When Chaosium unleashed the first edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep upon an unsuspecting public way back in 1986, few people were prepared for the unrelenting, visceral horror they were about to face. The story – penned by Hollywood script-writing veteran Larry DiTillio – saw investigators traverse the globe in a make-or-break dash to save humanity from the evil machinations of the dark god Nyarlathotep.
It was one of those campaigns; the kind that stimulates knowing smiles from grey-bearded veterans, the kind that induces hushed whispers of nostalgia. The kind that makes you want to tattoo the words ‘I survived Nyarlathotep’ across your chest (for the record, I did, and I haven’t). The Masks of Nyarlathotep – almost overnight -- became the template by which all other campaigns are measured. Brilliant, challenging, and nail-biting, the narrative dripped with anxiety-laden moments of adrenaline-charged terror, ‘oh-no-you didn’t’ segues, and flashes of white-hot tragedy.
It regularly shows up on top-ten lists battling for GOAT status with contemporary luminaries such as Temple of Elemental Evil, Horror on the Orient Express, and more modern offerings such as Mongoose’s Pirates of Drinax.
In 2018 -- buoyed by the success of the seventh edition of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game –Chaosium released the sixth edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep, this time as a premium-quality, three-volume slipcase edition. A definitive ‘Masks’ experience was promised, but in an age where repackaged classics ritualise their way into release schedules at reflex, pre-order hesitancy felt somewhat justified.
Something Old, Something New
Those concerned need not have worried themselves.
If the temptation to nip and tuck mature versions of the campaign with lick-of-paint re-writes and splash panel insets ever existed, it did not make it through to the final product. Sure, the narrative – a modified version of the Larry DiTillio – Lynn Willis classic – stuck to familiar story beats. As before, investigators found themselves crisscrossing the globe battling cultists and unspeakable horrors as they raced to prevent world-shattering events from destroying humanity. The spirit of Masks of Nyarlathotep -- its reputation as a character-killing, sanity-challenging, once-in-a-lifetime epic – remained intact. But within the fine-grain detail of the campaign structure writ large, one could discover the true brilliance of Chaosium’s redraft.
The original scenario – grandiose thought it may have been – saw investigators journey across five locations. New York, London, Cairo, Nairobi, and Shanghai. Later editions expanded this roster, and Chaosium’s sixth edition continued this tradition by introducing a prologue set in Peru some years before the events of the primary campaign itself. The inclusion of a prelude was more than a simple value-added proposition. The Peru chapter helps forge bonds between investigators – something lacking via the abrupt start of earlier editions. It allows for a shared history and grants experienced keepers an opportunity to foreshadow the coming disquietude. Narratively speaking, it is a stroke of genius. The chance to introduce flashbacks highlighting the personal tragedy woven through the plot often proves to be a helpful foil that helps emphasise high stake gambits.
Slipcase Sliding Away
The slipcase edition arrives as a three-volume set with the first two books clocking in at a collective – and let’s face it, deliberate – 666 pages. Both volumes detail the campaign itself, and the density of material on offer is daunting at first glance. With seven countries across five continents to get through, the books are divided into an assumed order of play. Investigators start in Peru, fast forward to New York some years later and then tackle the other locations in the manner of their choosing. The assumed order of play is just that --a guideline; Chaosium’s commitment to player agency is admirable. Both books are filled to the brim with side adventures – optional tangents and deliberate red herrings that extend playtime from months into an annual long event.
Such timekeeping is apt; although players might not realise it at first, the in-game clock is most assuredly ticking. Events in Peru aside, investigators have around one year to save humanity as they race around a globe that feels much larger through the prism of 1920s technology. Appendices help keepers navigate some of the pitfalls of travel in this era and also detail artefacts, spells and other miscellanea encountered along the way.
The third ‘volume.’ consists of a loosely bound collection of dozens of handouts, maps, clues, and props that you would expect from a Call of Cthulhu campaign. An optional prop set created by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society is a temptation for the truly committed. The collection reproduces the slipcase handouts but takes realism to the next level. Newspaper article cut-outs transform into full-page broadsheet spreads printed on authentic paper. There are handwritten notes, an actual Chinese scroll written in Mandarin, USB audio files, passports, stamps, and other goodies. The whole thing costs more than the campaign itself, so yes, it is a disgraceful indulgence. Still, for those who like to game in style, it’s also one that is hard to resist.
