18 November 2009

Review: Farewell, My Sanity (Chaosium, 2007)

This review was originally published in a slightly different form on RPG Geek.

This is Chaosium's Miskatonic University Library Association Monograph #0346, Farewell, My Sanity, originally published in 2007. The MULA books are limited print run, rough-draft style releases from Chaosium. Their purpose is threefold: one, to test the market on a limited basis to see if there is demand for a wider release; two, to allow authors a quick path to publication in the hobby; three, to save Chaosium money on editing, typesetting, art, etc.

The good news is that you can get more unusual material, or that with limited mainstream appeal, than you would otherwise. The downside is that this is often little more than a step above self-publishing, and they are often expensive compared to official releases in the main line. Farewell, My Sanity is an exception to this at $20 for 120pp, although there is a lot of white space that pads the page count unnecessarily.

Content-wise, this contains two excellent, solid scenarios that capture the feel of both Call of Cthulhu as well as Los Angeles.

Spoilers abound!  Players, stop reading now!

Farewell, My Sanity

The Vitals

Publisher: Chaosium (Hayward, CA).
ISBN: 9781568822327
In print?: No, as of Nov-2009.  Available as a PDF though.
List price: $13.95 for the PDF.
Pages: 120
Dimensions: 8.5"x11"
Format: Quality paperback, perfect bound
Weight: 12 oz.


The Investigators are owners and employees of the Guzman-Willent Detective Agency who have two unusual cases in the early 1920s.  The first involves a missing persons case -- the suspect turns out to be an heir to the horrific Marsh legacy, come west to spread his family's sickening curse on the country's Pacific coast.  He intends to call his family's patron deity to wipe out the seaside playground of Venice.  Can the Investigators stop him in time?

In the second case, the agency is hired to secretly record a band with a hot new sound.  The seemingly-normal but insane band leader, however, has fallen in with an unsavory mentor and intends to use their next concert as a vehicle for summoning a god.  If the Investigators don't stop him, hundreds or thousands will die as the god reaps a terrible harvest in the City of Angels.

General Impressions

Art:  Great!  The art is adequate to excellent, especially considering that this is a MULA monograph. The cover art and character portraits are good, but what really takes this book to the next level is its abundance of period photographs of LA, Venice Beach, and Catalina. With so many of these in the public domain now, it would be easy for artists/authors to find many different suitable pictures. As photos often convey the sense of place much better than a handful of line drawings, I would love for this to become a trend in the MULA line and in the game as a whole.

Layout: Poor.  Graphic design is a bit of a mish-mash. It's mostly pedestrian and straightforward -- not in a bad way per se, just not exciting. One questionable choice is splitting up long sections of background information over multiple non-adjacent pages. E.g.:

p38: scenario material.
p39: historical background on Catalina Island (1/2).
p40: scenario material.
p41: historical background on Catalina Island (2/2).
p42: scenario material.

This is very jarring to read and a better layout would make things flow better.

Editing:  Good.  No major typos.

Index:  Terrible.  Non-existent.

Company Support:  Poor.  Handouts are not available for download.


Memorandum, 2pp, Fair.  Some advice from the author about the scenarios and things he likes to do as a Keeper.

Under The Boardwalk

Length: 27pp.

Setting:  Classic era. Los Angeles, CA and Venice Beach, CA.  15-Dec-1920.

Hook:  Fair.  The Investigators work for the Guzman-Willent Detective Agency.  A woman hires them to find her missing daughter, who has (unbeknown to the mother) run away with a charming young man with the ominous name of Robert Marsh.  Pretty average, as far as hooks go.

Adaptability to other places:  Poor. Much of this is based around LA and derives its sense of history and atmosphere from that city. Many of the NPCs are Mexican-American and would not work as well outside of Southern California, or at least the southwest. It could possibly go to Coney Island but would require rewriting of almost everything outside of the basic plot sketch.

Adaptability to other eras:  Terrible. The plot involves construction of a boardwalk-style amusement park.  Gaslight is just nonsensical; modern-era Venice Beach is just as nonsensical.

Originality:  Good.  This definitely borrows liberally from Raymond Chandler to excellent effect.  Very noir in parts (although its setting technically predates the noir era by at least a decade), which is unusual against the more common pulp feel of Call of Cthulhu.  The Los Angeles setting is also well realized and unusual.  As a nice touch, it also suggests appropriate sound effects for the various scenes if you'd like to line them up beforehand.

