When James asked if I’d be interested in reviewing Mansions of Madness for Call of Cthulhu, I was a bit hesitant at first. I’ve been involved with role-playing games for over 40 years as both a player and a game master, but didn’t have much experience with this game. I played a different edition of the game once or twice a few decades back, so other than understanding the most basic concepts I was starting fresh. Hopefully, this article and my impressions will be helpful to anyone thinking of trying out the game.
Our game was full of experienced role-players, but none of us knew the game system. As we didn’t own a rule book, we played using the free quickstart rules. https://www.chaosium.com/cthulhu-quickstart/ These rules were easy to understand and worked very well for our purposes. I was very pleased to see that the quickstart is available for free on Roll20 also, so it could be made available to my players prior to and during the game. The online character sheets made gameplay easy as well, automatically showing degree of success or failure on each roll.
Mansions of Madness is a collection of five stand-alone adventures. We played the first one, Mister Corbitt, so my thoughts and impressions will be based on that adventure. The artwork used in the collection is high quality and it’s obvious that a lot of time and love went into developing this book and all the player handouts.
The first thing I’d like to point out is that Mansions of Madness is designed for a more experienced table. If you are new to the system, you might be better off purchasing the Starter Set that is designed to teach the rules and includes four adventures. https://www.chaosium.com/call-of-cthulhu-starter-set/ In fact, Chaosium’s description of the product states that it’s an ideal ‘next step’ for those who already experienced other adventures.
The adventure contained a good amount of detail on the story that was to be told. The main antagonist was highly detailed, as was his history and motivation. The handouts were beautiful. The story contained some twists and challenges for the players and offered an engaging scenario that everyone, myself included, enjoyed. When you run this scenario/game, expect an interactive and role-playing heavy experience.
As the scenario is sandbox style, it requires the Keeper (game master) to actively read and prepare in advance. You cannot just sit down, flip open the book, and run this. While a lot of information is provided, much of the adventure is left to the Keeper to ad-lib. It’s important to fully read the adventure to understand how all the characters, locations, and scenarios interconnect.
One thing that I found very different from other RPG experiences is that there were no ‘box text’ entries. The Keeper is responsible for describing scenes and providing the necessary information. A few times I felt like I was juggling to get the players the information that would steer them in the right direction without railroading them. This included inventing new means for them to obtain necessary information, or tying individual scenes together so that it provided the necessary clues for the players.
Another thing that I found odd was that the Keeper was given a map and key for every room in the antagonist’s house, but only a few locations actually had a description provided. Additionally, the players’ map included a secret room, even though the ‘S’ was removed. Because of these reasons, my game used a narrative approach to the house instead of showing the players the map. I think the narrative approach worked better as it allowed me to focus the players on the important areas.
Overall, I really enjoyed the game and received a lot of positive feedback from the players at the table. Despite my initial hesitation regarding this system, I plan on preparing and running additional adventures for Call of Cthulhu. If your table enjoys investigation and focusing on role-playing, I’d definitely recommend trying this game.
You can find Mansions of Madness here: https://www.chaosium.com/mansions-of-madness-vol-1-behind-closed-doors-hardcover/