Atomic Age Cthulhu
Cost: $31.95 (physical)/$18.12 (PDF)
Release Date: 02/09/2013
Get it Here: Chaosium.com
Atomic Age Cthulhu is the newest release for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game by Chaosium. This adventure collection, which also contains a chapter on story seeds and also a primer on the 1950s is not the first time Chaosium or other Call of Cthulhu publishers have dug into the era of Leave it to Beaver and McCarthyism, but is the first full collection of adventures for that time period. Atomic Age Cthulhu is not a campaign setting tome like Cthulhu by Gaslight, but the book does contain enough information for any Keeper to understand the time period and mood of the era.
At first glance, the 1950s does seem like an odd period to set Call of Cthulhu adventures, especially compared to the 1890, 1920s, and 1930. After all, you really don’t think of eldritch horrors along with Dobie Gillis and Chuck Berry. However the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. After all, the 1950s are almost a perfect analogue for the Cthulhu Mythos tales. On the surface, everything is pristine and almost serene if you watch the TV shows from that era. Everyone is friendly and neighborly. Parents and kids gets along wonderfully. There is no hint of social or mental illness and every problem is solved positively and with a laugh. However when you skim off the propaganda, we see that the 1950s were a time of paranoia, fear, distrust and unabashed madness for the human race in general. I already mentioned McCarthyism, but it’s almost impossible to over-emphasize how crazy the hunt for the “Red Menace” got. People were constantly afraid of communists invasions or rebellions and we fought many a war in the 1950s about suppressing the threat of Russian and Chinese satellite countries. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Suez Crisis, the Cuban Revolution, the Algerian War, and many others had their beginnings (and some ends) in the 50s. This was not a time of peace and happiness, but almost constant global conflict, either with bullets or dollars. The 50s were a dark time in world history, no matter how much Donna Reed might make you want to think otherwise.
Another aspect of the 1950s that fits Call of Cthulhu nicely is that the focus of horror went from the classical monsters like werewolves and vampires to otherworldly alien creatures whose very appearance could make a man go mad. Sound familiar? Although none of these were necessarily Lovecraftian in origin, and the films about aliens from beyond the stars were often cheesy (and eventually turned into MST3K fodder), the sci-fi of the 50s shared many an underlying theme with Lovecraft’s writing. Heck, 1959 was when The Twilight Zone first began airing, and several of its stories were outright influence by Lovecraft and his contemporaries. Alfred Hitchock Presents also started in the 1950s, both of which are excellent resources for Keepers wanting to do a campaign in this era.
Finally, you have the first underpinnings that society and government were out to get you rather than protect its people. Scandals like Twenty-One, the Hollywood “black list” and farces like “duck and cover” combined to all let people realize that perhaps, everything isn’t as the powers that be want you to believe it is. Again, another wonderful Lovecraftian analogue.
So Atomic Age Cthulhu is a great idea on paper, but the question is whether or not it works in practice, and that’s what this review is for. We’ll take a quick look at each of the nine sections of the book and show you the highs and lows of this collection. I should give a caveat that the adventures of this book are more Delta Green than the typical Call of Cthulhu adventure as in many, players will be cast as government agents or military operatives. So if you’re not a fan of Delta Green or running adventures that are more X-Files than tales about antiquarians and dilettantes researching musty old tomes in an effort to save humanity, you probably won’t be happy with Atomic Age Cthulhu. For those that like a little more hack and slash or action than the run of the mill Call of Cthulhu adventure, this will probably be right up your alley. Now let’s take a look at the contents of this book, shall we?
The first adventure is “This Village Was Made For Us” and has players reacting to the suicide of a worker in a government town dedicated to cracking atoms. This means players are either government employees of some sort of friends of the family. What awaits the Investigators is a town wide conspiracy where a particular Mythos race is attempting something nefarious. I know that description makes the adventure sound a little generic as that could describe dozens of CoC adventures out there, but that’s basically the core of the tale. There’s a little Native American mysticism thrown in as a counterpoint to the Mythos creatures, but it’s an adventure that could be told at nearly any time and in any location with only a little modification needed. In fact, much of the adventure is all too similar to Terror From the Skies which Chaosium published in late November 2012. Now these two adventures aren’t carbon copies, but the fact they have the same antagonists using the same methods to accomplish similar goals is enough to make me wince. It’s not the fault of either writer, but more Chaosium for letting the two hit back to back like this. It’s equivalent to “Oh that nutty Nyarlathotep is up to his old tricks again!” or, “Oh no, we’re in a coastal or island town and there’s been a strange disappearance of townsfolk acting funny. It couldn’t be DEEP ONES, could it?” Now all this aside, “The Village Was Made For Us,” is a well written adventure and it flows smoothly in terms of narration and unfolding events. Sure it’s a bit on the generic side and it could easily occur at any time post WWII rather than being truly unique enough that it has to occur ONLY in the 1950s, but I enjoyed it for what it was and feel that as long as you haven’t recently read or played through Terror From the Skies, you’ll have fun with this. I’ll be nice and say we’re 1 for 1 right now.
