A Pentad of Terrors: a Review of “Petersen’s Abominations”

Just in time for the winter holidays, we have Petersen’s Abominations: Five Epic Tales of Modern Horror, a collection of five modern-day scenarios published by Chaosium for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. Written by Sandy Petersen, the original designer of Call of Cthulhu, with the aid of Mike Mason, Chaosium’s current Call of Cthulhu line editor, the five scenarios are designed for one-shot convention play, with the only requirements being the core rules, a clutch of plastic polyhedrals, and four to six willing players (victims).

The book begins with a short introduction from both authors–it’s lovely and one of my favorite parts of the book. Both speak directly to the reader, writing about their love of the game, their fans’ love of the game, and the lengthy, long-distance process involved in producing Petersen’s Abominations. Petersen also warns us that these scenarios are quite lethal, arising in part, he claims, because convention players like to boast that they have been killed in a Sandy Petersen-run game. The warning is nice, but those familiar with Petersen’s earlier scenarios know that they can be meat-grinders, mercilessly chewing up investigators who have little hope of survival. The scenarios in Petersen’s Abominations are every bit as dangerous as those he wrote for Shadows of Yog-Sothoth in 1982, and every bit as enjoyable.

The first scenario, “Hotel Hell,” is a typical CoC adventure. I call these “taking the cherry pie off the sleeping bear in the locked room,” sorts of adventures. The investigators have a goal, and as they pursue that goal they discover that some monstrous entity is slowly waking up and that they are trapped in the location with that entity. “Hotel Hell” does this well, and has all the appropriate parts: a creepy atmosphere, slowly revealed horror, and an ensuing cataclysmic catastrophe that is truly apocalyptic. The six investigators are the new owners of a hotel in British Columbia who hope to return it to a profitable tourist getaway. Petersen describes it as a “sandbox” adventure, one in which the players can do whatever they want, and the Keeper’s job is to respond to their explorations. Again, this is fairly standard with CoC scenarios. “Hotel Hell” might be difficult for a first-time or novice Keeper, who feels uncomfortable handling the reactive nature of the scenario, but Mason and Petersen offer adequate advice to assist any Keeper intimidated by the scenario’s free-wheeling gameplay. This is a strong scenario and a wise choice for the book’s first chapter.

“The Derelict,” is also a cherry-pie-off-the-sleeping-bear scenario, in this case almost literally. Originally offered as a 24-page staple-bound supplement in 2016 for the industry’s Free RPG Day, this is an exact copy of that supplement. While crossing the ocean from the US to the UK, six investigators discover an abandoned ship wedged in an iceberg. This is not a Mythos-themed scenario, as Petersen writes in the scenario’s forward, but more of a traditional monster movie/horror film treat. The monster is both sneaky and lethal, and, like many CoC scenarios, astronomically more powerful than the investigators. If players think they can hack ‘n slash their way through the beast, they will all become entries in Petersen’s list of slain investigators (if he keeps such a list, like we do). “The Derelict” is also by nature a sandbox, and follows the standard stages of set-up, exploration, and climax found in many CoC one-shots. “The Derelict” does not have a large cast of NPCs, and is subsequently a good choice for the novice Keeper who only has to focus on what the investigators do. I particularly like that Petersen confidently steps away from Mythos themes, and shows us how to incorporate other elements into our horror role-playing.

“Panacea” differs from the standard scenario stages slightly, and I think it might be the first-time Keeper’s best bet to run effectively. A local medical company has discovered a cure-all drug that can remedy every human illness, but (of course) has ghastly side-effects. Without giving too much away, Petersen takes a standard fantasy creature and attempts to incorporate it into the catalog of Mythos monsters. I don’t know how well he succeeds, but it’s a treat to read the attempt and to watch his creative process. “Panacea” has a couple of choke-points, parts that the investigators must pass through to continue the game, which can be difficult to handle at the table if they are missed. There is a single way through a particular door, for example, and if the investigators don’t find the key the scenario grinds to a halt until they do. An agile Keeper can deftly relocate this key, but an inexperienced Keeper might adhere too closely to the written text and unintentionally mire down the scenario. Before I harp too much on this, I should point out that Chaosium has an entire supplement aimed at first-time Keepers, Doors to Darkness, and that Petersen’s Abominations is not intended for the inexperienced. That said, of the scenarios presented here, “Panacea” seems the best for new Keepers who might be worried about having to react to a wide range of player actions.

