15 November 2009

Review: Our Ladies of Sorrow (Miskatonic River Press, 2009)

Kevin Ross has emerged as one of the most prolific authors in the history of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.  He became involved during the late eighties and has had his hand in many different products to at least some extent, over the life of the game.  He has produced quite a bit of work in the Dreamlands setting (sadly, most of it not very compelling to me) and its related city of Kingsport (Chaosium, 1991/2003), the latter completing the reknowned Lovecraft Country tour-de-force released by the company in the 1990s.  Ross' stellar sourcebook and mini-campaign Escape From Innsmouth (Chaosium, 1992/1997) cemented his reputation as one of the premier authors contributing to the Classic Era of the game.  In perhaps his greatest accomplishment, he wrote the first official appearance of The King in Yellow that paved the way for the modern interpretation of the Hastur Mythos, in his scenario "Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?"  Appearing in The Great Old Ones (Chaosium, 1989), it has become one of the most powerful modern additions to the Mythos.  Unfortunately, John Tynes' tremendous treatment of the Hastur Mythos in The Unspeakable Oath #1 (Pagan Publishing, 1990) followed by Tynes' and Dennis Detwiller's expansive, utterly definitive vision in Delta Green: Countdown (Pagan Publishing, 1999) would serve to overshadow Ross to an extent.  But Ross came first.

In 2008, Chaosium significantly liberalized its 3rd-party licensing policy, leading to a recent renaissance of new and returning contributors for Call of Cthulhu.  Keith "Doc" Herber and several others started Miskatonic River Press, a publishing company that brought together some of the greatest creative forces to release material for the game.  Ross came on board quickly, first supplying a scenario for New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley (2008), and then revising and releasing a project that he'd had developing for almost two decades, leading to the current book:  Our Ladies of Sorrow.

This review covers material for Keepers only; please treat all information as potential spoilers.  Prospective players, stop reading now.

Our Ladies of Sorrow

The Vitals

Publisher: Miskatonic River Press (Lakeland, FL),
ISBN: 9780982181829
In print?: Yes, as of Nov-2009.
List price: $34.95
Pages: 152
Dimensions: 8.5"x11"
Format: Quality paperback, perfect bound
Weight: 1 lb., 1 oz.


The Investigators become drawn into the machinations of a very old entity, one that takes the form of the Triple Goddess (Maiden-Mother-Crone, or in this case the Mothers of Shadows, of Sighs, and of Tears) and many other forms of a supernatural feminine principle -- referred to collectively as the Sisters.  This entity is capricious and sadistic, and enjoys toying with humans.  The Investigators must defeat each of her three manifestations and then survive one final showdown against her/them.

General Impressions

Art:  Fair.  A nice cover, presenting a somewhat classical take on the maiden-mother-crone motif.  Subdued colors and solid composition combine to make a compelling picture.  The art overwhelms the title a little and it gets lost on the cover.

The interior has a little over two dozen pencil sketches, lightly inked to add a bit of depth.  On average, these felt a little mediocre both in execution and subject matter.  I would have liked to see more intensity to add to the mood.

Layout:  Superb!  About as perfect as you can expect.  While many people read more Call of Cthulhu material than they actually get to the table (myself sadly included), MRP recognizes the fundamental nature of RPGs as games.  They fully express this design philosophy in their layout for their books.  The layout looks extremely clean, almost sparse: Two-column pages with minimal distraction.  No scrollwork in the margins, no "dark" or "edgy" motifs.  Clean, high contrast paper allows for easy reading even under the typical low- or candle-light situations in which many play Call of Cthulhu.  The design remains consistent throughout.

Editing:  Great!  A few minor and infignificant typos.

Index:  Terrible.  Non-existent.

Company Support:  Mediocre.  No PDFs of the handouts on the company website.  This  especially disappoints considering the high standard set for the phenomenal prop downloads available for New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, their first game release.  However, the company does maintain an active presence on popular Call of Cthulhu fansite yog-sothoth.com, and quickly answer questions.


