Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 15 May 2015

Onslaught and the Occult in the Orient

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front is the third of three supplements for Modiphius Entertainment's World War 2 set RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror to examine particular theatres of the great conflict. The previous two books examined the Eastern Front and North Africa—in Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Russian Front and Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa respectively. Now the line heads to the Far East where the investigators will face foes seemingly inhuman and alien across inhospitable terrain that ranges from the wide stretches of open ocean to the depths beneath fecund, even foetid jungle. From 1932 until 1944, it covers first Japan’s growing dominance of China and then her lightning series of strikes that will see country after country and colony fall as well as the pride of the United States Navy sunk, before the Allies manage to regroup and send their forces hopping from island to the next, driving the resource starved Japanese forces back to their home islands. All this whilst certain races of the Mythos and cults devoted to Alien gods watch and wait to see if they can take advantage of the chaos…

As with the rest of Acthung! Cthulhu line, the Guide to the Pacific Front is written for use with both Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition and Savage Worlds. Mechanics for both are clearly marked and whilst the supplement does present a large number of items—tomes and spells in particular—that will be familiar to devotees of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying, this is primarily because they are being presented for the first time for Savage Worlds.

Before the Guide to the Pacific Front can begin covering the war itself, there are several decades of history to explore. These detail Japan’s meteoric modernisation and rise as a regional power, defeating first China and then Russia, before siding with the Allies in the Great War and capturing several former German colonies. Resentment towards her former allies coupled with rapid militarismthe latter often promoted and encouraged by the numerous secret societies made up of members of both the military and the government, drove Japan to invade China, Korea, and Manchuria before striking at the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour and then invading and conquering colonies and islands across South East Asia and the Pacific. Not is the rise and state of Japan described, but so is the state of the colonies and colonial powers across the region. The latter includes Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, whilst the former includes India, Burma, French Indochina, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and others. The timeline itself only goes as far as 1944 and not to the end of the war—at least in our timeline. This is with good reason, as events in Europe in April, 1944 and the supplements Achtung! Cthulhu: Assault on the  Mountains of Madness and Achtung! Cthulhu: Bye Bye Baby mean that the history in the Achtung! Cthulhu world plays out entirely differently...

As difficult a subject as it is, the Guide to the Pacific Front does not shy away from Japan’s deplorable treatment of her Prisoners of War. In addition to the overview an uncomfortable subject, rules are provided to surviving the harsh conditions imposed by the Japanese attitude towards prisoners as well as a Prisoner of War Hindrance for creating a POW. This lends itself to being part of an Achtung! Cthulhu campaign, but whether the investigators begin or end a game as POWs—or perhaps experience it somewhere between—this would be a harrowing and inhuman experience.

Mechanically, the supplement presents a good range of new character options, both civilian and military. These range from Colonial Settler and Guerilla Fighter to Triad Gang Member to Tribal Member and from Chindits and Codetalkers to Gurkhas and US Marines. Means are provided to create random nationalities and military drafts as training packages for the Australian Coastwatchers and US Marine Raiders. In many cases, the player and Keeper alike will need to refer back to Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War for the other generic, yet still appropriate backgrounds and Occupations. Nevertheless, this is a good mix of options and ideas, that is further supported by a solid list of equipment—primarily Japanese—to support that also given in Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War, and a good guide to fighting and surviving in the harsh conditions of South East Asia and the Pacific Islands. This covers how the war is fought and its difficulties, whether that it is the problem of conducting an amphibious landing past a coral reef, the limited lines of sight beneath the jungle campaign, or simply just trying to keep the front lines supported when they are thousands of miles away. The rules here cover jungle visibility, booby traps, and the dangers of infected wounds in a hot and humid environment amongst others.

Where the Guide to North Africa completely ignored the Crawling Chaos who it would be perfectly unnatural to have present mocking our activities throughout the desert campaign and beyond, the pleasure in the Guide to the Pacific Front is that it does not ignore the Great Old One lurking in the room—or rather in the depths of the ocean. The supplement’s exploration of the Mythos is expansive and detailed, focusing on a limited number of cults, races, and gods, starting of course, with great Cthulhu himself—or rather the cult and the races devoted to him. The focus is upon his servants rather than the Great Old One himself, so this not only includes the Deep Ones, and Mother Hydra and Father Dagon, but also his sons—Zoth-Ommog, Ythogtha, and Ghatanotha. Their inclusion pushes the supplement into some obscure aspects of the Mythos. They and their father and his cult are presented as potential allies rather than as active participants in the affairs of mankind. The Tcho-Tcho are treated in similar fashion, a detailed potential ally, but the Serpent People are not. Rather, in addition to going into detail about their origins and their reawakening, the Guide to the Pacific Front talks about their long range plans and their active interest in the doings of mankind. In fact, they appear to be most active of all the Mythos forces in the theatre and this makes them easier to use then the more passive Cthulhu Cult and Tcho-Tcho. Further, the long range plans of the Serpent People lends itself to a full campaign, one that could take beyond the end of World War 2.

Besides the races, gods, and entities of the Mythos, gives a number new artefacts, spells, and tomes. Most of them—such as the Cthaat Aquadingen and Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New-England Canaan—are new to Savage Worlds rather than Call of Cthulhu.

What is apparent from the description of the Mythos in the Pacific is—barring the plans of the Serpent People—how little human agency is involved. This is radically different to the war in the West, where the Nazi secret organisations of Achtung! CthulhuBlack Sun and Nachte Wölfe—are actively researching and ‘co-opting’ the Mythos. In the Pacific, neither organisation is particularly active and the Japanese seem to possess almost no knowledge of the Mythos. This seems almost true of the Allies as well, Department M is hardly present and there appears to be no active opposition or investigation of the outré aspects of the war. Of course, this leaves it open for a Keeper to develop this aspect himself, but some direction would have been useful, more so given how good the Mythos material is in Guide to the Pacific Front.

Rounding out the Guide to the Pacific Front are descriptions of numerous NPCs. As with the other supplements, the real world figures are given just a description rather than a description and stats. This understandable, but the descriptions are decent and the stats given to the ordinary NPCs are good. The latter includes NPC versions of the Occupations given earlier, but notably also gives stats for some surprising NPCs—members of the INA, the Indian National Army that fought the British in the jungles of Burma. Lastly, the supplement includes a trio of adventure seeds the send the investigators to some interesting places.

Physically, the Guide to the Pacific Front is well presented, being neat and tidy, and decently illustrated, with a lot of good information. Like the Guide to North Africa, lots of extra information can be found in the boxed text that appears fairly regularly. Yet as presented as the supplement is, in terms of the writing, it is a book of two halves. The first half, which deals with the history of, and the background to, the conflict in the East and how it was fought is simply overwritten and stylistically, often a challenge to read. Now to be fair, I am reading the book as both a reviewer and an editor, and so when it comes to the writing I may be overly sensitive, but there were occasions when I had to put the book down, walk away, and then come back to it later. Fortunately, the second half of the book, the half that deals with the Mythos is infinitely easier to read and thus much more engaging.

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front is not a perfect book. The writing is uneven in places and aspects of the book are underwritten, but it is a good book. It provides an excellent overview of the conflict in the Far East and how it was fought, the rules and armoury are solidly done in supporting the overview, and fundamentally, its treatment of the Mythos is nicely detailed and does not feel as if it sits in isolation from Call of Cthulhu cannon. Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front is a solid treatment of the war in the Pacific, whether fighting against the ordinary or the outré.