Bud’s RPG review – Pax Cthuliana by Two Starving Gnolls

Bud’s RPG review – Pax Cthuliana by Two Starving Gnolls

Hello and welcome to Bud’s RPG review where
I give my thoughts on roleplaying games, card games and board games. Today’s review is Pax Cthuliana by Two Starving
Gnolls. OK – first a bit of history. Successfully
Kickstarted 2017, Pax Cthuliana is a 72-page POD system agnostic scenario set in 1927 London
that is a homage to the dark world of HP Lovecraft. There will be spoilers from this point on,
so stop watching now if you intend to play this. OK – to the cover. Here we have a pretty good
piece by Joseph Diaz that shows the opening scene of the scenario, although I could have
perhaps done without Great Cthulhu wielding Big Ben like some sort of immense impractical
dagger. Right – to the inside. After the usual bits
like the contents, and including a warning that the scenario is intended for mature audiences,
we are greeted with an opening page that asks the question “What is Pax Cthuliana?”. It
describes itself as a dramatic scenario designed for experienced players. It uses puzzle solving,
investigation, time travel, Mythos knowledge, situational music, timed events and horrible scenes to produce an epic mini-campaign that it assures us can be completed in one night. It is set in 1927 London and can be done as
a standalone adventure or incorporated into an ongoing campaign – most preferrably at
the end. The book is divided into seven parts – the introduction where it discusses the
how and why; the Prelude, which is a non-interactive cinematic sequence which frames the narrative;
the Opening Scene which sets things in motion; the Clue Scenes where the investigators follow
the leads; the Character Scenes where they have some revealing meetings; the Story Scenes
where they unveil the horrible truth and try to save the world and finally the End Parts
where it gives you the facts and fiction, handouts, backer list and the like. It does stress that some facts have been distorted
and historical liberties taken in order heighten the drama, and that if you were to spot any
of these inconsistencies, to just run with them as players will most likely not notice
or care during play. A list of the liberties that were taken is at the end of the book.
So with this in mind, let’s proceed. The first part is Introduction Part I: Practical
Information. Here it discusses things like character pronouns, the ideal number of players
– with five being deemed the perfect number, and the knowledge of the Mythos that the players
shouls have; that being they should be experienced, and should really have heard of R’Lyeh. It
talks about how any relevant game system will work with it, with the obvious choice being
Call of Cthulhu. It also talks about the shock value of the scenario, with perhaps the biggest
coming at the beginning and even says that you should hide the cover from your players
and only show it to them during the Prelude. After this we move onto Introduction Part
II: The scenario. It talks about how Pax Cthuliana is different from what you would normally
expect, as the players see a premonition of a terrible event and need to gather the clues
to enable them to stop it happening. The scenario begins with the investigators atop St Paul’s
Cathedral in London, and are given a puzzle by the keeper that they need to figure out.
The prelude ends with Great Cthulhu emerging from the waters that have flooded London and
everyone going insane or being killed. After this it shifts to a few days earlier and they
must investigate a number of clues that will take them around London, meeting such luminaries as JRR Tolkien and Aleister Crowley. Throughout the scenario, they will collect the pieces of
the puzzle, which when assembled in the correct order will prevent the emergance of the Great
Old One. To solve it, they will need to put together the clues that they have gathered throughout. It talks about the practicality of changing
it from a one-shot to a mini-campaign and explains the requirement of “Extended Scenes”
to flesh it out. The main aim of the scenario is to collect
puzzle pieces as they go along. There is a physical puzzle to print and cut out at the
back of the book, and an actual model made of stowneware clay was available
during the Kickstarter – this image was kindly provided by Seth Skorkowsky. It is a pentagram
divided into six parts with a centre piece surrounded by five tips, with each having
unique symbols on each of their three sides. The centre also has unique symbols where the
tips can connect. There are 243 different combinations to the puzzle, but by the end
of the scenario, the investigators should have found enough clues to reduce it to just
three. The right combination will prevent Great Cthulhu appearing. St Paul’s Cathedral has a vital role in the
