Tabletop Review: Secrets of Tibet (Call of Cthulhu)

Secrets of Tibet (Call of Cthulhu)
Publisher: Chaosium
Cost: $11.53 (Digital)/$20.96 (Physical)
Page Count: 172
Release Date: 11/27/2013 (Digital)/TBD (Physical)
Get it Here:

Secrets of Tibet is the latest is the “Secrets” set of campaign settings that Chaosium puts out for its Call of Cthulhu line. They did kind of a stealth release of the digital version on Thanksgiving Eve, so unless you keep your eyes peeled to their official website, you might have missed that this came out.

What makes Secrets of Tibet interesting is neither Lovecraft nor his contemporaries ever set a Mythos related story in the setting of Tibet. At the same time it’s so often romanticized for its culture and isolated location, that it makes perfect sense that someone eventually did either a Secrets or Monograph piece on the country/region (depending on how you look at Tibet).As well, Secrets of Tibet becomes the first official release for Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition, beating even the two core rulebooks by several months. Of course without the core rulebooks (Which, like most Kickstarter projects, are rather delayed) the only thing you have to run Secrets of Tibet with is the Quick Start Rules for the time being. Good news though – the book does devote five pages on how to convert the book to previous editions of the game so that you can use it with say, Fifth or Sixth Edition until 7e is finally released en masse. The conversion guide is a real highlight of the book, especially if you haven’t paid close attention to the changes coming with 7e. It highlights both some of the really good and really bad ideas that are going into 7e and should help you decide if you want to invest in the new edition or stick with an older version of the game. If you haven’t been paying attention to the forthcoming changes, I suggest you read this section of the book FIRST (It probably should be closer to the front instead of towards the back due to its release before the core 7e books). Otherwise you might be in for a bit of culture shock when you see average joes and their 75-80 STR.

So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the actual content of Secrets of Tibet. As you might have guessed, the bulk of the book is a campaign guide that discusses Tibet in great detail. The book also contains three adventures for use with the setting, but we’ll talk more about them later. I was disappointed that the book shied away from the Chinese occupation of Tibet since 1950 as it’s such a huge part of the modern era for both countries. Information on this ongoing debacle would have been of use to Keepers who know only the window dressings about the issue or remember Richard Gere protesting Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1980s and 90s. The good news is the book does go into detail about every other historical aspect of Tibet, including 1500 years of conflict between China and Tibet highlighting occasions where both have been the aggressor (and even invader) in situations. Because most CoC games tend to take place between the 1890s and 1940s, Secrets of Tibet will more than satisfy fans of those time periods. Gamers who prefer a more modern CoC setting like Delta Green will have to do a little research to flesh out current day Tibet for their gamers.

Honestly, Secrets of Tibet is exactly what I want from a campaign setting/guide for a RPG. Similar to the recent Sundering campaign guides, Wizards of the Coast has put out for Dungeons & Dragons, Secrets of Tibet almost overloads you with quality information about the region, culture, indigenous people, politics, religion, history, food and weather. It’s wonderful and although your brain can’t possibly fit in every last detail that Secrets of Tibet throws at you, you will love just how in-depth this book goes. I should also point out the majority of content (outside of the adventures) is about the real history of Tibet rather than a Cthulhu-ized version of the location ala what you might see for a World of Darkness campaign setting book. Instead, the actual game pieces are supplementary to the various essays that comprise Secrets of Tibet. You’ll see conjecture about how Lovecraftian beasties and creations could fit into Tibetan folklore rather than hamfisting Mythos creatures into the setting. For example, the book suggests that Sky Burials in a CoC version of reality could have come about due to not wanting ghouls to desecrate the corpses of loved ones. It’s a subtle and optional choice yet it still manages to stick closely to both the reality of the Tibetan people and to CoC canon. I love this.

