The Phantom of Wilson Creek (Call of Cthulhu)
Page Count: 178
Cost: $26.95 (Print)/$14.82 (PDF)
Release Date: 01/01/2013
Get it Here: Chaosium.com
The Phantom of Wilson Creek is one of Chaosium’s monographs. For those unaware of this imprint, a monograph is where the author, rather than Chaosium does the editing and layouts in addition to the writing. Often times they also do (or hire) the artist themselves as well. Chaosium just does the publishing. This means monographs are a crap shoot in terms of quality. Sometimes you get really good releases like Mysteries of Ireland or Children of the Storm and other times you get sub-par material like The Ghosts in the House. Unfortunately, The Phantom of Wilson Creek is one of the latter. It’s a collection of four adventures set in the same location of rural North Carolina. The problem is none of the adventures are that good and the piece really needed a better editor as the entire book’s flow feels clunky and thus it reads poorly. Still, it’s not the worst monograph I’ve seen Chaosium put out and with a price tag of under fifteen bucks, you are getting four adventures which can form a nice mini campaign for those who like the location and the idea of reusing the same location over and over with their players.
I should point out that only HALF of the monograph is actually adventures. The other half (from page 93 on) involve playtest notes, handouts, spell lists, timelines, maps and roughly FORTY PAGES of pregenerated characters. I appreciate all the ancillary bits put into the monograph, but no one, and I mean no one, needs forty pages of pregenerated characters. It’s basically overkill that just increased the page count and the price point of the monograph. I will say I love the idea of the handouts, but there’s no attempt to make them look like anything more than typewritten words on a page unlike some of the higher quality monographs. As well the maps are something you’re either going to love or hate as they are hand-drawn rather than done by a program like Visio or some other software we tend to see used for map making in tabletop games.
The first twenty-seven pages of the book are background information on the location (Mortimer, North Carolina and the surrounding area) and the Campbell House, where most of the action in the adventures takes place. The background information really helps the Keeper to set the mood of the location as well as the information. There’s a lot of detail here, although the problem is that much of the background information is repeated in EACH of the four adventures, again adding to extra pages (and a higher price cost) and a level of repetition I’ve never seen in an adventure collection before. The author states that they did this so the Keepers wouldn’t have to hunt and peck for information and that they can flip right to what they need. However the way this monograph is laid out, the exact opposite is true. When you are reading the collection your eyes will begin to glaze over as you see the same information for say, the third time. As well, because of the length of this collection, with only about sixty-six pages of the book actually the adventures themselves (less if you discount the repeated pages in each one), you WILL find yourself hunting for the information, especially if you purchase the PDF. You can do a ctrl+F search but then you’ll want to make sure you’re in the right adventure after that. Plus the fact so many pages of this monograph are extras rather than the adventure itself, with the paper version of this book, you’re still flipping through unless you bookmark everything. For any adventure collection where a lot of information is reused, it’s much better (and smarter) to have a centralized location for all common info about the location(s), preferably at the front or very back of the book for easy access. This is just one of the many layout issues that plagues The Phantom of Wilson Creek and makes it as hard to use for adventures as it is to wade through reading-wise. Again, a second or third pair of editing eyes could have made the end product so much better than it turned out.
The first three adventures in the book take you to the old Campbell House. Each adventure occurs a year after the previous one and they are pretty interconnected. However there are two small problems. The first is that the characters in the second and third adventure really need to be the same ones that were in the first adventure (give or take new ones replacing any that have died or gone mad), otherwise they just don’t work very well at all. The second is that reusing the same exact location for three straight adventures can easily lead to a sense of boredom and make for a humdrum experience. It’s the “going back to the well once too often” metaphor and Call of Cthulhu pretty much needs a constant change of locations and enemies for the creep and fear factors to stay where they should be. Otherwise it’s just another encounter with cultists or creepy monsters and much of the atmosphere is lost. Honestly, I’d just stick with the first and fourth adventures in this book if you were going to play any of them. The middle two just aren’t well designed or thought out enough for a quality experience if you were to try and play them on their own. The other two are nicely done, even if they are pretty generic and because they aren’t connected to the same exact location (same region though), you can have one be on the tail end of the other.
The first adventure “The House on Yellow Buck Mountain” is by far the best in the collection, even if it is pretty generic. The Investigators have been brought down to rural North Carolina to take a look at a house that a mutual friend inherited from a very distant relative. In the small community, the Campbell House is considered to be a cursed place and players are going to have to figure out what lurks within the walls of their old friend’s inheritance. Now this is a pretty common plot hook for an adventure. Hell, I’ve used it myself in a CoC adventure I had published in the late 1990s. It’s a trope that works with both the setting and the time period in which the adventure takes place (1925). However, I did raise an eyebrow when I noticed the adventure lifted a bit from “The Haunting/The Haunted House,” which is arguably the most commonly played Call of Cthulhu adventure of them all. The nemesis in that adventure is almost exactly the same as The Haunting, which can be found in every core rulebook and also in the free Quick Start Rules. Why the author didn’t go for a more unique antagonist is beyond me, but it feels more like copying rather than an homage. Don’t worry though, “The House on Yellow Buck Mountain” isn’t a carbon copy of The Haunting; only the monster is. This adventure has its own creepy shenanigans going on, complete with the potential for an Investigator to find himself trapped in a coffin with a corpse six feet below the surface or in a ghoul warren. I’ll let you decide which is the worse fate. The adventure does continue to be a pretty paint by numbers one though, with players making liberal use of the Library Use skill and poking around the house until the cause of the horrors within is revealed, culminating in violence or fleeing into the night. Whichever works. It’s a very paint by numbers piece, but it’s a well done that you should have fun with even if you’ve been through similar trappings several times before.