scenario. The cathedral acts as a massive sigil that prevents Cthulhu appearing due
to an unseen binding spell inscribed on the rooftop. Long before the cathedral was built,
this spell was inscribed upon the ground and kept secret by druids of the time, and then
secret societies working against the creatures of the Mythos. In 1663, the famous architect Christopher
Wren found out about the sigil, and that it was weakening due to errors made when it was
inscribed, being copied and reinterpreted again and again for generations. He consulted
earlier sources to attempt to discover the right inscription and this led him to the
Kitab al-Azif – the famous Arabic Necronomicon. Wren knew he needed to restore the sigil so plotted in Paris on how to do it. He orchestrated the Great Fire of London in 1666, which wrecked
the old cathedral, and in 1669 was appointed King’s Surveyor of Works which had him not
only design and rebuild fifty churches across London, but redesign and rebuild St Paul’s
Cathedral. With the knowledge he learned in Paris reading the Kitab al-Azif, he had the
symbol correct and installed it in the roof of his newly-built cathedral. Sadly, the sigil
is weakening and will stop working in a few days. The investigators need to piece together
the symbols in the correct order to restore the sigil to power. A big deal is made in this scenario of the
use of music. The authors suggest using the soundtrack of the movie Interstellar at key
events with some of the pieces having specific timings – these are detailed here. Additionally, as part of the Kickstarter one of the stretch goals was to have a custom
soundtrack commissioned to match the scenario, which is available as a download from DTRPG
– I’ll put the link below. OK – so onto Introduction Part 3: Cthulhu
in London? Pax Cthuliana offers an alternative take on
Cthulhu’s whereabouts, claiming that the Necronomicon did not mention R’lyeh, but Ar-lun – an old
name for London – an obvious massive deviation from Lovecraft’s vision, though the author
assures us that it doesn’t really matter as most players will not have even encountered
Great Cthulhu before and the idea is one of shock and awe rather than the slowburn of
usual investigations. It does offer some alternative reasons for London being where Cthulhu rises
for those purists amongst the players. Right – to the Prelude. This part is designed
to frame the entire scenario and show the investigators what is at stake. It recommends
not giving your players any hint of what happens here – just to hit them with an impossible
scenario where they are faced with an array of symbols and Cthulhu himself rising from
the waters. It recommends making sure your players are non-disruptive during this scene. We have the time frame of the opening sequence done blow by blow set to the track “Mountains” from the Interstellar soundtrack. It begins quietly with the investigators stood atop St Paul’s Cathedral with a woman they
don’t know in an almost hysterical state shouting for them to hurry as the portal is about to
open. This allows the players to try different combinations, which won’t work. The next step
is the night sky being lit up with glowing portals that slowly fill with water, and this
is followed by them opening and water thundering down from above drowning and crushing thousands
on the streets. The water continues to pour down with London quickly becoming submerged and then finally Great Cthulhu emerges – gargantuan and alien beyond
our understanding. And then the prelude ends. Having listened to Mountains while reading
this aloud, I have to say it works perfectly. I’ll put a link to Mountains below. After this, we move onto Opening Scene I – The
Scenario Begins. The players, at this point, have more control
over proceedings and they it starts with one of the players relaxing with a whiskey at
home. There is a knock on the door and a young errand boy asks their name then passes them
an envelope – it has this handout in it, inviting the investigator and their friends to Hanwell
Asylum to identify a patient. It assumes the investigator does just that and moves onto
Opening Scene II – Hanwell Asylum. We have a little information on the Asylum
itself, and they should eventually get to the office of the person named on the handout
– Dr Berglowe. He is close to 50, balding with grey hair
and has the disposition of those with military experience of an army officer rather than
a medical professional. He thanks them for coming and advises that he hopes they can
identify a man in his care, known only as John Doe, who was discovered in Hyde Park
four days ago. He was driven mad and talking gibberish, so was brought to the Asylum. He
will give them a general description and advise that he is suffering with schizophrenia. He
also explains that they had a note in their pocket. This part is left to the Keeper to