Foreword, 3pp, Good.  Tersely lays out the scope and nature of the campaign, and how it differs from your standard Call of Cthulhu setup.  Specifically, Ross has written a modern day, non-Mythos campaign.  While the antagonists have spells from the Call of Cthulhu rulebook, Ross recommends treating them as guidelines for what they might do.  Actually using the spells verbatim (e.g., Contact Rat-Thing) would result in a campaign with a drastically different, and incoherent, feel.

Introduction, 4pp, Great!  The Introduction expands on the themes in the Foreward and gives specific advice on play.  It also mentions that Keepers can and should run other scenarios between the ones in this campaign.  I agree with this but have some reservations.  I can see how the themes will resonate much stronger if you leave and return to them, like an oscillating wave; but the nature of the interspersed scenarios will play a large part in how the game feels.  A Keeper could easily derail the strong themes of supernatural haunting that Our Ladies presents if after the first part, the Investigators go fight some ghouls; and after the second, they go fight some Mi-Go; and so on.  Preserving the non-Mythos nature of the campaign really seems like the best way to go here, but good luck finding quality modern-day non-Mythos adventures.  Ross recommends The Stars Are Right! (Chaosium, 1992/2004) or Unseen Masters (Chaosium, 2001) but as every scenario in these two involves the Mythos to at least some degree, you'll have to file off some of the edges to make it a good fit into this campaign.  This includes not only creatures, but also cults, ancient books, corrupt atavistic inheritances, and other classic tropes of the Lovecraftian genre.

The Introduction continues with advice on working the scenarios into an existing Delta Green campaign (easy) and provides an overview of the nature of the Sorrows (whatever you want, but probably living embodiments of concepts a la The Endless in Gaiman's Sandman) and what they can do (almost anything).  He also includes a discussion on how to Mythos it up if you really just can't stand not to.  While I appreciate Ross offering options, taking him up on this seems kind of pointless: if you want a straight Mythos campaign, the game has no shortage of already-existing ones you can run.  Ross has something different going on here.

Book One - Tenebrarum: House of Shadows 

Length: 34pp.

Setting:  Modern, date and place unspecified.

Hook:  Mediocre, but easily fixable.  As written, the Investigators see a fatal accident involving an NPC (caused by Mater Tenebrarum, the first of the Ladies of Sorrow) and then have nightmares involving her.  Ross assumes they will then investigate based solely on that.  I would prefer to up the threat level and make into a more explicit curse: the Investigators have attracted the Mater's attention through their contact with the victim.  Perhaps his dying words attempt to warn them not to touch him.... Regardless, they need a more pressing reason to get involved than just altruism or possible curiosity.

Adaptability to other places:  Superb!  Any large city will suffice.

Adaptability to other eras:  Good.  You'll have to adjust the dates on many clues, and possibly make some of them easier to find (i.e., without the internet) but it easily falls within the abilities of your average Keeper.

Originality:  Great!  I don't know of anything written for game quite like this.  It explores a type of horror that Call of Cthulhu hasn't touched, proving the old girl still has life in her yet.

Coherence:  Good.  NPCs' motivations generally hang together.  No major missteps, fudging, or things happening "just because."

Pacing:  Fair.  Has the potential to lag in the middle.  The main portion of the scenario involves investigating a (possibly) tediously-large apartment building. Fortuitously Ross includes a number of events to drive action and keep the tension smoothly ramping up.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Good.  There is some flexibility as to when major events happen, when the Investigators go to significant locations, and so on.  However there is a set climax to the scenario and the plot rushes inexorably towards it.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Good.  Lots of NPCs with distinct personalities that might prove challenging to quickly switch between.  The fuzzy timeframe means that the Keeper will have to be proactive in introducing events at the right pace.

NPCs:  Great!  I really liked the different NPCs here, finding them all unique and believable as characters.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  Three.

Suitability for campaign play:  Great!  Should fit into almost any campaign without too much difficulty, subject only to the reservations about its non-Mythos nature, already discussed.