Of course the entire book isn’t a non-fiction treatise disguised as a campaign setting book for a popular role-playing game line. For every bit of real world information, you’ll get a sidebar or a full follow-up on how the information works with game mechanics. After an article on the history of Tibet, you get a few paragraphs on how the region can be a gateway to the Dreamlands. Almost thirty pages of Secrets of Tibet are devoted to the topic of religion. You’ll find some new spells, the ability to create a Tulpa, and even mechanics for reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, all interspersed with a ton of real world content. After a rundown on the people of Tibet, you are given a whopping eleven new Investigator professions. I should also point out that some of the Occupations including stat changes and that said changes are with Seventh Edition rules in mind, So Keepers, don’t let your 6e players come to you and say, “I get +10 to my STR since I am a Fighting Monk.” So on and so forth through the book. Some gamers might want a lot more mechanics and stat blocks that the book provides, but I think the fact the book leans heavily on actual substance about the location is what really makes the book shine.

Besides the really fun occupations, you have eight new skills that characters can learn. Things like Dreaming, Animal Handling and Radio Operation act just like any other CoC skill (regardless of edition), but a special note should be paid to Tibetan Status as this can ebb and flow regularly throughout a game, especially if say a PC is found to be a reincarnation of a Lama. You’ll also find a chapter devoted specifically to monsters/demons/etc ripped directly from Tibetan folklore. Of course, they are slightly and subtly modified to reflect Call of Cthulhu. Grol-Ma is an avatar of Shub-Niggurath and garuda birds are a byahkee variant. So on and so forth. These potential antagonists will be somewhat familiar to longtime COC gamers but also help to keep the correct mood and atmosphere of a Tibetan based adventure and/or campaign. A huge part of the chapter is devoted to making the mi-go part of Tibet’s past(as well as an entire adventure). This is really the only shoehorning of a Mythos race into Tibet within the book but the inclusion makes sense and it’s well done, so you won’t hear any complaints from me on this front.

The chapter on NPCs is very well done as it gives Keepers premade characters to insert into his adventure. As they are all based on real people, this is another nice historical layer of the book and it will be a nice easter egg for players who were already fans of Tibetan history and culture. I will say my only problem with this chapter is a minor one I have throughout the book and it’s that the stat blocks for NPCs are insanely overpowered. For example, no one in this chapter has a stat of under 55! In sixth or older editions that translates to no one have a stat under 11. That’s crazy high and basically means every NPC is above average at everything they do, which is unrealistic. I’ve been noticing power creep going into character stats, both pregenerated PCs and NPCs alike throughout Call of Cthulhu this year, regardless of publisher (Golden Goblin, MRP, Chaosium, etc) and it’s just odd to see characters with stats this high, especially when part of the appeal of Call of Cthulhu is about everyday people getting sucked into events far beyond their comprehension. Again though, this is a minor issue, but worth bringing up as it’s been an all too apparent trend as of late.

After this intermission of mechanics based content, Secrets of Tibet goes back to full fledged essay mode (entertaining, not dull lecture Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). You get an extremely comprehensive chapter on travelling to Tibet. I’m a pretty voracious reader on the region Tibet is in (although I’m far more interested in Bhutan) like the current state of train transport from China to Tibet and the fact it just started up in 2007. I loved getting a current real world price tag for a train ticket too, as it’s a lot less that I would have thought and it makes me want to travel to Tibet that way. Again, for those who care more about mechanics than fleshing out the locale, this chapter contains information on how to run altitude sickness, a problem that affects the majority of people that come to Tibet. After that we get the final chapter of the campaign setting part of the book. It primarily focuses on the city of Lhasa, although it also includes some general odds and ends that could have been its own “Miscellaneous” style chapter. These pieces includes weapons, a look at the justice system in Tibet, a list of general names of Tibetan people, a guide to the Tibetan alphabet, foods festivals and how their calendar works. You know, things that don’t apply just to Lhasa, making them an odd inclusion at the tail end of the chapter. Again, a minor thing, but like all of Secrets of Tibet, the only things to criticize about the book are tiny things here and there that in no way take away from the overall quality or enjoyment of this release.