Coherence:  Good.  NPC motivations are logical and compelling.

Pacing:  Good.  The passive investigation portion (go to various official buildings, roll Library Use) is short; much of the investigation involves sneaking around and doing dangerous (and exciting) things.

Degree of Player-Driven Action: Good.  Lots of choices at the climax and several different ways things can play out.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Fair.  Straightforward.

NPCs:  Good.  Roleplaying advice and motivations are given for each one.  This is an excellent idea and I'd like to see it become standard.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  Two.

Suitability for campaign play:  Fair. As written, it assumes the Investigators are members of a detective agency; any setup where the PCs in LA and for hire will be fine.  The difficulty is that not many campaigns are set in California to begin with.

Suitability for one-shot:  Great!  It includes pre-generated characters, ready to go.

Likelihood of Investigator survival:  Good to Mediocre, depending on their choices.

Final Rating:  Good. A nice use of actual historical background tied into the plot in clever ways that give some surprises. A standard threat is given a good twist through their use of the environment. Several excellent set pieces provide some memorable showdowns at various points.

An Enchanted Evening

Length: 31pp.

Setting:  Classic era. Los Angeles/Catalina Island, 16-Aug-1923.

Hook:  Fair.  As before, the Investigators are assumed to be detectives for hire.  A music producer wants them to attend a concert by a hot new band and secretly record it.

Adaptability to other places:  Good. The Catalina setting is well-researched but the plot does not depend on it.  Coastal cities would be the easiest (much of the adventure takes place on an island) but with some work it could go about anywhere.

Adaptability to other eras:  Mediocre. You'd have to change a few things here and there but it could easily go to Gaslight or the Modern era without serious modification to the plot. Major NPCs would need rewriting though.

Originality:  Good.  Tricking an unsuspecting audience into casting a spell has been around since the "Look To the Future" chapter of the venerable Shadows of Yog-Sothoth.  However, it's done a little more interestingly here and does a good job of capturing the exciting energy of a hip new sound.  Sprinkling in some period slang will help.

Coherence:  Good.  An excellent use of the then-current fad for dance marathons with appropriate manipulation by evil cultists.

Pacing:  Great!  The author uses time pressure to excellent effect here -- the Investigators simply must be at the concert hall when the show begins or they don't get paid.  This adds stress to every aspect of the preceding investigations.  Do they have time to do everything they want?

Degree of Player-Driven Action: Great!  Tons of flexibility in how the Investigators make their initial inquiries, talk to key NPCs, and approach the showdown.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Good.  The aforementioned flexibility allowed the Investigators will require complementary flexibility on the part of the Keeper.

NPCs:  Good.  The portly, cigar chomping music executive.  A ditzy flapper who's simply mad for dancing.  The naive new band member.  The washed-up former band member.  And, of course the ex-boxer Irish priest.  Someday I'd like to see a study done on how many Irish-American priests in the 1920s actually were boxers.  According to Call of Cthulhu, it's all of them.  Like the previous adventure, all NPCs are given copious (and excellent) roleplaying notes.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  Two.

Suitability for campaign play: Fair.  As above, it depends on your campaign.  Campaigns set in Los Angeles will have no issues, but you'll probably be rewriting other adventures to move them west.  Campaigns not set in Los Angeles will have to figure out a way to get the Investigators there, or rewrite the scenario.

Suitability for one-shot:  Great!  Very memorable.

Likelihood of Investigator survival:  Terrible to Good.  A very real chance to take a 1d10/1d100 Sanity hit.
Final Rating:  Good. A somewhat standard trope done well.

The Rest of It

Handouts, 32pp, Great!  Fine detail and lovely art from David Milano.  One of the antagonists in "Under the Boardwalk" is an artist and many of the clues come in the form of various unsettling sketches he leaves lying around.  There's more excellent period photographs, maps, and so on.  The historical research that went into this really takes it over the top.  Normally I am not too big on historical accuracy, but using pictures to set the mood is brilliant.

I should also mention that there are really only 16 pages of handouts; each page is blank on the back.  I suppose this is great if you want to butcher your book but it's mostly just a waste of space.

Pre-Generated Characters, 12pp, Great!  Well-designed characters that work together and provide an excellent and diverse skill set for navigating the travails of the Mythos in Los Angeles.  As above, it's really only 6 pages.

