Call of Cthulhu: Red Eye of Azathoth
Publisher: Open Design LLC
Page Count: 106
Release Date: 08/31/2011(?) (see below)
Get it Here: NOWHERE (as of the date of publication)
Red Eye of Azathoth is the first Call of Cthulhu adventure release by Open Design, which usually sticks to Pathfinder or their magazine, Kobold Quarterly. Red Eye of Azathoth is an especially odd duck as it’s been in the works for over two years with Call of Cthulhu and Open Design fans alike wondering when it would be released. I received an email in early August about my review copy, but then when I clicked on the link to receive it, it would not allow me to download the PDF until August 31st. I happily did so the moment it became available because as you’ve probably noticed, Call of Cthulhu is one of my big three tabletop games. Unfortunately for those of you reading this, the PDF was pulled shortly after I downloaded for unknown reasons and it has not resurfaced with a new release date. Even the official website for Open Design lists it as “June 2011” but still has it in a pre-order state. Troll & Toad, a major online tabletop shopping website had a date of September 6th and still elsewhere I’ve seen September 13th and September 19th. So who really know WHEN this is actually coming out? This makes this review of Red Eye of Azathoth a bit odd simply because I have the physical product but none of the information that helps you, the potential purchaser, get it.
Red Eye of Azathoth is a set of five adventures spanning a millennium. As you might have guessed, the campaign revolves about the Outer God Azathoth, mindless chaos attended to by hideous things and their even more hideous piping music. The overall plot that links the five adventures together is that on the 87th year of every century, a red comet streaks across the heavens. As it passes, the slumber that tends to dominate Azathoth thins, and it is at this moment that the Outer God can be summoned to Earth. Which is possibly the stupid thing someone COULD do, but hey, people do stupid things all the time. However, this isn’t all. This comet (also known as the “Harbinger Star” and “The Red Eye of Azathoth”) is only one of the three pieces in this triumvirate of evil. The second piece is The Brass Sphere of Possession, a magical artifact that currently resides in the Dreamlands. This sphere allows the owner to see through the eyes of and/or possess anyone touching it. The catch is that the possession part only works when the piping that keeps Azathoth slumbering has stopped. The third part are the Inhabitants of Leng, which Lovecraft fans probably know from “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.” The Denizens currently have control of the Brass Sphere and plan to use it as a means of taking over the Earth. To this end they have created a false prophecy to trick sorcerers or those who seek vast quantities of power. Said prophecy involves stopping the piping of the Lesser Servitors of Azathoth and summoning it to Earth. In return Azathoth will reward the summoner will dominance over the Earth for all time. Of course what will really happen is the mage stops the piping and because the Brass Sphere is part of the false prophecy, they will immediate become possessed by an Inhabitant of Leng who then stops the spell so the Earth isn’t actually destroyed by nuclear chaos incarnate. The next step is basically “?????” and step four appear to be “Profit!” as in taking over the Earth for themselves. To say that this plan is exceptionally convoluted and full of holes is an understatement, but this is what gives the players any one from conquering/destroying the planet.
Unlike most Cthulhu oriented adventures this does not take place in the 1920s or even Victorian times. Instead each adventure has its own time period. The five dates and locations are as follows:
I have to admit, four out of the five locations interested me with their dates and times…but then I saw that yet another person is going to do a Roanoke story. Seriously, this story of Roanoke has been retread in so many “real world” RPGs, along with books, movies and video games that whenever I see it, I think “creative bankruptcy.” Still, I wasn’t going to let my disdain for the beating of this dead horse to judge the adventure, or the entire campaign for that matter, beforehand.
