Monographs and Call of Cthulhu
One of the most interesting aspects of the new Chaosium line-up is the monographs, freelance tape-bound splatbooks detailing a very specific setting within a game. But do they help or hinder the actual creative development of the game itself?
When I was a strapping lad I found myself wholly engrossed in the twisted fantasy worlds of H. P. Lovecraft. Even today, if I ever do any kind of graduate work I will more than likely seek out or carve out a Lovecraftian specialty. There is something profoundly intriguing about dedicating oneself scholastically to the Elder Gods, even if it just means spending a lot of time talking to S. T. Joshi.
Some time ago, I came across the Call of Cthulhu rules in a Borders bookstore in Hawaii. At the time, I thought it was fate, though now I realize it was probably just a special order that someone abandoned. In any case, I purchased it and quickly devoured it like Shub-Niggurath devouring a backwoods mountain family.
Building a collection of supplemental books was easy enough, spanning a good part of a decade. Though, in the last few years there have been some interesting additions to the Chaosium catalogue: monographs. These are works done for the company specifically by freelance authors and take a similar form to the old school original D&D adventure books. They run vaguely in a Print-On-Demand style, where the books are digitally run to order in increments of 500 copies. The best part about a monograph is the open acceptance policies concerning freelance authors. In other words, it is relatively easy to proposition Chaosium and receive an answer without having to go through a lot of hassle and have a huge list of writing credits to back you up.
Through the use of monographs, Chaosium has expanded all of their lines exponentially. In fact, all of the Basic Role-Playing core rulebooks (Chaosium's version of GURPS) are put out in monograph format, saving time and money. The author receives a flat rate for the first five hundred copies of $250 and Chaosium will approach the author about an additional fee if the original five hundred copies are sold.
The most interesting thing about monographs is the added settings. For example, the Call of Cthulhu line-up included the basic setting (1890, 1920 and 1990), H. P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, Cthulhu by Gaslight (Pre-1890) and Cthulhu Dark Ages (1000 AD). Increasing the game's potential settings, there are monographs for horror roleplaying in Ancient Rome (Cthulhu Invictus), Cthulhiana in the near future (End Time) and Cthulhu in SPACE! (Cthulhu Rising)
Surprisingly, there is no cybered up Cthulhu in a black leather trenchcoat with a huge hand-cannon and metallic arms. Which gives me an idea for a monograph.
While this sort of system seems dangerously close to being an unedited, irresponsible mess, the monographs are actually quite well done. The Cthulhu Rising monograph includes a wealth of information on other worlds, space travel and psychic abilities. The odd thing about the psychic abilities is their lack of a sanity cost, however.
For those of you who have played Call of Cthulhu, you probably remember fondly casting that Summon/Bind Byakhee spell to call some horrible winged daemon out of the void to destroy your enemies. I know I do. But the point behind spells and abilities like that was the sanity cost. Doing things that was normally outside of the bounds of the average individual on a metaphysical, magical sense is taxing for the human brain. Psychic abilities, while well-designed nonetheless, appear to simply give an unfair advantage to the player character that just happens to roll lucky (your character is psychically apt on a percentile roll against one of your statistics at character generation).
The best part about getting supernatural abilities was finding the books and reading up on the spells incurring, of course, the sanity loss for learning of the horrid fate that awaits mankind under the eventual enslavement of the Great Old Ones (I.e. Cthulhu and his pals). Instead, you receive a psychic pool from where you draw your powers. You don't even have the option of overextending yourself and depleting your sanity. Not only that, but a lot of the psychic abilities mirror spells that you can learn in the game. So why even learn those spells? What benefit would your group have to acquire a book with a clairvoyance spell if you can just get your psychic to learn it and not have a sanity cost associated with it?
All in all the monograph idea is a good one, allowing for greater freedom and fan submission (a lot of people have good ideas, but not everyone has the time to sit down and write an entire book). However, one must look at the overall spirit of the game in question and how that is affected when considering the benefits of purchasing or using a non-canonical monograph. As always, it is the Game Master's choice on what she will or will not use in her campaign, but does the option to use possibly rules-breaking material give rules lawyer players more fodder to create power gaming machines?
What are your thoughts?