Name: Tatters of the King
Type: Roleplaying Campaign Book
System: Basic Rules System
Size: 27.5cm x 21.4cm x 1.8cm
(5.0 / 5)
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Tatters of the King is a full Campaign for the Call of Cthulhu rpg. Predominately written for the 6th edition rules the campaign can be run using any edition of the game with minimal changes and could be converted to Trail of Cthulhu if the Keeper was willing to put some effort in. As with the majority of Call of Cthulhu adventures the game is set in the 1920s but there is no reason that it couldn’t be amended to work in Cthulhu Now or Cthulhu by Gaslight and I’m fairly confident that an era change wouldn’t dramatically change the tone of the adventure.
The book has a full colour, glossy, front and back and is black and white inside. The production values are high with original art throughout and, as is common in Call of Cthulhu products, the level of detail and research from the author is meticulous and accurate. My only criticism of the book is that the plastic coating on the edge of the cover has come away and rolled back, giving the book a bit of a beaten up look. My book hasn’t be carried around in a bag or treated poorly and so the fact that this has happened is a little disappointing.
Tatters of the King unfolds using Robert Chamber’s book The King in Yellow as its basis and while its not overtly vital that a Keeper read this, I would suggest that you do as some of the stories help with the tone of the game. The book is now open source as it was first published in 1895 and it can be found here. Within the context of the Cthulhu mythos The King in Yellow is a manuscript for a play of the same name, one that, if performed in full will drive the audience irrevocably insane. It describes the strange city of Carcosa, which sits next to a lake ,and it details the ruling class of that city as they interact with a mysterious Stranger from across the lake. In the Cthulhu mythos The King in Yellow is the Great Old One Hastur, who lives in lake Hali, the lake upon whose shore Carcosa sits.
Full disclosure at this point, the rest of the review will include SPOILERS.
Tatters of the King is a 3 part campaign primarily set in the Great Britain, although the later stages take the investigators to Italy, India and finally to the shadow of Mount Everest in the Himalayas in Tibet. During late 1928 an alignment of stars brings the Hyades, a star cluster in the constellation of Taurus, and the supposed home of Hastur into close proximity to Earth and this affords the cult of Hastur on Earth a rare opportunity. It begins with a prologue in which the investigators spend an evening at the theatre in London’s West End, watching a performance of The King in Yellow, which breaks down into a riot in the second act, as the nature of the play takes control of the audience. Next the investigators are asked to consult on the case of a patient in an asylum in the English countryside, a man whose ramblings and scribbles notes work as the catalyst of the overall plot.
Part 1 deals predominately with a cult of Hastur in London as it plans a ritual to bring Carcosa to Earth. The players investigate strange murders and try to track down cult members piecing together the clues in order to first understand the cults intentions and then to find out where and when the ritual will take place in order to try and prevent it being successful. This is probably the greatest of the 3 campaign parts and, in my opinion, is the most fun to run. There are some great npc parts to play, not least of all the madman in the asylum, and there are some really thrilling scenes. Most notably the enemies in this section are human and I find that human enemies provide a level of fear that other, more alien, parts of the mythos cannot because they are so far removed from the natural fears of the players.
Part 1 ends with the players approaching the site of the ritual, in Scotland, and being drawn into the land of Carcosa, during the events of the play. The players must track down the cult members within Carcosa and stop them casting the Summon Hastur spell. This is a strange section to run as the dark melancholy of Carcosa is hard to capture and the city is deliberately confusing. My party split up within the city, as some fell into a river and were washed downstream, which further compounded how difficult this section was to run. If you run this part well, and are confident in your knowledge of your players, you can use encounters here to provide glimpses of what is to come.
I was very fortunate when I ran Part 1, I had an investigator cast the spell, Bespeak the End of the Day. This spell affords the investigator a warped glimpse of the future and I showed the player the death of their investigator, along Regents Canal, which is one of the encounters late on,in Part 1, just before the party head to Scotland to disrupt the ritual. This was deliberately timed and instilled a sense of dread in the party that was compounded when the realised that they were about to set out to that encounter. It’s hard work to foretell the death of a character and to have it come about without forcing the issue (which I didn’t) but when it works it makes for a truly phenomenal and memorable encounter.
Between Parts 1 and 2 the Keeper is encouraged to run a smaller adventure or two, to keep the players involved as there is a break in the campaign between March and December 1929. The idea is that the investigators think that they have succeeded and that the threat of Hastur is over. Within the framework of the campaign there is a downswing in cult activity as the Hyades disappear from the sky but that doesn’t mean that it’s all over, rather they players are lulled into a false sense of security (as much as it possible in Call of Cthulhu) before the adventure throws them back in at the deep-end.
Part 2 serves as a reintroduction to the events surrounding Hastur. It deals with another mythos entity, Shub-Niggurath and it’s set within the Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood in the West Country, specifically Gloucestershire. Ownership and knowledge of the Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood book isn’t required (I don’t own it) but I imagine that it would be an asset. This is by far the shortest of the 3 sections of the campaign, running to only 21 pages.
This part reintroduces a character from Part 1 and he serves as the conduit for the whole section. I spent a substantial amount of time preparing to play him as it is essential that he gets across all of the information without seemingly giving it up in a monologue. The investigators travel to Gloucestershire and visit a farm where one of the principal cultists from Part 1 lived for a time. This allows them to discover notes that ultimately lead them to Italy and beyond in Part 3. While at the farm they get to intervene and prevent the activity of a group of local Shub-Niggurath worshipers in order to protect the farm. I personally like this section a lot as it deals with the concept of the ‘Old Gods’ of Britain and really highlights some of the ancient pagan practices that can been seen at the heart of many ancient communities within the British Isles.
