For the past few days, we have been serializing the “2019 Year in Review” article I contributed to Issue 3 of Bayt al Azif (article written in early 2020 and published late 2020). This is re-published with the kind permission of the generous editors of that fine game magazine (which I thoroughly recommend you check out).
For this final part of the 2019 retrospective, we tackle games that have a Lovecraft influence but are beyond the traditional d100 sphere. We also wrap up the review with a round-up of Kickstarters that funded in 2019 (or earlier) — some of which have fully delivered since this was written, some of which are still MIA … yes, “ASG’s Horrors of War” we are looking at you 🙂
Lovecraftian Games Further Afield
Perhaps the most challenging part of trying to summarize the year’s Lovecraft-inspired RPG releases is trying to track down games from beyond the traditional crunchy Cthulhu-centre of the hobby which have nonetheless woven “eldritch” or “cosmic horror” elements into their releases. Because Lovecraft’s fame … or should I say notoriety … is so great among gamers and game writers, his influences can pop up in all sorts of unexpected places. The list of games and supplements which follows is certainly not intended to be exhaustive but provides a glimpse of some of the more obvious influences beyond the normal sphere.
Fate of Cthulhu (FATE)
FATE is an amazing lightweight narrative-led game which has been successfully adapted to many different genres. When I first heard of the upcoming Kickstarter for Fate of Cthulhu I was excited, but the more I read about the specific project the more limiting it sounded. Rather than being a general game of Lovecraftian horror using the FATE rules, Fate of Cthulhu aims for a much narrower scope – it’s a game that’s all about people from a Post-Apocalyptic future (where the forces of the Mythos have triumphed) travelling back in time to present day to stop that terrible fate from eventuating. If you think “Terminator” or “12 Monkeys” you’re on the right wavelength. While this concept seems interesting for a scenario or even a campaign, the idea of making a game that is only suited to that kind of story feels, to me anyway, like a bit of a wasted opportunity.
Regardless, the Kickstarter for Fate of Cthulhu was quite successful, and the book was delivered later in 2019. It’s an attractive 256-page tome, although there are elements of the writing that I find a little problematic. In terms of the possibilities for gameplay the book offers five different dystopian future timelines that your character can be from – one in which Cthulhu has risen from the sea and driven the world crazy, one in which Dagon has mutated humanity, one in which Shub-Niggurath has gone on the rampage, one in which Nyarlathotep has taken rule in Egypt and built an army of alien horrors, and finally one in which the King in Yellow has created a plague that sweeps the earth.
As ideas these are a bit on the obvious side, but I suppose also easy things for players without much prior experience of Mythos fiction would instantly be able to comprehend. Gameplay seems to be, as advertised, limited to going back to the beginning of the Mythos entity’s rise to power and somehow deflect or defeat it. Each timeline gets about 25 pages of description which give a brief capsule summary of how the world ended and some of the people and places involved.
One of the welcome new additions in recent years has been the creation of lightweight Lovecraftian games which embrace a more minimalist approach to game rules while still encouraging gameplay that has the familiar feel of investigative cosmic horror. Perhaps the most famous game in this group is Graham Walmsley’s super-lean game Cthulhu Dark. Moth Lands Publishing’s 2019 release Cthulhu Deep Green is an adaptation of the Cthulhu Dark rules to the genre of modern-day conspiracy horror.
If that description makes you think “Cthulhu Dark crossed with Delta Green” you are very much on the money – although Cthulhu Deep Green never mentions any of the elements of the Delta Green universe, or even the existence of such a game. I guess that’s not surprising since those things are all intellectual property owned by the Delta Green Partnership.
So, what does super-rules-light conspiracy horror in CDG look like? Well it’s a lot like Cthulhu Dark with the exception that combat is much more of an option for players – and there’s a lot more focus on the specifics of mental damage to player character agents and the things they get up to between missions. As well as releasing the core Cthulhu Deep Green game as a 52-page PDF, Moth Lands also released a CDG mission called “Food of the Gods” as a separate 18-page PDF. The core game has since been released as a Print-On-Demand physical book as well.
Not so many years ago Goodman Games used to be a Call of Cthulhu licensee, producing the Age of Cthulhu line of books. While that relationship seems to have come to an end, there are obviously some at Goodman who still foster some love for the Mythos: The Cthulhu Alphabet is testament to that.
This is a book which is, strictly speaking, fully system-neutral but which seems thematically tied somehow to Goodman’s very popular Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. Indeed, The Cthulhu Alphabet would seem to be inspired by the publisher’s earlier Monster Alphabet. Both provide a literal ‘A’ to ‘Z’ of different facets of designing a game critter (or other element) and offer some random tables for randomly picking one of a dizzying array of options.