Lastly, Chaosium squeezed a campaign screen into the neatly packed slipcase. As you might expect, this complements the more traditional GM screens; some rules – such as travel times between various locations – are detailed here, but for the most part, it serves as a reference to crucial NPC players.
To say that the artwork in the game is top tier would be an injustice. To be clear, this is a complicated scenario filled with a lot of text, tables, and charts to help keep things on track. However, where images do show up, Chaosium has treated us to a veritable smorgasbord of delights. Greyscale and mock-up photographs sit alongside action shots reminiscent of some of Jack Kirby’s finer moments. Significant events are treated to full-colour splash pages painted by some of the very best in the gaming industry. Masterful Art direction by Mike Mason and Nick Nicarico ensures that Masks of Nyarlathotep is not only a pleasure to read but one that is easy to navigate.
Handouts are well made, and whilst they lack the wow factor of the prop set, the satisfaction of watching players pour over clippings and clues is as central to the Call of Cthulhu experience as it ever was. Getting them back into the slipcase is another matter altogether, but the trials of the post-game clear-up are nothing new to the committed hobbyist.
That said, it is undeniable that this game requires much preparation to run successfully. Whilst Chaosium managed to compartmentalise each section with considerable aplomb, the open-form nature of the game – not to mention its optional tangents – necessitates the keeper being on top of their game. There are hundreds of NPCs to manage, dozens of locations to visit, cult variants to theatricise, and blasphemous monster bellows to unleash. Which isn’t to mention the thousands of clues, tips, and leads you’ll have to keep track of.
Yet there is also built-in redundancy; a missed clue or failure to connect vital pieces of the puzzle might derail things for a time, but the story was written with depth. Sooner or later, investigators will find themselves back on track – perhaps a little more pressed for time, missing a familiar face or two. The genius of the game takes cues from the Vernean maxim; it is the journey, not the destination, that matters most.
To Play Or Not To Play
The question remains: Is Masks of Nyarlathotep still worth the entry price?
To be clear, this is not a new experience. Sure, there are new experiences within the campaign, Peru, side quests and -- for those old enough to have played the OG version – the exciting edition of an Australian stretch of the journey. The core plot, however, remains the same. It is a campaign filled with death, murder, vicious cults, red herrings, memorable adversaries, and a climatic last act that truly is one-of-a-kind. Chaosium – well aware of what side their bread is buttered on – has gone to great lengths to make the campaign compatible with the ever-popular Pulp Cthulhu. For fans of that particular Lovecraftian variant, Masks of Nyarlathotep positively shines.
Those who wish to return to this world then will probably want to do so with a batch of fresh-faced adventurers, preferably seasoned ones. Because the famed character-killer has refused to mellow over the years. The stakes are high, the danger visceral. Failure brings a soupçon of Armageddon, one of those rare, clean-slate reset moments filled with crumpled-up character sheets, redrawn maps, and silent vows to do better next time.
Because the forces arrayed against the player are manifest. As Labyrinthian schemes and malevolent creatures join forces, the tapestry of terror woven all those years ago by Larry DiTillio comes into sharp, ever more horrifying focus. Antagonists are anything but one-dimensional, and internecine warfare between rival factions bubbles beneath the surface like lurking tumours. Curveballs fly high and hard; roadblocks feel, at times, impassable. Players are only ever a stone’s throw away from death, madness, despair, or some combination thereof. And as the minutia of travel blends seamlessly with incandescent flashpoints of butt-clenching dread, the pervasive realisation – that the investigator’s paranoia is most assuredly warranted – begins to sink in. This is no ordinary campaign, no jaunt through the familiar aisles of cosmic horror.
No, This Is A Rite Of Passage
Playtime is challenging to measure, considering the variable nature of modern gaming, but two years at one three-hour session a week is not unheard of. Those who make it to the end of the campaign will look back with a mixture of trepidation, disbelief, and pride. In-game, the world will never learn of the investigator’s sacrifices. Round the table, the rose-tinted esprit de corps will linger for an age.
Perhaps that tattoo isn’t such a bad idea after all.
That concludes our thoughts on Masks of Nyarlathotep Slipcase. Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts and tag us on social media @zatugames. To buy Masks of Nyarlathotep Slipcase today click here!