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Monday, 5 June 2017

A Taste of Cthulhu in the Dark

Originally appearing in the highly regarded Stealing Cthulhu and then in The Unspeakable Oath #22, Cthulhu Dark is a rules light RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror designed for simple, minimalist play. Its core rules fit on a single page and require no more than three dice—one of which should be green—per player to play so that a game can be begun with a minimum of preparation upon the part of the players. A stripped down version of the rules for Cthulhu Dark are currently available from the author’s website, but an expanded version of the game itself is currently being funded via a Kickstarter campaign. This review is not of the edition that will eventually be funded via Kickstarter, but Cthulhu Dark 0, the preview edition launched at DragonMeet 2016.

As with other RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, in Cthulhu Dark, the player take on the roles of Investigators drawn into mysteries that defy explanation and will eventually reveal to them terrible secrets that bring them to understand the true nature of the universe. This nature is alien and uncaring, a sense of dread that threatens to overwhelm and sap both the sanity and the humanity of these that come into contact with it. This is a universe of things—alien entities and species—who care nothing about the existence of humanity and those that do see them as nothing more than as transitory irrelevancies or playthings. Collectively they are known as the Cthulhu Mythos, being as like unto gods as mankind might be to lesser species on Earth. Some are worshipped by men in the hope of gaining power or at least the chance to survive should the stars come right and these things come to reclaim the plant that was once theirs and will be again. Such men are insane and in carrying out their master's’ plans spread horror and insanity… The Investigators will often find themselves looking into such plans and so confront the Mythos and its corrosive effects.

Notably, in Cthulhu Dark, confronting the Mythos is all that the Investigators can do. They cannot fight it directly, for it is too powerful, too unknowable, and such efforts are doomed to end in failure, resulting in the Investigators’ deaths or insanity. They can instead face its Earthly minions, though often hampered by the positions of power such minions hold in society, and so perhaps thwart such dastardly plans as would end in the return of the Great Old Ones and the end of life on Earth as they know it…

In Cthulhu Dark 0, an Investigator essentially consists of three things—a name, an Occupation, and his Insight. Alternatively, he might have a trait should the scenario not need the Investigators to have an Occupation. So for example, here is a Henry Brinded, an Investigator who appears in the recently published Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion.

Name: Henry Brinded
Occupation: Bostonian Antiquarian
Insight Die: 1

Mechanically, Cthulhu Dark is very simple. If an Investigator wants to do or investigate something, whether that is question someone or search the newspaper morgue for relevant articles, as long as that act is within human capabilities, his player rolls one die—the Human die. If the investigative act lies within the scope of the Investigator’s Occupation, then his player rolls a second die—the Occupation die. If the Investigator wants to risk his mind to succeed or if the investigative act directly pertains to the Mythos, then his player rolls a third die—the green Insight die. Then the dice are rolled and the highest result counts, showing the Investigator how much information he learns.

On a result of a one, he discovers the bare minimum; enough to proceed with the investigation, but no more. On a result of a four, he discovers everything that a competent investigator would, whilst on result of a five, he discovers this and something more. On a result of a six, he discovers everything that a competent investigator would and something more, but also glimpses something beyond the understanding of mere men. This undoubtedly going to be horrific and will probably require the player to make an Insight Roll for the Investigator. Likewise, if the highest result is on the Investigator’s Insight Die, an Insight Roll also needs to be made. 
For example, Henry Brinded has found the Diaries of the Walter Corbit, late of a supposed haunted house in Boston. He decides to read them. The Keeper lets his player roll his Human Die, his Occupation Die, and because Brinded is reading a Mythos tome, his player can also roll his Insight Die. On a result of a one, Brinded learns that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation; on  result of a four, he discovers that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation and was in dispute with his neighbours; on result of a five, he learns that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation and was in dispute with his neighbours because he wanted to be buried in his house; but on a six, he discovers that he learns that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation and was in dispute with his neighbours because he wanted to be buried in his house and that he had no intention of dying! 
An Investigator’s Insight represents how far he comprehends the true, horrifying nature of the universe. It begins at one and is represented by the Investigator’s green Insight Die, which always has its current value displayed. When an Investigator encounters something unnatural and disturbing, his player must make an Insight roll, rolling his Insight Die. If the result is higher than the Investigator’s Insight, it goes up by one as he gains greater understanding of the universe’s true nature and his player must roleplay his Investigator’s newly invoked fears. 

If an Investigator’s Insight reaches five, he can attempt to suppress his knowledge by burning Mythos tomes, stopping rituals, and so on, his player rolling the Insight Die in an attempt to lower his Investigator’s Insight. Unfortunately, should an Investigator’s Insight reach six, he achieves full comprehension of the universe and after one moment of lucidity goes insane… Time to create a new Investigator.