“TV Casualties” is an odd adventure and like “This Village Was Made For Us,” I have mixed feelings and still am not sure whether I like it or not. On one hand, the adventure is pretty unique with a small picturesque town slowly falling apart at the seams. It’s a truly wonderful analogy for the perception vbs reality of what the 1950s were like, as well as one for early detractions against the “Boob Tube.” Keepers will find that this adventure doesn’t necessarily NEED to be in the 1950s, as it requires only a bit of tweaking to set it in a different time period, but it works best here, especially if the Keeper fills Plainville with flowery image rife from Nick at Night episodes. On the other hand, the core antagonist comes off a bit too futuristic or even steampunky for an adventure set in “our” 1950s. It’s also a pet peeve of mine when someone just randomly creates an antagonist for Call of Cthulhu and says, “Oh, it’s a form of Nyarlathotep,” even when the actions and personality of said form go expressly against how Lovecraft wrote the character or described him outside of his fictional work. So in this respect the adventure irks me, but it’s not really the writer’s fault as this facet was created by someone else for a previous Call of Cthulhu release and as it is canon to the game, you might as well take advantage of it however erroneous its original creator was with its core concept. You can’t really blame the writer of this adventurer for using a visually interesting Big Bad who also fits the feel and theme of the story he’s trying to tell. At the same time, if the Keeper excises the antagonist from the tired idea of making it a facet of the Crawling Chaos, it’s an even more memorable encounter for players, both visually and roleplaying wise because now it’s motives and very existence are all the more unfathomable and bizarre. So it’s a personal nitpick, but not one against the quality of the adventure. Again, “TV Casualties” is a well written adventure that feels like you are acting out an episode of The Outer Limits, and that’s definitely a good thing. It’s creepy, atmospheric and it even exploits the inherent racism and one of the big anti-Semitic myths of the 1950s – that of Judeo-Bolshevism. 2 for 2.
Every adventure collection tends to have one that is an absolute stinker. In this case it’s the third adventure in the book, “The Return of Old Reliable.” My big problem with this adventure is that it’s so over the top corny/cheesy/laughable, that it just isn’t something players or readers will be able to take seriously. Unfortunately the adventure is written so seriously (although if the art doesn’t make you laugh in this piece, you might need to check your funny bone), it unintentionally (or maybe it is intentional and it’s just so deadpan compared to how other comedic adventures for CoC have been written in the past that the intention is hard to gauge.) comes off as if it belongs in one of the old Blood Brothers collections Chaosium used to put out. “The Return of Old Reliable” is an homage (intended or not) to the exceptionally terrible Sci-FI movies of the 1950s where some animal mutates and threatens Mankind. You know the ones. Earth Vs. The Spider. The Giant Gila Monster. The Killer Shrews. Terrible films that took themselves seriously but no one else could so they eventually ended up being fodder for the Satellite of Love. In this case “The Return of Old Reliable” features a Spider Monkey imbued with the spinal fluid of a byhakee and after given a good dose of cosmic rays, has mutated into something that may just devour mankind from the inside out. Unfortunately the concept is so farcical, I just can’t see anyone pulling it off in a way where players won’t crack jokes the entire time, thus deflating the mood it wants (but fails horribly) to invoke. I’m actually surprised the writer didn’t really play up the sheer camp potential here and include notes to the Keeper on how to salvage this thing by telling them to play it up. I’ve seen other adventures ranging from Shadowrun to Ravenloft do this thing an “The Return of Old Reliable” desperately needed something like that to keep this from being an embarrassing affair for any Keeper who tries to run it straight laced with a straight face. My advice is to just play the camp factor to a hilt and give your CoC players a one-shot affair for laughs. Seriously, when you monsters are basically Flumphs and a Spider Monkey with a brain the size of Detroit, horror and terror are hard concepts to invoke. 2 for 3.
