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Reviews - Stunning Eldritch Tales
by Lee Valentine

Stunning Eldritch Tales coverStunning Eldritch Tales
Published by Pelgrane Press
Written by Robin D. Laws
Product Line: for Trail of Cthulhu (GUMSHOE)
82 page b&w perfect bound book
$17.95 (print) / $8.75 (PDF)

This game is featured in our OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2008.

Stunning Eldritch Tales is a new 82-page adventure sourcebook for Trail of Cthulhu. It contains 4 separate adventures written by Robin D. Laws, author of the GUMSHOE product Fear Itself. Taken as a whole, the collected adventures have a strong pulp fiction (rather than classic Mythos) bent.

I call Stunning Eldritch Tales a sourcebook, because it features dozens of reusable NPCs and campaign bits and pieces. It also introduces a variety of rules on starvation, sleep deprivation, and taking hostages, among other things. Included are four new creatures for your Mythos tales and six pre-generated characters to let you run these adventures right out of the box.

Throughout this review I have decided to talk about the plots of the adventures only tangentially, as each story features a central mystery with a revelation that would destroy the fun for players who happen to be reading this review. I will instead talk about themes, tone, and settings for the adventures featured in Stunning Eldritch Tales.

There are four separate adventures included in this book: "The Devourers in the Mist", "Shanghai Bullets", "Death Laughs Last", and "Dimension-Y". Each adventure averages 18 pages in length.

The Devourers in the Mist
"The Devourers in the Mist" is an adventure set on a not-so-deserted, uncharted island in the Pacific. A horrible shipwreck strands the adventurers on an island with a variety of related Mythos horrors. While fighting for survival against starvation, thirst, and attacks from the horrors, the characters have the opportunity to solve the disappearance of a famous historical figure.

This adventure makes extremely heavy use of the Outdoorsman ability, and any group of adventurers without substantial ranks in this ability risks a total party kill. As a result, this adventure is the least adaptable of the four included in the book. No real suggestions are given for handling groups without substantial ranks in Outdoorsman other than changing the player characters' skill choices. This investigation is thus best suited as a convention adventure for use with the pre-generated characters included in this book (as was the express intention of its author), though it can be run in any campaign with appropriately-skilled characters. At the cost of some of Laws' intended tone, a GM can probably hand wave his way through most of the jungle survival portions of the tale and focus on the meat of the adventure if it becomes necessary to run this adventure for a bunch of "city slicker" characters.

This investigation can be run with the least GM preparation of any adventure in the book. It's also the fastest adventure to run, as it can be run in a single session if desired.

While I liked "The Devourers in the Mist", I felt its mechanics focused too much on the "survive on a jungle island" parts of the adventure. I felt as if I were watching an episode of the TV show Man Versus Wild with Bear Grylls instead of reading a Mythos adventure. Overall, though, it is well put together and will likely appeal to fans of the ABC network drama Lost.

Shanghai Bullets
"Shanghai Bullets" is a deeply film noir adventure involving research in the dark side of Shanghai. Stunning female singers, nightclubs, seedy hotels, Chinese gangs, and organized crime populate this tale of murder and international intrigue. The Mythos is involved in the plotline behind the scenes, but really this is a deeply pulp fiction detective story.

Author Robin Laws provides some suggestions for further reading for GMs wanting to prepare for this adventure. I think at least some of that reading could be necessary to provide some level of verisimilitude, because the adventure is extremely rich with details of international political intrigues. As a result, this investigation, more than any other in the book, requires a competent, highly-prepared GM to function well. However, the wealth of details probably makes it the single best-written mystery in the book. Other than some suspension of disbelief around the Mythos elements, the story seems plausible, start-to-finish. All the NPCs have their own agendas, motivations, and personalities.

The GM will have to do a lot to set the tone and to keep the game moving for players to remember that they are playing in a Trail of Cthulhu game rather than a Spirit of the Century pulp game, as it's very easy for the Mythos to slip off the players' radar screens for much of the investigation. If the GM is a practiced storyteller, then "Shanghai Bullets" can make for a number of memorable gaming sessions.

