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Reviews - Shadows of Yog-Sothoth
 
by Demian Katz


Shadows of Yog-Sothoth coverShadows of Yog-Sothoth
Published by Chaosium, Inc.
Written by Sandy Petersen, John Carnahan, John Scott Clegg, Ed Gore, Marc Hutchison, Randy McCall and Ted Shelton
Edited and Expanded by Lynn Willis, Jeff Carey and Don Coatar
Cover and Illustrations by Tom Sullivan
Additional Illustrations by Mislet Michel and Andy Hopp
Format, Maps and Diagrams and Layout by Charlie Krank and Badger McInnes
176-page perfect bound softback
$23.95

I'm a big fan of the campaign module; it's the best of both worlds - you get the convenience of pre-designed material and the continuity of a long-term storyline. Since I'm also a big fan of Call of Cthulhu, I've long been interested in getting my hands on a copy of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, an adventure which tends to come up whenever great campaign modules are discussed. Unfortunately for me, the adventure was first published in 1982 and reprinted in 1989 as part of Cthulhu Classics, and I wasn't able to get my hands on a copy until it was recently re-released in an expanded form.

Since I was unable to acquire the earlier editions of the adventure, I can't comment on how significant the revisions here are. If the introduction is to be believed, though, most of the changes are cosmetic - sidebars with advice for the Keeper have been added, the page layout has been peppered with additional illustrations and redesigned to resemble the products of Call of Cthulhu's German licensee, Pegasus-Spiele, and player handouts have been expanded. Speaking of player handouts, thereŐs also a lengthy appendix in the back which conveniently puts all of the handouts in one place and offers some of them in a larger format than what's found embedded in the text. The only thing that could have been more convenient would be a downloadable PDF version.

Lurking in Shadows (spoilers ahead)
In Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, the investigators gradually learn about an evil organization called the Order of the Silver Twilight which is intent on waking Cthulhu ahead of his planned schedule. This revelation takes place over the course of seven scenarios, each with a distinct flavor. In "The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight," the investigators are first led to the Order when it starts recruiting in Boston; the scenario is quite open-ended, serving mainly to introduce the recurring villain of Carl Stanford and to offer some resurrected wizards and monstrosities inspired by Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. "Look to the Future," a short follow-up, has Stanford engaging in a scheme involving time travel and puts the investigators in direct contact with Nyarlathotep.

The third scenario, "The Coven of Cannich," is the most complex in the book, and it is here that things really start to get underway. The investigators travel to Scotland to help a man in danger and find themselves involved with a coven of witches, serpent people and a dangerous artifact known as the R'lyeh Disk. About half of the (quite lengthy) scenario consists of NPC descriptions, and there are two whole sidebars devoted to helping the Keeper remember who everyone is, so this requires a lot of preparation and role-playing, but it's not all character study - there are also disk pieces to find, multiple locations to explore and some hideous monsters to battle. Ancient artifacts and horrible monsters are also featured in the fourth scenario, "Devil's Canyon," in which the investigators visit a movie set plagued by suicide and madness, and may end up with the Arc of Vlactos.

Up through the fourth scenario, each adventure could easily stand alone (although there is already some continuity and a sense of momentum as clues about the Order build upon one another). Starting with the fifth scenario, the campaign really begins to come into focus. "The Worm that Walks" toys with the players' expectations - it introduces them to Christopher Edwin, who resembles the standard generic NPC designed to introduce an adventure but who is actually a disguised mi-go attempting to send the investigators to their doom. This doom takes the form of a run-in with a family straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a pleasure cruise marred somewhat by the presence of a shoggoth, and a less-than-restful stay in a haunted hospital. It is nearly inevitable that at least one PC will be dead by the end of this... but that's Call of Cthulhu for you.

The final two scenarios build to Cthulhu's rise. "The Watchers of Easter Island" reveals the true purpose of those famous stone heads while entangling the party with the Chilean military, deep ones, an ancient priest and a truly nasty undead opponent. The finale, "The Rise of R'lyeh," is pretty much what it sounds like. It's actually rather short and disappointingly skimps on details, but it still manages to give the Keeper some of the tools necessary to build on the players' imaginations and construct a spectacular finale to the campaign.