Adventure number four is called “Forgotten Wars,” and unlike the rest of the collection, it takes place outside of the United States; Korea to be exact. Forgotten Wars takes place during the Korean Warm although Hawkeye and BJ Honeycutt are nowhere to be seen. Instead the players take on the role of a M4 Sherman Tank squad that gets into far more than they bargained for. The end result is a very combat heavy experience, which usually isn’t a good sign for an Investigator’s chance of making it through the adventure to the end. However in this case, players have a lot of high tech (for the time) weaponry including a freaking TANK. They’ll need it to as they’ll have to face not just a Cthulhu devoted cult, but also a Hunting Horror, a few Star Spawns and some other alien monstrosities to boot. I will say that I ran through the combat pieces of this adventure several times and found that even when you knew what was coming and could prepare in advance, the combat is just too overwhelming. There are just too many enemies for a pack of five players and their tank to deal with unless you are used loaded dice. Oddly enough the writer suggests optional ways to give the antagonists even more of an advantage throughout the piece instead of the other way around, which is what the adventure desperately needs. I’m surprised no one on Chaosium’s side didn’t catch this and requests some rebalancing as it’s now completely on the Keeper to do so. As well, using a M4 Sherman tank in the Korean is somewhat historically accurate, but the main tanks used in the Korean conflict were the M26 Pershing and the M46 Patton, another thing I’m surprised wasn’t caught in the editing/vetting process. Using one of these more powerful tanks would definitely gives the Investigators a fighting chance to survive this adventure. Otherwise your best solution is to add some weaponry to the M4 that it actually would have been able to have such as the t34 rocket launcher and/or a flamethrower.
Now aside from the need to rebalance the combat and/or modify the tank, there is one other small flaw with the adventure and that like how “This Village Was Made For Us” was a bit too similar to “Terror From the Skies” for my liking, I had several flashbacks to Goodman Games, The Timeless Sands of India while reading “Forgotten Wars.” It’s got the same Great Race of Leng Vs. Great Old One storyline going, and similarities right down to the “Here’s some lighting guns for your lesser beings to use!” Thankfully though, both adventures have very different locals and enough variance in the plot progression (not to mention his one has a tank) that you can play them both (although hopefully not back to back) and still enjoy them both without players nitpicking that they’ve already run through something similar before.
Now you would think after two paragraphs of pointing out the problems with “Forgotten Wars,” that I must have hated it, but I honestly really loved it. There’s so much potential for this adventure to be a memorable experience for everyone in your gaming troupe. The idea of all the players as a finely knit tank crew that have experienced the horrors of war is a fascinating one and that might even make them less susceptible to the usual things that drive CoC Investigators into the madhouse. It’s definitely well worth playing through and one of the highlights of this collection. 3 for 4.
Adventure number five is “High Octane” and it’s just a fun and surreal adventure from beginning to end. It incorporates the hot rod culture from the time period, the sheer paranoia about Communists living amongst normal folk (which in this case turns out to be true), the Hell’s Angels and a good dose of Serpent People all thrown together into one fantastic (cracktastic?) adventure from beginning to end. The writer could have easily gone over the top with the potential for camp this adventure had, leading to the same problems that plagued “The Return of Old Reliable.” Instead, everything is weaved together in a believable and yet ominous fashion. Everything is grounded in reality (except for the Serpent People obviously) and NPCS are presented as multi-faceted believable people rather than two-dimension stereotypes based on TV shows from the time period. The crux of the adventure is that, for once, not only are all the fears from the 1950s real (alien threats, commies, biker gangs and teenagers) real, but they all just happen to converge on the same town at the same time. You can imagine what unfolds. This is simply a lot of fun and it’s an adventure where players can openly and consistently crack jokes without running the mood or atmosphere of the adventure. This is definitely one of the highlights of Atomic Age Cthulhu. 4 for 5.
The penultimate adventure in Atomic Age Cthulhu is “L.A. Diabolical.” Here’s the thing, I really enjoyed this adventure, especially all the homages and in-jokes to real life people within it. The problem is this isn’t a 1950s adventure but a late 1960s/early 1970s one. All those aforementioned references and allusions? They’re from the 1960s, not the 1950s. Zander LeNoir is Anton Levay. The Church of Night is the Church of Satan. Jayne St. Jayne is Jayne Mansfield. Davy Samuels Jr. is Sammy Davis Jr. So on and so forth. Anyone who remotely catches the nudge nudge, wink wink aspects of this adventure will appreciate them (as I did) but also know that the time period for them is all wrong. So I’m torn on this minor aesthetic aspect. While “L.A. Diabolical” is a well done adventure it also doesn’t belong in this collection at all and should have been saved for something for befitting the story and actual time period it is referencing. It’s akin to having a collection entitled “Cthulhustock” and having all the adventures being psychedelic hippie fare, but then one being an homage to “That’s What Friends Are For” where all the world’s top music stars are brought together for a song to help ease suffering in Africa, only to have the whole thing be a ploy by the Insects of Shaggai to take control of the music industry in one fell swoop. Sure it might be pretty interesting, but it wouldn’t fit the theme or collection, now would it?
