Posted on April 20, 2012 by Billzilla
Warning: The following review may contain spoilers. Proceed at your own risk!
Machine Gun Sean O’Neill peered over the windowsill; the masked cultists were leaping down the fire escape. Behind them, back in the room, lay the bloody, ruined mess that had once been Jackson Elias. Sean hadn’t known Elias, but his friends had, and now he counted this cult among his enemies. His pistol barked three times; one of the cultists staggered, but kept going. The cultists get into an idling car at the end of the alley and speed away. Sean looked back into the room at Elias’ lifeless body, with the strange cult symbols carved into his forehead. This wouldn’t end well – for any of them.
Masks of Nyarlathotep is a masterful campaign by Larry De Tillo with Lynn Willis created for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop role-playing game. In it, the investigators are drawn into a plot to throw open the gates keeping the Great Old Ones at bay, causing the earth to become a nightmare landscape of death, destruction, and mind-shattering horror. Spanning five continents, Masks is an epic adventure of mayhem and supernatural evil that will consume many game-nights of play, and is suitable even for a larger group of investigators. Available again in a revised 4th Edition, it once more rears it’s terrifying, blood-red tentacle to drive us all over the brink.
The adventure begins as one of the investigators – established prior to the game as a friend to one Jackson Elias – receives a telegram from Elias, asking for help investigating a great conspiracy. When the party arrives in New York, knocking on the door to Elias’ room receives no answer but furtive, suspicious sounds of movement come from within. The door is locked. Upon entering, the investigators find Elias dead, victim of some sort of horrible cult retribution. The cultists are making their way down the fire escape outside Elias’ window. Several clues can be found here that lead the adventurers on a quest first through New York, and eventually on to London and parts beyond.
One of the most inspiring things about this adventure is the way the clues interconnect. Like a spider’s web, one strand leads to many others, giving the players the opportunity to skip parts of the scenario entirely to concentrate on the ones they feel to be the most critical. The campaign is literally designed such that the adventurers can go from their initial discovery in New York to any of the other major sites: Shanghai, Kenya, Egypt, London or Australia. When our group first started this adventure back in 1985, we pretty much followed a geographical progression, going to the next nearest point on the map after seeing our business to a conclusion (more or less) in one locale. We never encountered the Australian section; it was mentioned in the text of the original edition, but details were not included. Only later did the Australian section become available when Terror Australis was published by Chaosium, including the missing Australian adventure “City Beneath The Sands”, a couple of years later in 1987. The Australian section has been included in Masks in revised editions ever since.
Sean’s eyes had a difficult time taking in everything he was seeing. There was a large entity that appeared to be on fire, yet completely unconcerned about its status. There were people there, chained to a large stele of black stone, and the other – oh god! What are they doing? Aaiiiiieeeee!
Masks of Nyarlathotep is a dangerous adventure. Nearly every player of the eight involved in our campaign lost one character to death of madness at some point. The cultists are likely to become aware of the investigators at some point – probably early on in the proceedings – and they communicate with each other, allowing other cult members down the road to lay deadly traps for the unwary. The campaign stretched to well over a year of real time for our group, playing once a week for four to five hours each session and missing only a couple of weeks during that span. Members of the group still reminisce fondly on that adventure, laughing over our shared experiences to this day more than twenty-five years later.
Another powerful aspect of this adventure is the selection of props and character hand-outs included in the game materials. For example, a box of matches is found at one scene that leads investigators to a bar in Shanghai, China. The box is offered as a cut-out model – matches not included in every edition to date. The original boxed set – published in 1984 – includes a glossy sheet of printed cardstock that includes this assemble yourself matchbox, as well as several business cards for different chapters of the adventure.
Doctor Forbes- Finch was disturbed. His interview with the raving Sean O’Neill offered him a tantalizing view into the mind of a man pushed over the edge, some mutterings of which seemed a little too familiar. As a psychologist, he’d done extensive research into madness in all it’s many guises, but Sean’s ravings reminded him of several cases he’d come across; the evidence suggested that a loose, global network of cults were preparing for some massive, possibly supernatural event. He must know more: as soon as Sean’s friends return to check on his progress, Dr. Forbes-Finch is determined to be there, questions at the ready…
If the Keeper does the job right, the players won’t know for certain they’re involved in a globe-spanning conspiracy; rather, they will believe they are investigating the mysterious disappearance of an archaeological expedition in the wilds of Kenya. There seems to have been a cover-up of sorts; at any rate, something is definitely not right, and Jackson Elias, before his untimely demise, wanted the investigators to delve further into this wild goose chase of a mystery. What they will find will shake the very foundations of their sanity, carrying them around the world in search of answers to questions they may one day wish they had never asked.
Masks of Nyarlathotep is considered by a great many gamers – including the author of this review – to be the pinnacle of commercially produced adventures. It has become the yardstick by which other scenarios are often measured. While it is not without weaknesses, those flaws are minor, and few and far between. It is a sterling example of how an adventure should be written. Aspiring gaming writers would do well to pick up a copy and read it through thoroughly; they’re sure to have many inspired ideas of their own as a result.
Rating: five out of five stars