Tabletop Review: The House of R’lyeh (Call of Cthulhu)

The House of R’lyeh (Call of Cthulhu)
Publisher: Chaosium
Cost: $ 20.37 (PDF)/$33.95 (Physical)
Page Count: 224
Release Date: 04/15/2013
Get it Here:

The House of R’lyeh is a collection I’ve been excited to get my hands on for some time. This is because, for the first time, there is a Call of Cthulhu adventure collection that ties heavily into not only actual stories by H.P. Lovecraft, but over a dozen other published adventure collections of campaigns by Chaosium. In a sense, The House of R’lyeh is the first real piece for Call of Cthulhu tying together enough published works that the system could now have a slight semblance of a metaplot. Unlike systems like Shadowrun or Vampire: The Masquerade, where every book released seems (or seemed in the case of V:TM) to build on the metaplot, and sometimes were written more for said overarching story than for gamer accessibility, the metaplot suggested here in The House of R’lyeh is both optional and nebulous. This means, thankfully, that Call of Cthulhu will never be one of those games where you feel like you need to purchase every release to understand what is going on, but that those interested in the light trappings of a metaplot presented here can track down the adventures, supplements and stories (many are out of print though, both physically and electronically) to fully realize the “bigger picture” presented by authors here. I’m very happy about the interconnectivity of all these adventures being so light, because had it been otherwise, this could have been a massive train wreck. Instead, The House of R’lyeh gives us five interesting adventures, each of which is primarily tied to a story by Lovecraft, thus acting as a quasi-sequel to the events in those tales. There are ways to connect all five adventures into a min-campaign, and many references to other stories and adventures, in case the Keeper wants to go to use these adventures as a starting point or link for something else in his or her collection. I really like how all these hints, homages and nods to other Cthulhoid publications come across, as I admit, I’m getting fatigue from certain other RPGs, where the books are unabashedly written in such a way that you MUST own previous releases to make heads or tails of what is going on in it. So a big kudos to Chaosium for presenting a collection that tries to pull previous releases together in a light form of metaplot/cohesiveness while making sure all the way it is optional, AND providing enough information about the inspiration material that the Keeper doesn’t need to search out and/or purchase the other pieces of writing in question.

I will give one word of warning to those who are interested in picking up The House of R’lyeh. These are exceptionally long and in-depth adventures, and they will no doubt seem daunting to casual or less experienced Call of Cthulhu keepers. Not only are the adventures themselves crammed with an amazing amount of information about the plot, potential NPCs and pratfalls, but they also include everything from a quick synopsis of the story that inspired them, a massive amount of information on the area in which the adventure takes place and everything the less detail oriented Keeper won’t even think of, like full rail charts (and length of trips) or the cost of various items for the time period. I won’t say the adventures come off as anal retentive or OCD, but they are so jam packed with information that you will either find The House of R’lyeh to contain everything you’ve ever wanted to see in an adventure, down to the most minute detail, or to be extremely superfluous and cause your eyes to glaze over as you fathom each page’s multitude of information. It’s going to be one extreme or another. Either way, my advice is not to try and read this book in one sitting. Maybe one adventure at a time, and for the longer 60+ page adventures, perhaps a few sittings each, and take notes during each one as, while running the adventure, there’s just no way to remember where every last detail is. Just remember, HoR contains five adventures and clocks in at 224 pages, while something like Atomic Age Cthulhu has nine adventures and a mini source book for the 1950s to boot – all with the same page count as this collection. So, yeah, let’s just say The House of R’lyeh is INTENSE, and whether that is a positive or a negative is really up to what you want from an adventure collection.

The first adventure is “The Art of Madness” and it is a sequel to Pickman’s Model, arguably one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories (Cthulhu knows it’s been turned into a plethora of low budget, but varying quality films/TV episodes over the years). I will say the the characterization of Pickman is completely off from the Lovecraft story, and certainly it’s different from the Pickman we see in The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which will no doubt draw the ire of some Lovecraft/Cthulhu Mythos fans. It’s the problem any time a character is adapted into someone else’s work. I will admit it is an inaccurate portrayal of Pickman compared to his Lovecraft penned pieces, but it is well established that becoming a ghoul is a painful and maddening process. In Pickman’s Model we see the beginning of Pickman’s descent, but in “Kadath,” he’s not only quite sane (more or less) but an ally of Robert Carter. I suppose if this was Marvel Comics, I’d try and earn myself a No-Prize by saying that “The Art of Madness” takes place when Pickman hits the zenith of his insanity and slowly begins to rebuild himself at the conclusion of the adventure, perhaps with a stark clarity that only comes with being mad and hitting rock bottom. Or, in Call of Cthulhu gaming terms, he’s failed one too many sanity checks and is temporarily insane, but eventually gets better, or as much as a cannibalistic undergrounding dwelling humanoid mutated by his own dark nature can be. That said, I loved this adventure because it’s one of those stories that seems so obvious that I can’t believe it hasn’t been written before now. The plot is so simple it’s ingenious, and can be played for stark terror or even with a Blood Brothers-esque tongue-in-cheek feel to it, because the premise is as absurd and potentially comical as it is creepy as all get out.

