Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 11 December 2016

New Colonial Cthulhu

For Call of Cthulhu, the continent of Australia is best known through the supplement, Terror Australis; in full form, the campaign, The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep; and by extension, the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. The focus of these three books is firmly upon the RPG’s default period, that is, the Jazz Age of the 1920s. This though is to ignore the centuries of history since coming of Europeans in the late eighteenth century and the millennia of history before the coming Europeans when the only inhabitants of the continent were the Aborigines. Thankfully, in 2016’s most unexpected release for 2016, Australian small press publisher, Cthulhu Reborn, sets out to address this lack with a supplement devoted to a period famliar that will be familiar to many an Australian, but little known beyond the shores of the continent.


As its title suggests, Convicts & Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying in the Penal Colonies of 18th Century Australia, explores the presence of the Mythos and presents roleplaying opportunities in the very early days of Australia’s colonial history. When it was not a colony in a traditional sense, but a penal colony, a gaol on the other side of the world where the dregs of the United Kingdom’s society could be transported to work out their sentence. When it was not yet officially Australia, but simply New South Wales. When it was not yet quite self-sufficient, but reliant upon the meagre support—other than in terms of fresh convicts and the labour that they can provide—from the mother country. The broad focus for Convicts & Cthulhu is during the decade or two after European settlement, roughly 1795 to 1810, and more closely on the events leading up to, during, and after the Rum Rebellion of 1808. The supplement casts the player characters—who will go to become investigators—as convicts, as government officials, as members of the New South Wales Corps, and even as free settlers come to start afresh. Theirs is a rough and ready land and society, effectively under military rule and justice, but one that is rife with corruption and graft, for many men of the NSW Corps are the worst soldiers that England can send, some no worse than the convicts they guard. Even when London becomes aware of the corruption, it appoints the least suitable man to solve the problem—Captain William Bligh of the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty, no less!

Convicts & Cthulhu goes into some depth about the early years of the New South Wales colony. This includes its history, daily life, trade, relations with the Aborigines—both as bad as and better than you would expect, as well as presenting a gazetteer of the principal places in the colony. These are Sydney and Parramatta plus places in between and come with maps of the major settlements and descriptions of notable NPCs (though not stats), such as Captain William Bligh and John Macarthur, the NSW Corps officer and entrepreneur who would foment the Rum Rebellion against Bligh. Also described are various Aboriginal settlements as well as Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania) and Norfolk Island, a place of secondary punishment, essentially the penal colony’s penal colony.

In terms of what roles the players can take, Convicts & Cthulhu divides its character templates into three categories. These are Indigenous Occupations, Convict Occupations, and Free Occupations. They include Hunter/Gatherer, Clever-Man/Woman, and Indigenous Convict/Labourer for the first; Career Criminal, Fallen Clergyman, and Political Agitator for the second; and Farmer/Settler, NSW Corps Officer, and Publican (Bar Owner) for the third—amongst others. Each makes use of the adjusted skills list particular to the setting. This adds various Aboriginal skills like Alcheringa Dream Lore, Dream Song, and Lore (Aboriginal), replaces Psychology with Insight from Cthulhu Invictus and Cthulhu: Dark Ages, adds the Religion skill, and gives reduced starting percentages for skills such as Language (Own) and Swim. It does make use of the Credit Rating skill as per Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, noting that barter predominates in the colony and that a convict’s Credit Rating will vary according to whether or not he is still serving his sentence or been given a pardon, and so on. A notable addition are the rules from the recently released Pulp Cthulhu for the effects being drunk. This is not surprising given the amount of alcohol consumed in eighteenth century English society and the fact that the primary currency during the period that is the main focus for Convicts & Cthulhu is rum.

