06 December 2009

Review: Terrors From Beyond (Chaosium, 2009)

This is a rarity for Chaosium in recent years, a book of six non-campaign scenarios.  Not counting MULAs, they haven't done this since 2007's Mansions of Madness (2nd ed).  If you ignore second editions, you have to go all the way back to 1999's forgettable Last Rites.

Most (or all?) of these scenarios are taken from tournament scenarios and are designed primarily as one-shots.  They all provide pregenerated characters, both to tie the characters closely to the plot and to give the opportunity for roleplaying character types that might not otherwise see light of day.  Unlike Mansions of Madness, where all scenarios revolved around a spooky place, there is no real unifying theme.

As a review of a scenario anthology, this will contain multiple and egregious spoilers and is for Keepers' eyes only!  Players, read no further!

Terrors From Beyond
Nightmares Unraveled in Six Scenarios

The Vitals

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc. (Hayward, CA).
ISBN: 9781568822877
In print?: Yes, as of Dec-2009.
List price: US$25.95 (print), US$17.95 (PDF).
Pages: 208
Dimensions: 8.5"x11"
Format: Trade Paperback, perfect-bound.
Weight: 1 lb., 5 oz.

Overall Impressions

Art:  Fair.  The cover is gruesome but has no real connection to the contents.  Inside, it's typical Chaosium pen-and-ink.  The character portraits in general are excellent and have a nice stippling effect that is very evocative.  The maps, however, break this effect and are a little too computery in appearance -- not that the players will ever see them, of course.

Layout:  Fair.  Your standard two columns/page layout, broken up routinely by bits of art to keep it readable.  Each page has a one-inch margin on the outside edge -- also typical Chaosium.

Editing:  Fair.  No significant typos or mistakes.

Index:  Terrible; non-existent.

Company Support:  Poor.  No downloadable handouts.


Scenario 1:  "Ghost Light"

Author:  Gary Sumpter.  Sumpter's work is generally solid.  He wrote one of my favorite scenarios, "In the Shadows of Death," from 1995's In The Shadows (Chaosium).  He's also turned in some decent work in Before The Fall (Chaosium, 1998), and then a bunch of other stuff that has been good but didn't especially grab me.

Length:  15pp.

Setting:  Classic era.  Hallowsay Island, Orkney, Scotland.  19-Sep-1927.

The Hook:  The investigators are all lighthouse keepers, on their way to relieve an existing crew in the standard rotation.  While they are en route, they learn that the lighthouse has gone dark.  What happened, and why hasn't the current crew fixed it?

The Secret:  One member of the previous crew was a scholar who passed the long hours of isolation by dabbling in Things Man Was Not To Know.  He accidentally summoned some tough extradimensional nasties who killed everyone and are now waiting for more food to show up.  Clues to their defeat may be found, but can the Investigators figure it out in time?

Adaptability to other places:  Great!  Any isolated coastal locale would work.

Adaptability to other eras:  Good.  The lighthouse has been in existence since 1856 and would translate to Gaslight with minimal adjustment.  Modern would be more difficult; most lighthouses now no longer have keepers and are fully automated.  For Modern, Dark Ages, and Invictus, the Keeper will have to get rid of the entire lighthouse motif and come up with another type of isolated setting.

Originality:  Good.  An interesting twist on the haunted location trope that will have the players piecing together the puzzle.

Coherence:  Fair.  This is mostly investigating a disappearance; lack of NPCs make this one easy to pull off.  The extradimensional beasties don't have a clear motive -- apparently they just want to kill things?  Workable but uninspiring.

Pacing:  Good, but mostly up to the Keeper.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Fair.  As a location-based scenario, this is entirely on the Investigators and how they react to the preexisting situation.  However there's really only one way out, and they can either find it or die.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Mediocre.  A good choice for a beginner.  The main skill needed to make this one pop is (as Sumpter mentions) successfully portraying the utter sense of isolation at the lighthouse.