Suitability for one-shot:  Great!  You could easily run this as a standalone. You'd lose the mythic and narrative power of the whole three-part motif, but it would work fine as a curse/haunting type of scenario.  You'd probably also want to remove a little foreshadowing presented in one of the dream sequences.

Likelihood of Investigator survival:  Great!  While creepy and unsettling, the threat the Mater presents comes from a slow but steady Sanity drain, not large random losses of Sanity or hit points.  Ross also recommends using her non-lethal attacks during the final showdown, as this is the first scenario of the campaign.

Final Rating:  Great!  A unique approach, well-executed by a master.  Held back a rank only due to the skill necessary to juggle many different NPCs and to drive the action forward in lieu of a firm timeframe.

Book Two - Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs

Length:  34pp.

Setting:  Modern, Arizona (Kingman and the Mojave Desert), 2008.  A pet peeve:  Ross never actually comes out and says the year.  I had to calculate it based on the age of an NPC and his given birth year.  Would it be so hard to just state the year the scenario is set in?  That would make it much easier for the Keeper to adjust based on campaign needs.  Anyway, you could set this without modification from 2006 through about 2018 or so; after that you'd need to start adjusting dates to prevent the NPCs from being too old to be believable.

Hook:  Fair.  The Investigators are asked to help out a family friend, a college student whose group disappeared during a hiking trip in the Mojave.

Adaptability to other places:  Poor.  Not as easy as just transporting it to another desert, you'd also have to rewrite most of the NPCs as they're mostly Hualapai Indian or otherwise strongly connected to the American southwest.

Adaptability to other eras:  Poor.  Exploring the Mojave without an experienced guide is suicidal before the advent of modern GPS devices.  The GPS devices also provide significant clues in the scenario.

Originality:  Good.  No points for setting, as the southwest has been used a fair amount in published scenarios and the influence of Latin America is also prominent.  However the strong and unusual antagonists, the well-written NPCs, and the creepy otherworldliness of desert combined to present a memorable experience.

Coherence:  Good.  One concern is that Mater Suspiriorum's motivations (to give rest to the hopeless) are not as well-defined as Mater Tenebrarum's.  Suspiriorum is necessarily more passive.

Pacing:  Good.  Ross divides the plot up into nicely distinct acts that frame the narrative well.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Fair.  We're mostly on rails here, but they're good rails.  A nice touch that elevates it slightly is the focus on the Investigators' backgrounds -- specifically, anything they have done that is shameful or caused some degree of ostracizing.  If the Keeper has been going by the book, this discussion will have taken place before the campaign, ideally in a one-on-one conversation with each player.  Put this in the context of a larger conversation so it doesn't stand out.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Good.  Integrating the Investigators' backgrounds on the fly will be challenging to do well, but the rest of it is straightforward.

NPCs:  Great!  Fewer to worry about than the previous chapter, but more memorable.  Joseph Two Knives, the shady Yaqui diablero, is a great character -- potentially an iconic character, although you'd have to change him a little to use him in other contexts (he'd make a great double-edged ally in Arkham Horror) -- and the spooky picture of him grinning over a flickering campfire is my favorite piece of artwork in the book.  One nice note is the well-rounded use of Native American characters.  They're real people, not all just drunks or super-enlightened shamans.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions: Four.  Some might be a little short, but I think that's how the acts naturally break down:  Investigating, Desert Trip One, Desert Trip Two, City of Gloom.  Some of the initial investigating could take place at the end of Act 1 or the beginning of Act 2 if they need padding out.

Suitability for campaign play:  Great!

Suitability for one-shot:  Fair.  Outside of the motif of the triple goddess, Mater Suspiriorum is not especially meaningful or threatening.

Likelihood of Investigator survival:  Good to Mediocre.  If they shed blood in the garden, it may well be curtains.  Mater Suspiriorum, for all that she is not actively malevolent, is pretty dangerous.  Surprisingly, one of her forms does not inflict much sanity loss despite being pretty crazy.

