In the wake following the publication of The Black Hack has come a slew of games that either added to the Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy of The Black Hack or took the Old School Rennaisence play style/player facing mechanics combination in another direction. So The Class Hack and The Race Hack, both from Cross Planes Game Studio added new/old Classes and Races to the game respectively, whilst Feral Games’ The WasteLand Hack goes all post-apocalypse, The Space Hack from Ivanhoe Unbound takes to the stars, and Just Crunch Games’ The Cthulhu Hack lets you confront the horrorifying nature of the universe. As can be seen from just from mentions of these, there are plenty to choose from, so after having selected that looked interesting to review in the form of The Jack Hack: A Role-Playing Game of Victorian Villains, Reviews from R’lyeh turns to the obvious one it should review—The Cthulhu Hack: Surviving the Unnameable made using The Black Hack.
The Cthulhu Hack combines the framework of the original fantasy roleplaying game with the player-facing mechanics of 2013 for its dark uncaring tones of Lovecraftian investigative horror. What this means is that The Cthulhu Hack is a Class and Level game which uses many of the design elements of Dungeons & Dragons. For its core mechanic, whenever a player character—or investigator—wants to take an action, he makes a Saving Throw against an appropriate attribute by rolling under it. This is always player facing, so whenever an investigator wants to shoot a cultist, he saves against his Dexterity, but he also saves against his Dexterity to avoid being shot. This is always on a twenty-sided die. Where an investigator has the Advantage on an action, he receives a second twenty-sided die and rolls them both, using the better result. Having the Disadvantage works the same way, but the worst result is used instead.
Like all games derived from The Black Hack, what the player facing mechanics means in terms of running the game is that the GM hardly has to roll any dice. This leaves him to concentrate on presenting the world and especially in The Cthulhu Hack, the presenting the plot for the player characters to investigate.
In terms of characters The Cthulhu Hack provides five Classes—Adventurer, Bruiser, Philanthropist, Ruffian, and Scholar. In the main, these Classes map back onto those given in The Black Hack. So the Bruiser, able to gain a second wind whilst in a fight, make extra attacks, and sacrifice a piece of equipment to stop an attack, is the Fighter. The Philanthropist can heal others out of combat, so this the Cleric, whilst with his ability to avoid traps and attack better from surprise, the Ruffian is the Rogue. Of the other two Classes, they do have a more investigative bent. Thus the Adventurer can gain a hint from the GM once per session, whilst the Scholar can improvise a solution to a situation or problem, using whatever means he has to hand, including from ye olde musty tome of forbidden lore.
In addition to selecting a Class, each player rolls to determine an Occupation related to that Class. So for example, the Scholar gives Astronomer, Professor, Medium, Librarian, Solicitor*, and Linguist, along with a set of possessions for each. Each Occupation also represents a character’s field of knowledge and grants the character the Advantage on rolls related to said Occupation. So for example, a Solicitor would have the Advantage in accounting or legal matters, whereas an Engineer from the Adventurer Class would have an advantage in fixing and designing things as well as working them out. This then covers another aspect of Lovecraftian investigative horror—skills and what a character knows as much as what he can do.
*The inclusion of the Solicitor an indication of the author’s nationality.
Our sample investigator is Rogatien Renaudeau, a French-Canadian sailor turned rumrunner. He runs whisky across the Great Lakes into Prohibition hindered USA. Of late, he has started noticing strange crews out on the water that are doing something other than running rum…
First Level Ruffian
STR 11 DEX 16 CON 10
INT 13 WIS 10 CHA 14
Hit Points: 6
Sanity Die: d8
Attack Damage: 1d6/1d4 (Unarmed/Improvising)
Revolver, Tide Tables, Radio, Codebook, $14
Like other Black Hack derived games, The Cthulhu Hack makes use of the Usage Die. This is rolled whenever a character uses, for example, a torch or ammunition. If the result of roll is a one or two, then the die is degraded by one step, for example, from an eight-sided to a six-sided die, and so on. The Cthulhu Hack does not use the Usage Die for money, but instead uses money as you would normally. What it does use the Usage Die for is Sanity, Flashlights, and Smokes.
