Pages From the Bayt, part 8

This blog post wraps up the serialization of the CthuReview 2020, first published in the pages of Bayt al Azif Issue 4. Kind thanks to the editorial staff at that fine game magazine for allowing me to reproduce it here.

Lovecraft-Inspired Games Further Afield

The releases described so far (mostly) represent titles for games that have grown from the traditional “roots” of the Cthulhu Mythos RPG scene. Increasingly, though, the influences of Lovecraft’s world view and monstrous creations have seeped into many other games as well. The list of 2020-released 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.

Achtung! Cthulhu 2D20 Quickstart (Modiphiüs)

It’s been known for some time that the roleplaying arm of Modiphiüs’ much-loved Achtung! Cthulhu line of World War II games wouldn’t be continuing as a licensed Call of Cthulhu property. In 2020, the publisher announced that Achtung! would be rebooted as an independent game utilizing the 2D20 system Modiphiüs has developed for its Conan and Star Trek RPGs.

While the core Keeper and Investigator books for this new system didn’t quite make it out in 2020 (they’ve since emerged in the first half of 2021), the Quickstart did just scrape into the period considered for this review. The 48-page Quickstart manages to cram a lot in. There’s a brief overview of the main factions in the Achtung! Cthulhu universe, a cutdown set of playable rules including a combat and magic system, five pre-generated and a 15-page mission involving occult tomes and nefarious German cultists. As a free PDF introduction to the new system, this is a great way to get a taste of what Achtung! Cthulhu (and its new system) is all about.

The Cthulhu Hack and other OSR Games

The Cthulhu Hack was created in 2016 by Paul Baldowski as a light-weight game for Lovecraftian investigation, loosely based on vintage D&D rules. Since then he, and several other folks, have created supplements for the game. In 2020 there were three substantial releases for The Cthulhu Hack: “Forgotten Duty” (a modern-day investigation featuring Roman ruins below the streets of Pamplona, Spain), “Threads” (a lengthy 2-part scenario featuring creepy clowns, spiders and the Dreamlands), and “Valkyrie Nine” (a shorter investigation set in the near future mining base on the moon).

As well as The Cthulhu Hack, there are a lot of other “Hacks” of the old-school D&D rules. Another one of them, The Jack Hack also has had a Lovecraft-based scenario released for it – Ripper Fhatagn. The Jack Hack is focused on the Gaslight-era murders of Jack the Ripper; this supplement adds Lovecraftian elements to that grim world.

While not in the family of “Hacks”, three other OSR titles with Mythos (or Mythos-adjacent) themes were also released in 2020:

Four Against The Great Old Ones

Four Against Darkness (published by Ganesha Games) is a solitaire fantasy RPG of dungeon exploration which has become quite popular in recent years. The basic premise is that the solo player controls four characters who step through a GM-less delve through a procedurally generated dungeon, hoping to complete a quest. It’s not strictly a roleplaying experience, nor is it a prose “choose-your-own” kind of reading experience. It’s something in between. In 2020, the publisher adapted this basic concept to the Lovecraftian horror sub-genre.

Instead of exploring a dungeon, the plucky group of investigators is charged with travelling around different locations in 1930s America trying to foil a nefarious Mythos plot before time runs out. There are several different endgame scenarios, each of which brings the characters face-to-face with one of Lovecraft’s nastiest creations. While designed primarily for solo play, the book does also suggest it could be run as a multi-player GM-less cooperative “RPG-lite” game with each player controlling one investigator.

Mythos Mysteries (Grey Cells)

Grey Cells is an RPG from Dapper Fish Designs that is solely dedicated to recreating crime-solving stories. It’s all about investigation and piecing together clues (and in that regard its intentions mirror GUMSHOE, albeit more leaning to the Hercule Poirot end of things). All good investigation games need a Cthulhu add-on, and thus was “Mythos Mysteries” created for Grey Cells.

It’s a sizeable supplement (92 pages) which aims to support a few different sub-genres of Lovecraftian investigation – it defines a “Cosmic Horror” mode and a “Pulp Lovecraft” mode. It introduces rules for madness, tomes, and the like … but the real strength of this supplement is the way in which it tries to capture the quintessence of what goes into a great Lovecraft mystery yarn and suggest ways to structure games to emulate it.

Cthulhu Deep Green

I described Cthulhu Deep Green in the CthuReview for 2019 – it is a super-light system that adapts Graham Walmsley’s excellent Cthulhu Dark RPG to a modern-day conspiracy-horror setting a la Delta Green. In 2020, a new scenario was released for the system: “The Linear Men” (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/324744/The-Linear-Men). This 2-part scenario is interesting because it is based not only on CDG but another offshoot of Cthulhu Dark, Trophy (Hedgemaze Press).

