It’s been an amazing year for the Call of Cthulhu franchise. Chaosium has put out top notch pieces like Cthulhu by Gaslight Third Edition and Mysteries of Ireland. Goodman Games has given us A Dream of Japan and The Timeless Sands of India. Pagan Publishing FINALLY released Bumps in the Night while other new publishers like Modiphius and Hebanon games releases some quality adventures as well. As 2012 comes to an end, Chaosium gives us one last release in Terror From the Skies – a massive campaign containing over a dozen connected adventures, guaranteed to keep your players busy for the next few months. While it’s nowhere as impressive as say, Horror on the Orient Express or Masks of Nyarlathotep, you’re still getting a solid adventure that will test both the Keeper and the Investigators alike as they try to foil a scheme that, if left unchecked, will spell the extinction of the entire human race.
The primary antagonists in this campaign are the Insects from Shaggai, or the Shan, as they are referred to throughout this collection. Although the race is presented slightly different in tone and deed than Ramsey Campbell first portrayed them, they still make for a creepy recurring threat to your Investigators – especially with their legions of shantanks, star vampires and cultists behind them. There is a lot of combat here, especially for a Chaosium published Call of Cthulhu adventure, but if the players are smart, they’ll be able to even the odds by way of magic, stealth and even making an alliance with the Deep Ones. This adventure is pretty unforgiving, and much like those classic boxed sets from Chaosium’s past, everyone’s starting Investigator will probably be dead or mad before the campaign is through. In this respect, it’s almost like this is a Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign, but with train rides instead of underground lairs and Cthulhu Mythos beasties instead of dragons or beholders. I’d suggest using characters that are well experienced if you want them to survive, as they would have Mythos skill points and some spells at hand, but then you risk losing a beloved character, and the first adventure is written in such a way that this is each character’s first experience with the Mythos. At the same time though, there are times when the adventure expects Investigators to have a pretty hefty Cthulhu Mythos skill percentage to make a few rolls, which is pretty jarring and at times impossible. This isn’t the only case where balance is an issue with the entire campaign. You’re going to want each Investigator to have an extremely high Psychology skill level, as it’s used for just about everything in this game. Other skills that are abundantly used are Spot Hidden, Hide and Sneak. It’s as if a team of Jungian loving Ninjas would be the ideal Investigators for this campaign. It would have been nice to see a larger spread of skill usage throughout the campaign, but it is what it is. Just don’t expect your typical librarian or Professor to make it through this unscathed. A Hobo or dock worker might have a better chance, which is kind of neat. Keepers may want to give hints as to what skills are best suited for this campaign if they are overly nice and generous, but it also may be fun to see how well the usual Call of Cthulhu builds hold up in this campaign.
The campaign starts off innocuously enough, with the wedding of a dear friend. Unfortunately the wedding is to be held in a church with a hideous curse that plagues any who try to wed within it, thus setting off a massive chain of events no one could predict. The first adventure is an intro not only to the campaign, but could also work as an intro to Call of Cthulhu as well. There’s little, if any, combat, and it’s all about deciphering how the curse works and disabling it. It’s about as cut and dry as a CoC adventure gets. From there, though, each adventure is meant to lead into the next, but things start off with a rocky start. A character briefly met in the first adventure is the story hook for the second one, which takes place in Whitby. However, said character lived nowhere near Whitby in the first adventure, and for a campaign that is almost anal retentive on keeping track of dates and times so as to stick to a schedule of events, there’s no commentary on when this character moved or how long of a time elapsed between the two adventures. There’s also no reason for this NPC to have forged such a strong bond with the Investigators that he thinks to write them and ask for their help. In all honestly, I would have the first adventure, “Introduction,” take place a year or so before “A Whitby Vampire” and throw in two other short adventures between them to let the Investigators raise their skills while letting the players get some experience in the system. I’d also make this particular NPC, named Frederick Davis, a recurring character in them somehow to strengthen his relationship with the PCs and make it less jarring.
The second adventure is only connected to the first because the things behind the cursed church are also behind the serial killings in this adventure. That and Mr. Davis. Other than that, they aren’t as interconnected as they need to be for a true campaign feeling. Still, “A Whitby Vampire,” is a fun adventure, just like the first, and it really gives the Investigators full exposure to the Mythos while also making some truly strange allies. It also gives the PCs knowledge of the cult that does the bidding of the Shan and a hint towards the end goal of this alien race.
After “A Whitby Vampire,” the Investigators begin to follow clues leading them into a vast world-wide conspiracy. They’ll be traveling by train, motorcar, carriage and even ship as they follow leads all over the United Kingdom. Each leg of the journey puts them at odds with the Shan’s cult, while also gaining magic and Cthulhu Mythos points at an increasing pace. As mentioned earlier, there will be a lot of battles taking place, but with the right magic, players should be able to stand up to the creatures they encounter, even while their sanity slowly dissipates. As Investigators will (hopefully) gain access to the same summon/bind spells the cult has, they can just neutralize the creatures with their own kind, freeing up time to investigate, steal, assassinate and research. Like I said, a Ninja would work out really well in Terror From the Skies.