Part 3 is when the campaign goes global. The party travel from London, to Italy, to Bombay and then finally into Tibet and the Himalayas and much of this happens in a reasonably short space of time. The adventure follows the notes found in Part 2 that detail a further Hastur cult in Milan known as Il Fretelli del Signo Giallo (The Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign) and it’s own attempt to draw on the power of the Yellow King. It also follows one of the English cultists who has gone to Italy to meet with the cult and then traveled on to India and Tibet as part of an expedition into the Himalayas.
While in Italy the group deal with a different kind of cult, one that is distinctly Italian as it’s members are not just university professors and dilettantes, but bookshops owners and artists. They meet a cult divided and learn something of the feelings of it’s members before discovering where the English cultist has gone and finally encountering a Byakhee that has been sent to silence a disgruntled member.
From Italy the party travel to Bombay in India and the adventure provides a interlude on a steamer ship that allows the investigators a brief respite and gives the Keeper an opportunity to release some of the tension built up thus far, before it really kicks into high gear for the conclusion. Obviously this chapter can be skipped or briefly mentioned before continuing on with the adventure proper but if you have a party that just likes to roleplay and are enjoying their characters then you can use this time to let them interact with the other steamer passengers and engage in some on ship activities.
In Bombay (Mumbai in the modern world) the investigators encounter proper British Colonialism as India was the jewel in the British crown at this point in history. This is the beginning of the end of the campaign as the investigators learn that the English cultist has traveled onwards, through India to Tibet and ultimately to to Drakmar, the home of Hastur on Earth. Bombay gives the players the opportunity to outfit themselves for an expedition into the Himalayas and lets the Keeper throw a couple of interesting encounters with the local culture and religion at them.
Throughout the entire campaign the Keeper is encouraged to plague the investigators with dreams of Hastur, Carcosa and the Tattered King and this should really step up as the party reach India and near the end of their long journey. I picked one player in particular to bully with these visions and it was a fantastic coincidence that he was the one that failed the most checks to resist seeing waking visions of the Tattered King when I exposed the whole party to them. These visions and dreams are a really important part to the campaign as a whole as they add another layer of atmosphere to the general eeriness of the game as a whole.
The party travel through India to the boarder of Tibet and then finally up through that mountainous country into the high Himalayas. The investigators must contend with a harsh and deadly landscape, language and culture barriers (despite the guides that they will most likely have hired) and altitude sickness as they climb higher into the mountains, into the very shadow of Everest, following in the footsteps of the English cultist and his Italian companions.
The final chapter of the campaign see’s the party enter The Upper House, in Drakmar. The Upper House is the home of Hastur and where his guide will bring him down to Earth. This can go a good number of different ways depending on whether the party are able to find and stop the English Cultist and how subversive the keeper has been swaying the investigators through visions and play. Like a great many Call of Cthulhu campaigns Tatters of the King doesn’t end in a grand battle with the enemy, no human could stand against the might of a Great Old One, even one with no real presence on Earth. The end see’s Hastur, closer to Earth at Drakmar than anywhere else and pulled closer still because of the ascendance of Taurus in the sky, ask those present who will guide him to Earth. The party has a number of choices to make and, as is the way in Call of Cthulhu, they fate of the world is truly in their hands.
This is a really great campaign, probably the finest Call of Cthulhu campaign that I have run and that includes Beyond the Mountains of Madness and Masks of Nyarlathotep (I’m eagerly awaiting my copy of Horror of the Orient Express from the Cthulhu 7th edition kickstarter at the time of writing). Perhaps it’s just my familiarity with British culture but I found that this campaign was well written, paced well and gave just enough to the investigators at each section so as to build the story and atmosphere at the right pace.
As with every Call of Cthulhu adventure Tatters of the King comes with a large appendix of player handouts and these are well written and thought out so as to challenge the thinking of the players. I particularly like that the handouts in Italy are written in Italian which challenges the investigators to either learn Italian or find someone they trust enough to translate those documents for them.
For those who aren’t from or based in Britain or versed in the history of this great nation, the campaign provides an appendix detailing London at the time, along with a map of the city at the time. In addition, throughout the campaign, there are notes detailing the physical, social and political landscape of the various locations at the time. I found this particularly helpful during the Italian section as I know very little modern Italian history and wouldn’t have considered the impact that the rise of fascism in Italy at the time would have on the adventure.
I was extremely fortunate when I ran this campaign as my players bought into it entirely and played their characters well. When one character foresaw his death at Regents canal, the player went into the encounter willingly and enjoyed using it as an opportunity to build the story as opposed to seeing it as a challenge to overcome. In the final encounter one player decided that all of the visions of the Tattered King meant that he was to be the herald of Hastur and bring him to Earth, which was completely opposed to the will of the rest of the party and a truly fantastic end to the campaign.
I think it’s worth mentioning that this campaign runs quite differently from the majority of other Cthulhu adventures that I have run. There isn’t actually a huge threat of death or ‘other’ (the affectionate term I have for the variety of things that can happen to you other than being killed or driven insane), although sanity loss is a very real danger. I think that works to it’s advantage because the constant changing of characters can serve to take away from the players investment in the game.
If anyone is looking for a well written, well paced and interesting Call of Cthulhu campaign the you could do a whole lot worse that taking a look at Tatters of the King.
So with that I have just one more thing to ask you. Have you seen the Yellow Sign?