decide who John Doe is, what his relationship to the investigators is and what the note
contains. He should have some connection to them. It gives us a few suggestions for the
note, though it should refer to one of them by name. Dr Berglowe offers to take the invstigators
to meet John Doe, who they find walking in circles in his cell chanting the famous “Cthulhu in R’lyeh” line that I am not going to attempt here. How John Doe reacts is dependent on
many factors – things like how well they know him and how they approach him and the like. The investigators should essentially take
two things from this meeting – the identify of John Doe and the fact that his madness
stems from something called “Cthulhu” and “R’lyeh”. The scenario suggests that the next
step should be that they investigate John Doe’s flat, which one of the party should
have written in an address book somewhere. The next part is Opening Scene III – The Flat. John Doe’s flat is above a public house called
“Two Starving Gnolls” though why an early 20th Century public house would be called
this is a mystery, and is in Whitechapel in East London. He lives in flat 3, and they will
have to get into his flat to find out what is going on there. It is quite large,
and has been turned into a madman’s study with books, paper, maps, empty food cans
and newspapers strewn everywhere and stuck to the walls. It gives us a number of handouts
for the invetigators here. The first is a reference to the Dee version of the Necronomicon
from 1586 – of which they can understand that a copy of which is supposed to exist in the
British Museum; there is a “Cthulhu Fhtagn” handout which has John Doe’s repeating phrase
on it; there is a Science Museum handout which refers to an exhibition that has something
called “The Star Machine” in it; There is a Star Chart clue which should be used in
conjunction with the previous clue; there is a handwritten note which is excerpts of
Lovecraft’s writing that hint at things to come; there is a map of London with Cleopatra’s
Needle marked on it; there is a British Museum handout which links to the previous Dee clue; there is a handout referring to J.R.R.T – yes, that’s right – JRR Tolkien who the investigators
can meet later on; there is a portrat of Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral
and finally there is a piece of the Sigil itself. At this point the investigators should put
together the four places they need to visit – The British Museum, the London Science Museum,
Cleopatra’s Needle and JRR Tolkien. It does stress that should they investigate St. Paul’s
Cathedral they won’t gain any new information unless they visit after Story Scene I. OK – now it moves onto Clue Scene I – British
Museum. Of course, the investigators may do this in a different order, however, the book
simply presents them this way for ease. We have a decent picture of the museum and a miniscule map. They should be visiting here to enquire about the Dee Necronomicon. It
gives us a bit of history around the museum and then it moves onto the two rooms of specific
interest: the Roman Britain room and the Manuscript Department. The Roman Britain room displays
various things of that ilk, alongside one of the pieces of the Sigil – which of course
they can’t take from the room. With regard to the Necronomicon, with the right amount
of persuading, they are introduced to Benedict Simon, the Curator of the Manuscript department.
He will tell them the book is in the “restricted archives” and will demand credentials before being allowed to enter. They can appeal to his sense of vanity and importance however. When the investigators eventually get to see the book, they are only allowed to skim it – in order to view it for
a longer period would take at least a week due to the regulations. On page 48 of the book, they will get another
clue with a symbol on it that was added to the book by Dee, and will also discover that
page 131 is missing – if they enquire as to the how and when, they will discover that
a certain Aleister Crowley tore it out about two years ago. The previous curator sent Crowley
a bill of £1000 as a fine and payment to have the page restored but was found hanged two days later. Simon will tell them that he has no interest in pursuing Crowley, and that three people have taken
an interest in it in the last few years – Crowley, Megan Schneider – a wealthy dilettante and
occultist from the Kensington area and John Doe, who showed up a month ago and had been
consulting the book several times a week. We then shift to Clue Scene 2 – London Science
Museum. There are three lines of enquiry here – the Machine King exhibition, a device called
a Star Machine or the the museums new machines. Whichever they decide to pursue, they will
encounter Associate Professor Per Stalby – a bespectacled bright man in his late thirties.
