“The Repairer of Reputations” is perhaps the strangest work among the strange stories of Robert W. Chambers that revolve around the mystical play The King in Yellow. Not only a tale of those whose lives are ruined by coming into contact with the dread book, it also creates an alternate future set in 1920 (Chambers published his story in 1895) revolving around an alternate future with a strong military, strictly controlled immigrant populations, and legalized suicide. On top of this, we have an extremely unreliable narrator who believes himself to be part of the lineage of the American Empire, but whose title, setting, or access to The King in Yellow could all be brought into question. It’s this work that Robin Laws creates as the basis of his own “Repairer of Reputations” scenario for Trail of Cthulhu.
After a reprint of the Chambers story, Laws brings us to a small-scale adventure that presents a slightly different version of events. An investigator at a bank is asked to look into the death of a fellow employee, who has had dealings with Mr. Wilde, the sinister Repairer of Reputations. Although this initial investigator and the others are pre-generated characters, much of their background is undetermined at the start of play. Instead, the skills are selected as they are needed. If a player cannot or will not manifest a particular skill, he or she can state their relationship with the next character who has not entered the game and why they should have that skill. This continues until all the players have entered the session. Other pieces of information, such as characters’ military histories and experiences with The King in Yellow, can also be added. As it can be expected, this requires players who are knowledgeable of the Trail rules, quick to improvise, and unlikely to abuse this freedom to define others’ characters. That being said, such a group could really go to town with this, so it’s really a strength.
The adventure itself, however, left me unsatisfied on two grounds: first, that it didn’t follow the story closely enough in some respects, and second, that it followed it too closely in others.
With regard to the first, one element that the scenario misses that the story has in abundance is the unreliability of the main character. This is not to say that this is not an element that is worked in – exposure to the King in Yellow can lead to interesting results – but it is not a keynote or defining element of the whole in the same way as it appears in the original story.
As for the second, Robin wants to present Chambers’ alternative 1920s setting as a dystopia brought about by the influence of The King in Yellow. Still, a straight reading of the original story fails to bring that interpretation home. Don’t get me wrong – this version of history is pretty miserable for a lot of people, including minorities, Jews, freethinkers, and immigrants. Still, Chambers portrays it as a place where all these “troublesome” people are basically “in their place” (my words, Castaigne’s sentiment) beneath the militaristic white Anglo-Saxon Protestant/Catholics. Even with the freewheeling approach to characters, it’s likely that the setup and lack of familiarity with the setting will lead players to create characters who are militaristic and upper-crust. It’s hard to portray a setting as dark and unnerving if it’s being viewed from the standpoint of those who have a vested interest in the status quo. Either the addition of pessimistic elements to Chambers’ vision or a starting hook that favored some of the less favored groups would have pushed this closer to the mark.
This is not to say that I dislike this scenario. I do wonder what it would have been like to set up a group of fragile-sanity individuals like Castaigne who’ve all read the King in Yellow, or an escaped group of Suanee settlers looking to make a place for themselves outside the imposed limits of their colony. it would be a great one-shot for Trail players looking to try something different, and it does an excellent job of adapting and presenting Chambers’ version of the Twenties into a setting that future roleplayers can explore.