08 November 2009

Review: Miskatonic University (Chaosium, 2005)

(This review originally appeared in slightly different form at RPG Geek.)

This is a large supplement written by Sam Johnson and released by Chaosium in 2005. It's the third reworking of official material published about the famous university, expanding upon 1995's Miskatonic University Guidebook by Sandy Atunes, which itself expanded on Keith Herber's groundbreaking Arkham Unveiled (1990). This is not a third edition, as most of the material here is either new, newly collated, or newly rewritten. Johnson put a lot of work into this and it was long in coming -- I think three years past its original projected release.

The main point of this supplement, as stated in the "Clear Credit" section, is to be the complete gaming reference for M.U., pulling in every creature, character, secret, etc. from the history of gaming scenarios and also most Mythos fiction. Unfortunately this has a fairly mixed effect, as I'll go into later.

Dire Secrets & Campus Life

The Vitals

Publisher: Chaosium, http://www.chaosium.com
ISBN: 1568821409
In print?: Yes, as of Nov-2009.
List price: $29.95
Pages: 256
Dimensions: 8.5"x11"
Format: Trade paperback, perfect-bound
Weight: 1 lb., 10 oz.

In General:

Art: Great! The cover is a little goofy but the interior art really excels, especially the NPC portraits which completely capture the personalities in an evocative and moody manner. Only a few "meh" pieces. There's not much compared to other books, but what is there makes this one of the best and most consistent books in the line from an art standpoint.

Layout: Good. Well-organized, highly readable, easy to find information. There's the currently-typical Chaosium trend of doing heavy, dark borders around all the pages. Without it the margins would be excessive, but with it you don't really notice. It still feels a little shady and a way to cheaply pad out the page count and thus cost to the consumer, with minimal added expense to the publisher.

Editing: Superb! I didn't notice a single typo, bad reference, or any other misstep. It reads like it's been gone over with a fine-toothed comb.


Introduction, 8pp, Great! Or as great as 8 pages will get. A mature and well-considered look at M.U. as an institution and how it fits into the campaign and the larger Lovecraftian canon.

Miskatonic University, 62pp, Fair. Starts with an overview of the history (through Fall 1928, post Dunwich Horror) and layout of M.U. In the manner of the Lovecraft Country books, this details almost every location on the map. Especially nice is the lovely and thoughtful exposition on the fabled Orne Library and the beloved Dr. Armitage. If you've ever wondered exactly what's in the Restricted Stacks, here's the official answer.

We run into our first sign of trouble in this chapter too. Of the 15 characters detailed in this chapter, seven of them have some ability in the Cthulhu Mythos skill, four of them know at least one spell, and two of them have 0 SAN. In the section on the university's museum, it describes 26 (!) different items which are Mythos-related in some way, some relatively innocuous (pass a Mythos check to identify a badly-worn representation of a Deep One) but some blatant (enchanted items, spells). That number will go up to 28 once the ill-fated Antarctica Expedition struggles home in 1931.

For some this might not be an issue, but it doesn't sit right with me and is not the flavor I prefer in the game. Things Man Was Not Meant To Know should not be known by half the NPCs. Having supernatural people and doohickies tripping all over each other feels extremely pulpy, to the point of parody. Were I to use this information, I'd leave most of this out. Especially the magical items -- your D&D campaign might be fine with a closet full of used quality pre-owned +1 short swords, but this is Call of Cthulhu. An excellent rule of thumb from The Riddle of Steel that I like: magic items should be rare enough that every single one of them has a name.

One counter-argument that could be made is that this is not representative of the university but only of the NPCs the author chose to stat out. This has some merit but ultimately it is unsupportable one way or another: the exact size and population of the university is deliberately left unstated, so there is no canonical answer as to exactly how unusual Mythos knowledge is at M.U. Regardless, even if the university is (contrary to canon) large, what matters here is the tone that the book sets: Mythos is everywhere, watch your step! Maybe you like that, but it's not for me.

