Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/04/15/tabletop-review-tales-of-the-sleepless-city-call-of-cthulhu/
Tales of the Sleepless City is the newest release from Miskatonic River Press, a small company that does products for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game line. While I’ve yet to be WOWED by any of their releases, I’ve likewise found little to criticize or complain about. Basically, MRP products tend to be enjoyable but not memorable. So I was more than happy to review Tales of the Sleepless City when a copy was offered to me. It took me a long time to wade through it though. Partly because the last three weeks have been insane for me personal life-wise, but also because the adventures in this releases simply didn’t grab my attention. They weren’t bad by any means; I just didn’t find them all that interesting my first time through. Now that things have calmed down and I’ve had a chance to go through each adventure again, I find I rather enjoy some of them.
Tales of the Sleepless City is a collection of six adventures taking place in New York City in the 1920s. I’m always surprised how few adventures for Call of Cthulhu are set in either New York State OR the Big Apple. I mean, it’s one of the few places “I am Providence” himself deemed to live in during his life (although his wife was mostly responsible for that). He even wrote three stories, like Cool Air, about New York City. I mean, we’ve had Secrets of New York for a while, but compared to other locations, NYC has always seemed disproportionately small compared to other locations. Well, for those wanting to visit the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Yonkers and the like with your 1920s era Investigators, here are six more chances for you.
One interesting note is that unlike most published Call of Cthulhu adventures, which tend to assume you are, or at least can be played by, starting characters, the six adventures in Tales of the Sleepless City are all for experienced characters with a decent amount of the Cthulhu Mythos skill picked up along their madcap insanity inducing adventures. This is all well and good, but these adventures are all written in such a way that new characters, blind to the reality of the Great Old Ones and their ilk, are almost guaranteed to stumble horribly before dying in these things. Because most CoC players tend to do one-shots or only a few adventures with characters, it really does feel like the only characters capable of truly surviving these adventures are those that have had Monty Haul style campaigns, where they have picked up many a spell and forbidden time. This is a bit disappointing, as these adventurers are thus only playable by a fraction of the Call of Cthulhu audience, but at least there is something for those who do like to power game or who have managed to have their PCs survive a crapload of eldritch horror.
I should give one quick head’s up before we go into each adventure. Although Tales of the Sleepless City is 164 pages long, only 75% is actually content. Roughly 8% of the book is comprised of ads for other products, and the other 17% are reprints of the maps and handouts that can already be found in each adventure’s specific section. While I like having all the touchy feely pieces in one spot, I do think it’s a waste of paper, space and money to do the handouts twice. They really should have just had them all in the back for easy photocopying. By jettisoning the ads and duplicates of the handout, this book would be a fourth smaller and noticeably cheaper. Now, with all that in mind, the handouts are terrific and easily amongst some of the best I’ve ever seen released for a Call of Cthulhu collection. This isn’t too much of a shocker when you realize they were all put together by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, providers of all sorts of wonderful Cthulhuoid products including some great movies. Miskatonic River Press really set the bar high here for the physical portions of these adventures, and it’s a shame more companies don’t do this for their players.
First up is “To Awaken What Never Sleeps” and it’s a fun adventure, branching off of Lovecraft’s tale “He,” as both feature the wizard Morgan Atherton. This adventure also reminds me of an old issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman that was about a living, breathing, dreaming city. In the case of this adventure, the city isn’t so much alive, but a focal point of magic, and one young native of the Big Apple seems to become the living avatar of it, transforming New York City into the city he feels it should be – one that fits his own personal aesthetics. Of course, using magic that not only transforms an entire city, but a person into a living piece of the city, takes a lot of power, and there are bound to be some casualties and craziness along the way. This is where the Investigators come in. From a strange subway disaster to an onslaught by a living wall, players will find their Investigators besieged by things even the most hardened harrower wouldn’t expect. There are truly some memorable moments in the adventure, although I do feel the final battle with the antagonist of this piece is poorly designed and really should have had a few more outs for players. Still, it’s a piece your players won’t soon forget. 1 for 1.