Final Rating:  Great!  A solid second chapter that manages to be distinct from the first, but still threatening and compelling.

Book Three - Lachrymarum: River of Tears

Length: 32pp.

Setting:  Modern.  "Baleford," Illinois, a fictional city based on Galena, Illinois.  Summer 2009.

Adaptability to other places:  Fair.  Any place subject to heavy rainfall and flooding, that also has a sizeable Hispanic population, would work.

Adaptability to other eras:  Poor.  Much of the plot revolves around a film buff and his devotion to a female classic movie star from the studio era of the '30s and '40s.  Moving this back to Classic could work if you made her a forgotten opera star instead, but this would take a bit of work.  Gaslight would require almost completely rewriting the scenario due to the social status of women prior to the era.

Hook:  Mediocre.  A paranormal author NPC from the first scenario calls and accuses the Investigators of pulling a practical joke by having someone pretend to be a scary woman and threaten his kids.  Of course it's actually Mater Lachrymarum, in her guise as "La Llorona," the Mexican weeping ghost-mother-woman figure.  She then asks the author if he knows [random Investigator], and upon getting confirmation, tells the author to tell the Investigator that she wants to see him.  The Investigators, out of charity and curiosity, fly to Illinois.

This is really weird and seems hard to pull off.  Why wouldn't a paranormal author, who is in town specifically to investigate La Llorona sightings, immediately jump to the conclusion that he is dealing with La Llorona?  Especially after she lifts him off the ground by his neck! The practical joke angle seems bizarre to me.  I'd just run it straight, and for good measure throw in a threat to the Investigator's child.

Originality:  Good.  It's nice to see a classic ghost get the Call of Cthulhu treatment, although many of the other tropes surrounding the main plot are somewhat well-worn.  It does present a different threat than the first two chapters, keeping the Investigators on their toes.

Coherence:  Fair.  Aside from the hook, it generally works.

Pacing:  Mediocre.  It's okay, but there's not a dictinct rhythm like in the second scenario.  Mostly it feels like one big muddle as the Investigators stumble around in the rain and look for clues.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Fair.  There's a lot of flexibility as to how they react to the various machinations of La Llorona, although if they want to defeat her they'll have to face her down on her turf.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Mediocre.  This one's pretty straightforward.

NPCs:  Mediocre.  Competent, but none that really grabbed me.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  Two or three.

Suitability for campaign play:  Great!  Like the others.

Suitability for one-shot:  Great!  Probably better than the others due to the extant legend already surrounding La Llorona.

Likelihood of Investigator survival:  Fair.  The final showdown with Mater Lachrymarum is pretty serious, but a determined and sizeable group will take her down.

Final Rating:  Mediocre.  Honestly, this one just didn't excite me, especially considering the quality of the first two.  It just came across as forced and by-the-numbers, which disappointed me -- due to the richness of Hispanic culture and the Llorona legend, combined with the expected menace of the third Mater, I expected something really special.  Something feels missing.

Book Four - Epilogue: The Final Cut

Length: 13pp.

Setting:  Modern.  Several months to a year-and-a-half after Lachrymarum, in late fall/winter.  North Fork, Pennsylvania.

Adaptability to other places:  Superb!  Mostly takes place in dreamy otherworlds, so physical setting doesn't really matter.

Adaptability to other eras:  Great!  There's really nothing about this that ties it to the modern era.

Hook:  Good.  An NPC from the first scenario becomes an ally and then gradually withdraws, possibly due to depression.  This is one of the best ways to get Investigators involved in scenarios: they get attached to the NPC and have an emotional stake in his life.  The downside is that it requires a lot of setup, in this case keeping the NPC around for quite a while, including all the interspersed scenarios.

Originality:  Good.  The various dream sequences combined with the otherworldly finale really underscore the menace of the Matres.

