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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Pulp Cthulhu

It should be remembered that for twenty years, the only way to play Lovecraftian investigative horror was Chaosium Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu. In 2002, Wizards of the Coast’s d20 Cthulhu
 offered another option, and in the last decade we have been offered PelgranePress’ clue orientated Trail of Cthulhu; Reality Deviant Publications’ more structured Shadows of Cthulhu using the d20 System distilled True20; CthulhuTech, a combination of science-fiction and horror roleplaying from Wildfire LLC; Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s bureaucratic approach to fighting the Mythos with The Laundry; as well as Reality Blurs’ Realms of Cthulhu, which in being written for use with Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds, actually pre-empted the arrival of Pulp Cthulhu, a supplement that is yet to arrive for Call of Cthulhu. That supplement promises a new approach to playing Call of Cthulhu, one that is more action orientated, more cinematic, more adventurous… In the absence of that supplement, Realms of Cthulhu is quite possibly the pretender to its throne.

First published in 2003, Savage Worlds is a light, fast playing RPG that sets out to do two things – cinematic action and mass combat as well as handle roleplaying. In the past ten years, it has been used to power an array of settings and campaigns, the best known being Fifty Fathoms and Deadlands Reloaded, both also from Pinnacle Entertainment Group. For much of that time, Savage Worlds has been available in an Explorer Edition, a handy sized, inexpensive rulebook that provided the basics of the rules. The rules have since been republished in a new ThirdEdition, which saw some changes that do mean that Realms of Cthulhu is slightly incompatible with the new version of the rules, since Realms of Cthulhu was published in 2009. That said, the differences are slight.

The changes to Savage Worlds in order to make it one of Lovecraftian investigative horror start with character generation. The process in Savage Worlds involves assigning points to improve the die types for a character’s five traits and then more points to purchase skills, which are again measured by die type. Thus a skill of Shooting d8 is better than a Shooting of d6. In addition characters can have Edges and Hindrances – the equivalent of Advantages and Disadvantages in other RPGs – that set them apart from ordinary men and women. Apart from the addition of the skill, Knowledge (Mythos) – the equivalent of the Cthulhu Mythos skill in Call of Cthulhu, the major addition to character creation in Realms of Cthulhu is that of “Defining Interests.” In Savage Worlds a character usually speaks a number of languages equal to half of his Smarts die type, so three languages for Smarts d6 and so on, but in Realms of Cthulhu a character has a number of “Defining Interests,” hobbies, knowledges, crafts, and so on, again also equal to half of his Smarts die type. This factor also has to take a character’s languages as well, and for each Defining Interest, for example, Archaeology, City Knowledge (Boston), Electrical Repair, Oratory, and so on, he gains a bonus to his Common Knowledge rolls (this being the equivalent of a character’s Know roll in Call of Cthulhu). Now a character’s Defining Interests also encompass what languages that he knows, which does mean that a character has to choose between focusing on one or the other. That said, the addition of these Defining Interests takes into account the fact that Lovecraftian investigative horror is primarily about what you know, rather than what you can do. In contrast, Savage Worlds tends to be more about what you can do than what you know, which is the case with Call of Cthulhu.

The sample character is Henry Brinded, one of my signature characters that I have used several times over the last decade or so. Indeed, he will be appearing as one of the starting pre-generated investigators in the forthcoming Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion for Call of Cthulhu. Of Boston Brahmin stock, Henry Brinded is a former Classics scholar at Yale who served as an artillery officer in the Great War. He returned partially deaf and with an aversion to loud noises, and unable to withstand the stress of continuing his studies, used his inheritance to open a small, antiquarian bookshop in his native Boston. He enjoys painting and sailing where he used to enjoy hunting, and employs one member of staff, Mrs. Rutherford, to help source and restore rare books.

Henry Brinded
Agility d6 Smarts d8 Spirit d6 Strength d4 Vigor d6
Edges:Linguist, Noble, Scholar
Hindrances: Curious (Major), Hard of Hearing (Minor), Pacifist (Minor)
Skills: Boating d4, Guts d6, Investigation d4, Knowledge (Ancient Greek) d6, Knowledge (History) d8, Knowledge (Latin) d8, Notice d4, Persuasion d4, Shooting d4
Defining Interests: Archaeology, Book Restoration, Etiquette, Painting
Languages: Arabic, French, German, Hebrew
Pace 6
Parry: 4 Charisma +2 Toughness 5
Sanity 5 Corruption 0

