Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
Arkham Horror: The Card Game by Nate French and Matthew Newman
Fantasy Flight Games, 2016
Fantasy Flight Games
Welcome to the New Lovecraftian
Howard Phillips Lovecraft held a dim view of progress. When he read about atomic theory, x-rays, and radio waves, he was not elated; he was terrified. Stories like “From Beyond” and “The Dreams in the Witch House” belong as much to the science fiction as to the horror genre; “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Shadow Out of Time,” “Herbert West: Re-Animator,” and “The Color Out of Space” are pure science fiction, and they all end badly. Here’s a relevant quote:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
—”The Call of Cthulhu”
Say what you will about Lovecraft; the man was quotable. How about this beautiful bit of self-justification, often unfairly truncated and de-contextualized?
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naïvely insipid idealism which deprecates the æsthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to “uplift” the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.
—”Supernatural Horror in Literature”
And who could forget this classic?
Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread.
—”The Dunwich Horror”
Okay, that last one might not resonate with everybody. In general, though, I’m a fan of Lovecraft’s writing. I don’t, it should go without saying, like his politics, though they are often impossible to extricate from his fiction; only a champion xenophobe could have produced “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” or “The Rats in the Walls.” I like his brand of cosmic horror (really just a scientific rationalization of existential horror), his bombastic style, and the suggestiveness of his supernatural encounters (seldom described except as “indescribable”).
Lucky for me, then, that Lovecraftian horror is such a mainstay in tabletop gaming. But is what we’re getting really Lovecraftian? I touched a bit on its history in my reviews of Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness, two other entries in Fantasy Flight Games’ “Arkham Horror Files” franchise. Here’s the highlight reel:
- 1916-1937: H.P. Lovecraft publishes various short stories and novellas in pulp magazines, esp. Weird Tales. Gradually, thematic links and a shared cosmology emerged, tying his stories together into a “mythos.” Contemporary writers such as Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard also participate informally in the mythos.
- 1932-1971: August Derleth, a correspondent of Lovecraft’s, formalizes and expands Lovecraft’s mythos, giving it its popular name: the Cthulhu Mythos. Although he is largely responsible for Lovecraft’s enduring fame, publishing the first posthumous anthology of Lovecraft’s fiction and assembling many complete stories from Lovecraft’s notes, Derleth’s writings rationalize and reduce Lovecraft’s Old Ones and other horrors, e.g. by assigning them elemental affinities and genealogies. His endings are also less existentially bleak than Lovecraft’s, often allowing good to triumph over evil.
- 1981: Chaosium publishes the first edition of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, a roleplaying system focused on occult investigation. Incorporating sanity into players’ stats and pitting ordinary people against unknowable forces, the RPG is in many ways true to the spirit of Lovecraft’s fiction, but it also adopts (and further codifies) Derleth’s rigid pantheon of horrors. This will serve as the touchstone for Lovecraftian horror in gaming.
- 1987: Chaosium publishes Arkham Horror, a cooperative board game by Richard Launius set in 1920s Arkham, Massachusetts (the fictional setting of many of Lovecraft’s tales). Alongside shoggoths and mi-go, players confront other 1920s archetypes like mobsters and private investigators as they have random encounters at locations, collect clues, and attempt to seal extradimensional gates before a Great Old One awakens.
- 2005: Fantasy Flight Games publishes a revised edition of Arkham Horror by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson. The new version improves the balance and adds complexity and modularity to the rules, paving the way for numerous expansions. It’s met with an overall enthusiastic reception, though some Lovecraft purists criticize the game for dialing up the “two-fisted” pulp atmosphere, e.g. by allowing investigators to go toe-to-toe with the Ancient Ones themselves. With some luck, players can bring down Cthulhu with shotguns and baseball bats.
- 2006-2011: Though too unwieldy for some, Arkham Horror proves enduringly popular and receives nine expansions in a six-year period. These expansions broaden the game’s horizons thematically (e.g. by adding a traveling performance of The King in Yellow into the game), geographically (by allowing players to travel to Dunwich, Kingsport, and Innsmouth), mechanically (by adding injuries and madnesses, helpful guardians and harmful heralds), and narratively (by giving investigators personal quests and adding dramatic events to the battles against the Ancient Ones).
