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Convicts & Cthulhu» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Far on the Maddening Shore rss

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Eric Dodd
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The wonderful thing about moving Call of Cthulhu adventures to different times and places is how they examine human interactions against the focusing light of the Mythos. A remote colony of white Europeans at the limits of their communications with home and the natives of their strange Southern land, must also deal with the horrors of an ancient land and those they have brought with them.

Cthulhu Reborn is an Australian company aiming to bring years of experience in Call of Cthulhu to a new line of Australian sourcebooks and adventures. The folks helped design the Ennie-winning Hawkins Papers and maps for recent 7th edition releases. They also have Secrets of Australia waiting in the production queue at Chaosium. So what has a team with solid design credentials and a keen local focus produced from a potentially limited and depressing setting?

I’m reviewing the PDF version of the book in 98 pages with colour covers and layered backgrounds.

PRESENTATION:

Dean Englehardt drew the cover and designed the maps and book layout. The cover shows a troop of guards firing on a green Cthulhoidal menace, which might be a Watcher Spawn from the main included adventure. Inside the pages feature etchings of appropriate scenes and maps from historical sources as page decorations. The font is a classic style, thin but readable. The headers are in a thicker old print font. The character sheet is a modified version of the standard 7th edition Call of Cthulhu sheet, with skills changed to suit the time and place. The tables are clear and well designed. There’s no index, but an excellent one page table of contents outlines the six parts of the book and each of the major subparts. In all, the presentation is very good and clearly organised.

CONTENTS:

There are six parts to the book: The Historical Setting; Investigations in the Colony, Desperate People, Desolate Places; Dark southern Land, Mythos Tales and Resources. A brief introduction with designers’ notes, a map and a historical ballad start off the book. It’s nice to see the clear credit that delineates who wrote what, and what portions of the rules are taken or adapted from existing non-core Cthulhu rules. The designers’ notes reveal that the book arose out of a campaign run by Geoff Gillan to playtest a scenario set in the colony for a forthcoming Australian Aeons scenario collection. Therefore this book can only partly be fully judged with two complementary books yet to be seen.

Convicts & Cthulhu concentrates the Australian setting to the period 1790s - 1810, and the location to Sydney Town, Parramatta and (briefly) Hobart Town and Norfolk Island. A nice period colour map has been annotated to show the large, empty spaces (at least as far as the white men knew) between these locations. The centre of Australia is so poorly explored at this stage that the map title, key and credits can fit inside the island without any loss of detail. Acknowledgement is made of the long period of habitation by Aboriginal peoples, but the focus starts with Cook’s voyages of the 1770s. The claiming of New South Wales for Britain almost coincides with the loss of the American colonies, which had previously taken some convicts from Britain. With the goal of shipping out troublesome criminals, alleviating overcrowding and starting a colony to thwart French and Dutch ambitions in the Pacific, the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay on January 26th 1788. Conditions at the main settlement were bad enough, but those at satellite colonies of Norfolk Island and later Coal River were harsher still. Despite the problems of setting up a new settlement with no real understanding of how to grow food in the local conditions, the governance in early years was generally fair and less interesting from a gaming point of view than the more contentious years of 1792 to 1810.

During this time, as life became more settled and trade and farming grew, corruption from military control also increased. The Rum trade becomes paramount and many wages are paid in this spirit. Finally in 1806 renowned martinet and mutiny victim William Bligh arrives to try and curb the excesses of military corruption. His efforts meet strong resistance and Instead Bligh suffers an uprising led by former paymaster Macarthur. In 1810 the British crown responds by disbanding the existing military contracts and sending Governor Macquarie to bring the rule of law back to the upstart colony. Three potential campaign frames examine games set under the rule of one or more of the Governors of this period. In these times, characters may be serving convicts, partially or fully pardoned criminals, guards or officials, or free settlers. Convicts will all be working, either at hard labour, in farming or as clerks in the case of more literate and respectable prisoners. Those released from their terms of service may not be allowed to return to Britain, and may be in a more desperate state out of prison.

In character creation there are amendments to investigator background, skills and occupations. Aboriginal Clans and languages of the region are detailed, with three general occupations to follow. Six convict occupations and six freemen occupations are also provided. While literacy levels are lower among convicts, many of whom may be unable to read or write, many other skills are also amended or exchanged to suit the times and location. Equipment, especially metal, is a finite resource in the early days of the colony as everything must come out by boat and be considered worthy of its place. The colonies are right at the bottom of the pecking order for state of the art equipment. If convicts have no resources to trade then they must get by on their wits and charm and labour. For guards and officers the pay and victuals are listed. The convicts rations were also fixed but of poorer quality. In lean times a newly released prisoner may find themselves no better off with limited work, pay and food available. Promissory notes and the use of Rum as a currency replace cash in many cases.

Weaponry, entertainment and the general way of life in the colonies is explored next. Generally convicts worked 5 and a half days a week, with Sunday morning set aside for church. Industrious convicts might be able to get ahead by working privately outside these hours. Although roll calls were frequent, the chance of success of any escapes was low due to the colony’s isolation and the harshness of life in the Bush to those not used to it. Rules are provided for receiving and surviving a flogging, the most common form of corporal punishment. How investigators find things out in the colony is discussed in a solid section looking at the few written records in the local paper (originally an official government bulletin), convict records, land grants, court records and private correspondence. Much more information is going to come from talking to witnesses and direct examination. As later sections discuss, the number of mythos tomes and reference books around is going to be much lower than in Britain at the same time.

