15 October 2018
Go mad for the classic campaign all over again
With its wide array of frothing cultists, ancient ruins and apocalyptic drama, Masks of Nyarlathotep has helped to define the tone and feel of Call of Cthulhu for almost three decades. Thanks to this highly polished update, it looks set to keep chewing through hapless investigators for years to come.
‘Update’ may not be quite the right word for what this is, however. Make no mistake: this is something far beyond the comparatively minor changes that have come with the new editions rolled out on a regular basis since the 1984 original. Despite this, it’s certainly still the same campaign that has consigned so many parties to gibbering madness, which begins with a bizarre murder in a New York hotel and ends with a battle for the sake of reality as we know it.
Most of the changes are subtle and carefully considered, with a bit of historical detail added here and tighter phrasing there, but the team handling the new version weren’t afraid to make major alterations where they felt it was needed.
Where the traditional opening threw the party into the deep end with the vague hope they’d be able to swim, this fresh take on Masks kicks off with a new prologue chapter set in the highlands of Peru. It’s a modest, self-contained adventure that should last for a couple of sessions and serves as a mini-campaign of sorts, introducing the characters to the game and allowing them to get to know Jackson Elias – an NPC whose gory death triggers the main campaign.
This sets the tone for many of the other changes in the new book, which aim to smooth out some of the rockier areas of the original; as well as giving the players a guaranteed motivation to uncover the secrets behind Elias’ murder, a real effort has been made to eliminate or downplay some of the more uncomfortable racial stereotypes that pervaded earlier editions.
In this same vein, the team behind the book took the decision to tone down the lethality of the campaign by a notch or two. While this may seem like heresy to dyed-in-the wool Masks fans, it’s fair to say that the classic version tended towards the psychotic in places. The tweaks introduced manage to preserve the looming sense of danger that is an iconic aspect of the campaign – and, indeed, Call of Cthuhlu as a whole – while avoiding the risk of having players cycle through a long list of investigators with increasingly tenuous connections to the overall story.
Alongside this, plenty of effort has been made to simplify campaigns using systems other than the basic Call of Cthulhu. The text is stuffed with sidebars explaining how the adventures can be adapted for the swashbuckling antics of the Pulp Cthulhu system, cutting down on the legwork needed by GMs.
Admittedly, that still doesn’t make running Masks a simple endeavour, no matter which system you’re using. The book weighs in at well over 600 pages, and if there are any downsides to the campaign they lie in the amount it demands from the GM; there are dozens of plot threads and weaving trails of clues and contacts running throughout the book, as well as a thick stack of handouts that need to be printed off or sent out to the group in advance.
Indeed, the players themselves will also need to be on their toes if they want to have a good time with Masks. The campaign is based around investigations and problem-solving rather than rolling dice and blasting away at enemies – if your group is more inclined towards scoring loot and racking up kills than interviewing contacts and tailing suspects, this may not be the wisest of investments.
If you have a year or so to devote to a single campaign, as well as a group of friends you can trust to treat it with a little respect, Masks of Nyarlathotep won’t disappoint. Just maybe try not to get too attached to the first set of characters you roll up.
There’s a reason why so many doomed investigators have thrown themselves into Masks of Nyarlathotep over the past 30 years, and this update is the ideal way for modern players to see what all the fuss is about.
Designer: Larry DiTillio, Mike Mason, Paul Fricker, Lynne Hardy, Scott Dorward, Lynn Willis
Artist: Sam Lamont, Rhys Pugh, Caleb Cleveland, M Wayne Miller, Jonathan Wyke, Victor Leza, Eric Lofgren, Petr Stovik, Löic Muzy, Andrew Law, Olivier Sanfilippo, Andrew Law, Nick Nacario
This review originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products.