Masks of Nyarlathotep remains one of the greatest RPG supplements of all time. It was created in 1984 by Larry DiTillio and Lynn Willis before being updated in 2018 by Mike Mason, Lynne Hardy, Paul Fricker, and Scott Dorward. Its premise is simple: nasty no-goodnik cultists are going to destroy the world and the Investigators have to go on a globe-trotting adventure to stop them. The campaign was famous because it incorporated multiple elements that made it enjoyable as well as flexible in a time when most modules consisted of, “go to dungeon, kill everyone inside the dungeon.” While it followed the Shadows of Yog-Sothoth game that tried something similar, most people genuinely agree that Masks of Nyarlathotep was the superior of the modules.
The original campaign was not without its flaws. Much like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it was a story that took a somewhat too stereotypical view of Native peoples in order to facilitate its Pulp feel. It also was a work that presumed the Investigators would be white male protagonists given the story substantially changes if it’s 1920s men of color or women running around shooting up the place.
The campaign also had the flaw of being something of a meatgrinder with stories of whole parties being wiped out a not-uncommon occurrence for Keepers. Generally, the ideal Call of Cthulhu game is player characters investigating sinister goings on, finding a monster, and hopefully having deduced its weakness before using it. Masks of Nyarlathotep is a story best served with Thompson machine guns, two-fisted action, and plenty of dynamite.
As such, I was very excited about hearing that the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society was going to do an adaptation of the campaign to their Dark Adventure Radio series. The premise of them are that HPL didn’t remain a obscure but beloved magazine author but was adapted to radio like the Shadow and Superman. The radio plays are deliberately Pulpy (I’m going to overuse that word but it’s the best one for it) with dramatic cliffhangers, deliberately ridiculous commercials (asbestos teddy bears!), and overacting. It’s very enjoyable and fits the style of the Call of Cthulhu games greatly. It makes me wish they’d adapt other campaigns like the Horror of the Orient Express.
The radio play is adapted from the 7th Edition rewrite of the module and benefits from having a slightly-more self-aware narrative that acknowledges the racism, sexism, and imperialism of the time. It’s mostly done in a cheeky and humorous style with the assumption being the characters know that colonialism and misogyny is bad. The radio drama doesn’t get into politics as much as the revised module, perhaps for the best given its cheeky half-parody half-serious tone, but it’s still able to diversify the cast as well as show the downside to being a non-white person or woman in the early 20th century.
Hazel Kalifan, one of the protagonists, is a real “Annie Oakley type” and does more as the central heroine to make a statement than any direct statements by the narrative. I’m also fond of her supporting cast in elderly Suffragist Victoria Woodhull, Zeke the manly adventurer who would have been the star decades ago, and Cecil the insurance investigator. The casts of characters rotate quite a bit since a good chunk of the protagonists meet their end before the final episode. This is true to the module but contributes to the audiodrama’s disjointed tone.
The story takes the protagonists from New York to London to Cairo to Kenya and then all the way to Australia before climaxing in Hong Kong. It’s a massive adventure where our protagonists are constantly imperiled by the evil cults and monsters serving the sinister Nyarlathotep (portrayed here as closer to Ming the Merciless or Thulsa Doom than a distant cosmic horror). Our heroes usually manage to stymie the enemy’s plans but rarely without cost. The work is a fully-voiced graphic audio drama rather than a book and has a lot of period- appropriate sound effects to help the story move along. It’s a loving homage to the serialized stories of the Thirties and Forties.
Overall, the story is enjoyable from beginning to end but does suffer a little bit toward the end. The problem boils down to tonal imbalance and mood whiplash. Basically, the story can’t quite decide if it’s a rollicking Pulp adventure or a somber horror story that not everyone is expected to live through. It’s actually true to the original campaign in that respect but the “Kill Em All” heavy body-count by the end (no spoilers on who makes it through and who doesn’t) leaves the ending feeling less triumphant than the climax should be. Mind you, I only played Masks of Nyarlathotep with Pulp Cthulhu rules and heavy modification so maybe my expectations of the story were different.
The Masks of Nyarlathotep radio play was originally only available from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society website but is now available on Audible. It should be noted that the cost for the audiobook is thirty-four dollars but, for that price, you can purchase three audiobook credits and it only costs one to get the play. For those readers looking for a budget price on the radio play or simply using common sense, it’s best to use a credit for the book instead of buying it outright. If you want to support the creators then give the extra credits as gifts to friends.
In conclusion, Masks of Nyarlathotep is an amazing radio play that I encourage everyone to check out. It’s about six to seven hours long and is about the length of a decent-sized audiobook. There’s a more expensive version that comes with a lot of props for the adventure
but I didn’t really see the need for that. I’m sure there’s plenty of Call of Cthulhu collectors that would enjoy that.