The hook to make this set of adventures an actual campaign rather than a series of slightly connected one-shots is that your Investigators are reincarnations of the Brass Sphere’s previous victims. As the Red Eye approaches closer to the Earth, the Investigators will regain previous memories (and skills), allowing them to (hopefully) once again defeat the recurring villain from the previous scenarios. It’s an interesting plot device, but there are some definite problems with the overall story arc, especially the motivations of the would-be Big Bad. If he’s been doing the same thing since 2000 BCE and spends his time between possessions in the Dreamlands, one would think he would catch on to a) the truth of the prophecy, b) the race manipulating him and c) the fact that every century he fails horribly at whatever scheme he tries. The good news is that HE DOES, but far less effectively than a being with thousands of years of life experience and magical mastery should. This lets the recurring villain learn from his mistakes and trying increasingly insane ploys to achieve his goals, while being overall ineffectual. This keeps things somewhat fresh but there’s still a lack of full characterization as well as a solid and believable motivation for the arch nemesis of your players.
From a formatting perspective, there isn’t a lot of art and the campaign does have some noticeable grammatical issues and typos with sentences like, “No longer incorrupt, St Cuthbert’s skeleton exhibits blackened bone spurs the form disturbing sigils…the Death-thralls spell Eadfrith never found.” But unless you are reading carefully, you probably won’t catch them. It could have really used another editing session, especially since this is a publication by a major company. It didn’t really bother me because hey, I’ve had a few typos of my own get past editors.
So now, let’s take a look at each adventure on its own.
The two things I found I instantly liked about this adventure was that is takes place on Walpurgis Nacht and that the Investigators are playing as Vikings or enslaved Christians. The former is a personal favorite of mine and the latter provides a nice contrast of characters as well as the potential for some really solid roleplaying. The downside is that the adventure strongly suggests (but does not mandate) using the pregenerated characters at the end of the book, which tend to be the kiss of death for an adventure. Most gamers, especially those in a campaign, would prefer to make their own characters. Asking a troupe to play five one-shot adventures with five sets of pregenerated characters rarely goes over well. Still as the GM, you can always ignore this advice and it’s my suggestion that you do if you want to maximize fun. The game also only provides four pregens, so if you have a larger gaming party (as I tend to), you’re definitely going to want to let people roll their own so there isn’t the drama of, “Why do THEY get to?” which can sometimes occur.
As for the adventure itself, it feels a little more Dead Space than Call of Cthulhu as the emphasis is more on gore than terror, along with corpses merging together and mutating into undead horrors and combat over thinking. You might automatically cast dispersion on this, but remember, at least some of the characters will be Vikings and so this makes sense thematically. There’s also a nice swerve as to who Lei Peng is possessing. There’s also the expressed intent that the party should be divided and work against each other -at least at first. Situations like that can spiral out of control with an inexperienced GM or players who feel that an RPG is something “to win,” but again, this adventure is one of the rare exceptions where it makes sense. The memory of past lives is also a nice fail safe to prevent bad blood from brewing.
Overall this particular adventure doesn’t really feel like a Call of Cthulhu scenario. It’s gore over eerie and is more a survival horror video game turned into a tabletop session rather than what most CoC fans tend to look for. There is very little emphasis on the intellectual side of the game. It’s an interesting idea for an adventure, but it kind of misses the point of what Call of Cthulhu is about or why most people play it. Most long time CoC fans that play this will indubitably make references to more hack and slash oriented RPGs and how this adventure would be better suited there. That doesn’t mean that the adventure is bad – just that is skewed for a very different demographic than the typical Call of Cthulhu player.
Japan is always an interesting setting to stage a Call of Cthulhu adventure as the potential of using Yokai with a Lovecraftian bent is almost limitless. While this particular adventure doesn’t go down that road, it’s still a weird little tale that feels more like what CoC gamers want/expect from an adventure. I mean you’ve got a living nightmare harvesting the voices of Japanese villagers. Characters will get to play as Samurai and there’s far more investigation and thinking than in the previous adventure. Once again there is a swerve involving Lei Peng, and players get to encounter the Denizens of Leng, getting to fully realize that they are involved in a three way dance for the survival of the planet. The downside is that once again the scenario is combat heavy, even kicking things off immediately with a battle – showing that Open Design is really unwilling to fully embrace the Call of Cthulhu spirit and instead cling to their Pathfinder roots.
