Beyond the Mountains of Madness

a review by Graham Wills

"Little by little they rose grimly into the western sky; allowing us to witness various bare, bleak and blackened summits... I could not help feeling that they were evil things - mountains of madness whose farther shores looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss."

Beyond the Mountains of Madness : an epic Antarctic Campaign & Sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu, 1930s

Based on H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness

This is unmistakeably a very large book; 480 pages of letter-sized pages makes this as imposing a sourcebook as you are likely to find. It's also $40, which makes the per-page cost very reasonable, but it's still a hefty chunk to spend on a single supplement. So when I bought it - on the recommendation of an excellent GM I met at GenCon - I wondered whether I should have saved my money for a few more Alternity books. I packed it up, took it home and, two days after the Con, when I should have been catching up on sleep, I read it. It took two evenings and earned mild looks of astonishment from my wife that I was able to remain awake at three in the morning and then get up with the kids the next day, but I had to know how it could turn out ....

THE PLOT

H.P. Lovecraft's story ends with a disaster at the edge of the Mountains of Madness - a natural catastrophe as far as the world knows. This book details the progress of the Starkweather-Moore expedition, mentioned in Lovecraft's story, that intends to follow the original expedition's route and check out its remarkable claims.

This review is intended to be readable by prospective players and GMs alike, so I won't let on any details. Initially, there is work for the investigators to do in New York before setting out. They can avoid most of the action if they wish, but, as always in CoC, learning more about what's happening is a good thing. Chases, criminals, murders, society clashes, rival expeditions, press pressure, mysterious strangers, ... and that's only up to page 67!

The GM is free to press the pace both through this section and the section detailing the ocean trip, or they can relax and enjoy the wealth of detail about ocean life and play it all. Page 114 is reached before the players have actually set foot on the ice itself, but the intervening chapters contain a balanced mix of action, discovery and roleplaying challenges.

Once on the ice, the action becomes more intense as characters learn more about the fate of the original expedition, and are faced with dangerous treks, tough choices and astonishingly well detailed alien surroundings. Death from natural and unnatural causes is extremely likely, insanity threatens, and a careless or malicious party might manage to destroy the world. What more could a player ask for?

WHAT'S IN THE BOOK?
Pages 16 to 284 contains 18 chapters, detailing the main thread of the action. It's relatively linear, but there is little railroading involved. As far as I remember, there's only one time something absolutely MUST happen. Often the players can choose to ignore a line of inquiry and skip a subsection, or they have a choice of approaches. The general format of each chapter is to set up the sitiuation, detail what the players might try to do, and provide resources to cope with those choices. I like that approach.

Each chapter starts with a Keeper's overview that indicates the purpose of the chapter and outlines the main events that happen and how they affect the investigators. It then goes on to give details about the situations, encounters and effects of possible actions taken by the investigators. Sidebars give useful details about equipment, new spells, environment, online resources, etc.

For an idea of what's in this part of the book, I'll describe what's on pages 50, 100, 150,200 and 250. Statistically speaking, you're getting a stratified sample:

The rest of the book contains timelines, a manual for the antarctic (when you need to know how long it takes for frostbite to set it, what you need to eat and wear, how to get out of crevasses, etc.), details on all transportation (ships, planes, tractors), equipment manifests, game stats and rosters. All of these are very well researched and clearly presented. When a player asks what exactly he can find in the crashed plane and if he can transfer the lube oil out from it to the other plane, you'll not be at a loss.

Two other important chapters are the "Deep Background" chapter - which tells you what's going on, and the player handout chapter which contains many useful atmospheric copyables.

HOW GOOD IS IT?
The simple answer is that it is very, very good. For a work of this length to be able to grab the attention of a seasoned roleplayer continuously while reading it; for the text to be enjoyable purely as a solitaire reading experience; for the impressive feeling that, big as it is, the authors picked and chose what went in and really felt they needed more space; that is in itself a triumph. The style is immensely readable, the art consistent and enjoyable, the plot exciting and yet manageable, the layout and typography clean and attractive. It is worth buying even if you never intend playing it.

Having said that, it would be a shame not to play it. I have seen every type of failure in a campaign or adventure series; unlikely characters, inelegant railroading, linearity, incoherency, factual errors in historical games, inconsistencies in fiction, unclear objectives, ambiguous rules - you name it. No doubt when I get further into the adventure, I'll have a few minor flaws to point out (I'd have liked to have a few science skills like paleontology described further, rather than have to head for the disctionary) but after reading it through twice, I see no major flaws. In close to 500 pages, that's astonishing.

As a GM, I feel the same excitement now I do when I start a group of players off on a world of my own creation, except that the work has been done for me, and much better than I could ever attempt. What will the players do? Will they try to be heroes? (and if so, will they succeed?) Will they succumb to the mind-numbing cold, fall into crevasse or die from oxygen failure if their plans go awry? Which of the half-dozen or so major plot elements will they uncover? Will they trust the right people? How will they deal with the things - and the other things - and the other other thing?

There are things man is not meant to know. Damn it, though - I have to find out!


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