Critical Role created an entirely new sort of entertainment on the internet when it realized that people would pay decent money, at least in terms of Twitch stream revenue, as well as devote hours of their lives in order to watch other people play Dungeons and Dragons. It has since become something of a cottage industry to have talented actors and actresses roleplay online. Indeed, the ascension of Vox Machina from online game to animated series shows just how far this can go.
But as Doctor Krieger on Archer says, “Now I’m into something… darker.” First, I enjoyed the World of Darkness channel produced LA By Night that did multiple seasons of my second favorite tabletop RPG AKA Vampire: The Masquerade. However, my secret hope was that they would apply the Critical Role production values to Call of Cthulhu. Which, as you might guess, is my all-time favorite tabletop game.
Mark Meer AKA Commander Shepard the Male Edition has decided to kick off a campaign hosted by Chaosium. This is not their first live play of Chaosium but is the highest production values and devotion to the costume as well as acting element for the game. Each of the actors/players are very keen on their roles from the very moment they come on screen with all four players for a tale of horror set in Arkham, Massachusetts.
The premise for Call of Cthulhu, if you’re unfamiliar, is it is a tabletop game based on the writings of HP Lovecraft. The game somewhat zig-zags between genuine cosmic horror where everyone dies or goes insane as versus Pulpy adventure where you can Indiana Jones your way to stopping the cultists from destroying the world for another week.
This particular campaign, which is not an adaptation of any of Chaosium’s many modules but a wholly original work, is about how a charity auction is being conducted for a local orphanage. Three bookshops are donating expensive and rare manuscripts to be bid on at auction. The bidders that evening include parapsychologist Hazel Berkovitch (Saige Ryan), bibliophile teenager Neil Black (Carlos Luna), quirky spiritualist Judith Van Horne (Lucia Versprille), and gangster Mickey Sykes (Patrick Logan).
Things go horribly wrong very quickly and the four find themselves attempting to recover three magical books dating back to the Salem Witch Trials. The protagonists start off pretty goofy and somewhat silly, like in a Critical Role game, but turn into a serious horror story as the books warp their sense of reality as well as morality. The protagonists do a lot of morally questionable things and it’s fascinating to see how they compromise their beliefs in hopes of survival or defeat the enemies.
It’s not quite a horror game, more dark fantasy, but I really enjoyed the four and a half episodes of Bookshops of Arkham. I say four and a half because due to technical episodes, one of the episodes was lost and the producers decided to instead do a summary told as a dark and creepy story. The ending was quite powerful and I strongly enjoyed it from beginning to end. Sadly, I don’t think they’re going to have a sequel.
Lovecraft fans will find this a bit too fantastical in places with the use of extra-dimensional sites and perhaps a bit too much melodrama as well as joking but that’s only if you think all adaptations should be True Detective. I came to bond with all of the protagonists and really wanted them to continue the campaign onward to do the kind of international long-running campaign you saw in Masks of Nyarlathotep or Shadows of Yog-Sothoth.
My favorite of the characters was definitely Hazel but all of them made a strong impressions on me. I regret we didn’t more “down time” to get to know the characters but the Call of Cthulhu premise always seems to imply that the protagonists will go insane or be killed before that happened. Like Seth Skorkowsky, I don’t believe this should be the case and think that’s a bad playstyle. Mind you, this is more, “investigate the anomoly” than “get eaten by tentacles.”
Liveplays of roleplaying games aren’t going to be for everyone but like improv theater, they are enjoyable for quite a few of the audience. If you’re willing to invest enough time for basically a miniseries, I think there’s a lot to appreciate from this. I hope they do more of these and I would love to see an adaptation of Chasoium’s more famous work. Mark Meer is a fantastic Keeper and really brings the setting to life.
It is available on Chasosium’ Youtube channel.