D20 Characters and NPCs, 7pp, Fair.  Does anybody still run the d20 Call of Cthulhu?

Links and Advertisements, 2pp, Great!  While the author and artist's websites are essentially placeholders, there's some nice historical ones on Venice and Catalina, and a fantastic site called sounddogs.com, which has thousands of free sound effect files if you like to add effects to your games.


Great!  Vanek really gets both Call of Cthulhu and Los Angeles. Both of these are really well-done scenarios that made me want to run them after reading them.

The historical angle is phenomenally well-researched here; all relevant places, times, etc. are explained in loving detail that gets to the heart of the issue without going into too much detail (for the most part). The caveat there is because at times the historical background felt a little like padding; however it is easy enough to skip over. Non-Angelenos and foreign players will no doubt appreciate the detail, especially if they want to represent the real LA -- as a native of the LA area myself, I am often bemused/annoyed by fictional versions of the city and its culture, specifically the common assumption that everything revolves around the film and television industries or celebrities.  Thankfully Vanek captures both the soul and the soullessness of LA and if he didn't admit up front that he lives there, it would be obvious to me just from his portrayal of the city.

As far as his attempt to write noir scenarios for the game, it's just okay.  Noir is characterized by its lack of strong moralizing.  Its heroes are ambiguous -- not really anti-heroes, but not white knights either.  They aren't afraid to use force against men (or women), and they are often callous and fatalistic.  Interestingly this is appropriate for Lovecraftian themes (and of course Lovecraft, Chandler, and Hammett all developed this post-moral outlook roughly simultaneously).

However, the Call of Cthulhu game is actually one of the most moralizing games out there.  This is due to the Sanity stat conflating both mental stability and moral character.  Any dubiously-moral act that an Investigator does -- pull a gun on an old lady merely because she won't rent a room to you?  doom an ocean liner and hundreds of its passengers to a watery grave? -- is subject to the Keeper calling for a Sanity check.  Not that I'm complaining -- this is actually one of the best tools in the Keeper's arsenal for preventing Investigators from acting like the homicidal, genocidal, psychopathic "heroes" common in other games.  Especially in a campaign game, it encourages players to act like Boy Scouts to prolong their Investigator's viability.

Unfortunately, this also runs against a real simulation of the noir genre.  Rather than engage in callous violence, Investigators will studiously avoid it unless absolutely necessary.  I actually think that Stolze's Nemesis, with its Unknown Armies-style Madness Meters, would actually be a superior fit for a Lovecraftian/Noir mashup.  Rather than penalize the players for amoral activity, it rewards it -- but only up to a point.  This double-edged sword approach would actually serve to reinforce the genre.

All that aside, this is one of the best monographs out there for scenarios, and Mr. Vanek has really done a stellar job. I hope this gets picked up for a wider official release from Chaosium and I look forward to more of Mr. Vanek's work.


  1. Cool, thanks for the long review!

    I'm just starting to research my next monograph: a collection of historical figures from the 20's and 30's to use as players and NPCs.

    I'm including a scenario at the end that features the original Ghostbusters of the 20's, topped by the legendary Harry Houdini himself. I think my players had fun playing the world-renowned escape artist (and it was fun to finally beef out a character's stats--like it ever matters in CoC).

    I also have a supplement coming out in Worlds of Cthulhu magazine #7: a catalogue of psychedelic drugs (and stats) from and for the Mythos, from Black Lotus to the Plutonian Drug, with a lot in between.



  2. Aaron, thanks for the comment. I wasn't familiar with your contributions to the game before this, but based solely on the strength of your MULA I plan to pick up your other stuff.

  3. Wow, thanks!

    So far, I also have a scenario called "They Sleep by Twilight" in Worlds of Cthulhu magazine #5.

    And my friend Scott Glancy wants me to do a scenario for Pagan Publishing. I have an idea for a long campaign-style game that takes place at the Chicago World's Fair (Century of Progress, 1933), but that's way on the back burner (and the level of research I want to do for it scares me).

    And on a side note, my friend Mike Tice, who proofread and playtested the MULA adventures is the same Tice who co-wrote Taint of Madness and is credited in the CoC rules v. 5.5.

    We've had some good CoC games out here in sunny SoCal (though Mike hasn't run any in years, unfortunately).

    Happy holidays!