Arkham Gazette Review: Issues 0 and 1

When I first started diving deep into Call of Cthulhu, I was reading everything I could get my hands on: The Book of Cthulhu, a random copy of The Keeper’s Companion 2 (both found at the tiny local library), and, digitally, the Arkham Gazette Issue 0, put out by Bret Kramer of Sentinel Hill Press. So, now that Sentinel Hill is releasing print-on-demand versions of their continuing publication, we thought it would be nice to do a quick dive into the first two issues, and I got to return to one of my first readings of non-Chaosium Cthulhu material.

Each issue of the Arkham Gazette takes a deep dive into a different topic, usually a location around Lovecraft country. Issue 4 is due to come out soon.

—Noah

***

Issue 0–Noah

Issue 0 is written entirely by Bret Kramer, and is a very affordable pay-what-you-want price on DriveThruRPG. This issue is obviously a proof of concept; that said, there’s more art than you deserve, everything is really solid and evocative, and the issue is top-notch material.

Issue 0 focuses on “The Aylesbury Pike,” a roadway through Lovecraft country connecting Aylesbury and Arkham. Each entry in the magazine provides some new information about the fictional thoroughfare and its surrounds: a possibly haunted graveyard nearby, the Pike’s history, a general guide to how highways arose in the 1920s, and new NPCs who might be encountered traveling along it.

Ghosts on the Aylesbury Pike
Ghosts on the Aylesbury Pike.

The real-world historical information, like all of Sentinel Hill’s work, is deeply researched and adds a lot to historically minded campaigns. I’ve already mentioned the article on the rise of highways, but other articles present appetizing research on the history of the northeast U.S. “New England’s Petroglyphs” sticks out especially, detailing several sites of ancient stone drawings and carvings, and examining their veracity. This article easily blends the real world with Mythos fantasy, resulting in an evocative (and useful) piece that had me itching to throw hoax petroglyphs into a scenario and see what the investigators make of them.

The new NPCs are also richly done, each presented with options for use. These options really demonstrate the versatility that good character design brings to a Keeper. “Mr. Pickett,” for instance, can go from a hunter perturbed that you’ve wandered onto his land to a psychopathic killer who enjoys hunting children. You can heckle your players with one option or terrorize them with another. There are only three in-depth NPC write-ups, both white men, and I would have liked to see a white woman or person of color, but later issues of the Gazette hopefully address this.

Issue 0 closes with a scenario, “The Chapochaug Tunnel Haunting,” which makes for an excellent hook into a longer campaign, while the investigators also busily worry away at the main plot. Like much of the Gazette, “The Chapochaug Tunnel Haunting” is primarily interested in presenting Keepers with options. Referring to an abandoned railway tunnel, the scenario details three different story beats for involving the investigators, presents several possible encounter options, and concludes with mystery reveals that range from the mundane, to the Mythos, to “ancient Hyperborean power conduits.”

In short, if your investigators will ever travel between Aylesbury and Arkham, do yourself a favor and pick up this issue. The PDF of Issue 0 hasn’t been updated for seventh edition, but your purchase on DriveThruRPG includes conversion notes, so there’s no reason not to read through it–and, as always, despite it being pay-what-you-want, do consider supporting Sentinel Hill Press with something, so that Bret and his collaborators can keep putting out quality material.

***

Issue 1–Matt

Written in 2013 and revised in 2016, Issue 1 presents additional material for the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, the magazine’s namesake. The issue builds upon information published in the Chaosium supplement H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham, a 2003 update of the original Arkham Unbound, published in 1990. Overall there are two types of articles: extensively researched articles that add to a particular aspect of the town or its supernatural lore, and scenarios that run the gambit between short adventure seeds and longer, more developed situations.

