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

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A Very English End Times

 As much as it has been heralded, little is known of the End Times, that end of days when the ‘Stars come right’ and the Mythos rises wild to reclaim what it once possessed. Barring the Miskatonic University Library Association monographs, End Times and Ripples from Carcosa, the nature of the End Times has little touched upon in Call of Cthulhu, or indeed, in Lovecraftian investigative horror in general. That is until 2015 when Pelgrane Press released Cthulhu Apocalypse. This is a supplement for Trail of Cthulhu, the publisher’s clue-orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, one that explores the nature of a Mythos influenced apocalypse not in the next one hundred years as hinted at in the End Times, but an apocalypse in 1936. Specifically, November 2nd, 1936. It provides the means to set up an apocalypse—are entities of the Mythos responsible or are they merely taking advantage of a natural or manmade disaster?—and explore its events and effects. First in its immediate aftermath—in the Aftershock, and then later, perhaps years later—in the Wasteland. Cthulhu Apocalypse is rounded out with a full campaign that will see the player characters explore an England that has fallen and decide not only her fate, but perhaps that of the world.

Cthulhu Apocalypse is notable for two reasons. First, it is actually a collation and development of several earlier releases—The Apocalypse Machine, The Dead White World, and Slaves of the Mother—by Graham Walmsley, the designer of the minimalist Cthulhu Dark and the author of Stealing Cthulhu, into a larger whole with co-author, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. Second, it inducts the works of stalwarts of the post-apocalypse genre into the Mythos—authors such as John Christopher, Richard Matheson, H.G. Wells, and John Wyndham. So The Death of Grass and The Tripod Trilogy, I am Legend, War of the Worlds, and The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, and The Kraken Awakes. Now although not all of these authors are English, the inclusion of both Wells and Wyndham does lend the ‘end times’ presented in Cthulhu Apocalypse a certain coziness that is further exacerbated by the Middle Class set-up to the campaign included in the supplement. Rest assured though, even when faced with death of food crops, of interplanetary invaders piloting great tripod machines, of ‘vampires’ feeding like locusts, of plants walking, alien invasions via surrogacy, and intelligences from the sea attacking the land, there is room enough—and more, given the reduced population—for Mythos-induced madness. Nevertheless, Cthulhu Apocalypse cannot quite escape it feeling very, very English.

Cthulhu Apocalypse opens with the presentation of the ‘Apocalypse Machine’, not so much a machine as a tool/flowchart that provides the means to build an apocalyptic disaster and track its effects on both mankind and the planet. Starting with a cause—humanity, the Mythos, or nature—it looks how various disasters are affected by the various causes. The disasters include monsters, technology, weapons, diseases, floods, heat, cold, and more. Casualties are also considered, not just biology and soil, food and water, but also reality and books.  Then by adjusting four dials—the Humanity Dial, the Time Dial, the Weird Dial, and the Adrenaline Dial—the Keeper can answer four questions about the apocalypse. Essentially, how humanity reacted to the apocalypse; when did the apocalypse take place; how weird is the post-apocalyptic world; and how gritty or exhilarating is it to play? At lower levels, the Humanity Dial indicates that mankind survives as individuals rather than as communities and that murder is common, whereas at higher levels mankind retains its humanity and decency and wanting to rebuild society. The Time Dial goes from zero and the apocalypse occurring in the first investigation, then up by years through the next generation and beyond to a time that has no memory of it happening. This determines whether the investigators and society will be scavenging or rebuilding. The Weird Dial goes from the ordinary world to adding mutants and psychic powers before making them integral to the setting along with weird technology. The Adrenaline Dial begins with mankind’s sadness at, and reflection of, all that has been lost and gets turned up to driving hotrods through crumbling city streets, guns blazing. Essentially by following the ‘Apocalypse Machine’ flowchart and adjusting the results with the four dials, the Keeper gets to create the basics of the setting for his ‘Cthulhu Apocalypse’.

Once the apocalypse is itself set, then Cthulhu Apocalypse explores the role of the investigator in the ‘end times’. This begins with Occupations, dropping some like the Dilettante and Private Investigator, but adding Agitator, Armourer, Drifter, Socialite, Survivalist, and so forth. The roles played by each Occupation in both Aftermath and Wasteland-set campaigns are discussed and every Occupation has an Scavenging Speciality as well as a Special Ability. As per Trail of Cthulhu, every investigator in Cthulhu Apocalypse has a Drive, essentially what pushes him to scrutinise the unfathomable and confront the horror, but because the horror is overt—even running wild—rather than covert in Cthulhu Apocalypse, the Drive needs to be stronger to push an investigator to go towards the horror rather than the other way. As per the Occupations, Cthulhu Apocalypse drops some Drives as unsuitable, but adds others. A nice touch is that several include samples taken from works of fiction. How the various Investigative Abilities work in the Aftermath and the Wasteland is also examined. Notably, the science abilities can identify things that are ‘beyond science’ and Cthulhu Mythos plays more of a prominent role because with the Mythos abroad, it is essentially confirming what all those blasphemous tomes wrote about years ago… Only one General Ability is added and this is appropriately, Scavenging.

As much as an Investigator’s Drive pushes him to confront the Mythos in the newly upturned world, what holds him back from total insanity in Cthulhu Apocalypse—at least for a while—are his Sources and Pillars of Stability. The first are his friends and family, which in the post-apocalypse he still believes to be alive, whilst the latter are more his sincerest held beliefs, such country, faith, humanity, and so on. Both support and can refresh an Investigator’s Stability, for example, an Investigator can invoke a Source of Stability by writing them a letter or doing something that reminds him of their memory. As much as the Keeper is advised to look for opportunities to question, undermine, and smash, he is also advised not to drive too many of the Investigators mentally ill, essentially enough to demonstrate that the situation of the apocalypse is enough to drive men insane, but without it destabilising a campaign. Nevertheless, Cthulhu Apocalypse adds several new mental illnesses to inflict upon the Investigators, including delusion and denial as well as numerous defence mechanisms, like displacement, eldritch babbling, night terrors, sleepwalking, and so on.