Oh, what is the plot of “The Art of Madness,” you ask? Well, Richard Upton Pickman feels his art is unappreciated by the plebian human society he was once a part of. Pickman also feels that his style of art must live on in the surface world, and so he decides to open a school of the arts inside the ghoul warren he is part of. Now he only needs students, and so he begins to take a select few that show “potential” from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This is where the Investigators come in, although the missing students and teacher may not be the plot hook that initially sends them into this macabre foray.

I really like that “The Art of Madness” offers multiple hooks to get Investigators involved. After all, there are FAR too many adventures that rely on the assumption that the PCs are parapsychologists, a detective agency or just “know Cthulhu stuff.” With multiple story hooks, the Keeper can choose what works best for players, as well as the tone of the adventure. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t decide whether to play this adventure seriously or as somewhat comedic. I started off the adventure like it would be a normal CoC adventure, but when players interacted with the Portuguese janitor who is somewhat pivotal to the plot like he was Manuel from Fawlty Towers, I knew it was time to err on the side of farcical, which turned out to be the right call. I strongly doubt the author of “Art of Madness” wrote it realizing the comedic potential of the adventure, but then neither did Bruce Nesmith when he penned The Created for Second Edition AD&D, and look how that turned out. The adventure DOES work if you play it straight, as there is a good deal of creepiness, what with wandering into a Ghoul warren and discovering the fate of the kidnapped artists. No matter how you decide to run with “The Art of Madness,” it really is a brilliant little adventure you can’t help but have fun with. 1 for 1.

“The Crystal of Chaos” is the second adventure in the collection and it is meant to be a sequel to the Lovecraft story, The Haunter of the Dark. I always loved this story, and I’m surprised the creature from this tale hasn’t turned up in more Call of Cthulhu adventures. Here it is, though, as Investigators journey to Providence, Rhode Island to retrieve a mystical artifact from the long defunct Church of Starry Wisdom. Of course, said item bears a horrific curse that threatens the physical and mental well-being of the PCs, but really, isn’t that par for the course in a CoC adventure?

My only real problem with “The Crystal of Chaos” is trying to get players into the adventure. This is one of those that assumes players are all allies/co-workers and have some sort of Cthulhoid leaning background, such as professors, anthropologists or detectives. What happens when you have characters that run the gamut from Olympic gymnast to hobo? It’s going to be very hard to create a proper story hook for this one that actually fits a group of players who were given free reign during character design, which is MOST groups. “The Crystal of Chaos” would be awesome with pre-generated characters or as a one-shot adventure, but trying to come up with a reason why a circus clown, a wealthy dilettante, a longshoreman and a chemical engineer should team up to track down the Shining Trapezohedron from a ruined and possibly haunted church so that an Egyptologist can use it in his upcoming expedition is going to take a bit of planning out. This is why I love adventures like “The Art of Madness” where you are given multiple ways to get characters into the adventure. Ones with only a single plot hook like this that doesn’t really work as a catch-all is pretty much equivalent to, “Your party is in a tavern when…” for fantasy RPGs.

Now, with that out of the way, once you find a way to actually get your motley crew of characters to undertake the trip to Providence, you’ll find the adventure is a really fun one. The adventure provides five full pages just on landmarks in the city itself, meaning a good Keeper can really make Providence come to life, even if they have never been there. The Free-Will Church is laid out in exacting detail, leaving the Keeper with little to no work to do in order to run the adventure, save for memorizing all that it contains. There’s an unexpected mini-boss, so to speak, which I enjoyed seeing, and it’s now the second time in the past month a Call of Cthulhu adventure has featured this creature, which is funny as I mentioned in my Tales of the Sleepless City review that this particular monster of choice doesn’t get enough play in CoC.