The effect of these stripped back mechanics is keep play simple and straightforward. Essentially there is no means of failure, the dice rolls determining how well an Investigator does rather than whether he fails or succeeds. Unlike most traditional roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Cthulhu Dark is very much a narrativist game rather than a simulationist game. (Actually, there is a mechanic for failure which adds a ‘Failure Die’ to an Investigator’s roll, but only when it is interesting and only when it does not impinge upon the investigative process.)

Further, in comparison to most traditional roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Cthulhu Dark collapses the Sanity/Insanity scale and changes the rate at which an Investigator will lose his Sanity. Initial loses will be quicker and more likely, but as an Investigator’s Sanity drops and his Insanity rises, he becomes inured to the horrors of the Mythos, making that final realisation as to the truth of the universe all the more horrifying when it occurs.

The core rules in Cthulhu Dark 0 run to no more than ten pages—and eight pages of those really only expand upon the rules given in the first two pages. In comparison, the Keeper’s Section is four times as long. It delves into how to write and rewrite a mystery, and then play the mystery before presenting a bestiary. It takes the Keeper from first principles through to running the adventure, constantly asking questions of him in order to help him develop the adventure, avoid pitfalls, and handle both both dice rolls and scene. This section is engaging and worth the time of any Keeper to read, whatever roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror he runs. 

Like any roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Cthulhu Dark includes a bestiary of Mythos entities and creatures. It looks at each entry’s themes, creeping horrors, and how they can applied to the settings mentioned elsewhere of ‘London 1851’ and ‘Mumbai 2037’. The entries include Old Ones such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, servitor races like Deep Ones, independent races such as the Elder Things and the Mi-Go, sorcerers like Joseph Curwen and Keziah Mason, and even artefacts such as the Shining Trapezohedron. It is not a comprehensive bestiary and feels influenced by the author’s earlier Stealing Cthulhu. This is no bad thing and there is no reason that a Keeper could not apply the ideas and methods of Stealing Cthulhu to the entities and creatures presented in Cthulhu Dark.

The setting provided in Cthulhu Dark 0 is ‘London 1851’, with the other mentioned setting, ‘Mumbai 2037’, to be included in the full version of the roleplaying game. ‘London 1851’ is a Dickensian alternative to the ‘Mauve Decade’ of Cthulhu by Gaslight atypical to most Victorian Era set roleplaying games. Not only does it provide a detailed snapshot of the city at the time of the Great Exhibition, it looks at the various options for Investigators during the period. What is interesting about the options discussed is that none of them are really Middle Class or Upper Class, most are really Working Class. Other Victorian Era roleplaying games might provide such options, but the point in Cthulhu Dark 0 is that the Investigators do not hold positions of real power or influence and in a typical Cthulhu Dark scenario, the Investigators are at odds with those who do. The lack of Middle Class or Upper Class options enforces this.

Rounding out Cthulhu Dark 0 is ‘The Screams of the Children’, a scenario set in London, 1851. The Investigators are thieves, prostitutes, street-sellers, and others—sample Investigators are provided, all female—who reside at the same lodging house where the baby of another resident has disappeared. It involves themes of pregnancy, childbirth, and monstrous offspring, and makes uses of the previous description given of London in the early Victorian period, but adds specific locations to accompany its plot, plus  themes and suggested die rolls for Investigators’ efforts. The scenario is relatively short, but nicely involving and atmospheric, harking back in tone to the author’s Purist scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu.

Physically, Cthulhu Dark 0 is a slim volume, neatly laid out and lightly, but nicely illustrated. The writing style is also light, but very direct with the author constantly asking questions of first the reader and then the Keeper. This is a style singular to the author and can be seen in his earliest tome on roleplaying, Playing Unsafe, as it can here and in the more recent Cthulhu Apocalypse. If there is an issue with the writing and with a great any of the questions—at least in the answers given to them—is that they go to support the given scenario, ‘The Screams of the Children’ rather than a Cthulhu Dark scenario in general. This though, is only an issue with Cthulhu Dark 0 and hopefully will be less of an issue in Cthulhu Dark when released with more scenarios as the full roleplaying game.

What Cthulhu Dark combines is Graham Walmsley’s interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos gained through his authoring of Stealing Cthulhu with simple, unobtrusive mechanics that model the investigative process and sanity degradation inherent to the genre of Lovecraftian investigative horror. The result is a refinement of Lovecraftian investigative horror gaming down to its essential saltes.