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Reviews - Strange Aeons II
 
by Demian Katz


Strange Aeons II coverStrange Aeons II (2010)
Published by Chaosium
Cover painting by David Lee Ingersoll
Interior art by David Lee Ingersoll and Bradley McDevitt
Character thumbnails by Adam Denton
Border and small thumbnails by Marco Morte
232-page softcover
$34.95

Contents:
"Master Wu's Marriage" by Allesandro Mana
"Children of a Starry Heaven" by Christopher Smith Adair
"Cursed Be the City" by Davide Mana
"To Hell or Connaught" by Eckhard Huelshoff
"They Did Not Think It Too Many" by Adam Crossingham
"The Iron-Banded Box" by Michael Dziesinski
"Three Days of Peace, Music & Tentacle Love" by Shannon R. Bell
"A Hard Road to Travel" by Gary Sumpter
"Time After Time" by Brian M. Sammons

 

More than a decade ago, Chaosium published Strange Aeons, a collection of adventures set in time periods atypical for the Call of Cthulhu game. This follow-up volume further extends this idea in nine full-length adventures, each in a different setting ranging from the Stone Age to the sixties and beyond. Every adventure comes with a set of six pregenerated characters, making these ideal for one-off games, but many also provide hooks that could lead to a campaign, and most (but not all) include character generation notes and background details that allow a bit of extra player creativity in the setup. It is unlikely that any single group will want to play through every adventure found in this book, but there is enough variety to provide something for just about everyone, provided they are in the mood for something out of the ordinary.

The Adventures
[SPOILER WARNING: I will try not to go into too much detail on plot, but if you expect to play in any of these adventures, I recommend skipping this section; even small details may spoil some of the surprises ahead.]

"Master Wu's Marriage," set in 7th century China, has the player characters on a mission to accompany a young bride on her way to meet her husband-to-be. Of course, few things are as they seem. The adventure is well designed, providing relatively simple details for the Keeper that can interact in interesting ways during play. The pregenerated characters have built-in conflicts (for example, highlighting differences between Taoist and Confucian philosophies), and there is the possibility of a traitor in their midst. Different sections of the adventure have distinctly different tones, and the build-up to the horrific finale is fairly effective. The biggest problem with the adventure is poor cartography; the final (and most important) part of the story depend on the players finding their way around a large building, but the provided material does a bad job of supporting this. The brief textual description of the building doesn't seem to match the provided maps, and things are made even murkier by typo-filled copies of the maps in the handout appendix. Even without inconsistencies, the maps are so ornate as to be nearly unreadable. Keepers interested in presenting coherent geography are probably best off ignoring this whole mess and doing their own cartography. Aside from this one annoying problem, though, this is one of the better stories in the collection.

Moving to ancient Greece, "Children of a Starry Heaven" casts the players as members (and unwitting victims) of a new mystery cult. While this is certainly a functional Call of Cthulhu adventure, I found it less satisfying than the previous story, largely due to an unsatisfying premise involving an evil equation that doomed Pythagoras. It would also have helped if key NPCs had been better fleshed out – I'm still trying to understand why one key character appears to be a human-camel hybrid in the artwork on one page (but not elsewhere)! If you're dying for a Greek theme or have more tolerance for blaming Mythos horror on mathematics, you might have fun with this, but it's not a highlight of the collection.

"Cursed Be the City," set during the Stone Age, provides quite a bit of interesting background material (including a useful bestiary). Like the previous scenario, I found it reasonably well constructed but let down by an unsatisfying premise. In this case, the adventure revolves around a poorly defined spiritual threat that causes Neanderthals to behave like modern men (mowing their lawns, etc.). In practice, this is more humorous than horrifying. Even if it could evoke sufficient terror, there's also the problem that role-playing a caveman is challenging enough without having to role-play a caveman encountering things that a caveman could not possibly understand. This might work better deeper into a campaign, but for a first stone age adventure, I would have preferred to see something that made more use of the primitive setting on its own. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, you might get better results by adding your own prologue to better set the stage.

Set in 1649, "To Hell or Connaught" casts the players as English soldiers investigating a set of murders in hostile Irish territory. Along the way, dark secrets are revealed and much about St. Patrick is explained. This is a fairly straightforward investigation, flawed mainly by weak characterization. The pregenerated characters are sketchily described, even though one has a very specific role in the story and could use more motivation. The NPCs are similarly vague. For a creative group of players, this may not be a significant obstacle, but if you're looking for distinctive personalities built into the adventure, this one comes up a bit short. If you're more interested in digging up clues and fighting horrors, though, you'll find a fair number of both to entertain you.

