Follow TV Tropes


Tabletop Game / Call Of Cthulhu: Masks Of Nyarlathotep

Go To
A race to save the world.

Masks of Nyarlathotep is a campaign for Call of Cthulhu and one of the most famous adventure modules of all time. The original campaign was published by Chaosium in 1984 and it has remained in more or less continuous publication ever since.

The premise is the player characters are friends with True Crime (specifically, cults) author Jackson Ellias, who contacts them one night about a terrifying threat to his life as well as the world as a whole. This kicks off a globe-trotting campaign that visits New York, London, Cairo, Kenya, Australia, and China. A number of Nyarlathotep-worshiping cults are trying to bring about The End of the World as We Know It and it's up to the player characters to stop it. The campaign, like most Call of Cthulhu campaigns, was set during the 1920s (1926 to be precise) and had a Pulp action sensibility.

The campaign has been revised and re-released multiple times with the addition of Australia (originally cut from the module) and later a 600-page 7th Edition. made the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion which was a 700-page supplement to the module full of local color. The 7th Edition release incorporated many elements from the MoN Companion and also updated the book with more people of color, women, and details regarding the time period's cultures.

The game was infamous for being a complete meat grinder that had the potential to and often did kill whole groups of player characters. In a game usually defined by slow methodical investigation and individual horrors, it had the player characters encounter dozens of crazed cultists and numerous monsters. The 7th edition would tone some of the game's lethality down and provide options for the Pulp Cthulhu variant rules.

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has adapted the module into a 6-hour episode of their Dark Adventure Radio Theater audio drama series (done in the style of radio serials such as The Shadow) and presents a group of clueless American heroes trying to save the world.

This work contains the following tropes:

     The Campaign 
  • Adaptation Expansion: The campaign has gotten bigger and bigger over the decades it's been print.
    • The Australia section of the book was originally cut out for space reasons, only to be later re-added.
    • The 7th Edition release adds a new adventure in Peru to introduce Jackson Elias to the group. It also includes 400+ new pages of information on culture, characters, local history, and period-appropriate trivia.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: The cultists and their leadership are all deranged, degenerate, and evil. They're even called out as being stupid people controlled by sophisticated priests.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: All of the Carlyle expedition will be granted their heart's desire for serving Nyarlathotep's will. Unfortunately, the Crawling Chaos is a Jackass Genie who grants them in ways that amuse him.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Each of the sections of the game contain one magician or cultist leading the group. The Carlyle Expedition serves as the source for the worst of these.
  • Body Horror: Most of Nyarlathotep's avatars have some element of this as part of their forms.
    • Hypatia Masters is a bloated horrific mass of flesh by the end of her pregnancy.
  • Cult: They are the primary villains of this group.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: One of the first Chaosium games where you can and should actually do this. If your player characters are lucky or have a lot of replacement characters then they can thwart Nyarlathotep's plans.
  • The Dragon:
    • Mukunga M'Dari is the leader of the New York branch of the Bloody Tongue and explicitly exists to help M'Weru's plans.
    • Edward Gavigan serves as this to Doctor Penhew, leading the London branch of the Black Pharaoh in the latter's name. Zhara Shafik (Teshwik in the original module) serves as his Co-Dragon and The Starscream.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The goal of the cultists as they intend to summon the Great Old Ones to destroy the world. Each of them believes they'll be greatly rewarded for it.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: Many of the cults serving Nyarlathotep contain both "exotic" foreign cultures and white allies who can move within what was considered "respectable" society. Depending on the players' actions this can turn into a deconstruction, as the easiest way to deal with the cultists is often to incite infighting by exploiting the resentment the former usually have for the latter.
  • Fetus Terrible: Poor Hypatia Masters gets stuck with one of these that will kill her when born.
  • Hero of Another Story: Both Jackson Elias and Jack "Brass" Brady are NPC heroes who help the PCs save the day.
  • Heroic Willpower: Nyarlathotep is said to be unable to corrupt Jack Brady as he's Above the Influence.
  • Human Sacrifice: A common practice of the various cults you encounter.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Jackson Elias is one of these, though he has a somewhat lurid interest in cults.
  • Lovecraft Lite: A Downplayed trope example given its history of lethality but the player characters are set against a variety of sinister cults, their monstrous allies, and a bunch of Diabolical Mastermind villains. They can with careful planning, luck, and a lot of bullets save the world.
  • The Man Behind the Man: M'Weru serves as this to the Carlyle Expedition. Nyarlathotep is this to the entire premise.
  • Physical God: Nyarlathotep's avatars appear several times in the game. Subverted in the fact it's impossible to directly harm the Crawling Chaos. The destruction of one of his avatars is a mild inconvenience to him at best.
  • Police Are Useless: The police in New York are taking bribes from the cult to stay out of its business. The authorities in Egypt don't want to admit a murder cult exists. Averted by the London and China sections as the government and authorities are eager to help if you can provide evidence.
  • Properly Paranoid: Jackson Elias believes someone is trying to kill him. Sadly, that doesn't save him.
  • The Psycho Rangers: The Carlyle Expedition were a team of eclectic adventurers on a globe-trotting quest, not unlike the player characters, the difference being they all wound up in service to Nyarlathotep, willingly or otherwise.
  • Pulp Magazine: The module is designed very much with a globe-trotting action-filled sensibility.
  • Race Lift: Jackson Elias goes from being a white journalist to being an African American one in the 7th Edition remake.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: The Cult of the Bloody Tongue doesn't help its efforts by drawing attention to itself with numerous public executions.
  • Religion of Evil: The Cult of the Bloody Tongue, the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, and other cults dedicated to Nyarlathotep.
  • The Roaring '20s: The setting of the campaign. It's specifically 1926 due to the necessity of a solar eclipse for the ritual.
  • White Savior: An unfortunate element of the narrative given most players were usually prone to making these characters. Averted in the 7th edition that adds many heroic POC supporting characters and broadens the opportunities for non-white PCs.
    • Deconstructed with the villains as M'weru is the real mastermind of the cult and dislikes having to work with the rich white foreigners surrounding her.
      • Can be used against the cult in London as High Priest Gavigan is a white man placed in charge of the Egyptian cult and they barely tolerate his presence. They can be incited to kill him in the end.
  • World Tour: This covers New York, London, Cairo, Kenya, Australia, and China with multiple places in-between.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The player characters will need to be this if they want to stop Nyarlathotep's offspring from destroying the world. It helps its born full-grown and a monster.

