Escape From Innsmouth
Written by Kevin A. Ross, Published by Chaosium Inc.
Review by Christopher Bishop
Escape from Innsmouth was originally designed as an adventure sourcebook encapsulating the original story, Shadow over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft. It was published around the same time as the 4th edition of the popular role playing game Call of Cthulhu, a system that utilizes the BRP system found in other products such as Runequest, Stormbringer, and Elfquest. While Call of Cthulhu is now on its 7th edition, the system has remained fairly intact over the years, with only Runequest seeing much modification in comparison to other BRP derivatives. I currently own the 6th and 7th Edition of the game version and was delighted to note very little if any modification was needed to run this mini sandbox in Lovecraft country.
Those new to Cthulhu sometimes have a hard time grasping the differences in play style that a Cthulhu game evokes. Where a D20 fantasy game sourcebook will have city data, personalities and minor plot hooks and can certainly be very verbose, most games generally ride the line between a series of plot driven combats with interspersed brain teasers, puzzles and light but certainly not non-existent narrative. Players are use to there being multiple ways to achieve some level of success, with one option always being the standard “Let’s just go kill stuff and figure it out from the corpses” Cthulhu does not really allow for the murder hobo option. Sure like any roleplaying game, the character can “try” anything, but going in guns blazing will generally land them in jail, get them mercilessly slaughtered by beings to whom bullets are less annoying than gnats, or wreck any chance of completing their investigation.
So I will now weigh this massive undertaking much the same way I would any adventure sourcebook, though I will say now, the narrative is so well done, I felt more like I was reading the script for a great movie and less reading a module in preparation for running it for my gamers.
1) Background and setting
The first 70 odd pages are all background on the town of Innsmouth, its various families, socio-economic issues and its colorful history. It draws heavily from Lovecraft’s tale and truly fleshes out the environs of Innsmouth. This is NOT your idyllic seaside town. Innsmouth has a rich history tied into its pre-revolutionary war roots. It was once a shipping hub as well as a major provider for the fishing industry. However, due to war and other circumstances the source of its wealth began drying up, the fish no longer leaping into fishermen’s nets. The people praying for relief found none, until a ship captain by the name of Obed Marsh told them of an island he had visited and the rituals the natives practiced that were sure to reverse their fortunes. He would provide them with a new god, one that would listen to their cries and reward them for their faithful obedience. As the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for!
By the time we enter the era of the 20th century, Innsmouth, is a dilapidated remnant of its former self. The people that live there all have the “Innsmouth Look”, bulging eyes, scaling skin, and a shuffling gait as well as many other issues, stemming from having to mate with the deep ones. They are in fact hybrids of human and deep ones, that according to local thought is perfectly natural since man is believed to have evolved from these creatures. Local churches have all been either ran out of town or replaced completely by “The Esoteric Order of Dagon”, the religion Obed Marsh brought to Innsmouth in the late 19th century. Most normal humans either hide in fear or live in denial of their fate, forced to bond with deep ones as wife or husband and produce hybrids of man and deep one, their very sanity strained to its limits.
Several NPC’s and locations are pictured in great detail, from the creepy bus driver the original protagonist from Lovecraft’s story ran in to, the ramshackle hotel with no means of easy escape. The authors take us down every winding street even those not mentioned within the original story, and flesh even the most minute details. Each ramshackle house and its residents are fully explored and maps are given to clearly mark individual homes location on the crisscross of streets. Were a creative keeper wishing to run this city on just the merits of the background alone, well that would be completely possible as nothing is left out. I often referenced the original story against the background, both to help satisfy my own curiosity from reading the tale versus checking to make sure the authors were exacting in their interpretation. You will not find yourself wanting in that regard. Every details is painstakingly captured, and I was unable to find a point where I felt the authors over embellished or extrapolated too far.
There are small plot threads linking certain npc’s to other storylines outside Innsmouth. At this time, I am not sure if Chaosium produced these products or the plot hooks are simply being dangled out there for the Keeper’s use, but either way it was very interesting that these allusions were made. We are given extensive information on Ephraim Waite, Thomas Waite and Asenath Waite. These characters are actually from another story with light innsmouth links, “The Thing on the Doorstep”a sad tale of a man tricked by a woman, Asenath Waite who is actually herself a victim of Ephraim Waite, a maniacal sorcerer so perversely evil he took over the body of his own daughter to avoid death, trapping her in his own aging body and killing her. Now he seeks to do it once again to Edward Derby, and marries the young man as a means of achieving his evil goal. Investigators can take part in not only one Lovecraft tale but actually two with little effort on the part of the Keeper.
While the town of Innsmouth is not a gigantic metropolis, there are quite a few spots to examine. In the initial background we are given a map that goes street by street, and any building that has actual residents is given a map entry as well as a dialogue box cross referencing to the map entry. Later on, in the adventure scenarios, Escape from Innsmouth and The Raid on Innsmouth we are treated to even more maps that break down the important locales such as The Marsh Mansion, The Esoteric Order of Dagon building, the smuggler tunnels, even the Devil’s Reef and the underwater city of Y’ha-nthlei. As the investigators may find themselves running into several derelict locations in their attempts to avoid capture or investigate, there are even maps of lesser locations such as the refinery, the first national grocery store and the Waite’s small shop.