If asked about the Machine King exhibition, he will show them the museum’s latest machines such as
the Television, instant camera and the like, before coming to what he describes as the
museum’s masterpiece – The Star Machine. This looks like a computer from the 1940’s – a
huge wall filled with wires, knobs, levers and buttons with a screen in the middle with
fuzzy dots on it. Stalby will explain how the machine can calculate how the stars and
planets were aligned at specific points in the past, explaining his theory on the Star
of Bethlehem. He is difficult to follow wihout being a physicist or mathematician. Stalby, if asked, will confirm that the machine
can also show how the stars will look like in the future – he just needs to enter a precise
date. He knows nothing about John Doe, though will remember a nervous man fitting his description
visiting the museum a week ago and enquiring about the Star Machine. One of the clues in
John Doe’s flat is a star chart, though Stalby will guess that it is from the 18th century,
though it is missing too many numbers for it to be run through the Star Machine. Later
in the investigation, the players will return with the complete star chart. We then move on to Clue Scene 3 – Vitas Varnas.
One of the clues in John Doe’s flat was a map with a single location marked upon it
– Cleopatra’s Needle. This is an ancient Egyptian artifact that stands 69 feet tall that is
covered in heiroglyphics and is a local London landmark. As they examine the needle, they
will hear a voice calling them from nowhere saying “Tell me; have you seen the Yellow
Sign?” – this is Vitas Varnas – an eccentric, enigmatic wildcard of a character. The scenario
gives numerous possibilities as to who – or what – he is ranging from an astronomer to
an avatar of Nyarlathotep. He is meant to be seen then vanish into thin air, providing
clues and crucial information that they need. Should the investigators heed his question
and look for the Yellow Sign, they can find it next to one of the other symbols from one
of the earlier handouts. He will, once the investigators understand the importance of
the Yellow Sign, give them another clue, saying “You know, the old Wizards in Chancery Lane
got it all wrong, it’s not the Hanged Man, it’s the Fool”. The “old wizard” he is referring
to is Aleister Crowley, and he will not elaborate further. He can provide other cryptic insights
into some of the clues as he sees fit and will often assist the investigators in indirect
ways. Following this we have Character Scene I – J
R R Tolkein. The man we meet is the 35-year-old Tolkien who is an unknown outside of academic
circles. He can be found in the British Library where he is working on his translation of
the 1000-year-old Beowulf manuscript. It gives other examples of where he can be found or asked about in addition to the British Library. The investigators should eventually track
him down to the British Museum, where he is found surrounded by stacks of books and manuscripts.
He will be friendly if engaged and will talk enthiusiastically about his work. If John
Doe is mentioned, he will remember a man speaking to him around a week ago asking about the
etymology of London and how it was named in the more distant past – advising them that
the earliest iteration of the word is Ar-lun, a name that goes back to druidic times. The next part is Character Scene 2 – Aleister
Crowley. Being such a public figure of the time, it is quite easy to find out where he
lives – 67-69 Chancery Lane, London. He lives in what he calls The Black Temple and the
White Temple and the public generally avoid this creepy looking house. Crowley is emminently
notorious, having supposedly been involved in Satanism, human sacrifice, drug abuse and
perverse sexual practices. When the investigators ring the bell on either house, the door opens
instantly revealing a young man dressed in a smart dress suit wearing a traditional mandarin
cap. He introduces himself as Vinjar Gronstoel and advise that his master is at home. He
has an odd air about him, but will remain polite throughout. He shows them into the
parlour – a room that is completely white and then vanishes through a set of double-doors
that lead to utter darkness. The effect of the white room is unsettling
and the double doors will suddenly swing open after ten minutes and a powerful voice will
say “Welcome visitors”. If nobody enters the dark room after a minute, the doors will slam
shut and their chance of meeting Crowley will have passed. If they enter the darkness, the
doors will slam shut behind them and the room will fill with red light and will be revealed as having an entirely Asian feel. Sitting at the end of the room, on a throne
raised on a dais is Crowley, dressed in leopard skins, his eyes seeming to penetrate the souls
of everyone present. At this point, the scenario has several options
based on how they approach speaking to him. If they are friendly he will readily admit
stealing the page and asks the investigators to take the page, along with a stack of other
papers on a nearby table. The second option is the magic of Crowley’s
religion, Thelema. In the world of Pax Cthuliana, Magick – with a K – is just as powerful as
the magic of the Mythos. He will readily use it to penetrate their minds and learn all
he can from them. There is a third option whereby they chose
either option one or two and as they are leaving they hear the cry of a girl from a door at
the back of the dais, pleading for help. Should the investigators go to open the door,
they will not be stopped, and will be greeted by a horrible scene. A girl hangs above them by chains that pierce her body, which I assume is shown here, however the picture is far
too dark to make anything out. Blood drips from her, and assumption is that the investigators
will be shocked and want to run away. This is Crowley using his magick to mess with the
investigators and drive them from his house, though when they leave they will hold the
bundle of papers and have no recollection of what has just happened. All they will remember
is that they visited Crowley, he gave them some papers and they left. Should any of the
investigators resist Crowley’s magick, any police sent there will discover an empty house
with both Crowley and Vinjar nowhere to be seen. Option four should be used if they decide
to fight Crowley. He will use powerful magick to defend himself, with Vinijar using Judo.
