A book by it’s cover: A Review of The Haunted Clubhouse

The Haunted Clubhouse:

The Little Playhouse of Horrors

Author: Leigh Carr
Artist: Enmanuel Martinez
Publisher: Trepan Interactive
Page Count: 24
Available Formats: PDF and print
PDF (DTRPG) – Watermarked PDF – $4.41
Softcover Color Book (Standard Heavyweight) – $11.41
Watermarked PDF + Softcover Color Book (Standard Heavyweight) – $15.90

 

Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s my first introduction into roleplaying games started with the painting by David Trampier found on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook. The image of the horned idol sat atop a freestanding display that held other fascinating illustrated publications from TSR. The allure of these illustrations compelled my younger self to pester my mother until she bought me my first roleplaying game, even though I could barely read and had no idea what they were about. The illustrations alone captivated my desire to own them. Rousing illustrations fueled many of my earlier purchases. The old saying “Never judge a book by its cover.” was not employed when I would make purchases. At times it worked out for the best like when I purchased my first Iron Maiden album “Killers” based on the album art. They became my favorite band throughout high school. Then there were other times when the art was better than the product, like in the case of most Atari 2600 cartridge games. After decades of allowing my visual senses to control my buying habits, I gained control, stopped, and looked past the pretty covers to see if the product was as good as its mask. Well, most of the time. Sometimes those old impulses take over and I buy things based on looks alone.

The Haunted Clubhouse: The Little Playhouse of Horrors by Leigh Carr, and published by Trepan Interactive features a stimulating illustrated cover that solely influenced my purchasing of a printed copy through DrivethruRPG. The printed version uses an A4 paper size which is taller and thinner than US letter size, making it awkwardly standout on my bookshelf. The cover, which accompanies this review, shows three children huddled in a doorless wooden structure that is dripping with ooze. A dominant figure stands center frame holding a flaming torch and long carving knife, sporting a wicked grin on his cracked face, while two other children cower in fear. Enmanuel Martinez the artist of the cover and all the art and layout of the book does a wonderful job throughout. Each illustration within the book is captivating and invokes the feeling of Cthulhuian horror. The art, by far, is the best feature of this book. The written scenario by Leigh Carr is the latter.

The scenario begins with the player character’s, playing a group of young investigators, who dwell in a rural tourist town in a mountainous valley. While strolling through town our investigators come upon two young boys who need their help in investigating their clubhouse. One of the boys claims the clubhouse is haunted by his deceased friend. Through interviews and investigation around town, the investigators gather as much information before being led by the two boys to their clubhouse deep into the woods. Once at the clubhouse, the action begins with hit point and sanity loss dwindling until the haunting is resolved. The premise is straightforward but its delivery is the real sanity loss.

Long ago, well maybe not that long, Chaosium used to offer self-published scenarios called Monographs. The quality within the Monographs fluctuated as the authors were responsible for quality control over their own material. Sometimes the publication was well done but others were appalling. The Haunted Clubhouse if published as a Monograph would be among the poorest written of them. No doubt the author, Leigh Carr, has a viable scenario and would be loads of fun when he runs it. But his presentation of the scenario is so poor that a keeper wishing to run this scenario is left to do a lot of heavy lifting and figuring how everything fits together.

Starting on page 3, The Haunted Clubhouse is usable for a modern or Jazz Age-era setting. Though reading through the pages, it’s clear The Haunted Clubhouse is a modern setting first. The author provides the keeper with conversion notes to the Jazz Age era at the back of the booklet. That is by far the easiest task the keeper will need to do. The real problem starts with the keeper information section. Usually, in this beginning section, keepers are given an outline of the history of the antagonist, what it’s up to and how it’s going to accomplish its goal. We are given none of that. Instead, we are thrust into the next section after some general instructions about the scenario and how to adapt it and which pre-generated characters are the most important if used.

The next hurdle to get over is the adventure hook. Cthulhu scenarios are notorious for having dubious hooks to get the investigators involved. The Haunted Clubhouse is no exception. The hook for the investigators comes from two boys they meet in town. One of the boys asked the investigator for help in investigating their clubhouse which he believes is haunted by their dead friend. The two boys are half the investigator’s age if we use the pre-generated characters as a mark. If the investigators refuse to listen to the two boys and ignore the plot hook the scenarios suggest a series of railroadly alternatives mixed with a temper tantrum if all else fails.

Warning Spoilers Ahead

Once the investigators buy into the hook they can go straight to the clubhouse or as strongly suggested by the author do a little research in town. If they choose to do a little research first in town the scenario provides general clues through social interactions with its inhabitants’ and a newspaper clipping from the local library. No map or overview of the town is given and must be developed or improvised by the keeper. The amount of NPCs that can provide the investigators with clues is limited and more may need to be improvised or created ahead of time. Of the NPCs given four are given and only three are fully fleshed out; the two boys and the town sheriff. Some of the information gained is divided into three tiers of success; regular, hard & extreme. Though that is an interesting and helpful feature the author energy would have been better spent on developing the town and its inhabitants.

When ready the investigators are lead to the secret location of the clubhouse deep in the forest. Along the way, they encounter a decrepit fire ridden house from which the two boys salvaged planks to build their clubhouse. If the investigators look the place over, they discover that this house is used by teenagers to engage in mischievous activities. A deeper investigation will reveal the source of the haunting in the way of a super science contraption, but it’s unlikely the investigators will know what they are looking at. No map or overview is given on the decrepit house and it left to the keeper to create or improvise.

