Originally Posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/09/16/review-cthulhu-britannica-shadows-over-scotland/
When I reviewed Cthulhu Britannica back in late August, I gave it a thumbs in the middle as I liked two adventures, disliked two and found one to be merely okay. In retrospect I think I was a bit hard on it, especially after wading through two horrible Cthulhu adventures since then. Both Open Design LLC’s Red Eye of Azathoth and Trail of Cthulhu: The Repairer of Reputations were not only some of the worst Cthulhu related adventures I’ve had to look at, but they were some of the worst published adventures out of any system EVER that I’ve had the misfortune of coming across. Now however I’m back with Cubicle 7 and their third Cthulhu Britannica release. Shadows over Scotland differs from the original Cthulhu Britannica in that it is a sourcebook for running a campaign in Scotland as opposed to simply being a collection of adventures. Now the book contains six scenarios in addition to the source book info, which means all you need is this and a Call of Cthulhu handbook and you’re ready to roll. So how does Shadows Over Scotland stack up? It’s time to find out.
The sourcebook part of Shadows Over Scotland is roughly 135 pages. It is divided into four sections: “An Introduction to 1920s Scotland,” “The Lowlands,” “The Highlands,” and finally, “The Islands.” I love that the book gives you maps of the area and even url links to highly detailed maps of the regions for Keepers who want to really go in-depth. It also gives you information on what living in Scotland during the 1920s would be like based on your occupation and class. There is a lot of talk about the Great War and life after it. With over one MILLION Scots dying or being injured in the war, it’s easy to paint the region as a place that is both hopeful and downright depressing during this era. The sourcebook is a wonderful source for actual Scottish history and lore, with some fictional Mythos bits thrown in to pepper things up. I loves reading about the history of Scotland during this time, even while it made me really sad to think of the squalor and poverty than ran rampart in the country. There are quotes from actual historical texts about the time period, which not only helps the whole thing to come alive, but also provides those with a non-fiction bent (such as myself) with titles to look for should they wish to learn more. You get slang, currency conversions, timelines and more. This is a Keeper’s dream come true right here.
As you might imagine, Shadows Over Scotland blends actual Scottish folklore with the Cthulhu Mythos throughout. The book touches on Skara Brae, the Loch Ness Monster, standing stones, Hadrian’s Wall and more. But then you’ll get something like a factoid about William of Orange feeding the MacDonald to a Shoggoth to remind you this is a RPG sourcebook after all. I have to admit seeing people like Lady Macbeath getting a Cthulhoid twist made my day. Each section gives a “Mythos Threat”breakdown for the region should you be inclined to create your own adventures. For example in “The Lowlands,” you get the Serpent People and Sawney Bean while in “The Highlands,” you’ll find Mi-Go and The Floating Horror of Glen Affric (my personal favorite beastie in the book). You’ll also get detailed information on specific Scottish cities to give you some ground work for when your players travel there.
Then there are the six adventures. First up is “Death and Horror Incorporated.” This first adventure is a murder mystery that takes place in Glasgow. What I really like about this adventure is that it is open ended instead of divided into scenes set in a linear fashion like most published adventures for RPGs tend to be these days. There are a lot of red herrings and it tests the mental mettle of the Investigators. Those are my favorite adventures to run, regardless of systems so I was quite pleased with this. My favorite part of this particular adventure is pretty much for Keeper eyes only, but I loved the frank look at the trials and tribulations of a ghoul society. The players will be working for the Lord Provost in an attempt to solve a plethora or connected murders which they will inevitably find linked to the aforementioned ghouls along with some unexpected human allies. This is a great adventure to introduce players to a Scottish campaign but also as an introduction to Call of Cthulhu itself as there won’t be any Great Old Ones to deal with. There’s also room for the Keeper to play the ghouls as good or evil, depending on how they want to interpret the story and the end ghoul they are searching for. When I did this adventure, I ran the ghouls more as a metaphor for the suffering and poverty the Scots were going through during this time period and that the Ghouls turned to murder and theft due to starvation, just like humans are wont to do when in dire straits. This threw the Players for a loop as it put them in an ethical/moral discussion more than once, making for great roleplaying. A really great adventure and well worth experiencing.
The second adventure is, “The Hand of Abyzou,” and it takes players to the city of Edinburgh. This adventure involves a friend of the investigators being committed to an insane asylum and an encounter with the serpent people. Like the previous adventure, there is a lot of detective work and critical thinking involved. Unlike the previous one, there’s no way you can shape the antagonists into something remotely sympathetic. The serpent people do want to subjugate humanity to their rule after all. The hook here is on how you play the friend of the players who has been deemed mad. If you play him too straight, the entire adventure is solved by an NPC and the players don’t do much of anything. If you play him like a gibbering lunatic, there won’t be enough of a hook to begin investigations. So the opening moments of how you present the adventure determine how much the Investigators will have to work for their success. Of course, by success I mean, “figure out what is happening.” Even when they do that, they still have to deal with an entire cult of zealous humans, a horde of serpent people and prevent both groups from awakening “the sleepers,” which are basically a vast quantity of serpent people in suspended animation. The downside to this adventure is the sheer amount of combat in it, which Call of Cthulhu characters simply aren’t built for. Because of the number of serpent people and the sheer power of the mages (they know EVERY spell in CoC!), it’s all but impossible for a party to triumph here unless the Keeper fudges some die rolls or the characters are Call of Cthulhu veterans with a lot of magic (and thus little sanity) behind them. A bad keeper will let this adventure devolve into a dungeon crawl full of hack and slash while a good one while make it a mix of survival horror and stealth.
The third adventure is “Uisge Beatha ,” or, “The Water of Life.” Unlike the previous adventures which took place in large cities, this one occurs in a rural area in the northeast of Scotland. Here players will get to investigate a spooky old castle and encounter an entire town that will remind diehard Mythos fans of Innsmouth in more ways than one. I had a few problems with this adventure if only because of the potential of too many monsters. In this case, it’s the fact an underwater city of 50,000+ (You read that number correctly) Deep Ones is only five miles from the town where this scenario takes place. The key to a quality CoC adventure is not to overwhelm the Investigators with Mythos creatures lest they become mundane. Obviously, that isn’t happening here. There’s also several problems with the adventure as a whole such as whiskey tainted with water that turn people and/or their offspring into Deep Ones (many reasons why this wouldn’t work and was found to be far-fetched, even in a RPG. ) The problem here basically comes down to the fact that the Deep Ones are basically treated like supervillains out of a Marvel or DC comic book here and things lack the subtlety of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” This requires the Investigators to be played as superheroes thwarting a huge conspiracy, and with the CoC system and general characters, that’s all but impossible to do unless you’ve been running a Cthulhu version of a Monty Haul campaign. It’s also written is such a way that it feels like the writers tried to create an adventure where the players are set up to lose from the get-go. This adventure is a little too over the top and grandiose for me to recommend and due to the sheer number of Mythos creatures in it, I can’t see it being very much fun for players.
The fourth adventure in Shadows Over Scotland is “Heed the Kraken’s Call” and we get the token “Loch Ness” adventure with this one. Because of the location, players will probably jump to conclusions from the second they learn where this takes places. That’s actually a good thing as the adventure throws in a few red herrings and you never get an actual answer as to whether there IS a Loch Ness Monster – at least in the way we tend to think of one. Instead you’re getting a murder mystery, an encounter with the undead, the Scottish equivalent of hermitic hillbillies and a Great Old One. I won’t spoil anything further, but the particular Great Old One that shows up in this adventure is my second favorite one (Nyogtha is my #1). It’s rarely used and I have a soft spot for it, so I broke out in a big smile to see it here.
Like all Cubicle 7 penned COC adventures, there are a lot more Mythos creatures that your Investigators will have to deal with than normal, so make sure this is an adventurer your players have the experience to deal with. The good news is there are far less than in the previous four scenarios and they are far easier to deal with. The adventure is very loosely constructed, so a lot of it is left up to the Keeper in terms of the order of events and how the Investigators proceed. The adventure still gives you plenty of handouts, points of interests and story pieces, so there’s enough structure to keep things flowing while enough room for a Keeper to make this scenario his or her own. The adventure does end with a pretty large combat scene. Again, this is typical for a Cubicle 7 CoC scenario, but it might be jarring to both keepers and players who aren’t used to Call of Cthulhu being combat heavy.
The fifth adventure, “The Forbidden Isle” takes place on The Isle of Rum, so expect a lot of jokes about the location’s name. It’s a short adventure compared to the previous four, but it’s a neat location and it’s very fast paced. This adventure feels more like a thriller than all of the other adventures. On the Isle of Rum, a set of sinister disappearances has occurred and as the Investigators will discover, this isn’t the first time such an event has happened there. It’s up to them to stop the disappearances before they are next. The adventure features a lot of Mythos tomes. The cause of the disappearances was very creative and really makes “The Forbidden Isle” the spookiest adventure in the collection. If your players are Call of Cthulhu traditionalists, this will be the one they like best.
Now we come to the final adventure in the collection – “Star Seed.” This is another short adventure and one the book states is geared for novice Call of Cthulhu players. Folklore and history buffs will be excited to see Skara Brae. Miskatonic University will be referenced for the first time in the book as the players assist a professor from there named John McNamara who needs their help to protect the Island of Orkney from the Colours Out of Space. Again, this is a little more Dungeons & Dragons or action oriented than Call of Cthulhu tends to be, as well as pretty in your face with taking on a Mythos creature, but it’s also an introduction to the system for newcomers, so it needs to highlight combat mechanics along with the detective work. It even features a trip to the Dreamlands. The end result is a fun little adventure that gives newcomers a taste of everything Call of Cthulhu has to offer.
Across the board, Cthulhu Britannica: Shadows over Scotland is a wonderful addition to any Call of Cthulhu collection. For twenty dollars, you get an incredible detailed sourcebook and six adventures . About the only criticism I can levy at this piece are that the adventures are a little too prolific with Mythos creatures which can sometimes lead to the feeling of being too combat oriented for a Call of Cthulhu piece. Still, a good Keeper/GM knows how to balance these things and I’d happily recommend all but “Uisge Beatha” to people who want to try and run a campaign in Scotland. Again, the sourcebook itself is of the highest quality. Even if there weren’t any adventures to go along with it, it would be still be a great purchase. With the inclusion of half a dozen adventures, this is a wonderful deal that few Call of Cthulhu fans should pass up. Truly, each Cthulhu Britannica piece is better than the last.