Micro-RPGs: One Page Cthulhu and others

While we’re on the subject of super-rules-light RPGs which have released Lovecraft-themed supplements, it’s probably worth mentioning a few others.

One Page Cthulhu is a lightweight solo game by Noah Patterson. Like Four Against Darkness, described above, this game involves an exploration where the specific placement of areas and adversaries are determined by die rolls. In this game there’s just one investigator character that is controlled by the player, and their ultimate goal is to defeat a “Boss Monster”. Each turn, the player picks a direction to go, then rolls to add a certain shape of map addition, rolls again to populate it with some kind of adversary.

If overcome, it yields a certain number of clue points – when enough have been collected, the “Boss” can feasibly be defeated. If the game doesn’t sound very Lovecraftian, it isn’t really – but the scenarios which frame the adventures do namedrop HPL’s creations. There are three volumes in the One Page Cthulhu’s Herbert West Trilogy: “Miskatonic Tunnels”, “The Black Caverns”, and “Night in Arkham Woods”.

Another similar effort is Bob McGough’s series of “Tales from Bob” adventures. The simplest is “Mythos Mishaps” which is a single page PDF describing a series of possible mysteries, adversaries, and creepy locations and allowing some random rolls or picks to make a combination of these which could form the basis for a Mythos-fueled adventure (where the GM fills in all the other details). The other titles in the series seem to each be based around a specific Lovecraft short story and provide some possible situations and challenges that could place the investigator into the world depicted by the stories – either by random dice rolls or GM picks. There are three such one-page scenario skeletons:

Yet another micro-sized RPG of Lovecraftian adventure is Squamous: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying by Trollish Delver Games. There is also a pair of Lovecraft themed scenario for the lightweight One-Shot RPG – “The Island of Dagon” and “The Haunter From Beyond”.

Another tiny rules-light game of Lovecraftian horror, Writers in the Dark is played between two people, each of whom writes letter to the other describing the horrific secrets that they have uncovered, and their fears for their very safety and sanity. Another take on the same epistolic horror concept is The Innsmouth Papers by Malcolm Harbrow.

Campo De Mitos (Systemless)

I was fortunate enough to hear about this little gem of a (system agnostic) supplement when it was being Kickstarted; otherwise I probably would never have known it to exist. Campo de Mitos is an oddly specific campaign setting, but perhaps all the more intriguing because of it. It describes a rural region of Southern Spain – the area surrounding the Rock of Gibraltar – in the 1920s. The writer, Paco Garcia Jaén, does a great job describing (in English, perhaps not her native language) a really warm and evocative society of people blighted by the occasional presence of Mythos beliefs or entities.

There are also some nice elements of inclusivity in its depictions of a very different era of social mores.

While perhaps not an obvious locale to set your Lovecraftian games, if you’re up for a change of pace you could do a lot worse than send your investigators to this haunted version of Campo de Gibraltar.

Other D&D 5e

While I’ve already described the substantial volume of material produced by Petersen Games for its D&D 5th Edition setting, that is not the only D&D-fueled Lovecraftian content to come out on 2020. There are (at least) a couple of other publishers also actively releasing such material.

Whispers in the Dark (Saturday Morning Scenarios)

Unlike the Petersen Games’ Lovecraftian content, Whispers in the Dark steers clear of the heroic fantasy genre and instead adapts familiar rules to allow players to pursue investigative horror scenarios. Thus, the game style that Whispers seeks to evoke is not terribly far from Call of Cthulhu, even if the game mechanics are founded in very different roots.

To date the ruleset only exists in a Quickstart edition – a 78-page book that offers the basics around character creation, equipment, damage & combat, Mythos magic, and Madness & Sanity. Also included is a full scenario (complete with pre-generate characters) set in 1920s New Orleans.

In addition to the Quickstart, Saturday Morning Scenarios also released a number of support books for the game: an Investigator’s Companion (short player guide), Invitation Only (a scenario following on from the adventure in the Quickstart, Horror in the Windy City (an extensive setting sourcebook for 19th Century Chicago), Spring Heeled Jack (a brief game summary of the eponymous Gaslight legend) and She Who Rules The Sea (a brief description of an invitation-only spiritualist society).

