Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/11/21/tabletop-review-call-of-cthulhu-7th-edition-keepers-screen-pack-digital-version/
On Monday, November 17th, Chaosium finally released the 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu. Well, the digital version anyway. Those of you who want to wait for the dead tree version (or pre-ordered/crowdfunded that edition) will have to wait a few more weeks for that. Since I know a lot of other people will be (are) talking about both the Keeper’s Guide and the Investigator’s Guide, I decided to start my coverage of the new Chaosium releases with the Keeper’s Screen Pack. After all, it’s going to be overlooked in favor of the two core rulebooks and because it comes with two adventures, it definitely deserves a piece done on it.
Now, as mentioned, this is a digital Keeper’s Screen Pack, not the eventual physical release we will be getting. This means the product comes as nine documents. You get six PDFs and then the two adventures in .epub, .Mobi and .prc formats (in addition to the previously counted PDF version). It’s great to see Chaosium trying to be so all-inclusive digitally. Compare that to a company like Games Workshop where their digital releases are iPAD only (lame) or a lot of releases industry wide that are PDF only. What a smart move by Chaosium because this ensures that any e-reader or computer can read and/or use these documents with their gaming group. Kind of. There is one big problem.
The Keeper’s Screen is divided into two PDFs – obverse and reverse. In both cases, they look like complete crap on an e-reader. Trying to enlarge them just creates a massive unrecognizable blob and at their default size the PDFs are simply illegible. That means you can’t use the reverse Keeper’s Screen as a digital cheat sheet. So both pieces are fundamentally worthless unless you are looking at a computer monitor to view them and who has their computer set up while gaming with friends unless you are doing it over Skype? As well, the PDF is not high quality enough to use in a print and play situation. It just does not look good printed off, which again, makes the Keeper Screen part of the Keeper Screen Pack fundamentally unusable unless you use your computer monitor as the screen and have it loaded up on a PDF reader. Obviously this won’t be a problem with the physical copy when it is released but right now the Keeper’s Screen is pretty painful to look at on an e-reader and almost laughable when printed out. So if you’re honestly looking to purchase the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Keeper’s Screen Pack in its current form or for a print and play option, for the love of god – DON’T. Wait for the physical copy or you will regret it.
Now that said, the layout of the Keeper’s Screen is fantastic and if I look at these PDFs as a teaser/preview of what I will eventually be getting in the mail, I’m pretty excited. The front side is a gorgeous tribute to a lot of tropes from the 1920s era of the game. A group of Investigators prepares to enter an ancient ruin built into the side of a mountain while some unnamable lurks in the nearby woods. It’s wonderful art and it might be my favorite Screen Art in many years. I’m not a big screen user as I tend to let my players see the dice (I don’t fudge for or against the group), but I have a few I really love for the art and ancillaries that came with it like Mayfair’s old DC Super Heroes one and the original V:TM screen. The front of the screen looks great and as long as you are patient for the physical copy, you won’t be disappointed.
The reverse side for the Keeper’s use is pretty nice too. It’s well laid out and very easy to find pertinent rules/mechanics on. I especially love the flowcharts for combat and death. These things are fantastic. At the same time, there are some areas that can use work. I appreciate the “Sanity Loss Examples” list and also a list of Insanity Effects. However it’s missing the rules for temporary/permanent Insanity or when you would roll to see if Insanity has set in. Now we long term fans of the game know these rules by heart, but for a newcomer, or at least someone new to running Call of Cthulhu, information like this would have been really helpful. Still, the majority of the information on the Keeper’s screen is great and will definitely see use, especially since a lot of the rules new to 7e like pushing and canon hard/extreme successes are on here. Again, the PDF is unreadable on all devices save computer monitors, so as good as the content is, you can’t use the digital version under most circumstances and so you should probably wait for the physical.
So we’ve have a Keeper’s Screen you can’t actually use and some maps you probably already have via your Core Rulebook purchase. So things aren’t looking good for the digital version of this release are they? Well, not so fast. Remember how I said this pack needed something exclusive to make it worth your fifteen bucks? Well, there are two adventures that come with this set. Blackwater Creek and Missed Dues come bundled in a single 97 page PDF. Two adventures or a 100 page PDF is still a bit pricey for fifteen bucks but they are by far the highlight of the collection. Whether or not two published adventures are worth the price tag is going to be up to you and how much you enjoy each one. So let’s take a look at what each one entails.
Blackwater Creek has a team of Investigators travelling to a small rural Massachusetts to figure out the strange-goings on there. The adventure is really unique because you have two options for how to play it. You can be a traditional team of Miskatonic University staff members trying to track down a missing professor and his wife. The other options is that you play as a crew of bootleggers (It’s the 1920s and thus Prohibition era after all.) trying to muscle in on the whisky trade going on in Blackwater Creek. The whisky brewed there seems to be…unique and thus quite popular. The Investigators’ boss wants to take control of the region and its spirits and that’s where the PCs come in. There’s also a third option that the writer of the adventure hadn’t considered. Have you ever played any of those super Dungeons & Dragons adventures like Vault of the Dracolich where multiple parties do the adventure at the same time. If you have enough players, try that here. I ran this with a team of Miskatonic staff and a team of Bootleggers (the wonders of online gaming) and let one team’s actions affect the other. Together they were able to discover that the missing Professor (and wife) and the source of the strange whisky coming out of Blackwater Creek are interconnected. They also survived the Mythos encounter at the root of this piece once both groups came together where they probably would have died horribly had they tried their plan for success with a regular sized team of Investigators. It was a lot of fun and a really big change from the usual CoC rigmarole.
