Tabletop RPG Review: A Cold Fire Within

Always one to do things wildly out of order and in the most convoluted possible way, I’ve gone and read through this Pulp Cthulhu scenario without actually owning or having read Pulp Cthulhu…or even Call of Cthulhu 7th Ed (well, I’ve got the Starter Kit).  I’ve had a very brief opportunity to play in a game using Pulp Cthulhu, so I’ve got a gist of it, but still…  Anyway, after reading through Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and realizing that it was definitely NOT the campaign I was going to cut my teeth on, I thought I’d try something different and new.  I’d watched Seth Skorkowsky’s review/campaign diary for The Two-Headed Serpent, and while I enjoyed it and it seemed like fun, it simply didn’t call to me.  Bing-bam-boom, I picked up a copy of A Cold Fire Within.

One reason I tried this particular campaign is time.  I’ve never run a published Call of Cthulhu campaign (I’ve only run one published adventure), and I didn’t want to bite off way more than I could chew.  Even though I’m very interested in Horror on the Orient Express and Masks of Nyarlathotep, I am nowhere near a place in my life where I can commit to running a campaign for the next 18 to 24 months.  And that’s not even taking into consideration that I’d want to do it face-to-face, not online, and I don’t have a group of players who could commit to that amount of time, even if they wanted to.  So I asked around and some folks have said that their groups took seven or eight sessions to play through A Cold Fire Within.  That’s more like it.  Even if I shorten my sessions to two hours (I’ve found that online play can get a bit tiring if you go on for too long), that shouldn’t be more than twelve or fourteen sessions. Playing a couple times a month, we’re talking six or seven months.  That’s not so bad.  Also, though it’s got handouts, it’s not nearly as handout heavy as some of the other campaigns, so I think running it via an online platform will be fine.

This was made for Pulp Cthulhu, the expansion/variation of the classic roleplaying game that really, really leans into the Pulp sensibilities and maybe a bit away from the consuming dread and hopelessness of Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror.  This is more Indiana Jones punching Nazis off an exploding dirigible than it is John Trent’s dawning realization that reality isn’t what it used to be, even if Sutter Cane’s books suck.  Ironically, while stylistically very different from Lovecraft or what I think of as a traditional Call of Cthulhu game, it manages to have more direct connections to Lovecraft’s work than I’ve typically seen in published scenarios.  

Author Christopher Smith Adair has tapped into Theosophist ideas, Hollow Earth theory, various types of spiritualism, some weird science, and even America’s pre-WWII flirtation with fascism.  What he’s made reminds me of reading Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics, which are themselves rooted in Lovecraft and in the Pulps.  

I’m not going into the story or plot developments here, but it gets weird.  Really, really weird.  Depending on how things go, you could be dealing with time travel, astral projection, the Dreamlands, ancient super-tech, lost civilizations, and more.

What I really like about this is that it has a story and a theme and it sticks with it.  It’s not ‘railroady,’ in that your players have options on how they’ll pursue the investigations and what they do with various bits of information.  Honestly, I could see running this campaign a half dozen times and never having it play out the same way.  However, unlike Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, each chapter plays into the next.  Everything revolves around the same central conflict.  You don’t just end up in the Dreamlands and have a fetch quest thrown at you.  If you go there, it’s for a reason that’s tied into the plot.  Same with the time travel and/or astral projection.  Even the monsters and people you come up against are all wrapped into the core concept.  No random Deep Ones thrown in.  No Ghouls where none were needed.  Heck, Serpent People wouldn’t have even been out of place in this, yet they’re left out because there’s no need to pack in a bunch of extra stuff that’s just going to serve to muddy the waters.  

Though I do think players could crank through this campaign at a fast rate, and I’m likely to keep it fairly stripped down for my first runthrough of it, there’s also a few places where you could really expand things.  When they start dealing with the K’n-yan, there’s a ton of stuff you could do to really flesh out that region.  I could see multiple sessions of exploration and conflict.  Again, if I run it, I’ll likely try to keep it tight and keep it on task.  But dang.  I think it’s a cool sandbox to play in.  Same with the Dreamlands.  If you ran this as part of a longer running game with established characters, it might be interesting to tie it more into the Dreamlands side of things.  Or, alternately, perhaps you could use the aftermath of this campaign as a way to take your game more or completely into the Dreamlands.  There are certainly options for that.  

I’m pretty excited about the idea of running this.  It’s not at all the sort of thing I’d normally do with Call of Cthulhu.  But that’s not a bad thing.  I think running something so unabashedly Pulpy, with elements of King Kong, Disney’s Atlantis, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar stories, Hellboy, Indiana Jones and more…it looks like a ton of fun.  And though there is some prep work I want to do, like making 3X5 cards of all the NPCs with lists of their relationships, locations, etc., and perhaps a timeline or clue map or two, I feel like this will be run mostly out of the book.  This shouldn’t be something where I have to put hours and hours of prep time in every week before the session.  

Chaosium has been impressing me over the last few years.  They seem to be doing most things right.  Quality product and good business behavior.  I’m very excited to see where they go from here.

Edit: I recorded this video after running the campaign. It has some observations and suggestions:

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