In The Cthulhu Alphabet, examples of the kinds of alphabetically-ordered categories include: “F is for Forbidden” and “V is for Voorish Sign”. The former includes a table of Forbidden items and another table for randomly picking how they arrive in the hands of the player characters. The Voorish Sign entry includes pages and pages of possible supernatural effects that might be triggered by said mystical hand gesture.
The book is basically 100-or-so pages of such alphabetical listings. It’s a fun and somewhat handy resource for games, but perhaps the most engaging part of The Cthulhu Alphabet is its liberal splashings of old-school black-and-white art. These are by a range of artists, but all evoke a kind of vibe that feels reminiscent of the early days of the role-playing hobby.
Sandy Petersen’s Ghoul Island Campaign
For the past few years Sandy Petersen’s personal game imprint has been ramping up its output of Cthulhu-infused roleplaying books, bringing the Mythos to players of mainstream fantasy games. First there was a book of Cthulhoid monsters for Pathfinder, and then the same book ported to 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The popularity of these has no doubt inspired the creation of scenario books which similarly take the common formats of fantasy adventures and replaces the monsters with Mythos creatures. Petersen Games produced four hardcover scenario books in this vein in 2019, all of them part of the “Ghoul Island” campaign for D&D 5E.
The four chapters of this campaign are titled: Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen, Act 2: Ghoulocracy, Act 3: Clean Up Crew, and Act 4: Ghatanothoa Awakens. In format, the Ghoul Island campaign is quite similar to most “Adventure Paths” created for fantasy games – the characters pass through a linear series of loosely-plotted adventures, slowly getting exposed to more and more dangerous situations before having a chance for an epic fight to stop the forces of evil once and for all. Act 1 sees the adventurers hired on to deliver cargo to a nightmare-shrouded island, the journey breaking the minds of many of the crew causing them to mutiny.
Act 2 sees them on the trail of the traitorous crew, uncovering a temple to Ghatanothoa, ancient horrors, subterranean tunnels, and a huge battle which threatens to destroy a city. The third act sees the adventurers on the trail of Ghatanothoa’s foul cultists, up into lava tubes and perhaps capture. The last part covers the adventurer’s mission to defeat the cult once and for all, including a surprise side-visit into the Dreamlands and a trip back to the volcano to stamp out the menace before an even worse threat can be unleashed upon the fantasy world.
Dark Trails (DCC)
A Kickstart campaign was run in mid-2019 for a game called Dark Trails utilizing the Dungeon Crawl Classics system created by Goodman Games. The game, to be published under license by an outfit called Stiff Whiskers Press, promised “a standalone weird West RPG based upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft and all things Cthulhu.” The campaign was very successful, raising almost 5 times the original goal. Unlocked along the way were a range of upgrades including some Cthulhuoid western adventures. While the full version of the Dark Trails game has yet to materialize, the publisher did put out a “Bootleg Edition” just before the end of 2019. This was envisaged as a cut-down “quickstart” version of the game, although at 192 pages I don’t think anyone would consider that a quick read.
Most of the “Bootleg” book is devoted to covering the rules of the game which are very much in the OSR vein, as you’d expect – one of the notable deviations from traditional western fare is the inclusion of some rather unusual and outlandish character classes. There’s also some great black-and-white illustrations, including a portrait of HPL as illustration for the Occultist character class. While most of the pages are about rules, there is still some background detail on how the world of Dark Trails got infused with Mythos-ness, and a lengthy adventure called “Death Crawls West”. The latter is an introductory funnel – if you’ve played or read the DCC game you’ll know what that means – focussing on a wagon trail that’s moving out into New Mexico Territory, only to find a lot more peril than anyone bargained for.
Leagues of Adventure: Cthulhu Codicil (Ubiquity)
For several years Triple Ace Games has been releasing titles for their Victorian adventure game Leagues of Adventure (which uses their in-house Ubiquity system). While this game covers a lot more than just Lovecraftian horror, it has certainly dipped into that territory for some of its material (most notably 2017’s Leagues of Cthulhu). In 2019, Triple Ace were back for more Lovecraftian goodness, running a successful Kickstarter for the Cthulhu Codicil. It was advertised as an expansion to the Leagues of Cthulhu book, “packed full of new character options, tomes, locations, and monsters.” Examples of new Mythos elements cited on the Kickstarter page seem to be original inventions for this book (as opposed to elements created in the fiction of other writers). The exact status of this book at the time of writing is not entirely obvious – it hit a major snag during the year when it’s principal writer, Paul “Wiggy” Wade suffered a stroke. However, it seems that the majority of the title’s contents had been written well before that time, and the Kickstarter updates suggest that at least some backers rewards have been sent out.
New Titles for The Cthulhu Hack
Just Crunch Games’ Cthulhu Hack is an OSR game, based on a previous game called The Black Hack (itself a kind of retro-clone of 1st Edition AD&D). It’s been around for a few years and there have been a few supplements released for it. In 2019 there were no less than three new titles released for The Cthulhu Hack, one by Just Crunch and two by another imprint called Matakishi’s Tea House.
