by Demian Katz
The Stars Are Right
Published by Chaosium
Written by Richard Watts, John Tynes, André Bishop, Fred Behrendt, Steve Hatherley, Gary Sumpter, Kevin A. Ross, Steven C. Rasmussen, D. H. Frew, David Conyers and William Jones
176 pages, b & w perfect bound softback
Like Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, the last Call of Cthulhu adventure I reviewed, The Stars Are Right is a revised and expanded reissue of a classic product. Also like Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, this is a product that I have never read before, even though I have heard positive things about it. Published in 1992, a decade after Shadows, The Stars Are Right shows some of the evolution of the role-playing industry. The book’s nine scenarios (two of which are new to this edition) are, on average, better-organized and more readable, and, for better or worse, many of the contributing authors are completely uninhibited about including extremely graphic content.
The Right Stuff
Graphic content is quite central to the volume’s first scenario, “Love’s Lonely Children”, which actually reads more like White Wolf’s take on Clive Barker than a traditional Call of Cthulhu tale. While investigating a gruesome murder, players will encounter drug addicts, prostitutes, pornographers, incest, rape and, of course, rock and roll. I’m not opposed to including this sort of material in a game, especially if it serves a dramatic purpose, but the grim unpleasantness is so unrelenting here that I can’t see the adventure being especially entertaining to run or participate in. Still, if you enjoy this sort of thing, the adventure does deserve credit for being well-designed and flexible. Multiple entry points to the scenario are suggested, and the setting is generic, so this can easily fit into an existing campaign. There are also alternate endings provided so the Keeper can choose the desired level of flash or subtlety. Also useful are tips on dealing with the aftermath of the scenario, including investigator insanity. I can’t see myself actually running this adventure, but I wish that this much thought had been put into some of the later, more appealing adventures.
“Nemo Solus Sapit”, the next scenario in line, is written by the much-respected John Tynes, and its author is in good form here. While multiple entry points are provided for the scenario, by far the most interesting involves one of the player characters going insane in a prior adventure and being placed under the care of one of this adventure’s central characters, pop-psychotherapist Petroff van Dyson. This setup offers the player of the afflicted character some really interesting role-playing opportunities, and it makes the adventure more personal than the usual introduction of yet another long-forgotten friend or relative. The adventure itself is a fairly standard investigation-oriented affair, but it is spiced up by well-developed non-player characters, one of whom mysteriously appears from time to time to break up what might otherwise be tedious research. While the scenario seems designed to appeal most to a role-playing-oriented group, it still manages to build to an action-packed finale; this is definitely one of the highlights of the book.
The next adventure, “This Fire Shall Kill”, is quite a contrast to the comparatively subtle “Nemo Solus Sapit”. The plot involves mythos-inspired arson, and the fiery theme is used to create an action-oriented adventure filled with gruesome setpieces and culminating in a catastrophe of disaster movie proportions. While this adventure would not be hard to fit into an existing campaign, it seems especially suitable for a fast-paced one-off game. The storyline doesn’t require any familiarity with the Cthulhu mythos to appreciate, so even inexperienced players should enjoy themselves. Additionally, without the need to maintain characters for a campaign, the potential for memorable acts of suicidal heroism increases. This one is certainly high on my list for the next time somebody asks me to run a Call of Cthulhu game.
After a fairly strong start, the book loses some momentum with “The Professionals”, an adventure that would be fairly intriguing if not for its uninspired execution. The investigators get involved in what at first seems like a standard political sex scandal but which ultimately involves an alien monster, secret government technology and, of course, the adult entertainment industry. All of the intertwining plot threads could make for an interesting game, but none of them ring true. The political angle is quite bland, perhaps in an effort to avoid offending anyone, and both the alien monster and the government technology exist to serve the plot but aren’t creative enough to be interesting in and of themselves. There are also some moments of taboo-breaking unpleasantness reminiscent of “Love’s Lonely Children”, though they are more easily skimmed over by Keepers uncomfortable with presenting graphic descriptions of things like child snuff pornography. With enough reworking, a creative Keeper could make something of this adventure, but it’s probably not worth the effort.
The next scenario, “Fractal Gods”, involves computer software that allows access to a dangerous dimension filled with strange creatures. Coming from a computer science background, I often find it difficult to suspend my disbelief when it comes to fictional depictions of computer technology. Indeed, even though the author of this scenario has done a pretty good job of avoiding my pet peeves about computer fiction, I didn’t enjoy it much. This is probably just my prejudices speaking, though – I can see how this could make for an interesting adventure, especially thanks to the total alienness of the scenario’s various fractal entities and their home universe.
In contrast to the rather colorful “Fractal Gods”, “The Gates of Delirium” is perhaps the blandest and most formulaic entry in the book (though it’s more satisfying than the disappointing “The Professionals”). An investigation of a suicide attempt by the inevitable long-forgotten friend or relative leads to dimension-bending drugs and some rather unsurprising horrors. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the adventure, and it might work well for an inexperienced group, but I couldn’t help feeling jaded while I read it – there just wasn’t anything new here.
