In preceding parts of this review of 2017 Lovecraftian tabletop RPG releases, we have focused mainly on the squamous ecosphere that exists around Chaosium and it’s venerable Call of Cthulhu RPG. While this is where the idea of Lovecraftian roleplaying started, it’s certainly not true that Chaosium has a monopoly on the creations of HPL and others — and as such it is unsurprising that numerous other games release material that feature those dread horrors, sometimes in familiar context and other times in quite radically-different ways. This trend towards more and more non-CoC supplements featuring investigative horror scenarios and resources inspired by Lovecraft, has kicked into high gear over the last decade or so. Hence it’s hardly surprising that 2017 saw quite a number of new Lovecraftian RPG products that target non-Chaosium game systems.
This summary is, by necessity, going to probably be incomplete. There’s a lot of stuff out there and only some of it drifts across my consciousness — if you know of something important that I’ve missed, get in touch via the contact form at the bottom of the post and I’ll try to remediate the oversight later.
One of the titles I’ve most looked forward to in recent months is the re-published (super-deluxe) hardback for Cthulhu Dark, Graham Walmsley’s minimalist RPG of Lovecraftian terror. Those who have previously encountered Cthulhu Dark will know that it is extremely lean when it comes to mechanics — in fact the basic rules can be written down in just 2 or 3 pages of a book. So, you might be wondering how Graham’s highly successful Kickstarter could possibly take that super-simple system and turn it into a 192-page hardback book.
As it turns out, the answer is … very easily. The deluxe edition of Cthulhu Dark still features (slightly tweaked versions of) the same ultra-streamlined rules that has been published for free elsewhere. But it also includes a slightly more expansive explanation of those same rules and then a mountain of helpful resources and scenarios for the Gamemaster’s eyes. The rules themselves take up only the first 20 or so pages of the beautifully-illustrated book. The next 40 or so pages are given over to general advice about how to write compelling mysteries featuring Lovecraft’s creations (and more importantly his thematic elements). The remainder of the book is taken up by setting and scenario information. In order to promote diversity, Graham has chosen to not just support the traditional “Arkham 1920s with stodgy old white professors” type of setting, either. Yes, you can certainly play Cthulhu Dark that way .. but the settings described in the rulebook are much more unorthodox than that. There is a Gaslight setting which focuses on players taking on the roles of mudlarks rather than gentlemen; there’s an Arkham 1692 setting (by Kathryn Jenkins); there’s a modern-day setting in a fictional African nation (by Helen Gould); and there’s a Cyberpunk Mumbai setting. For each of these there is a scenario included in the book. All up that makes for a pretty full book.
Because the rules part of the Cthulhu Dark rulebook are so brief, it’s also very tempting to think of this book as much as a source of ideas for other Lovecraftian games — it would be quite easy to pick up any of the elements described in its pages and repurpose them for Call of Cthulhu, or any other system.
In addition to the printed book, the Cthulhu Dark Kickstarter unlocked two other PDF-only supplements as well. One of these is a 1930s “Dust Bowl” scenario by Mo Holkar; the other is a WWI scenario featuring African-American soldiers (by Chris Spivey of “Harlem Unbound” fame).
Delta Green RPG
Ever since Pagan Publishing first created Delta Green as a modern-day conspiracy-style horror setting for Call of Cthulhu (in the mid-90s), it has occupied a unique place in the world of Lovecraftian RPGs. Much-beloved by a loyal cadre of fans and almost blatent in its efforts to strike out on a different type of route for modern horror than the “default” Call of Cthulhu setting for modern-day, Delta Green has been continuously developed and detailed as a setting through a series of books sporadically published first by Pagan and then as joint ventures between Pagan Publishing and Arc Dream.
In 2015, the creative forces behind Delta Green surprised the Call of Cthulhu world with the announcement of a Kickstarter for a new “rebooted” edition of the setting. The surprise came not so much from the fact that the setting was being radically overhauled (to bring the pre-Millenial sensibilities of the original DG into the post-9/11 age) … but from the announcement that the future Delta Green would *not* be a sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu, but have its own rule system, somewhat reminiscent of BRP but independent of it. Furthermore, the rule system developed for the new game (although not the DG setting itself) would also be released under the OGL, meaning that anyone could use it freely as part of a different game as long as the terms of the OGL license were honoured.
The first book release by Arc Dream’s hugely successful Kickstarter — the Agent’s Handbook — came out in 2016, and detailed the basic rules for the game. But it was in 2017 when the bulk of the books began to see the light of day. The biggest DG release during the year was the Handler’s Guide, a massive (370 page) book which outlines the past and present shape of the DG conspiracy, the forces of the Cthulhu Mythos, and a range of other things that a Gamemaster needs to know to run games using the setting.
In addition to this major milestone, Arc Dream have also slowly been drip-feeding the release of scenarios for the new game system, all of which are available for free to Kickstarter backers as PDF but also available as Print-on-Demand softcover books. In a generous move, Arc Dream have provided KS backers with discount vouchers on the print versions of the books. During 2017 six scenarios were released in this way:
There were also several other Kickstarter-backer-only PDF releases during 2017 — so it was certainly the year that the “rubber hit the road” for the DG:RPG.
