Originally posted at http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/08/10/tabletop-review-the-uns
Wow, I can’t believe it’s been over a year since the last issue of The Unspeakable Oath came out! The last one came out in July of 2011 and then…nothing. I remember reviewing Issue #20 and really enjoyed it. Hell, it was even on tap to win our “Best Gaming Magazine” award in 2011. Then when it disappeared, we had to assume when the same way as similar publications like Starry Wisdom. Thankfully though it’s back and chock full of the same great content Unspeakable Oath fans are used to. Let’s take a look at what’s all in this issue, separate the good from the bad and cross our fingers that TUO will return to quarterly printing instead of yearly.
First up is “The Dread Page of Azathoth,” which is Shane Ivey’s opening column in every issue. This one is devoted to WHY there’s been such a gap between issues and it’s a worthwhile read. I know from my time in both tabletop and electronic gaming that fans tend to be unforgiving when there is a delay or the release date of a product is pushed back – even when there is a very good reason for it. Shane lists the personal reasons regarding what happened in the past year and I can utterly identify with him. For the past five months my pet has had a mystery disease and we’ve spent well over twelve grand on the poor little guy and it took going to a celebrity vet who has his own NPR program to diagnose the exceptionally rare disease he has. Shane had something similar hit him and then far more to boot, so it’s no wonder it took this long for TUO to come out. As a fellow Editor-in-Chief who has had a similar year, this article was eerily relatable (not something you ever want to say when you’re talking about a product geared toward eldritch insanities and alien monstrosities…). Best of all, Ivey manages to tie his personal story back to the world of CoC gaming, and that’s the real key here. Wonderful article.
“Saucer Attack 1928! The Dunwich ‘Horror’” is the first of several “Mysterious Manuscripts” in this issue to The Unspeakable Oath. It’s a very funny idea for a book that definitely is outside the box from the usual worn leather-bound and moth-eaten tomes we think of turning up in a Lovecraftian related story or game. Basically the book is by a nutty conspiracy theorist who discovers bits and pieces of the events in The Dunwich Horror and in his fragmented mind, puts them together as an alien cover-up by the government. I loved the idea of the book, even if I’m not sure I’d ever use it (I rarely play in or run modern era games of COC. Delta Green though…). Still this is exactly what COC needs after thirty-one years: things that stay true to the old conventions while giving them a new twist rather than relying on the clichéd trappings.
I have never liked The Eye of Light and Darkness section of The Unspeakable Oath and I’m sad to say I still don’t. It’s eight pages that could be used in so many better ways. For those that don’t know this section, it’s basically product reviews that aren’t necessarily Lovecraft related. The reviews are too short and not detailed enough for my liking (A typical review is a fifth of THIS review, if not less) and they tend to focus on products that have been out for a while. Since TUO is being read by diehard CoC fans, anyone who wants these books/supplements/etc have already picked them up. Why not use this space to do newer reviews. Things like the Cthulhu Invictus Companion or the new Mysteries of Ireland monograph. I’m sure Chaosium, Pelgrane Press, Goodman Games and other Cthulhu gaming publishers would happily give Arc Dream some advance review copies in exchange for honest well-written reviews. Nyarlathotep knows we get them here so you would think it would be all too possible for companies that print the stuff! I will say that The Poisoner’s Handbook review is the longest and most in-depth review I’ve seen in an issue of TUO, so that’s something positive I can say about this section. Still, I’d rather see those eight pages devoted to actually new Cthulhu based products rather than things released a year or more ago. Heck, those eight pages could have been used as previews of two upcoming CoC releases. Pagan Publishing’s Bumps in the Night and Arc Dream’s own The Sense of the Sleight of Hand Man. Just a thought about a wasted opportunity.
I’ll be honest. I dislike Trail of Cthulhu. Gumshoe has never impressed me as a system, the game is too hand-holding for my liking, the Stability piece is horribly implemented but worst of all tend to be the published adventures for it. Not only to they tend to be complete drek, but the authors tend to have little regard or understand of the various Mythos writers in general. Take The Repairer of Reputations for example. If we had given out a worst adventure award for 2011, Robin Laws’ horrible middle finger to Robert Chambers would have been our front runner and sadly, by ToC standards, there have actually been WORSE. I honestly doubted there would ever be a truly good Trail of Cthulhu adventure but with the publication of Sukakpak in this issue my mind has changed. Sure there are a few typos and many a Mythos writer would roll their eyes at the use of “fucking” as an adjective, but it’s still better than everything else for the system I’ve read. Hell, it actually managed to catch the dread and forbearance of encountering thing beyond human description and understanding. Better yet, the adventure gives ways to adapt it to other Cthulhu oriented systems (Not Cthulhutech though…duh.). It’s a wonderful adventure set in the mid 1970s with a simple premise and a very alien presence. SomeONE wants a road built through the wilderness near Sukapak Mountain. SomeTHING doesn’t. Guess who gets caught in the middle? That’s right – the PCs. Although I dislike Trail of Cthulhu, I’m glad to see The Unspeakable Oath getting some material for more than just Delta Green and Chaosium’s classic. Who knows? With more adventures like this, I may just change my mind about the system!