The second addition is the Sanity factor, which works much like Toughness. When inflicted physical damage exceeds a character’s Toughness, he can be “Shaken.” If the damage exceeds a character’s Toughness by a large amount, then he can be Wounded. When faced with a shocking incident or entity, a character will often be asked to make a Guts skill check. This is modified by the Terror or Fear strength of the situation or entity faced (Terror is actually explained on p.117 of Realms of Cthulhu, a fact that should be noted as it is not mentioned in the index and it is mentioned long before this). For example, encountering a Deep One forces a Guts skill check at a Terror penalty of –1. If the Guts skill check is failed, the mental damage inflicted on the frightened character is called Mental Anguish, which for the Deep One is “Spirit+d4” with the Deep One Spirit trait being d6. This means that both dice are rolled and result compared to the character’s Sanity. For every four points that the Mental Anguish roll exceeds his Sanity by, then the character suffers a point of Madness. A player character can suffer no more than four points of Madness before going insane. Each point of Madness inflicts a –1 penalty on a character’s Pace (movement) and all trait and skill rolls. This Madness can be addressed within the hour with immediate rest, reassurance, and the application of the Knowledge (Psychology) skill, success leading to the positive loss of points of Madness, or in time with recuperation. If driven insane though, a base Spirit roll is required by the character. Essentially, this roll is in effect made to determine how long the Mental Disorder suffered lasts for.

Although Realms of Cthulhu adds a number of new skills, edges, and hindrances, perhaps the most important addition is Knowledge (Mythos) – the equivalent of the Cthulhu Mythos skill in Call of Cthulhu. The treatment of knowledge of the Mythos in Realms of Cthulhu is perhaps where this version of Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying begins to diverge radically from the base line that is Call of Cthulhu. In Realms of Cthulhu, Knowledge (Mythos) is treated like any other skill, except that it is initially gained through certain circumstances during the play of the game, such as being sent insane for the time after encountering a Mythos entity or reading a Mythos Tome. Just as in Call of Cthulhu. Yet where in Call of Cthulhu an investigator receives “Cthulhu Mythos 05%,” in Realms of Cthulhu, he receives Knowledge (Mythos) d4. This does not sound like much, but when you consider that the base target for any skill roll in Savage Worlds
 is 4, then the character has a 1 in 4 chance of rolling that on his skill of Knowledge (Mythos) d4. This high degree of knowledge is further exacerbated because of how player characters make rolls in Savage Worlds. In the game, player characters are special and known as Wild Cards, and Wild Cards always roll an extra d6 – known as the “Wild Die” – and the highest die roll counts towards the total, then it is clear that even for a relatively minor encounter with the Mythos, an investigator can gain an awful lot of knowledge. This is further confirmed by the Realms of Cthulhu/Call of Cthulhu conversion guide, which lists a skill of d4 of being equal to 25% in Call of Cthulhu. That is a lot of Cthulhu Mythos…!

By reading further Mythos tomes or critically failing a Guts skill check as a result of an encounter with the Mythos, a character can gain further points of Knowledge (Mythos). Initially this will grant him a +1 bonus to any Knowledge (Mythos) check, but each time the bonus rises to +2, it changes the die type of the skill, from d4 to d6, to d8, and so on. Each rise in die type increases an investigator’s Corruption. Each point of Corruption decreases an investigator’s Sanity, further weakening his resolve against the Mythos. It is possible to increase an investigator’s Sanity, but it is difficult.

The given means of handling shock and horror in Savage Worlds has never been truly satisfying, and the Sanity mechanic in Realms of Cthulhu provides a more robust treatment of the subject. What the acquisition of the Knowledge (Mythos) skill demonstrates is the effect on Lovecraftian investigative horror from one system to another, from one ethos to another, from one style to another. The move from Call of Cthulhu to Savage Worlds is one of Purism to Pulp, of a binary yes/no realism to something a little more forgiving in terms of mechanics and player character survivability, and most of all, one of a granular mechanic and feel to one that is broader, but with a corresponding loss of detail. Which to be fair, is to be expected, given that Savage Worlds is a cinematic, Pulp genre, action orientated RPG. Yet the designer of Realms of Cthulhu gives the very means to counter this shift in tone and ethos.

Realms of Cthulhu gives the Keeper the tools to set the tone of his campaign, by setting its Physical and Mental play factors, either Gritty or Pulpy. The Pulpy option is essentially the Savage Worlds default, but the Gritty option gives a more Purist, harsher, and less survivable gaming experience. By setting the two play factors, a Keeper can access four different play styles, from the Physical Pulpy/Mental Pulpy of Heroic Horror with its high action adventure to the Physical Gritty/Mental Gritty of Dark Spiral, with its dangerous descent into madness and maiming when faced with the Mythos. Obviously, the first represents the Pulpy style of play, whilst the latter is Purist. Between two are the Slippery Slope (Physical Pulpy/Mental Gritty) and Dangerous Action (Physical Gritty/Mental Pulpy) styles. The first of these allows for investigators who can take a punch or two, but not the stress of encountering the Mythos, whilst the second is deadlier, but the Mythos has a less deleterious effect. These are only the base lines for the four campaign style, the Keeper being given a number of further options with which to tweak his campaign’s style.

The four styles are further discussed in the Keeper’s Section, primarily in the context of period – the 1890s, the 1920s, and the here and now – and the bond which brings the investigators together. Supporting this discussion is a quartet of Campaign Frameworks, one for each of the three eras and one that could be run in any era. The more original of the four lie at the extremes. The Heroic Horror framework is “Seekers of Lost Fortune,” in which the investigators must obtain and destroy dangerous artefacts in the 1920s; while the pleasing “The Frequency of Madness” is a Dark Spiral framework that can be set in any period and casts the investigators as incarcerated asylum inmates who have experience of the Mythos and escape to save not just mankind, but themselves too. Every character in this framework starts play with both the Knowledge (Mythos) skill and a mental disorder.

As expected for an RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Realms of Cthulhu includes the expected sections on magic and spells, tomes, and Mythos entities. Oddly the spells section includes those such as Armour, Bolt, Greater Healing, and Stun, all listed under Combat Spells and all taken from the Savage Worlds rules. Unless the style of game is extremely Pulpy, these are really out of place within Lovecraftian investigative horror, and even if the Keeper deems them appropriate, it is suggested that they are kept well away from player access.

Where Realms of Cthulhu is really useful for the Keeper is in the next set of tools it gives him. These are Mythos generators, which with a few rolls, a Keeper can create a Mythos Tale, a Mythos Creature, and a Mythos Tome. Or rather the broad outline, as the Keeper still has to flesh each of these out. For example, generating a Mythos Tome, which is detailed first in Realms of Cthulhu has the Keeper roll for its language, period of publication, Arcane Lore (essentially how easy it is to learn from it), and possible number of spells and type of spells – the Keeper will need to refer to the book’s chapter on magic for actual details of the tome’s spells. Beyond these basics, the Keeper will need to decide the book’s author, year of publication, title, and content. The Keeper will need to do the same when generating a Mythos Tale or Mythos Creature, the latter covering not just “Tainted” humans (as in my example), complete with “Dark Gifts,” but also Servitors and Independent Races, and who if at all, they serve. Pleasingly, with a few rolls and a bit of thought, a Keeper can switch back and forth between the three sets of tables using the results of each create a Tome, a Creature, and a Tale. 
The Lure of the Long Beasts
Hook: Caught up in Events
Lynchpin: Person
Location: Important Building/Landmark
Plot Type: Descension
Ally: Policeman
Plot Complication: Discovery
The investigators are on holiday in the county of Derbyshire. Following a tourist guide they decide to visit the world famous Blue John Caves near the town of Castleton, but get caught up in a disagreement between the locals and a visiting team of archaeologists from nearby Victoria University of Manchester, led by Professor Terence Chile Oakley. The professor is interested in the folklore and pre-Christian history of the area after reading a monograph entitled Secretis Druidum. The locals object to the professor’s interests and his plans to enact Druidic rites near the caves and the situation has developed into a stand-off between the two groups. The archaeologists have reported attacks in the night and possessions being stolen, and some of the students report suffering from headaches, but the local constable, Herbert Atteberry is at a loss as to what is going on.

Secretis Druidum: Trans Specubus veracis Populis Western Britanniam
Privately published in 1912, this monograph describes the folklore of the rural inhabitants of the British Isles, particularly around mountainous or hilly regions known for their network of caves. It includes several legends about enormous serpents that live underground and who worship one giant serpent, and how in the past the druids actually worshipped and sacrificed to both. The author lists several chants that he states that he was warned against uttering at particular cave mouths at certain times of the year. The author was last seen in the Derbyshire Peak District in England in 1914. The book is bound in oddly translucent leather. The only copy known to exist can be found in the anthropology section of the library of Victoria University of Manchester.
Author: Nicholas Checkley

Language: Latin
Year: c. 1912
Arcane Lore: +2
Spells: Claudens diu bestia (Elder Sign), Fascino lamina (Enchant Blade), Vocate ad diu bestia (Contact Chthonian), Longa ferae Domini invocabo (Contact Shudde M’ell)

Jack Royse (Seasoned)
Agility d8 Smarts d4 Spirit d4 Strength d8 Vigor d8
Edges: Brawny, Mighty Blow, Quick
Hindrances: Death Wish, Mean
Gifts: Immunity to Cold (Minor), Low Light Vision (Minor)
Skills: Climbing d8, Fighting d8, Guts d4, Intimidation d8, Knowledge (Mining) d6, Knowledge (Mythos) d6, Repair d4, Stealth d6
Pace 6
Parry: 6 Charisma -2 Toughness 7
Sanity 2 Corruption 2
A native of Derbyshire, Jack Royse is a “Tainted” human who worships the long beasts below and follows their directives exactly. A miner by trade, under his masters’ influence he will do anything. Some would say that he has spent too much time in the caves below, but not to his face. He almost never seems to blink, but dislikes bright light and he seems unnaturally muscular.

In terms of actual Mythos Tales, Realms of Cthulhu is a mixed bag, consisting of four short two-page Tales and one long twelve-page one. The first two-page tale is “Fragments of Mu,” which is nothing more than an slightly extended encounter in purely Pulp vein, whilst “Paradise Lost” is a more pleasing Lovecraftian encounter with a classic feel, though despite what it says, it is set in the Arctic – no Eskimos in the Antarctic! “False Idols” feels more like a modern, grittier affair, but at two pages feels like it was shoehorned into place. The last of the quartet of shorts is the best, “Bayhaven Lights,” a still slight tale, but one with a weird vibe and a subtlety that is missing from the others. The Mythos Tales are rounded with “Mysteries of Drake Manor,” which describes the estate and inhabitants of Drake Manor, as well the mysteries that surround both before describing a few short tales that suggest how the set up can be used. Unfortunately, there is no subtlety to “Mysteries of Drake Manor” which overeggs both the mysteries and the Mythos content. If there is a real issue with these Mythos Tales, it is that apart from “Paradise Lost” all are set in Charleston, South Carolina. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, as Lovecraftian investigative horror only infrequently strays below the Mason–Dixon Line, and visiting a new city is always interesting. What is wrong with this choice is that the designer tells us nothing about Charleston whatsoever when a single page of information could have covered all three periods…

Physically, Realms of Cthulhu is a relatively thin if sturdy hardback. The book on the whole is well written and decently presented in full colour with some nice illustrations. Some of the content could have been better organised though, some terms and elements being mentioned far before they are actually explained, this not being helped by a sometimes unhelpful index.

Overall, Realms of Cthulhu is a likeable, if far from perfect product. One of the issues with Realms of Cthulhu is the lack of advice on investigator generation. This is necessary because creating and playing an investigator is very different to doing either in most other RPGs. There is advice, it is true, but it amounts to list of roles that a player could create rather than actual, useful advice on doing so. The most useful advice on investigator generation is placed some twenty pages away from the rules on actual character generation, all but an afterthought. Another issue is that it is Americentric when Lovecraftian investigative horror tends to be more Anglophile in outlook. Realms of Cthulhu does feel in places as if it is written solely with an American audience in mind.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Realms of Cthulhu is in its choice of rules system. This is not denigrate the Savage Worlds rules, as they offer solid mechanics that emulate a slightly Pulp style, cinematic style of play, and there is, of course, nothing wrong in that. The issue is more whether or not the Savage Worlds rules can handle Lovecraftian investigative horror, and arguably, they cannot. At least not without a degree of tweaking and adjustment to advance the rules to a grittier style of game, and with that tweaking and adjustment comes more rules and more complexity, both of which are at odds with the “Fast! Furious! and Fun!” the Savage Worlds rules. Even with said degree of tweaking and adjustment, Realms of Cthulhu is still not a wholly Purist RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror. There is still a little of the Pulp left, which is unsurprising given that it is written into the soul of the Savage Worlds rules.

Yet when Realms of Cthulhu reins in Savage Worlds back towards its natural inclination, the result does not feel as forced. In its natural state it can do “Pulp Cthulhu” and do it well, offering a means handle a more action orientated game that offers its player characters a degree of survivability and elasticity in their actions that the binary mechanics of Call of Cthulhu lacks. The investigators are no longer ordinary men and women, but more special, more heroic. In addition, for the Savage Worlds GM, Realms of Cthulhu also grants access to the Cthulhu Mythos, its contents easily plugging into Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Weird Wars: Tour of Darkness and Weird Wars: Weird War II supplements, as well as the Savage Worlds versions of Modiphius Press’ Achtung! Cthulhu line. And of course, Realms of Cthulhu does give Savage Worlds a bona fide Sanity mechanic, something that it has lacked since its first edition.

In terms of support for the Keeper and the player, Realms of Cthulhu is underwhelming, this most obvious in the given Mythos Tales and the advice for the player. Where Realms of Cthulhu works is not just as a cinematic, action-orientated treatment of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but as a set of tools to create and run a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror in the Pulp mode.