NPCs:  Good.  You don't meet them, but their characters are well-realized.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  One.

Suitability for campaign play:  Poor.  Will take major rewriting to give random Investigators a reason to go to a government-run lighthouse.

Suitability for one-shot:  Great!  That's what it's for.

Pre-generated Investigators:  Great!  Four altogether.  Considering that they're superficially the same (Scottish sailors/lighthouse keepers) they each have their own personality and are realistically and pleasantly different.

Likelihood of Investigator survival:  Poor.  The antagonists here are pretty deadly and almost unstoppable unless the Investigators do the exact right thing.

Final Rating:  Fair.  As a scenario, it's really only okay, but the nice setting bumps it up a little.  It's short and fairly direct, which limits the possibilities with it -- not much room for rabbit trails or diversions -- but for what it is, it's well done.

Scenario 2:  "A Method to Madness"

Author:  John Almack.  According the RPG.Geekdo.com, this is his only published scenario.

Length: 16pp.

Setting:  Classic era.  New England, USA.  Late 1920s.

The Hook:  The Investigators are all inmates in a private asylum.  However, all is not as it seems!  Strange experiments, mysterious staff, unexplained disappearances.  Something's coming to a head, but are a group of committed lunatics in a position to do anything about it?

The Secret:  A small number of mi-go have selected the asylum as a location for some horrible experiments in making human/mi-go hybrids.  They're going to do some fairly disgusting things and then burn it all to the ground.

Adaptability to other places:  Good.  Any asylum would work fine.

Adaptability to other eras:  Terrible.  Understanding and treatment of mental illness changes drastically through the ages.  As most of the setting is based around the model of the 1920s, moving this would require major rewriting.

Originality:  Fair.  Chaosium's The Asylum covered a similar setup but the execution was pretty different.  The antagonists are natural choices for shenanigans involving mental patients, given their established interest in the contents of our brainpans.

Coherence:  Fair.  The antagonists aren't really given much of a motivation (although this is not unusual for them).  Many of their actions are arbitrary, although the Keeper could probably invent a plausible one.

Pacing:  Mediocre.  There's not a whole lot of planned events; mostly the Investigators will mill around until the antagonists pull out the finale.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Fair.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Fair.  Integrating the exploration of the asylum grounds with the NPC's plans might be tricky for beginners.

NPCs:  Poor.  They are not very detailed -- one short description of each.  By itself this wouldn't be too bad, but for some bizarre reason the author has chosen to name the major NPCs similarly to famous people in the horror genre, changing their sex in the process.  This is a terrible idea and totally destructive to the mood.  Good luck keeping things focused and tense while your players snicker over "Stephanie King," "Joan Carpenter," "Marion Shelley," etc.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  One.

Suitability for campaign play:  Poor.  You'd have to arrange for all the Investigators to go insane and get institutionalized at the same time -- probably not that difficult.  Trickier will be maintaining plausability as they all get sent to the exact same asylum, the one that just happens to be where the bad guys are up to no good.  And then keeping the Investigators isolated from outside help.

Suitability for one-shot:  Good.  Again, by design.

Pre-generated Investigators:  Mediocre.  Six of them total.  A little over-the-top wackiness might overly encourage players who are already prone to chewing scenery.  However they're all mostly plausible, with the exception of all of them having extremely high Sanity for mental patients -- the average Investigator has 48 Sanity!  I would expect the average to be quite a bit lower.

Likelihood of Investigator survival:  Fair to Poor, depending on their choices.

Final Rating:  Poor.  A decent premise that shows up kind of DOA.  This one is not really that exciting or interesting.  Most of the good scenes will come from poking around the asylum and discovering bits of grue.  The basic plot is almost nonexistent.

Scenario 3:  "Death By Misadventure"

Author:  Glyn White.  He was involved in the MULA monograph Shadows of War (Chaosium, 2007), which I've not read but sounds interesting.

Length:  28pp.