The release from Just Crunch was titled Mother’s Love and is a substantial book which collects three scenarios, each of which has something to do with concept of motherhood. “Deep Roots” is set in rural Canada and revolves around peculiar incidents involving recently adopted and fostered children coming from a local orphanage. “Ggantija” is set on Malta and is concerned with events surrounding a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. The third scenario, “Gifts of the Flesh” sees the players take on the roles of animal activists headed to an abattoir on a privately-owned Greek island to investigate reports of mistreated animals. All of the scenarios are designed to be run in modern(-ish) day, and the influence of Shub-Niggurath flows strongly throughout the book.
The two Cthulhu Hack titles by Matakishi’s Tea House are The Chaos Beyond The Gate and The Flame From Space. Both are shorter and more amateur publications, the former involving some creepy occurrences at a local health-care clinic, while the latter exposes investigators to preparations for a hideous Mythos invasion of Earth from beyond.
Cthulhu Nights (A ChapBook RPG)
I must confess I had never previously heard of the term ChapBook RPG – looking it up online reveals that it’s a term used to describe an ultra-lean type of game where the entire game’s rules take up 30 or so pages, and is intended to be a “pick up and play” experience. Cthulhu Nights definitely fits that mould, providing an ultra-light set of rules in its 26 pages. The creator, Noah C. Patterson, is a fiction writer specializing in young adult horror, dabbling in game writing on the side. In addition to Cthulhu Nights, Noah also released three solitaire micro-RPG-games of a Lovecraftian nature – all under the banner One Page Cthulhu. All of these books are available as Pay-What-You-Want titles on DriveThruRPG.
Inkwell Ideas is a company that produces game accessories which are intentionally system-agnostic. Many of their titles are decks of double-sided cards which contain a variety of different locations or characters that could be dropped easily into a game. Almost all of these Sidequest Decks and NPC Portrait Decks cater to fantasy games, but there are a few that do not – in the latter camp is Sidequest Deck: Lovecraftian/Paranormal which provides 54 cards each with an adventure idea/element on one side and a related map or graphic on the other. You can buy the product as a physical deck of cards, or just grab the PDF and make your own deck.
In my CthuReview of 2018, I mentioned a Kickstarter for a roleplaying game called H.P. Lovecraft’s Preparatory Academy, which promised to be “a cheerfully macabre game of schoolyard horror.” The fulfilment of this Kickstarter was massively delayed – its original target date of April 2018 was missed by a long shot, with the books actually going out mid-2019 instead. The game was originally intended to be released for two separate systems – PDQ and Savage Worlds – and the release of a new (SWADE) edition of the latter game certainly was the cause of some delays. Each different game system received its own separate book: in the end, the publishers (Third Eye Games) also chose to create a version for their in-house “Pip System” as well. All of these books appear to be now available generally. There’s also a short scenario called “With Friends Like These” available as a separate product.
Dwarf Army Games has released a couple of games in the “Pocket Wonders” line. These are designed to be ultra-light rules that can be crammed into a few pages but provide enough “crunch” to allow an experienced gamer to run games in a specific genre. In 2019, the 22-page Pocket Wonders: Dreams of Cthulhu was released. Set in the 1920s and drawing on familiar tropes of Lovecraftian horror, it offers a 3d6-based system which could easily be used to power scenarios of the GM’s own invention.
Future Horrors: Unfulfilled Kickstarters
In addition to looking backwards at what’s already been released, it’s sometimes interesting to look into the crystal ball (or maybe Shining Trapezohedron?) and get a sense of what is coming next. One of the best ways of doing that is to take a look at Kickstarter campaigns for Lovecraftian RPG projects that have funded but haven’t yet delivered their final rewards. Here’s a quick roundup. [We have added some notes to describe the state of each of these campaigns at the time of this blog-article, i.e., late March 2022].
