15 January 2010

Review: Age of Cthulhu: Death In Luxor (Goodman Games, 2009)

Goodman Games is a well-established publisher of adventures for Dungeons & Dragons -- they've been nominated for or outright won about two dozen different ENnie Awards.  Their "Dungeon Crawl Classics" line is one of the premier series of old-school style D&D modules.  With the liberalization of Chaosium's licensing policy two years ago, they have decided to try their hand at adapting their award-winning style to Mythos horror.  Can they pull it off?

As a review of a scenario, this will contain egregious and unapologetic spoilers.  Players, read no further!

Age of Cthulhu:
Death In Luxor

The Vitals

Publisher: Goodman Games (San Diego, CA).
ISBN: 9780981865720
In print?: Yes, as of Jan-2010.
List price: US$12.99 (print), US$9.09 (PDF from e23.com).
Pages: 48
Dimensions: 8.5"x11"
Format: Trade Paperback, stapled.
Weight: 7 ounces.

Overall Impressions

Art: Good.  Very comic-book feel to the illustrations, in both the composition and the execution.  This contributes to the overall pulpy tone of the scenario and is extremely appropriate and well-chosen for the feel the scenario aims for.  It's monochrome inside throughout, brown ink only.  This helps to create a sepia effect, but in parts it makes things dark and hard to make out.  This is only a real drawback on the maps and handouts -- setting your photocopier to lighten things up a bit will fix it.

Layout:  Great!  I'm not familiar with Goodman Games' well-respected line of Dungeon Crawl Classics, but it looks obvious to me that the editors have both practical experience and a long history of honing their products through many iterations of feedback and revision.  Readable and, more importantly, usable in play.

The cover is made out of glossy but thin cardstock and will not lay flat after a single read.  Not a huge issue but a minor annoyance.

Editing:  Mediocre -- at least for the text itself.  As mentioned above, the layout and art direction is excellent.  For the text, there are many areas that are unclear or require multiple readthroughs to get a handle on.

Index:  Terrible.  Non-existent, but in such a short product it's forgivable.

Company Support:  Poor.  No downloadable handouts.  At least with a stapled product you don't have to clobber the binding to get decent photocopies.


Setting:  Classic era.  Late summer, 1926.  Luxor, Egypt, and environs.

The Hook:  The Investigators are friends and colleagues of a professor of Egyptian history and his wife.  She sends them an urgent letter, afraid that the professor is losing his mind as a result of his frantic studies.  They fly to Luxor.  Can they get there in time?

The Secret:  The professor discovered that there are innumerable horrors preserved beneath Luxor, leftover from political machinations of the Pharaohs almost three millenia ago.  In the course of the archeological excavation, his team removed a seal from the undercaverns, thus starting the process of opening up the gates and reanimating the terrors below.  Upon fully realizing this, the professor went mad, slaughtering all but two of the team (his wife and an intern escaped) and then hanging himself.  The Investigators must retrace the team's steps, navigate the perilous twists of the Egyptian underworld, and attempt to replace the seal before a horrible evil is unleashed upon the world.

One criticism here is that the writing is not terribly clear regarding either the hook or the secret, and it takes a surprising amount of delving into a short scenario to find out exactly what's going on.  While any scenario with a detailed back story will require a lot of exposition in the standard "Introduction"/"Keeper Information" breakdown, it would really help to give a basic overview (such as mine) to at least give the Keeper a big picture for his first readthrough.

Adaptability to other places:  Poor.  "Large city, on a river prone to flooding, with an ancient history" is not too common.  Even if you found a suitable city, many of the clues refer to the Nile or other local features and would have to be changed.

Adaptability to other eras:  Fair.  Easier to go backward than forward.  Gaslight would be fairly easy -- only the social aspects of Westerners dealing with the natives would have to change (they wouldn't even be that different, but the social obligations of Victorians cast a shadow over everything).  Invictus would actually work pretty well for this -- if you can accept the ancient history being a thousand years old instead of three thousand years old!

Originality:  Fair.  The hook is hackneyed, but the Egyptian setting and pulp flavor is nice.

Coherence:  Mediocre.  The premise is a little contrived -- all team members casually accept the professor's spiral into insanity until he randomly butchers them one night, which coincidentally happens to be ten minutes before the Investigators arrive.

