One of the most interesting things to happen to the publishing industry in general in the last few years, is how self-publishing has become a more viable option for individuals who, for whatever reason, don’t want to, or can’t get to, a publisher.
Crowdfunding websites are all the rage in the games publishing business at the moment and we are seeing more and more games and books that would never see daylight otherwise.
However those funding websites are not always available everywhere, are not always the best option for some people, or simply authors and designers prefer a closer contact with the buyers.
For whatever reason, Graham Walmsley, the writer of Stealing Cthulhu decided to simply ask people to pre-order his book. And we did.
Quite frankly, usually I wouldn’t even consider giving some £50 to anyone without any guarantees. However I was very intrigued and, since I really liked Kagematsu, another of Walmsley’s work, I thought I’d give it a try.
A few months later and the annotated edition of Stealing Cthulhu arrives at my door. A few weeks later, and I manage to get to read it.
First things first. Stealing Cthulhu is a compendium or ideas, tutorials, adventure seeds and overall challenges to the way that Lovecraft based role playing games are written. From the very beginning, the author explores tons of ways of getting away from the “there is a cult, investigators find cult, cult wants to awaken a Great Old One, investigators try to stop them” formula.
The book is divided in three sections. The first one explains how to create the adventure using lovecraftian elements, but not in the way normally thought of, or in the way Lovecraft and others have done in the past. Thus it goes into how to create pace, increase fear, set scenes, etc. The second part goes into more or less detail of the main mythos, explaining the origins with brief synopsis of the books, and giving tons if ideas about hot to use those mythos in different ways. The last few pages are dedicated to providing with a light rules system to play Lovecraft based scenarios.
The contents of the book are sound. There is no doubt the author knows his lovecraftian literature. I say lovecraftian and not Lovecraft because he is thorough enough to cover some other authors who use mythos or mythos-like creatures and situations in their stories. This is a very welcome addition to the book. Very often those authors are not mentioned or not given enough credit and Walmsley has no fear to name them time and time again.
I was very sceptical about the rules – light system at the end of the book. However it is quite a neat little system that could help playtest adventure drafts. Also, being a really rules-light system, I don’t think it would work unless you know rather well the works of Lovecraft and RPG in general. If I were a beginner and tried to start with this, I am not sure it would work very well. Unfortunately, it is the curse of many rules-light systems; they place a lot of strain on the GMs or keeper’s shoulders. This is not a bad thing per-se, but it does mean some experience is required.
So the contents are good. Great. However, and much to my dismay, this book is a nightmare to read. Every single page (pretty much) has at least one footnote. Most of them will have three.
I normally wouldn’t have a problem with that. I am used to books that reference other pages and have footnotes to reference other books or parts of a book. However this time the footnotes are used simply to end sentences, add paragraphs or explain information that is directly related to what’s being read.
As a consequence, I found my reading flow disrupted constantly mid sentence, just to find out something that could and should have been added to the main body by altering the sentence construction. To be honest (and that I promise I will ever be) it feels like the author wrote the book, edited it and, instead of actually editing the book, he added the footnotes where he couldn’t be bothered to rewrite it, thus giving the appearance that the book as been lousily written. Or that the author has tried to do something original and has failed. Epically. It doesn’t take long before the dozens of footnotes become irritating, and soon after they will become annoying enough that you will want the book to end so you don’t have to read another footnote again. Ever.
Let’s add to that the fact that the layout of the book is, to say the least, basic. Ir frankly feels it has been done with Word, even though I am sure it is not the case. Two pretty horrible serif fonts, one smaller than the other; both of them pretty small in a small book. Not good. The text formatting, once again, something that has had no care put into, at all. No bullet points where there should be some, barely any separation between chapters or sections and barely any illustrations. And the available ones, although consistent in style, weren’t that remarkable either. I will make an exception for the illustration of Cthulhu in the cover. That one actually caught my eye for it gives a different version, more abstract and somehow horrible, of the best known creature created by Lovecraft.
Although I don’t mind a book without illustrations, it seems Walmsley has overlooked the importance of providing with visual reference to descriptions that are not easy to visualise by some people, specially beginners. Granted, this book is not aimed at beginners, but it would have nonetheless added a great deal more interest and professional look to the whole endeavour.
I’m afraid this book falls short of its mark. And it is a pity. This is a book I was hoping I would go back to time and time again to get ideas and information. Instead, because of the poor layout and distribution, and the horrible footnotes, it will be left on my shelf until I gather the necessary stamina to find something.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is keen to find different ways to create Lovecraft style adventures, for its contents and the common sense applied to this task is indeed sound. Unfortunately the rest leaves a lot to be desired for and therefore this book only gets two stars from me.
You can buy Stealing Cthulhu directly from the author by vising his website here.