Geographic sourcebooks for roleplaying games have become much more tricky to write in the past fifteen years. Before then, an author was able to easily navigate the ground between a travel book, a compilation of local folklore, and a survey of Mythos sources. After the rise of the Web, people could find much basic information about a location through a simple search, turning such books to less common resources and a focus upon what investigators and GMs should know about the area, with the knowledge that experts in any field on which one writes are a mouse click away. This can often be a tricky ground to navigate, so we should not be surprised when some books come up wanting.
After that intro, readers should feel a sense of foreboding regarding Cubicle 7‘s latest Call of Cthulhu release, Cthulhu Britannia: Avalon – The Country of Somerset. This is not entirely fair, as the book is written by a native of Somerset and has good points to recommend it, but it falls into the pre-Web format for such works.
(Disclaimers: This is a purchased book, I work freelance for other such companies and am a partner in one, I’ve only spent a few hours in Glastonbury, the fact that I grew up in Somerset (Kentucky) is largely irrelevant, and spoilers are below.)
The book begins with a survey of the county of Somerset, covering the history of the region, its geography, and prominent locales, including a detailed look at the city of Bath. The next section is folklore, detailing many fascinating legends of the region. The sections are frequently interrupted with the writings of the author’s own character, linking this or that place or piece of folklore to the Mythos in overwrought prose (which is forgiveable). All of this is quite thorough, and I can understand the author’s rationale for the inclusion of various items.
This is a solid piece of work, but when we place it into a RPG sourcebook, it rapidly becomes troubling. The piece skips some basic facts for a Cthulhu sourcebook – such as how to get to / around in Somerset, and the location of the nearest mental hospital – but these are minor concerns. More difficult to navigate are the Mythos connections. We have detailed descriptions of how a given event or location could be linked to the Mythos, but each could have been followed with the phrase, “but that was hundreds of years ago, so if you want to use it in your game you’ll have to figure it out on your own.” This is aggravated due to the emphasis on those Mythos nasties being tied up in pre-Roman invasion cultures. Given how much play certain Mythos entities get in the text, a section on their history, motivations, and present-day goals would have enhanced the book considerably.
It’s a shame that Twenties occultism was not incorporated into the book. For example, Dion Fortune lived in Weston-super-Mare for two years, and she had a strong interest in Glastonbury Tor, going so far as to purchase property nearby in 1924. There were one or two occult societies around the edges that could have served as allies, competitors, or villains, if it had been so desired. The book did not necessarily need to go in this direction, but it would have geared it more toward the period of play.
We now turn to the three scenarios – not four, as the back cover promises. The first, “Blood and Water,” falls into the category of “scenarios that start a campaign you invent yourself” that is epitomized by the classic scenario “The Haunting.” Whereas you could put “The Haunting” aside and go on to something else, the conspiracy described in this scenario is so influential and far-reaching that this is simply not an option. The whole seems rather rushed, as if that aforementioned campaign was collapsed into a single scenario, with an overly-helpful gravedigger and policemen with guns moving matters along quickly. One of the handouts is misnumbered in the text, as is a key clue involving Roman numerals. The Somerset location is used nicely and consistently with the material elsewhere in the book, but the final encounter is either resolved by the conspiracy being incredibly gullible or the Keeper finding some other sourcebook so the investigators can flee the country and have adventures elsewhere (yes, the author gives that option).
“Strange Little Girl” starts out with a coincidence that strains the bounds of credibility, but Keepers should be able to find other ways to get the investigators involved in a British Museum antiquarian’s research. The scenario is quite brief, taking us from the British Museum to a Somerset cottage. A human antagonist would have made the whole more interesting and less questionable, and unless the group has unbelievable firepower, there’s only one way to resolve the scenario.
“St. Swithun’s Hole” follows the investigators on a spelunking tour of ancient caverns connected with a saint’s legend, which, as you can imagine, goes incredibly badly. The exploration is based on random dice rolls and tables, which, from what I can call, actually works at creating some interesting encounters and laying out an underground complex without becoming overly obsessed with issues of mapping. There are some places in which the impact of failed skill rolls are not taken into account, and some guidance would have been nice as to how to keep the investigators from bugging out at the first sign of trouble (not a problem for most Keepers). This is undoubtedly my favorite part of the book.
The book wraps up with several scenario seeds and a few Somerset characters the players might encounter.
Overall, Avalon has a great deal of interesting material and is clearly a labor of love. What it lacks, however, is a framework on which to hang the various bits of folklore, scenarios, characters, and other elements to give Keepers guidance as to assembling a campaign for the county. As such, I can only recommend it with serious reservations.