Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Dreamlands Take 3

H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands is a sourcebook about H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands (oddly enough) for Chaosium's Call of Cthluhu game. For those that don't know, H.P. Lovecraft (HPL) was a pulp author in the early 20th century (starting from about 1920, until he died in 1937). HPL basically wrote two sorts of stories - horror stories about the Cthulhu Mythos, and some dreamy fantasy stories inspired by Lord Dunsany. They were tied together, but the Dreamland stories have a more adventurous feel to them. Still sort of creepy, but more fantasy than horror.

This is the 5th version of the Dreamlands sourcebook, earlier versions had slightly different names. Apparently this is very close to 4th edition (based on the credit section), but with some additional material added (monsters and gods), some character generation (almost making it a stand alone book. Almost. You should be okay with Cthulhu Dark Ages, or just about any version of Call of Cthulhu).

Despite the name of this book, it's not entirely H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands that this book describes. It also is based on the works of Brian Lumley, who wrote several Dreamlands novels (and also novels and stories about the Ctulhu mythos). And some of Gary Meyers works are also used, but I've never heard of him before (or read his stuff). But apparently it's mostly Lumley that is borrowed from.

Lumley has a somewhat different take on things than HPL, though. Both in the Dreamlands and in the Cthulhu Mythos. I've just read the 6 "Titus Crow" novels by Lumley which are the novels based on HPL's stuff, 2 of which are set in the Dreamlands. I really didn't like the first two, thought the middle 2 were okay, but I thought the last two were quite good. But the tone is generally completely like HPL's. Much more heroic, much more cheerful. It's very pulpy, almost beyond pulpy, the last two almost have a Doc Smith Space Opera-ish feel to it, with the hero zooming around the universe in his Tardis like spaceship (basically, it is the Tardis, but a clock, not a police box. Though HPL seems to have invented it in the first place), blasting Hounds of Tindalos with his laser beams.

Lumley seems to take a more Derlethian view on things (that is, based on August Derleth's Mythos stories) - the elder gods are quite benevolent, and Cthulhu, Hastur and company are almost child-ish in their thoughts and motivations. But don't be alarmed - this aspect of his stories is not really covered, basically, this book seems to borrow 3 things from Lumley - this vampire lady, that the "eidolon Lathi" is a termite lady, and "Xura" should be spelled "Zura".

The Gazetteer of the Dreamlands is about 45 pages long. It covers the major cities and features of the Dreamlands. Most places get a paragraph or so. Important places may get half a page. It often uses a zoom in view of the pull out map, but in some cases, there are maps of actual places, though these tend to be very crude. For instance, the map of Celephais looks like it was sketched on a cocktail napkin in about 45 seconds. While this style may suit Call of Cthulhu (though I never liked it much), it doesn't fit the Dreamlands.

People of the Dreamlands gets about 10 pages devoted to them. Although it uses the Lumley version of Zura and the Eidolon Lathi, it doesn't present any of Lumley's own original Dreamlands characters, as far as I can tell. (Maybe their permission doesn't go that far?). There is probably one big variance from HPL - whatever he meant by Eidolon, he probably didn't mean a lecherous termite lady.

The Bestiary is about 40 pages long. Most of them are fairly icky, suiting a Call of Cthulhu supplement. There's a variety of minions of various Gods.

3 types of cats - regular cats, Cats from Saturn, and everyone's favorite, Cats from Uranus. Only one sort of llama (apparently Chaosium doesn't love Alpacas), who are surprisingly tough. Some other odd real world animals, like yaks.

There are a couple of rodents: Zoogs, which are famous prominent in HPL's stories, which are basically rats with tentacles on their mouths; Snouters, which are basically fast, long nosed squirrels. Well, you get the idea. Lots of fairly odd critters, plus the usual icky stuff.

The Gods of the Dreamlands take up about 15 pages. In several cases (10), it simply tells you that the god is unchanged from the entry in the main Call of Cthulhu book. This is probably the only place where Cthulhu Dark Ages might not be enough - unfortunately, I had to sell my copy, so I can't look it up, but it had something of an abreviated god list.

