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

Monday, 16 May 2016

Time Sensitive Cthulhu

Since the publication of White Dwarf #42 in June, 1983, and the subsequent publication of On the Trail of the Loathsome Slime in 1985, the flexibility of when and where Call of Cthulhu can be set has never been in doubt. The publisher of the venerable RPG, Chaosium, Inc., capitalised on this flexibility, offering first boxed sets that explored the Dreamlands and Victorian England with H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and Cthulhu by Gaslight respectively, followed later by the modern era set Cthulhu Now, scenarios set in times past and future with Strange Aeons and Strange Aeons II, the end of the first millennium with Cthulhu: Dark Ages, and Imperial Rome with Cthulhu Invictus. Further, publishers as diverse as Pagan Publishing, Modiphius Entertainment, and Cubicle Seven Entertainment have all developed their own settings using Call of Cthulhu. Yet with the publication of the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Investigator Handbook and the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Keeper Rulebook, only two eras are as yet supported—Call of Cthulhu’s classic period of the 1920s and the contemporary era—whereas previous editions of the RPG had supported other eras, Cthulhu by Gaslight and H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands in particular.

Given how much of a redesign and a rewrite Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is, it is no surprise that there was just not the space to devote to these other eras—as lamentable as their omissions are. Fortunately, Chaosium has taken steps to address this lack with a slim supplement that serves as an introduction and primer to Call of Cthulhu in other times and places. In doing so though, it does create issues and problems of its own, the solutions to which will ultimately render this supplement redundant. Cthulhu Through the Ages: Guidelines for Playing Call of Cthulhu in Seven Different Eras presents four settings in the past, one setting that will never be in the here and now, and two future settings. They are in turn and mostly chronological order, Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, Mythic Iceland, H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, Cthulhu by Gaslight, Cthulhu Icarus, and The Reaping. Of the seven, only one of the settings is new to Call of Cthulhu—though not Chaosium, one is new to Chaosium, and one is new to print for Call of Cthulhu outside of a Monograph.

Each of the seven settings runs to no more than seven pages, providing in turn a modicum of background, a list of the skills pertinent to the setting, some Backstory suggestions and a handful of Occupations, a discussion of the Mythos in the period, a plot seed, and perhaps some setting appropriate Mythos monsters or investigator organisations. They begin with ‘Cthulhu Invictus’, which presents Call of Cthulhu at the height of Imperial Rome. So the Backstory suggestions include patron god, meaningful locations, and treasured possessions, whilst a player can also roll for his investigator’s birth portents. The sample nine Occupations range from Augur and Courtesan to Speculatore and Surgeon, whilst skills include Art and Craft (Poisons) and Status. There are no sample investigator organisations, but the type of organisations possible are discussed. Although a serviceable introduction to the setting, the good news is that although not for written for use with Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, Cthulhu Invictus is still in print and available, although its best support—The Legacy of Arrius Lurco and De Horrore Cosmico—has come from third party publishers.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the second setting, ‘The Dark Ages’. This is based on the supplement Cthulhu Dark Ages, originally published in German as Cthulhu 1000 AD, the English version, published in 2004, has been out print for a decade and even then, was ill-realised and ill-supported. The good news is that Cthulhu Dark Ages, Second Edition has the focus and realisation that the original edition lacked, although it is not yet in print. This primer has its Backstory suggestions and Life Events table, plus Occupations such as Beggar, Cleric, Monk/Nun, and Woodsman/Fisherman. The skills are very similar to those given for Cthulhu Invictus and the discussion of investigator organisations is about community rather than actual organisations. Perhaps the most interesting element to the setting is the worldview versus the Mythos, that of a religious rationale rather the scientific one of the twentieth century.

The third setting, ‘Mythic Iceland’ is a corollary to ‘The Dark Ages’ and thus Cthulhu Dark Ages, being set in the same time period. It is new to Call of Cthulhu, but not Chaosium, its origins lying in a supplement for Basic Roleplaying of the same name. The settings makes two fundamental changes to the rules for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. First, Luck when spent to adjust rolls as per the optional rule in the new edition, it cannot be regained. Once it is gone, it is gone. This reflects the Icelanic view that every man has a finite amount of luck. Second, it dispenses with Occupations because Icelandic society was not structured enough to support specialised professionals. Its treatment of the Mythos is not as expansive, but it is not detailed enough to be focused either, instead just pointing towards the involvement of certain entities. This though should be enough for an experienced Keeper to develop scenarios from. There is certainly some potential in ‘Mythic Iceland’ as it could also take the investigators from Iceland to Greenland and even pre-colonial North America.