People on Campus, 54pp, Mediocre. The problems of the previous chapter accelerate, but now with a new addition: Regular people. This leads to a weird dichotomy where every NPC is either a boring normal person, or an uber-secret sorcerer/witch/etc. Too many magic folks tripping over each other, and I can make boring normals on my own, thanks. One bright spot is the "Miskatonic People Maker" that has a helpful random name generator for period names. Unfortunately it needs to be much bigger -- it's based on 1d20, and I think there are more than 20 last names represented at M.U. I would love to see this expanded into a general "random NPC name generator for the 1920s, organized by ethnic background and/or race." I have an old one of these lying around on notebook paper somewhere, but it's entirely fabricated out of wholecloth based on names that sounded vaguely Ye Olde Fashioned to my ear -- one that was actually based on period names would be a vast improvement.

Getting an Education, 20pp, Poor. How To Go To School. While there is a slight possibility that this might be useful to people who (a) want to run a campaign entirely centered around PCs as students at M.U., and/or (b) foreigners and high-school dropouts who are totally and completely unfamiliar with the American university system, I really can't imagine that this would be even remotely prominent in any campaign I'd care to run or play in.

Miskatonic Secrets, 63pp, Poor. The first major "wow, seriously?" moment of the book. A good ol'-fashioned Mythos hoedown, yee-haw!, with supernatural people and creatures tripping over each other left, right, and center. Using all of these is a recipe for bad comedy (hopefully intentional), so you'll just use a handful but still pay for all of them.

Has almost a dozen scenario seeds which range from Fair to Great.

Scenario, "A Little Knowledge," 12pp, Great! An excellent scenario by Richard Watts, originally from the now-rare Arkham Unveiled. When that book was reworked as H.P. Lovecraft's Arkham, this scenario didn't make the cut and this book is now the only in-print place to find it.
     Setting: Classic. Miskatonic University, Arkham, MA; 2-May-1928.
     Adaptability to other places: Great! Any large university would suffice.
     Adaptability to other eras: Good. Nothing about here is inherently 1920s-ish and it would translate with a little effort. For Gaslight, the co-ed students would have to be made male. Modern requires a little more work, primarily in tone and the prevalence of authorities who deal with forensic type of work.
     Suitability for campaign play: Great! As written it assumes the PCs are students at M.U. but it would be easy enough to get them involved through one of the usual methods.
     Likelihood of PC survival: Superb to Good, depending on experience and choices. This one's pretty low-key.
     Final Rating: Great! The scenario does a fine job of utilizing some nice 1920's collegiate themes and also pays a bit of an homage to several classic Lovecraftian characters who never actually met in HPL's stories. Experienced Lovecraftians may find several bits all too obvious, so this is best used with people who lack that familiarity.

- New Magic, 7 pp, Fair. More spells that you'll never use.
- Mythos Tomes in Game Play, 5pp, Fair. Another alternate Sanity/research system for tomes, one of the most nonsensical aspects of the Sanity rules. In my opinion, the basic problem with the Sanity rules is that it tries to model two completely unrelated things (stability and morality) with one mechanic, and this leads to all sorts of silliness and attempted fixes. But that's a whole 'nother article. At any rate, these rules are an expansion of Johnson's semi-official option for tomes presented in The Keeper's Companion vol. 1 (2000). Unfortunately it is debatable whether the added complexity is worth it. As none of the proposed alternate treatments have made it into the base game, I suspect not. I tried it in a campaign and eventually gave it up.
- Useful Portable Items Found on the M.U. Campus, 1p, Poor. Did you know that a university has acid in the chemistry department?
- Pre-human Languages, and How to Read Them, 2pp, Fair. I'd just rather abstract it out, but if you really want (light) details on Yithian etc., here you go.
- Published Scenarios Adaptable for M.U. Play, 2pp, Good. Push this to Great or Superb if you're running a dedicated M.U. campaign. Enjoyable reading just for the brief reviews of scenarios -- the blessing and curse of the game is that there's so many scenarios out there it can be hard to find the good stuff. Comfortingly, the author largely agrees with my evaluations of the various scenarios, so look for me to become even more opinionated and insufferable in the future.
- some academic plans and degree templates, 11pp, Mediocre. Suitable for props in an M.U. campaign, but a little silly even with that assumption.