- 2011-present day: Fantasy Flight Games releases several new games set in the Arkham Horror universe: Elder Sign, Mansions of Madness (in two editions), Eldritch Horror, and most recently, Arkham Horror: The Card Game. These are sold under the umbrella brand “Arkham Horror Files.” While they differ in mechanics and scope, the Arkham Files games share more than a setting: each one features the same cast of investigators (of which Arkham Horror, all said and done, provided roughly fifty) facing off against the same Ancient Ones and their Mythos minions using the same items, spells, and artifacts. Sanity, damage, clues, gates, doom, and a Mythos phase become more or less standard motifs.
- Present day: BoardGameGeek lists 289 games and expansions with the tag “Cthulhu Mythos.” Roughly half of these have a publication date post-2014.
Lovecraft was right to fear progress, for progress has not been kind to Lovecraftian horror. You may have noticed an underlying narrative: over the past century, the meaning of the term “Lovecraftian” has undergone a shift from existential dread to tentacles and tommy guns. I have enough sense of fun to enjoy Stuart Gordon’s goopy Re-Animator or From Beyond, or the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s time-capsule-esque The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness, but I’d rather creators attempt new takes on Lovecraft’s themes than trot out another menagerie of Mythos monsters.
At least, with the Arkham Horror Files, the creative powers that be are beginning to acknowledge that their shared universe can’t rightly be called Lovecraftian. In a press release for The Investigators of Arkham Horror, a book of fifty-two tone-setting stories exploring the inciting incidents for the Arkham universe’s principle cast, they write:
…as the definitive art and setting book for the Arkham Horror Files universe, The Investigators of Arkham Horror veers away from most other works inspired by the Mythos. For each point at which the Arkham Horror Files universe intersects the Lovecraftian Mythos, there are others where it diverges.
These divergences are manifold. First, Fantasy Flight Games recognizes the pulpy, gaslight-infused texture of its tales. There’s also a bit of self-congratulation about diversity. (Of course, anything would be an improvement upon Lovecraft’s exclusively white, male, professorial ensemble.) They touch upon the tales’ optimism; you can blow Cthulhu’s face off with a shotgun. Most importantly, though, Arkham’s investigators are heroes, not victims:
…where the characters in most Lovecraftian stories typically respond to their discoveries with a growing sense of futility, the characters in the Arkham Horror Files universe experience a growing sense of need. They must fight, race, explore, and do whatever it takes to defend humanity’s continued existence, even if there are no permanent solutions.
There’s a chance the investigators may go mad, but there’s almost no chance they will “flee from the deadly light [of their revelations] into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” No. The investigators of the Arkham Horror Files universe are compelled to act.
Welcome to the New Lovecraftian.
The timing of this manifesto is curious, though. It comes hot on the heels of two new entries into Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror Files catalog: Mansions of Madness (2nd edition) and Arkham Horror: The Card Game. On the one hand, this makes perfect sense; new games will bring an influx of new players, and as Arkham Horror continues to age, Fantasy Flight can no longer rely on nostalgia for the original game as their chief contextualizing mechanism. In another press release, Fantasy Flight writes persuasively of the benefits of context:
This is what The Investigators of Arkham Horror provides—a deeper, and more deeply felt, understanding of the investigators you play in your games. After all, when you play any of our Arkham Horror Files games, you’re embarking upon an adventure. That adventure is shaped by its events, of course, but it’s also shaped by your perspective.
At the same time, these two games—particularly Arkham Horror: The Card Game, henceforth Arkham Horror LCG—are arguably the least in step with this now-public ideology of the New Lovecraftian. Arkham Horror LCG presents the investigators at their least heroic; each scenario does provide the option to flee to peace and safety. While there are still too many spells, speakeasies, and flocks of nightgaunts to have pleased Lovecraft, this is a refreshingly old-fashioned take on the New Lovecraftian.
Entering the Mythos
All life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.
—”The Silver Key”
The announcement press release for Arkham Horror LCG, roughly a year ago, made the bold claim that the game would be “blurring the traditional lines between roleplaying and card game experiences.” But what does this actually mean?
Arkham Horror LCG is a cooperative Living Card Game, which is Fantasy Flight’s term for a constantly expanding card game that does not rely on random booster packs. Like a collectible card game (of which Magic: The Gathering is the archetype), a Living Card Game perpetually grows its card pool with monthly releases. Unlike a CCG, these monthly releases are fixed card sets and can be purchased or ignored at the player’s leisure; there is no element of risk when buying an LCG expansion.