As mentioned, the core of the adventure is exploration and investigation, but there is room for a lot of physical conflict with everything from creepy mutated hillbilly bootleggers to crazed woodland creatures. More importantly, you’ll see player characters transformer mentally and physically as the adventure progresses. Think of it like Ravenloft power checks but creepier. Yes, CREEPIER. It’s also worth noting that the adventure’s text is extremely newcomer friendly, filled with advice and tips to help the adventure run smoothly. I almost feel that this adventure should be in the Core Rulebook since it’s geared towards holding the hand of a new or inexperienced Keeper. At the same time the adventure is very open ended and non-linear. It doesn’t even have a specific ending or endgame for the Keeper to follow. What happens is really up to the Investigators and how the Keeper plays off their actions/decisions. The adventure can be as mundane as fighting rivals for the bootlegging operations in the area or as Lovecraftian as dealing with a horrible Great Old One-Human hybrid transforming the region around it into a bizarre collection of fleshy bits and tentacle tree fetuses. Regardless how it goes down, Blackwater Creek is an adventure well worth experiencing. It also comes with several pages of handouts and six pre-generated PCs.
The second adventure in this set is Missed Dues and much like the first it has you playing as members of the criminal element from the 1920s. Unlike Blackwater Creek, there is no option to play as anything else. This makes the adventure extremely limited except in a one-shot pre-gen situation because it is exceedingly rare when all players will make the same basic character profession and doubly so where they all play as outright villains. So this probably was not the best thought out adventure or one to offer to the public in a two pack because it honestly won’t be used by very many gamers.
Of course, being a very niche adventure doesn’t make it a bad one. One shots are great if you doing gaming podcasts or have friends that can’t get together very often. Unfortunately the perceived quality of this piece is going to vary drastically by those that read it. Is it another yet another adventure that takes place within the confines of Arkham? Yes. So a bit uninspired there, but at the same time, it’s a familiar location Keeper’s can easily use. Is it the second adventure in a row that revolves around one set of hired goons muscling in on the territory of another? Yes it is. This is a shame because a bit of variety would have really helped this two pack. With the same plot hook shared by two adventures, it makes both adventures look weaker than if they were dramatically different from each other. Of course, had the adventures been placed in the opposite order I might be saying the previous lines about Blackwater Creek, but I doubt it since it’s designed better and has more than one option for character backgrounds. Again though those first impressions are deceiving because once you get into the adventure, you’ll see it is quite different.
In the PC ruffians have been sent to collect money from “Stick Jack” Fulton who hasn’t been paying his dues back to the larger crime syndicate in Arkham. Of course, it’s not really Jack’s fault but neither the PCs nor their employer knows this. See Jack was hired for a super secret job by a local religious organization (Cult) and unfortunately that job led to an indirect encounter with Azathoth, cursing himself, a few cult members and the entire apartment building Jack resides in with the attention of everyone’s favorite blind idiot god. Whoops. So the PCs go in thinking they are going to rough up a co-worker and instead get sucked into an interdimensional affair where Azazthoth is essentially an unwitting slum lord. Obivously the PCs will probably want a raise after this adventure.
Missed Dues follows the usual Call of Cthulhu tropes for beginning characters. They are told they have to deal with something mundane but through investigation, exploration and speaking with locals, they slowly begin to discover that they are in over their heads due to dealing with supernatural and/or alien happenings. Essentially Missed Dues is new set of drapes on the same old windows, but the window dressing is different enough that most players won’t care or notice unless they have played a LOT of Call of Cthulhu over the years. Then expecting some whining. I’ll admit I’m torn on this. On one hand it’s nice that the Keeper’s Screen offers a fairly basic linear adventure for new Keepers and players alike as it helps them learn the system, setting and stereotypes of the game. At the same time, aside from the gangster aspect, it is a fairly generic adventure in flow and form. I enjoyed it for what it is but if you or your friends are the type who feels people are just retreading the same old ground with published CoC adventures, you might not be a big fan of this one.
Overall, the / Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Keeper’s Screen Pack is a bit of a bust –at least digitally. The screen itself isn’t formatted for use with e-readers and it’s pretty useless on a computer monitor. The maps also come with the core rulebook so they are a bit redundant. At least you get two new adventures which may be worth $15 to some of you. I really liked Blackwater Creek and Missed Dues wasn’t completely generic so it will appeal to a small slice of CoC gamers. Are the two adventures worth the $15 price tag? No, I can’t say that they are. I’d pick it up for about ten bucks though. Wait for a pretty big sale on this if you get it at all. I can however say that if priced properly, the physical copy of the Keeper’s Screen WILL be worth getting. The screen is pretty useful, the art is wonderful and the two adventures are worth picking up if you can get a good price on the whole package. So yes, while this first of the big Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition releases was on the disappointing side, there is some good to be had here and the physical version will probably be worth the wait.