Gumshoe / Trail of Cthulhu
Pelgrane Press have carved out a very enviable niche for themselves in the Lovecraftian and Horror RPG domain — they are kind of the folks whose experiments with form and structure continue to delight (and also keep winning ENnie Awards!). This probably shouldn’t be surprising since the company has a couple of the most prolific and accomplished writers in the industry working on their books … and is also the most professionally run of any of the companies producing Cthulhu-related material (and nice to work for as well).
The main organ for Pelgrane’s forays into the Cthulhu publishing world has, til now, been the Trail of Cthulhu game — an adaptation of the Gumshoe rules to the genre of Lovecraftian investigative horror. While the game system isn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste, I’ve always thought that the quality of the writing that Pelgrane brings to this line more than justifies picking up most of its releases … even if just as examples of alternative ways that the genre can work.
In 2017, there were two releases for Trail of Cthulhu — “Out of the Woods” and “Cthulhu City”. The first of these is a scenario anthology which weighs in at five scenarios spanning 168 pages. The theme binding all these tales together is the primeval ancient fear of the archetypal “deep, dark forest” and the opportunities for nasty Lovecraft-inspired horrors to lurk in such places. The second volume, “Cthulhu City” is something much stranger. Written by the always-impressive Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan this book offers a somewhat surrealistic alternative depiction of the town of Arkham which takes Lovecraft’s geography and twists it into a nightmarish world where cyclopean skyscrapers stand side-by-side with baroque ruined buildings … It all sounds weird and evocative (and since I haven’t yet read it, I can’t really say anything more).
Technically not part of the Trail of Cthulhu line, but a pioneer release of a new line called Gumshoe One-2-One, Cthulhu Confidential is the other big Lovecraftian release by Pelgrane during 2017. The idea behind the One-2-One line is that it is an adaptation of Gumshoe that is especially designed for running games with one Gamemaster and one player. The Cthulhu Confidential setting is a hard-boiled “film noir” setting which plunges players into either the seedy underbelly of 1930s Los Angeles, or other similarly grimy American settings (the core book also includes a noir depiction of 1930s NYC, and a Washington, DC setting as well).
Clockwork & Cthulhu / Rennaisance
For reasons described in mid-2017 blog postings on Cthulhu Reborn, we have recently been very actively looking around at other game systems that provide convenient (and license free) vehicles for publishing Lovecraftian material. Perhaps the biggest surprise to emerge from that survey of game systems was the (re-)discovery of the excellent work that has been done in recent years by Cakebread & Walton to create and support various Lovecraftian adaptations of their BRP-clone Rennaisance system. In 2017, there was one notable release for this line — “The Heydelberg Horror”. This scenario, set in Europe of the early 17th Century, is the first part in an ongoing campaign called “A Clockwork of Orange” which promises to take investigative agents across Europe and into the heart of the Holy Roman Empire.
One of the stranger Cthulhu-related tabletop RPG Kickstarters to be run in 2017 was the campaign to fund a systemless scenario called “Pax Cthulhiana”, written by a couple of Norwegian guys. The approach taken to the challenge of avoiding all game mechanics — and thereby making the scenario equally playable (or non-playable, depending on your perspective) with any game system, make it a noteworthy experiment. Having recently received the print copy of the Kickstarter book it’s easy to see that a lot of work went into this book, which has some great art. The scenario also has its own musical soundtrack. Without having read the scenario itself I can’t really comment on whether it achieves its goal of making a fully-playable game without reference to specific rules. The idea certainly has promise, though.
As well as the products mentioned above, there were a number of other game products released in 2017 that had ties to Cthulhu and Lovecraft in some way, shape, or form:
- The “Leagues of Cthulhu” Kickstarter by Triple Ace Games (which brings Lovecraftian gaming to the Ubiquity game system) delivered its final PDFs in 2017 (although print copies are still pending.
- The long-delayed “Raiders of R’lyeh”, which had previously released early PDF versions of their d100-inspired system in previous years. In 2017 they released a final version of the rules (although print copies are still pending).
- Another huge 2016 Kickstarter was one to create a guidebook outlining game statistics of Cthulhu Mythos horrors for the Pathfinder system. Drawing heavily on artwork created for Cthulhu Wars, this monstrously-huge (500+ page book) finally saw light of day in 2017. Titled (somewhat inaccurately) Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos, it includes game information relevant to all the standard open-source Cthulhu Mythos gods and monsters, as well as a handful of original creations designed for the Cthulhu Wars miniatures game.
- Lurking at the borderlands of being an “RPG product” is Cubicle 7’s boxed storytelling game “Cthulhu Tales”, also funded as a Kickstarter which delivered in 2017. This game features a deck of “story cards” and “hazard cards” and challenges players to each spin a tale using them (the central conceit of the game being that everyone is a patient in an asylum flashing back to the horrific situation that brought them there).
To be Concluded …
Did We Miss Something?