The research articles take an aspect of the New England town and expand it, providing ever more adventure-ammunition to the detail-hungry Keeper. For example, “Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New England Canaan” takes a lesser-known Mythos Tome and gives it an alternate history and version, as well as a wealth of derivative texts, and concludes with a comprehensive listing of every Call of Cthulhu scenario that uses the book. Or, the authors – Kramer is joined by a talented team of writers and creators in this issue – contribute pieces of actual 1920s culture, history, or technology, to the town’s ever-increasing coverage. “The Gladdening School” adds a mental facility for children to the town’s outskirts, and “Arkham’s Markers: A History” describes granite posts around the town’s outer boundaries in accordance with Massachusetts State Law. “Arkham’s Diners,” a personal favorite, explores the various types of diners in existence in the late 1920s, being careful to differentiate them from the oft-imagined diners of the ‘40s and ‘50s that come to the reader’s imagination, and then adds a half-dozen or so invented diners to the town. Most are given a simple, detailed map, all include the owner’s details, and as an additional bonus, several list the canonical Arkham patrons that regularly sup in each diner’s booths. Want to know where mob lieutenant Bobby Sills grabs a sandwich? Check out the Grafton Diner at 106 W. High Lane.

While the weight of the issue rests on these “Deep Background” articles, Issue 1 also includes several scenarios. Most are short adventure seeds that list an odd happening, like a street brawl between a known citizen and a stranger in “Altercation on West Armitage Street,” and then posits three possibilities as to the underlying reason for the event. Was it just happenstance or something more supernatural and sinister? It’s up to your Keeper.

“The Bothworth House” is a longer scenario written by Ben Wenham. A wife mysteriously murders her husband; some blame her fragile mental condition while others whisper that the old house is the true culprit. We get ample detail of the house and its former occupants, a solid beginning, and delicious mid-game clues, but no climactic ending. Whatever caused Margaret Hannigan to murder her husband Thomas is left unresolved. An insert states that the scenario is more about alienation and isolation – the various supernatural clues revealed to only a single player investigator – but the missing ending made the scenario incomplete.

In presentation, The Arkham Gazette excels. The simple layout and clean margins and headers focus the reader’s attention on the content rather than the production frills. Not to say that there aren’t some very professionally produced pieces, the faux New England Journal of Medicine pages in “Reports of Delusions of Invisible Monsters” look like photographs from a real book rather than constructed images, but overall Arkham Gazette has passed over the marginal images and textured page backgrounds and other Adobe Suite flourishes that seem ubiquitous among role-playing books these days.

New map of Arkham
New map of Arkham with new locations.

A note about the various maps, drawn by Chris Huth and Jef Wilkins. As a cartographer, my philosophy has always been that a pretty map is nice – some can be downright gorgeous – but a map’s purpose is to convey information in a direct and easily understandable manner. My favorite map of Arkham continues to be Gahan Wilson’s version, drawn in 1970, which offers a simple gridwork of streets and labeled buildings. The Arkham Gazette provides us with a simple map of Arkham’s streets, based (I think) on the map designed by Chaosium, but without buildings and other town nuances. By providing pertinent numbered locations on an uncluttered grid, each map is simple, straightforward, and easily understandable. The map is reused throughout the magazine for different articles and different locations, and each instance reinforces clarity and comprehension.

Issue 1 concludes with a comprehensive list of all published and online scenarios set in Arkham, including those in which Arkham is merely the starting point for players’ investigators. Dean Engelhardt and Bret Kramer have left no stone unturned in this complete perusal, and I sit in awe of their comprehensive efforts and, I presume, massive libraries. This points the way to hours of gaming material, and for authors who would like to read what has already been done with Arkham scenarios, this bibliography is an invaluable guide.

Arkham Gazette #1 accomplishes its goal of offering Keepers and authors, potential or experienced, more information about Arkham. As an author’s resource guide, it’s a necessity, and its bibliographic information is essential to those intending to add to Arkham’s fiction. As a Keeper’s assistant, it adds an additional layer to the already detailed town presented in H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham (and Arkham Unbound). The gist of several of the articles could be retooled to work in most New England towns in 1920, I imagine, but owning the aforementioned supplement seems a prerequisite to truly enjoying this issue. Luckily a PDF is available from the Chaosium website.

***

Full disclosure: we both received complimentary PDF copies of the Arkham Gazette’s entire current run, issues 0 through 3.

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