If you're using the pregenerated characters, I'd drop coherence down a rank -- all the pregens have a different reason for being invited by the professor to Luxor, and it's assumed that they will all just naturally band together and go through the scenario.  However, this just doesn't fit their personalities.  Assuming that they have a history of occult investigation, or just dropping the scenario into your campaign, will fix this.

However, if you can get past the premise ("Why are they investigating?  Because they're investigators!") the rest of it is tolerable -- clues lead reasonably from one to the next, and the NPCs' motives are believable.

Pacing:  Mediocre.  Going from the nutso mass murder/suicide scene at the opening, to a standard clue-hunt, is a little offputting.  The missing wife (also a friend of the Investigators) should provide an impetus for Investigator action, but she is found and removed from the plot quite early.  The world-threatening menace takes over the narrative shortly thereafter, but the personal horror of the broken lives of the Investigators' friends and colleagues gets lost in the shuffle and never really recovers.

Degree of Player-Driven Action:  Great!  The scenario is structured into excellent "scenes," each listed with various ways to get there and various other scenes they can lead to, depending on the investigators' choices.  It actually reminds me a little of how the chapters of Masks of Nyarlathotep are structured, albeit on a much smaller scale.  I would absolutely love to see this become the standard for scenarios of this type.  While this wouldn't work for all adventures (especially location-based ones), for event- or investigation-based scenarios this type of structure is very helpful for the Keeper.

Keeper Skill Needed:  Fair.  Despite the complexity of the investigation and the multiple parties acting at cross-purposes, the excellent writing and extremely pragmatic layout make this a snap for any but the greenest of Keepers.  Another nice touch is that every location where combat might occur is mapped out onto a grid -- while most Keepers don't use miniatures or strict combat maps, it's nice to have the option.

NPCs:  Fair.  Surprisingly few, although there's lots of faceless extras.  Their personalities run the gamut, but despite a nice premise or two (a theosophist!) they end up not being terribly memorable.  Similar to my comments on the Hook and the Secret, one criticism regarding the layout is that the NPCs' personalities, motives, and goals are interwoven into the text -- so you can't just flip to their stat block and find out what's going on with them.

Likelihood of Investigator survival:  Poor.  Deadly enemies throughout, followed by a deadly climax.

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

Suitability for campaign play:  Good.  You'll probably want to tone down the lethality of the scenario for a campaign, but it'll be worth it to actually introduce the professor and his wife well in advance, thus making her frantic letter for help much more believable and less cliched.

Suitability for one-shot:  Good.  Excellent support for the Keeper makes it a near-complete package.  The pulpy atmosphere will also make it more palatable to a wider range of audiences and not just diehard Lovecraftians.

The Rest of It

Handouts, 6pp:  Great! Excellent graphic design on these, well-thought out and with good art.  Telegrams, photographs, etc.  A step above the standard fare from Chaosium and just below the almighty prop wizards at HPLHS.

Pregenerated Investigators:  Good.  Five of them, a good mix of standard pulp heroes (and heroines).  As written they are flavorful but have no shared history, creating an issue discussed in the Coherence section.


Fair.  While the plot itself is average but not remarkable, the high production values and usability make this stand out a little more than it deserves.  There are some missteps with the execution of the story itself, but nothing fatal or insurmountable.  Stroh and Goodman Games' extensive experience with D&D/d20 modules shows; the scenario is very professional looking.  I expect that as Stroh gets more experienced with the Call of Cthulhu line, he will work out some of the niggling bits here and master some of the quirks peculiar to the Mythos/investigative genre.  At that point the writing and scenario design in Goodman's Age of Cthulhu line will catch up to the great presentation, and it will really shine.

Overall, I do not think this is an especially good value for the money.  Chaosium's Terrors From Beyond costs twice as much but has over four times the content.  While a higher price per page is typical of shorter books, not to mention that Goodman cannot expect near the sales of a Chaosium house release, it is still hard to justify if you are gaming on a limited budget.  The PDF is a much better value.

Check this out if you are a fan of the pulpier side of Cthulhu gaming, a fan of Goodman Games' work, or just want to support a promising new third-party publisher.  Otherwise I'd hold off.

Thanks for reading; as always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions for improvement are welcomed.


  1. The real questions if whether or not you've read Lovecraft.

  2. Great review, Kevin. I am running "Death in Luxor" this weekend for my group, and you cover some of the same issues that I noticed when reading through the scenario for the first time. Good suggestions here about how to overcome this adventure's weaknesses & play its strengths. Thanks!