More Sanity Loss for Your Gaming Dollar
Following the main Shadows of Yog-Sothoth campaign are two beginning-level scenarios designed to introduce players to the game. It seems somewhat odd to include basic adventures in a product clearly aimed at experienced players, but I guess they had to do something to fill out the page count.

The first of these adventures, "People of the Monolith," sends the investigators to Hungary to learn about a mad poet. It's short, uneventful, fleshed out in all the wrong places, and generally a waste of four pages. Fortunately, this is more than made up for by "The Warren," which plays on Lovecraft's theme of monstrous inbreeding and, after having the players follow an enjoyable trail of clues, does a good job of using the classic dungeon crawl format in a Lovecraftian context.

Analysis
Shadows of Yog-Sothoth has something to please everyone. Since each scenario feels a bit different, players who experience the whole campaign shouldn't get bored with it, and Keepers who prefer to pick and choose from the material are likely to find at least a few things that they can adapt into their own campaigns. That being said, the adventure has some notable shortcomings. The biggest problem is that it has the potential to spoil the whole game. Call of Cthulhu is largely about suspense, and this adventure doesnŐt really hold back once it reaches its conclusion. This adventure is designed for a party that is already quite experienced, and once they have gone through it all and actually battled Cthulhu himself at close quarters, Lovecraftian horror may lose some of its mystique (never mind the fact that most of the characters will likely be dead or insane by this point).

The fact that this adventure makes use of many of the big-name mythos figures is probably a sign of its age - in 1982, there was a less urgent need to find fresh new enemies for the players to face, and using material from the core rulebook was a more obvious choice. The adventure's vintage shows in a few other ways. Tom Sullivan's simple line artwork, while by no means bad, looks a little dated, especially in contrast to the somewhat overdone modern layout. The organization of the adventures is also a bit haphazard, not taking advantage of some adventure design lessons learned over the past couple of decades. The best scenarios unfold like a story while they are read, giving the Keeper some of the same sense of discovery that the players should feel when the game is run. Some of the adventures here jump around so much that they require careful study for proper comprehension and are less than a pleasure to read; this shouldn't detract from running the actual game, but it's unfortunate for the casual reader.

Because of the retro feel of the adventure, the various tools added on to this revised edition feel slightly out of place. As I already mentioned, the fancy layout work clashes with the simple artwork, and some of its details (such as large insects strewn goofily around several pages) are simply obnoxious. The tone of the sidebars is also noticeably more modern than the main text of the scenarios. These modern touches are not unwelcome, however - it's nice to have attractive handouts ready to be given to the players, and some of the sidebar advice is really helpful in managing complex scenarios, improvising and spicing things up.

Even though I haven't seen previous editions of the book, some corrections are both obvious and welcome - there's a note on page 100, for example, which points out an inaccuracy in one of the original illustrations. The overall quality of proofreading seems pretty good, but there are some typos which are most likely new errors introduced in this edition. These are minor but irritating - "Cthulhu" is spelled incorrectly at least once, one scenario has incorrectly numbered handouts, one area map fails to include some features described in the text, and one handout, rather confusingly, features a Keeper version in the main text and a Player version in the appendix rather than putting both versions in both places. At least one typo caused me to laugh out loud - on page 99, a character's face is described as being "badly scared" by a shotgun blast. Nitpicky, I know, but Chaosium has been around for a long time and publishes some high-end fiction titles, so I have high expectations.

Conclusions
I'm glad I've finally read Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. While I'm not actually inspired to drop everything and run the whole campaign, there are some pieces here I'm eager to use the next time I'm asked to run a Call of Cthulhu game - "The Warren" is perfect if there's very little time available for preparation, and "Devil's Canyon," with its enjoyable combination of isolation, movie-making and horrifying danger, would make a great one-off. Some poor organization and the lack of a really tightly-defined storyline prevented this from being a thoroughly enjoyable read in and of itself, but the variety on display in the scenarios still kept the pages turning. Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is showing its age in some regards, but its classic status is nonetheless deserved, and it still has enough to offer to justify its reprinting more than twenty years after its initial creation.

 
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