In particular, Arkham Horror LCG adopts the release format established by The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, FFG’s previous attempt at a cooperative LCG. This means that the expansions are released in “cycles” of, in this case, one large “deluxe” expansion and six smaller “Mythos packs.” Each expansion includes some new player cards with which to build or improve the investigators’ decks, as well as cards needed to play an additional cooperative scenario (two in the deluxe set). Each expansion, then, is a new adventure, not just an evolution of the card pool, and in Arkham Horror LCG, the eight scenarios in a cycle combine to form a narrative campaign in which the resolution of one story may have unforeseen repercussions on the scenarios to come.
In gameplay, as well, Arkham LCG evolves the cooperative LCG structure originated by Lord of the Rings LCG. (Which shouldn’t really be a surprise; they share a lead designer, Nate French, while Arkham‘s co-lead, Matthew Newman, began as a developer for LotR.) There are basically two types of cards: player cards and encounter cards. The player cards are separated into five classes, color-coded and themed for a particular investigation style: blue Guardian cards focus on protection, duty, and hunting down eldritch monsters; purple Mystic cards contain most of the game’s spells and arcane mysteries; green Rogue cards focus on making money, exploiting opportunities, and evading harm; red Survivor cards are at their strongest when the stakes are high and the chips are down; and yellow Seeker cards emphasize investigation, research, and lore. Each investigator has access to one or two classes of cards from which to construct his or her deck, and everybody can access the utilitarian, grey Neutral class.
Encounter cards, on the other hand, each belong to a specific encounter set, identified by an icon somewhere on the card. These are the locations, monsters, story-related items, allies, and events that make up the cooperative scenario. A typical scenario includes a primary, unique encounter set of twenty to thirty cards. Much of this scenario-specific encounter deck comprises the locations and the Act/Agenda cards that advance the plot, while the remainder of the encounter cards are shuffled together with four or five smaller encounter sets (anywhere from two to seven cards thick, on average) to form the encounter deck. During the Mythos phase that begins each round (I told you you’d hear that word), the “lead investigator” places a doom token (ditto) on the current Agenda, which may cause it to advance, and each investigator then draws and encounters the top card of the encounter deck. If it’s a monster, it (usually) spawns at that investigator’s location, engaged with that investigator, which means it’s hostile and ready for combat; if it’s a treachery card, it has an immediate, woeful effect and is then typically discarded immediately. The smaller encounter sets, like “Nightgaunts,” “Rats,” and “Striking Fear,” might make repeat appearances throughout a campaign, which is why the scenarios are grouped into cycles, with the deluxe expansions and the core sets providing all the scenario-agnostic encounter sets for the rest of the campaign.
The core functionality of these two decks—player and encounter—is nearly identical between the two games. Where Arkham LCG deviates significantly from its predecessor is in the fluidity of everything that happens in between. Lord of the Rings played out over a series of more or less rigorously defined phases: players played cards, then committed their heroes and allies to the quest, revealed encounters, made progress or suffered doom, optionally traveled to a new location as a group, engaged enemies if there were any, and then resolved combat. The same phases would play out in the same order every turn, like clockwork; there was a sense of inevitability, of inexorable forward motion suited to the source material.
Arkham‘s game structure is more amorphous. Rather than act as a fellowship, the investigators do their snooping autonomously—although splitting up is not always the smartest move. Each investigator gets to perform three actions per round, and these actions, however, can be just about anything: playing a card, moving to an adjacent location, investigating (a test against a location’s shroud value in an attempt to gain one of its clues), fighting, or evading. Cards in play, whether they came from a player’s deck or the encounter, can add new actions: you might consult a tome, parley with an NPC, administer first aid, try to break down a door, et cetera. You can even spend actions to draw extra cards or gain more of the resources needed to play them. There are some restrictions—if there’s a monster in front of you and you choose to spend your action, say, reading the encyclopedia, it’s going to take a swipe at you. But that’s still a choice you can make.