3) The Adventures
Escape from Innsmouth
The investigators are contacted by Arthur Anderson, the district manager for First National Grocery, who asks them to figure out how one of his employees has run afoul of the local law enforcement in Innsmouth. His employee, Brian Burnham was young and a little naive but other than one previous dumb decision in his earlier days has been nothing but a good natured god fearing young man, even taking up the manager position in Innsmouth as a means to propel his future forward.
As is often the case, Brian is foiled by the one thing to turn a young man’s mind from his task, a beautiful young woman by the name of Ruth Billingham. Though she is unaware of her own tainted blood like many young folks trapped inside a small town she has bigger aspirations than Innsmouth, and Brian is just the next suitor in line to help her achieve her ambitions. It does not take long before the creepy goings on of Innsmouth combined with a young woman’s wiles, take their toll on Brian, and he soon puts together a plan to steal a gold treasure (which is anything but) said to be kept in Thomas Waite’s safe and steal an automobile to get out of town.
Sadly, they are caught in their efforts to break into Waite’s safe, and Brian is hauled off to jail without so much as a trial. This is in part due to the fact that the Innsmouthers have plans of using him as an offering to Father Dagon at their next ritual. It is up to the investigators to put the pieces together without arousing the suspicions of the already xenophobic Innsmouth citizens, and free Brian before the fated even can occur. It won’t be easy, as at every turn they are met with lies, subterfuge or even worse the arcane as the priests of Dagon hold ultimate power over their populace, even the non-hybrid ones.
Within this adventure we have another allusion to the Thing on the Doorstep, as Thomas Waite is the brother of Ephraim Waite, the wizard, and his safe holds the only true copy of the Book of Dagon, a prize of Cthulhu lore and spells at the mere cost of your sanity. As the investigators check around town and with the local constable they are told that Brian fled town in a stolen car and has not been seen, probably with money stolen from his own stores register, which was left broken. However his Boss says that is not possible, if Brian had wanted to steal from the register, he had the key as manager of the store, there would be no need to break the register. That and many other unsettling clues left behind suggest Mr. Anderson is onto something, but it is up to the investigators to figure this out and try to find Brian before time runs out and escape Innsmouth.
The actual escape is very cinematic in nature, with planned car chases, redneck hybrids with antiquated guns shooting at them, and danger lurking around every bend. Nothing has been left to chance, as the whole affair is scripted well, allowing plenty of freedom for the Investigators to adapt to their changing circumstances.
The Raid of Innsmouth
The second scenario offering is the raid of Innsmouth. In Lovecraft’s tale this occurred in February of 1928, and it is said that many government officials descended on the town and most of the residents were rounded up based on the results of the original protagonist’s escape. In the player’s version, the Investigators own escape from the first scenario plays a role as well, and the players are soon brought in as consultants. If the first scenario was cinematic in nature this one takes up another notch. The players get to take part in all stages of the raid, their investigators being split up amongst 5 different objectives that are themselves divided into 3 parts. Because the players are separated, those investigators not directly involved in the each of the raid parts instead take up the roll of young marines or minor cast roles so that everyone has a part to play in each objective.
The pacing is often frantic, as the Marines and other G-Men are completely unprepared for what they face, although they have much better firepower, the wily hybrids of Innsmouth have lived in this town for well over a century, and lead the investigators through quite the merry chase. The ultimate goal of the G-men is to capture the Innsmouth leadership while eradicating what they consider to be a white slavery ring, and possible smuggling operations. They dismiss all claims of what is really going on focusing on what is the most easily understood compulsion, greed. They could not be more mistaken, and it will take the careful assertion of the characters experience if they are to save the day.
In the end, if successful the outcome Lovecraft spoke of comes to be, the Investigators put an end to a machinations of the evil Mermen and all remnants of the evil are purged.
The art style conveyed through the adventure is excellent at giving examples of things up till now left up to imagination. The citizens of note are drawn with great skill, some in their various states of hybridization and others just on the cusp. Characters such as Ruth Billingham are drawn to still possess the Innsmouth features and yet easily show how Brian would find her attractive, no easy task. Areas of landscape are given the same treatment, being both ramshackle and yet in some ways still rich in focus. As a keeper I would be constantly tempted to show off these pieces of art as they illustrate things well. Overall, the artwork was top notch.
5) Final Opinion
Escape from Innsmouth is a great product, truly standing up to the test of time. It’s great imagining of the town of Innsmouth is only topped by its often frantic pace, forcing Investigators to stay on their toes. The Author’s great use of the original work is seen in the dialogue and flow of the adventure, it truly captures the essence of Lovecraft’s often slow building insidious locales in a format that translates well to tabletop. Even if you’re not interested in running it with the original ruleset, it still provides a flawless look at Innsmouth and reveals many only-guessed-at secrets in Lovecraft’s original tale. I give Escape from Innsmouth a solid A.
Keep rolling them bones,
Chris[Editor’s Note: This year marks the 25th anniversary of ESCAPE FROM INNSMOUTH.]