Friday, October 28, 2011

Augury - The Red Eye of Azathoth (BRP Call of Cthulhu)



Unfortunately I don’t run as much Call of Cthulhu as I would like. To counterbalance, I tend to introduce the Mythos (even just a quotation) in practically every RPG that I run (I haven’t tried it yet with Star Wars but I have some ideas about Korriban...). Anyway, the The Red Eye of Azathoth seemed to me the perfect opportunity for correcting this inexcusable negligence.

This augury is based on the PDF version of this product. The Red Eye of Azathoth seems to me to be the perfect opportunity for correcting this inexcusable negligence. This is a 108 pages bookmarked e-book with five interlinked scenarios for BRP Call of Cthulhu. The interior art is B&W, and while isn’t eye-catching, it isn’t bad. The layout is good and the pages are colored to look like a scroll or old book.

The Red Eye of Azathoth’s scenarios are not stand-alone (theoretically nothing can stop a Keeper from running each adventure alone, but you’d lose half the fun) but part of campaign that places the Investigators against an ancient Chinese sorcerer bent on summoning Azathoth, the Daemon Sultan, on Earth. Each scenario takes place in a different place and time, with the players roleplaying the reincarnations of their Investigators. It’s a great idea and the authors pull it out admirably.

The first scenario – That Which Is Dead Shall Refuse To Lie – starts in media res, placing the Investigators against thunder and blood (literally) by recreating the classic Viking raid of 793 in the Lindisfarne monastery and spicing it up with Mythos elements. The scenario is a nasty Sanity-drain sequence, full of disturbing vistas, giving little time for the players to think. However, what really makes That Which Is Dead Shall Refuse To Lie stand out is the rushing opening and the fact that the Investigators are divided among Viking raiders and Christian monks. These two elements, coupled with the flashbacks and the chaotic progression (besides the lack, at this point, of any clear explanations) build up a strong plot and it’s a terrific start for a Cthulhu (or any other RPG) campaign.

The second scenario – The Silent Of Thousands Shall Quell The Refrain – takes place in 1287 AD, Japan. The Investigators play samurai sent by the bakufu to investigate the peculiar circumstances of an isolated (and very prosperous) village. At the first scenes the group becomes aware of supernatural presences, which set off new flashbacks, bringing back memories (and skills) from their previous Viking characters. The twist to this second story is the discovery that the Investigators face not one but two mutually opposing forces. The focus of the scenario – the peasant village – is full of idiosyncrasies, the most blatant being that all its population is mute.  From a roleplaying perspective this is most challenging element for the Keeper and it’s a pity that this isn’t further explored (a few examples of the local pictographic language would’ve being nice).

By now it’s already possible to pinpoint an aspect of The Red Eye of Azathoth – its scenarios are intense, quick-paced and direct. This is in my opinion a good change from traditional Cthulhu adventures – where a great portion of the game is dedicated to carefully collect clues and evidences. While the first two scenarios do provide clues, they use them to move the plot forward (and as flavor), instead of hidden crucial elements necessary to the story’s progression, which is a perfect design approach – groups that love minutiae still will have plenty of information to uncover, while groups who enjoy action can ignore those details without missing the dramatic conclusion.

The third scenario – Fires Of Hate Defile The Sky – happens in Valencia, 1478, and deals with the Spanish Inquisition. Like all the previous ones, this tale starts with a bang! (and a painful one as opening scene is the torture of one of the Investigators). Instead of degenerating to simple gore, the authors provide a clever and metagame element to the scene. The rest of the scenarios deals with the revelation of the investigator’s past lives, their escape from the dungeons and through the streets of Valencia (using a nice variant of Pathfinder Chase rules). And because this is an Inquisition’s story its climax must – for dramatic reasons – be an auto-de-fé.

The fourth scenario – Lost Shall Be Those Bearing Souls Split In Twain – takes the Investigators to the (in)famous Roanoke colony, in the New World, 1578. This information alone will probably set the most History-minded players’ attention on fire. This scenario is probably the most traditional of The Red Eye of Azathoth. We have here all the classic elements of a Cthulhu story, inclining the slow-building tension produced by the uncovering of clues. Ironically, the adventure is demanding on part of Keeper, especially at the first scenes (before the journey to the New World) and at the interaction with Roanoke’s NPCs (both Englishmen and natives).  However, in many ways Lost Shall Be Those Bearing Souls Split In Twain can also be an unique experience – the reincarnation mechanics allows the players, in a way, to effectively use elements of the previous adventures. If not for this one aspect, this adventure would probably the lowest point of the anthology.

And Madness Shall Rise To Devour The West, the fifth and last scenario starts with one of must Sanity devastating (and awesome) scenes for any RPG – the Investigator awaken amnesic in dead hanging bodies in Desperation, Arizona, 1887. This is the final showdown between the group and the Mythos forces seeking to summon Azathoth. The Investigators aren’t truly undead, just raised from the dead. However, for the next 24 hours (while their bodies regenerate) they have a few zombie-like advantages. A portion of this scenarios is consumed with the group tracking their personal lives (the last incarnation at least). The main goal is to discover the Mythos activity below town and to brave the “dungeon” on the mine tunnels below Desperation (by now this element becomes a little obvious as two scenarios already ended underground).  Like the previous adventure, And Madness Shall Rise To Devour The West has an open-ended structure. The twist here is not that the players must navigate their characters through a community driven on the brink of madness through cannibalism, but they must roleplay Investigator returned from the dead  – again a unique roleplay opportunity.

The Red Eye of Azathoth has new monsters, spells, artifacts and even new skills and rules (like Fanning, for the Wild West scenario). This anthology is different from anything I’ve read so far for Call of Cthulhu. It has a great pulp vibe to its attitude and style of game, with scenarios loaded with action and dark dramatic rituals. I believe it can be a good introduction for experienced players interested in playing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. I’m sure that even my dungeoneering players would enjoy this karmic roller-coaster.