Coherence:  Great!  This is where it all comes together.  The Matres have decided to deal with the Investigators once and for all, and are not pulling any punches.  Due to their immense power, almost anything could happen here, so my rating is not so much whether the events of this scenario are "realistic" but more about their narrative impact and cohesiveness.  And in my opinion, Ross pulls it off with panache.  This is a fine finale to a great campaign.

Pacing:  Great!  Once the Investigators head off in search of their friend, the tension never lets up.  They are propelled madly from one crisis to another, culminating in a most terrible choice.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Great!  Many choices abound here, all are equally difficult, all have equally terrible outcomes.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Fair.  Nothing difficult here.

NPCs:  Fair.  Not very many, but assuming the Keeper did a good job of introducing their NPC friend in the first scenario, this one should be fun.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  One.

Suitability for campaign play:  Great, assuming it's the culmination of this campaign.

Suitability for one-shot:  Terrible.  Don't even bother; everything in here assumes that the Matres are reacting to the actions of the Investigators in the previous scenarios.

Likelihood of Investigator survival:  Poor to Fair.  Or Superb, if they make a terrible choice and take the Sanity hit.  Our Lady gives no quarter.

Final Rating:  Great!  A memorable end to a memorable campaign.

The Rest of It

Appendix: Our Ladies of Sorrow, 6pp, Great!  An excellent overview of the motif of the Triple Goddess, the Dark Mother, and all her related aspects.  Keepers should draw liberally from this well; the more the better.  I would have actually put this at the front of the book so that Keepers could have it in mind as they read through the campaign.

Appendix: "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow," by Thomas De Quincey, 2pp, Great!  A short story -- a fragment really -- that originally appeared in Suspiria de Profundis (1845) and served as the primary inspiration for the campaign.  While De Quincey is best known for his masterpiece Confessions of An English Opium Eater (1821), Suspiria has the distinction of being arguably better written, and certainly more fantastic -- if Confessions was the memoir of a descent into a harrowing fever-dream of addiction, Suspiria is the fever dreams themselves.  The inclusion of this into the text is a nice touch, and, like the previous appendix, helps put the campaign into the larger context of its literary and mythological heritage.

Bibliography, 1p, Good.  All the sources that inspired Ross and feature the Sorrows to at least some degree.  I would have liked to see the publication/release dates for the various works, but that's a nitpick.

Afterword, 3pp, Good.  Designer's notes, essentially.  I always enjoy a look into the genesis of a campaign and the reasons behind the author's creative choices.  Invariably, these help me when actually running the campaign -- knowing "why" in addition to "what" frames the plot and enables me to better present it to players, and especially improvise in response to them.

A final page rededicates the book to the late, great Keith "Doc" Herber, who died in the middle of helping to edit this project.  Although I never met Doc personally, I remember feeling so excited to hear that he was returning to working on material for the game.  For him to die so soon after his return hit pretty hard; I can't imagine the loss felt by those who actually knew him and worked with him for the decades that he continually pushed the game's boundaries.  Thanks to Mr. Ross for putting this in here -- a class act, although no doubt Ross felt it was the least he could do.

Handouts, 7pp, Poor.  Nothing better than what you could make yourself.  Essentially just cut and pasted from the text into the appendix.  Better than nothing, though.

Advertisements, 7pp, Fair.  A little silly to rate ads, but I do like to see other things out there in the Cthuluverse.  I admit to salivating a little over the "Future Releases from Miskatonic River Press" section.  And I always appreciate the fine young men over at HPLHS.

Colophon, 1p, Great!  In case writing a preposterously long review for a tabletop roleplaying game somehow fails to identify me as a raging nerd, let me also admit that I love a good colophon.


Great!  Kevin Ross and Miskatonic River Press have really outdone themselves here.  Usually I do not like modern-era Cthulhu scenarios, finding them almost invariably poorly done and lacking narrative cohesion.  Part of the problem is that, given the advances in information technology, it's not credible to run Classic-style stories merely transplanted eighty years into the future, yet most authors write exactly that.  I would submit that the continued popularity of the Delta Green setting supports this opinion.  To make the modern Mythos believable, Tynes et al. wrote out large amounts of canonical material and introduced several conspiracies that actively worked to suppress Mythos knowledge -- and also provided a convenient method for getting Investigators involved in the scenario, as well as ways to work around the modern restrictions on cheeky civilians poking around murder scenes.

