Tabletop RPG Review: Bayt Al Azif Issue 1

Back when I was first getting into Call of Cthulhu, there was a fan-produced magazine called The Unspeakable Oath.  Copies of the magazine’s early issues were like gold in the community.  This was a time before the internet was ubiquitous, so you couldn’t just search & find stuff from around the globe.  In its pages, I found lots of great stuff, including a few things that changed my perception of the classic tabletop RPG and the Lovecraftian Mythos itself.  Issues of that magazine were always spotty, and eventually came out so infrequently that I stopped buying it, especially after I drifted away from active participation in the hobby.

Fast Forward about 20 years and I found myself getting more invested in the hobby I’ve loved so much, and found out that a new magazine was coming out that seemed to be approaching things from a similar place that The Unspeakable Oath did all those years ago.  So here I am reading Bayt al Azif with a giddy sort of glee.

Within these pages are some mundane articles about the state-of-the-hobby.  Good stuff if, like me, you’re not really plugged in to the various message boards or the convention circuit.  Interviews with some creators and some folks who run games at cons.  Great.  There’s a review of a classic supplement or two.  Nice.  But more importantly, there are three adventures, one of which I can definitely see myself running.  It’s also worth mentioning that the magazine is meant for folks who use Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu, and has stats for both.

My favorite of the three scenarios is A Conspiracy in Damascus, which is set in the 8th Century (in Damascus, as the title implies).  The scenario itself is solid, with some cool handouts and some pre-generated characters you can download from the Bayt al Azif website.  What I especially liked about it, however, was how versatile a story it creates.  While reading it, I could see using it as a ‘flashback’/’prequel’ story for a more classic Call of Cthulhu scenario, like Masks of Nyarlathotep or something.  Actually, if they ever do relaunch Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and do a good expansion on it (much needed), this could make for a very nice tie-in (that particular campaign has almost nothing to do with Yog-Sothoth and should have been called Shadows of Cthulhu).  Beyond connecting it to other Call of Cthulhu scenarios, or simply running it as a stand-alone, I thought it would translate fairly directly to Ars Magica.  It might serve as a good scenario to explore the background of a group or of an individual magi.  Or it could serve as a starting point for a long-term villain that has spread into Western Europe by the Twelfth or Thirteenth Century.  Going further afield, though, I thought it would work extremely well being transposed over to Dungeon Crawl Classics: Lankhmar.  Change the names and…well, that’s about it.

The scenario Double Dare strikes me as one that would be good at a convention.  It’s got a more traditional Horror vibe, with some creepy imagery.  While I don’t see myself running it, as it doesn’t really get into aspects of the Mythos that sing for me, I can definitely see myself raiding a few of the ideas for other games.  Actually, as I’m writing this I’m again struck by how I could pull the villain of the piece out and plug him into a DCC: Lankhmar game.  Hmm.  Maybe I just need to admit to myself that I’m really in the mood to run a DCC: Lankhmar game.  

The final scenario, Easier to Fill than the Ocean with Stones is set in the 1960s in Vietnam.  Obviously, this has a lot of potential to connect with Delta Green, either running it through Call of Cthulhu in its original form, through its new stand-alone form, or through The Fall of Delta Green.  Again, it’s not something I’d see myself running, but the story is compelling and I could see how it might turn out in a lot of dark and scary ways.

There’s also a very short solo scenario called Overdue, which I haven’t tried.  There’s a section on making your chase scenes more unique, with some charts for adding spice. I also liked the brief article with story ideas called Sites of Antiquity, which profiles a real place for you to do with what you will.  I hope there’s more like that in the next issue.

Additionally, there’s an article I found very interesting that I’m going to have to read further on.  Catherine Ramen writes Rebooting Campaigns with a Modern Sensibility.  I grew up watching old adventure films and reading pulp stories.  I’m aware of a lot of the racism and such that’s contained in them, but also, I’m a straight, white dude from a small New England town.  I now live in a far more diverse area and have a much larger pool of people to draw players from and I want my table to be open to anyone (anyone who’s not an asshole).  While I don’t want to belabor negative cultural norms from the past (the “classic” era of the 1920s is my preferred Call of Cthulhu setting), I also don’t want to pretend they didn’t happen.  I also want to make sure that players can play the characters they want to play.  Not white?  Not hetero?  Whatever.  I want to be open to it at my table.  So this article, which talks about Ramen’s re-working of three campaigns, Masks of Nyarlathotep, Eternal Lies and Tatters of the King, which are all campaigns I’m hoping to run, is a big one for me.  I’m going to need to read Ramen’s notes on the things she changed.  Hopefully they’re online.  It also reminded me that I really need to pick up Harlem Unbound.

Overall, I was very pleased with this magazine.  The first issue is only $10. USD and well worth it.  There are only three issues out so far as I know, and it seems to be annual.  Hopefully the quality remains.

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