Friday, April 30, 2010

H.P. Lovecraft's Dunwich: Return to the Forgotten Village [Cthulhu Review]

The following is a review of H.P. Lovecraft's Dunwich, a sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. I've submitted a full review to an RPG website, but here's an edited, mostly non-spoilerly review since I know some of my players read this blog.

Chaosium’s 2007 edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich (subtitled Return to the Forgotten Village) is quite an impressive role-playing supplement. The sourcebook provides a detailed overview of Dunwich, the small Massachusetts village which served as the setting for Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. Both the story and this sourcebook expertly portray an isolated, rural village that hasn’t changed much in recent decades and whose inhabitants have dark secrets and aren’t particularly fond of strangers. Dunwich is very much a place where urban investigators wouldn’t want to visit and certainly wouldn’t want to live.

The sourcebook is 189 pages and divided into eight broad sections. Artwork is black and white, but very evocative of the decayed and forgotten village. The book has several maps of Dunwich and the surrounding area, and includes a large pull-out map which can be used by Investigators to track their progress. Both traditional and d20 statistics are provided for every NPC and skill challenge.

The first section of the book places Dunwich in context by detailing the geography around the village with helpful capsule summaries of nearby towns and cities.

The following section is a reprint of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. Investigators and Keepers alike are invited to read the story before playing, as the sourcebook is “set” several months after the events in that story and some of the adventure hooks relate to it. Unless the Keeper wants to re-create Lovecraft’s story, he or she doesn’t have to worry about Investigators being spoiled by it.

Welcome to Dunwich is a broad overview of the village and one of the most important sections for the Keeper. It briefly discusses major NPCs, climate, getting to the village, getting around the village (cars are likely to break down on poorly-maintained unpaved roads), staying in the village (no inns, but some residents have room for boarders), and the characteristics of a sample farm and farmer. A chronology of major events in the village is provided, but for some reason stops at 1898. Finally, a “Village Directory” lists the name and map location for every single resident of the village (over 300).

The Secrets of Dunwich provides a building-by-building summary of the village proper, including the general store, cemetery, meeting house, and more. Each resident of the village is described with at least a single line, but often one or more paragraphs. Sometimes these descriptions serve only as an aid to role-playing, but other times it includes potential story hooks for the Keeper. Some of the write-ups of more important NPCs include small drawings, which would certainly be worth showing to the players.

Next up is the lengthiest section of the book, a detailed description of the various hills, mountains, swamps, and farms around Dunwich. As with the village proper, every single resident is given a name, a notation on the map, and a brief description. After reading this, one quickly gets the sense that adventures in Dunwich can involve far more than just the village itself.

The book includes two “adventures” which aren’t scenarios in the traditional sense. The first one, “Return to Dunwich”, takes place in Arkham and is designed to give the Investigators a reason to travel to Dunwich and look into the various secrets it holds. Although it includes several handouts to put them on the right track, it doesn’t otherwise contain any encounters or detailed discussion of what happens once the characters arrive. As an adventure hook, “Return to Dunwich” really only works if the PCs are dedicated or professional investigators—otherwise, no reason is given why they would sacrifice time and money to travel to a dinky little village to unearth dark secrets (unless they’ve developed a strong relationship with Dr. Armitage through previous adventures in Arkham). The second adventure, “Earth, Sky, Soul” properly describes itself as an “incident” and is easy to place in the middle of a session if things start to get slow (I’d guess it wouldn’t take more than an hour or so to resolve). It’s a very dark, but effective portrayal of madness that might help hapless Investigators stumble upon one of the secrets of Dunwich.

Last up are four appendices: NPC statistics if the Keeper wants to run the original The Dunwich Horror; legends and rumors that NPCs might share with Investigators; d20 system conversions; player handouts from the “Return to Dunwich” adventure. The handouts are serviceable insofar as they contain a lot of information, but for the most part they’re not attractively or “authentically” portrayed—a Keeper could have a lot of fun making them into more interesting props.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an RPG supplement like H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich before, in which every single resident (hundreds of them) and building (dozens of them) are described and placed on the map. In this respect, Dunwich would make a great setting for adventure as the NPCs are already detailed and there’s plenty of little incidents that can happen simply by Investigators stumbling around and knocking on doors. On the other hand, this is very much a background book and the Keeper still has a lot of work to do to integrate these various NPCs into larger stories and plot-related encounters. Even with all the attention to detail, it’s hard to imagine Dunwich becoming the “home base” of investigators because there’s simply not a lot there to convince them to stay: no work (other than farming), no electricity, no business or amenities except a single run-down general store. The sense I get from reading the book is that the Keeper will have to work very hard to provide a very good reason if he or she wants the PCs to remain in Dunwich for any length of time.

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