Setting:  Classic Era.  Ravensby Abbey and Wisbech, East Anglia, United Kingdom.  Sep-1927.

The Hook:  Charles Stanhope, a close friend of the Investigators, accidentally killed himself with a shotgun.  They are to attend his funeral and the reading of the will.

The Secret:  The death was no accident.  Rather, it was a murder committed by alien entities under command of an undead sorcerer.  Stanhope accidentally freed the sorcerer and his unnatural allies from a magical prison, and they killed him to prevent him from alerting others to their freedom.

Adaptability to other places:  Poor.  Lots of historical research in this one; almost everything is factual except for the actual Mythos events and characters.  White did a great job of tying this into actual past events.  If you are a fan of English history (from either side of the pond) then this will be great.  If you don't care, then it should be fairly straightforward to scratch off the place names and replace them with whatever locale you like.  Be forewarned that (due to the history/events) there are a lot of place names, so this is no small task.

Adaptability to other eras:  Poor.  Again, due to the strong history angle there are a ton of dates and so forth that would have to adapted.  Gaslight would be okay; Modern would not.

Originality:  Mediocre.  Ancient sorcerers and aliens with unpronouncable names are par for the course; the historical research bumps it up a little.  Having a diary where someone keeps writing after becoming aware of imminent doom ("[normal stuff] Noises outs- Too soon NO!") bumps it back down.

Coherence:  Mediocre.  A lot of stuff thrown in for no apparent reason; e.g. an artifact that can negate Elder Signs while also giving a perfect vision of Azathoth (1d10/1d100).  And an insane dentist.  And also an insane chauffeur.

Pacing:  Mediocre.  A ton of long handouts to read will screw with the tension as everyone stops deals with them.  Lots of driving all over the place.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Mediocre.  On rails.  The Investigators may choose to go forward, or do nothing effective.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Good.  A great deal of detail: historical, archeological, architectural, etc.  You have to keep all this straight and present it at the appropriate times.

NPCs: Mediocre.  Completely by-the-numbers, except for the insane dentist and chauffuer, who are just silly.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  Three or four, what with all the driving about and handout-reading.

Suitability for campaign play:  Mediocre, higher if you're running a UK-based campaign.

Suitability for one-shot:  Good.

Pre-generated Investigators:  Mediocre.  Serviceable, but didn't excite me at all.

Likelihood of PC survival:  Poor to Fair.  The Investigators will have to rouse up a good old-fashioned mob to have much of a chance, which will either be amusing or annoying depending on your tastes.

Final Rating:  Poor.  As the reader has no doubt gathered, nothing about this scenario actually reached out and grabbed me.  While the amount of historical research is impressive, it seems like a lot of work done to a very dull and uninspiring end.  The author does warn up front about the amount of British history, so maybe a Yank like myself just can't see the appeal of something that would resonate with an actual Brit.  Feedback from actual Britons would be greatly appreciated.

Scenario 4:  "Grave Secrets"

Author:  Brian Courtemanche.  His first published scenario; he is also involved in the upcoming Arkham Now (Chaosium, 2009).

Length: 26pp.

Setting:  Classic era.  Stafford, Rhode Island, USA.  March 1922.

The Hook:  The Investigators are all new residents of a quaint country town, moved here from the big city.  As one is a physician and they are all urbane and experienced, they are asked by the town doctor to look into a mysterious wasting disease afflicting a local family, killing the youngest living child every four or five weeks.

The Secret:  The family is being preyed upon by a wraith, the vengeful ghost of a family member murdered to protect a horrible secret.  This is a non-Mythos scenario.

Adaptability to other places:  Good.  Any small country farm town would be fine.

Adaptability to other eras:  Fair.  Modern would be a stretch, as any doctor blithely getting random townsfolk involved in someone's private medical issues would result in a lost medical license.  However it could go backwards in time all the way back to Invictus with little modification.

Originality:  Good.  Deals with a squeamish issue and presents it in a way that is suitably disturbing without going over the top.