The use of guns will alert the police to the house. It gives various options for either
Crowley, Vinijar or the investigators dying, but ultimately the optimal outcome is that
they receive the clues that are here. The clues available here are some Tarot Cards,
an old Norse runic alphabet and a note written in runes, as well as some star constellation
references and of course, the page from the Necronomicon. The next section is Character Scene 4 – Megan
“Angel” Schneider. First up, we get a bit of background material on Megan – that being
she is a dilettante, bodyguard and occultist at the same time; someone who has led a life
steeped in the Mythos. When the investigators get around to visiting her they recognize
her from the vision in the Prelude, though she knows nothing of Great Cthulhu rising
and drowning London. She will invite them in, and if asked about the Necronomicon she
can tell them that she accessed it three months ago. She can read Arabic, and has been searching
for the original Necronomicon – the Kitab al-Azif for many years. She is very knowledgeable
in a lot of the Mythos related things that they have discovered thus far, and can offer
insight into the likes of R’Lyeh, Cthulhu and the like. She also, as it happens knows
some magic. She will advise the investigators that she
knows a spell that may assist them – a spell that detects portals It then moves onto Story Scene I – The Spell.
Here Megan uses her Divine Portal spell, and sees massive portals visible over St Paul’s
cathedral. She then offers to cast a second spell – Augury – to see into the future. She
advises that the mental cost is heavy, exhausting and unnerving those that take part in it.
The investigators can take part in, and experience this spell. She has a ritual chamber in her
house, and invites them to come and take part. They will notice two symbols marked on the
wall – ones that they players have seen before. This offers insight into the clues they have
found. The ritual takes place and the players get
a second crack at deciphering the puzzle, though they do not yet know the complete solution.
It suggests giving them the same amount of time as in the Interstellar track from the
prelude. As the track fades out, the puzzle is returned to the Keeper and the spell ends.
Megan will advise the players that the spell only shows one possible future. She advises them that they should investigate St Paul’s Cathedral. The next section is Story Scene 2 – The Tomb.