What Convicts & Cthulhu does not do is add much in the way of the Mythos. There are new cults, such as the Sharks-Tooth Cult, the Industrious Brothers of the New World—perhaps an offshoot of the Brotherhood of the Beast and New World Industries?, the Outcast Dreamers, and so on. These are really thumbnail descriptions left for the Keeper to develop and in fact, the Heralds of the Silver Dawn, which appears in the supplement’s scenario, is better developed. Some indigenous horrors are also described, but not given stats for. An experienced Keeper will probably be able to devise some stats from the descriptions alone, but for the less experienced Keeper, this may be an issue, at least until the supplement, Secrets of Australia is released. That said, the lack of availability of Secrets of Australia as of 2016 also presents problems that bear returning to… Nevertheless, the given presence of the Mythos in Convicts & Cthulhu feels about right. It is not overdone and there is no sense that entities or agents of the Mythos are running wild. The fact that the colony is rough and ready, grasps desperately in places at the veneer of civilisation, and is surrounded on all sides by the great unknown and the alien, means that when either is at work, there are layers upon layers that it can hide behind.

The bulk of ‘Mythos Tales’ presents the scenario, ‘Un-Fresh Off The Boat’. With a title echoing that of the ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ scenario and campaign starter for Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, this introductory affair brings the player characters—they are not yet investigators—to New South Wales. They have come as convicts sentenced to transportation, new recruits to the New South Wales Corps, recently appointed government officials, or even settlers looking to make a new start, but after a long, tiring voyage, they find themselves quarantined aboard ships whose crew and passengers are beset by a horridly pustulent disease. Fortunately, they have not contracted this malady themselves, so this means that they are best suited to go ashore surreptitiously to track another passenger who jumped overboard and fled ashore.

Designed to be run in a single session, ‘Un-Fresh Off The Boat’ is a relatively straightforward investigation that touches upon various aspects of the Convicts & Cthulhu setting—the social order of convicts versus gaolers, the rough nature of colonial justice, the uncouth nature of society, and so on. It is primarily a social and interactive affair, although it does come to a bloody, violent climax, one that any convicts who number amongst the investigators will find to be a tough challenge. It is a good starting scenario, setting the investigators up for their life to come in the new world and hinting at some of the dark secrets. It is followed by six scenario seeds, each with options as to the source of the threats they each present, all of which are nicely detailed. Rounding out Convicts & Cthulhu is a good bibliography, some sample NPC stats, and a Convicts & Cthulhu Investigator Sheet.

Physically, Convicts & Cthulhu feels a bit tightly produced, but that is down to the printing process rather than anything else. Otherwise , it is cleanly presented. It is profusely illustrated with a mix of publically available artwork and maps, plus some excellent new maps and new artwork, the latter being rather good. It does need another edit and the writing could be clearer and tighter in places.

That there is plenty of detail presented in Convicts & Cthulhu to help the Keeper bring the rough and ready colony alive is undeniable. In places though, the supplement does feel lacking. There is not a great of information on the Aborigines or their culture, on the ‘monsters’ indigenous to the new country whether of the Mythos or not, and there is no background information provided for the various Character Templates. The first two issues are likely to be addressed in the forthcoming Secrets of Australia, but the fact that it is suggested that the Keeper refer to that supplement, does mean that the Convicts & Cthulhu does feel like an adjunct to it. The third issue can probably be addressed with some historical research, but the lack of familiarity with the British Isles of the Georgian period is likely to be an issue for some. One issue that some may have with the supplement and its setting is that it is not particularly kind to women and players may be uncomfortable with the misogyny of the period and especially of the setting.

Convicts & Cthulhu presents a new society—with new social mores and traditions—to work in too and an investigation process that will rely on the physical and the personal means rather than the academic or technical means—the latter two being particularly limited in the penal colony. It comes with a good beginning scenario, ‘Un-Fresh Off The Boat’, which is begging for a sequel, even a campaign, though more scenarios would also be appreciated. The supplement itself could even be expanded with more information and more scenarios. (Cthulhu Reborn has already begun addressing this issue with the Tickets to Leave series, each a small supplement that addresses particular aspects of the setting.) Above all Convicts & Cthulhu presents a new period of history and a new setting to explore in Call of Cthulhu, one that is not only accessible and richly detailed, but also feels refreshing and different to periods and settings previously explored by the RPG. Currently available as a Pay What You Want supplement, Convicts & Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying in the Penal Colonies of 18th Century Australia is bargain that deserves both your time and more support.