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Reviews - Murder of Crows
 
by Lee Valentine


Murder of Crows coverMurder of Crows
Published by Super Genius Games (under license from Chaosium)
written by Stan!
34 b&w pages
$4.99 (PDF)/$12.00 (Print)

A variety of third party publishers, including Green Ronin and Pelgrane Press, are producing Cthulhu Mythos-related gaming materials using their own house systems. Among the list of publishers producing licensed gaming products for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu system is small press publisher Super Genius Games. Murder of Crows is a late 2008 product from Super Genius Games' co-founder Stan!. You can read OgreCave's interview with Stan! here.

Overview
Murder of Crows is a 1920s Call of Cthulhu adventure set in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. Bethlehem was formerly a logging town that supplied lumber throughout the region, but competition from more modern out-of-state companies has driven Bethlehem to the brink of extinction. In recent years, Bethlehem has changed to survive - it has become a tourist town visited by young New England socialites for leaf watching during autumn. Most recently, after a madman came raving into a local establishment, warning outsiders to stay out of the woods, a murder of thousands of crows has all but painted the autumn leaves black with their presence. The crows have already shown a willingness to bear down on trespassers in the woods with murderous ferocity. Now the crows have started to perch on rooftops within Bethlehem. Is it just a matter of time before the crows start attacking the townsfolk in the streets of Bethlehem, or will they be content to continue defending the woods near the town? Why the crows have come to the woods of Bethlehem and what can be done about them is the subject of the investigation in this module.

This adventure also includes some brief notes on how to modify it both for use in a Cthluhu by Gaslight campaign or a modern day Cthulhu game. There are also notes on transplanting the adventure to somewhere other than Lovecraft's backyard of New England. These notes are not particularly thorough, but what is there is thoughtful and appreciated.

Also included in the module are four pre-generated Investigator characters for GMs who want to run Murder of Crows as a one- or two-night adventure for a gaming group which doesn't regularly play Call of Cthulhu. I thought this was a nice touch for an adventure from a small publisher.

NPCs
Almost more than the mystery of the crows itself, the heart and blood of Murder of Crows is its cast of non-player characters (NPCs). As such, much of my review will focus on what's right and what's wrong with the way NPCs are handled in this adventure.

There is a long list of NPCs who may eventually come to interact with the Investigators. The relationships that some of these NPCs have with others is sometimes handled in loving detail. Indeed, the adventure's author seems quite interested in painting a picture of family lines who settled the town, rather than revealing the township of Bethlehem as a place populated by individuals. While this would add tone to a short story, when Investigators are shopping around the town for an answer to the mystery of the crows, I'm not entirely certain the players will be able to distinguish one NPC from another, since most of the details of interest are historical in nature, psychological, or "internal monologue" elements.

Most of the module's NPCs each have a list of potential opinions about what's going on around town. The Keeper can weave these opinions into conversations between a given NPC and the Investigators. Details are provided as to many NPCs' backgrounds and overall personality bents. However, there is no artwork of most of the NPCs, there are no detailed physical descriptions of them, and no lists of personal quirks or traits. Adding a couple of dozen sentences of such descriptions would have added little to the overall length, but would have gone a long way toward making the NPCs more individual and more memorable without so much work from the end consumer. As it stands, they seem more like stops along the investigation train that players will likely feel obliged to visit rather than memorable characters.

Further, the adventure spends a lot of textual space describing people and locations which are unimportant to solving the central mystery of the Investigation. That would normally be fine if they were part of carefully thought out "red herrings" or if the town of Bethlehem was more thoroughly fleshed out, sourcebook-style. Neither is the case, and the Keeper running this adventure is largely left to his own devices as to how to use these characters and locales.

There are around 15 different NPCs with whom the Investigators are encouraged to interact. Each NPC is associated with a specific locale in the game where the Investigators will first encounter him or her. Unfortunately, without individual pictures or character sheets for these NPCs, they blur together. I wish that a chart, cheat sheet, or managment tool of some kind had been presented to help me keep the NPCs, their details, and their associated locations all clear in my head.