Now that we’ve finished discussed the campaign guide part of Secrets of Tibet we have three adventures to look at. While none of the adventures are mind-blowing or extremely memorable ones that you and your friends will talk about for months or years after you play them, all three are fine introductions to using Tibet as a region and work as first adventures for new characters. I should point out that the adventures are not designed to be played as a mini campaign as some are for foreigners visiting Tibet and others for natives. I actually like that the adventures were done this way as it gives a Keeper an option of what he wants to run. After all, to outsiders, Tibet is a strange and mysertious land full of wonder. To native characters it’s home and pretty mundane. So you get a very different atmosphere based on what group you are using and thus adventures designed for one won’t feel the same (or even work quite right) if you use them with the other.

“Dreaming of the River of Night” is an adventure for non-Tibetans and serves as an introduction to the land, the culture and the Dreamlands. A copy of the Dreamlands sourcebook is NOT needed for running this adventure, but it will flesh things out if you want a more comprehensive look at that setting. I do like the idea of tying the Dreamworlds into Tibet as the two just seem like such a nice fit. There isn’t a lot going on in this adventure. There is very little research and next to no combat. It’s primarily an atmospheric talking heads pieces that introduces player and/or characters to two locals. It might even be a great “Gamer’s first COC adventure” as long as they aren’t predisposed to nonstop hack and slash combat.

“Company Town” is designed for Tibetan native characters and is a take on the usual, “Mi-Go are up to wacky experiments” trope. This time however, the fungi from Yuggoth have dealt with an ENTIRE TOWN and it is up to players to discover what is behind the rash of recent disappearances in the area. The adventure can have a bit of a Night of the Living Dead feel to it depending on how you play it, but I’d play it more Invasion of the Body Snatchers or “angry mob.” This adventure is quite the opposite of the first one in Secrets of Tibet as it’s pretty action packed and it can get extremely combat heavy. It’s a nice contrast to “Dreaming.” While “Company Town” is a bit paint by numbers in some respects, it’s a fine adventure for introducing players to Tibet.

Our final adventure is “O’ Sleeper! Arise!” and it is the most complex adventure in the collection. The adventure warns that it can come off a bit Dues Ex Machina at the end in the hands of an inexperienced Keeper and that going this route will make it a letdown to everyone involved. I like when an adventure warns you of its potential limitations and flaws so that the Keeper can prepare for them, but more importantly PREVENT THEM FROM OCCURRING. You don’t see this type of disclaimer very often, so I’m glad it is here.

“O’ Sleeper! Arise!” takes place in Lhasa and is designed to use a lot of the locations, materials, NPCs and information contained in the sourcebook section. It is designed primarily for native Tibetans, but one or two outsiders can still work in the parameters of the adventure. The adventure is a pretty typical one. Cultist pokes his nose where it is not meant to be. Cultist accidentally unleashes someone horrific with tentacles. Things die or go insane. Of course the adventure won’t unfold that way if the Investigators are successful. It’s a fairly straightforward adventure that pits the Investigators against one of the monsters deadly and dangerous creatures in the game (if they’re not lucky). If the players manage to discover exactly what the cult is up to and prevent them from awakening…something, then it’s a pretty low key adventure. Again, we have another short and fairly standard adventure. Indeed, “O’Sleeper!” could easily be placed outside of Tibet and still work properly without a minute amount of fine tuning by a Keeper. It’s not a bad adventure by any means, and it is well written, but like all the adventures in Secrets of Tibet, it’s not very memorable.

All in all, Secrets of Tibet is a really great release from Chaosium, which has struggled a bit in 2013 in terms of quality. The campaign guide is one of the best I’ve seen released for Call of Cthulhu and it’s the most informative read since the Mysteries of Ireland monograph. The adventures are the weakest part of the book, but you’re not really purchasing Secrets of Tibet for the adventures. Rather, you are buying it for the in-depth comprehensive look at a region that is still a bit mysterious to outsiders even in modern times. As you can pick up the PDF for under twelve dollars, I can strongly recommend the digital copy of Secrets of Tibet to any CoC fan who wants a highly informative campaign guide to read. It might not be a book you actually end up using with your players, but Secrets of Tibet is fun just to sit down, especially if you are even remotely interested in Tibet.



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