Many of the gods in this are "Great Ones", which are apparently gods of the Dreamlands. These are somewhat human looking in some cases, but some are fairly grotesque. To a certain extent, the Dreamlands doesn't seem to have a coherent pantheon. For instance, there's a god of fungus, a god of holding spears (really. He just holds it). But no god of the sky, or god of the sea, or the typical sort you find in real world cultures. Probably because the world was developed in stories - when someone needed a god for the story, they made one up.

There are 6 adventures, taking up about 70 pages. At least two of these are basically pointless, being very very short, and little more than tourist excursions. One from a point of view of dreamers from the waking world, the other from Dreamlands natives. The rest of the adventures are for Earth dreamers, and are all pretty much standard CoC scenarios - must foil bad guy from evil diabological mythos plot. Though in this case, using the Dreamlands is essential.

Pickman's Student is one of the better ones. A famed painter is possessed, and the PCs must save him by entering the Dreamlands via his paintings. The PCs apparently are involved in this adventure to help his girlfriend.

The Land of Lost Dreams is interesting, in that it comes from a version of the Dreamlands before it was Lumleyized, and so has a different take on Xura, including spelling it the proper way (Xura). It's also a case of possession, actually. And also they seem to want to help because of the victim's girlfriend.

Season of the Witch is also a case of someone being possessed. But in this case, it's a female college student, who based on the illustration, looks a lot like Rhea Pearlman, only with a bigger hair. (Though the adventure text gives her an appearance stat of 16 - I guess the drawing was by Danny Devito)

Captive of Two Worlds is thankfully, not about possession, but the most straight forward Call of Cthulhu scenario. Basically, the PCs are captured by a Mythos cultist, who also happens to be a dreamer. So they have to go to the Dreamlands to kick his ass and make him let them go in the real world.

I think this is the first Dreamlands to be a hardcover. The cover art is just okay (sort of a generic seascape with a ship), but the end papers are absolutely gorgeous. The inside pages are fairly well illustrated, if you like Earl Geier's work. The paper is very very thin. In many cases, the backside art or map, where heavy black is used, bleeds through, which can make it difficult to read on a few occasions (mostly the page on the other side of the map of Celephais).

There is a very nice pull out map by Andy Hopp, who I seem to have heard of from somewhere. But like most pull out maps, I managed to rip it, as the perferation was not perferated enough, I guess. I doubt it's because of my incredible strength.

Where it really fails (for me) is in how it views the Dreamlands. It basically looks at the Dreamlands from the point of view of the Call of Cthulhu game. That is, the Dreamlands exist as a way for the PCs to foil schemes of Mythos Cultists and other baddies.

While that's okay as far as it goes, that's not really how HPL viewed them - I think the Dreamlands needs to be a fantasy setting first, not simply an add-on to Call of Cthulhu. On the other hand, running a fantasy game set in it will require a lot of work on the part of the GM, because the information in the book is scant at best, and the chances of this seeing any support from Chaosium (other than a reprint in a few years) is only slighly less likely than Cthulhu rising from the sea.

Also, I think the original Dreamlands, as envisioned by HPL, and maybe Myer's version of it, is reasonably well suited for Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying System. But the Lumley version of the Dreamlands is probably better suited for D&D/d20. Or maybe something cinematic like D6 or Storyteller. (Not quite Exalted's level of Storyteller, but close).

I personally have no problems with Lumley's version of the Dreamlands, but I can't help but think it would have been better to have one sourcebook devoted just to HPL's Dreamlands, with a followup sourcebook covering Lumley's stuff. Especially as only a few things from Lumley appear in this book, missing some of his more intersting characters and places.

I really have no idea how to rate this. It's not a bad book, but it's almost just like an overview. There really should be sourcebooks for most the cities and regions of the Dreamlands, and full fledged monster and character books. But that will never happen (for various reasons). So it's like a tantilizing glimpse of what could be. Which perhaps captures the essence of the Dreamlands, something vague and unrealized, but ultimately, like dreams, unsatisfying.