This encompases the players visiting St Paul’s Cathedral for two reasons – to check out the
roof again and to visit the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren. As per the introduction, there is no
roof access as such, but that shouldn’t stop the Keeper from providing one. Again, nothing
has changed. The second involves the fact that they need to break into the tomb to retrieve
what was supposedly buried with him – the Kitab al-Azif. His tomb can be found in the
crypt and is a plain affair. They will need to get into the crypt after opening hours
and prise it open with the right tools. This involves testing the stealth and wiles of
the players. Once they open the tomb they find Wren’s partially mummified corpse and
the book they are after. Slipped into the book is the missing star chart piece which
can be added to the part found in John Doe’s flat. They have two choices at this point
– take the completed star chart to the Science Museum to have the information inputted into
the Star Machine or take the Kitab al-Azif to Megan Schneider. Finally, we come to Story Scene 3 – The End
(s). Here, the scenario reaches the point where
they investigate the two options available. If they visit Megan first, she is excited to see the
book, but after flicking through it for a book for a while quotes the Aklo phrase that
was mistranslated and gives the correct one “In his house of Ar-lun dead Cthulhu waits
dreaming”. This essentially proves that Dee’s original translation was incorrect and R’lyeh
is actually London. When they get to the science museum and track
down Professor Stalby he will perform some calculations on a blackboard then input the data into the Star Machine, which ultimately produces the result that there will be a specific constellation
of stars and planets over London that night at 1am. The stars are indeed right. Megan will explain, upon receiving this information,
the true purpose of St Paul’s Cathedral and that the sigil has become weakened. This leaves
only one thing to do – meet up at 11pm that night and get into the cathedral and upon
the roof twith the sigil pieces and use them to restore the spell. It then cuts to the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The stars are right and the sigil must be put together in order to create a version
of the Elder Sign. We then cut back to the prelude scene with the music from Interstellar,
only this time the players should have far more of an idea of how the Sigil works and
hopefully put them together in time, closing the portals and restoring St Paul’s. The scenario does, however, provide some alternative
endings such as the Chance ending, Wrong ending and the Corrupted ending, however, I do feel
that after the players have done all of this hard work it would be incredibly unfair to
pull the rug out from underneath them at the close. Following this we have a list of the facts
that have been changed to fit the scenario, and all of the handouts that are used throughout and lastly a backers list and some information on the authors. Pax Cthuliana is something that I genuinely
believe most players will have never played the like of. I would imagine that most who
play games based in the Lovecraft universe have never encountered Great Cthulhu, and
this scenario gives them that chance to do just that. It is very well put together with excellent
handouts and good, although at times very dark, art throughout, and the chapters are
broken nicely into digestible chunks which makes the whole thing an easy read. Additionally,
I could see this working with many different systems, however, it does seem to be aimed
at Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. Another thing I liked was the fact that most of the scenes
had an Extended Scene option which described how the Keeper could, if not playing this
in one night, make things more interesting in the long run. There are, I feel, a few issues with the scenario. Firstly, even in a world populated by sorcerers, elder gods and magical spell books the whole thing feels, dare I say it, a bit too unbelievalble? There were times that I had genuine difficulty
suspending my disbelief as some of the things are so outlandish that I just couldn’t see
them working in game. Also, it doesn’t leave much room for sideways thinking, fully expecting
the players to go from point A to B to C. The scenario does have lots of things going
for it. It seems to be long enough that it could probably be completed in one night or
even a single session at a convention with whatever rules system you decide to use, and
things like meeting Aleister Crowley, JRR Tolkien, getting their hands on the actual
Kitab al-Azif, seeing Great Cthulhu emerge from the waters and the like are great things
to be able to do in-game and something your players will likely talk about for a long
time afterwards. A particular thing I liked about this scenario is the use of music to
produce atmospheric effect, which it genuinely succeeds in doing and something anybody running
this should defintely consider. If you want something that is a break from
what could be considered “the norm” in Lovecraft’s universe, Pax Cthuliana could be right up
your street. It’s smart, interesting and well put together which are three qualities you
don’t often see in one place. I give it an 8/10. If you enjoyed this review please make sure
to hit the thumbs up, subscribe to my channel and check out my other videos. Also, if you
are interested in buying this product, I have put some links below. Lastly, if you like
what I produce here, then maybe think about supporting me on Patreon. Bud out.

4 Replies to “Bud’s RPG review – Pax Cthuliana by Two Starving Gnolls

  1. The decision to use the cover they did is a little odd considering what they say early on and the whole Christopher "Arson" Wren backstory seems a little daft but the adventure does look lovely even though shifting a certain cyclopean city several thousand miles again seems a little because we wanted to so we did from the authors. Also whilst the big guy appears in Shadows there is probably a reason for him being so underutilized considering his power and what his awaking portends.
    Plus I really dislike this "Mature warning" nonsense it's a roleplaying adventure based on the works of a 1920s horror writer what are people expecting bunnies and rainbows? these warnings are coming across as some sort of sales gimmick, to be honest.

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