The effect of the Apocalypse is not only deleterious to the Investigator’s mental wellbeing, but it can also physically affect them too. When it comes to improving an Investigator, there will be times when the Investigator will receive not Improvement Points, but Affliction Points. When assigned to an Ability, that Ability becomes more than than mankind can possibly know, its use all but unnatural in the eyes of others. Affliction Points can also be assigned to new Abilities—Psychic Afflictions—that work as Investigative Abilities. They range from Aura Reading, Control, and Dreaming to Psychic Scream, Remote Viewing, and Telepathy. To be honest, these are more tools for the Keeper than the players as they are not intended to provide definitive answers, but rather hints and vagaries. Nevertheless, they are in keeping with the genre.

Besides covering equipment in the post-apocalyptic world, Cthulhu Apocalypse guides the Keeper through an overview of the decaying Earth and gives solid advice to the Keeper on running a Cthulhu Apocalypse campaign and to the player on roleplaying in a Cthulhu Apocalypse campaign. Lastly, Cthulhu Apocalypse looks at each place and role of each important Mythos entity in this new world. Primarily these are ideas about they might bring about an apocalypse, but several new entities are added to the familiar roster that includes Azathoth, Cthulhu, Deep Ones, Elder Things, Mi-Go, and more. These additions are drawn from the works aforementioned authors and consist of the Children from The Midwich Cuckoos and both the Martians and the Red Weed from The War of the World.

A good two thirds of Cthulhu Apocalypse is devoted to a single campaign, plus several scenarios. The campaign consists of ‘The Dead White World’ and ‘Slaves to the Mother’. ‘The Dead White World’ has a very definite set up and although guidelines are given for creating investigators suited to the campaign, the Investigators should essentially be Middle Class and be on their way to a wedding in the town of Dover on the southeast coast. They awaken to find that the train they were on has crashed, that the world around them has died, and that strange plants now infect the land. The apocalypse here is not one born of the Mythos, but as the scenarios progress and the Investigators move from Dover back across the country, they discover not only the changes wrought by the plants, but also the response of the Mythos to both the plants and the changes. This response will come to a head at the climax of ‘The Dead White World’ when the Investigators have an opportunity to decide who prevails and will immediately inherit this upturned world.

The cause of the apocalypse and the foe at the heart of ‘The Dead White World’ is neither the Mythos, nor anything previously described in Cthulhu Apocalypse, but it is decidedly Wyndhamesque. Indeed, the campaign feels very much like a cosy catastrophe, both authors incorporating encounters similar to those in Wyndham’s fiction and seen in other works of post-apocalyptic fiction. Thus we encounter groups of survivors holding one last party, others steadfastly going about life they had before the apocalypse, and holdouts making some sort of accommodation with the ‘enemy’ in the new world. As Wyndhamesque as these encounters are, the authors do not forget the Mythos nor the mechanics of Trail of Cthulhu. This leads to some delightfully odd encounters that pleasingly mix the Mythos with the apocalypse, in particular with a postman in London and later with a gangster in Brighton that is a knowing nod to Graham Greene.

There is a three-year interregnum between the events of the first part of the campaign, ‘The Dead White World’, and second part, ‘Slaves to the Mother’, reflecting the fact that there was a three-year interregnum between the two being published. By this time the Investigators will have been greatly changed by the events of the apocalypse, perhaps even become Afflicted mutants. In ‘Slaves to the Mother’, they are once again drawn across England, constantly seeking sanctuary, but driven hither and thither, ultimately to perhaps find a solution to the world’s ills. This half of the campaign reflects the choices made by the Investigators at the denouement of ‘The Dead White World’, between the Wyndhamesque and the Mythos, but ultimately, the Mythos prevails as it should—and in a manner that scholars of the Mythos will be greatly familiar with.

Rounding out the campaign are a number of short scenarios set in North America, where perhaps the Investigators may have escaped to after the close of ‘Slaves to the Mother’. They primarily take place in the Midwest and draw more heavily and immediately from the Mythos than the campaign does. These are decent scenarios, but they are more postscripts to the campaign and are better used as one-shots rather than extensions. The campaign itself feels episodic and in places, linear as if it is dragging the Investigators through its events. Despite this, the campaign is a delightful exercise in exploring the horror behind the cosy and the mannered.

Physically, Cthulhu Apocalypse comes as a sturdy hardback, illustrated in black and white. It is as assuredly presented as previous titles for Trail of Cthulhu. The artwork is excellent and the writing clear, though Graham Walmsley’s voice is notably strong in the first half of the book, having a direct, questioning style previously seen in Stealing Cthulhu. If the book is lacking, it is that there is no bibliography.

As much as Cthulhu Apocalypse presents an end of the world in the desperate decade, there is no reason why its mechanics cannot be applied to other times and periods. The same can be said of the campaign, as the apocalypse renders most technology useless, though there are nuances to the campaign that may not be appropriate to the modern day. Adapting the campaign to places outside of the United Kingdom is also possible, but more of a challenge than updating it to the modern day.

Whether run as is or as the means to end an existing campaign, Cthulhu Apocalypse presents the tools to bring about the End Times of the Keeper’s own devising, constantly asking questions and making suggestions as his ideas are put through the Apocalypse Machine. It further supports the tools with a fully realised example, an enjoyably mannered and literary campaign—in the form of ‘The Dead White World’ and ‘Slaves to the Mother’—that lets a Keeper and his players explore an End Times that never was.