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Subject: Hacking the Dark with the Black rss

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Eric Dodd
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I noted that the last Cthulhu Hack release had two potential audiences - those interested in either that system or the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition rules. With The Haunter of the Dark, Paul Baldowski widens his potential audience to anyone looking to run or adapt stories in the Cthulhu Mythos.

Written by the Cthulhu Hack author, this book is 88 pages black and white in PDF (though with colour highlighting). You’ll need the original Cthulhu Hack to play the adventure, but anyone interested in seeing the breakdown of an HP Lovecraft story can find value in this product.

PRESENTATION:

The presentation is similar to the previous books with large, clear text and a minimum of intruding graphics and images. The text seems slightly smaller that in the main books, and there are more break-out boxes, with a few pictures. There’s no index but the Contents page is comprehensive and the book is logical deigned. The cover showing the shunned church at the heart of the original story is by Pete Amachee, while the cool pulpy full page dividing image is by Gianluca Maconi. The icons used to annotate the text are by Erich Grois. There's a minor typo error on page 27, but I didn't find anything significant.


Sample page showing highlighting and icons.

CONTENTS:

The first five pages introduce the concept of the book, to take Lovecraft’s last solo story, mine it and mark it up for gaming goodness and produce a great new adventure. Baldowski notes that even if your players are familiar with the story this should be an asset and not a hindrance to your gaming. Set the related adventure after the story and the players will know they have to stop something that someone tried and failed to stop before; set it before the original story and they have the sinking feeling of only delaying the inevitable. In dealing with a text, Baldowski suggests reading it through completely once, then more carefully a second time to mark it up. The icons Baldowski has used are explained next, with particular ones for Smokes and Flashlight clues, Threats to life and Sanity-loss causing scenes. Those with background information and future links are also used. In using this book, the author suggests rereading The Haunter of the Dark first, skipping past the icons the first time. After seeing how he used the base story for his adventure, the icons will then make more sense and show where the ideas came from.

In terms of analysing the story, five acts are laid out: Fascinator, Discovery, Conflict, Resolution and Coda. The first is also the Hook that draws the characters into the story. Discovery is the series of rumours, hints, clues and other events that start to define the mystery. Conflict may be with well-meaning locals (like the Italian community in the base story) or lesser antagonists, and tends to alternate with Discovery as clues are found and defended. Things come to a head in the Resolution, where the mystery is probed and revealed, if not defeated. The Coda allows for a view of the story from the position of the newspapers, authorities or friends of the main characters. Here the Keeper can plant further story ideas. In convention or one-shot games it pays to start the action in place, so that the Fascinator and Discovery are already in place.

‘The Hacker of the Dark’ is the name given to the adventure, to distinguish it from the original story. Baldowski notes that the adventure has quite a sandbox feel as it allows for free passage around the town of Providence, although it has a fixed time limit of three days before a total lunar eclipse allows the nocturnal creature free range across the city. The author discusses the typical ‘onion-skin’ structure of a Cthulhu mystery, with each discovery leading to another clue leading closer to the heart of the problem. A physical site and a clue item are both covered in this way. A verbal discussion of one area for clues, hazards and information follows, to help explain the process used.

The Fascinator suggested for this adventure is a connection to Robert Blake the protagonist of the original story. Other suggested connections are as agents of a property developer or the Catholic Church, or as consultants working for the city water and sewage services. For further hooks, dreams or impulses driven by the Haunter are suggested, though not to the point of being heavy-handed. The Discovery phase starts with Blake’s flat, where it is assumed that the body and some effects have been removed, but there are still plenty of clues to be found. Blake’s Diary is effectively the entire plot of The Haunter of the Dark, and the Keeper is given full license as to where to hide it and how much of it to make readable. The church on Federal Hill and the whole neighbourhood is another Discovery area, investigated by the players as sparely or fully as they like. If the players are slow to take action there’s a timeline for the active protagonists. Baldowski discusses alternative ways of finding out information, noting that Lovecraftian protagonists often had contacts with academics, reporters and other useful folks who may already know some of the background the players are trying to find out. There are plenty of alternative locations and sources for finding out the major clues of the adventure, including The Providence Journal, Police Station, City Hall, Public Library and the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. One very handy feature for harried Keepers is the inclusion of ‘sensory aspects’: sounds, smells, sights and feelings that set that scene apart from others. Additional hooks are also supplied to give Keepers new ideas or themes to introduce.