Part III is ‘A Brief Tour of Hell’ and looks at notable locations and buildings of the colony in some detail. A map of Sydney in 1807 is provided with a key of 15 locations. Major historical NPCs to be met at the locations are detailed. Two of the buildings are a typical tavern and warehouse, which can be amended and reused in different locations. A good note here is to emphasis just how ‘wrong’ the colony appears to any ‘civilised’ Briton - raw in strange nature, with only small, flimsy, mostly wooden buildings. Those of any social pretensions insisted on wearing outfits suitable for colder northern climes and so any physical activity soon becomes sweaty and unpleasant. Those familiar with Sydney now need to try and see it through the eyes of desperate criminals or settlers, out of their comfort zone. A timeline of historical events, including natural and human disasters, and Fortean outbreaks is listed. Out in the suburb of Parramatta the smaller settlement is detailed, along with the size and typical features of small and large landholdings. These might make for an interesting working place of a group of convict investigators. Coal Town, Tasmania and Norfolk Island are even more desperate places in the early 19th century but might be visited during play and have their own unique flavour. Aboriginal habitations around all of these areas are touched on - all are going into decline as time goes on, with some groups actively fighting the settlers.

In Part IV ‘Dark Southern Land’, five cults imported into the Colony are discussed. There’s a good range from those popular with convicts, sailors, settlers or the leaders of the colony, covering a variety of Gods or entities to worship. Aboriginal beasts and a variety of different approaches to the Dreaming allow the Keeper to introduce as much or as little genuine lore as they please. Again the Aboriginal Dreaming is treated separately from HPL’s Dreamlands, though there are suggestions for how one can infect or reflect the other. 5 short scenario ideas finish this chapter under the heading of New Nightmares. Part V: Mythos Tales contains a 13 page Introductory adventure ‘Unfresh Off the Boat’, designed for a group of convicts and guards newly arrived in sydney harbour and desperate to get on land. It’s a short investigation and chase through a number of locations in Sydney, allowing the players to get an idea of the geography of the place and their relative position in the cultural hierarchy. The climax is gruesome and dramatic and leads on to further plot complications. One new nasty monster and another handy map make this a decent adventure. Six additional plot seeds of 1 to 3 pages each completes the section, and gives the keeper multiple options for each hook as to what is behind the unusual phenomenon that starts each adventure. This makes each of the plots pretty useful no matter what direction you take your convict campaign in.

Part VI contains resources for future research - films, TV, websites, fiction and non-fiction. The remainder of the chapter features typical statistics for aboriginal warriors, convicts, guards, settlers, sailors, military and officers. The amended two-page 7th Edition character sheet completes the book.


VERDICT:


For the price of pay what you want, Convicts and Cthulhu is highly recommended to anyone interested in this place and period of history. It’s also a great appendix to Revolutionary era Colonial American gaming. As part of an entire new Australian line of 7th Edition Cthulhu gaming we’ll have to wait and see how Convicts and Cthulhu fits in.
Unfortunately, although the presentation is well up to the standard of most 6th edition releases, the fact it is not in the full colour style of the 7th Edition books may be holding up the release of all the Secrets of Australia book.


Pluses:
- Fascinating details about an intriguing time and place
- Strong social structures to play with
- Plenty of adventure ideas

Minuses:
- Limited locations may feel claustrophobic or depressing
- Criminals and bad guys might have little to care for
- Full background and sourcebook not yet available


There’s no reason not to take a look at Convicts and Cthulhu, even if it’s just for some reading about a fascinating period in Australian history. The ‘remote prison’ concept can be adapted for any low technology level game, from fantasy to horror. Even Traveller’s Prison Planet has some themes and ideas in common, as the ‘tyranny of distance’ overcomes the advanced technologies. There are more ideas available for little extra in the Ticket of Leave adventure and Cthulhu Hack Convicts and Cthulhu book, which I’ll look at soon. Hopefully this is just the start of the whole Secrets of Australia line, and we can get a new fill of Terror Australis.



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Paul Baldowski
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Red Wine Pie wrote:
Limited locations may feel claustrophobic or depressing

While it might seem problematic, it does represent a way to create Lovecraftian themes of isolation in an environment that seems to have endless horizons.

Good review! Looking forward to see what you think of TCH: Convicts & Cthulhu.
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Eric Dodd
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Sure, I think it's totally fitting for the setting and can absolutely be an asset to the theme of the game. It's just it might possibly be a hard sell to get a group to agree to game in this location. Just finishing a White Dwarf review and some Arkham witchcraft articles and I'll be onto the Cthulhu Hack expansion.
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Oliver Scholes
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I like the possibilities here a lot. I was a little underwhelmed with the main included scenario, but that's kind of a minor quibble.
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Paul Baldowski
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Of the adventures, I found the capsule adventures more engaging. Convicts & Cthulhu: Ticket of Leave #1: Night Terrors is OK, but a little too vague.
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Eric Dodd
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I agree with both Paul and Oliver's points about the adventures. I liked the setup of Night Terrors, but the ending was uninspiring.
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