First off, it’s probably worth reviewing the list of Kickstarters that funded in 2018 or earlier, but which didn’t manage to deliver in 2019 due to project delays. These are:
- Horrors of War (Adam Scott Glancy): This book project has become sadly synonymous with delayed Kickstarters, having funded back in 2014 with an original delivery estimate of February 2015. Nothing much has changed with this project since I wrote its status and history in the CthuReview of 2018. [Update Note: this campaign HAS NOT yet delivered its rewards (as per March 2022)]
- The Dare (Sentinel Hill): This is another project that hasn’t moved much since last year’s review. It must be a frustration to backers and the publisher that the production of this title has reached the 90% done mark and then been stymied by a series of small mishaps and delays. Finger-crossed this one will be in backers’ hands soon. [Update Note: this campaign HAS delivered its rewards since this article was published]
- Unspeakable Sign & Sigil (Cubicle 7 & Make Believe Games): I also wrote about delays on this project in the 2018 review, and while there has been some evidence of progress I believe that the books still have not found their way out (far overshooting the original target date of March 2018). [Update Note: this campaign not only failed to fulfill its rewards, but the project was ultimately cancelled altogether]
- The Cthulhu Idol (Delphes Desvoivres): This is yet another delayed project included in my list from last year; and once again there’s still no concrete timeline on when either the idol or the scenario book parts of this project will be released. [Update Note: this campaign HAS NOT yet delivered its rewards (as per March 2022)]
- The Wild Hunt and Occam’s Razor (Stygian Fox): Both of these Stygian titles were mentioned in last year’s review, and both have now passed their original estimated delivery (Wild Hunt was due in January 2019, Occam’s Razor in June 2019). The changes in Stygian business model have placed additional pressures on finalizing all the company’s outstanding Kickstarters, but to their credit they are pushing onwards and adapting to their changed environment with some success. [Update Note: these two campaigns HAVE PARTIALLY delivered their rewards since this article was published; PDFs of both titles have been released, but the print version of “The Wild Hunt” is still in progress and the printed “Occam’s Razor” is being (slowly) distributed around the world (as per March 2022)]
- Delta Green: The Labyrinth (Arc Dream; core book delivered, others still forthcoming): Although the main book at the heart of this Kickstarter (the titular “The Labyrinth”) is now out in PDF, it still hasn’t made its way to print. Also, there are quite a few unlocked add-on books and scenarios associated with this campaign that have yet to appear – these were always planned to come out much later than the core book (so aren’t necessarily running late). By my reckoning, the list of future titles includes: Bleeding Darkness (scenario), Final Passages (scenario collection + handout kit), God’s Teeth (campaign + handout kit), The Horned God (scenario), In The Stillness (scenario), The Language of Stars (scenario), Schemata (scenario), Those Who Come After (sourcebook + handout kit), and Undertow (scenario). [Update Note: these two campaigns HAVE PARTIALLY delivered their rewards since this article was published; the main Labyrinth book and its associated handout kit have both been released, but everything else is still in progress (as per March 2022)]
The following four new Kickstarters for Lovecraftian RPG products were run in 2019:
- Hudson & Brand: Shadows of the Past (Stygian Fox): This successful fundraiser was to create a book of three linked scenarios for Stygian Fox’s popular “Hudson & Brand” setting in Gaslight London. It was envisaged as a 150-page book, with estimated delivery in February 2020. Original Kickstarter link. [Update Note: this campaign HAS NOT yet delivered its rewards (as per March 2022)]
- An Inner Darkness (Golden Goblin): This book was advertised as a scenario anthology featuring subject matter relating to social inequalities or injustices of the past. By the time it closed it had stretched to include seven scenarios. This was estimated to be delivered in November 2019 but actually came out in PDF form around March 2020 and will probably be distributed in physical form in May. Original Kickstarter link. [Update Note: this campaign HAS delivered its rewards since this article was published]
- Lovecraft Holiday Collection (Golden Goblin): This was a campaign to create an anthology of four Lovecraft Country scenarios, each themed to a different holiday season (Halloween, Christmas, Easter, and Independence Day). Two of the scenarios were formerly published in Miskatonic University Library Association Monographs many years ago. The campaign is forecast to deliver its books in June 2020. Original Kickstarter link. [Update Note: this campaign HAS delivered its rewards since this article was published]
- A Time For Sacrifice (New Comet Games): Back in 2018, New Comet Games published Devil’s Swamp. This new Kickstarter seeks to recreate that success with another book of 1920s scenarios. The campaign had an original estimated delivery of May 2020. Kickstarter link. [Update Note: this campaign HAS delivered its rewards since this article was published]
There’s no question that 2019 was another strong year for new Lovecraftian RPG material, with a broad variety of new books being released to cater to many different settings and styles of game. The overall trend away from one publisher being the “dominant voice” in how Lovecraft games should look, has continued. Chaosium is still the biggest contributor to the number of new titles (they released around 1100 pages of new non-Repository material in 2019, slightly down from 1200 in the preceding year), but other publishers still create significant amounts. The altered operating arrangements of Stygian Fox in 2019, for example, generated about 750 pages of new game material, while Arc Dream’s Delta Green released about 550 pages of new content. All this points to a healthy and continuing trend of “Lovecraft taint” infecting gaming products far-and-wide. Doubtless this will continue, even though global events are certain to significantly affect all game producers publishing in 2020. Cthulhu will prevail.
The CthuReview will return …
Next week we will serialize the “year in review” article that I wrote for the recently-released Bayt al Azif #4. That piece covers all Lovecraftian RPG releases for 2020.