The second adventure is “The Terror From the Museum” and this is probably my favorite piece. Of course, I’ve been saying for years that both Call of Cthulhu and Shadowrun have needed more Mummy based adventures, but those pleas appeared to have fallen on deaf ears – at least until now. “The Terror From The Museum” feels like a mash up of Call of Cthulhu and the Universal Mummy films. It has all the celluloid clichés of a Mummy’s Curse, dying archeologists and an ancient undead seeking to RULE THE WORLD. However, the adventure is written in such a way that the Mummy and his exploits are far more Cthulhuoid than Imhotep. For example, the Mummy’s Curse takes the form of an invisible interdimensional crocodile slowly devouring the intended victim of said curse, usually in an extremely gory and dramatic fashion. Minmose is no Boris Karloff, I’ll give you that.
The Investigators are brought into play by some sort of connection between them and one of the Mummy’s cursed victims. They get to see firsthand the horror of the Curse of Sebek (Mimose’s God) and from there, they are drawn into more and more encounters with the Minmose’s ever expanding cult of worshippers. One of the truly fun things about the adventure is that Minmose can die, and probably will quite regularly, in the adventure. However, each time he dies, he comes back with more magic and a stronger body. So it’s like South Park‘s Kenny, but more horrific. Minmose will probably toy with the Investigators for a while before trying to finally murder them, so it’s up to the PCs to figure out how you keep Minmose down for the count. After all, how do you defeat something where death only makes it stronger?
Much like the previous adventure, my big problem with “Terror From the Museum” is that the ending is exceptionally anticlimactic, and I wish it had been better planned out. There’s only one way to “win” the adventure, and it’s with a poorly defined Macguffin that will leave most players disappointed because it feels slapped together, especially when compared to the roller coaster the rest of the adventure is. Don’t get me wrong, I still really liked “The Terror From the Museum,” but while Tales From the Sleepless City is now two for two quality wise, it’s also zero for two in terms of ending the adventures in a well-written, satisfactory manner. A good Keeper will probably be doing a lot of rewriting of the end of these. 2 for 2.
Adventure number three is “The Fisher of Men,” which would be fine if Hebanon Games hadn’t done Bryson Springs last June. While having very little in common, the name of this adventure made it hard for me not to compare it to Bryson Springs (you’d have to read/play it to get why) and this is one of the adventures I had to read a second time just to separate the two. On my first readthrough, I found this to be dull and tedious. On my second, I liked it a little better, but not enough to recommend it. It’s definitely the weakest in the entire collection.
“The Fisher of Men” puts players deep in the heart of Harlem, caught in the middle of several religious groups, each of which are being manipulated by a sinister man known only as Mister Young. The Investigators, which are more than likely white, due to the era and its trappings, are immersed in a culture not quite their own, filled with folk magic, African folklore, Haitian juju and the massive gulf between the Christian side of Harlem and the side that still clings to the old ways from the Dark Continent. I liked the concept of the adventure well enough, along with how it presented the multifaceted side of 1920s Black America rather than the terrible stereotypes actually portrayed to the US at large via radio and writing. However, the adventure tries to do too much, and things just seem to be lamely thrown together instead of making a truly cohesive story. It’s also a very linear, hand holding experience, where I feel players are just along for the ride instead of actually affecting how things will flow. Once again, I do feel the ending of this adventure is a bit terrible, as a Great Old One is actually summoned into Harlem and the ways to stop it are more than a little stupid. Nope, this adventure just isn’t for me. 2 for 3.
“The Tenement” is the fourth adventure in this collection and, while not my favorite, it’s probably the best overall adventure of the set. It’s so outside the box of what you tend to expect from a Call of Cthulhu adventure that I loved it despite the true nature of the antagonist. I’ve always found Shoggoth Lords to be a truly terrible concept, as it’s a bit insipid when you think about it, but it’s actually done really well here, both in practice and as a metaphor for the way New York City ate its poor and destitute during the 20s (one could make a case that this is still going on today). I’m not sure in the metaphor was intentional or it’s the folklorist in me looking for something that isn’t actually there, but who cares, right? I loved it.
This adventure is the only one in the set that really works well with new and experienced Investigators alike, as there is very little need for spells or knowledge of things that go Tekeli-li in the night. In “The Tenement,” players will be working for one Theodore Caldwell the Second, a lawyer who attempts to aid the poor and downtrodden. His current target is a slum lord by the name of Mr. Grey. Their job is to photograph and document numerous issues with one of his apartment complexes, along with getting as many written testimonies from the residents as possible. Doesn’t sound like the usual CoC adventure where players are in a library looking for some ancient forgotten grimoire, right?