There are some notable plot holes here, such as the Iwaizumi villagers not knowing written Japanese. This isn’t even remotely feasible and the writers’ emphasis on players and DMs communicating in pictograms is not only needless but flat out stupid. The adventure gives no reason for why the villagers don’t known written Japanese, even though the Shogunate is well aware of the village and the adventure itself points out that there are regular visitors to the region. It’ll be the first thing players question and anyone with a cursory knowledge of Japanese history, culture and language will be unable to give a quality answer other than “the writers of the adventure are sloppy.”
This second adventure is a longer than the first and I was glad to see that there was more of a balance between combat and investigation (although it is still heavy on the combat side), but the adventure is also not as well written and doesn’t really take advantage of the Japanese locale, which is a disappointment. This thing really could take place anywhere and the authors just plopped it down in Japan for the sake of being “Exotic.” It’s definitely not as good as the first and although there are some neat aspects to it, it definitely feels slapped together.
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Although it does seem like a great thing to base a Call of Cthulhu adventure around… The writers of Red Eye of Azathoth certainly seem to think so and that’s why the middle adventure of the campaign takes place in Spain during this horrific time. This is definitely the creepiest of the adventures – although oddly enough it’s not from a Lovecraftian or Cthulhu-esque aspect. It’s the whole manipulation of the devout through their faith coupled with the wanton torture of Jews and Muslims simply for not sharing that same religious zeal.
Here it’ll be obvious just WHO Lei Peng is, but what won’t be obvious are who and what Peng’s accomplices are, especially as they are portrayed and used somewhat differently from how they usually are in CoC. They definitely strike a strong religious chord for the Catholic NPCs of the time period and it’s a very interesting idea, but once again, it is one that is almost completely at odds with the creators and writers of the collective Cthulhu Mythos. By this point I was starting to feel that the entire campaign collective was an attempt to force a more D&D/Pathfinder style of adventure into the Call of Cthulhu system. The other options are that the writers simply don’t get the mood and feel behind Call of Cthulhu, that they were unable to write something that actually felt like a CoC campaign, so they went back to their hack and slash roots, or that they simply wanted to create something that stood out from the pack of published Call of Cthulhu adventures, even to the point where it would alienate the main audience for such a product.
That continuing issue aside, there’s a nice story bit here that provides a solid reason behind Moors taking the brunt of the Inquisition during this scenario. It’s very nice to see a fiction and reality intertwine here, even if it is in a disconcerting manner. There’s also very little combat in this adventure compared to the previous two. There’s also some slightly daffy ideas that make this adventure the least Lovecraftian yet. These range from Golem creation to a player character being able to transform into a snake. That sentence alone should annoy most CoC purists and just continues to highlight that Red Eye of Azathoth is at best, merely playing lip service to Call of Cthulhu and is just using its mechanics. The adventure also features a long and poorly thought out chase scene that is meant to be done through straight roll-playing rather than role-playing. A good GM will just outright ignore this, but you have to wonder how such an idea made it through playtesting. Seriously, there is an entire page devoted to just chart based mechanics for this chase. I sat there gobstopped for a few seconds after seeing that.
The third adventure follows the same patterns as the first two in that there are some interesting ideas here that could have made for a really good adventure, but everything quickly degenerates into an odd mix of a D20 system and Call of Cthulhu providing a disservice to both. We’re also seeing that each adventure is a notable step down in quality from the previous one, which doesn’t seem to leave much hope for the last two, does it?
Here we are with the fourth adventure and the one I was most worried about due to the use of Roanoke. Like the second adventure the focus is more on the Denizens of Leng than on Lei Peng. I’m also glad that they brought up one of the previous CoC adventures to touch on Roanoke, which was the first sign I had that the writers knew something of the system, if not the mood and tone it is meant to convey.
This adventure really shakes things up as this sets up which ending the Investigators gets in the fifth and final adventure and also changes how the brass sphere is working. The adventure also gives a pretty good reason behind the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony and it’s funny that the adventure I was the most pessimistic about became the one I had the least complaints about.
This adventure is the closest to feeling like a Call of Cthulhu one, where much of it is talking and mood setting and there is a slow burn in regards to the encounter with the unnatural. It’s also the first adventure where Lei Peng actually comes off as a threat and not a two dimensional stereotypical supervillain. This is a very well written adventure that has a lot of mystery and investigation to it. It’s also the longest adventure and may take an extra play session to get through.