The other significant departure from LotR LCG comes into play whenever the investigators are asked to conduct a skill test. Lord of the Rings‘ heroes had two significant statistics, strength and willpower, of which the former was used in combat and the latter in questing. Arkham‘s investigators have four: willpower, intellect, combat, and agility. A skill test means comparing the investigator’s matching skill value against the test’s difficulty; players may discard cards with matching skill icons to add to the investigator’s skill for the test. Typically, intellect is tested when investigating, combat is tested when fighting, and agility is tested when evading, which (if successful) allows the investigator to move and perform other actions without having to worry about attacks of opportunity from the baddies. But skill tests can crop up in all sorts of other situations: discovering a rotting corpse might test your willpower, for example, while trying to navigate a treacherous bog might test agility. Whenever a test is performed, the investigator must draw a token from a pool known as the Chaos Bag, which contains (mostly) negative numerical modifiers that reduce your skill value for that check. The Chaos Bag essentially takes the place of dice, except that it’s a lot more flexible: events in the campaign might add or remove tokens from the bag, and some special tokens trigger effects on the scenario or investigator cards. The average draw from the Chaos Bag is a -2, so you want to plan to exceed your test’s difficulty by at least that much, but an investigator cannot excel at everything—some rush into danger, while some find creative ways to sidestep it.
This shoggothian fluidity really opens up the game, both in terms of scenario design and deck construction. The structure, then, comes from the Agenda and Act cards particular to your scenario. The Act cards represent what you’re trying to accomplish—stop the ritual, save the sacrifice, steal the tome, or just figure out what the hell is happening. They tell you what you need to do to progress, which usually (but not always) involves the investigators spending, as a group, a certain number of clues—usually (but not always) gained by investigating locations. When you’ve advanced the final Act card, you’ve usually (but not always) reached a positive resolution for the scenario. In contrast, the Agenda cards represent whatever horrible thing the forces of evil are trying to accomplish. They tell you what needs to happen to trigger the next Agenda, which usually (but not always) involves a certain quantity of doom tokens being put into play—usually (but not always) on the Agenda itself, usually (but not always) during the Mythos phase. When you’ve advanced the final Agenda card, you’ve usually (but not always) reached a negative resolution for the scenario. Both the Agenda and Act cards can have lasting, global effects that temporarily change the way the game works, and progressing through them usually (but not always) brings new locations, assets, and enemies into play.
You’ll notice that I never used the words “win” or “lose” in the preceding paragraph. That’s because individual scenarios of Arkham Horror LCG aren’t really won or lost. Even if the game reaches what would traditionally be considered a failure state—the last Agenda card resolves, or all the investigators are defeated by running out of sanity or stamina—the story continues. A scenario might have four or five potential resolutions, and they’ll all instruct you to play the next scenario after making some notes in your campaign log, maybe adding or removing some cards from a deck. Defeated investigators take physical or mental trauma, then they dust themselves off and keep on swinging. There are no do-overs; the Mythos plays for keeps.
There are ways to play Arkham LCG as a series of standalone scenarios, but you really wouldn’t want to. The campaign is the beating heart of the game, both narratively and mechanically. Because you’re never certain which details recorded in your campaign log will come back to haunt you—and because it’s hard, as a Lovecraftian game should be—you have no choice but to play the game in character, making the calls you feel the investigators might make. Between scenarios, you can spend the experience points awarded by your resolution to improve your investigator’s deck. Each player card has a level, and you must spend that many XP to add it to your deck, removing another card so your deck size remains constant. This means that more powerful cards become available over time as the investigators earn experience. But aside from this tweaking, your decks can’t be reconstructed freely; even level 0 cards cost a minimum of 1 XP to swap in. Much of the fun and strategy in LotR LCG was in constructing specialized decks to overcome the devilishly hard scenarios; in Arkham, it’s much more about doing your best with what you have.