Death Laughs Last
"Death Laughs Last" is a mystery where the investigators focus on determining who is behind the death of a millionaire, New York City philanthropist Addison Bright. At the beginning of the story, Bright is found in the middle of his own manor, impaled by a large metal javelin, and the investigators are called in to determine who killed Bright and why.

Through the course of the adventure, players have the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes tour of New York City gangs and crime-fighting. As with "Shanghai Bullets", this tale uses the Mythos as a background element until the climax. However, "Death Laughs Last" is most strongly influenced by two-fisted pulp crime novels, and feels more inspired by crime adventure stories as compared to the film noir elements that make up the roots of "Shanghai Bullets".

"Death Laughs Last" is an intriguing read, but GMs will have to be highly prepared and cognizant of pacing issues to pull this adventure off, as parts of the adventure can easily devolve into doing one interview or interrogation after another. Another potential problem that can arise is that clever players may deduce who Bright's murderer is long before their characters can prove the theory to Bright's family, which could make the adventure drag in the hands of an unprepared GM.

As with "Shanghai Bullets", this adventure is rich with reusable NPCs and themes which could serve as the basis so it can either be used for just a few sessions of gaming or as the basis for a short campaign.

In "Dimension-Y", the investigators are invited to "an inventor's presentation of a new machine to peer into a non-Euclidean reality". As a result of the presentation by physicist Polton Williams, dark dreams become the nightly fare of all the guests, including our intrepid investigators. Madness, murder, and potentially the downfall of all mankind are all threatened in this dark story.

While there are elements of pulp science fiction in "Dimension-Y", they are not intrusive. So this adventure can be used for campaigns focusing on more traditional Mythos adventuring and not just for campaigns that are heavily pulp in their overtones.

Unlike the two preceding stories, the Mythos is front and center for much of this one. This investigation is also, as Robin Laws describes it, a "Ticking Clock Scenario" where every misspent hour threatens to unravel the investigators' sanity further. Since twisted nightmares come with every night's sleep, investigators will be pushed to their limits, striving to avoid sleep, and trying to press on to learn how to bring a stop to the madness and murder that emanates from Dimension-Y.

The Adventures Overall
All of these adventures, particularly "Shanghai Bullets" and "Death Laughs Last", require substantial GM familiarity with the scenario in question to run smoothly, as they involve managing many separate scenes and NPCs, each with distinct information. That said, the book is filled with good ideas, scenes, and story elements. There are suggestions for plot hooks and player character motivations for joining each adventure. Each story also features a number of customization options to make the horrors that the characters face a bit more personalized.

Another nice touch by Robin Laws was allowing for a bit of continuity across adventures. For GMs considering running these adventurers serially, Laws makes a few recommendations as to NPCs that might have recurring roles and which scenarios work best in which sequence.

Art & Visuals
Jérôme Huguenin did the art and graphic design for both this book and the parent game book, Trail of Cthulhu. Huguenin's work is generally of high quality throughout Stunning Eldritch Tales.

The front cover of Stunning Eldritch Tales features a figure in a hat, a strange mask, and trench coat, surprising another man in the middle of the night. Behind the masked man is a light image of a Cthulhoid entity on a wall. The cover looks very much like one from an old pulp fiction paperback book.

Some of the interior illustrations seem to be wholly original work, while others look like Huguenin's photomontage style used in Trail of Cthulhu. Throughout most of the book there is a nice balance of illustrations of Mythos creatures, characters, and locations. The image selections enhance the stories, and I'd probably use some of the location images as player handouts when running these investigations. Disappointingly though, in "Death Laughs Last" there were no illustrations of the Mythos' involvement at all.

While readers of my Trail of Cthulhu review may recall that I said that some of Huguenin's pieces in that work were smudgy and indistinct, I never felt that from any of the pieces in this volume. The pieces here are crisp and well-done, and they help to provide a layer of dark atmosphere to this work.

Huguenin also did a nice three-column layout for this book. His style draws upon motifs from his work on Trail of Cthulhu. Simon Rogers, publisher over at Pelgrane Press, has really done well to create a visual brand identity for the Trail of Cthulhu product line.

