Saturday, February 18, 2012

Hitchhiking through Lovecraft Country: Innsmouth

A long time ago, I started to reread the various Chaosium supplements dedicated to what Keith Herber christened “Lovecraft Country”—that area around northeastern Massachusetts that served as home for many of Lovecraft’s tales. Chaosium produced several supplements covering this area and I wanted to revisit them as an excuse to immerse myself in something other than dank dungeons and pointy-eared elves. The first revisit/review, H.P.Lovecraft’s Kingsport, covered the dual-stat supplement dedicated to the home of the Strange High House in the Mist and The Festival. Now, at long last, we move up the coast to visit decayed Innsmouth, a town that squats along the shore like a bloated toad seething with evil.

The Call of Cthulhu supplement Escape from Innsmouth was published in 1992 and is the fourth Lovecraft Country book produced for the game. Written largely by Kevin A. Ross with supplemental material by Keith Herber, Fred Behrendt, Scott Aniolowski, Mike Szymanski, Mark Morrison, Penelope Love, John Tynes, and Richard Watts, Escape from Innsmouth provides setting information for Keepers looking to introduce that sinister town into their campaign. Fittingly enough, it is a hybrid book with the first half serving to describe Innsmouth like H.P. Lovecraft’s Kingsport, Arkham Unveiled, and Return to Dunwich do, and the second half acting as a short campaign centered around the town. Escape from Innsmouth saw two editions (1992 and 1997), but never received the “dual system” treatment that was extended to Arkham, Dunwich, and Kingsport. Both editions are expensive on the secondhand market, with prices in the $75 to $100+ range being common. This article is based on the first edition of the book.

I must write that I approached with book with trepidation. The Shadow over Innsmouth is one of my favorite Lovecraft tales and I find the concepts and themes explored in the story both alluring and repulsive. Yet the power of the story is in its mystery and I had two concerns for the supplement: How would the town stand up to the harsh scrutiny a detailed supplement would put it under and could it retain its secrets when it was likely that the players themselves knew what went on in the shadows of Innsmouth? I had my suspicions that it would fail on both these accounts. But let’s see for ourselves, shall we?

Escape from Innsmouth is divided into several chapters:  Introduction, Mysterious Innsmouth, Welcome to Innsmouth, The Shadow over Innsmouth, A Guidebook to Innsmouth & Environs, Escape from Innsmouth, Raid on Innsmouth, Keeper’s Aids, Supporting Character Sheets, and Sinister Seeds.

The Introduction is but a single page, serving to inform the reader that the book is but one of several featured in the Lovecraft Country series, and that it takes much of its content from Lovecraft’s tale, The Shadow over Innsmouth, and the stories of August Derleth, with Ross adding his own creations to the mix. The introductory section also establishes the book’s place in the canonical Innsmouth timeline (after the events of The Shadow over Innsmouth but before the government raid on the town), with suggestions on how to use the included scenarios in conjunction with the rest of book to create a mini-campaign arc between those two events. Lastly, the author thanks various people for their contributions to the project.

Mysterious Innsmouth is dedicated to the history of the coastal town, presenting the reader with both the known history—what the general population knows about Innsmouth—as well as the secret history of the town. As always with CoC, the secret history is far more interesting, but there is little here that will surprise anyone who has read Lovecraft’s tale. A chronology of important events organized by year is also included for quick reference, as is a sidebar that introduces the Innsmouth Lore skill and twenty-five rumors (both true and false) about the town.

Welcome to Innsmouth is a mere two and a quarter pages, one of which is dedicated to new magic spells for the Call of Cthulhu. The rest of the chapter details getting to Innsmouth, surrounding towns, climate, town government, and crime and punishment. Although this information is standard for Lovecraft Country releases, I can’t say that I found this to be especially pertinent information for running an Innsmouth campaign. The book seems to be in agreement—the crime and punishment section could be summed up as “outsiders will be eaten if they attract attention to themselves.” Innsmouth is not the place for bureaucratic maneuvering or court room drama scenarios. The page on new spells, however, adds a lot to scenarios set in and about Innsmouth. That’s one of the aspects of Call of Cthulhu that I’ve always enjoyed: it’s not afraid to introduce new magic as background color, not mystic power. Why else would the spell “Lobster Charm” (which summons normal lobsters to nearby waters) be included in a game book?