The next adventure, "They Did Not Think It Too Many," suffers by sharing too many themes with the previous adventure – players are Roman soldiers in Britain, and many of the dangers they face are extremely similar to those found in 17th century Ireland. The adventure does distinguish itself with a high level of political intrigue and (for better or worse) some sexually explicit content, but its position in the collection is unfortunate. Context aside, it's still a mixed bag – the political elements are probably the highlight (rules for behavior during a traditional feast are a particularly nice touch), but the adventure gets off to a slow start with an over-long travelogue, and enough details are missing from the background and certain parts of the story to add to the Keeper's preparation burden. This isn't a total waste of time, but reading it didn't really inspire me to attempt to play it.

While the previous adventures have the inherent disadvantage of taking place in unsupported settings, potentially forcing the Keeper to do extra research, "The Iron-Banded Box" has the advantage of drawing on the material found in Secrets of Japan, which it frequently refers to (though you can get by without a copy). The players are ronin facing dangerous foes, both human and otherwise. There are many opportunities for combat, though engaging foolishly is not encouraged. There are good opportunities for role-playing and a suitably horrific lair to uncover, though the actual finale of the story seems to fall a little flat as written, and there are some loose ends – most notably an NPC with a secret identity that doesn't seem to serve any meaningful function in the story. Still, this is a respectable entry in the collection, and it gets bonus points for including pronunciation guides for all the important names, something which several of the other adventures could have used.

First of all, rest assured that, in spite of the title, there is no actual tentacle love on display in "Three Days of Peace, Music & Tentacle Love." There is, however, danger at the Woodstock festival, where the players (as young Miskatonic University students) are trying to prevent the spread of some drugs, which, thanks to a friend's recent death, they suspect may be dangerous. Perhaps it's just the setting, but I didn't find this one very interesting; the characters weren't very appealing, the tone of horror wasn't pitched quite right, and the ultimate mythos threat felt even more contrived than usual. Additionally, the background material and timeline provided were so sketchy as to be nearly meaningless. Still, it's not all bad – if the players fail to prevent the disaster looming at the festival, the adventure suggests some interesting long-term consequences. If you're looking to run an alternate history campaign, you might get away with using this as a starting point, provided that you bet against the players!

Set during the Civil War, "A Hard Road to Travel" is another scenario that makes relatively minimal use of its setting and tells an overly familiar mythos story. There's nothing wrong with the design; it just feels a bit uninspired. It's also strange that, even though the provided PCs are not particularly integrated with the plot (unlike many of the other adventures), no guidelines are provided to help players build their own soldiers. If you like the era and want to put some effort into adding more flavor on your own, this isn't a bad starting point, but it's an overly simplistic transplantation of familiar themes, and it's ultimately rather forgettable.

Fortunately, the quality picks up for the final story, "Time After Time." By far the most unusual and creative story in the collection, this starts out with a 1950s FBI raid but eventually lands the players in a far more alien environment. Keepers are likely to have a lot of fun running this – the first part of the story is a beautiful opportunity for off-the-cuff improvisation and extreme horror, while the second part is exploration-oriented and supported by (for once) a well-drawn map and clear location descriptions. Just because it's a breeze to run doesn't mean the players will feel that the Keeper is being lazy; they'll be too distracted by the big plot twist in the middle of the adventure and the relative freedom of movement that follows. In a collection that, for the most part, is a little too conventional given its unconventional nature, this is the standout adventure that makes it all worthwhile.

Presentation
This book is about what you would expect of a contemporary Chaosium product. Overall, the quality is good, but it's still far from perfect. Another round of copyediting would have resolved a whole bunch of harmless but annoying typos and sentence structure problems. The art is uneven, with a few great pieces and a few mediocre ones. I thought the cover illustration was below par, and as usual, the character portraits are often disappointing, especially when they seem to ignore key features from the textual descriptions. Fortunately, though, the only cosmetic problems that really affect gameplay are the previously-mentioned cartographic issues in "Master Wu's Marriage."

Conclusions
On the whole, I was a bit disappointed by Strange Aeons II. Normally, reading a Call of Cthulhu book almost immediately puts me in the mood to play the game, but it wasn't until the very last scenario that this one really grabbed me. That's not to say that all of the earlier scenarios are failures; it's just that I expected more. Given that the whole premise of the collection is to try something different, too many scenarios felt like rehashes of familiar ideas that didn't do quite enough to highlight their distinctive settings. Even some of the scenarios that embraced their unique eras could have chosen more interesting plot devices. If you have a particular interest in some of the periods highlighted here, or if you have a copy of Secrets of Japan that you're dying to use, you might find more value in the early scenarios than I did. In any case, I can definitely give a strong recommendation for "Time After Time." I'm just not sure if one great scenario and a handful of passable ones quite justify the purchase price – I would expect most groups to find less than half of the book's content useful. This would make a good candidate for sale as separate PDFs so that Keepers could invest in only the parts that interest them. If something like that doesn't happen, I can only offer a lukewarm recommendation for the collection as a whole.

 
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