SPOILER ALERT! This review contains very mild spoilers from the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying campaign Masks of Nyarlathotep.
Review by Martin
First published in 1984, Masks of Nyarlathotep is one of the most famous and highly regarded roleplaying campaigns of all time. For generations of players and Keepers of Call of Cthulhu, running the complete Masks of Nyarlathotep is something akin to a rite of passage. This new 5th edition brings Masks in line with the 7th edition rules of Call of Cthulhu, with the team of writers at Chaosium led by Mike Mason adding new depth and scope to the classic campaign to create what looks to be one of the most fully realised and immersive roleplaying sagas of recent years. In fact, I’m confident that this new edition of Masks will set the bar for roleplaying campaigns for some time to come.
First off, I have a couple of caveats to make. Due to time constraints I haven’t yet played or Keeper-ed this latest version of Masks – which isn’t surprising, as the entire campaign usually takes most playing groups anywhere between one and three years to complete. For this review I’m working off the new PDF and my own experience running the 2nd edition of the campaign back when I was a teenage Keeper in high school. I should also point out that this edition of Masks was written primarily for use with the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition rules, though it’s also compatible with Call of Cthulhu‘s rowdier, more trigger-happy cousin, Pulp Cthulhu. I expect with some tinkering you could back-engineer it to play with earlier versions of Call of Cthulhu as well.
As you might guess from the name, Masks of Nyarlathotep pits the investigators against a dark conspiracy serving the nefarious plans of Nyarlathotep, one of the extraterrestrial gods known as the Great Old Ones created by the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft. Nyarlathotep is a great choice for the central antagonist in a Call of Cthulhu campaign of this size and complexity. He is perhaps the most human-like of Lovecraft’s invented pantheon – unlike most of the other Great Old Ones, Nyarlathotep has what appears to be a personality of sorts, which makes his motivations for manipulating and controlling human servants all the more understandable and insidious. But don’t take my word on this – just ask Mr Jackson Elias, the famous writer and seeker of eldritch mysteries, and I’m sure he’ll back me up (more on him below).
Nyarlathotep’s ability to embody different physical forms is very ably exploited in Masks, where chapters in the campaign revolve around the investigators encountering cults of the different avatars of Nyarlathotep. I have to admit this is a quality I’ve always admired in Nyarlathotep – he can literally be all things to all people, just so as long as those people are insane dark cultists.
In this new edition there are seven playable chapters, each set on a different continent except for Africa, which gets two chapters (can’t say why, because spoilers). This number is up from previous editions – the 2nd edition Masks that I ran with my high school friends back in 1989 had only five different locations, for example – and includes an all-new Prologue set in Peru in 1921. The Peru chapter is designed to give a backstory to the investigators’ relationship with Jackson Elias, arguably one of the best-known NPCs in RPG history. Perhaps only Baron von Strahd from D&D’s Ravenloft setting has enjoyed a longer run in the RPG limelight, and that’s largely because he’s an immortal vampire.
Jackson Elias is, however, very much a mortal human being (not saying any more than that). The campaign proper begins in 1925 in New York, when Elias (pictured right) contacts the investigators via radiogram with Some Very Important News. [SPOILER ALERT: The rest of this paragraph has mild spoilers] Without going into detail, Elias’s message leads to the investigators to getting involved in the mystery surrounding the ill-fated Carlyle Expedition. Six years earlier in 1919 the Carlyle Expedition discovered a hithert0 unknown archaeological site in Egypt, the findings of which were never publicly revealed. Before questions could be asked, the expedition had moved on to the highlands of Kenya, where all members of the expedition vanished without a trace. Needless to say, if the investigators survive the New York chapter they’ll soon be packing their sea chests and booking passage on a steamer.
The ensuing campaign take the investigators to every continent with the exception of Antartica (the Pabodie Expedition doesn’t discover the Mountains of Madness until 1930, so this is consistent with internal Mythos chronology). In addition to Peru and New York, chapters are set in the UK, Egypt, Kenya, Australia and China. The storylines for each of the chapters are rippers, with each instalment revealing more of the truth behind the Carlyle Expedition’s true purpose while at the same time working as fantastic standalone adventures. Here you’ll find everything that we love from a top-rate Call of Cthulhu adventure: mind-numbing cosmic horror, depraved cultists and the constant threat of your investigator dying a horrible death or, worse still, going insane.
Throughout the main body of the book the writing is very clear and easy to understand. This is always a bonus in RPG books, where it’s crucial for GMs to know exactly what they can reveal to players, what they need to keep secret and what they need to know to make the adventure seem real.
Which leads on nicely to my next point. As I’ve written elsewhere on Games vs Play, something that Call of Cthulhu has always done exceptionally well is provide historical background for the various locations and time periods in which the game has been set. It’s great to see that Masks is no exception to this rule, with the historical material for each of the chapters being one of the areas where this new edition really shines. I found the detail for the urban locations especially well realised, particularly for cities such as Cairo and Nairobi which I expect won’t be as familiar to many Keepers as, say, New York or London (and a big shout out to our brother and sister Keepers who live in Cairo or Nairobi!). To give one example, in the Cairo chapter there’s a helpful little text box that gives the Arabic words for the different types of streets. I can imagine how this would be exactly the sort of information that a Keeper could incorporate into NPC dialogue.
