Limited Access - Back 9th Feb 2018
April was an expensive month for me. So in lieu of a review of the newest version of Cthulhu by Gaslight, (which I don't own) here’s a review of the First edition boxed set. The subtitle is ‘Horror Roleplaying in 1890s England.’ The extensive blurb on the back of the box talks about London as the centre of the economic and financial world of the 1890s, discusses all the features of this era that the box covers including integrating the works of Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells. It comes in a neat box with a smart cover, but is this version of the sourcebook still worth getting?
Cthulhu by Gaslight was published by Chaosium in 1986, and written by William A. Barton.
Cthulhu by Gaslight (CbG from now on) features an impressive colour painting of a bearded Victorian gentleman being menaced by the branches of an evil tree with Big Ben looming in the background. The box is sturdy and has lasted many trips and over 20 years without damage. The box could be prone to dishing, as the contents don’t fill it very fully. Inside there are two booklets, one a sourcebook and the other a single adventure. There’s also an excellent 4-fold map in black and blue ink, 21 by 28 inches in size and suitable for use as a campaign map. The final contents are a single double-sized 1890s character sheet, and a questionnaire from local New Zealand distributor Blackwood Gayle. The style of text in the book mimics the second and third edition main rulebook, with two columns and boxed headings and lists. The text is clear and easy to read, though pages without pictures or charts are quite dense-looking.
The sourcebook is titled “A Sourcebook for the 1890s”, with a street scene drawn by Kevin Ramos. This book is 56 pages in length. The Contents are listed on the rear of the book, dividing the sourcebook into 5 sections. The first is a brief introduction and bibliography, covering guidebooks of the time and more modern reviews of the period. On the fictional side, there’s an emphasis on Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper (well, fictional in terms of solutions) and H.G. Wells. It’s good to see mention of gaming references, from Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective to Victorian Adventure and a Fantasy Gamer #2 article.
Section 2 is Character Generation and New Rules. The Social Class of investigators is even more important than in the standard 1920s setting of Call of Cthulhu. New occupations here include Aristocrat, Clergyman, Consulting Detective and Adventuress, sorted by Class along with the standard ones. CbG suggest that most investigators should be Middle Class or low Upper Class to allow for freedom of action, but Lower Class characters in service to others in the party can work very well. There are no outright new skills, but the case chance for certain skills are changed, and technological skills are amended to suit the times. The World in the 1890s is essentially a player’s summary of the game’s setting, expanded for the keeper in the next section. Weapons covers what is available for 1890s investigators, from Buffalo rifles to Maxim guns. New rules (now covered in later Cthulhu books) look at garroting and knocking people unconscious.
England in the 1890s is the major part of the book for the Keeper, stretching 30 pages in describing Victorian Britain. A timeline stretches from 1880 to 1901, centered on England but with important American and world events briefly detailed. No Fortean events are covered, though. Famous literary, artistic and political figures are covered in the next part. The locations focuses almost exclusively on London, covering the areas and place names shown on the separate main map. A smaller additional key map is included for the keeper, with a gazetter of London buildings and institutions. Communications by Travel and Media are examined with times and prices detailed for common methods of transport. The Underground system was started in the Victorian era, while automobiles are only toys for the rich or engineers. Investigators can keep in contact by telegraph or the twice daily mail service. There were an astounding number of newspapers and an increasing number of journals, such as those featuring the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. The section on Crime and the Law is fairly detailed, with criminal slang shown for the common crimes of the period. Policing was not yet fully regulated, and Scotland Yard have a surprisingly small jurisdiction in this period. CID Inspectors could work on private cases on their own time, and could be called in if the local police was overwhelmed. A series of short sections follow looking at the cost of living, the form of government, royalty and titles, lodging and clubs and markets and bazaars. London libraries and museums are considered as sources of information, and the difficulty of obtaining it. Information was less centralised, and investigators may soon get weary trailing to every shipping company, for example, to track down a lead. The middle of the book contains a centrefold map of railway lines and shipping routes around Britain.
Chinese cushions author's own.
The Occult in the 1890s describes a number of organisations interested in spirituality and secret histories, even as technology was shaping the world and shaking faith in the formal religions. The first modern treatment of Atlantis was taken up with great interest and seriousness by many in Britain. The modern Druidic society came into being as a study society, though the reenactments of ancient ceremonies at Stonehenge and other ancient sites didn’t begin until well into the 20th century. Theosophy, Freemasonry, The Golden Dawn and Spiritualism are then examined in more detail. The Golden Dawn in particular are ripe for use as an adventure background, with their search into ancient knowledge and internecine struggles. The ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley was a member of the Golden Dawn in his youth, and some of the group’s mystical texts may have genuine Cthulhu knowledge. Spiritualism was a less exclusive movement, and often attracted the vulnerable and bereaved, such as Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Finding those with true power amongst the hoaxers could be a challenge. The final information in this section covers prices for common items, clothing and equipment and illustrations of typical clothing for men and women.