Coherence:  Good.  A well-written town, including good NPCs with clear motivations.

Pacing:  Good.  The imminent death of the remaining children is a good spur to action; also provided are a few spooky events the Keeper can throw in should the tension flag.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Good.  Two distinct resolutions are presented; both are viable.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Good.  The large number of NPCs might provide a challenge.

NPCs:  Great!  I really enjoyed the backstory created by the characters and their intertwined histories.  They feel alive.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  Two.

Suitability for campaign play:  Mediocre.  While it would be easy enough to make all the Investigators come from out of town, you'd lose the unique connections that three of them have to the town and its people.

Suitability for one-shot:  Great!  That's the point.

Pre-generated Investigators:  Great!  There's four of them.  They are all well-written to provide a diverse set of skills and all of them have a connection to the town that deepens the interactions with the NPCs.  As a nice touch, all the Investigators, despite having these hooks, are all new or recently-returned to town and do not know each other well -- thus making roleplaying easier by removing pressure on players to recreate some kind of well-established relationship.

Likelihood of PC survival:  Great!  Some threats to sanity but nothing deadly.

Final Rating:  Good.  A fine non-Mythos scenario that utilizes a strong setting and excellent NPCs to create a compelling narrative.  Held back a notch due to lack of a really dangerous direct threat to the Investigators, but overall a solid entry.

Scenario 5:  "The Dig"

Author:  Brian M. Sammons.  Sammons has made minor but steady contributions to the game over the years.  This is his first scenario that I've read.

Length:  37pp.

Setting:  Classic era.  Dunlow, Massachussetts, USA.  22-June-192X.

The Hook:  A student at Miskatonic has found some characters on a stone out at Dunlow (30 miles inland from Arkham). a backwater famous only for tall tales of the "Dunlow Creature," a bigfoot-type legend.  His Archaeology professor recognized these as an ancient dead language, thought to exist only in prehistoric Greenland, and organized a dig.  The Anthropology and Botany profs quickly jumped at the chance to be involved, and now it's a full-on-expedition.  The Investigators are students at Miskatonic who are going along on the expedition.

The Secret:  The "Dunlow Creature" is actually a degenerate but intelligent mated pair descended from furry protohumans, whose ancestors worshipped an avatar of Tsathoggua.  Four years ago, the Anthrolopology professor, while researching the legend, came in contact with the bigfeet.  In the course of befriending and researching them, the professor was given a shamanic drink that, they claimed, would put him in touch with their ancestral god.  It did.  The professor was driven insane by the reality of the god, and has worked tirelessly to excavate an ancient temple -- which is less than a mile away from from Miskatonic dig site.  The professor will not allow his work to be disturbed when he is so close to completion ... but how far will he go?

Adaptability to other places:  Good.  Any rural site near a university would suffice.

Adaptability to other eras:  Mediocre.  Gaslight is easy, Modern is almost impossible.

Originality:  Great!  The basic structure is vaguely similar to Beyond the Mountains of Madness (scholarly expedition, some members of which are not what they seem) although of course without the crushing environmental hazards of that epic tome.  However it's executed with polish and does a good job of utilizing parts of Lovecraft Country that aren't well-established like the Big Four.

Coherence:  Good.  All motivations are clearly sketched out and characters act appropriately.

Pacing:  Good.  The structure of the scenario is well-defined and events proceed nicely.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Fair.  Mostly nonexistent for the first few days, which is appropriate for students under the direction of a professor.  As things unravel towards the end of the scenario and the (non-evil) professors start to go unhinged and lose control, the Investigators will have much more freedom in how they want to approach things.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Great.  Tons of NPCs (28 people from Miskatonic, plus 3 friendly farmers, 7 deranged hillbilly farmers, not to mention townsfolk, two bigfeet and a half-dozen of their resurrected ancestors) will make this a challenge for the Keeper.

