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Reviews - Shadows Over Filmland
by Lee Valentine

Shadows Over Filmland coverShadows Over Filmland
Published by Pelgrane Press
Written by Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws
Product Line: Trail of Cthulhu (GUMSHOE system)
192-page b&w hardback book
$34.95 (print) / $19.95 (PDF) / $49.95 (print + PDF bundle)

Shadows Over Filmland is the latest compilation of adventures for Pelgrane Press' popular Trail of Cthulhu (ToC) series. As one might guess from the name, these Investigations are inspired by horror films of the 1930s (and in one case, the 1940s) from studios like Universal Studios and RKO. This time around, a little Mythos is added to the mix to handle things ToC style. GMs and players alike will be amused to enter seemingly familiar storylines with big twists. Featured are many of the classic horror antagonists: mummies, vampires, haunted houses, mad scientists, zombies, and even a werewolf. That's as far as I will get into spoilers in this review, instead talking about the quality and nature of the content as presented without giving away the details of the mysteries.

In the Beginning
The book starts off with an essay entitled "Double Feature" by Kenneth Hite on the relative overlap between what Hite calls Hollywood's "Silver Nitrate Gothics" and H.P. Lovecraft's own works. Sometimes he's stretching, but often he finds surprising similarities, enough to justify the rest of the work as a valid addition to a Mythos gaming campaign.

Art from Shadows Over FilmlandNext, the GUMSHOE system guru, Robin D. Laws, introduces us to a land called Backlot Gothic. Laws himself describes it as "East of Switzerland, West of Hell". Unlike many of the other ToC adventurers published by Pelgrane which have a strong sense of historical time, place, and events, all these adventures are set in more non-specific, intentionally vague locales. There are some trappings of 1930s "modern" era life, but for the most part the jungles are savage and the villagers are anachronistic holdovers to times gone by. Occasionally the authors throw you a bone to help provide you optional historical references, but rarely with the level of real-world detail that readers may have come to expect from previous ToC adventures. Backlot Gothic is more of a concept drawn from watching one too many 1930s horror films than it is a fully-fleshed out setting. Ravenloft it isn't.

In Laws' "Backlot Gothic" chapter there are also snippets of canned text for GMs to read to introduce many situations and environs. Need a quick description of a forest, a catacomb, or a graveyard? Robin D. Laws has you covered. Pelgrane press has the first six pages of this book available online, giving you access to part of the "Backlot Gothic" chapter and all of Hite's "Double Feature" to see if this book fits the bill.

Twelve Silver Nitrate Gothic Adventures
Shadows Over Filmland contains twelve different Investigations, some penned by Hite, some penned by Laws, and one on which they took joint credit. Some of these adventures can, with some work, be dropped in to an existing ToC campaign. Just so the potential buyer knows what he is getting himself into, the tone of many of these adventures feels like they belong to the world of old monster movies rather than sharing much in common with Innsmouth or Arkham. Some adventures are little more than 1930s monster films with a couple of sentences of Mythos material lightly pasted on top, barely qualifying as Mythos-genre pieces. One adventure is almost all jungle pulp adventure and little to no horror. A majority of the pieces are potentially appropriate for a pulp-oriented ToC game, where the villains are treated as beasties rather than incomprehensibly dark gods. My favorite adventures were the ones that felt purist in bent. Previous ToC adventures have often been unadulterated pulp fare, but here the purists get a nod as well. There's even an adventure that's a direct homage to the modern film legacy of Lovecraft's fans, where the Investigators are asked to investigate and put a stop to the filming and release of a movie called Call of Cthulhu.

The best of these adventures remember that ToC is about Investigations using the GUMSHOE system, and focus on piecing together clues to help flesh out a story and solve a mystery. There are two adventures in this collection that I didn't like; they offered little more than railroading and GM-on-player mugging with monsters, with only a lesser focus on Investigation. The other ten adventures ranged from good to great in quality.

Art from Shadows Over FilmlandMost of these adventures will require a skilled GM to run smoothly. Usually, the Investigations aren't a paint-by-the-numbers dungeon crawl, and instead require the GM to play up to a dozen different roles in a single evening, for example by hiding a "wolf" amongst a flock of potential "sheep" at a dinner party. Still other adventures require a GM to pick from a list of different potential outcomes or obstacles depending on the pace of the evening and the make-up of the player group at the table. The number of NPC names and descriptions in this volume makes me wish that the book came with an index of NPCs, and it doesn't.