The Sanity Usage Die is rolled whenever encounters a shocking or dehumanising situation. So learn of the death of your aunt or discover a dismembered body or be stalked by a Deep One, the Sanity Die is rolled and if degraded down a step, the GM also rolls for the character’s Temporary Insanity. A character whose Sanity Die has been degraded down to a four-sided die over the course of play and who then rolls a one or two when making a roll of his Sanity Usage Die goes permanently insane.
Flashlights and Smokes represents a character's ability to ability to conduct investigations and get clues. Flashlights are a character’s ability to discover things, whether from time spent in a library or spotting something odd, whilst Smokes are his ability to learn from others, whether through interrogation, persuasion, bribery, and so on. When their Usage Die degrades, they represent a character getting tired or clueless. Importantly, the Usage Die is rolled after the clue is gained, so the result of a Usage Die degrading is effectively the character gaining the clue with consequences, the equivalent of ‘Yes, but...’ or ‘Yes, and…’. Now where a character’s Flashlight Die and Usage Die refresh at the end of an adventure, the Sanity Die takes much, much longer to recover—weeks and months.
In terms of the Mythos, The Cthulhu Hack gives just a handful of creatures and entities, from Byakhee and Deep One to Mi-Go and Shoggoth. It does not give any stats for any of the Elder Gods, Great Old Ones, or Outer Gods, but rather abstracts them in the book’s discussion of, and introduction to, the Mythos. Of course there is much more that could be written about them, and whilst there is not the space to expand greatly upon the nature of the Mythos, it does leave the reader wanting. The main problem is that although the greater entities are discussed, only the stats are given for the lesser entities—the Elder Thing, the Great Race of Yith, and so on. Which means that there is no discussion of how they are used.
The Cthulhu Hack does though, include rules for Mythos spells. Only the Scholar and the Philanthropist can learn more than one spell and for each spell learned, a character’s Sanity die degrades. The spells themselves are divided into seven Levels, with three or four spells per Level. This does mean that some spells, like Elder Sign and Call Byakhee, do take quite a long time to learn.
It should also be made clear that The Cthulhu Hack is in the main period neutral. There is however, a slight bias towards the classic period of Lovecraftian investigative horror, that of the 1920s, in the choice of Occupations. Thus there is an Alienist rather than a psychiatrist. Nevertheless, The Cthulhu Hack is easy to run in most modern periods, but will need some adaptations upon the part of the GM if he wants to run it outside of the modern period.
Now there are oddities in The Cthulhu Hack. Why are things like ammunition abstracted with the Usage Die, but money is not? In actuality, it is designed to emulate the chaos of battle and that moment in the heat of a fight when track is lost of exactly how many bullets there are in a gun. Now this is not an unreasonable assumption, but it still feels odd. Then there is the matter of how both the entities and spells of the Mythos are covered, but Mythos tomes—such as the infamous The Necronomicon—are not. Also not covered is how knowledge of the Mythos is gained or learned and then applied in play. If the aim of The Cthulhu Hack is to simplify this to exactly what a character has learned in the course of an adventure, then this should have at least been addressed. Nevertheless, it does ignore a major aspect of the Mythos. Another oddity is that the Philanthropist carries over the Healing ability of the Cleric from The Black Hack in that it can heal Hit Points, but does not adapt it to deal with Sanity. This despite the fact that the Alienist and the Doctor are included in the Occupations for the Philanthropist, let alone the Clergyman who should be able to provide succour in times of need at least…
Physically, The Cthulhu Hack is neat little book. There are no illustrations, but it does not really need them. It needs an edit here and there.
From Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu to Realms of Cthulhu and Shadows of Cthulhu, there have been plenty of RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror over the past thirty-five years. Now The Cthulhu Hack is not as simple as Cthulhu Dark – A Rules-Light system For Lovecraftian Horror, but it is stripped back and it does provide an elegant means for discovering clues and handling investigations in the form of Flashlights and Smokes. These are excellent additions to The Black Hack, yet as much as The Black Hack and thus The Cthulhu Hack are forward facing, The Cthulhu Hack still feels a little too much like the Dungeons & Dragons of The Black Hack and does not quite address all of the elements of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Fortunately, the mechanical simplicity of The Black Hack and thus The Cthulhu Hack means that the GM can address this issue with relative ease. Despite its omissions, The Cthulhu Hack offers a clean, simple, and unfussy approach to Lovecraftian investigative horror that feels refreshing compared to similar RPGs.