That’s because player decks in Arkham LCG are more personal in scope than your standard deck construction game. The cards represent roughly three things: your investigator’s personal effects, like a machete, a bottle of liquid courage, or a holy rosary; your contacts; and personal traits, like resourcefulness or guts. It doesn’t make sense for an investigator to completely rebrand herself between 10pm and midnight, so these decks change only slowly. To give a sense of how intimately an investigator’s deck is tied to her character, here are two descriptive deck lists I wrote for my latest delve into Arkham LCG‘s first campaign, The Dunwich Legacy:
Zoey Samaras has learned the hard way that faith can’t just move mountains; it can topple them. In her career as a slayer of evil, she has had to Overpower beings ten times her size, but through years of Physical Training and Hard Knocks, she’s learned to Dig Deep and tap into a well of Unexpected Courage. When she first met Professor Armitage, she was still searching for Evidence of the evil that hides beneath the skin of our world. But she has learned much since then. She’s learned to be Elusive, to Dodge the forces of the Adversary that have infiltrated all ranks of human society. She’s made a few allies: an Arkham Beat Cop, a hungry mutt she’s turned into a loyal Guard Dog. She’s taught herself First Aid. And she is now prepared to deliver evil a Vicious Blow. Zoey has a few tricks hidden under her apron: a Knife, of course, and a Kukri she obtained on a hunting trip in Nepal. Should she require more firepower, she has a concealed .45 Automatic and, if it’s really needed, the chef has all the ingredients for a Dynamite Blast. Plus, of course, Zoey’s Cross, the symbol of her faith. She is no longer afraid to confront the forces of darkness; she will call them, Taunt them. And, when the time comes, she will go to any length to Smite the Wicked. Professor Armitage would hardly recognize the Zoey of today, as clear in her faith as she is clouded by Paranoia….
Daisy Walker knows Professor Armitage from the Miskatonic University Library, where he is the senior librarian. But they share another secret: they both know that the restricted collection of the Orne Library holds books of unspeakable occult power, books that must never fall into the hands of the weak or the wicked. One of them rests at the bottom of Daisy’s Tote Bag, alongside more mundane tomes such as Medical Texts and an Old Book of Lore: the John Dee translation of The Necronomicon, a book so evil that its mere presence corrupts her mind. Which is why she found the Unexpected Courage to steal it from the library to protect others from its influence. Daisy’s Hyperawareness of the occult has served her well in the days since, when every sort of horror has tried to part her from the evil book. Through her Arcane Studies, she has learned a few spells to defend herself, like the flesh-destroying Shriveling. She has an Emergency Cache at the library in which she hides a few items like a small Knife; a Magnifying Glass lent to her by Dr. Milan Christopher, Miskatonic U’s Professor of Entomology; and a Strange Solution she has been studying. But above all, Daisy believes in Mind over Matter, that with the proper Deduction, the entire occult world will open up before her. Despite her public championing of logic, she still carries her Holy Rosary…just in case. During a recent encounter in which Daisy had to Barricade herself and a fellow Research Librarian into the closed stacks, she suffered an Internal Injury, but there’s no time to let it heal properly. Armitage’s invitation sounded urgent.
Memories and possibilities are ever more hideous than realities.
—”Herbert West: Re-Animator”
Long gone are the days of Sister Mary, shotgun in hand, tearing around Arkham on a motorcycle. Arkham Horror: The Card Game brings back the familiar cast of investigators introduced in Arkham Horror, but here they are at their most human and vulnerable. The Arkham Horror Files universe has always been to some extent character-driven, particularly when Innsmouth Horror‘s Personal Story cards came into play, but Arkham LCG takes this to a new extreme.
The investigators in Arkham LCG differentiate themselves in a few ways. First is each investigator’s particular stat block, which determines whether that investigator is better at, well, investigating, or combat, or something else. Next is the investigator’s affinity with a specific class of cards: core set investigators, due to the limited card pool at the time, were each dual-classers, with an emphasis on one class over another, while the investigators included in the deluxe expansions are single-class with the ability to “splash” a few level 0 cards from other classes. The stats and classes tend to work together: Seekers are good at investigating, Mystics are good at willpower, and Guardians are good at fighting, for example.
Each investigator is also defined by an always-active special ability and another ability that is triggered when that investigator draws the Elder Sign symbol from the Chaos Bag. For example, Daisy Walker, the librarian described above, gets a free use of a tome asset every round as her special ability, and the Elder Sign effect is a +0 to her check…but if she succeeds, she can draw a free card for every tome she has in play. Zoey Samaras, the chef (who hears the voice of God commanding her to smite the wicked), gets a free resource whenever an enemy engages her, and her Elder Sign ability is a +1 to her test…and if the test happens to be an attack, it deals +1 damage. Roland Banks, the Fed, can discover a clue at his location for free every time he defeats an enemy, and his Elder Sign result gives him +1 for each clue at his location. Wendy Adams, the street urchin who inherited her mama’s Elder Sign medallion, can discard a card to redraw a chaos token once per test, and her Elder Sign result is a +0…or an automatic success if her medallion card is in play.
