Review by Sean Branney
January 1, 2021
Something Old - Something New
Mansions of Madness has been around for quite a while in one form or another. It was first published back in 1990 as a supplement for the 4th edition of Call of Cthulhu, and featured a collection of five house-centric adventures. Chaosium brought it out for an encore in 2007 adding a sixth scenario to the set. This new publication however, features two of the scenarios from the original version ("Mister Corbitt" and "The Crack’d and Crook’d Manse") and brought in three new scenarios. All of the maps, handouts and other illustrations have been updated for the new edition.
As a reviewer of gaming materials, I must admit I have not played my way through this collection of scenarios. I’ll readily admit too that sometimes something looks great on the page but may not play ideally, while the inverse can readily happen and a scenario which may not seem that inspired on the page plays like gangbusters. So this assessment is based on how the scenarios struck me, but they’ve yet to be subjected to real-world gaming tests. I’ll do my best to present the gist of the scenarios without providing any true spoilers, but readers who aspire to play investigators in any of these scenarios may wish to stop reading here, lest they diminish their gaming by knowing too much.
"Mister Corbitt" by Shawn DeWolf, updated by Lynne Hardy
This scenario has long been shrouded in confusion stemming from its title. While this is a tale of Mr. Corbitt and his house, it’s about a very different man and a very different house than another well-known scenario involving another house and another Mr. Corbitt that Chaosium has published (currently titled “The Haunting” and part of Chaosium’s free Quick Start Guide to Call of Cthulhu). I’m sure the use of the name is intentional, though I’ve never understood the benefit of this ambiguity. This scenario begins with an upstanding member of an investigator’s neighborhood. Delving into the problems affecting Mr. Corbitt leads to a pleasing series of horrifying revelations and great discoveries for your players. It is perhaps the most straightforward of the scenarios in this collection, but there’s plenty here to challenge players.
"The Crack’d and Crook’d Manse" by Mark Morrison, updated by Lynne Hardy
This scenario was first created for an Australian gaming con back in 1984. It holds up marvelously well and presents ultimately a stranger and more nuanced gaming challenge than Mister Corbitt. The scenario’s hook (like most of them in this collection, is pretty straightforward: checked out a troubled property. This leads into an assessment of the various people who’d lived at the residence and their strange fates. Here, there is a rich and complex backstory to be plumbed. It’s also an interesting challenge to fit that backstory to the current issues still affecting the house. All told, it’s an interesting and clever scenario that should delivery classical dose of Call of Cthulhu gaming fun to players.
"The Code" by Christopher Lackey and Lynne Hardy
This is perhaps the most challenging of the scenarios in this collection - not in terms of the player experience but in terms of the demands upon the Keeper. Here the investigators are summoned to help an old friend involved in high-level physics research. Upon arrival several things are amiss in his home and the culprit cause (sort of) turns out to be his time-travel suit. "The Code" is an excellent scenario for jaded investigators and will likely pit them against types of situations which are not familiar to them. To get the most mileage out of this scenario, the Keeper will want to do her/his homework thoroughly. Some of the most interesting aspects of the scenario deal with encounters in non-linear time which are, frankly, complex.
"House of Memphis" by Gavin Iglis with Lynne Hardy and Mike Mason
This was my least favorite of the scenarios in this collection. Its story revolves around the stage magician Memphis the Great and those in his inner circle. Its trappings felt rather predictable - the rivalry with a protege, the devoted assistant, connections to crime figures, etc…. and the challenge they pose to the investigators felt uninspired. I’ll admit that I have a background in magic and have a lot of affinity with the great age of stage magicians in the vaudeville era, and perhaps that colored my perception of this adventure. I’m sure there’s Keepers an investigators out there who may enjoy this scenario, but I’d be surprised to learn that this one ended up being anyone’s favorite adventure to play in this collection.
"The Nineteenth Hole" by Stuart Boon
An American businessman retires in Scotland and undertakes the restoration of a golf course as his retirement project. Things very much don’t go according to plan and, ultimately, investigators will be needed to sort out the problems that have arisen at the course. I think this scenario provides a lot of potential for good gaming. There’s plenty of leads to follow, deductions to be made and finally, peril to be encountered. This is a scenario in a more Lovecraftian vein - by that I mean that the horrors are rather subtle and nuanced here. Investigators whose favorite skills are Lob Dynamite or Shotgun might find this adventure quiet for their tastes, but those who prefer Spot Hidden Object or Library use will likely thoroughly enjoy this one.
In terms of artwork, Mansions of Madness is a mixed bag. The best of the illustrations are quite excellent, but the weakest don’t demonstrate a lot of thought or skill being deployed by the artist. The handouts and props are also a mixed bag. The best of them are realistic and will serve to immerse players further into the story. But some of them fail their roll at the HPLHS Authenticity Check. Ambitious Keepers could easily redo some of the weaker handouts and replaceme them with more authentic documents. One place where Chaosium has upped its game is in the cartography department. Because so many of the scenarios are tied to events that happen in large buildings, having good maps of their layout is important. The work on the maps is both detailed and thoughtful and should help Keepers and players alike in their gameplay.
Mansions of Madness, Vol. 1 is a strong collection of scenarios providing Keepers with some fun one-off adventures. Most of the scenarios could be played through in 2-3 sessions and several of them have open-ended angles to them where an enterprising Keeper could flesh out the story with a sequel or perhaps a campaign. Several of these would be excellent adventures to introduce new players to the game. Some of the very best Call of Cthulhu sessions I’ve ever run have been set in “haunted houses” and the scenarios contained in Mansions of Madness are sure to carry on that fine tradition.