Index, 3pp, Good. Every RPG should have a detailed index.


Mediocre. +2 ranks if you actually want to run a campaign of M.U. students, +1 rank if you love the pulpiest aspects of Lovecraftian fiction, +1 rank if you're fine paying for a toolbox, most of which you probably won't use.

This is an amazingly well-done book that unwittingly encapsulates one of the biggest disputes in the CoC/Lovecraftian community. By which I mean: Most people who have played CoC for any length of time are aware that there's this basic split in the subculture, between being a Lovecraftian or being a Mythos gamer. The open secret of Call of Cthulhu is that it's not very Lovecraftian. Lovecraft's stories involve isolated protagonists uncovering dark secrets and then meeting unfortunate ends. The one exception is "The Dunwich Horror," which comes closest to modeling the typical CoC scenario -- a small group of people uncover some nastiness and defeat it. Later authors like the much-disparaged August Derleth would take this theme and make it almost standard in the fiction. The issue with running an actually Lovecraftian RPG is that it is of dubious fun. There'd be the GM and one PC, and the PC would die at the end of the scenario 99% of the time.

So to make CoC more marketable it has drifted away from Lovecraft's style. You now have groups of people who know about the Mythos and wage a secret war against it. The battles in this war are fought repeatedly, in that the PCs constantly encounter supernatural weirdness and go defeat it. Because making new characters every single session (or multiple times a session) is not really that fun, survivability goes up.

The net effect of all this is to make the game much more pulpy. You can suspend disbelief, but that only goes so far. ("Another hidden temple in the jungle? Hmm....") Largely this is for the better, for the reasons given above, but there is a scale of pure Lovecraft (on one end) to pure two-fisted pulp (on the other end), and for me this book is too close to the latter.

As I've mentioned, I like a few weird secrets for the PCs to encounter. As written, this book has so many secrets that it's just ridiculous. Even the incredibly pulpy/comical Buffy the Vampire Slayer realized this and had to invent an ad-hoc reason (the Hellmouth) just to justify why there's a new supernatural threat every single week. But here there's no justification given. It's weird just because it is. I think part of the problem is that Johnson was obligated to try and include absolutely everything published on M.U. This is necessarily going to cause problems. It's like a new writer getting assigned to Uncanny X-Men and having to deal with all their preposterous continuity -- most of the stories are okay in isolation, but when you have to treat them all as canon, it gets out of control very quickly. Same problem here. A better book would have had a small handful of Mythos people/stuff, but this also would have been a less sellable book: who wants to pay $30 for a droning description of a fictional university full of normal people?

Even assuming that you want the uber-pulp aspects, it occupies a weird niche: having a university crawling with dark secrets -- to the point of being ridiculously overrun -- is inherently pulpy, but if you're going to do pulp, why would you set things in a sleepy New England town instead of globe-spanning awesomeness, a la Masks of Nyarlathotep? And if globe-spanning, why do you need an entire hefty supplement on a small and obscure university? When I ran Masks two years ago, there were a few sessions at the beginning that involved a trip or three to M.U., but -- despite having this book within arm's reach the whole time -- I never grabbed it. It was easy enough to wing it, and just not that necessary unless you are specifically doing a "Lovecraft Country" campaign, and especially one set in Arkham, and especially one set in M.U.

Despite all my reservations, the scenario really is great, especially for people new to CoC. It's tempting to hold onto the book just for that, but overall this is a mostly a books for completists.

Thanks for reading. Comments, criticisms, and suggestions are always welcome.  If you enjoyed this review, please consider making your next Amazon purchase through the Lost Coast Mythos Bribery Division.

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