These abilities often play off of the investigator’s two signature cards, a strength and a weakness that must be included in the investigator’s deck. Little Wendy, for example, has her amulet, which (apart from giving her automatic successes on Elder Sign results) lets her play events out of her discard pile as though they were in her hand. Daisy has her tote bag, which gives her two extra “hand slots” just for carrying books. Zoey’s cross can be used whenever an enemy engages her, allowing her to spend a resource to deal an automatic damage to that enemy (note the interplay with her special ability). And Roland’s .38 Special is the perfect complement to his ability, giving him a bonus to fight tests…especially when there are clues at his location. These signature cards and abilities, in tandem, effectively convey the investigator’s personality, especially when you construct a deck to support them.
But each investigator’s personality also has a dark side represented by his or her signature weakness. Weakness cards generally act like treacheries from the encounter deck, except they’re hiding somewhere in the player’s deck; as soon as you draw it, you have to resolve it. Roland Banks has Cover Up, which forces him to burn clues (literally, if the card art is any indication) or suffer mental trauma at the end of the scenario. Zoey’s Smite the Wicked works similarly, spawning an enemy at a remote location and forcing her to slay it before the scenario ends. Daisy’s Necronomicon (John Dee translation) is a kind of curse, turning Elder Sign results from the Chaos Bag into automatic failures until Daisy removes it from play, which can only be done at the cost of her own sanity. And poor Wendy gets Abandoned and Alone, a one-two punch of misery: she has to lose some sanity but also her support system, her discard pile, which gets removed from the game. Every investigator has a flaw of this kind: ex-con “Skids” O’Toole has to pay off his mother’s hospital debts, drifter “Ashcan” Pete is wracked by nightmares, soldier Mark Harrigan is shell-shocked, and gravedigger William Yorick is pursued by graveyard ghouls.
In addition to their signature weaknesses, each investigator starts a campaign with a random basic weakness and might gain additional ones throughout the campaign. While these aren’t exclusively tied to the investigator’s personality, they become part of the investigator’s character, sticking with you over the course of eight scenarios. My Zoey was paranoid, which meant she might suddenly decide to discard her entire pool of resources, while Daisy had an internal injury that kept re-opening, dealing small amounts of damage every round. As the campaign progressed, Daisy developed amnesia as her mind struggled to erect defenses against the impossible sights she had witnessed, while Zoey’s paranoia deepened as she randomly received a second copy of the card. Other basic weaknesses include hypochondria, psychosis, mob enforcers, and stubborn detectives who got the wrong idea from an arcane crime scene.
The imperfect nature of the heroes isn’t the only concession to the Old Lovecraftian. The resolutions reinforce the idea that, in many of these stories, there is no way to truly win. The original Arkham Horror was difficult to beat, but the stakes were always the same: winning meant saving the world, losing meant dooming it. Arkham LCG is a lot more personal and a lot more morally grey. There’s usually an option to resign from the scenario, and sometimes, that’s the best move. And there’s more than one way to “win,” each one offering a tradeoff. At the end of my first play through the core campaign, I sacrificed an ally to a rampaging pillar of goo to prevent it from causing more destruction. One of the first scenarios in the Dunwich Legacy campaign allows players to “win” in three ways: rescue a Miskatonic University professor, which was your original objective; run to the dormitories and warn the students there that a hideous experiment from the Alchemy department is heading their way; or find a way to destroy the experiment. None of these resolutions is ideal; saving the professor means abandoning the students to their fates (a police investigation will later conclude that a wild dog broke into the dormitories), but saving his life might help save others down the line. The Dunwich Legacy is full of choices like these, and they all resonate throughout the campaign, leading up to a high-stakes encounter at Sentinel Hill where your earlier choices help decide the fate of the world.
The Dunwich Legacy
There, said the dreams and legends, had reposed the whole history, past and future, of the cosmic space-time continuum—written by captive minds from every orb and every age in the solar system.
—”The Shadow out of Time”
Arkham LCG‘s first expansion cycle, The Dunwich Legacy, engages with the Old Lovecraftian in unexpected ways. The Arkham Horror Files has always been about telling new stories, albeit ones in which Cthulhu, Hastur, and Shub-Niggurath feature prominently. The Dunwich Legacy, in contrast, hews closely to its namesake, to the point that it ends up being a direct sequel to Lovecraft’s classic tale.