NPCs:  Great!  Nice and compelling; for having such a large number of college students they are all interesting and distinct.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  Three.

Suitability for campaign play:  Poor, unless you're running a Miskatonic campaign, in which case Great!

Suitability for one-shot:  Great!  As designed.

Pre-generated Investigators:  Good.  Like the NPCs, surprisingly distinct for college students.

Likelihood of PC survival:  Terrible to Good.  A frontal assault will almost certainly get them killed; unlike many scenarios there is no opportunity go in loaded for bear.  However, clever play will pay off.

Final Rating:  Good.  A nice use of Miskatonic as sort-of-but-not-really the setting.  Having Investigators as junior academians is an excellent change of pace; having the action take place off-campus prevents the "Mythos hoe-down" feel of overusing the university as a setting.

Scenario 6:  "The Burning Stars"

Author:  David Conyers.  An established contributor whose output has increased quite a bit in the last decade.

Length:  44pp.

Setting:  Classic era.  Port-au-Prince and environs, Haiti, 30-Oct-1930.

The Hook:  The Investigators were hired to come to Haiti to find the missing son of a wealthy industrialist.  Then, they wake up.  They're in a US military hospital in Port-au-Prince.  It's seven days later and they can't remember anything about the last week and are all suffering from various neuroses/psychoses.  What the hell happened?

The Secret:  Following the missing man's tracks, the Investigators came upon a sinister cult.  The cult leader summoned a horrible entity to attack them.  It slaughtered all but one of the Investigators -- the lone surviving Investigator is the only living one.  All the other Investigators are hallucinations, symptoms of the survivor's insanity, but the players don't know that.  (While normally I don't provide commentary to this section of my reviews, let me just say HOLY HELL.  This is a phenomenal high-concept premise and if Conyers can pull it off, it will go down in legend as one of the greats.)

Adaptability to other places:  Mediocre.  A lot of this revolves around voodoo and Haitian flavor.  You could move it to other places but you would lose this.

Adaptability to other eras:  Fair.  Haiti is not exactly reknowned for its political stability, so it would require some work to move the scenario around in time without becoming ahistorical.  Gaslight would present issues with anachronisms (was there a US military hospital there in 1880?).

Originality:  Superb!  I've never seen or heard of anything even remotely like this.

Coherence:  Fair.  The actions of the NPCs are logical.  Of special note is how to deal with Investigators who don't know they're dead.  Conyers includes several different tactics/techniques for doing this, as well as including some fictional inspiration for Keepers to explore (The Sixth Sense is the obvious one; there are others).  No matter what, this is tough.  Reminding Investigators that they are dealing with an immense mental shock will help smooth over apparent inconsistencies in your narrative, but this also plays into trust issues with the group.  The players expect you to describe things accurately; they'll give you some leeway if you tell them that you are describing things as their currently-insane characters perceive things -- but my recommendation is to use this as little as possible.

Pacing:  Great!  The sense of impending doom slowly ramps up.  Optional creepy events are provided to intersperse as needed.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Good.  A tough call -- on one hand, nothing that 5/6ths of the Investigators will do can affect their ultimate fate.  On the other, they can certainly contribute to the success of the scenario.  The investigation can take place in multiple directions, which helps.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Superb.  I would not recommend this for beginning or even intermediate Keepers.

NPCs:  Good.

Estimated number of four-hour sessions:  Two.

Suitability for campaign play:  Either Terrible or Superb.  If you are ending the campaign and the players know it, this will be unforgettable.  If the players don't know it, it will also be unforgettable because they will string you up by your thumbs.

Suitability for one-shot:  Great!  Designed as one -- although I'd prefer to cap off a campaign with it, just so the emotional connection to the characters is there.

Pre-generated Investigators:  Great!  On that fine line between pulpy and too pulpy.

Likelihood of PC survival:  Terrible for the one surviving PC.  Impossible for everyone else.