The Shadow over Innsmouth covers the important Mythos topics needed to be known in order to properly use the setting. The Innsmouth look, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, an (ahem) in-depth look at Deep Ones and their society, and the effects of the Elder Sign on Deep Ones and Innsmouth hybrids are detailed. A short sidebar provides the reader with the Three Oaths of Dagon, which adherents to the Esoteric Order must recite as they are initiated into the different ranks of the religion, and a full-page sidebar lists for the Keeper additional sources of Innsmouth lore that the investigators might pursue. The archivist in me always enjoys such sidebars such as this one, which demonstrates that the best information can only be found in mildewed cellars, dusty display cases, padded cells, or over tea with little old ladies.

We now reach the chapter that makes up the lion’s share of the book: A Guidebook to Innsmouth & Environs. As Chaosium has done with previous Lovecraft Country supplements, this guidebook breaks Innsmouth down into neighborhoods and provides the Keeper with short descriptions of the major place of interest and people of note. Game stats, adventure ideas, and maps are all provided.

The Guidebook is what every fan is waiting to see. As The Shadow over Innsmouth was written from an outsider’s point of view, the reader never knows for certain what’s going on behind those shuttered windows and closed doors in Innsmouth and here Ross has the opportunity to inform him. Unfortunately, the results are neither surprising or particularly inspired. To be fair, however, given the subject of the supplement, he can’t stray too far afield for fear of upsetting the expectations of the audience. We get the expected Deep One hybrids shut away in attics and basements, the malicious Marsh clan, crumbling factories containing secrets, the Gilman House Hotel, and Joe Sargent’s bus. The occupants of Innsmouth are largely dangerous with a few rare allies for the investigators to befriend.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was hoping for more here. There are a few dim lights amidst the shadows, notably the U.S. Treasury agent operating undercover within Innsmouth and the soon-to-be magical feud between the Marshs and another scion of old Innsmouth, but I can’t say I found much else that had me enthused. Compared to Return to Dunwich (which I’ll cover one day), Innsmouth’s inhabitants and (other) secrets didn’t do much to fan my creative fires.

This is unfortunate. As I mentioned above, most players will encounter Innsmouth the game setting long after they encounter Innsmouth the story and thus the catfish is out of the proverbial bag long before they set foot inside the town limits. They know the source of Innsmouth’s evil, and although there is some enjoyment to be had blundering about town waiting for the shoe to drop, there’s no other mystery to sink one’s teeth into. This is something that Return to Dunwich manages quite adeptly; even if the players have read “The Dunwich Horror,” the setting provides many more plots, secrets, and interesting NPCs to encounter than just Old Wizard Whateley and his brood. I wish Escape from Innsmouth had modeled itself more along that design than trying to stay within the established lines of Lovecraft’s story and the various pastiches.

One last gripe about the Guidebook is the art. Most of the NPCs have a thumbnail illustration and many of them exhibit the “Innsmouth Look.” Perhaps it’s merely my own preconception, but I always pictured the inhabitants of Innsmouth who show signs of their mixed heritage to display features more unsettling or slightly alien than truly monstrous. The illustrations in Escape from Innsmouth make the residents—even those who have yet to undergo full transformations—all look extremely inhuman. Like a trout with a human torso in some cases. I’m uncertain of who made the call to go this route, but I’m full member of the “Less is More Club” when it comes to horror and I found these illustrations to be overblown in most cases.

The Guidebook behind us, we now reach the adventures. There are two: one is a short introductory investigation that gets the PCs to Innsmouth and makes them familiar with the town, and the second is a long, multi-part scenario detailing the government raid.