Finally, the investigators make it to the clubhouse. At this point, the sanity and hit point loss starts to happen. Our antagonist, the deceased boy, is caught between two worlds. He is attempting to cross over piece by piece, but he needs corpses to birth his body parts; six total. What follows is a series of attacks on the two boys, a group of hikers and the investigators. When a corpse is made available a body part will grow out of it, detach and hide until it can form with the other body parts into one. The author provides a collection of physical and mental attacks the antagonist has at his disposal. How, when, and who he uses it on is up to the keeper to figure out. Each special attack cost the antagonist a number of magic points that the keeper must keep track of.

After the antagonist uses a predetermined amount of magic points, a portal is revealed to the investigator where they may further their adventure. The portal leads them into the heart of the evil behind the scenario. Within the portal, they can find the supposed deceased friend and attempt to bring them back, though he is already doomed. Ending the scenario can happen in many ways and examples are provided along with additional sanity losses and gains.

Overall I’m very disappointed with this scenario. It’s very linear and does not provide very much information on the parts it gives. Though Enmanuel Martinez is credited as the cartographer on the title page, no maps are provided. Very little background or detail about the town, its people, or it dwellings is provided. The arrangement of clues is scattered throughout and not easily accessible when in play. I found the overall story and hook hard to buy into. Perhaps if the scenario was further developed and presented better I wouldn’t feel like I’m just getting a bare bones scenario. The only redeeming quality of this publication is Enmanuel Martinez art and unfortunate for me that is what I based my purchase on.

My co-author here on Rolling Boxcar, Modoc, has run The Haunted Clubhouse. He is joining me in this article to give his insight into this experience with this publication. Perhaps he had a more favorable experience since reading and running a scenario can differ.


As Stephen mentioned, I have indeed run the scenario at my local game recently. I had only two players, as two were no-shows, but nonetheless, we all agreed to play. In doing so, it quickly became evident that there was going to be some “heavy lifting” on my part as the Keeper. Stephen has already pointed out the shortcomings of the scenario; I have no additional points to add within the context of the presentation itself. My comments that follow are directly related to my play experience. I’m a veteran Keeper and as such, reworking hooks and slow bits of Call of Cthulhu scenarios is something that I can do naturally; my experience here was no different. I approached the scenario as it being nothing more than a loose framework, as that is really what it is, even so, there was considerable work to do on my part.

I was able to get my players involved rather quickly. Both are veteran players and to that end, they helped out greatly in working with the story. They willing fell into the initial hook of helping these two elementary school-aged kids, one of which was convinced that his clubhouse was haunted. The other kid is nothing more than a sacrificial lamb (more on that later). Neither player really wanted to investigate any of the rumors or newsworthy information they had already known or had gleaned from either boy. Had they done so, they would have found just a little more information; not enough to sway the story in one direction or the other.

As they left town they come upon the old ruins of a weird scientist’s mansion that had been abandoned and burned out a long time ago. Aside from the setting the scene as a party pad for teenagers, they were not all that interested in exploring the place too much. The two kids refused to enter the place as they were scared of the old house. Even finding one of the two clues in the house, didn’t sway my players in one direction or another. If we set aside the fact that the house provided the kids the wood they used to construct their clubhouse, it is nothing more than a red herring that doesn’t really serve to give the game a deeper meaning or player experience.

The arrival at the clearing where the clubhouse is located is where the bulk of the scenario takes place. As Stephen already said, the antagonist has a variety of options at his fingertips to use to kill anyone in the clearing; the source of bodies he needs to return to the world of the living. His powers are limited to the clearing only. First things first, the trees will begin to sway and one will fall and kill the second kid. I told you he was a sacrificial lamb! He is the first to die in the scenario, the rest of the deaths are left up to the Keeper to introduce and inflict on his or her players. The scenario gives Keepers two ways to introduce NPCs to the area and to serve as eventual corpses. This is nothing short of railroading and placing additional people within the scene. Let’s face it, are we really going to kill the investigators senselessly? Nope! I did enjoy using a variety of the physical and mental attack options available to me to wreak havoc on the players and to kill a group of recently arrived hikers. I didn’t personally have any issue with the bookkeeping of magic points spent. Though I can some Keepers will find it a little boring or bothersome.

Setting the scene for the portal that will open up was a little problematic for me, not the improvisation part, but rather making its appearance a convincing experience for the two investigators so as to provoke them into exploring it rather than them running away, which is an option. I made it work, but it was challenging. Entering the portal did take some cajoling, but they both entered the portal and we played out the last scene of the game. There are several possible endings depending on what direction the players take in their approach to figuring out what is happening at the clubhouse and the portal should they unknowingly get it to open.

With that out-of-the-way, is this game a horrible as Stephen makes it out to be? For me, it’s not, but this is not a “Grade A” scenario by any stretch of the imagination. I enjoyed running it for my son and my friend, but more because it was for my son and my friend. I will admit that I do like the premise of the scenario, but it needs some work to really refine and redefine the overarching story to be a more compelling scenario. I think by doing so it will enhance the play experience for all. I would surmise that the scenario concept was heavily influenced by the series ‘Stranger Things” as the game has some very familiar concepts. Kids, teens, and a missing kid in an alter universe trying to interact with our own. As I said, with a re-imagining of the story, it has the potential to be a “Grade A” scenario.

If I had to give The Haunted Clubhouse a rating on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the worse possible situation and a 10 is a ‘Grade A” stellar product. I would rate it a 5, with the caveat that it has greater potential if the Keeper is willing to put in the work or if it was completely re-done by the publisher.

~ Modoc


Well, it’s good to see that Modoc was able to work through the issues that I outlined above. As I stated the scenario has a good premise and is usable if your willing to do the work. When it comes down to it I would say stay away from this scenario if you’re not willing to do the necessary work. As for me, I have more work to do on resisting the urge to buy books based on their stimulating artwork. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

~Stephen Pennisi

Follow Stephen on G+ or on Twitter at @DadsAngry
Follow Modoc on G+ or on Twitter at @DM_Modoc
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