The book is long enough (at 192 pages) that it's better to read this as a hardback than a PDF. Nevertheless, I am tempted to acquire the PDF version of this product to aid in copying-and-pasting details to prepare cheat sheets for some of the Investigations.

It is noteworthy that while this book contains a lot of characters, including a variety of stock villains and NPCs (like police officers, gypsies, woodmen, etc.), it doesn't feature any pre-generated player characters. It does, however, add some new rules for starvation, disease, and a few other game tidbits (like unique books and items) that could make it useful to any ToC GM.

Product Appearance & Editing
This is the first book in the ToC series to list proofreaders other than Pelgrane's busy publisher, Simon Rogers. Other than a few typos and a single missing word, the editing on this product is quite clean.

Jérôme Huguenin did the art and the layout for this product. Huguenin still has his distinctive photomontage technique, but relies more on original illustrations than he has in some other ToC books. While there is still a predominance of illustrations of humans, there are some fine illustrations of the creatures that the Investigators may face. I was also pleased that Huguenin included a variety of images of different adventure settings to help set the mood for certain Investigations.

The layout for Shadows Over Filmland is very similar to that of the core Trail of Cthulhu book. The pages feature a light, mottled tone in the background to suggest an aged tome or parchment. This does not interfere with the readability of the text. The book is mostly done in grayscale, but it uses dividing lines, frames, and symbols with a brass-colored ink.

The cover features a screaming woman with hands raised staring in horror at the shadow of an approaching tentacle (presumably of Cthulhu out looking for a snack). There is a heavy green background for the cover, but like Stunning Eldritch Tales, there is a wider color palette used on the front and back of the cover (particularly heavy use of red). This makes Shadows Over Filmland stand out on a shelf more than the ToC core rulebook does.

The grade I have given the product for appearance (below) reflects less the overall look of the product, which is quite high, but the dearth of maps in the book. I felt some maps were really needed for a few adventures and were sorely lacking. In Shadows Over Filmland there is only one map, and it is a low detail map of an island. In several adventures in this product players are running from room to room in manors or tombs, either searching for clues or evading threats or both. Yet no indoor location maps are provided even when they would be of obvious use to the GM, if not the players, to keep straight the narrative descriptions he is providing. I make such a point of this because Simon Rogers, publisher at Pelgrane Press, is the co-founder of ProFantasy Software Ltd., which produces the exceptional Campaign Cartographer mapmaking software for RPGs, and ProFantasy in turn is a joint owner of Pelgrane Press. So it's highly surprising that there aren't a few more GM-oriented maps in this and other Trail of Cthulhu products.

The adventures in this book can fit into an existing ToC campaign. However, I think it's ideally suited to being run together as a short campaign - as a series of 12 consecutive adventures. Shadows Over Filmland does a good job creating internal continuity across its adventures through the use of recurring villains and NPCs. It even references other adventures in the ToC line of products.

Overall, Shadows Over Filmland is a solid collection of adventures for the price tag. I recommend it. Shadows Over Filmland may appeal to those who want to use the GUMSHOE system for a horror-mystery campaign, but find themselves more familiar with Gothic vampires and werewolves than they are with Lovecraft's Mythos. Its appeal doesn't end there. If you are a fan of purist-style Lovecraftian horror, then Shadows Over Filmland contains a few solid adventures for you. If you are a fan of pulp gaming, then this is a good buy. However, if you have a fairly flexible definition of what constitutes Mythos-gaming, and are looking for some adventures with a little more fighting and a bit less sleuthing, then this is right up your alley.

For Retailers
The subject matter of Shadows Over Filmland is bound to interest more than just your regular Trail of Cthulhu game masters. Also ToC modules are high on story content, and lower on mechanical content, making it more accessible to GMs of other systems. Both of those are positive factors when it comes to moving adventure compilations like this.

While the MSRP of $34.95 may be off-putting to some potential buyers, keep in mind that the price for a 96-page module from Wizards of the Coast has crept up to the $25.00 to $30.00 range. At 192 pages and as a hardback, this product brings some extra value added to the table. The disadvantage of this product, compared to those from WotC is the lack of potentially reusable maps.


Lee's Ratings:

Overall Rating: B
Content: B (some exceptionally good stuff; with a couple of adventures that weren't as good)
Appearance: B+ (very attractive art; needed more maps)
Retailer Salability: B- (higher if you have a dedicated Lovecraft fanbase in your area)


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