While I viewed the previous three adventures with more scorn than praise, I have to say Lost Shall Be Those Bearing Souls Split in Twain is really well done. The adventure actually lives up to its potential, using the setting and historical information wonderfully. It throws several curve balls at the players and it feels like an Actual Call of Cthulhu adventure, rather than something generic using the Chaosium’s rules. There’s a little bit of combat against monstrosities, but not until the absolute climax of the adventure, and the entire set-up is very well done. I only wish the previous three adventures were this good.
..and here we are with the final adventure. It takes place in the “Old West” in what will eventually become the state of Arizona. This isn’t the first horror adventure to take place here. There have been things like Deadlands and Werewolf: The Wild West, so it’s not as if this adventure is a breath of fresh air. It is also a VERY unsatisfactory conclusion to the campaign and determines who “wins” – Mankind or Lei Peng (or the Denizens of Leng is the Investigators failed adventure #4). I was disappointed with WHAT Lei Peng possesses in this adventure as it’s a) outright stupid, b) the creature is about as inaccurate a locale as could be for its folklore and c) shows the writers’ lack of knowledge on this folkloric creature in practically every way. I honestly shook my head at this and it again shows that the team that made Red Eye of Azathoth neither know the system nor its creatures very well. The more I read of this adventure that more I was shocked and saddened that someone was paid for this. I’m trying not to spoil things here, and because of that, I can’t list the litany of things that are horribly wrong here.
As well, the adventure lacks any real sense of horror and ends up feeling more like a dungeon crawl than what most Call of Cthulhu gamers would want to play. It’s far more violence oriented that any self-respecting CoC adventure should be and unlike the first and third adventures where the violence made sense thematically – here it’s just apparent that the writers lacked a satisfactory conclusion and so everything degenerates into “kill ’em all” or middle school style Dungeons & Dragons on all sides.
Between the starting state of your characters, the outright slap in the face to folklore that Peng’s “gang of eight” represents and the way the entire campaign ends, it’s hard to think of someone who won’t be disappointed with this adventure, much less the entire campaign. The best things I can say about this fifth and final adventure is that it is both original and HUGE, with the content behind it taking up nearly half the book. Aside from that, the entire final adventure is not only the worst in the campaign, but arguably the worst published Call of Cthulhu adventure I’ve ever read.
Look, I love hack and slash and dungeon crawls as much as the next guys. God knows I play a lot of Shadowrun and video games, but that’s not what I want when I sit down to play Call of Cthulhu. This sort of adventure is exactly WHY Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth pissed off so many Mythos fans and why it was elected to the Video Game Hall of Shame. Doing the same thing in a tabletop format isn’t going to lessen the level of disdain this type of thing gets from the CoC demographic. I appreciate the attempt to try something that is a complete 180 from the usual published CoC adventure, but this was neither the right way to do it, nor is it very well done. It’s like all the negatives people have about heavily combat oriented RPGs and then shoe horning them into a system where combat is the supposed to be the least used mechanic in the game. It’s just a massive mistake on all levels and while some people might enjoy this as a one off change of pace, I can’t think of anyone that would want to play an entire campaign like this. There are too many plot holes, far too much combat, and the writers simply display little knowledge about the system or even why people like Call of Cthulhu to begin with. There are some good ideas here and I guess if your goal is to try and introduce Call of Cthulhu to people who have only played Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, then it MIGHT work. But for everyone else, especially longtime CoC fans, Red Eye of Azathoth will do little but leave a horrible taste in their mouths and a distinct feeling that Open Design should stick to high fantasy oriented games instead.
In good conscience I can’t recommend Red Eye of Azathoth to anyone. I applaud Open Design for branching out into a different system, but this simply wasn’t very good. There was potential, but in the end, we see exactly why turning Call of Cthulhu into something combat heavy is treated with disdain by most fans of the game. Just stay away and save your money. There’s a very good reason why this keeps getting pushed back and has even been recalled.