The climax of the adventure is when the players find the Shining Trapezohedron, but in a sense, it starts something completely new, as now players have to deal with The Haunter itself and all that comes with it. It might be a good idea to break the adventure into two sessions, ending the first right when the players unwittingly do something with the ancient jewel that sends everything into chaos. Everyone loves a cliffhanger, right? Of course, everything goes to hell from there and what was originally a simple snatch and run operation becomes an event where the PCs may not only have to save the world, but one of their own. By the end of the adventure, at least one Investigator will be suffering from severe nyctophobia. Ouch. Again, this is a fun little adventure and players will probably be expecting one thing from the adventure, especially when they are told they are investigating an old ruined crazy cult church, and then end up getting hit with something quite different. It’ll definitely be fun to hear how various play sessions of this adventure went. 2 for 2.

The third adventure in The House of R’lyeh is “The Return of the Hound.” I’ve always loved that story, but I can’t say I cared for the adventure. It never connected with me. At times, it was just really dull, and at others it felt too over the top, like with the auction where a bunch of magic using occultists were there to examine the rare magic bearing tomes (including a Necronomicon!) up for sale. Part of it is that the adventure just felt far too long both in terms of reading and actual play. It dragged and felt heavily padded, which is never a good thing.

Now, that’s not to say the adventure was a complete flop. With some heavy excising and streamlining, this could work really well. As the adventure is basically two in one (part taking place in Amsterdam and the other in a small rural English community), you could just remove the Dutch part of the adventure and really focus on the weird British auction of the damned. However, the core of information the players need to get through the information is in the Dutch part so… I don’t know. My advice is that the seeds of an interesting adventure are here, but it’s just too bogged down to flow in an enjoyable manner. It feels like it was put together via a game of Mythos from the late 90s.

Basically “The Return of the Hound” has players not only having to deal with the return of this otherworldly canine, but a victim turned avatar of the Hound turned serial killer. The text is quite contradictory on the non Hound antagonist, as it’s mentioned to be an avatar, but still potentially being hunted by the Hound, which is nonsensical. It would be like Hastur trying to smack down the King in Yellow. It gets far more convoluted from there without any real rhyme or reason behind the Hound or De Slachter, and the adventure really needed a better editor to focus the writer’s ideas into a more comprehensible affair. It also doesn’t help that there is a TON of back story content, in-depth location descriptions and NPC bios to sift through. In a better laid out adventure, all this would be helpful instead of a hindrance. Unfortunately, the layout of the adventure has you flipping back and forth to make some sense of the story being told while trying to keep all the Keeper information separate in your head. I would have to suggest that this needed to be totally rewritten from the ground up. There’s just way too much going on here and very little of it is going to be fun or even interesting to the people playing through this. 2 for 3.

Our fourth adventure in this collection is “The Jermyn Horror,” and it is meant to play off of Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, which is a truly strange but memorable Lovecraftian story. I’m at odds with the adventure itself. Its connection to the Lovecraft story is tenuous at best and mere window dressing at worst, which is a shame, because it’s a really good adventure for the most part and it might have been even better had the core story been allowed to stand on its own instead of being tied to a previous Lovecraft penned tale. You could excise the entire Jermyn connection and the adventure would still work wonderfully. It just depends on if your players will like the slight homage to a previous Lovecraft story or if they will find it trite and unnecessary.

There are two other problems I had with this adventure. The first is a minor one, but it is the second in this collection that hinges around a PC being possessed by the antagonist of the adventure, and the third where the antagonist possesses SOMEONE to keep the story moving along. That’s… not good in my opinion, and shows a dearth of creativity in this collection. Fortunately for “The Jermyn Horror,” I can’t pin my disdain for the fact that 60% of this collection goes back to the same well on it alone. The second is that the adventure doesn’t really have a true ending set up, and that’s the big one. The adventure has the characters forcibly held in place by a fiendish thingy that tried to possess and convert their bodies, but the adventure doesn’t really give any way for players to “win” or even survive it. The creature in question is crazy powerful and has trapped the players. There is a way of delaying the inevitable destruction if players can find it, and a very obscure way of killing the creature you will pretty much have to hold the hands of players to lead them to, which is never fun for anyone. There really needed to be more outs for the Keeper and his or her players, rather than a single paragraph on what could be done including the sentence, “Other solutions might present themselves to inventive players.” as the way to end the adventure. This seems to be more of an editorial than a writer issue though, as it could have been easily fixed by the editor saying, “Could you expand this a bit more so that less experienced gamers or Keepers have more of an out?” I mean, Call of Cthulhu should be a deadly game, but the solution shouldn’t be so obscure that most players won’t figure it out unless it’s virtually handed it to them by the Keeper. The end result is this adventure reads and plays like it is the Keeper VERSUS the players, which should be a massive red flag for anyone, as we all know how those affairs turn out. It’s a shame too, because I loved the creature, the setup, the atmosphere and some of the goings-on in the adventure. With some fine tuning, this could have been a great adventure. Instead it feels like an incomplete one. 2 for 4.

