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Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Ubiquity of Lovecraft

Winner of the People’s Choice award for Best Role-Playing Expansion at UK Games Expo 2018, Leagues of Cthulhu is a supplement for use with Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age! and its expansion, Leagues of Gothic Horror. Published by Triple Ace Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Leagues of Cthulhu is written for use with the Ubiquity System,  and draws on the writings—but not the attitudes—of author H.P. Lovecraft to present new skills, talents, and flaws; leagues and archetypes; sanity mechanics, magic, and manuscripts; and a gazetteer of Mythos threats and locations, plus Game Master advice. All together, Leagues of Cthulhu not only brings the Cthulhu Mythos to the 1890s of Leagues of Adventure and Leagues of Gothic Horror, because it employs the Ubiquity System—first used in ExileStudio’s Hollow Earth Expedition—it also brings the Cthulhu Mythos to other roleplaying games which uses those mechanics. So, want to bring Cosmic horror to the Hollow Earth of Hollow Earth Expedition, the Mars of Space: 1889, the seventeenth century France of All for One: Régime Diabolique, or the post-apocalypse of Desolation, then Leagues of Cthulhu is the obvious supplement to refer to.

The starting point for any Roleplaying Game of Lovecraftian investigative horror is of course, the works of H.P. Lovecraft—and that is where Leagues of Cthulhu begins—and ends. The focus is thus on a limited number of entities—gods and creatures—as well as tomes and spells, with an emphasis on forbidden knowledge, the advancement of science without moral guidance, and dangerous secrets. This means that both focus and supplement possesses a certain purist approach. That said, the use of the Ubiquity System means that the mechanics pull Leagues of Cthulhu towards a Pulp feel and sensibility. It also keeps contents of the supplement quite trim.

This all starts with the addition of a single skill to Leagues of Adventure and Leagues of Gothic Horror, but it is the only pertinent skill. ‘Elder Lore’ covers knowledge of the Great Old Ones, the alien races associated with them, and more, and is divided into five specific Disciplines—Artefacts, Creatures, Great old Ones, Locations, and Tomes. It is learned through exposure to the Mythos, the reading of Forbidden Books, and going mad, each of which earns a globetrotter—as player characters are known in Leagues of Adventure—Eldritch Experience Points. These can only be spent on improving the Elder Lore skill and their expenditure is mandatory, which means that if a globetrotter has accrued enough Eldritch Experience Points to purchase a Level in the Elder Skill, then he must. Of course, this will have a deleterious effect upon the globetrotter’s Sanity. Elder Lore can be used just like any skill, but given that it deals with knowledge beyond the understanding of man, such knowledge is far from exact… (which enables the Game Master to be deliberately vague.) 

In general, the mechanic scales the range of a player character sanity to between one and ten, in line with the skill range, but still manages to keep it relatively nuanced, especially with the specialisations for the Elder Lore skill. This goes hand-in-hand with an increase in the Horror rating from between one and five to between one and ten. This reflects the greater scope and overwhelming impact of the Mythos and its entities. 

In terms of Talents, those new to Leagues of Cthulhu are mostly Flaws as much as they are Talents, so are perfectly Lovecraftian. They are Bloodlines, such as Jermyn and Pickman, and they all have their advantages, but they have their downsides too. The exact nature of their negative side is kept hidden in the Game Master’s section. This being a Leagues of Adventure supplement, there are also new leagues, essentially clubs or societies focussed on particular interests. The Aeon Club is for those who have had encounters with the Mythos and is primarily a support club for survivors, although it does conduct and collect some knowledge, whereas the Hounds of Nodens will take some proactive against the Mythos. Several new pieces of weird science are given, each intended to aid in facing or recovering from facing the Mythos. Three sample characters are described in detail—Book Dealer, Fearful Academic, and Questing Mariner—and done in rather nice detail. It is a pity that there are just the three of them. 

Where in Leagues of Adventure, the Magical Aptitude Talent is required to cast magic, in Leagues of Cthulhu magic is wholly democratic. Anyone can learn it, that is if they are foolish or desperate enough to want to, have access to a mentor, or can study from a tome. Certain rituals, such as Augury, Healing, and Rewind Time, from Leagues of Gothic Horror do not fit the Cosmic Horror of Leagues of Cthulhu, and so are not used. Instead, most of the given rituals consist of Call, Commune, and Summon type spells, and these are joined by the expected rituals such as Elder Sign and Voorish Sign. Leagues of Cthulhu greatly parrs the spell list down in comparison to other Roleplaying Games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. This does mean that the Call, Commune, and Summon spells are genericised somewhat, but the Game Master should add elements and aspects to made the demands of such casting, if not more demanding, then more flavourful.

