or “Splatter Punks.” The name of the adventure changes throughout the monograph, again giving a nod to the terrible editing job in this piece. It’s an outside the box adventure, taxing place in the 1980s, and is a nod to weird horror movies like Ghoulies, Critters, Troll and other films from that era that had somewhat comical monsters wreaking havoc on a town. The adventure feels like it would work better with Chill or Cryptworld mechanics, but that doesn’t make it a bad fit for Call of Cthulhu – merely something that is very different from the norm, and as such, players may dislike it for its lack of anything relating to the usual CoC moods, themes and monsters. Now, while it’s not personally an adventure that would be my first choice (or even my second) to run for Call of Cthulhu, it is very well written, and I appreciate that it eschews all the usual done to death bits of the system and setting. I also had far more fun with this adventure than I thought I would, and this ended up being my second favorite in the collection. I also think this adventure has the best art in the monograph – such as it is.

The adventure involves a bunch of teenagers accidentally summoning a pack of murderous goblins to their town through the arcane ritual of playing a song backwards on a heavy metal album. What do you know – it actually worked! Of course, there is a little more to it than that, but it’s a cute take on classic 80’s urban legend (The only one I was ever able to make a hidden message appear on was by “Weird Al” where it said, “Satan eats Cheese Whiz.”) The investigators are either kids from the town or their usual characters that have the bad luck of passing through once the ritual has been completed. Players then have to try and find a way to send the goblins back to their own dimension, before they burn, pillage and murder everything in the little town. I will say the adventure had some unexpected comic relief, as one of the goblin summoning kids just happened to be named Matt Hardy. The adventure was then filled with constant jokes about his name, ranging from “Fat Hardy” whenever he ate, to people saying “Matt Hardy… WILL NOT DIE!” whenever he escaped a potentially dangerous situation. Note to authors: never name your characters after pro wrestlers, especially in a horror game, as the suspension of disbelief goes out the window entirely and cannot be rebottled. Still, “Splatterpunks” is a more comical adventure than most, so it actually fit the mood the adventure was trying to create. The biggest criticism I have about the piece is it refers to a previously published monograph but doesn’t give its name. Instead it just lists it as “CHA0404.” Most people don’t know a tabletop publication by its internal call letters. Some more bad editing. 3 for 6.

Our last adventure is “Three Maidens of Bingen.” Now, I have a confession to make. I have reviewed well over a thousand products in the past eleven years, and god knows that since I have been writing for and about the gaming industry, I have encountered some truly god awful adventures or video games. Things so bad that, without hyperbole, I have mentioned that I would rather face bodily harm than spend time with that product again AND MEANT IT. While “Three Maidens of Bingen” is far from being that level of awful, it is the first adventure that has ever been so dull, dry and boring that I FELL ASLEEP reading it. I’m a guy that reads extremely dry non-fiction for fun, so you would think I’d be immune to what was the equivalent of “Ben Stein in Ferris Buller’s Day Off” dull, but no. This was such a stinker I literally fell asleep trying to wade through this piece. It also didn’t help that, at twenty pages, this was the LONGEST adventure in the collection as well. Ugh. I’m sure the author isn’t normally this bad. I think he just got overzealous with putting every minute detail he could think of into the adventure, and it just magnified his already dry and dull writing style. Just be warned, if you do buy this, have some caffeine handy. Why am I allergic to caffeine, dammit?

“Three Maidens of Bingen” is for use with Cthulhu Invictus, a campaign setting taking place during the golden age of Rome. Thankfully, the adventure gives you enough information that you don’t actually need the campaign setting books to play through this. Unfortunately, you have to deal with the writing style to get the pertinent information. The crux of the adventure is that river shipping is being blocked, causing commerce to die down and tensions to grow. There are several possible red herrings as to what could be at the root of the problem, from River Pirates to supernatural entities. The players have to find out what is going on and stop it before anarchy reigns. Sadly, the idea is as dull and formulaic as the writing style, but there are some interesting ideas. I think that in the hands of a better writer, this could have been a lot better. Perhaps the author would work better as an idea man rather than a scripter? All in all, this was the worst adventure in the collection, and considering there are some real turkeys in here, that says something. 3 for 7.

So out of seven adventures, only three are any good, and of those three, there is only one that I think would be fun for a large cross section of Call of Cthulhu fans. Horror Stories from the Red Room is a perfect example of how a monograph can go spectacularly wrong. Bad ideas, bad adventures and certainly bad editing litter this piece from beginning to end, and I can safely say this monograph is not only the worst offering from Chaosium in several years, but is something to be avoided unless you foolishly agreed to review it. You know, like me. Save your money and your sanity points, dear readers, and pick up something else instead.

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