After these modern sections, Time Travel is a more interesting chapter of CbG. Here’s the way to take your 1920s investigators into Victorian times, in one of 4 ways. Travel by Time Gate is perhaps the most faithful to the Cthulhu mythos, along with Psionic Travel or Mindswap. Rules are given for creating a Time Gate, which costs additional POW, Magic Points and Sanity over and above any costs for geographic travel. Such gates should nearly always be too expensive for an investigator to create, but using a cultist’s gate to rescue a friend or hunt down a tantalising clue is a definite option. ‘The Shadow out of Time’ illustrates the Psionic Time Travel of the Great Race in swapping minds with a human far in the future. The investigator involved might swap with a local with a very different body, keeping his mind based characteristics but acquiring the physical attributes of the new host. Time Machines could also be used to send characters into the past, a la Dr. Who or H.G. Wells. Keepers are warned to keep control over the machine unless they want their investigators loose through all of space and time. Plots and devices used in Dr. Who to separate the TARDIS crew from their machine can be profitably used. The best idea, to stop the game from changing character entirely, is probably to make any machine a one-off, or to operate only in time over a limited range. Other means discussed cover ‘weak areas’ of space time, or time storms such as that in the movie Final Countdown. The practical and philosophical problems of time travel are covered, from language, clothing and money to the paradoxes that may result from messing around in your own time. The suggestion here is that puny humans are too weak to much affect the continuum, but creatures and gods of the Mythos are another matter...
Scenario Suggestions is the final section of the sourcebook, offering some general ideas along with adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and HG Wells to Cthulhu adventures. The general advice consists of a brief suggestion to amend 1920s Call of Cthulhu adventures (though with no specific examples), along with collections of Victorian stories from Conan Doyle, Machen, Hope Hodgeson, Blackwood, Rider Haggard, Rohmer and Stoker. Some of the stories from British authors Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley are also suitable for 1890s adventures. 3 pages are given over to a Sherlock Holmes timeline and guide to his use in adventures. Holmes is not naturally inclined towards the supernatural, but may be convinced by overwhelming evidence from professional investigators. Holmes should be used sparingly and never as an active NPC, since he will easily outclass any group. The timeline is useful for dropping in hints about Holmes’ more interesting cases within your own campaign. HG Wells is examined in general, with the War of the Worlds and The Time Machine considered in more depths. Statistics are given for Morlocks, Martians and their Tripods. The chronology of the Martian invasion is detailed if the Keeper wishes to repeat it.
The Yorkshire Horrors gives the investigators the chance to save Sherlock Holmes and his family from disgrace and death. The booklet is 48 pages long with fine character illustrations and useful maps. The investigators are assumed to be a group with a known reputation, engaged by Sherlock Holmes to help him clear the name of his least famous brother while he is busy with another case. I know Holmes is highly intelligent, but it seems more than an amazing coincidence that he would hire a Cthulhu-busting group to investigate his brother before he knows the case involves the Occult. Sherringford Holmes is the elder brother, running an estate in Yorkshire. Seemingly caught in the act of murdering a hated employee, can the investigators clear his name, protect the Holmes family and help save the Empire from a great evil? Hopefully they can. I don’t think I would ever use this adventure as written, as its use of Holmes, Watson and his enemies is not the way I would ever use them. There’s some interesting settings, but the story and NPCs just don’t engage my interest. The climax of the adventure is designed to be thrilling, but seems to reduce a great villain to the status of a cheap cultist. The use of Holmes throughout the adventure is fine, but the thrust of this adventure doesn’t work for me. Still, if you want the statistics for the Holmes family, Dr. Watson and his colleagues and enemies in the BRP system then here they are..
It‘s a shame that all the adventuring eggs in this boxed set were put in this single basket. There are no plot hooks or non-Sherlockian adventures in the box at all.
Pluses: - Great map and good production quality
- The Occult in the 1890s and Time Travel sections are well written, interesting and could provide a number of plot ideas
- The tone and details of Victorian Britain are authentic
- The Character Generation and New Rules provide a good variation to the main rules and set the style for later sourcebook
Minuses: - The Holmes scenario is a bit of a wasted opportunity
- Really only a guide to Victorian London; little on the rest of Britain or the Empire
-Much information about the look and feel of Victorian Britain can be found cheaper and in more detail elsewhere
- Dated in its approach to the information and superseded by the latest edition
So unless you are a collector, I can’t really recommend the first edition of Cthulhu by Gaslight. It’s got a great box, map and fine presentation but is not really worth the premium now charged for it. From what I’ve heard about the 3rd edition, with its 50% extra content and new traits for character generation you should get that instead. Victorian Britain is a great setting for Call of Cthulhu, but the $20 for the PDF or $28 for the paper version of the 3rd edition are much better value than the $45 and up you would need to buy this edition second hand. The game’s afoot!
Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again.
Very cool, nice review.
I bought the first edition of Cthulhu by Gaslight when it came out, because I'm a British gamer,a huge fan of Victorian/Edwardian detective and ghost stories, and I wanted to run a Call of Cthulhu campaign based in Britain.
The first edition didn't disappoint me, and I bought the second edition when it came out as a matter of course.
It wasn't until I started a Cthulhu by Gaslight campaign on this site (after a break in gaming that lasted many years) that I acquired the third edition, just to keep up to date. The third edition blows the first two out of the water.