Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Miskatonic University (for call of cthulhu) - Rough draft

Welcome to Miskatonic U!

Although H.P. Lovecraft never attended college as far as I know, his fictional Miskatonic University is found in a number of his stories. From where Herbert West, Re-animator, got his start bringing the dead back to unlife; to the sponsors of expeditions to Anartica (ill-fated) and Australia (not so much); to the home base of a number of protagonists, like Dr. Armitage.

So it's no surprise that we see a sourceook on this esteemed university for the game of roleplaying in H.P.'s mythos, Call of Cthulhu. In fact, one wonders why this book hasn't appeared before now, so late in CoC's lifetime (25+ years), although the core details of the University were developed previously in an Arkham supplement.

The University Itself

The book starts off by describing the Unversity itself - its history and its grounds.

Mistkatonic University is famous for its occult library. Its prize is a copy of the Necronomicon itself, but it has quite a host of other mythos and occult books, ranging from the famous ones like Liber Ivonis, Nameless Cults and the Book of Eibon to the more obscure and personal, like Wilbur Whately's Diary and notes on the mythos by various Miskatonic U professors.

Each book that the library has gets a long paragraph describing its contents and its history.

The People of the University....

This section gives an overview of all the important people on campus, mostly professors and such, but some others. Many are straight out of HPL's writings, while some were apparently invented for various CoC source or scenario books.

Getting an Education...

It's somewhat ironic, for a game system (BRP) whose main appeal is that its rules light, there are some rather complicated rules for putting a character through college. Two sets of rules, actually.

Basically, each student character has to plan out his courses. Then he gets so many "checks" to devote to his college activities (classes and social stuff). Then you roll a bunch of dice to see how well he did.

I personally wouldn't use them, but if you want to run a college campaign in detail, then this has you covered.

Also, there are only rules for undergrads. I think grad students might be more suitable for investigators, because they tend to have keys to labs and such and know the campus better. Playing a professor might also have been an interesting option, with rules for teaching classes and grading papers and hitting on co-eds.

Secrets of Miskatonic

Miskatonic has a whole lot more secrets than the college I went to (which really didn't have any), about 65 pages worth.

First off, it's got tunnels. Not just any ordinary tunnels, but ones that are infested by both ghouls and leprechauns (or "little people"). The former make sense, as HPL wrote about them in "Pickman's Model". The latter seem quite a bit wacky, but they do apparently come from Keith Herber, probably the top CoC guy other than Sandy Peterson.

Secondly, it's got an evil Mummy. Coin! Coin!

Thirdly, it's got all sorts of professors who fight the Mythos. Most of these are drawn from HPL's stories, but one comes from August Derleth's stuff (Labran Shrewsbury, who in many ways reminds me of Elminister or Drizzt in D&D novels)

Forthly, it's got all sorts of occultists. Rosicrucians and Templars (okay, only 1 Templar). Then some more run of the mill mythos sorts, like a group of Innsmouth Folk.

And my favorite, an immortal sorcerer. The caretaker of the Miskatonic Museum. Who pulls one of those deals where he vanishes, then is replaced by a long lost relative.

Strangely, dogs like him (I thought dogs didn't like mythos people? Which is why one ate Wilbur Whately...)

Anyway, descriptions of all this are given, as are a number of possible adventure seeds.

A scenario....

There is a short scenario that is loosely tied to the university. Basically, it seems a med student at Miskatonic U has rediscovered Herbest West's notes and has ressurected his formula.

This is actually a good premise, and the execution is okay, but it seems something of a waste - such a short adventure (maybe 10 pages) for such a good idea.


There's about 15 pages or so of props and worksheets. Basically faux diplomas and worksheets to help you put your investigator through college. (I think the former is kinda weird, myself, why does the player of a character need a diploma?)

The cover, well, it's not bad exactly, but it doesn't really scream either Call of Cthulhu or the 1920s. It's a college student with a mysterious looking book with a baffled expression on his face and a monster lurking behind a sign. While the picture doesn't feature anything not in the 1920s, the cover dude looks more like a guy from the 1990s, because he's got a goatee.

The interior art is pretty good, a bit dark. The layout is likewise pretty decent. My only real complaint is the maps, most of which are rather dark, and in some cases, feature small blurry type that I can't read easily. (most notably the map of the tunnels below the college).

It's a pretty good book, but it does suffer from a number of flaws, at least for me.

First off, the Templars. Did we really need the Templars added to the Call of Cthulhu universe? They were trendy back in the early to mid 1990s (much like the goatee featured on the cover art), but now are tired and worn out and cliched.

While perhaps not the Ted McGinly of Secret Organizations in RPGs, they are sort of like the annoying kid that gets added to a TV show about halfway into the run when ratings start to slip (like cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch).

Secondly, although this is a trend that has been in Call of Cthulhu for quite some time, this sort of openly acknowledges that there is all sorts of different types of working magic besides "Mythos" related magic. Voodoo, Shamanism, Wicca, and prominently in this, Hermetic magic all exists and works. (Curiously "Christian" related magic is simply folded into the Mythos, be it John Dee's angels actually being some sort of mythos critter or the Satanist Witches who worship the "Black Man", who is simply a avatar of Nylarlthotep). Anyway, while this is okay for a general "occult" themed game, I'm not really sure it's that true to Lovecraft's original mythos.

Thirdly, it's almost hard to throw a rock without hitting a person knowledgeable about the Ctulhu Mythos. Okay, it is Arkham, and it is Miskatonic U, places where Lovecraft wrote a lot of stories about. But you get a whole bunch of them besides the ones out of Lovecraft, like the immortal sorcerer who is the caretaker of the museum. And a bunch of practing magicians on the staff. Ugh.

Fourthly, I would really have liked more information on what came where. Like which NPCs are from HPL, which are from other authors, which ones came from CoC scenarios. There is some mention of this in the introduction, but citations would have been nice.

Fifthly, while it did a good job on the faculty, I would have liked to have seen more student NPCs. I mean, I went to a small college in Florida in the early 1990s that focused mostly on aeronautics, oceanography, and space science. I could come up with students from that sort of school based on my experience. But a 1920s era Liberal Arts college I would struggle to populate.

And while I know Chaosium considers it the hideously deformed and ugly and unwanted step-child, I would have liked to have seen some support for CoC d20. But it really would have been a plus, I'm not taking off any points so to speak.

Anyway, it's still a really good book, but it could have been much better, I think. If you are intered in Miskatonic U, then it's a must buy, and it is worth it for most CoC fans, and useful if you are running a game in or around Arkham. B+