“Mohole” continues the trapped-in-a-room-with-a-sleeping-bear scenario style. Six investigators fly to a deep-sea oil rig to inspect it for safety hazards, and no surprise, it ranks right up there in the hazards department. This scenario has a huge load of NPCs that the Keeper must be familiar with, some 60-or-so oil riggers that the investigators might decide to talk to. The depth of information concerning all the NPCs isn’t the same, and the main NPCs are more detailed than those that mop the floors, but it could be a daunting task role-playing this many NPCs. My fear is I wouldn’t be able to commit all these characters to my short term memory and have to flip through the book at the gaming table. Compounding that issue, one of the NPCs can muck with the interpersonal relationship map of all the other NPCs–I’m trying to stay vague here–which makes pulling clues from this horde even more difficult. It might be hard for players to figure out why the thing that happens happens. And once that thing happens, once the sleeping bear awakens, it’s hard to stop, and I don’t see how anyone is expected to survive “Mohole.” I didn’t play this, but the fear is that all the players will die and then ask me what happened. If you like TPKs, give “Mohole” a try. If you loved the old “Tomb of Horrors” supplement for that other rpg, you’ll like “Mohole.”

The last offering, “Voice over the Phone,” is the most Lovecraftian, the most horrifying, and perhaps the most problematic offering of the lot. I think this is my favorite scenario, and with it comes some difficult issues. The players are either six gang members or six police officers (although stats for the second option of player characters aren’t provided) who are trying to locate and stop a rival gang. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything. The Lovecraft connection is solid, and the scenario references one of my favorite short stories, which I can’t mention without giving away a significant aspect of the villain. The horror is savage, and the supernatural entity behind it is one we’ve seen before, (it’s a limited Mythos after all) but never in this fashion. I won’t give it away, but it’s really, really good. Again it has a sandbox exploration phase, and might take an experienced Keeper to make it flow towards a satisfactory conclusion. Plenty of advice and guidance is offered to steer this scenario towards a climactic ending. And I think, with some luck and good choices, some of the investigators may survive.

There are a few problematic issues with “Voice over the Phone.” The PC gang members are Hispanic, and while we do get an insert telling us that no harm is intended, I’m hesitant to play it because we don’t get advice in how to play it sensitively. How do I portray a Hispanic gang member without slipping into a stereotype, and how do I ensure my players (especially Hispanic players) that it won’t happen around the table? Even more problematic, for me, is that gang members aren’t noble characters, and that real gang violence–both the violence itself and the experience of its often helpless victims–is truly horrifying. A recent letter to the editor in the Washington Post describes the real gang violence that MS-13 inflicts against the immigrant community living in Langley Park, Maryland, and after reading about the crimes of actual gang members it’s hard to cozy up to the pre-generated characters as the protagonists. While they are given “heroic” backstories that focus on the family-esque nature of gang membership, the crimes that these characters would regularly commit are ignored and never mentioned. More intriguing is the idea of a criminal task force charged with ending the rival gang’s activities, but those characters aren’t provided. Still, even with these two questionable marks, “Voice over the Phone” is the prize of the five, in my opinion, and contains all the best features of an enjoyable Call of Cthulhu scenario.

All five scenarios in Petersen’s Abominations are good, some very good, and you will certainly have your favorites like I’ve mine. Though each is a one-shot, all scenarios have suggestions on how to incorporate them into larger campaigns, making Petersen’s Abominations useful even if you never intended to run one-shot adventures. There is a masterful mix of contemporary horror, Lovecraftian themes, heart-racing action, and world-ending doom that makes this an exceptional gaming supplement. And for those interested in creating scenarios, like both Noah and I are, Petersen’s Abominations offers five epic examples of intelligently conceived and well-written adventures. It’s hackneyed to say, but Chaosium does it again, and offers us a marvelous supplement for our insatiable Call of Cthulhu appetites.

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3 thoughts on “A Pentad of Terrors: a Review of “Petersen’s Abominations””

  1. Great review. I just wanted to point out though that the creatures in Panacea are actually existing Call of Cthulhu monsters. They are listed in the Malleus Monstrorum as Gof’nn Hupadgh Shub-Niggurath (just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?). I only know that because I went through the entire Malleus for my blog 🙂

    P.S. Hope you don’t mind that I linked to it on the YSDC Wiki page for the book.

    Like

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