What Happened to Evy Ashwood? (Midnight Tower)

This one-shot Lovecraftian mystery adventure is set in a generic fantasy setting that can easily be slotted into an existing game world (or tweaked to fit). Unusually for a fantasy scenario, the DM has the option of allowing for characters to “win” the scenario purely through puzzling out the mystery with no hack-and-slash involved. Of course, it also supports a more conventional play style with combat-oriented resolutions to encounters. Although relatively short, the scenario – which revolves around tracking down a missing person – is rendered using surprisingly good production values for an indy published title.

Almost half of the book is devoted to “The Great Old One Compendium” – Lovecraft-inspired elements to add color to the fantasy world, things like cults, secret societies, curses, and rituals, and of course a selection of new monstrosities. ()

Eldritch Century (Draco)

This chunky RPG – two hardback volumes, each around 300 pages – is set in an alternative version of our own history. Things diverged at some point in World War I when a bizarre mist known as “the Miasma” manifested and began transforming living things into monstrosities; corrupt biological mutations. The current year is 1984, but the world is very, very different to our eighties – gone are New Romantics and fluoro legwarmers, replaced by a world filled with warring factions corrupted by alien influences and dubious new technologies. The game describes its setting as an intersection of science-fiction, steampunk, dieselpunk, and cosmic horror.

Technically Eldritch Century is written for a tweaked version of D&D 5e which is known as the “Draco System” but there is also support for running the material with the established default rules. Book 1 (Expeditions) focusses on character creation, special abilities, equipment, combat, and vehicles. Book 2 (Almanac) is about the Wounded Earth setting, describing factions and communities as well as a bestiary of monstrosities which characters might encounter.

The books are sold together as a bundle and hardcopy versions may be available through the Backerkit set up to support folks who funded this game via Kickstarter.

Cthulhu Parlour’s “Hotel Lovecraft”

This Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/legendphotography/the-storymasters-tales-hotel-lovecraft/description), was successfully funded in 2020 (and which has since delivered). Billing itself as a light roleplaying game, the main focus is on delivering an immersive audiovisual choose-your-own type of narrative. The game is set in a haunted house with some 54 locations, each of which has a tale associated with it – which is partly described written form, and partly delivered through recorded theatrical narrations over evocative soundscapes. After the GM has read out the text from the book and played the audio file, the rest of the players must choose between a handful of options of places to explore or things to do in the room. There are also some nice physical props – metal keys – that come along with the game. Is it really an RPG? I guess it depends on how you define the term: to me this feels more like a “Fighting Fantasy” type book brought to life with audio and props.

Future Horrors: New 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. In 2020 there were only two such new Kickstarter campaigns, significantly fewer than have been run in recent years.

Britannia and Beyond (Golden Goblin Press)

In April 2020, this Kickstarter successfully funded a new sourcebook for the Cthulhu Invictus setting. Promising to provide a game depiction of the British Isles during the era of Roman occupation (1st and 2nd Centuries CE). It’s a mysterious place on the very periphery of the Roman Empire, home to a diverse collection of peoples and cultures.

This book was originally slated to be ready for release in November 2020 but hit some snags, mostly due to the departure of one of the main writers. The project has recruited a replacement but has been significantly delayed; by current estimates the book will arrive about a year later than planned.

[Update, March 2022 — this campaign has still yet to deliver any rewards to backers.]

Journal d’Indochine (Sons of the Singularity)

After successfully delivering a sizeable 1920s Shanghai sourcebook and scenario set in 2019, Sons of the Singularity ran a Kickstarter campaign to create a similar volume for a different part of Asia – Indochina (French Colonial Vietnam). Their campaign funded in July with an estimated delivery of December 2020. They didn’t quite make that goal, but the books and PDFs did reach backers around the middle of 2021.

[Update, March 2022 — this campaign has successfully delivered both PDF and print copies of two books.]

Conclusion

While it’s true that the COVID-19 pandemic did stop one part of the gaming world, it really hasn’t significantly slowed the volume of new games and supplements that are being brought to market. Of course, some (if not all) of the products described in this review were probably started well before 2020 and mostly already done when lockdowns and shipping slowdowns really hit. So, perhaps the true impacts of those things will be reflected more in the gaming industry’s output for 2021?

Overall, the strong support for Lovecraftian content in the gaming community certainly continues. What is even more encouraging is its diversity and spread – where there was once just a single family of closely-connected Cthulhu-themed RPGs, there are now a broad range of different options for Lovecraft-inspired gaming. This is great for gamers; if you don’t like the particular flavor of one game, chances are you can test-drive four or five other games which have taken the same source ideas and developed them in different ways. It is always worth experimenting in this way, because finding the system that best suits the idiosyncrasies and preferences of your gaming group can elevate a great gaming experience to a truly awesome one.

Vive la difference!


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