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Tatters of the King
Hastur's Gaze Gains Brief Focus Upon the Earth
Reviewed by Dave Lai, © 2006

Format: Game
By:   Tim Wiseman
Genre:   Horror Lurking at the Edge of the Mists
Review Date:   November 01, 2006
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

Prelude:

Hastur, one of the "Great Old Ones," a.k.a. the Unspeakable One, Him Who Is Not To Be Named. Associated with Carcosa, the Yellow Sign, the Lake of Hali, the star Aldebaran, and the King in Yellow. According to Robert M. Price, editor of the Hastur Cycle, the stories we know of today as the Cthulhu Mythos could easily have become known as the Hastur Mythos. In Chaosium's horror role-playing game, Call of Cthulhu, relatively little attention has been paid to Hastur, with only a handful of scenarios written in connection with this Great Old One.

Other campaigns, such as Shadows of Yog-Sothoth (which strangely doesn't feature Yog-Sothoth, but does feature another Great Old One, great Cthulhu), Masks of Nyarlathotep, and Trail of Tsathoggua, have given other Great Old Ones of the Mythos a staring role, until now. Is the Tatters of the King campaign a worthy successor to those early beloved predecessors? Can it overcome the jaded palette of hardened Call of Cthulhu players who feel they have seen everything the Cthulhu Mythos has to throw at them?

Act 1:

Physically Tatters of the King is a solid looking product. The 232-page perfect bound book is profusely illustrated with Ashley Jones' black and white artwork, although the cover artwork (also by Jones) is at first glance less inspiring than previous covers that graced Chaosium's earlier products for Call of Cthulhu, showing the picture of a dark blue eyed asylum inmate against a cold white brick wall, and has the tag line "Hastur's gaze gains focus on the Earth" scrawled upon it. If you look carefully at the wall behind the inmate, one can make out a shadow in the shape of the Yellow Sign. This sets the tone of the book wonderfully; on first glance everything is mundane, but look closer and scratch away the veneer of the ordinary and something oddly disturbing becomes apparent.

The campaign is designed for the participation of four to six investigators, with at least one being an alienist (an obsolete term for a psychiatrist or psychologist) and another being involved in the creative arts. All of them should be based in 1920s London, which is where the campaign begins.

This is not to say that the campaign would not work with characters from outside of the United Kingdom, but they would still need to get to London first. There is a short summary of pertinent details in one of the many appendices at the back. Other appendices include a timeline of events for the campaign, a selection of weird dreams to inflict upon the player characters, and a comprehensive index.

Act 2:

Tatters of the King is set largely in Great Britain, but then moves to Italy, and thence to India, Nepal, and finally the Roof of the World. This is a campaign in three parts, each of which starts gently with subtle undertones before moving slowly and inexorably towards their respective conclusions. The first part, "Book 1: The Madman", begins in October 1928 with a prelude; the investigators attend the opening performance of a play in London. Like an overture to a grand opera, it hints of things to come. The performance ends (rather like the opening night of Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring") in a riot.

The campaign proper begins with the player character alienist being called upon to assist in the evaluation of an unusual patient. After a hiatus of a year, coinciding with the return of Aldebaran over the horizon in British night skies, the second part, "Book 2: British Gods", begins with tying up a few loose ends left over from part one and discovering a serious and concerted attempt to bring Hastur permanently to Earth. This leads neatly to the third part, "Book 3: The Upper House", where the investigators leave the gloomy winter shores of Britain and head for points beyond Calais.

The book is extraordinarily well researched and is almost scholarly in tone at times, with meticulous detail concerning both places and NPCs. Besides stats, description, and thumbnail portrait by Ashley Jones, each NPC is discussed in terms of how he relates to the campaign's overall plot, which helps as there are over forty key NPCs to keep track of!

The NPCs include cameo appearances from well-known figures, such as the infamous Aleister Crowley, and there is even the possibility of meeting a certain Professor J. R. R. Tolkein.

It is not just people that receive cameos, for the campaign takes the investigators back to the Scottish village of Cannich, near Loch Mullardoch, which originally appeared in the very first ever published Call of Cthulhu campaign, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. There is also an opportunity to visit a portion of Goatswood and the Severn Valley of the 1920s. Confused about the locations of Leng and Tsang? It is kind of sorted out here.

Act 3:

The whole campaign oozes atmosphere. If there is a predominant feeling, it is of coldness, be it the featured historically harsh British winter of 1928-29 in Book 1, to the high mountain passes of the Himalayas in Book 3. A contrast sharply defined by their travels through tropical India : The atmosphere is often dreamlike; mist and fog obscure views, and things are seen at the edge of the investigators' vision. As befitting a Great Old One whose provenance seems to lie in blurring the lines between reality and the realm of lost Carcosa, this dreamlike state is re-enforced.

While author Tim Wiseman sticks to the conventional Chaosium line that Hastur is, " . . . a tentacular blob of a monster," he nevertheless extensively draws upon John Tynes' descriptions of Carcosa from the article in Unspeakable Oath #1 -- "The Road to Hali," and from Pagan Publishing's Delta Green: Countdown. Also like the various Call of Cthulhu campaigns from Pagan Publishing, the author illuminates what happened in certain instances when the campaign was being play tested, which helps a Keeper gain insight as to how players might react to particular situations and suggest how to stage certain episodes.

If there is one nit-pick, the campaign sticks to a rigid timetable in the early stages and the clues are doled out slowly. There is no way to hurry matters in this regard and GMs are advised to ask players if their characters wish to do other things and then fast forward to the next stage. There is a certain degree of linearity to the plot, but this is compensated by the sheer weight of detail (and atmosphere) within the scenarios.

Epilogue:

This is about as close to perfect as it gets and is a worthy heir to Chaosium's best early campaigns. There is a fantastic level of detail, atmospheric artwork, and clear line drawn maps and plans by Anthony Fentiman. Several plot threads slowly emerge propelled by various well-motivated NPCs. The players may well be surprised that the Cult of Hastur they contend against is far removed from the usual collective of slavering kill-crazed fanatics who sacrifice innocents by the score to summon their sanity destroying deity. Agendas are pursued and the players through their characters must negotiate their way though this morass of humanity to seek out the alien seeds of inhumanity that lurk around them.

When the player characters' chief opponent specialises in blurring the line between the mundane and the fantastic, you know that you are in for an especially hard time. This is not an easy campaign to run, but the author has gone out of this way to make it as easy as possible with timelines, full NPC details, and notes on how to pace the game. It is a rich, immersive campaign that players (especially experienced hands) and Keepers alike should enjoy and find a rewarding role playing experience.


David Lai lives in Birmingham, UK and first arrived there sixteen years ago and has been stuck there ever since. He notes wryly that he must have done something REALLY horrible, because murderers spend less time in prison than that. Any resemblance between Birmingham and a lunatic asylum is purely co-incidental.

 
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