Masks of Nyarlathotep – A Rich History

The House of Shokoti, one of DiTillio’s greatest Mythos tinged He-Man episodes.

Initially published in 1984 by Chaosium for the second edition of Call of Cthulhu, this masterpiece campaign was the work of Larry DiTillio and Lynn Willis. DiTillio was a television and movie screenwriter, contributing to pop-cultural products, such as He-Man (17 episodes), She-Ra (18 episodes), and The Real Ghostbusters cartoons, as well as a sci-fi television classic, Babylon 5among many others. On hiatus from screenwriting, Larry was busy producing role-playing material for various game companies in 1984. His inspiration for Masks of Nyarlathotep (MoN) came from a biography of Jomo Kenyatta he wrote for the television show Against the Oddsand exploded out of a single scenario he created, “The Carlyle Expedition.” Rather than simply tracking Carlyle’s lost team to Africa, DiTillio envisioned Investigators fanning out across the globe in search of the lost members and uncovering a massive, apocalyptic conspiracy. The first edition was released as a boxed set including five books for each campaign chapter consisting of New York, London, Cairo, Kenya, and Shanghai, as well as a 4-page player introduction, an index sheet for Keeper reference, and a cardstock sheet containing forty separate player clues and handouts. The initial conception of MoN also included a sixth chapter set in Australia, which was cut due to space limitations.

The initial DiTillio and Willis release received excellent reviews despite critics pointing out some troublesome aspects, which we will investigate in-depth in a series of posts on the site. First, Martin Latallo in Casus Belli raised the implausibility of ordinary people disrupting their lives to risk life and limb. He asks “what can five unfortunate investigators do against an organization which covers the globe and which enjoys the support of the Old Ones…the stakes are enormous, the dangers immense, and the rewards meager (our emphasis)”. Nonetheless, he concluded, “an excellent campaign despite everything.” (We will revisit Latallo’s concerns about player agency and motivation in the future.

In the November 1985 edition of White Dwarf (issue #71), Phil Frances regarded the campaign as the superlative supplement from Chaosium, yet he identified several problems, including high mortality and difficulty for novice Keepers. (While the plot is indeed complex, we will discuss how running MoN can be tackled by any motivated Keeper.) Again, despite concerns, he gave it top marks, concluding “this is the best campaign I have ever seen, from Chaosium or other sources.”

The depth of the game continued to intimidate reviewers, including William A. Barton, who warned in an early 1986 issue of Different Worlds that both new players or inexperienced gamemasters may be overwhelmed by the complexity. Despite this, he gave the campaign a perfect score noting that it would “challenge the most experienced Cthulhu players to the utmost.” (Several of my current players had never participated in a CoC game or even glanced at a copy of the rules before we started. One hadn’t even sat at a gaming table in over 20 years. They are doing just fine, and so can your novice players.)

©1987 Chaosium Inc.

Eventually, the orphaned Australia chapter would first appear in the 1987 campaign supplement, Terror Australis, as a stand-alone scenario, “City Beneath the Sands.” The sourcebook did offer instructions for merging the scenario into the MoN campaign, and fans continued to call for its inclusion in any new editions of the campaign. 

In 1989, a revised second edition of the campaign accompanied Chaosium’s 4th edition of CoC. This version was published in a single 160-page softcover book containing eight color plates of scenes from the adventures illustrated by Nick Smith, Keith Berdak, Tom Sullivan, Mark Roland, and full-color cover art by Lee Gibbons. The player handouts were now incorporated into the book, and Keepers would have to cut them out or photocopy them for distribution to players. Despite popular demand, the Australia chapter remained excluded from the campaign.

By 1990, the praise had crystallized. Jim Bambra reviewed the second edition in the June 1990 issue of Dragon and identified it as “the epitome of CoC adventures….perfect capture what CoC is all about…no one should be without a copy of Masks of Nyarlathotep.” (We couldn’t agree more, if you play table-top roleplaying games, you can’t miss this experience.)

