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Saturday 21 March 2015

Supernatural Secrets of the Sands

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa opens up the core focus of Modiphius Entertainment on the war in Europe and brings Lovecraftian investigative horror in World War 2 to a whole new theatre—the desert war. In doing so it explores two wars and just a limited time frame. The first is of course between the Desert Fox and the Desert Rats, between Field Marshal Rommel and ultimately General Montgomery, fought with tanks, minefields, and men across the burning sands that stretch from Morocco in the West and Egypt in the East. The second is the hidden war, a ‘game’ of cat and mouse as more secret than secret organisations on both sides try to ascertain and thwart each other’s plans. The period for this setting is little more than two years, between 1941 and 1943, during which time battle will ebb and flow across harsh sands…

As with the core books for the line—Achtung! Cthulhu: Keeper’s Guide to the Secret War and Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret WarAchtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa is written for use with both Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition and Savage Worlds. It perhaps gets a little busy in places where the writing has to switch between explaining the rule systems, but overall the supplement is well written. The supplement’s single map of North Africa is also done in full, vibrant colour, actually cover all but the south of the continent. The book itself is done in full colour, but in muted shades as is standard for the line, with decent, if stylised artwork, the layout done as a burgeoning sheaf of documents.

The supplement begins by setting the scene, with both an extensive chronology of the war fought, month by month from May, 1939 until November, 1943 and an extensive gazetteer of North Africa. Both it should be noted also cover East Africa and to an extent, the Middle East, and then to a lesser extent West Africa, because battles were also fought there. Primarily against the Italians in the Horn of Africa, but also against the Axis backed insurgents in Iran and Iraq and the activities of Vichy France in her colonies. The discussion of SOE’s fractious operations that also hamper the American  amateurs of the OSS against the Abwehr’s extensive network sets the background for intelligence operations in the region. Further chapters detail the arms and armour, equipment and other vehicles fielded throughout the conflict with a particular emphasis upon the Italian armed forces as Mussolini's imperial ambitions mean that North Africa is a major theatre of operations for them. Interesting points here note that all sides would often issue and reissue similar uniforms and the lack of armour early in the war mean that some Allied forces field Italian tanks! Of course, fighting in the hot and arid environment of North Africa brings its own dangers, so full rules are provided for dehydration, heat stroke, sunburn, and sunblindness as well as scavenging in the desert.

In terms of characters, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa provides a surprising array of new options. These include a new version of classic Call of Cthulhu Occupation, the Archaeologist, as well as the expected Occupations for members of the Long Range Desert Group, Special Air Service “Jeep Raider”, and Privateer, No. 1 Demolition Squadron (Popski’s Private Army), there are some interesting additions. These include members of the 28th Māori Battalion, Greek Sacred Band, Askari (tribal soldiers), and more. These are supported by new Background and other Edges such as National Identities for India, New Zealand, and South Africa, and Comfortably Numb—that is, inured to the mental trauma of combat.

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa being a supplement for a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror means that the Mythos is not ignored. There are two strands to this in Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa. The first is what the Nazi secret organisations of Achtung! Cthulhu—Black Sun and Nachte Wölfe—are up to, which primarily consists of long range expeditions deep into the desert and learning of these will probably result in the player characters making equally long trips accompanied by the Long Range Desert Group or Special Air Service. The other strand develops the Mythos indigenous to the region, in particular expanding upon the origins of the Necronomicon, upon the history and inhabitants of the Lost City of Irem, and upon the worship of Sebek. All three are solid additions to the Call of Cthulhu canon, that upon Irem in particular, expanding as it does in a more interesting fashion than has been done for Call of Cthulhu previously. 

Yet despite describing various other locations and adding an array of artefacts, spells, and tomes—many of them new to Savage Worlds if not Call of Cthulhu—the section on the Cthulhu Mythos does feel underwhelming. For what it does not do is develop or update any of the Mythos threats or entities known to be at large in Egypt. For outside of New England, Egypt is and always has been, a most notorious hotbed of Mythos activity, whether that is with the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, the Brotherhood of the Beast, or the worshippers of Bast—discussion of the former being an especially odd exclusion given the inclusion of Masks of Nyarlathotep in the bibliography. Now this exclusion may be down to the limits of the license and it may well be down to the space limitations of the book, but either way, this exclusion is definitely a pity, because it would miss out on the other opportunities and adversaries already present that have to be doing something during World War 2.

The Keeper is ably supported by new spells and Mythos tomes as well as a Mythos bestiary and a ‘who’s who’ of the conflict. These include ordinary NPCS—both civilians and soldiers, such as Arabic Museum Director, Society Matron, Sonderkommando Dora, and Polizia Dell’ Africa Italiana—and the leading figures of the conflict, such as Rommel and Montgomery, Mussolini and Bradley, and King Farouk I and Haile Selassie. Now none of these leading figures are given stats, but that is intentional and none of them really need the stats. A number of examples of the Mythos entities and creatures described earlier in the book are also given stats, whilst rounding out the supplement is a trio of adventure seeds. These are not all that interesting, especially given that the book contains better hooks for ideas elsewhere in its pages. 

Of course Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa has a lot to cover and cannot be expected to cover everything. It certainly covers the mundane side of the North African war in an engaging and informative way, and were the Keeper to want to run ordinary missions and operations, then he will find just about everything he would want in the pages of this supplement. Further, he will also find lots of extra details, colour information and descriptions of interesting personalities and places that he can bring to his game. Where it feels underdeveloped is not in terms of the material new to the Mythos, but in terms of the greater Mythos, which means that the Keeper will have to develop this material himself. Yet despite this disappointment, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa is a solid supplement providing plenty of material for the Keeper to take the secret war into the harsh sands of North Africa.

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