     The Radio Play 
  • Action Girl: Hazel Claflin is "a regular Annie Oakley" and has won numerous shooting competitions.
  • Anyone Can Die: An homage to the meat grinder elements of the original campaign, it contains numerous sudden deaths and injuries. Mark Buchanan, Zeke Ford, the O'Brian twins, and Mr. Gupta don't make it through the campaign alive.
  • Ascended Extra: Zeke Ford was first mentioned in the "On the Next Episode of..." Catch-Phrase at the end of the earlier Dark Adventure episode adapting The Shadow Out of Time as the hero of the (non-existent) story The Wailing Octopus.
  • Blatant Lies: Nyarlathotep pulls this on the Investigators at one point, telling them the Carlyle Expedition refused his offers and was killed. It's not even Metaphorically True.
  • Body Horror: Hypatia Masters after five years of her demonic pregnancy.
  • Butt-Monkey: Poor Cecil is the Investigator who gets the least respect and has the most misfortunes befall him.
  • Celebrity Paradox: In-Universe example. According to supplementary materials, most of Dark Adventure's sponsors are owned by New World Incorporated, which belongs to the Big Bad of another COC adventure module, Fungi from Yuggoth. Said module was adapted into the previous episode Brotherhood of The Beast, starring the recurring HPLHS original character Nate Ward.
  • Continuity Nod: Albert Wilmarth from The Whisperer in the Darkness shows up to consult.
  • Cool Old Lady: Victoria Woodhull is a millionaire, newspaper reporter, occultist, and Suffragist.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • The (fake) product advertisements are full of these as they advertise products with lithium, asbestos, and what is very obviously a vibrator disguised as an "electric pencil."
    • The racism of the time period is shown, though our heroes rarely partake in it. They're more clueless than properly malicious.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: Almost all of the party is dead by the end of the story.
  • Eye Scream: One of the investigators, Cecil Watson, loses an eye to a cultist bat. Subverted as he just has to wear a monocle.
  • Guys Smash, Girls Shoot: Hazel is a champion target shooter while Zeke is a former Olympic boxer.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Mr. Gupta makes one of these to makes sure Agatha Broadmoor is killed instead of Victoria.
  • Honey Pot: Hazel's way of getting information out of men is buying them drinks and flirting with them. It works multiple times.
  • Lady of Adventure: Hazel Kafin is this archetype and more or less the leader of the Investigators in their quest to defeat Nyarlathotep's plans.
  • The Lancer: Zeke Ford serves as this to Hazel, which is a nice contrast to many other stories where he'd be the leading man.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Zeke advises the rest of the party, on various occasions to "never go anywhere alone", "if it looks bad, don't look" and finally "save the last bullet for yourself" (this comprising the Dark Adventure sign-off Catchphrase) in an appropriately over-dramatic tone.
  • Mercy Kill: Hazel gives one of these to Hypatia Masters.
  • New Old Flame: Hazel has a number of these spread throughout the story including Jackson Elias and Zeke Ford.
  • Physical God: Nyarlathotep appears multiple times throughout the story, though the Investigators rarely recognize him for what he is.
  • Race Lift: A cyclical example. Jackson Elias is white again, despite this version otherwise mostly taking after 7th Edition, as a black man being engaged to a wealthy socialite in 1920s America would rather strain the Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
  • Secret Passage: One of these exists in the Bent Pyramid.
  • Sixth Ranger: Doctor Kafour joins the party after encountering the supernatural in Egypt.
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Hazel's fiance and love of her life, Marcus Buchannen, is killed within the first chapter despite being set up as a main character.