Unfortunately, the adventure is easier said than done, as each apartment contains residents who are under the thumb of Mr. Grey for various reasons, not to mention the man has thugs and high powered officials under his thumb. Add in a crazed sorcerer under his control, and the players will have to go the extra mile to save the residents of the Buckley Arms from the squalid hellhole in which they reside. With a ton of residents for players to meet and aid, the adventure can not only go in a myriad of different ways, but a good Keeper can stretch this out over multiple play sessions as the Investigators get to know the residents of Buckley Arms, as well as Mr. Grey and his allies. This is the first adventure in the collection with a climax and/or final battle I actually enjoyed, and it should both shock and delight players when it occurs. This is definitely an adventure I’d love to see a real play podcast of, as I think it would be as much fun to listen to as it would be to read or experience firsthand. 3 for 4.
Our penultimate adventure in this collection is “A Night at the Opera,” and it’s another one I simply didn’t care for. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the Shan are just being way overdone in published adventures as of late. Not only were they the core antagonist in Chaosium’s recent Terror From the Skies campaign, but they also appeared in an adventure for Atomic Age Cthulhu earlier this year that happened to have a very similar plot to “A Night at the Opera.” Sure the location and time period are different, but both revolve around a performance of Massa Di Requiem Per Shuggay, Shan possession and players having to stop the performance of the opera from being finished lest horror be unleashed upon the world. Atomic Age Cthulhu‘s version of these events are far superior to the ones in this collection, but honestly, are we really that out of ideas that we keep coming back to this one opera? I’ve honestly lost count how many published adventures use it as a plot point. It’s to the point where the Shan are getting up there with “Investigators stop stupid cultists from something something dark and horrific” as a tired cliché that Call of Cthulhu desperately needs to avoid. A straight up thumb’s down to this incredibly dull adventure that offers little to nothing new on the same old worn out theme. 3 for 5.
The final adventure in Tales of the Sleepless City is “Ertong He KuqiI De Muqin,” which translates into “The Child and the Weeping Mother,” although I’m not sure which version of Chinese that is supposed to be. In Cantonese the word is “jai” and in Mandarin it is “xiǎo hái,” but then the only Chinese I know enough to get by in is Mandarin, and I’m nowhere as skilled in that as I am in French or Japanese. Anyway, this adventure brings Madame Yi back to the forefront. I thought this was strange, as you rarely see this avatar of Yidhra used, but less than two months ago The Unspeakable Oath did an article on her, and now she’s the main Mythos creature in this adventure too! All by different authors no less. Coincidence or a resurgence? YOU DECIDE!
This final adventure puts players in a less occult role than the previous ones in this collection. Much like in “The Tenement,” Investigators are helping to solve a far more mundane problem – that of a kidnapping. Well, it seems mundane at first anyway. Then players discover that earthly answers have gotten a family member of the victim nowhere, and so, in her grief, she is manipulated into unleashing Madame Yi onto the party responsible for the kidnapping. Aside from this one Mythos piece though, the adventure really is a straightforward detective piece that feels like a breath of fresh air. Players have to track down not only who kidnapped young Ms. Yan, but also why. It turns out they have a decent reason for the kidnapping (in their eyes anyway) and that Ms. Yan’s parents are both hiding their own misdeeds surrounding the events. The Investigators also have to deal with the four Tongs (main gangs) of Chinatown, seeking the truth while neither offending them nor incurring their wraith. “Ertong He KuqiI De Muqin” contains a wonderful cast of characters, and the adventure in beautifully written. Depending on the actions of the Investigators, they might never encounter Madame Yi, or they might accidentally unleash wholesale slaughter against one of the Tongs. I love that, unlike the other adventures in this collection, “Ertong He KuqiI De Muqin,” pretty much plans for all possible outcomes and helps the Keeper track the ensuing chaos and ways the plot can dramatically change due to the actions of the PCs. Great job all around here. 4 for 6.
All in all, Tales of the Sleepless City isn’t a bad investment. Two-thirds of the adventures are quality affairs that most Keepers and their friends will have fun experiencing. While it’s not the best collection of adventures ever produced, it does a nice job with the theme of an all NYC affair, and it was a fun stop gap between Atomic Age Cthulhu and the forthcoming House of R’yleh. While Tales of the Sleepless City wouldn’t be first on the tip of my tongue in terms of recommendation, it fills two niches – one for NYC based adventures and one for adventures designed for very experienced Investigators. If either of those feel like something you need for your gaming troupe, then by all means, consider picking up this release from Miskatonic River Press.