“The Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion” — a review

Reviewed by Paul St John Mackintosh.

Lary DiTillio and Lynn Willis’s Masks of Nyarlathotep: Perilous Adventures to Thwart the Dark God is probably the single most celebrated campaign ever created for Chaosium’s unhallowed-groundbreaking Call of Cthulhu RPG. Recipient of a Best Roleplaying Adventure award, Masks of Nyarlathotep remains, as its credits declare, “a roleplaying classic,” over two decades after its first appearance in 1984. It’s also immensely long: Writer Jim Hauser tells of one complete playthrough that took 1 ½ years.

This is where Innsmouth House and Sixtystone Press have stepped in to help manage that complexity with The Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, an even more gargantuan play aid – 775 pages no less – bringing together “the ideas, the inspirations, and the occasional innovations of the gamers who have run Masks of Nyarlathotep over the past 32 years … drawn from the collective experience of the membership of Yog-Sothoth.com (a.k.a. YSDC), the premier website for all things Call of Cthulhu.” The original Kickstarter campaign for the Companion exceeded its target by almost six times. The book itself has now gone out to the Kickstarter backers, and will soon be debuting for the general public.

The Companion is as gargantuan as you’d expect, given that it’s almost four times as long as the original text. Each of the main locations of Masks of Nyarlathotep – New York, England, Egypt, Kenya, Australia, Shanghai, Hong Kong – gets the deep-dive treatment, with exhaustive period details on all aspects of life in the mid-1920s. The Australia section is especially outstanding in this respect, and oozes atmosphere. These details also do a lot to redress what looks more and more like one of the main shortcomings of the original – that it just wasn’t researched deeply enough or with enough respect for authenticity. As one telling example, the writers and editors give helpful advice on actual Arab and Indian names, instead of the rather cheesy choices of the original. There are also extra scenarios – some of them extremely imaginative and hideous – and generic details of transportation, magical tomes, etc.

All in all, the Companion is an inspirational and massively useful reference source, not only for Masks of Nyarlathotep, but also for just about any other Call of Cthulhu campaign whatsoever. There’s just a few small caveats around such a gigantic project. One is the recent update to the basic Call of Cthulhu rules from sixth to seventh edition. Sixtystone Press explained that the seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu “came out whilst we were in the middle of MONC. Chaosium gave us special dispensation to continue using CoC 6e for the MONC because 700+ pages would have set-back the project at least 6 months.” The publishers are “preparing a PDF of CoC 7e NPC conversions.” Given the extensive scenario conversion guidelines already included in seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu – as well as the fact that the original Masks of Nyarlathotep hasn’t been updated either – that should be more than enough to facilitate any needed changes.

Besides, much of the meat of the Companion is in the documentary materials, visuals and handouts, and extensive research, rather than system-specific nitty-gritty like character stats. You’ll find yourself lost in it for hours, only to emerge gibbering: “the Bellevue Psychiatric Pavilion … the Burning Within … The Thiruvattar Inscriptions … The Wallal Expedition … the Flesh-Flowers …” Any RPG geek playing any iteration of Call of Cthulhu, or even Trail of Cthulhu, should own this volume, whether or not they’re planning to play the original campaign. Insanity-inducing death to your social life, but utterly fascinating. This avatar of the Crawling Chaos will crawl and crawl…

Reviewed by Paul St John Mackintosh.

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