GamingTatters of the King

Tatters of the King (TOK) is a massive Call of Cthulhu adventure that details the invasion of Hastur on Earth. It's Hastur's grand oeuvre, presenting him as a Cthulhu-like entity, as the King in Yellow, and as a husband deity to Shub-Niggurath. Four cultists, each participating in a different path to bring about Hastur, attempt to contact him, only to go their separate ways. It's up to the player characters (PCs) to stop them.

I Game Mastered this entire adventure, but adapted it to a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, set in Arcanis. I changed several of the NPCs' names in play, but I kept them the original names in this review for clarity. Spoilers abound below, so if you plan to play this adventure, stop reading now!

Montague Edwards and Lawrence Bacon made an Unspeakable Oath with Hastur. Edwards regenerates, Bacon never sleeps. Alexander Roby is inexorably tied to Carcosa and the Yellow Sign, and only he can summon it to Earth. Malcom Quarrie is the most dangerous and the most committed to bringing the King in Yellow to Earth. The four unknowingly have a rival cultist in their mist, one Wilfred Gresty, who worships Shub-Niggurath and doesn't buy any of this "bride of Hastur" stuff.

The adventure began with an opening night of the play, The King in Yellow, that drives people mad who witness it. I placed the events in Freeport. Two of the PCs were present and ultimately escaped the madness that ensued. They returned in time to attend the opening night reception. There, one PC (Sebastian the sorcerer) decided the author of the play, one Talbot Estus, was too dangerous to allow to live and murdered him in cold blood.

In the mean time, Kham the psychic warrior/rogue was in Freeport to try to get his friend, Alexander Roby, out of prison at the behest of Kham's father, Doctor Trollope. There were murders in the prison blamed on Roby, although how he committed them is impossible to tell. In reality, Edwards, who posed as a guard in the prison, committed the murders.

I inserted a few adventures here involving finding Kham's father and a side jaunt into a "The Thing"-like adventure. The PCs witnessed a strange summoning involving nine monoliths and were attacked by byakhee. It also started to snow, unheard of in tropical Freeport. I made it a point of having an incarnation of the King in Yellow tell Kham that "he was the key."

With Trollope knowing too much, Edwards' chief henchman, Michael Coombs, assassinated Trollope with a bomb. Kham received a posthumous note from his father indicating that Roby predicted his death with a spell. Out for revenge, Gresty slipped Kham a note, giving him Bacon's whereabouts.

Kham tracked down Bacon and a showdown ensued, resulting in Bacon falling off a bridge into icy water. One cultist down, three to go!

Kham, who was addicted to a drug called ghoul-juice, discovered a group of ghoul junkies living in Bacon's basement. He barely escaped with his life.

Determined to summon Hastur, Edwards broke Roby out of prison. In the mean time, Ilmare the bard was kidnapped by a sadistic cult that happened to hide beneath Aleister Crowley's basement. Rescued at the last moment, Crowley was arrested but was released through his high society connections.

The reference to a real-life figure was a bit strange. Since I was playing in a fantasy setting, the character didn't translate over well (nobody knew who he was). Conversely, making him out to be a villain was much easier…in TOK, Crowley is more a nuisance than anything.

Hot on the trail of Edwards, the PCs journeyed north only to discover that Roby succeeded: Carcosa was summoned to Earth. Coombs played a cat-and-mouse game with them until Kham finally killed Coombs. They tracked down Roby and Edwards just in time to see Edwards summon thousands of byakhee and Hastur himself. Kham killed Dwards and then threw Roby a pistol for self-defense, but Roby used it on himself to stop the summoning. Ilmare and Kham barely escape with their lives. The town left behind was utterly obliterated by Carcosa and Hastur's appearance.

Three cultists down, one to go!

I inserted more adventures, wherein Kham got arrested. During his incarceration, he shared a cell with Wilfred Gresty and learned all about Gresty's own cult and its rivalry with the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign. It took months in game time before they got around to following up on his lead, however, which was at Nug's Farm.

There, Hillary Quarrie, the wife of Malcolm, was in fact the heir-apparent to the Shub-Niggurath priesthood. Only Gresty lusted for her power, creating an inevitable showdown. This was the single-most exciting part of the campaign, with Kham, Sebastian, and Beldin the fighter going toe-to-toe with a Dark Young. Only a ritual cast by Hillary saved the party.

Using information gleaned from Hillary, the PCs traveled to Milan. There, they met up with Thomas Villiers, who ultimately betrays them with another byakhee. They easily dispatch it, but Villiers escapes. They now know where Malcolm disappeared to: Drakmar, in Tibet.

Fortunately, Arcanis has portals that span the planet, so I skipped what I consider to be the most boring part of the adventure: long overland travel. The PCs resumed the adventure at the Monastery at Te, wherein they met Carlo Schippone, a crack shot. They made short work of him and journeyed onward to meet the Horror from the Hills.

And that horror is Chaugnar Faugn. The PCs didn't do anything stupid, although the adventure makes much of what happens if they do. Surrounded by Tcho-Tchos, the PCs were dutifully ushered past Chaugnar Faugn into the Plateau of Leng, where they met Malcolm Quarrie at last.

Only Quarrie is a pacifist. Bound and determined to summon the King in Yellow, Sebastian convinced Quarrie that they are aligned in their goals. This worked for a little while until Shantaks attack. That's when Sebastian used the opportunity to kill Quarrie in cold blood. See a pattern here?

Finally, they met the King in Yellow. He simply asked who would lead him to Earth. Kham, convinced that this was his burden to bear, agreed at first…then changed his mind. The King slit his throat.

Sebastian was up next. He planned to lead the King astray. And so he did, leading him back to Carcosa and taking Sebastian (at least temporarily) out of play. The adventure left the PCs feeling like they had lost even though they had saved the world.

TOK is an excellent series of adventures, marred occasionally by the usual Cthulhu foils: assuming investigators will be naive or helpless (these days, most investigators carry guns and in my D&D game, they carry really heavy firepower in the form of spells), spending way too much time on overland travel, and an overemphasis on how PCs can avoid going insane by closing their eyes…a decidedly unheroic thing to do that shouldn't work anyway.

But when TOK hits its mark, it really makes for memorable sessions. The moral quandaries that the PCs regularly faced made for exciting play, and the fever pitch of the Dark Young showdown is magnificent…unfortunately it has very little to do with the main plot (it's essentially internecine squabbling with a completely unrelated cult).

There are plenty of notes and props, all of them useful. Especially intriguing are the nightmares that the PCs experience and the means of conveying the King in Yellow's telepathy (it involves cue cards). All of this made for evocative scenes that kept my PCs guessing.

Best of all, TOK plays for keeps. While the sacrifice of two PCs was a serious blow, it FELT like the conclusion to a series. And given the grand tour of Hastur and his ilk, we all appreciated the ending.