“Music of the Spheres”, the last of the scenarios found in the original edition of the book, is a definite improvement over many of its predecessors. Although it relies yet again on the tedious “long-forgotten friend or relative” plot device to get things underway, it gets more interesting quite quickly. A totally uncharacteristic murder by a computer technician working at a radio telescope facility in an insolated part of Nebraska is the first sign that some rather dangerous transmissions are being received. While the investigators try to figure out what’s going on, strange and catastrophic events escalate both locally and on a global scale. There’s a good sense of foreshadowing and build-up, and things are further enhanced by a detailed cast of NPCs and some unexpected potential allies. This would make an excellent turning point in an otherwise relatively subtle campaign; as a follow-up to relatively localized horrors, its grand scale potentially opens up the whole world to the investigators.
David Conyers’ “Darkest Calling”, the first of the reissue’s new scenarios, is based on the author’s “Solvent Hunger”, a short story first published in Book of Dark Wisdom #5, a horror magazine. Having never seen the story, I can’t comment on how closely the adventure follows it; however, this is the first time I can think of that I’ve seen a direct translation of a published story to a Call of Cthulhu adventure. In any case, most of the elements of the story are fairly familiar, involving ritualistic murder and horrible monsters first encountered by the Native Americans. Fortunately, there is a twist which makes the scenario worth running – by preventing one evil, the players may allow another to run free. The story could unfold in a lot of different directions, and Keepers should enjoy seeing how their players handle the challenge.
The final scenario in the book, “The Source and the End”, sees the investigators summoned to Hillston, Colorado by an old friend. There they find the town besieged by a thunderstorm… and something even more dangerous. This is a flawed scenario that I found enjoyable in spite of its problems. The flooded, lightning-lit town of Hillston is an irresistibly atmospheric location, and if suspense is built just right, this alone can carry the scenario. Also potentially useful are some alternate combat and skill rules designed to give the adventure a more cinematic flavor. Never mind the fact that the author avoids detailing any but the most necessary NPCs, or that the “random events table” is nearly useless, or that the scenario’s element of limited time is barely used. It’s dark and scary and there are monsters out there somewhere – why else would anyone play Call of Cthulhu?
Extras and Mutations
The last few pages of the book contain “When the Stars Came Right Again”, an essay on the relationship between astrology and the Cthulhu mythos, focusing on an astrological analysis of the date featured in Lovecraft’s original “Call of Cthulhu” short story. While the pseudo-scholarly tone of this article would potentially make it a fun handout to give the players during an adventure, the content doesn’t really have anything to do with the adventures in the book. As a result, the piece seems out of place and really serves only as unnecessary filler. If an essay had to be included here, I would rather have seen these pages devoted to something like a discussion of the differences between running a 1920s game and a modern-day campaign.
As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t seen the original version of this book, so I can’t comment on all of the changes. However, some revisions are obvious. Many scenarios feature references to DVDs; obviously, these were not there in the 1992 release. There has also been some effort put into updating references to computer terminology. “Fractal Gods” includes a reference to Linux which was probably not there to begin with, and throughout the book, floppy disks have been replaced with CDs. Actually, this particular replacement causes some problems (at least for a geek like myself) – “Fractal Gods” includes an illustration which clearly shows a 5 ¼” floppy disk, and “The Gates of Delirium” mentions a creased CD – I’m not sure how you could crease a CD; they should probably have changed “creased” to “scratched.” Overall, the updates are successful – apart from the computer issues and the fact that the style of some of the artwork makes me think of early nineties computer games, I would not have suspected that this was a reissued product if I hadn’t known from the introduction.
My biggest overall complaint about the book is that, as with all too many role-playing products, better copy-editing should have been done. There are a lot of minor typos, some of them humorous – “Love’s Lonely Children” mentions a “narrow louvered widow” while Fractal Gods suggests that a monster can be “reduced to zero pants.” Some typos are harmless but surprising – they actually manage to spell “delirium” incorrectly in the large-font title at the start of “The Gates of Delirium” (or is that Delerium?). Harder to forgive are severe oversights like a sidebar which simply trails off mid-sentence in “Fractal Gods” and inconsistently-spelled character names (as if it’s not already hard enough to keep track of who’s who). The two all-new scenarios are especially bad; “Darkest Calling” manages to completely jumble its description of some forensic evidence found by the players, and both “Darkest Calling” and “The Source and the End” have some badly-designed player handouts. All of this could have been worse, but I expect better from Chaosium.
Ultimately, The Stars Are Right is quite similar to Shadows of Yog-Sothoth in its usefulness – it’s a somewhat uneven collection, but it manages to include something for everyone. Some adventures are campaign-friendly, some are good stand-alones; some adventures are action-oriented, others center around investigation and research. There’s extreme gore and nastiness for the splatterpunk fan, and more traditional horrors suitable for comparatively restrained groups. In all, the book is not without its flaws, but if you are looking to run a modern-day Call of Cthulhu game and you need some inspiration, you should get your money’s worth here.