“Engines Underground” is another “Mysterious Manuscript” with a premise that sets it apart from the other grimoires you tend to encounter in a Lovecraft-oriented game. Much like The King in Yellow, “Engines Underground” is a novel rather than a non-fiction collection of tomes and insidious truths. It’s a pretty dull novel same for the fact the sub-plot between two characters changes depending on who reads it. It’s as if this book tailors itself to whoever is flipping through its pages. That’s the only unsettling thing about the book and apparently, even its own author is oblivious to this aspect of his creation. Man, there are so many ways to take just this kernel of a plot, I don’t even know where to begin. I really love this idea. So simple, yet so original at the same time.
” Ein Konto der Hexeraserei im Lindheim” is the third and final “Mysterious Manuscript” in this issue. It’s also the second Trail For Cthulhu article in here. It’s an odd little book that oddly enough is very similar to the Cthulhu Dark Ages adventure you can find in Mythic Iceland. That’s a very odd coincidence. It’s an interesting idea for a book but a little more by the numbers than the previous two in this collection with causes it to be overshadowed.
” Das Teufelherz” is the “Arcane Artifact” for the issue and it’s directly connected to the Ein Konto grimoire. In fact, it is the very object the book speaks of and it against is eerily similar to the DAC adventure in Mythic Iceland right down to the Norse Gods and the creepy heart bits. I called that adventure paint-by-numbers then and so I’d be remiss not to do so here as well. When two authors have very similar ideas for a similar system published at nearly the same time, it’s kind of a hint that not only is the idea not new, but probably done to death.
“The Mock Auction” is a short adventure seed by the author of the previous two articles. While those two were a bit humdrum, “The Mock Auction” is a beautifully done idea. It takes an actual real world scam and puts a POSSIBLE supernatural (albeit it not necessarily Mythos related one) twist on it. Any enterprising GM/DM/Keeper/Storyteller/whatever can turn this one page piece on getting conned in a faux auction into a full length memorable adventure for their gaming troupe. Lots of fun potential here.
” Unaussprechlichen Klutzen” is a weird choice for an article. It’s basically a Cthulhu-esque scenario for Fiasco. I’m torn. On one hand I’m glad to see an article that gives you a Cthulhu based adventure for a NON-Cthulhu oriented system but on the other, this isn’t really a Mythos based adventure and it works just as well with Robeasts from Voltron or some Kaiju. (“Oh No! Guiron! Where is Gamera? I want a Coke!). Because of that I’m a bit disappointed that six pages of this issue were given to this piece, even though I think Fiasco can be quite hilarious. There are so many other Lovecraft oriented systems that never get so much as a single article written about them in TUO, that it almost feels like a slap in the face to them to have this here instead. Also, “Unaussprechlichen Klutzen” is pretty much gibberish if you don’t already own Fiasco and know the rules by heart. Boo.
The next piece in this issue of The Unspeakable Oath is a full length Call of Cthulhu adventure entitled “The Man With a Thousand Faces.” The adventure takes up almost half of the magazine but oh my Azathoth, is it worth the cover price and then some. This adventure takes place in California and has the Investigators discovering just why one of the biggest starts of silent films has become a reclusive hermit at the peak of his career. What players will discover is a creepy little mystery that basically pits them against a Mythos version of Zartan from G.I. Joe. It sounds a bit silly when I put it that way, but the adventure is quite creepy, well written and is a great reminder of how things actually worked in Hollywoodland back in the day. There’s not much of a chance of PCs dying horribly or going permanently insane, but that’s okay because not every adventure has to be focused on that (nor should they). This is definitely I would like to try out with a group of players as it definitely lacks any of the major tropes that the system has developed (stopping cultists, unearthing some ancient evil artifact, keeping a monstrous God from awakening, etc) and yet still feels like it could easily fit into an issue of Weird Tales. This was just a wonderful adventure in all respects and again, it’s well worth your money to buy this issue of The Unspeakable Oath just for this adventure. The fact the vast majority of the issue is quality as well is just a bonus.
Every issue has a Delta Green column called “Directives From A-Cell and this time around, it talks about the Tradecraft skill. If you haven’t played Delta Green, you probably haven’t heard of this skill and even if you had, you might not have encountered it unless you own Countdown, which was out of print for a long time (now available on PDF though!). Basically the article just talks about how the skill works and how to use it in a game. Nothing fancy or elaborate; just reviving a somewhat long lost option.
The issue concludes with a short piece of fiction “She Had Everything,” which is a first person story about a serial killer running afoul of an even greater evil. It’s…okay. It’s nicely written. I just hate first person stories where the character dies horribly because I’m always like, “Then how did he write it?” What can I say? I’m a non-fiction writer/folklorist. I can suspend my disbelief for a giant winged cephalopod that lives under the sea, but not a vantage point for story’s sake.
All in all, it might have been thirteen months since our last foray into the pages of The Unspeakable Oath, but it was worth the wait. It’s not perfect, but what magazine is? There’s always a few articles that won’t appeal to readers and some that will be adored. I do feel Arc Dream missed a big chance to plug the hell out of their upcoming Dreamlands based campaign by Dennis Detwiller and Pagan’s Bumps in the Night as both are due out quite soon and this could have helped to create extra buzz for them. Ah well, I’ll be reviewing them myself shortly (BitN much sooner that Sleight of Had Man though) so look for those here at Diehard GameFAN in the next few weeks to months.
If you’re at all a fan of Call of Cthulhu and the many aspects of the RPG industry that have spun off because of Chaosium’s thirty-one year old system, definitely snag a copy of The Unspeakable Oath, Issue #21, either in print or in pdf format. You won’t be sorry for a second.