Once the investigators begin hurtling around the globe in their attempt to thwart Nyarlathotep’s plans, the structure of the campaign becomes more sandboxy. Although the book puts forward a “most-likely” order for the chapters to be played through, the writers have deliberately designed the campaign to be flexible enough to allow investigators to travel through Masks’ far-flung locations in whatever sequence their adventures take them.
Like all sandbox adventures, this non-linear structure can be fantastic for players, as it allows them to be more active in deciding how the narrative of their campaign will play out. For Keepers, however, a sandbox campaign of this size could be potentially overwhelming. There’s simply a lot going on, what with dozens of NPCs to run (more on that below) and multiple pathways of arriving in different locations that can have significant impact on the campaign’s internal chronology.
To help Keepers stay on track with all this housekeeping, at the start of each chapter there’s a “Picking Up the Trail” section which gives ideas on how to link the chapter with the investigators’ preceding adventures so far. There’s also a “Clue Diagram” that shows schematically how the various clues connect up to keep moving the narrative ahead. These Clue Diagrams are a good idea; if I were a Keeper I’d be printing out these pages and sticking them onto the inside of my screen for quick reference. But they do look pretty complicated, and remind me somewhat of industrial process flowcharts that you might find inside a Japanese car factory. I suspect I would have to actually run the game to get a sense of how best to use these Keeper’s aids. (for obvious reasons I haven’t included an image of a Clue Diagram in this review as they all include pretty major spoilers).
Another thing that stands out about Masks of Nyarlathotep is the absolutely central role of the NPCs. This is essentially a character-driven campaign, which might sound kinda redundant given that RPG narratives are essentially driven by player-character actions. Duh! The main difference with Masks is that the NPCs’ decisions are almost as important as the PCs’. This isn’t to say that NPC actions overshadow the investigators’ choices. Far from it – the sandbox structure of Masks works against railroading, and in terms of exploration and uncovering mysteries Masks is the quintessential players’ campaign, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it’s been so consistently popular after nearly 35 years of publication. But I think it’s the choices that the NPCs make before this adventure begins that hold the campaign together. The investigators, after all, are not trying to thwart Nyarlathotep directly so much as attempting to understand the consequences of the Carlyle Expedition members’ actions six years before the campaign begins. As a horror roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu is based on H.P. Lovecraft’s vision of cosmicism, where the true horror that sends investigators insane isn’t actually some tentacled entity from beyond space and time but rather the realisation that all of humanity’s strivings and endeavours are ultimately useless in the face of an infinite and indifferent universe. Masks of Nyarlathotep stands out from other Call of Cthulhu campaigns because it actually reverses this idea, for at its core Masks is ultimately about investigators confronting the many different faces of human evil.
The new Masks retains the memorable cast of NPCs from earlier editions, and also adds a good number of new characters for Keepers to get their teeth into. But here I would add a word of caution to Keepers – there are quite a lot of NPCs to manage. The “Key Non-Player Characters” section of the book gives descriptions for no less than 90 individual NPCs. And most of them are cultists! Of course the investigators may not encounter all of these characters throughout the course of their adventures, but it’s still a lot of legwork for Keepers.
Finally, I really like the art and layout of this new edition. The front cover by Sam Lamont and Rhys Pugh shows a nicely inhuman three-legged Nyarlathotep climbing a pyramid, while the portraits by Loïc Muzy of Nyarlathotep’s avatars such as the Black Pharaoh (pictured left) and the Bloated Woman featured inside the book exude menace and darkness. The volume also features black-and-white archival photographs and 1920s-style maps by Andrew Law; the latter are outstanding, lending a period feel to the settings while still being clear and concise. Perhaps it’s the grognard in me, but I thought it was a nice show of respect from Chaosium to include in this latest version of Masks the classic and instantly recognisable painting by Lee Gibbons from the 2nd edition cover. You know the one I mean, with the giant black mask floating in the extra-dimensional light of a recently opened portal while tentacles equipped with mouths and other weird appendages attempt to squeeze their way around the edges and into our reality. Great stuff!
To sum up, the new Masks of Nyarlathotep is everything that fans of Call of Cthulhu would want from an update of one of the most compelling RPG campaigns ever written. For players it will be a defining experience of what an RPG can be, offering an immersive, multi-faceted adventure into the heart of both cosmic and human darkness. For Keepers, the book is meticulously researched and provides all the resources and tips for running this holy grail of campaigns. My only caution would be directed at new or inexperienced Keepers. Masks of Nyarlathotep is a vast, sprawling adventure that will require Keepers to undertake a good deal of preparation while also being flexible in allowing their players free reign to find their own way into the storyline. However I’m confident that Keepers who pass this initiation test and run the entire saga through, from the prologue in Peru to the campaign’s shattering conclusion, will emerge from the experience as true masters of their chosen craft. Just remember to say hi to Jackson Elias for me.
Games vs Play wishes to thank Michael O’Brien and the team at Chaosium for the review copy of Masks of Nyarlathotep.
You can get your own copy of Masks of Nyarlathotep 5h edition from the Chaosium website. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!
All images courtesy of Chaosium.