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Sunday 9 December 2018

Ave Cthulhu II

The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome is an update and expansion of Cthulhu Invictus, published in 2008 by Chaosium, Inc. for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, itself based on an Miskatonic University Library Association monograph published in 2004. Chaosium did a minor update of the setting to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition  with Cthulhu Through the Ages, but it is Golden Goblin Press that has published this more thorough update following a successful Kickstarter campaign. This is good news given that both publisher and author of Golden Goblin Press have experience with the setting, having published the more recent scenario anthology, De Horrore Cosmico for the period, and written the only campaign for the setting to date. This is the highly regarded The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, published by the much lamented Miskatonic River Press, one of the few campaigns for Call of Cthulhu to be set outside the Jazz Age of the 1920s.

The setting for Cthulhu Invictus is 145 AD, during the reign of Antonius Pius. It is a period of relative peace and stability, his rule being over an empire of over two million square miles and some one hundred million people, stretching from the Black Sea in the East to Britannia in the West, from the deserts of Africa in the south to the Rhine in the north. Yet this period is not without its dangers, for there is a ‘Shadow War’ going on, being fought by a few in the know, against an enemy that they barely understand—cults dedicated to Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, alien creatures and beings which prey upon the citizens of the Empire, and remnants of civilisations and empires from before the rise of man—known as ‘Lost Kingdoms and Fallen Empires’, many determined to destroy not just the empire, but also the known world… Many creatures are the basis for myths and legends from across the empire and are often as dangerous, if not more so, than the tales of them tell.

The ‘Shadow War’ provides a very loose framework for a Cthulhu Invictus campaign framework, loose because it involves investigations and acquisition of knowledge by disparate groups and individuals. Each is aware of some aspects of the Mythos, but not all and should any communicate with the others, they might just realise the true extent of threat that mankind faces. Cthulhu Invictus supports this in two ways. One is a ready selection of Patrons, Investigator Organisations, and NPCs. The NPCs were all added as part of the Kickstarter and include a very lucky potential mentor; an infamous pirate, scourge of ships and sea devils alike; and the world’s best linguist. The Patrons range from a renowned astrologer to a collector of strange tales, whilst the Investigator Organisations include ‘The Awoken’, all survivors of similar incidents who have a strange sense about the world; ‘The Army of Metilus’, a ghost who gathers ‘soldiers’ to fulfil dangerous missions; and more. These are nicely detailed and provide the Keeper with set-ups and NPCs around which to build scenarios and campaigns.

The ‘Shadow War’ is not the only aspect of Cthulhu Invictus that marks the setting as being different to other campaign settings for Call of Cthulhu. In the Roman Empire—and beyond of Cthulhu Invictus, magic is real and everyone believes in it. Indeed, although its practice is illegal, it is possible for certain investigator occupations to begin play with a spell or two, typically drawn from the folk magic given in The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic. As much as Cthulhu Invictus uses the ‘monsters’ of the Mythos, it also draws from Greek and Roman myth for its own monsters—Cyclops, Gorgons, Minotaurs, and so on—but reinterprets through the lens of the Mythos to create something new, but familiar (and of course, definitely deadly). There have been some changes in the background to Cthulhu Invictus from the original edition to this one, notably to omit the more fantastical Mythos activities in Greece. There is certainly Mythos activity the empire’s Greek provinces, much of it dating over the course of thousands of years, but it is more restrained in nature here.

Yet Cthulhu Invictus is a Call of Cthulhu campaign setting and it shares aspects familiar to other more modern campaign settings too. These include international travel, so that it is possible to do a Roman world-trotting campaign; Pulp or Purist tones—the former offering ‘Swords & Sandals versus the Mythos’; ready access to arms (mostly melee weapons and usually not much help against the forces of the Mythos) and armour; and opportunity still for research at libraries, even on scrolls and artefacts which date from the time of the ‘Lost Kingdoms and Fallen Empires’. That said, low literacy rates means that the researcher is even more of a specialist than he is in more modern settings. Nevertheless, the supplement supports the role with a solid selection of new scrolls and tomes particular to the period, as well as various new Mythos artefacts.

In terms of investigator options, Cthulhu Invictus provides almost sixty Occupations, from Advocate, Apothecary, and Archer to Thief, Vigilis, and Writer. They include Roman occupations such as Augur, Centurion, Gladiator, and Prefect, plus non-Roman ones like Barbarian and Druid. In the main, investigator creation ues the same rules as Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but where investigators in the standard game, here they have the Status skill. It serves a similar function, but fundamentally it indicates a character’s social class and place in Roman society and thus what Occupation an investigator might have. A simple labourer would have a Status of no more than twenty, whereas a Senator would a Status of between forty and seventy. Certain Occupations, such as Gladiator and Magus, are so lacking in respect that instead of Status, they have Infamy, representing their lack of legal protections within the empire and putting them on a par with slaves.

A guide to the various degrees of Status is given, from slave or destitute freeman vagabond right up to Imperial Domus, a member of the emperor’s family, although this is unobtainable for most investigators. Included in this guide are suggestions on how to handle the place of slaves and women in investigator groups in Roman times. This is to get around the social restrictions on both at the time and to provide a group with some roleplaying challenges too, since playing either will be different to playing men. Both issues are potentially difficult, but they maturely handled here.

An extensive set of tables enables both Keeper and her players to generate suitably Roman names whilst a smaller set provides inspiration and options for an investigator’s background. Options are included for creating experienced investigators. Being set in the ancient world, Cthulhu Invictus replaces a lot of skills with ones appropriate to both time and place. These include Empire—knowledge of the Roman Empire, and Other Kingdoms—knowledge of kingdoms beyond the empire’s borders; the addition of Astrology and Augury as specialisations of the Science skill; and the inclusion of the Oratory/Rhetoric skill as a noble art. Combat skills are all treated as specialisations of the Fighting skill, including missile weapons and siege weapons.