It’s also an excellent tasting menu of what can be accomplished within the shapeless confines Arkham LCG‘s roleplaying-inspired gameplay structure. I doubt we’ve seen anything like the limits of what Arkham LCG can do—the considerably less flexible LotR LCG is still surprising players, more than seventy-seven scenarios in—but there’s an impressive variety at play already. If I had to pick one phrase to describe Dunwich Legacy’s scenarios, I couldn’t do much better than this one from the man himself: “a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous.”
If you’re averse to spoilers, feel free to disembark at this juncture.
The load-bearing scenarios—1a, “Extracurricular Activity”; 4, “Blood on the Altar”; and 6, “Where Doom Awaits”—anchor the campaign in what I consider to be the core Arkham LCG experience. This means moving around the locations somewhat freely, gathering clues while fighting off or evading monsters, and figuring out your objective (or choice of objectives) only once you reach the final act. However, each one offers a small but memorable twist on the formula, with “Altar” and “Extracurricular” ranking as my second and third favorite scenarios, respectively, so far. “Extracurricular Activity,” apart from the aforementioned ethical dilemma of a finale, successfully conveys the idea that night is falling and time is running out, using mechanics that rapidly discard through the players’ decks and then punish them for the size of their discard piles. (This mechanic largely plays out via two of Dunwich Legacy’s recurring encounter sets, so it’s a bit of a recurring theme in the campaign, but it’s at its strongest here.) “Blood on the Altar” brings a slew of new mechanics, including a semi-random set of locations (many scenarios include randomized versions of specific locations, but “Altar” goes a step further and randomly removes an entire location from the mix), encounter cards hidden beneath said locations (including a hidden sacrificial chamber and the key to said chamber), and the possibility of allies being kidnapped and sacrificed as the investigators race to complete the objective; its many moving parts make it the most replayable scenario we’ve seen thus far. “Where Doom Awaits” is, for all intents and purposes, the climax of the campaign, so its chief strength is the way it ties together all the narrative threads leading up to it, but there’s also a big campaign-related surprise to be spoiled in the campaign synopsis below.
With these “traditional” scenarios anchoring the campaign, the rest of the offerings can afford to go a little crazy. Scenario 2, “The Miskatonic Museum,” sees players stalked by a single, relentless enemy for the entirety of the scenario; rather than throw a pack of lesser fiends in the investigators’ path, the encounter deck continually resurrects and buffs the singular hunter. Scenario 3, “The Essex County Express,” puts the investigators on a train that is being sucked, car by car, into a tear in time and space. They must push forward to the engine car, rescuing panicked bystanders along the way, before the car they are standing in gets torn from the tracks and swallowed by the void. Scenario 5, “Undimensioned and Unseen,” is a sort of trophy hunt as the investigators stalk, trap, and kill as many invisible abominations as they can before dawn breaks or they are overwhelmed; in a twist on the established rules, these monsters can only be damaged by a specific incantation that relies on players’ willpower, not combat, statistic. And scenario 7, “Lost in Time and Space,” sees investigators exploring that very void; like the best passages in “The Dreams in the Witch House,” it is suffused by an alien beauty as the investigators explore “many unknown and incomprehensible realms of additional or indefinitely multiplied dimensions,” searching for a path home while endless bridges, tears through space, and prismatic cascades appear and collapse around them. It’s a suitable reward for players who’ve made it all the way to the end of the campaign with their sanity intact.
These experiments are more or less successful; I wouldn’t replay “Miskatonic Museum” or “Essex County” outside of a campaign, and “Undimensioned” puts you frustratingly at the mercy of the random ramblings of the unseen abominations. But scenario 1b, “The House Always Wins,” hits the jackpot of scenario design. It starts out ominously mundane, as the investigators infiltrate a speakeasy in search of an errant Miskatonic University professor. A special rule from the Agenda prevents thugs—the only enemies at this point—from engaging with investigators unless provoked. Meanwhile, clues can’t be gained in the normal manner; instead, investigators must participate in games of chance (at which they can attempt to cheat), spend time and money at the lounge, or buy some drinks from the bar. The temporary detente only serves to ratchet up the tension, as the players know the thugs will eventually close in like a pack of hyenas…the only uncertainty is when. This tension eventually breaks in a spectacular way as horrific abominations burst through the windows into the club, attacking heroes and villains alike, and the investigators can only flee from the carnage…although saving the hide of Peter Clover, the club’s owner, might bring future rewards, as it’s never a bad idea to have the mob in your corner.