The second adventure is “Return to Yellow Buck Mountain” and it takes place a year later. It’s really not much of an adventure to be honest. Almost all of the content is recycled from the first one and the adventure hinges completely on what happened with your playthrough on the first. In fact,”Return” really isn’t playable at all if you haven’t done “House,” which is enough to make me give it a thumb’s down. The plot is basically “Something crazy appears to be going on at Campbell House” again and the Investigators are asked to check on things. If you played through the first adventure, “Return” probably won’t last you more than two hours because it’s a very cut and dry plot. If, however, you are using Investigators that didn’t play through the first adventure, they will probably be lost throughout the whole thing and will definitely be unable to capitalize or appreciate the climax. It’s just completely unsatisfying on every level. There’s not enough substance here and it’s going to hard to convince any team of characters to make a yearly outing to a remote backwoods location where they faced certain doom once before.
The third adventure is “The Wizard of Wilson Creek” and yes, once again , you’re going back to Mortimer, NC and the Campbell House. Yet again the hook is, “Thar be strange goings on at the Campbell House.” MOST players will be annoyed at the idea of having to return to the same location for a third time, especially with how anticlimactic the second adventure is. In fact, the author even notes by this point the PCs will want to just burn the Campbell House down – if they haven’t already. Here’s a hint: if your adventure leads to the players wanting to commit arson to call it a day you’ve either a) written a bad adventure or b) gone to the well once too often. In this case, it’s both. I can’t think of too many people that will want to investigate the same location three times in a row with little to no change between each passing in-game year. Hell, I was bored just READING about the same location for the third time. The catch here is that the antagonist is a once friendly NPC in the previous two adventures. So for characters that have had to deal with Campbell House on multiple occasions, there is a bit of pathos here. Not much though, because CoC characters that have survived multiple adventures tend to go, “Oh no. Character X is corrupted by dark insane magick. Welp, better kill ’em so he doesn’t summon a shoggoth on us.” Characters and players that haven’t played through the previous two Buck Mountain adventures will gain nothing from this. It’s just an NPC being a bad guy instead of a familiar one. Once again, this means this adventure can’t be played on its own and have it remotely be memorable or for players to receive the full impact from it. For those that have spent three straight years going to Yellow Buck Mountain, it’s a dull retread over everything trying to figure out who is the evil psychopath THIS time around. There’s just not enough here to hold anyone’s interest in any way, shape or form. At best “The Wizard of Wilson Creek” is a short and very generic experience featuring a betrayal by an NPC the Investigators know casually and at worst, it’s a dull and bizarre affair that is somewhat nonsensical.
The final adventure in this collection is “The Strange Case of the Brown Mountain Lights” and it’s the second best of the adventures. It can be played whenever and has no actually connection to the first three in this monograph. Thus it can be played on its own. The downside to running this one though is that the Keeper needs to keep careful track of in-game time rather than letting players do what they want when they want. This means that, in the hands of a less experienced Keeper, “The Strange Case of the Brown Mountain Lights” can feel rushed and harried rather than a quality experience. Careful planning and selective prodding of the players is the key to making this adventure work. In this adventure players will be trying to find a lost little boy that wandered off on Brown Mountain. Unfortunately the child is an idiot savant, making its survival unlikely unless he is found quickly. Even more unfortunately is that a clutch of creatures from the Cthulhu Mythos have found the child first and are as perplexed by its unique form of mental retardation as the child is completely unfazed by them. So the Investigators not only have to beat the clock, but somehow get the child away from “his new friends” and deal with humans that work for the creatures and are actively trying to sabotage the search. It’s a complex affair and the adventure really works best in the hands of someone used to running things at conventions and thus can deal with time crunches keeping the players in a linear motion. It’s well written and has a lot of potential and the second best piece in the collection.
So The Phantom of Wilson Creek is a definite thumbs in the middle at best. Only two of the four adventures are worth playing through, and although they are somewhat generic, they are well written and fun to experience. The other two are best left forgotten or read as an example of how NOT to do a mini campaign in a single locale. Half the book consists of ancillary material, some of which is doubled up on from the adventure section itself and not all Keepers will make use of what is provided. The book really needed a better editor (or several of them) as the book just doesn’t flow well at all and there are numerous typographical and formatting errors in addition to full pages that are reprinted for each adventure in a well meaning but ultimately erroneous attempt to make things easier to find. The collection isn’t all bad; it just really needed some outside guidance to keep things on track. As such I can’t really recommend this monograph, especially for the price tag it is saddled with, but The Phantom of Wilson Creek does have its shining moments.