In general, investigator creation in Cthulhu Invictus is no more complex than that of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, requiring no more than a few extra rolls on the names tables. Our sample investigator is a simple labourer, in from the country and hoping to better herself. She is a skilled apiarist and knows the value of honey in medicine, having been taught by her late mother, who was a freed slave. She would like to know more and hopes to work for an apothecary or physician.

Vibia Durmilla 
age 19, Labourer
STR 70 SIZ 80 CON 35 DEX 65
APP 45 INT 60 POW 65 EDU 25
SAN 58 Luck 70 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 7 HP 11

Status: Poor

Brawl 40% (20/8), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Dodge 32% (16/6)

Skills: Appraise 15%, Art/Craft (Apiculture) 65%, Art/Craft (Potions) 25%, Drive/Teamster 30%, Empire 15%, Fast Talk 15%, Fighting (Brawl) 35%, First Aid 50%, Listen 50%, Medicine 26%, Natural World 50%, Occult 21%, Repair/Devise 35%, Sleight of Hand 35%, Spot Hidden 45%, Status 20%, Stealth 20%, Track 20%

Personal Description: Ordinary looking woman who is overweight and who is never without a satchel containing a jar of honey and a small knife
Ideology: All happens according to the will of the gods
Traits: Stoic
Significant Person: Paulinia, a close friend in whose footsteps you are following
Meaningful Location: Tending to the beehives with her mother
Treasured Possession: Family Lares statues

To reflect the dangerous and different world of Cthulhu Invictus gives a number of rules and options that make the setting even more lethal, more difficult, and more different than in traditional Call of Cthulhu. These allow for wounds to become infected, for the religiously devout to gain a bonus when spending Luck points and the religiously indifferent to gain a penalty when spending Luck points—both reflecting the importance of belief in the gods in the Roman world and beyond; and different means of regaining lost Sanity, including home care, and humane, mystical, and agitation treatment. The Sanity gains from any of these methods is not great, no more than a four-sided die, and even then, they are not guaranteed to work, but that fits the setting and if the investigators are devout—and several faiths and philosophies are detailed to that end, they do get that Luck benefit as some kind of compensation at least.

One major difference between Cthulhu Invictus and Call of Cthulhu is that most people are superstitious and genuinely believe in gods, magic, and monsters. Not only do they worship the gods, but the stories they hear from cradle to the grave are those of myth and legend, including as they do numerous fantastic creatures. Yet these creatures are not just those of myth, but of the Mythos. Cthulhu Invictus very much presents centaurs, cyclops, harpies, gorgons, et al, as monsters, though some, like Dryads and Pegasi, are not monstrously dangerous. Other entries in this bestiary are not just monsters, but leftovers from the Fallen Kingdoms, such as the Izdonarii, the last defenders of the Lomarrians. As well as these monsters, Cthulhu Invictus presents several cults as potential threats for the Keeper to pose to her players and their investigators. These are found scattered throughout the empire, from Heralds of the Deep, which secretly worships Cthulhu, to The Eternal Fellowship, whose members seek immortality through any means.

In terms of mundane support, the supplement includes equipment lists, and guides to the Roman Legions, the Roman provinces, and Rome itself. The latter is described as a ‘brief tour’ and ‘brief’ is really how these chapters feel. This is not really a criticism of the content, since the Roman Empire is huge and consequently, there is a huge range of background to cover. Too much, of course, to really cover in the one supplement. It does mean however, that the Keeper may want or need to do further research, whether from history books or other roleplaying supplements.

Rounding out Cthulhu Invictus are are two good scenarios, both of them set in Rome, which makes them easy to run as part of a campaign. They can though, be easily set elsewhere in the empire in any big city. ‘Blood & Glory’ concerns strange goings on at an amphitheatre and a gladiatorial school and consists of two strong investigative strands, nicely encompassing both gender and status. Depending upon how the scenario plays out, it could actually be run a second time, though there should definitely be a break between the two should this happen. The second scenario, ‘Food for Worms’, does plague meets The Walking Dead in Rome. This is no simple zombie tale though and is very much the better for it.

Physically, Cthulhu Invictus is sturdy softback book. It needs a slight edit in places and its layout is perhaps slightly cramped in places, but is otherwise well written and an easy read. In terms of appearance though, it is clear that Golden Goblin Press is working to improve the look and production values of its books. Not only is it printed on better paper, Cthulhu Invictus is the publisher’s first full colour tome, but that colour is used judiciously, mostly for photographs and images of period artefacts and artwork. The remaining artwork gives the look of Cthulhu Invictus a pleasingly uniform look and style—especially following the exploits of an investigative party as commanded by their stalwart leader, Brita.

The advantage of a Cthulhu Invictus campaign is that it is very familiar to us from our history lessons and our epic films and television series set in the Roman world. Yet as familiar as it is, the Roman world presents its own challenges in terms of roleplaying and investigating Cosmic horror. These manifest primarily as social differences and different attitudes in terms of gender, religion, and philosophy—all of which Cthulhu Invictus explains and in the scenarios, showcases. What this highlights is that Golden Goblin Press has always had a better appreciation and understanding of the Cthulhu Invictus setting, and if the resulting supplement can never hope—or be expected—to cover everything about the Roman world, The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome is a more than handsome introduction to Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying in the Ancient World.

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