The fourth setting is ‘Gaslight’, a primer for the recently published Cthulhu by Gaslight, Second Edition. Of the seven settings described in Cthulhu Through the Ages, it is chronologically the closest to the default Jazz Age of Call of Cthulhu and thus mechanically the most similar in terms of skills and Occupations. The section’s focus is primarily on the differences—mainly an emphasis on social class, so the Credit Rating skill is particularly important. It includes a few archetypal Occupations, such as the Adventuress, the Consulting Detective, Inquiry Agent, and so on, plus a pair of Investigator Organisations. The latter are given more space than the Mythos in the period, but that can accounted for the short gap between it and the Jazz Age. Nevertheless, at four pages in length, this is a short section and both feels and is brief.

The fifth setting, ‘The Dreamlands’ is likewise as short, but where ‘Gaslight’ will be historically familiar to players and Keepers of Call of Cthulhu, this section will be the most familiar in Cthulhu Through the Ages in game terms. After all, H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands has gone through five editions and been supported with innumerable  scenarios. So it is not surprising that it just covers the basics—how to get into the Dreamlands, the Dreaming skill, and dying in the Dreamlands. There is also a map of the Dreamlands, plus new creatures not found in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook—Gugs, Moon-Beasts, and Zoogs. Given that this runs to barely five pages—including the map—it seems odd that this section was not included in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook.

The last two settings pitch Cthulhu Through the Ages into the future. ‘Cthulhu Icarus – A Futuristic Micro Setting for Call of Cthulhu’ originally appeared the magazine, Worlds of Cthulhu #2 and is the closest that the supplement has to an actual scenario. It casts the Investigators as part of the multi-national, multi-corporation crew of the Icarus, a spaceship exploring the outer reaches of the Solar System. Their discoveries though no less scientific, will point towards the horrors in the darkness of Space. The section includes three possible scenarios, each more or less, a one-shot. Despite this being the nearest to a complete setting in the supplement, there is potential here for more than just one-shots and it is a pity that this micro setting does not explore it further.

The second of the futuristic settings will be familiar to anyone with a degree of Call of Cthulhu lore. ‘The Reaping’ is set during the Cthulhu End Times, the near future when the Stars have come Right and the Great Old Ones have risen to devastate the Earth and cause the collapse of human civilisation. This period of the Earth’s history has been much discussed by Call of Cthulhu devotees in the past, but although there was talk of a supplement, the only thing to materialise was the Monograph, End Times, published in 2003. As a post-apocalyptic, Call of Cthulhu setting, this is perhaps the most interesting one—it is certainly the most original one—in the supplement, the entities and forces of the Mythos openly moving across the land whilst survivors hide in outpost sanctuaries, trying not to acknowledge the madness and insanity outside of their walls. The investigators—Healers, Lore Seekers, Scavengers, and more—might seeking ancient for their own purposes, searching for a sanctuary, or even attempting to thwart one of the many cults that hold power now. ‘The Reaping’ feels fresh and interesting and deserves more than just these few pages.

In addition, Cthulhu Through the Ages presents a guide to combat in the Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and Mythic Iceland settings. It is short and serviceable. The supplement is rounded out with Investigator sheets for each of the seven periods detailed in its pages.

Arguably, the book could have been better organised in that the skills from each individual setting chapter could have been collected into a chapter dedicated to just skills—just as Cthulhu Through the Ages does with ‘Swords and Arrows’, which gives combat rules for use with Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and Mythic Iceland. Such a chapter would simply list all of the skills in alphabetical order with an indication as to which setting they are used in. This would have prevented the repetition of the skills such as Drive Horse/Oxen, Fighting (Shield), Insight, Repair/Devise, and Status from the chapters devoted to Cthulhu Invictus and Cthulhu: Dark Ages at the very least. Plus it would have freed up more space for more background material and perhaps more adventure seeds. 

In terms of artwork as well as space, Cthulhu Through The Age is poorly served. Now the full pages that preface each chapter are fine, especially where the covers of the core books for each of the settings are used, are fine. Yet other art does nothing but take take up space, which along with the white space, could have been used to better sell the settings that the book is intended to promote.

Overall, Cthulhu Through the Ages is something of a mixed bag. Both ‘Cthulhu Icarus – A Futuristic Micro Setting for Call of Cthulhu’ and ‘The Reaping’ are relatively new  and feel full of untapped potential. Of the two, ‘The Reaping’ deserves a supplement of its own. The other five settings either have, or have had, supplements of their own and this is something of a problem. For example, both Cthulhu Dark Ages and H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are out of print, so there is no way for the Keeper to find out more information without some searching. Once they are in print for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, their content will make that contained in the particular sections of Cthulhu Through the Ages redundant. Further, for all five of these settings, it feels as if there is not enough information to do very much with any of them and does not help that these are not full adaptations from Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but merely sliver-like tasters for each of them.

Ultimately, Cthulhu Through the Ages is a supplement for the experienced Keeper and his players as it presents the way in which each of its settings should be adapted to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition—and from this starting point, the resourceful Keeper can do the rest. That is, until editions of the particular supplements appear for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. For the neophyte Keeper it is much less useful, not having neither quite enough detail to be really helpful or to really hint at how good these settings can be.

-oOo-

Chaosium, Inc. will be at UK Games Expo.