“Nameless City, Nameless Terrors” is our fifth adventure, and after the two I gave a thumb’s down to, I’m happy to say The House of R’lyeh ends on a positive note. There is some combining of Irem and the Nameless City, which may cause squabbling between different camps of Mythos fans, but hey, it’s an adventure for a role playing game; it’s not like it’s going to magically retcon everything Lovecraft has written since the 1890s.

This adventure feels like a classic Cthulhu story from the 20s turned into an adventure, which is what I was hoping for with this collection. Players will be travelling to the Middle East (starting in Yemen) in search of Irem, and once again, I love that this adventure gives you multiple hooks to use instead of one rigid assumption about the Investigators and why they are along for the ride. You got a LOT of information on the Nameless City in the course of playing the game, so even if you hadn’t read the actual story by Lovecraft, you won’t feel like you are missing out on anything. There are also a lot of suggested optional encounters which can turn “Nameless City, Nameless Terrors” into a mini campaign, which is always a fine option. This allows the Keeper to adapt the adventure to the attention span of his or her players, as well as change things on the fly. Are the Investigators burning through the adventure with no problem? Then throw an optional event at them. If they are having a hard time and making little progress, there’s no sense in using them. I love when adventures do this.

“Nameless Cities, Nameless Terrors,” just has that “it factor” for me. It’s well written, it’s in an exotic locale yet well written enough that a Keeper who is utterly unfamiliar with Yemen can make it come alive. There’s a wonderful mystical quality that pervades the entire experience, and though much of the adventure is simply travelling and talking with NPCs rather than investigating or running from Mythos terrors, it’s a highly memorable experience. I also love the unexpected allies that you can gain in this adventure. One of which is a realistic portrayal of a Mythos creature and how, simply because something isn’t human doesn’t mean it’s out to destroy mankind or drive things insane. The other is perhaps the most famous creation of Lovecraft after Cthulhu, and while this will no doubt raise the ire of some Lovecraftian purists, I found it to be a nice unexpected touch. If you’re unsure if the introduction of this character will cause a dour reaction from some of your players, just change his name and have him be some other ancient figure with copious amounts of knowledge that no man should possess.

At the end of “Nameless Cities, Nameless Terrors,” Investigators will have picked up a lot of Cthulhu Mythos simply through osmosis, have made some powerful mystical allies, and will have encountered a veritable menagerie of things man was never meant to encounter. It’ll be interesting to see how many characters make it through this adventure with their sanity intact. This is simply a fantastic adventure that is best used as the climax or end of a long campaign before classic characters are finally to put to bed. 3 for 5.

So as we can see, The House of R’lyeh is a mixed bag. There are three excellent adventures in the collection and two I can’t recommend. Although the good does outweigh the bad in this set, I have a hard time saying it is worth the thirty-four dollar price tag of the physical copy. Twenty dollars for the PDF is more acceptable, but still a little high for the level of quality. As Chaosium is having a sale until April 28th, you can get the PDF for $14.26 which is definitely worth it (Five bucks per good adventure is a fine deal), but at the same time, you can then get other new-ish releases like Terror From the Skies for only $16.07 and Atomic Age Cthulhu for $12.68 and I’d recommend either of those over The House of R’lyeh without hesitation. There are FAR better Call of Cthulhu collections out there for the same approximate price tag, but by no means is The House of R’lyeh a bad or even disappointing choice.



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2 responses to “Tabletop Review: The House of R’lyeh (Call of Cthulhu)”

  1. Brandon Goeringer Avatar
    Brandon Goeringer

    Thanks for these great CoC reviews!

    1. Alexander Lucard Avatar
      Alexander Lucard

      Anytime. I love CoC and I’m glad you enjoy reading these.

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