The catch is not too many people are actually going to pick up on the fact that this is a 1960s adventure masquerading as a 1950s one and really, besides pointing it out in a review (because hey, if a critic isn’t critiquing, they’re not doing their job.) only the most anal retentive rules-lawyerly of gamers is really going to have a problem with this factoid and generally we all know how to keep from gaming with those people, so most of your time with L.A. Diabolical will be fun and frantic rather than a discussion on the fact that a high profile cult of this nature simply wouldn’t be tolerated during the 1950s due to the spotlight on Hollywood for a supposed proliferation of communist sympathizers. It’s a game – have fun with it.
The adventure is one that is hilarious in concept but quite serious and dark in its follow-through and it works wonderfully. The concept simply is this: Small town naÃ¯ve Great Old One worshipper makes it in Holywood but longs for the days of ritual sacrifice and communing with things of otherworldly origin. When the Church of Night makes it big, she readily joins up only to discover it’s a sham without any real magic or occultism going on. They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but I’m thinking a worshipper of things Mankind was not meant to know can give that lady a run for her money. This is just a fun adventure in all respects unless you are hell bent on chronological accuracy. I should point out Anton LeVay’s estate is highly litigious, so let’s hope they don’t find out about this one. 5 for 6.
The final adventure, but not the final section in the book, is “Destroying Paradise, Hawai’ian Style.” This adventure is a bit of an homage to the Elvis in Hawaii set of movies “The King” made…which were made in the 1960s. So see above for my little commentary on this exact issue with this aspect of the adventure. Unlike the previous adventure which was firmly set in the 60s in all ways, this one sticks hard and fast to actual 1950s history, save for the potential genocide of all life on the islands if the Investigators screw this one up. “Destroying Paradise” is set firmly in 1957, as Hawai’I edges ever closer to statehood. The Investigators are stuck in the middle between factions who want to see the USA get a 50th State and those who want to see the haole leave the islands. If that’s not enough each side has their own Cthulhu Mythos cult aiding them. This, my friends, is where the fun (and insanity…and deaths…and horrific monsters that defy description and…well, you get the picture) begins.
Investigators are going to have to keep the Elvis analogue’s movie filming smoothly, discover the machinations of the two cults, save as many lives as possible and eventually prevent a minor Great Old One from wiping out all life in the region. Also, the effects of nuclear testing in this region by American armed forces comes back to haunt the Investigators big time. This is just another solid all-around fun adventure for players and Keepers alike where I only have minor issues. In this case it’s aspects of the 1960s showing up in a 1950s collection and that the final bits of the adventure really need to be run by a very organized Keeper who is well versed in the game, otherwise it’s going to fall apart on them. 6 for 7.
Think we’re done? Guess again, there is still another twenty percent of the book we haven’t covered. Up next is “1950s Sinister Seeds” where the authors have provided you with twenty paragraphs, each of which can snowball into a full fledged adventure of their own. Sure you’ll have to do the legwork and put the thing together, but nearly all of these are top notch and should have you chomping at the big to try and flesh at least one of them out. 7 for 8.
The last bit of the book is “The 1950s Sourcebook” and it contains a lot of helpful information for Keepers. You need information about the presidents of the era? It’s here. Population statistics? Ditto. Pop culture factoids? You’ve got it. Everything from the House Un-American Activities Committee to views on race and sexual preference are covered in this section. It might even be worth it to read this last chapter first so you can better visualize what the 1950s were like. There are even some fun new occupations like Beatnik and Rock Musician. This alone is worth the price of admission. 8 for 9.
As we can see from the past six pages of commentary, Atomic Age Cthulhu is an exceptionally well done piece. Sure the adventures could have used some better vetting/editing, but the good definitely outweighs the bad in nearly all of them, making this a truly worthwhile collection to pick up. With the digital version of Atomic Age Cthulhu at almost half the cost of the physical version (which will also have shipping fees), I strongly recommend going PDF all the way as it becomes quite the deal. Here’s hoping the rest of 2013 follows suit for Chaosium releases!