In comparison, the treatment of Eldritch Tomes is more detailed and flavoursome. All of the classics are included—the Necronomicon (of course), Cultes des Ghouls, Von Unaussprechlichen Kulten, The King in Yellow, Nameless Cults, and so on—as well as some interesting new ones, such as My Journey to the Inner World by Jeff Combos-Tower and the Winkelgleichungen Zum Queren Der Dimensionen by Patric Götz. These are all drawn from Lovecraft’s own fiction, and this continues with the gazetteer and bestiary. The former takes the reader from Africa and the Americas to the Ocean Floor and Other Worlds, and at twenty-five pages in length, is the longest section in the volume. In each case, it provides a continental—or larger—sized overview, before focusing on specific places. So, in Africa, the Ugandan Ruins from the short story Winged Death and Queen Nitocris’ Tomb from The Outsider and Imprisoned with the Pharaohs; Arkham and The Witch House from Dreams in the Witch House in the Americas; the eponymous cities from The Nameless City and The Doom that Came to Sarnath; the Black Museum from The Hound and Kilderry Bog from The Moon-Bog; and so on. It does deviate a little by including The Black Monolith from Robert E. Howard’s The Black Stone, but every location is accorded a solid description as well as an adventure hook.

For its treatment of the Great Old Ones, Leagues of Cthulhu takes a leaf out of Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, by giving them but a single stat. Here it is their Horror Rating, the point being that such entities cannot be killed in the material sense. They can be contacted, communed with, and summoned, necessitating the learning of the spells earlier in the supplement. The horrors themselves, the lesser entities, creatures, alien races, and servitors, from the Black Spawn of Tsathoggua, Black Winged One, and Colour Out of Space to Shoggoth, Spawn of Cthulhu, and Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, are given stats, since they can be affected on the material realm. Less dangerous foes, mainly because they lack a Horror Rating, come in the form of cults and their leading proponents, for example, Pierre Deveraux for the Church of Starry Wisdom. Rounding this out are write-ups of various notables of the Mythos, some anathema to the Mythos, such Doctors George Gammell Angell and Henry Armitage, others anathema to mankind, such as Keziah Mason and Lavinia Whateley.

Lastly, as well as listing the skeletons in the closet for each of the Bloodline Talents given earlier in the supplement, Leagues of Cthulhu closes with some advice on running a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror for the Leagues of Adventure and Leagues of Gothic Horror Game Master. It sets the default Style of Play as Dark, emphasises how Leagues of Cthulhu is very much an investigative game rather than one of action or exploration, and provides guidance as to how clues should be used to help rather than hinder the player characters. It also points out that being set in the Mauve Decade of the 1890s, the Leagues of Cthulhu setting is set before and therefore not bound by the canon of Lovecraft’s writings, so the Game Master has more of a free rein when creating investigations and mysteries of her own. The advice is borne of years of experience with other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror and so both useful and to the point.

Physically, Leagues of Cthulhu is slim hardback done in full colour with some rather nice pieces of artwork. The writing is to the point and in keeping with the supplement’s trimmed down treatment of the Mythos. 

One issue with Leagues of Cthulhu is that it is a supplement of a supplement, so to get the fullest out of it, the Game Master will need Leagues of Gothic Horror as well as Leagues of Adventure. To counter that, Leagues of Cthulhu does not repeat anything from either the roleplaying game or the supplement. This leaves Leagues of Cthulhu to focus on the Mythos without any extraneous content which would have increased its page count unnecessarily—though the Easter Eggs might count.

If Leagues of Cthulhu is missing anything, it is a mystery, a scenario, for the globetrotters to investigate and discover the dangers of Cosmic Horror which lurk beyond all that this good and wholesome. That though is a matter of space, though hopefully Triple Ace Games will rectify this soon. If there is an issue with the treatment of the Mythos in Leagues of Cthulhu, it is in the inclusion of the spell, True Name of Azathoth, which when uttered has the power to drive even the Great Old Ones from the Material Plane, if only temporarily. It is a potent spell and perhaps the ready answer to confronting any Mythos entity, but whilst both difficult and horrifying to cast, its inclusion not only partly negates the threat that is Cosmic Horror, it makes it ever so slightly mundane. This is because once a group of investigators has used it once, what is to stop them from using it again? After all, this is what a group of players would really have their characters do...

Ultimately, what Leagues of Cthulhu does is shift Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age! and Leagues of Gothic Horror further away from scenarios focusing on exploration and adventure to those focusing on investigation, specifically investigation into the manifestations of Cosmic Horror which threaten the globetrotters’ sanity, let alone the future of mankind and the planet! It does this with a neatly trimmed down treatment of the Cthulhu Mythos that draws primarily on Lovecraft’s own writings to provide a Purist approach for use with what would otherwise be the Pulp mechanics of the Ubiquity System. Leagues of Cthulhu opens up the Cthulhu Mythos to Leagues of Adventure and the Ubiquity System in both an efficient and effective manner, ready to drive us insane whatever the setting.