On the Shelf Review – Shadows over Scotland

Last year, some friends of mine were talking about going for a trip to Scotland, staying in hostels while we visited strange places.  We spent some time putting together a list of places to visit, local hostels, and the like, but the whole thing fell through in the end.  Nonetheless, it was with this in mind that I picked up my review copy of Stuart Boone’s Shadows over Scotland, the latest offering from Cubicle 7 Entertainment for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.  (The standard disclaimers regarding full disclosure apply here, plus there’s that I’ve been reported to the police for heroin trafficking in Glasgow, even though I don’t traffic heroin and have never been to Glasgow.)

Shadows is a combined adventure/scenario book providing the tools for Keepers to set up their own Scottish campaigns.  We’ll start with the sourcebook section.

The whole begins with an in-depth look at Scotland during the Roaring Twenties, reminding us that for some, the period was less than roaring.  Following that we have a history, timeline, and a list of prominent Scots.  Following this are three sections broken into the Lowlands, the Highlands, and the Isles.  Each of these includes some basic notes on the geography, wildlife, culture, and some basic notes on the Mythos in the area.  Afterward are writeups of major towns of the region, providing small maps and general points of interest.

This is where the book runs into trouble with this particular reviewer, as I kept trying to look up the sites I’d selected for my tour.  To my surprise, none of my tour stops were included anywhere in the book – no Urquhart Castle (but see below), no Boleskine Manor, no Robert Kirk’s parish, no Rosslyn Chapel. (Yes, Loch Ness gets a sidebar.)  I kept hoping that the Red Book of Appin or Isobel Gowdie would merit a mention, but they never materialized.  Upon examination of my list, I soon made a realization – none of these places was in a major town or city, thus illustrating the weakness of this particular approach to organization.   It’s a shame, too – if there was a custom-built scenario link, it would be Netta Fornario’s death on Iona.

(Quick edit:  The above is not intended to be a “this book didn’t cater to me” statement.  Instead, I think that these are famous Scottish occult sites or legends that should have been included, and likely would have been if there hadn’t been an urban focus.)

I don’t want to place this on a negative note, however, as the topics covered are covered thoroughly and with enough detail to make them of worth to the Keeper.  Boon is also good about writing to the question, “How do the investigators get involved here?” and organizing the manuscript to keep the investigators in mind at every step.  The other aspect of it is including enough Mythos sources to provide opportunities for investigation.  Of these, Boon either selects likely Mythos creatures for particular regions and areas, or uses a piece of Scottish folklore as a jumping off point to work in the Mythos.  I have to say the latter yields much better results – the two Lowlands country encounters are particularly fun, as are some of the Islands encounters.  It should be noted that no links to other Mythos fiction or scenarios set in Scotland are provided, in case you’d be interested in seeing them.

One item that’s a curious omission is any lore regarding fairies, as it is both unusual lore and includes enough potential Mythos links that it could be quite interesting.  On the other hand, Boon does include Michael Scot‘s library, so I see it as a tie.

After the sourcebook, we get six scenarios set in Scotland.  Given that actual books of scenarios have been printed with less than six, this is simply astonishing.  SPOILERS follow.

Scenario 1:  “Death and Horror Incorporated” is set in Glasgow, where the investigators are called upon to investigate a mysterious series of murders, a terrible plague, a ghost ship recently come into harbor, and pretty much everything else that’s going on in the city.  The scenario will likely need an experienced Keeper to run it, and even that worthy might benefit from chopping out one or two plot lines.  The scenario has one successful ending, when I’d generally prefer to see two or three.  Overall, I’d call this more of an urban scenario than a Scottish one per se, but that means it could be transplanted with a little work to other areas.

Scenario 2:  I don’t understand why “The Hand of Abyzou” exists, frankly.  In the introductory letter, the investigators are told the name of the cult, where it operates, the names of its leaders, its goals, and the fact that some of the members aren’t human.  It goes on to describe how the cult leader shows up to drive the informant insane in front of his friends and then leaves, which isn’t exactly subtle of him.  It’s as if three-fourths of the job is already done before any investigator has bought a train ticket.  Apparently, all that remains is for the groups to trudge through miles of tunnels to find that the cult’s leadership was killed off-screen before the investigators had a chance to meet them, save for the dying leader who hints at a final combat encounter.   Fortunately, this scenario is not reflective of the others in the book.

Scenario 3:  “Uisge Beatha (The Water of Life)” has an American laird returning to his family lands to find all sorts of odds going-on and calling upon the investigators to seek it out.  The threat is bigger than anticipated, and most groups will find themselves in over their heads quite rapidly here.  If I were running this, I’d likely cut the group’s long-term plans, as I feel they stretch disbelief too far, and concentrate on the antagonists simply wanting to be left alone.  That alone would make for an entertaining and memorable scenario.

Scenario 4: “Heed the Kraken’s Call” might be set as a subtle trap for Yank reviewers who don’t know too much about Scotland, but this was nonetheless my favorite scenario of the book.  It’s not necessarily because it brings in Loch Ness, Castle Urquhart and the Highland clans, but also because it allows the unfolding of a mystery leading to an epic battle.  Plus, it has one of my favorite informants in any scnearios.  I’d call this the high point of the book.

Scenario 5: “The Forbidden Isle” is the real-life Isle of Rum, to which investigators are called to investigate a series of recent disappearances.  The scenario is intended for novice investigators and is intended to be quite contained and simple, and it succeeds to fulfill those goals.  I could see running this as an introductory scenario.

Scenario 6:  “Star Seed” takes the investigators to Skara Brae, where they are forced to head off an overwhelming horror that threatens to overwhelm Orkney.  Unfortunately, there’s little way to fight it except for the way given in the scenario, which is to go through a series of trials after which a group of hitherto-unknown Dreamlands entities bear it away.  Add in the high degree of Mythos involvement among two main characters – indeed, the Mythos is explicitly mentioned in the starting letter! – make this scenario less than satisfactory.

A quick note on scenario structure:  The order in which locations in each scenario are listed is not in order of discovery, which can make it more difficult to read.  For instance, “Star Seed” starts at a small farm, which is the next to last place described in the scenario.  Each scenario includes a brief chart at the end to illustrate what’s relevant at each section, including each clue.  The element it’s missing, however, is where each clue points next, which would be helpful.

So, what’s the final verdict?  Overall I think Shadows over Scotland is a solid book, with several aspects that I like, and a few of which I’m not too fond, thus leaving me with a mixed but tending toward positive opinion of the book.   I think it could have really hit it out of the park if it had dropped one or two scenarios and filled in some more notable mystic locations in Scotland instead.  It’s still one of the better books in its price range, and if you like PDFs, the price on DriveThru right now makes it a must buy.

Published in: on August 28, 2011 at 3:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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