In 1996, the Australia chapter finally made it into the campaign, now entitled The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep and geared for play in the 5th edition of CoC. Again, the latest edition of MoN received lavish praise as expressed by Steve Faragher in Arcane #17, where it received a 10 out of 10 and was described as “…a piece of sustained imagination that is the equal of many classics of literature and cinema and has passed the test of any imaginative work – time.” In 1997, the latest edition won Best Role-Playing Adventure of 1996 at Origins. 

The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep underwent a reprint as the “Reset and Revised” third edition in 2001. A similar version of this player favorite was published as a hardback in 2006 for the 6th edition of CoC to celebrate the game’s 25th anniversary. In 2008, the first digital version of the campaign was released in PDF format as the now-iconic campaign also approached its own 25th anniversary. The original title returned the 4th edition in 2010 with softcover and hardcover versions of Masks of Nyarlathotep supported by the 6th edition of CoC.

The release of the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion in 2017 for use with CoC 6e marked a watershed for the legendary campaign, which reflected its unfathomable depths and the intense love of its enthusiasts. Drawing on the wisdom and experience of Yog-Sothoth.com (YSDC) members and conceived by Bret Kramer, this fan-produced supplement ran 730 pages in length. It expanded upon and added depth to the exotic locations the Investigators will travel to throughout the campaign. It was released in Black Pharaoh, Bloody Tongue, and Sand Bat editions, and took the campaign to the next level. This supplement produced by Innsmouth House and Sixtystone Press following a Kickstarter campaign has now become a rare collector’s item. If you can find a copy, it will make an excellent supplement and inspiration for your campaign, regardless of what edition you are running. 

In 2018, the game was revised and updated for play using the 7th edition Coc and Pulp Cthulhu supplement and released as a beautiful three-volume slipcase, which included separate handouts and a Keeper screen.  Chaosium’s all-star team consisting of Scott Dorward, Paul Fricker, Lynne Hardy, and Mike Mason expanded, updated, and improved upon the prior editions. In addition, a new prologue chapter set in Peru effectively introduces the indefatigable Jackson Elias.  Veteran writer, game designer, and tireless reviewer Matthew Pook identifies the latest edition as “more accessible, easier to run, and better presented” in his detailed review. In effect, Chaosium reset and elevated its own gold standard.

The arrival of the latest edition was accompanied by the coincident release of the ENnie winning “Product of the Year” MoN Gamer Prop Set produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which includes a wealth of materials to enhance the quality of your campaign, including audio files, passports, maps, documents, and handouts to supplement those provided with the campaign. Well-worth the investment!  

Two must-have ENnie Winners, the expanded and improved 5th Edition and the HPLHS Gamer Prop Set.

This latest edition of the campaign itself won the Gold ENnie in 2019 cementing this legendary campaign as one of the (if not, THE) greatest roleplaying adventures ever conceived. This sentiment has been echoed by game historian Shannon Applecline, who acknowledges that Masks of Nyarlathotep is widely considered by many critics to be one of the all-time greats. In a recent review, Kiran Trivedy identifies the timeless appeal of this sprawling, epic campaign in that it “ensures that players are always rewarded with a short term payoff, while also making progress on a larger goal.” It’s been forty great years for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, and we approach the same anniversary for Masks of Nyarlathotep. Without a doubt, Keepers and players both will be thrilled by this incredible investigative adventure for decades more to come.

References:

  1. Appelcline, Shannon. Designers & Dragons. Swindon, UK: Mongoose Publishing, 2011. 
  2. Bambra, Jim. “Roleplaying Reviews.” Dragon. TSR. 1990; 158: 88-89.
  3. Barton, William A. “Game Reviews.” Different Worlds. Chaosium.1986; 41: 30-31.
  4. Faragher, Steve. “Game Reviews.” Arcane. Future Publishing. 1997; 13: 55-76.
  5. Frances, Phil. “Open Box.” White Dwarf. Games Workshop. 1985; 71: 7-8. 
  6. Latallo, Martin. “Têtes d’Affiches.” Casus Belli. Excelsior Publications. 1985; 25: 6. 
  7. Pook, Matthew. “Masks of Nyarlathotep – A Publication History.” Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, edited by Bret Kramer, Sixtystone Press, 2017, pp. 7-10.

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