A good part of the adventure is figuring out who is in the Shan’s cult and who is also quasi-possessed by one of these creatures. This is where the massive amount of psychology rolls will come in. Every character will have access to the spell Cast Out Shan, which will help immensely, but it’s getting a person to a place where you can perform the spell privately that will be the trick, just like any other spell in the game. It’s not just spells and psychology rolls that will come in handy. Someone who is excellent with a sniper rifle will make the adventure pretty easy as well. There are times when the an Investigator with experience in this field (say a veteran of the Great War) will be able to take out a cultist easily. More importantly, it’ll keep from having to deal with Shantanks and Star Vampires. At one point characters may even try to infiltrate the cult. At the very least they’ll be sneaking into a few ceremonies and the like. Investigators might not have a problem foiling the plans of alien horrors and their pet monstrosities, but they might balk at having to kill a lot of cultists. All for the greater good though, right?
It’s not until the sixth adventure, “Newcastle,” where the Investigators will really have an idea of what is going on. Until now, they’ve just been dealing with a cult that seems to be spread across the country. Here, however, players will finally figure out what the Shan need, a flight around the world via the Graf Zeppelin, even if they won’t know why. For the next few adventures, players will be going after specific cultists and either neutralizing them or opening their eyes to what the Shan really are and the nefarious schemes they have in place. The good thing is that you can have some of these (hopefully) ex-cultists in line as replacement characters in case someone dies or goes irreparably mad from this point on. Basically, from here on, players will be trying to figure out what cultists are going to be on the Graf Zeppelin, and taking their tickets through a variety of means. These bits can range from helping free these people from their Shan infestation (if they have one. They might just be helping willingly) to doing a 1920s style Shadowrun affair, or just outright robbing and/or murdering them to keep them from bordering the most important blimp ride in human history. Of course, no matter what, the Investigators will have to figure out who (or what) a mysterious being known as The Carrier is and what exactly “Heliowall” is, and why it is so important to the Shan. Is it a person? A Place? An alien being? A technological device? Players will need to figure this out and invariably, it will probably lead them through a maze of challenges that will test even the most min/max’d character.
The campaign climaxes with “The Graf Zeppelin” and “The Last Leg,” where the investigators, now armed with the knowledge of what Heliowall is, must figure out which of the passengers or crew aboard the Graf Zeppelin is it. Then they have to find a way to neutralize them and prevent the Shan’s plan for world domination from taking effect. In essence, these two adventures are a logic puzzle similar to the old board game Guess Who? albeit with more lethal consequences. Players will have to mentally tick off who the Carrier could and could not be. A wrong guess can lead to disaster, imprisonment and even extinction of the human race. At the same time, they have but a limited amount of time, as they must stop The Carrier before the flight around the world is accomplished, so they can’t dawdle. There will be numerous occurrences where The Carrier will try to take the Investigators out, and thus chances for the players to compare notes and try to pinpoint who the Shan’s ultimate agent is. It may come down to one Investigator taking it for the team by coldly murdering the Carrier in front of witnesses, or even the entire team sacrificing the Graf by using Mythos creatures of their own to destroy it and the Carrier (along with dozens of innocent human lives). It all just depends on the players and the actions they choose for their characters. In the end, the Investigators will have hopefully stopped the Shan from their one and only chance of destroying humanity in exchange for earning the eternal enmity of this race of beings. With a good Keeper and some fine players, Terror From the Skies should be an immensely rewarding and entertaining experience for all who play through it.
As fun and lengthy as Terror From the Skies is, it’s not without flaws. I’ve mentioned a few earlier, such as the lack of balance with important skills and the sheer amount of combat and magic players will be engaging in. The other really noticeable negative with this book is the layout of the content. I really feel that each chapter, as well as the entire book, could have been laid out better. Terror From the Skies feels a bit ramshackle, like everything should have been placed in a different order for better cohesion and comprehension. For example, each chapter ends with a summary, when really, that should have been at the beginning to help the Keeper or reader understand how events are meant to play out. As well, there’s not enough detail or planning for an adventure of this scope. It’s written as if this was an old school video game, where things progress linearly and that there isn’t room or discussion of how events might go down differently. A little more depth to each chapter could have gone a long way, and I’d really have preferred to see alternatives to outright combat. What’s written in this book is as if it is set in stone, and that’s never good for a tabletop game. After all, players will ALWAYS think of something the Keeper didn’t prepare for, and the structure of this book, combined with the underestimation of what players may do, means that Terror in the Skies is best left in the hands of a VERY experienced Keeper, lest things fall apart quickly, especially with the lack of any real attempts at tying the first few adventures together cohesively. I will also say that I wish Chaosium had stuck with the original cover (which you can see here instead of the one we ended up with. The original cover was awesome and let you know exactly what you were getting. The final cover is a bit generic at best.
So all in all, is Terror From the Skies forth picking up? At twenty-three dollars, I’d say yes. It’s fun to read through even if you’re not going to play it. It’s well written, if not well laid out, and it’s great to see Chaosium still putting out full campaigns instead of monographs and the occasional remake or sourcebook. Again, it’s nowhere near as good as some of those other lengthy campaigns that the company is famous for, but it’s still going to make for a fun time for any group that loves to play Call of Cthulhu. I’d definitely recommend it with the caveat that a Keeper will want to flesh things out so that the campaign runs a little smoother.