Final Rating:  Superb!  One of the most unusual premises for any scenario I've read in the entire hobby.  Beyond that, phenomenally well-executed; a treat to read, and one that the players will definitely never forget.

The Rest of It

Handouts, 37pp, Fair.  Mostly well-done in a variety of different fonts and handwriting styles.  The art of the tarot cards from "The Burning Stars" is quite well-done.  An odd choice is that for some of the scenarios, the pregenerated characters on differently-sized cutouts.  E.g. for "Ghost Light," half of them are 3"x5" (width x height) while the rest are 6"x3".  It probably shouldn't matter, but it's jarring.


Good.  Two of the scenarios are complete duds for me, but the strength of the others and especially "The Burning Stars" puts it just very slightly over the edge.  One-shot scenarios are an interesting phenomenon.  As the copy on the back cover claims, they can be used to provide uniquely interesting roleplaying opportunities.  Unlike ongoing campaigns, there is no question of plausibility and no need for an overarching campaign structure (e.g. Delta Green) to introduce new plotlines.  The downside of one-shots is that it can be difficult for players to feel the same degree of connection that they would to their existing character in an ongoing game.  Not all players can get into the idea of playing a character they wouldn't necessarily create on their own.  It will be imperative to the Keeper to choose players wisely and let them know ahead of time.  I've had success in the past with letting the group know that at the end of the one-shot, we will vote on who roleplayed the best and buy him/her a beer -- sometimes just a little bribe will go a long way.

Given that the cover copy claims unique roleplaying opportunities, the scenarios deliver with mixed results.  Many of them are quite similar to any other roleplaying opportunity in Call of Cthulhu.  Even "The Burning Stars" features a fairly standard team of Investigators -- the private eye, the dilletante, the plucky reporter, etc.  The best by this standard is "Ghost Light" (blue-collar Scottish lighthouse keepers with no real investigative skills), with honorable mentions going to "The Dig" (well-done college students) and "Grave Secrets" (an elementary school teacher, plus a soldier returned from the war).  (While "A Method To Madness" promises interesting pregenerated characters -- a manic artist, an idiot savant, a delusional millionaire -- the scenario as a whole is too weak to make them pay off.)

The lack of theme hurts the book.  Mansions of Madness (just to pick one example) had its scenarios all revolve around a common setting type, but Terrors From Beyond has no such link between its chapters.  They're a grab bag and the style, feel, setting, and plot all vary widely.  This is to the book's detriment, as it can be harder for the reader to put himself in the right mindset when going from one scenario to another.

In general, I am not sure that I can recommend paying full price for this book unless you are either a completist, or a huge fan of one-shots, or unless one of the included scenarios sounds right up your alley.  A good compromise might be to download the PDF from Chaosium's website, but unless you run it right off your laptop, the ink costs might actually make it more expensive depending on how many scenarios you print out.  Hopefully Chaosium's next scenario anthology will be a little more consistent in quality.

Thanks for reading; as always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions for improvement are welcomed.  If you enjoy the review and are interested in the product, please consider purchasing it from Lost Coast Mythos Bribery Division.


  1. Thanks for the review! It was an interesting read, and gave me an idea of whether I wanted to buy the product or not (likely no, based on the weakness of the plots).

  2. Thank you, David. Indeed, helping people decide whether a purchase is worth it is one of my main goals.

  3. Kevin, I've been using your reviews as links on the YSDC wiki. Just wanted to say, as an actual Brit, I agree entirely about Death by Misadventure. There's a lot of research crammed in, but the way it's presented doesn't help readers make a coherent picture. I read it several times and still struggled to piece together what was supposed to be going on, not helped by the layout. I feel like there's just too many moving parts somehow. I can't say the history particularly resonated, although some of the details were presumably more familiar to me than you.

    The murder-chauffeur and sorcerous lawyer in particular seem tailor-made to drag the Investigators right off track, since that's basically a scenario in itself.

  4. Thanks, Shimmin! Glad to hear you agree.