After the players have started to follow their leads but before they’ve reached a conclusion, the pressure is ramped up with the Conflict of a fire. Now the players have a choice between exploration and survival, though as always they should at least find enough to lead them to the Resolution. The final location is a new one to the Haunter of the Dark story, but a logical place with the themes of darkness and homelessness. There’s plenty of details given to make it a harrowing trial to enter and then leave, perhaps pursued by the Haunter.
Baldowski thinks the Haunter can't be destroyed, only temporarily contained or dispelled. The Coda will reflect the fact that no matter how much success the investigators achieve, the Haunter abides.

For the actual powers and description of the Haunter, Baldowski lays out the abilities he thinks it needs, then offers five new alternatives for the actual nature and name of the creature. We all know it’s an avatar of Nyarlathotep, but what this article supposes is… what if it wasn’t? Two other outer gods may have birthed it, as well as other options of strange and unknowable origin. The followers of the cult for each of these creatures change with the nature of the beast, another nice and unnerving touch. The final part of this section includes a juicey list of twenty or so random tables for inspiration and names

After the dividing Hellboy-esque picture, Baldowski starts his annotation of The Haunter of the Dark story. Different colour highlighting, as well as the different icons shows the items Baldowski brings out of the text to use as an adventure, with sidebar notes to show the thoughts inspired by the original text. There are so many potential Smokes and Flashlights clues that the investigators will certainly not need to find them all to proceed. The ability Saves are rationed out per scene, suggested by the problems that Robert Blake had to overcome in his explorations. The story contains some large infodumps, where one clue gets a whole list of names and dates. A traditional handout would seem appropriate here, though Baldowski cautions giving the investigators too much too easily. There’s a nice idea here of gaining a an advantage for a failed sanity roll in the form of a one-off advantage roll later as an insane insight.

A large number of the ideas Baldowski has suggested for forms of the Haunter come from the background into the pre-human history and civilizations that knew about the Shining Trapezohedron. Blake’s final notes, in the grand tradition of narrator’s last statements contains more themes and wild speculations that can take the adventure in many directions. All in all, this makes for an interesting dissection of a Mythos story and a fine example to follow for your own reading of stories.

VERDICT:

Very interesting and worthwhile read for anyone who wants to take Lovecraftesque stories and turn them into adventures for any system. Good reading of The Haunter of the dark exploring its themes in a number of directions. Well worth reading and stealing for story ideas and reviewing methods for any analysis of stories.

Pluses:
- Great story analysis and structure for looking at other stories
- More great random tables
- Plenty of new monster and plot ideas

Minuses:
- You might prefer it to be in another system, though it's not hard to convert

Well worth the price. Along with other general books like Stealing Cthulhu, The Haunter of the Dark is recommended to anyone trying to write an adventure in a true Lovecraftian style. For Cthulhu Hack it’s absolutely essential, providing a great adventure, advice on running it a number of different ways and solid tools for creating your own in the Cthulhu-light system. Very well done!


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Paul Baldowski
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Cheers for the review. Solid stuff. If I hadn't run out of GeekGold, I would have rewarded your efforts! I better get back to reviewing and adding articles...
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Eric Dodd
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My pleasure! Don't worry; I'm pretty well-off for Geek Gold.

I should mention that Paul very kindly supplied a PDF copy for me to review though I would have bought a copy eventually.
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Frank Eisenhauer
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Excellent review! Had to go and get it, and what-do-you-know:
This item is available as part of a Halloween Bundle!
http://www.rpgnow.com/product/196583/The-Cthulhu-Hack-Hallow...
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Paul Baldowski
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eisenphx wrote:
Excellent review! Had to go and get it, and what-do-you-know:
This item is available as part of a Halloween Bundle!
http://www.rpgnow.com/product/196583/The-Cthulhu-Hack-Hallow...
I hope you enjoy it. Bundle offer runs until the end of the Halloween event - and it actually includes the existing 31% reduction on the core book and From Unformed Realms, so across the bundle it's quite a saving.
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