The introductory adventure, aptly titled “Escape from Innsmouth,” is a mite atypical for Call of Cthulhu, but looks enjoyable enough. The investigators get called in to uncover the truth behind a crime committed in Innsmouth and soon run afoul of the locals, culminating in a race to get out of town before they end up as human sacrifices. My problem with the investigation is that it both introduces and ostracizes the characters in a single scenario. Played as written, the PCs will find themselves persona non grata in Innsmouth and that effectively makes running any other stories in the town nigh impossible—a very interesting choice for an introductory scenario, no?

The second, multi-part scenario, “Raid on Innsmouth” looks much more entertaining. Not only does it give the PCs a chance to be active participants in Lovecraftian canon (the government raid and the torpedoing of Devil’s Reef), but it is designed to give each individual PC a chance to shine as the star of their own mission.

The adventure is written as five, three-part adventures that include a raid on the Marsh Mansion, an attack on the Esoteric Order of Dagon, a commando mission into the tunnels beneath to town, the events on board a Coast Guard cutter assigned to patrol the harbor, and finally, the submarine mission against Y’ha-nthlei. The missions’ parts are divided up in varying order and each player’s PC is the “star” of one of those missions. The rest of the players assume the roles as spear-carriers and helpful NPCs that support the main PC. This is all unorthodox for adventure design, but also very entertaining provided your players can dial down their egos to give each other the spotlight from time to time. And any adventure that has a subtle Blue Oyster Cult reference is OK in my book, too.

The supplement ends with a section of adventure seeds: germs of ideas left to the Keeper to elaborate on and spin into full scenarios. They vary in quality, but many would make for a much better introduction to Innsmouth than the introductory scenario, especially if you want to be able to keep the PCs around town longer than a single investigation. Thankfully, there are also included scenario ideas set after the government raid, allowing the PCs to keep getting into trouble after the fall of Innsmouth.

I wanted to love Escape from Innsmouth, I really did. Unfortunately, it is somewhat of a disappointment. This response is likely colored by my own expectations and because it is so difficult to find these days, making it more of a quest than a purchase, but for whatever the reason the supplement largely disappoints. Unless you are a Call of Cthulhu completionist or a fervent fan of The Shadow over Innsmouth, I cannot in good conscience suggest you spend $75 to $100 on this book. There are good bits to it, and a Keeper could put in the intellectual elbow grease to make those bits truly shine, but he would be better off saving his money and creating the town from scratch with just Lovecraft’s tale and whatever ideas spring to mind.

We will now leave the stink of rotting fish (not all of which comes from the wharf) and head down the turnpike towards Arkham, itself. It might be a long journey to get there, but one day we’ll examine H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham before heading off to Dunwich. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there seems to be a batrachian mob after me…


Higgipedia said...

While I agree on your assessment of the the source material in the book, I will add that the revised version adds more complete adventures as well as a ton of adventure seeds which will allow for more Innsmouth adventuring. They actually have a better introductory adventure and design it so you start with that and play "Escape from Innsmouth" when you are tired of the town, which will eventually point the players to The Raid.

Anonymous said...

If you're looking for a fun diversion, the computer game "Dark Corners of the Earth" covers the same period of time as the adventure in this supplement.

Michael Curtis said...

Alas, I only have the original, much-battered first printing of Escape from Innsmouth. With the prices these things go for on the second-hand market, it's likely that that will be the only copy I'll own. I would like to see the revised version on day, but in the meanwhile I'll take your word on its improvement over the original.

Michael Curtis said...

I do own "Dark Corners of the Earth" and enjoyed it. What I could complete in it anyway. The Innsmouthians kept killing me as I tried to escape the Gilman Hotel and I never worked up the patience to overcome that roadblock.

Robert Parker said...

Having played in the campaign section of Escape From Innsmouth, I can say that it is a ton of fun and a nice change of pace from the bog-standard formula of CoC scenario design.

If you're looking for a truly excellent take on the Deep Ones, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better supplement than the Black Cod Island section of Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity.