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Friday, 5 December 2014

Nazis, Nasties, & N?

Before beginning this review, it is necessary to make one fact clear. I have written and edited for Achtung! Cthulhu, so in coming to review World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour, I cannot be seen to favour one approach over the other, one series over another. This does not mean that I can avoid making comparisons, but it does mean that such comparisons will not consist of which one is better. Rather they will be as balanced as possible and focus on where the two settings differ.

To explain, both of these series of books are devoted to Lovecraftian investigative horror set during the Second World War. One is Achtung! Cthulhu, published by Modiphius Press, the other is World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour, published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment. The first of these is written for both Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu and Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds, whilst the second is solely written for Call of Cthulhu. Where Achtung! Cthulhu covers much of the breadth of the conflict that is Second World War, World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour, much as its subtitle suggests, has a much narrower focus. This focus is upon the opening years of the Second World War, when Britain and the Commonwealth’s back was against the wall and with the forces of Nazi Germany having rolled across the continent, Winston Churchill ordered the men and women of the Special Operations Executive to set Europe ablaze. The SOE is only one recruiting ground for ‘N’, a spymaster whose interests lie primarily in preventing certain outre knowledge from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Wherever that knowledge might be found…

This sets up the precept at the core of World War Cthulhu, that the investigators are always fighting on two fronts. In Europe they face both the Nazi occupiers and the malignly uncaring forces of the Mythos, and on that rare occasion, the Nazi who has knowledge of the Mythos. Their missions will find them dealing with military and intelligence matters as well as the Mythos–they may even coincide! Then when facing the Mythos, the investigators also have to keep its existence a secret, whether from the Nazis or the Allied governments. Whilst on the home front, they must deal with rivalries between the various intelligence agencies and perhaps the wily ‘N’ himself! Who is ‘N’ and what does he want? That  question is left unanswered in  World War Cthulhu, but several suggestions are made–including one that will be very familiar to veteran players of Call of Cthulhu. For the moment, in this ‘Darkest Hour’, the wishes of ‘N’ and the prime minister seem to coincide…

Investigators in World War Cthulhu are created as per Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition. Then each investigator receives skill bonuses for his nationality (United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, Europe, and the USA), upbringing (rural or urban), military service (from Advisor, Agent, and Civilian Operative to Mobile Infantry, Pilot, and Radio Operative), personality (Bruiser, Expert, Thinker, and Leader), recruitment reason and initial Mythos encounter, and additional training. This grants a total bonus of some 550 points for each investigator and in some cases a small bonus to the Cthulhu Mythos skill. This has three effects. First, the personalities handily classify the investigators’ roles and make creating a group that little bit easier, and make replacement investigators easier to slot into a group. Second, they address the issue of investigators needing to be competent enough to go on missions as part of the war effort, that is, actually have at least passing knowledge of the military and espionage-related necessary–even an average investigator will be competent. That said, the third effect is to make the investigators more competent than is usual, pushing the tone of World War Cthulhu towards Pulp and away from the Purist.

To show how this works, Niamh Brewer is a typical Call of Cthulhu investigator, created using the standard Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition rules, plus a few extra skill points to reflect time spent as a nurse during the Great War. Prior to being recruited by ‘N’, she worked as a legal researcher, hunting down heirs to wills. Being a woman she was unable to obtain a degree and she would have remained a spinster–her fiancée having been killed during the Great War–had she not been recruited.

Niamh Brewer, Legal Researcher, aged 44
NATIONALITY: British
OCCUPATION: Legal Researcher

STR: 13 DEX: 16 INT: 15 IDEA: 75%
CON: 08 APP: 13 POW: 16 LUCK: 80%
SIZ: 15 SAN: 76 EDU: 18 KNOW: 90%
HP 12
Damage Bonus: +1d4

SKILLS: Accounting 50%, Archaeology 21%, Drive Auto 40%, First Aid 35%, History 50%, Law 55%, Library Use 75%, Listen 45%, Mechanical Repair 40%, Medicine 20%, Occult 25%, Persuade 65%, Psychoanalysis 11%, Psychology 35%, Spot Hidden 65%
LANGUAGES: English 75%, French 41%, German 16%, Italian 11%, Latin 41%, Spanish 11%
COMBAT SKILLS: Grapple 40%, Umbrella 40% damage 1d4+db

The following are the stats and skills for the investigator who has been adapted to World War Cthulhu

Niamh Brewer, Legal Researcher, aged 44
NATIONALITY: British
OCCUPATION: Legal Researcher
UPBRINGING: Urban PERSONALITY: Expert
MILITARY SERVICE: Civilian Operative
MYTHOS ENCOUNTER: Discovered a Mythos tome
REASON FOR JOINING: Forbidden Secrets

STR: 13 DEX: 16 INT: 15 IDEA: 75%
CON: 08 APP: 13 POW: 16 LUCK: 80%
SIZ: 15 SAN: 69 EDU: 18 KNOW: 90%
HP 12
Damage Bonus: +1d4

SKILLS: Accounting 50%, Archaeology 41%, Art (Painting) 45%, Bargain 15%, Conceal 25%, Craft (Gardening) 25%, Credit Rating 25%, Cryptography 30%, Cthulhu Mythos 08%, Dodge 52%, Drive Auto 70%, Electrical Repair 30%, Fast Talk 15%, First Aid 65%, Hide 30%, History 60%, Law 55%, Library Use 95%, Listen 65%, Mechanical Repair 60%, Medicine 20%, Natural History 20%, Occult 30%, Operate Radio 42%, Persuade 65%, Pharmacy 21%, Psychoanalysis 11%, Psychology 35%, Sneak 25%, Spot Hidden 85%, Survival 15%, Tradecraft 20%
LANGUAGES: English 95%, French 61%, German 16%, Italian 11%, Latin 51%, Spanish 11%
COMBAT SKILLS: Grapple 40%, Handgun 40%, SMG 25%, Umbrella 40% damage 1d4+db

‘N’ also indoctrinates his agents against the horrors they might encounter. By invoking his ideals or whatever he holds dear, an investigator may be given a roll against his POW×5 to reduce the effects of a Sanity loss following an encounter with the forces of the Mythos. Just like the additional skill points, this pushes World War Cthulhu towards the Pulp tone. In addition to providing extra skill points, World War Cthulhu also gives new occupations–Politician, Scientist, and Spy–as well as range of skills. These are mostly a mix of new military and new espionage related skills. The former include Command, Gunnery, and Military Science, whilst the latter include Cryptography and Tradecraft. Military Science also includes the tactics skill.

Investigators and their players also receive two solid sections of advice, one covering ‘Intelligence Operating Procedures’ and the other ‘Small Unit Tactics’. As solid as the advice is, it is incomplete. The problem is that all of this advice is for handling missions against the Nazis in occupied Europe and North Africa. It ignores the other strand of World War Cthulhu, that of investigating the Mythos and preventing it from falling into the hands of the Nazis. So where is the advice for doing this? Surely ‘N’ would give out such advice since he actually goes so far as to indoctrinate the investigators? It is not as even as the investigators in the default set-up are unaware of the Mythos.

The advice for Keeper is kept short and to the point, and unlike the advice for the players, it covers the Mythos aspects of the investigators’ missions as well as the military and intelligence ones. One of the pieces of advice highlights the primary difference between Achtung! Cthulhu and World War Cthulhu. This is that the militarisation of the Mythos should be avoided–or in the form of a mad scientist or SS sorcerer, at least rarely encountered. This is not something that Achtung! Cthulhu does and is one reason why its tone is Pulp whereas that of World War Cthulhu is mostly not… To support the advice on running missions, the Keeper has a gazetteer giving thumbnail snapshots of various Intelligence Theatres, from Vichy France and German  occupied North West Europe to North Africa and the Middle East. Besides a description, each country or region comes with a mission, both a military one and ‘N’s secret mission. There is plenty of variety in the twenty-five or so given, but they will need some development upon the part of the Keeper.

World War Cthulhu does not add anything new to the Mythos. Instead it updates it and brings it into the 1940s, examining the effect of the war–if any, upon the forces of the Mythos. Nor is it a comprehensive update. Understandable since the Call of Cthulhu canon is rather large and diverse, but the major entities, creatures, and forces of the Mythos are covered along with their human cults. It does adjust, or at least quantify, the Sanity rules though. First by granting a bonus if a player roleplays his investigator to his Personality and second by how successful he and the rest of the squad have been on a mission.

World War Cthulhu offers two major rules, one of which is optional. The first major rule addition handles a fundamental aspect of intelligence operations–going undercover. Essentially it is a percentile value that if a roll is failed against, it at least arouses the suspicions of the authorities, perhaps causes covers to be blown and identities to be revealed. It does involve some bookkeeping upon the part of the Keeper, but not much. It can even be used as means to push a scenario along too as not every cover identity is perfect. The second and optional rule covers ‘Dramatic Action’ in which the Keeper offers a player the chance for his investigator to do something dramatic and successful, but at the cost of placing him in extreme danger. It feels very similar to the ‘Push’ mechanic presented in the new Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, but probably will not be used as often. It also pushes the tone of the game towards Pulp.

The equipment section covers not just arms and armour, but also ordinary goods and things that the agents might buy at home, or anywhere in Europe and North Africa. The weaponry section is oddly diverse given that the focus of World War Cthulhu is on the early to middle years of the war in the European and North African theatres. The inclusion of Japanese weapons feels totally out of place as many of the American arms and vehicles. Overall the selection feels pitched towards the ‘Small Unit Tactics’ section of advice than it does the ‘Intelligence Operating Procedures’. 

Rounding out World War Cthulhu is ‘The God in the Woods’, a scenario set in Vichy France. The investigators are sent in by SOE to make contact with the French Partisans, but ‘N’ also wants them to look for a colleague of his. It is more of a mini-campaign, with a fully realised location and multiple plot threads. It is challenging like any Call of Cthulhu scenario, but showcases how much difficult it is to conduct an investigation totally surreptitiously. It is an excellent scenario and perhaps the highlight of the book.

Physically, World War Cthulhu is well written and decently presented. The artwork is also decent. If there is an issue, it is that the book needs an edit in places.

World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour strives for a Purist tone and style of play. It does not quite achieve that, primarily because it pushes investigator creation towards a Pulp tone, as does the Dramatic Action option. Balanced against is a good mini-campaign, some solid advice on running the game, its tight focus and campaign structure, and the fact that it does not militarise the Mythos. Yet despite this unevenness in tone, World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour is still a good Purist approach to Call of Cthulhu and World War Two.