There are a few nice handouts (entirely samples of written materials). Unfortunately there is not a single adventure map in the entire sourcebook. For some GMs this will not be a problem, because the scenarios are generally designed to work well without a battlemap. I typically like that style of adventure, because breaking out the battlemap can negatively impact a player's suspension of disbelief. However, at least two conflicts in the four adventures would have benefited from some kind of map. Additionally, I think that as a GM, I would really have personally liked to have seen a map of the island in "Devourers in the Mist" as well as a general period map of Shanghai (to help me understand the complex political subdivisions of that city).

Pre-Generated Characters
Six pre-generated characters are included in Stunning Eldritch Tales. The backgrounds of these characters do not seem to make for a cohesive adventuring group (since they were intended to be strangers washed up on a desert island in "The Devourers in the Mist"). Nevertheless, the fact that they were included at all is a really huge plus for GMs who want to pick up the game and run it immediately. In addition to the pre-generated characters, there are at least two other NPCs used in the other scenarios that are specifically mentioned as being suitable for use as player characters.

Unfortunately, the layout of these characters in the book leaves a lot to be desired. As a GM you ideally want to see pre-generated characters laid out one character per column, half page, or full page so that they can be photocopied, clipped apart quickly, and handed out to players. In this instance, however, the character descriptions were treated like any other blocks of text in the adventure book. As a result, some characters had bits and pieces of their descriptions running across three different columns, while others were broken up across two separate pages.

Like some of the other GUMSHOE products, this product needed a somewhat tighter editing pass. There are around a couple of dozen typos or editing problems in this product. Most of them were quite minor, but in one case Pelgrane Press left out some information on destroying a largely invulnerable monster by cutting off the explanation mid-sentence.

Sure, I have some gripes about this collection of adventures. Particularly I hope that Pelgrane Press puts up a few maps and better laid out characters on their website as handouts. But any complaints I have pale in comparison to the overall quality of what is being offered for the price.

In a time when other companies deign to charge you $20+ for a single adventure, Pelgrane Press has packaged a whole lot more for less money. Stunning Eldritch Tales is available for $17.95 in print and $8.75 as a PDF.

The quality of each story is quite high - in my head, I can see a little "movie" playing for each one. That's Robin Laws' intention, and in some cases he even notes which old film stars would have been best suited to play specific roles.

I liked Laws' work on the earlier GUMSHOE products, and I'm an enthusiastic supporter of this volume as well. In this book, Laws successfully works the Mythos into the worlds of film noir and dime store crime fiction. Moreover, he incorporates enough historical references into each adventure - with "Shanghai Bullets" in particular - to make this feel like a perfect sequel to Kenneth Hite's work on Trail of Cthulhu. The historical tie-ins Laws provides us with makes his adventures feel like they are set in a parallel universe filled with flesh-and-bone inhabitants. At a time where so many "adventures" are really critter stat blocks attached to a hastily drawn map, I find Stunning Eldritch Tales to be a refreshing change of pace.

As a GM you'll need to work hard to make these adventures payoff big, but the potential is there. Each adventure is distinctive in character, and the stories provide material aplenty to use for other pulp adventure RPGs (like Spirit of the Century). However, a read through this adventure set may convince you to take a break from your normal pulp game and try Trail of Cthulhu instead (if you haven't already).

In my heart of hearts, I wish that Pelgrane had launched its line of Trail of Cthulhu support products with a more traditional Mythos offering instead of starting out on the pulp side of the field. Nevertheless, they have produced a great adventure sourcebook in Stunning Eldritch Tales. I look forward to future releases in the Trail of Cthulhu line of products.

For Retailers
Talk this one up to your customers. There are lots of great RPGs, but many fewer great books of adventures. This is one of those great books of adventures, and it deserves some of your shelf space. Unfortunately, as with most adventure modules, expect to sell relatively fewer copies of this than you did of the Trail of Cthulhu core rulebook unless you talk up this product to the GMs in your store who run other pulp RPGs as well.


Lee's Ratings:

Overall Rating: A-
Appearance: B+ (very attractive art; with no maps; and lack of useful layout of pre-generated characters)
Writing: A- (great overall, with some editing problems)
Retailer Salability: B+ (higher if you have a dedicated Lovecraft fan base in your area)


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