Tying Up Loose Ends
The Epilogue section of this adventure does a nice job of talking about how to work a few of the elements responsible for the horrors of Bethlehem into an ongoing campaign. Thus, while the module is intended as a one-shot, it has potential as an ongoing Investigation in a Call of Cthulhu campaign. Super Genius Games has released another game adventure, Doom from Below, which takes place just outside of Bethlehem. That adventure is designed to integrate smoothly into a campaign where the events of Murder of Crows have just been completed.

Editing & Appearance
This adventure has, in spots, some sub-standard editing. Some words are missing, and others are misspelled, but none of the editing mistakes significantly impair the readability of the text, and no key information is missing.

The art ranges from very good (in the case of portraits for pre-generated characters) to merely mediocre for the one map included in the product. The illustrations in the body of the adventure are sparse, but the ones that are there are appropriate to the adventure. There are a few additional pieces of artwork in the reference section, however most of these are pictures of the four pre-generated characters provided with the adventure. There are also a number of sidebar elements and other inserts that keep the body of the text relatively interesting to look at and easy on the eyes.

The front cover features a frightening image of a crow with a bloody beak. Behind this avian terror, the top two-thirds of the cover features a bleak copse of trees blanketed by flying crows, while the bottom third of the front cover features pentacles and symbols of magic (apparently from European sorcery, alchemy, or astrology). These latter symbols are somewhat misleading as to the source behind the crows, but since Murder of Crows is a mystery of sorts, I didn't mind the false lead.

Conclusions
Murder of Crows has a lot going for it. I almost wished that the module's author, Stan!, had added to the overall length of the product substantially and tried to turn this into a real campaign setting for further adventuring. Certainly, he was well on the way toward achieving just that goal. As an adventure module, however, this is one that just doesn't have enough detail to really run itself in a memorable fashion. The NPCs are names attached to factoids rather than characters. These factoids are quite interesting to read as the Keeper, learning about Bethlehem, but will likely not be conveyed in a timely fashion to the Investigators solving this mystery. This leads me to the conclusion that there are lots of details, but not always the right ones for a one-shot adventure.

In the hands of an experienced Keeper, Murder of Crows will shine, but I wouldn't recommend it to a novice Keeper, as it requires tracking many details, some which are triggered by the actions of the PCs.

By design, Murder of Crows is intended to be used as a one-shot introduction to Call of Cthulhu. It's overall vibe is solidly scary. However, Murder of Crows represents a work more of supernatural horror than of traditional Mythos threats. Its terrors are much more overtly manifest in public view than in most Mythos stories.

I liked Murder of Crows, and I recommend it, particularly as a PDF product. It's the kind of adventure that the GM will want to take notes about while he's running, and the edges of laser printed pages will probably be easier psychologically to put to that use as compared to a store-bought module. If Keepers need film-based inspiration when running this adventure, I recommend Hitchcock's The Birds and the 1972 schlockfest Frogs (the latter more for related themes than for quality, which is wholly lacking in that film).

In closing, I think it's noteworthy that while Call of Cthulhu game-related statistics are provided in Murder of Crows, most of them will go unused. As a result, this adventure is so driven by its non-rules text that it should be easily adaptable to other systems. This adventure would be quite appropriate for Pelgrane Press' Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists modern horror product lines. (See my review of Fear Itself here.) As both Stan! and R. Hyrum Savage are involved with Super Genius Games, I will be looking out for more quality products from that company.

For Retailers
While I did this review only after receiving an unrequested complementary copy of the module, I had seen the module's cover in stores some week's earlier. I found the cover compelling enough that I was considering asking for a review copy of it, even though I don't regularly review materials for the Call of Cthulhu game line. If you want to move the printed version of this module in your stores, put it next to your other Call of Cthulhu materials and display it face out. This product's cover could result in a couple of impulse buyers picking up this small press product.

 

Lee's ratings:
Overall: B
Appearance: B+ (acceptable internal illustrations with a striking cover)
Adventure Quality: B
Retailer Salability: B-

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