Review: Masks of Nyatlathotep (2018)
Properly describing Masks of Nyarlathotep requires a lot of different ways to say ‘big’. The ideas it plays with are grand, the scale is epic and the stakes are monumental, though it also comes with a hefty price-tag and a huge amount of information for the GM to process if things are going to run smoothly.
The original Masks was published more than three decades, only a couple of years after the original Call of Cthuhlu ruleset. Since then has been held up as one of the best adventures ever written, and while this updated version isn’t a complete rework, almost every aspect of it has been tweaked, expanded and brought into line with modern tastes.
Sometimes this modernisation has come in the form of new content, such as a mission to clear the name of an innocent man caught up in a wave of cult murders or optional rules for running the campaign in related systems such as Pulp Cthulhu. Sometimes it simply means making things more palatable and user-friendly by replacing the stark black-and-white layout as new full-colour art and a modern design. Importantly, this also includes carefully removing some of its predecessor’s uncomfortable reliance on racial stereotypes.
While a lot has changed, however, the heart and soul of the campaign still pulsates with the same dark energy that it always has.
It still starts off with a murder investigation in the bustling streets of 1920’s New York, and still ends up as a globetrotting quest to save the world as we know it. The investigators will be drawn into the same battles with hidden cultists among the English gentry, confront the same alien horrors prowling the streets of Shanghai and continue to run in terror from fragments of dark gods nestled within Egyptian tombs.
And if everything I just described sounds as though it’s been plucked off the shelf of Cthulhu mythos cliches, that’s probably because so many of the things we associate with Lovecraftian roleplaying were firmly laid down in the original Masks campaign. Make no mistake, this is classic Call of Cthulhu territory, and settling into a solid investigation conjures up the same comfortable feelings that come when you delve a well-crafted dungeon in your favourite version of D&D.
While there’s undeniably an old-school feel to the campaign, however, the updates help to get things going much more smoothly than in previous editions. A large part of the credit for this comes from the new prologue, which eases the investigators into the world through a mini-campaign of sorts set in Peru. This introduction to the ruleset and world of Call of Cthulhu should last most groups a couple of sessions and provide them with a definite short-term goal, where the original tossed the players into the deep-end with a campaign that could take a year or more to complete.
Make no mistake, however, even with all the updates and edits made in this latest edition Masks is still a huge and complex beast that demands a major commitment if you’re going to get the most from it. The omnibus edition stretches to a strangely appropriate 666 pages, most of which are densely packed with information, and will set you back around US$100 for a print copy and US$60 for a PDF.
Even then, running a campaign smoothly requires the GM to stay on top of their game and carefully prepare everything from plot points to hand-outs. It also demands players that take decent notes and treat the game-world – and the campaign itself – with respect. This isn’t the kind of adventure where you can roll up, chuck a few dice and shoot the breeze while paying minimal attention; at least, not if you expect your character to survive more than a couple sessions.
If you and your friends are after something substantial to get your teeth into, Masks of Nyarlathotep may be just the thing you’re looking for. Even though the price-tag may seem a little daunting, it’s worth remembering that the campaign can easily keep a group going for a year or more of regular gaming, and if you truly commit to it that year will just fly by.