Arkham: Review Call of Cthulhu Sourcebook

MGibster

Legend
Arkham is a sandbox campaign setting for use with the Call of Chtulhu role playing games set during the 1920s. A fictional town created by author H.P. Lovecraft as a setting for his stories, Arkham, Massachusetts is located roughly 23 miles north of Boston on the banks of the equally fictional Miskatonic River and not too far from Innsmouth and Kingsport, two other towns that feature prominently in Lovecraft’s stories.

This is an update of Arkham Unveiled, which was first published circa 1991 and authored by Keith Herber. As I do not own Unveiled, I will not be making any comparisons between it and the more recent Arkham, published in 2023. Sadly, Keith Herber passed away in 2009, but much of what he wrote must have been included in this updated version as he is still listed as an author along with Mike Mason and Bret Kramer. Even though Call of Cthulhu is a horror game, it’s nice to see Herber’s work continues to live on and his contributions are acknowledged.

Short Version: If you’re a Keeper (game master) and want to run a campaign set in Arkham you’ll get good value for the $60 retail price. The nine neighborhoods of Arkham are well detailed, there are 80 NPCs (I didn’t actually count), and while there are no adventures there are plenty of spooky ideas for the Keeper to use to create their own scenarios for investigators. While the setting is comprehensive, almost overwhelming in its breadth, there is plenty of room for the Keeper to incorporate Arkham into their campaign as they see fit including easily adapting it to other game systems. (The physical version of the book comes with two maps of Arkham and its surrounding area as well as an issue of the local newspaper, the Arkham Advertiser.)

Long Version

Arkham is divided into five chapters; the fifth chapter is an appendix so it’s really four, and copy editor Ken Austin & Susan O’Brien did a great job with the layout. The bulk of Arkham’s pages are dedicated to the various neighborhoods in the city, each with a myriad of locations and NPCs, and is organized in such a manner as to make locating specific buildings a fairly trivial manner. This is of critical importance as this goes a long way towards making sure the information is accessible in a reasonable amount of time.

The art throughout the book is well done managing to evoke the styles and looks of the 1920s in the United States. There are portraits for many of the NPCs featured, scenes of Arkham townsfolk just living their lives, and maps of each neighborhood. There are newspaper advertisements for local businesses like the Arkham Gun Club, Gleason’s Department Store, and Whitechapel Mortuary that help make Arkham feel like a living breathing city. The cover art by Loic Muzy features two investigators confronting a pair of ghouls in a graveyard and it pretty much sums up with Arkham is all about.

Arkham.JPG


Chapter One is dedicated to the history of Arkham starting with the Native American in the area (the Misqat, Wampanoag, and Western Abenaki people), the arrival of Europeans and the growth of the city into the early 20th century. Those who have read H.P. Lovecraft’s stories will recognize the names Armitage, Whatley, Curwen, and Peabody and readers will note these names appear on the names of streets and buildings in Arkham. This chapter also provides an overview of general information about the city including it’s climate, general hours of business, law & order, crime, and an overview of the general Miskatonic Valley and cities close to Arkham.

Chapter 2 is the shortest chapter in the book and it covers creating investigators in Arkham. There are optional specialized skills such as Navigate – Arkham and History – Arkham. There are two new skills, Reassurance and Religion. An Investigator can use Reassurance to give another person a +2 to their Sanity or ignore the effect of a phobia or mania for 1d6 minutes. Religion is knowledge of human religions, beliefs, and practices. Given how broadly many skills such as History, Anthropology, or Natural World are I don’t think these specialized skills are particularly needed for a campaign set in Arkham. But they’re there if a Keeper decides to use them. There are also suggestions for which social clubs or schools where an Investigator might join to help improve some of their skills. An Investigator who wanted to improve her Charm skill might be best served by signing up for classes at Miss Christian’s School for Modern Women.

One option I find intriguing is Reputation which is a measure of how well liked or disliked an Investigator is by the good (and bad) citizens of Arkham. If a campaign set in a single city, it stands to reasons the Investigators’ reputation might rise or fall based on their actions. If an Investigator is in the habit of getting arrested or a public drunkard they might have a penalty die applied to interactions with respectable members of society. And if they perform feats of heroism or public good they might have bonus dice applied to their interactions with reputable people.

Chapter 3 is devoted to miscellaneous information about life in Arkham. You’ll find information about how to get around the city, including public transit and automobile services, where you can go to find employment, experts to provide assistance, medical help, and there’s a nice table of rumors a Keeper can use to introduce interesting scenario seeds to Investigators. The Arkham Coven is a “diabolical” organization detailed in this chapter. Its history, where they gather, and all twelve members are included and it makes for a nice small organization for the Investigators to do battle against.

The bulk of Arkham is taken up by chapter 4 where the nine neighborhoods of Arkham and its outskirts are thoroughly detailed. Each neighborhood is introduced with a brief overall description of the area and followed by comprehensive numbered list of locations, NPCs investigators might find there, a nice map of the neighborhood, and even floorplans for some of the important buildings like Orne Library, the Pickering Psychopathic Hospital, and the Exhibit Museum on campus.

Chapter 5 is made up of appendices including a random surname generator, a chronology of events that happened in and around Arkham according to Lovecraft’s stories, a table for weather, a handy chart with distances between Arkham and various nearby cities.

The biggest flaw with Arkham is that it’s designed for Keepers rather than players. The book is filled with information that any resident of Arkham might reasonably know, the location of a barber, restaurants, the town hall, etc., etc., but a player should peruse the pages for fear of exposing them to dark secrets the Keeper might want to use in their campaign. This is mitigated somewhat by the maps provided with the book which you can hand to players. The maps include the names of businesses, government buildings, and other locations and can be used as a handy guide without spoiling anything.

I purchased this book with the intent of using it for my Miskatonic University campaign and I am not disappointed. I’m a little unsure whether to purchase Miskatonic University: Dire Secrets and Campus Life which was published for Call of Cthulhu back in 2005. I’m not sure if there’s going to be an updated version or it or if the original offers something more on the university I can use in my campaign.

Arkham is an excellent sourcebook for anyone who wants to run a campaign in or around Lovecraft’s most famous municipality. Whether the investigators are doe eyed college freshman at Miskatonic University of hard-boiled private detectives, there’s plenty of material here for a Keeper to craft whatever campaign they want. I recommend this product highly.
 

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Autumnal

Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
Thanks for the review, @MGibster !

It’s been a long time since I read it, but memory tells me the Miskatonic U. book was both slight and jokey, like some other novelty-ish releases of that era. I suspect you’d get more just by re-reading relevant stories.
 

MGibster

Legend
It’s been a long time since I read it, but memory tells me the Miskatonic U. book was both slight and jokey, like some other novelty-ish releases of that era. I suspect you’d get more just by re-reading relevant stories.
I thought there was something goofy about the cover of Miskatonic U and now that you brought that up it suddenly makes some sense. I skipped it initially because I saw the cover in a thumbnail image and thought the 1920s was actually the 1990s. That cover does not scream Roaring '20s to me.

Miskatonic.JPG
 

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