Of course, despite the brilliance of Pagan Publishing's setting, it did not arrive ex nihilo.  It drew from many diverse sources, both fictional and non, primarily the diverse modern mythology surrounding UFOs, cryptozoology, and other fringe pseudoscience movements.  Ross does the same thing here by mining the equally rich vein of ghost stories.  Ghost stories provide a vibrant source of material for modern horror gaming: their antagonists appear only at will, do not necessarily leave traces of their activity, and may often be entirely psychological phenomena.  In short, despite all our technological advances, they still exist at the edges of our knowledge and awareness, flitting in and out of detectable reality, which makes them perfect foils for the modern, cynical, skeptical population from which our players come.

The recent fad surrounding Japanese horror movies (which Ross acknowledges) serves to illustrate this nicely.  While often repetitive and self-limiting in expression (really, another wet dead girl?) they revitalized the genre with their ability to show how isolation and powerlessness can still affect us in the modern world.  In fact, as I read the scenario, I kept thinking "The Grudge meets Sandman" and if I had to pick a tagline for this review, that'd be it.

A full exposition of Gaiman's Sandman lies outside my ability and the scope of this review.  However, we can clearly see the influences on Our Ladies.  By reaching back to De Quincey and before, Ross imbues the scenario with a Jungian spin that resonates to great effect -- like all Jungian/Campbellian stories done well, it transcends the sum of its often-limited parts and becomes something much greater.  I've heard Sandman described as "a myth about myths" and I agree: its power derives from using archetypes as characters.  Our Ladies also uses archetypes as characters, although to a more directly horrific and unsettling effect than Gaiman did.  Curiously, this works counter to most Mythos scenarios.  The fundamental principle of the Mythos is cosmic nihilism, i.e., we live in a vast universe that fundamentally does not care about anything we do, anything we want, or anything we value.  The universe has no meaning; its profound absurdity makes a mockery of everything about us.

But Ross' creation subverts this:  The Sisters do have meaning.  They do care about us: they torment us, and prey on our fears and hopes (unlike a Great Old One, which would step on us and not notice until five millennia later, when he scraped us off the bottom of his shoe).  This both helps and hurts Ross' narrative here.  Hurts, because it takes away from the vision of stark horror that normally informs Call of Cthulhu scenarios -- the Sisters want things and have goals, we can predict their actions and work against them.  But it also helps, because it taps into a different kind of fear: something more powerful than us wants to hurt us.  While fear of the unknown is indeed the oldest and strongest kind (as the grand old man himself opined), the other kinds are still worth exploring.

Interestingly, a precedent for this actually exists already in the Mythos:  The soul and messenger of the gods, Nyarlathotep himself, takes an abnormal interest in the affairs and tribulations of humanity.  Ross suggests an interpretation of the Sisters as an aspect of the Crawling Chaos, although wisely, he does not insist on it.  Part of the campaign's strength comes from the Sisters not having neat little categories into which they fit.  A detailed article discussing the greater relation of how an active menace fits into the themes of the Mythos, and how it both undermines and reinforces aspects of the game, remains to be written.

Ross uses Our Ladies of Sorrow to give us an opportunity to explore a kind of fear in a way that Call of Cthulhu hasn't seen before, and he does it in a way that sets the bar quite high.  Kudos to Ross and to MRP for releasing not only one of the best Call of Cthulhu campaigns of the decade, but also the best modern campaign available for the game.  I rate this an absolute must-buy.

Thanks for reading; as always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions for improvement are welcomed.  Specifically I would like feedback on the structure of the review and if reviewing each individual scenario, in addition to the book as a whole, helps the reader.

1 comment:

  1. MRP has released the handouts for the book in PDF form here: