Publisher: Stygian Fox Publishing
Authors: Jeff Moeller, Brian M. Sammons, Simon Brake, Oscar Rios, and Scott Dorward
Artists: Davide Como and Stephanie McAlea
Players: It’s an RPG supplement, so two or more
Ages: 17+ (Just my opinion but read the review for details)
Playing Time: Ongoing
Genre: Modern day Call of Cthulhu scenario anthology
Retail Price: PDF $19.99; Print on demand softcover $39.99 (includes PDF); Print on demand hardcover $49.99 (Includes PDF) – at DriveThruRPG
Longtime visitors to TGG already know not only is Call of Cthulhu my favorite RPG but I also happen to always be on the lookout for any interesting Lovecraftian releases, regardless if they happen to arrive by way of Chaosium or not. Recently, an adventure anthology released this past Fall piqued my interest. In all honesty though, I have to say I hemmed and hawed about picking it up. The book in question was The Things We Leave Behind from Stygian Fox Publishing.
While The Things We Leave Behind (which I’ll mainly refer to as Things from here out) looked mighty interesting there were four concerns holding me back from checking it out:
A) I wasn’t familiar with anything previously released by the company. The only items I’d stumbled across online from Stygian Fox were their Cartomancy series of maps and deck plans as well as a couple of free fanzines dedicated to Pendragon and Traveller 2300AD. Obviously, we’ve always been friendly to new companies (or those looking to branch off into uncharted territory) here at The Gaming Gang but sometimes I can be a bit leery as to the quality of what we may see.
B) Things is a Cthulhu Now release, which means the adventures are set in today’s world. I happen to be the sort of GM who sticks with the “classic” Mythos setting of the 1920s-1930s. Personally, I feel my games in a pre-Depression through eve of WWII era promotes more role playing; watching people play in modern game settings, they always come across more so than not as taking on a Mary Sue/Marty Stu approach regardless of the sort of character created. Plus, I haven’t run across many modern adventures that feel …well …modern. That doesn’t help. Everyday trappings such as computers, the internet, mobile devices, what have you usually have a tacked on quality in modern adventures I’ve encountered over the years.
C) I’m not the sort of reviewer who comes across something interesting online and then shoots off an email looking for a freebie. I’ve never used that approach either online or at conventions as I prefer companies to ask me to review something rather than walking up (or emailing out) something along the lines of, “Hey. You don’t know me or my website from Adam but why don’t you hand over this product you’ve worked awfully hard on with no guarantee that you’ll ever hear from me again?” Nope. Not my style. So I knew if I wanted to give Things a read I’d have to pony up for it. You might laugh but, since TGG operates on a budget which makes a shoestring look like an extension bridge cable, using $19.99 of built up DriveThru credit to purchase a single PDF is sort of a big deal around here… I’m not kidding when I mention clicking on our DriveThru links really does help as far as getting more RPG reviews in front of you, but I digress…
D) Last, and surprisingly most important, was the fact Things is clearly labeled as written for mature gamers. By now visitors know I’ve been gaming since the mid-1970s so you can easily define me as someone in that “mature gamer” audience (or at least I hope I am) but when a product carries a tag like that I have to pause and step back for a second. I’m certainly not here to tell people what they should play, or how they should derive pleasure from their RPGs, but games with gratuitous sexual elements just aren’t my bag of tricks – regardless of how many wisecracks I made about tentacle porn on the old podcast. This isn’t to say the sell sheet for Things led me to believe the book was in any way smutty, trashy, or even inappropriate but – as mentioned previously – this was being released by a company I wasn’t familiar with at all so ya just never know.
At this point I’m sure many readers are thinking, “What’s with all the personal revelations, Jeff? I thought this was a review. Isn’t this article tagged as a review? Can we please get to the review already?” Well, dear reader, there is a point to my ramblings. You see, if I was a bit gun shy about pulling the trigger on The Things We Leave Behind for the reasons discussed above, it’s also likely plenty of other people who have interest in the book haven’t checked it out because they have the very same concerns. Yet, this is a review so you know I went ahead and purchased the book.
Boy howdy, I am so glad I did!
I’m going to keep what follows spoiler free since my take on RPG reviews is the same as that for books and movies. What would be the point of watching or reading something if you’ve already heard everything about it? There’s surely no magic of discovery in that!
The Things We Leave Behind includes six meaty and self contained adventures firmly set in today’s world. You’ll encounter tales involving a child abduction, a church run haunted house, a teen girl who disappears during a camping trip, and more. There’s even a scenario loosely based on a classic episode of …wait for it …Kolchak: The Night Starker!
Here’s a breakdown of the adventures with a bit of the hook for each:
Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home – A little girl is abducted from a big box store in broad daylight. Even more concerning is that the child requires a steady supply of life sustaining medication and said medication has been left behind in her ladybug backpack. Can the investigators learn the reason behind the abduction and find the girl before time runs out?
Forget Me Not – The investigators awaken to find themselves bruised and battered in a near-overturned van along a highway. There are problems aplenty, least of which is each person has no idea who they are or who the other occupants happen to be either. What in the hell happened?
Roots – The investigators are called in by the adoptive mother of a teen girl who has disappeared during a camping trip. Is this a kidnapping? Has the girl simply wandered off? Where can she be?
Hell in Texas – An evangelical church is preparing their annual fire and brimstone/wages of sin haunted house when one of the volunteers commits suicide. Certainly a tragedy but something just smacks of a cover up. Was it really a suicide, as the authorities claim, or cold blooded murder? The investigators are tasked to learn the truth.
The Night Season – The investigators are brought in to explore a cold case (no pun intended) in Anchorage, Alaska. Is it possible a young man’s death thirteen years ago wasn’t a suicide? If the forensic conclusions are true, what drove Robert Horn to take his own life?
Intimate Encounters – Users of a website devoted to *ahem* “casual encounters” are turning up dead across the city. Could this be the work of a fledgling serial killer? If so, how is it the murderer leaves the victims’ bodies in such a mysteriously horrific condition? The investigators are on the case!
Now that I’ve laid out the scenarios, I can say all of them are varied and interesting and worthy of delving into; there’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than finding a collection of stand alone adventures which play off the exact same beat. An underlying theme throughout is fine but lazy rehashing doesn’t fly with me. Thankfully, the tales in Things all march to their own drummers.
While I found all of the adventures to be well written and certainly deserving of making their way to your gaming table, as each provides a myriad of difficult choices for the investigators, I can’t say all six are exceptionally strong. I believe Ladybug, Forget Me Not, Hell in Texas, and Intimate Encounters range between especially good and outstanding. Roots and The Night Season are quite a bit weaker in my opinion with Night Season engaging my imagination the least. I don’t want you to think those two scenarios are bad but they just didn’t grab me like the others. I chalk this up more to do with my personal taste in the type of stories I like to tell around the game table than anything else.
I also enjoyed the variety of options available to the Keeper as far as wrapping up some of the adventures depending on the style of game they prefer. There are the cut and dry, win or lose conclusions we expect but there are also a few which can drive home a sense the universe truly is a rather uncaring and nihilistic place indeed. Lovecraft would be proud! I’ve always been known for never revealing anything about an adventure or campaign which the players didn’t discover for themselves. Even once we’d finish, my lips would stay sealed on the subject. I always believed this was more in tune with the Mythos stories; Lovecraft’s protagonists never have all the answers so why should my players? I’m happy to see Things allows for that approach as well.
On a quick side note, I should mention something I found strange while reading the adventures. As I previously noted, one of the tales is inspired by an episode of the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The author clearly points this out and talks about it more than once. Yet, another adventure is almost certainly a riff on a famous Bill Mumy Twilight Zone episode but no mention is ever made of the show. Funny enough there’s less lifted from Kolchak in the one adventure than from The Twilight Zone in the other. Maybe I’m just a very bad man but I think if you create a scenario which is obviously inspired by a television episode you should toss out a bit of credit; even if only to point the Keeper toward watching the episode in order to provide the right vibe for the players.
The book itself (or at least the PDF) is well laid out and clearly presented for the Keeper. I didn’t find any obvious hanging plot threads nor stunningly bizarre jumps in logic as each adventure plays out as you read. I also have to say Stygian Fox has done a fine job with the graphical side of the book as the creators aimed for a modern, if somewhat gritty, look to the artwork. Or, as mentioned in the book’s introduction, they wanted you to visualize more “Tales From The Darkside and Night Gallery, less Supernatural.” I also have to commend the layout artist for abandoning what I like to call the “Chaosium font” with Things. If you’ve read any number of CofC books you know exactly that of which I speak. This isn’t to say that I don’t feel waves of nostalgia when I run across that Chaosium style but, let’s be honest, it really has run its course after thirty plus years. I was glad to see it retired in the 7th edition.
I was also pleasantly surprised the adventures contained within Things are firmly entrenched in the today’s world. I’d say they’re thoroughly modern, Milly! *grin* While it’s possible a clever Keeper could tweak Forget Me Not and Roots to a 1920s setting without losing much, I think it would nigh impossible to convert the other four tales to another time period. I can’t claim to have read all the “modern” CofC adventures over the years but I can definitely say Things is the first collection which makes me want to run some games set in the 21st century! It isn’t just technology that’s so completely intertwined throughout the tales but also the inclusions of current mindsets, social mores, and even modern human frailties that make this series of scenarios stand out.
Lastly, I’ll tackle the mature nature of Things. I know a good many readers will find something which runs the gambit from a touch unsettling (at best) to completely offensive (at worst) within the one hundred and thirty eight pages. Though don’t forget the nature of horror is to push the envelope after all. Human beings are capable of inflicting terrible mental and physical harm upon one another and you aren’t going to encounter anything in Things which couldn’t have been culled from the front page of today’s local newspaper or opening minutes of the latest episode of 48 Hours. Thankfully, much of the horrific goings on in the six adventures in the anthology can be attributed to supernatural forces rather than man’s inhumanity to man.
I believe most Keepers and players currently taking part in ongoing games of Call of Cthulhu can handle the mature aspects of Things. CofC tends to draw a bit older crowd in the first place and, seeing we’re talking about a horror game, folks who are into it tend to have a bit thicker skin too. Younger and more sensitive types should avoid the book since there are gruesome murders, kids in danger, references to drug and alcohol abuse, the revelation people have (and have a need for) sex, and other instances which could be tricky for some around the gaming table. I must say all of this is treated respectfully by the authors and in the context of presenting horror stories, which have one foot firmly planted in the real world. It’s important to note the Keeper is never obligated to include any elements of the stories which may cross a line and make anyone at the table uncomfortable.
I found Things to be a real stand out, especially when you consider this is the first time Stygian Fox has stepped up to the plate as far as a CofC anthology. As someone who never runs modern Mythos games, it’s high praise indeed to say I’m chomping at the bit to run some of these tales. Granted, two of the adventures didn’t exactly grab hold of me – and the release is truly geared toward gamers who can handle mature subject matter – but as a whole this is a top notch book. When it’s all said and done, I think The Things We Leave Behind will make an excellent addition to nearly every Keeper’s collection and is certainly one of the best releases for Call of Cthulhu over the past couple of years.