My own journey through the campaign illustrates the kind of Old Lovecraftian narratives to which Arkham LCG lends itself, narratives that don’t always end well. On a task from Professor Henry Armitage, head librarian at Miskatonic University, to look into the whereabouts of two of his colleagues, I rescued Professor Rice from the clutches of weirdly mutated cultists, but at the expense of the lives of dozens of Miskatonic University students, who were mauled by what police described as “a rabid dog of some sort”; their deaths would haunt the investigators for the rest of the campaign. I was too late to rescue Dr. Morgan, who had gotten a little too lucky at blackjack and was being tortured in the “VIP Room” of the Clover Club. When abominations began tearing up the place, Daisy and Zoey put their own skins first and fled into the night before the building collapsed, crushing its proprietor; this action earned the enmity of the influential O’Bannion Gang. The investigators reconvened with Professor Armitage, who opened up about his fears that the night’s events were somehow tied to a recent horror that had occurred in the backwater town of Dunwich, perpetrated by goatish man named Wilbur Whateley belonging to a tainted bloodline.
The next target, Armitage feared, would be the Olaus Wormius Latin translation of the Necronomicon, which was currently being held in the Restricted Collection of Miskatonic Museum. The investigators managed to retrieve the book before the cultists could. Professor Armitage urged them to destroy it, but Daisy Walker, who had already glimpsed the tome’s power via the inferior John Dee translation, insisted they keep it and arm themselves with its puissant secrets. This turned out to be a mistake, as, during the locomotive journey to Dunwich, the entire entourage was drawn through a gate between worlds. When they awoke from what seemed like centuries of hallucinatory wandering, Daisy and Zoey found themselves alone in the woods outside Dunwich; Armitage, Rice, and the book were nowhere to be seen. Now haunted by what they had witnessed beyond time and space, the investigators walked the rest of the way to the sleepy town and rendezvoused with Zebulon Whateley, a member of the “undecayed” branch of the Whateley family tree. Whateley told the investigators of recent disappearances in the town, and in the morning, he had been kidnapped, too.
The investigators eventually tracked down the missing people in a hidden chamber occupied by a moaning, drooling aberration with covered with dozens of human faces, one of which was barely recognizable as Silas Bishop. The investigators put the beast out of its misery, but upon death, it burst into hundreds of wriggling, slug-like things that fled into the woodwork. They were quick enough to rescue many of the kidnapped people, including Dr. Warren, Zebulon Whateley, and another villager named Earl Sawyer, but Professor Armitage and Dr. Rice had been sacrificed to the insatiable horror in the hidden chamber, and the Necronomicon was still missing.
At this point, it came out that Seth Bishop, the wizard Whateley’s erstwhile neighbor, had been continuing Whateley’s foul “work,” turning both animal and human subjects into abominable thralls. Sowing chaos, he released a pack of invisible, towering abominations—each one as deadly as the horror that tore through Dunwich several months past—upon the unsuspecting town. Frantically trying to reconstruct the arcane powder and incantation Armitage had used to render the beast vulnerable to mundane attacks, the investigators managed to slay two of them, but the rest of the beasts fled into the hills while Daisy and Zoey waited out the night in Zebulon Whateley’s storm cellar. They were awakened by chanting from the peak of Sentinel Hill as Seth Bishop, Necronomicon in hand, attempted to complete the ritual begun by Wilbur Whateley, a ritual that would bring Yog-Sothoth into this world.
Unfortunately, the investigators—hindered by the floating abominations that were the remains of Silas Bishop and the weird warping of reality around the site of the ritual—could not reach Sentinel Peak in time to stop the ritual. The gate opened, Yog-Sothoth “tore apart the barrier between worlds and became one with all reality.” Small comfort, the investigators were immediately driven insane at the sight of the Great Old One, and so they did not witness the destruction it wrought upon mankind.
That was the end of my campaign, but I couldn’t resist trying the final scenario in standalone mode. So Daisy and Zoey failed…but another pair of investigators managed to interrupt the ritual at its critical moment. With no way to repair the tear in reality, they stepped through it and began an odyssey to the end of the universe and beyond. Even achieving the best possible ending for the scenario, I was instructed to give two mental and two physical trauma to each investigator, “as he or she never fully recovers from his or her time spent outside the realm of reality.”
Want to read a more detailed, play-by-play session report of the entire campaign? You’re in luck: