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

Sunday 9 February 2020

The Fate of Cthulhu

It is the year 2050. Twenty years ago, an island rose in the Pacific Ocean and a horde of loathsome octopus-headed beasts swarmed over every ship sent to investigate, even withstanding multiple nuclear strikes. With a great being known as Cthulhu at their head, the creatures launched neurological attacks that warped and corrupted the survivors. Within a month, humanity survived only in a handful of enclaves. 

It is the year 2050. Twenty-two years ago, an island rose off the coast of Massachusetts and as the resulting tsunami floods the coast up and down the east coast of the USA there came reports of ships and towns being attacked by fish people. Then in the isolated town of Innsmouth, a search and rescue team saw survivors transforming into the fish people—quickly identified as Deep Ones. They were only the first, for what became known as the Innsmouth Plague spread around the world. Billions transform, millions die. What they have in common is that they were taking Palliagil, a cure to an MRSA plague from eight years before. Could it be linked?

It is the year 2050. On Hexenacht, April 30th, 2030, the top of Brocken, Germany’s highest mountain exploded to reveal a thousand foot tall, eight-legged and hoof-footed, tentacled monstrosity. Its appearance instigated a wave of cannibalism amongst the nearby Hexenacht celebrants that would leave thousands dead. But then from the corpses exploded miniature versions of the giant thing that had appeared earlier that night. They killed anyone who investigated, then more spawned from the new corpses. Within days, these tentacled horrors dominated the planet bar three, slowly contracting exclusion zones in New England, Nigeria, and Australia.

It is the year 2050. Twenty-two years ago, the unknown Nour Al Hasan walked out of the desert and won the Egyptian presidential election. He declared himself Nyarlathotep, the Dark Pharaoh, and that he would return Egypt to its former glory, whilst in Antarctica, over a hundred volcanoes exploded and revealed great cities and waves of star-headed, barrel-shaped and winged creatures which fly north to meet up with the armies of Faceless Ones that the Dark Pharaoh freed from below the pyramids. Within weeks, humanity is dead.

It is the year 2050. Twenty years ago a strange figure appeared in Covent Garden in London, all in yellow and masked, a strange mist spreading in its wake. Those touched by the mist exhibit symptoms of diseases in seconds that normally take days, either dying almost immediately or undergoing grisly transformations. Within hours this King in Yellow appears in cities around the world, spreading disease, and in weeks, there is nowhere in the world that remains untouched, most of humanity dead by then.

It is the year 2050. You are one of the few survivors of an unholy apocalypse that struck the world two decades ago. Scientists and researchers have developed the means to effect limited time travel and it has been decided that they will send one or more men or women—forewarned of knowledge of the future—back in time to meddle with one of these timelines and thwart the efforts of an Old Ones and its cultists. This is not without a cost though, for every time traveller must connect with another alien being known as Yog-Sothoth in order to come back to 2020, literally connect with the corruptive power of the Mythos, and that leaves a mark. It likely gives the time traveller a strange power, one beyond science, a power that itself will be of use in combating the Mythos and its influence, but even that will corrupt the user even further, however beneficial it may well be…

It seems that despite Call of Cthulhu having been in print for almost four decades and both initiating and dominating the Cosmic Horror subgenre, the long reach of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying seems to touch upon roleplaying game upon roleplaying game. From Savage Worlds and Realms of Cthulhu and GURPS and Cthulhupunk, numerous roleplaying games have provided different takes upon the role of H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos and approaches to it, so it is no surprise that it has finally reached FATE Core. The highly anticipated FATE of Cthulhu is radically different to the roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror that have come before it.

Published by Evil Hat GamesFATE of Cthulhu is a roleplaying game—a standalone roleplaying game which does not require FATE Core to play or run— of confronting the Mythos a la the James Cameron film, The Terminator. One or more of the investigators will have come back from 2050 to 2020 to stop the apocalyptic plans of an Old One and its cultists. They come back aware of the steps along the way which brought about the apocalypse and they come back ready to fight it. This though is not the Cthulhu Mythos in general, but rather a single Old One and its cultists, and each thwarting of an Old One is a self-contained campaign in its own right, in which no other element of the Mythos appears. So no cultist dedicated to another Old One or Nyarlathotep himself stepping in, even if only mockingly, to help the investigators thwart a common enemy. Unless the Game Master wants them to, that is… So what FATE of Cthulhu is not, is a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but is instead, a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian action horror. Now this does not mean that the Game Master could not take the elements of the Lovecraft Mythos in FATE of Cthulhu and use them to run a scenario or campaign of Lovecraftian investigative horror as per other similar roleplaying games. That would take a little more effort upon the part of the Game Master, as FATE of Cthulhu is not written or organised to support that, in part because the Mythos is compartmentalised timeline by timeline.

Investigators in FATE of Cthulhu are defined by their Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Aspects describe elements of a character and to work effectively, they need to be double-edged, that is, each should be both an advantage or a disadvantage. For example, the Aspect ‘An eye for the ladies’ could be used as an Advantage to spot a particular woman in a crowd or a bonus to seduction attempts, but as a Disadvantage, it would mean that the character would be easily distracted in female company. Each investigator has an Aspect each for his High Concept and his Trouble, plus two free Aspects. In play, an Aspect is Invoked by the player to gain an advantageous bonus or a reroll, but Compelled to trigger its disadvantageous elements. It costs a player a Fate point to Invoke an Aspect, but he will gain a Fate point if the Aspect is Compelled. (A Compel can be resisted by a player, but this costs him a Fate point). Stunts provide advantages or bonuses under certain circumstances, usually to skills, and they can be Corrupted by exposure to the Mythos. Skills simply provide a bonus to skill rolls, there being a limited number of broad skills in the game, one of which is Lore, expanded here to cover knowledge and its application of the Mythos.

Francine Hernandez
Personal Timeline: 2050
High Concept (Aspect): Desperate Housewife who knows too much
Trouble (Aspect): My husband was a cultist
Relationship: I trust John, but he doesn’t trust me
Aspects: Ex-Society Matron, Gets lost in the Future (Corrupted) 
Stunts: The Voice of Reason, Hound of Tinadalos’ Eye (Corrupted)
Skills: Deceive (Great +4); Contacts, Resources (Good +3); Fight, Rapport, Shoot (Fair +2); Drive, Lore, Notice, Will (Average +1)
Physical Stress (Physique): 1 2 3
Mental Stress (Will): 1 2 3
Corruption Clock: O O O O
Refresh Rate: 3 Fate Points: 3

Mechanically, whenever a player wants to undertake an action, he selects a skill and rolls four Fudge dice—FATE having originally been derived from the Fudge RPG mechanics—special six-sided dice, each of which has two faces marked with a ‘+’ symbol, two faces marked with a ‘–’ symbol, and two faces left blank. The ‘+’ and ‘–’ symbols cancel each out and the blank faces add nothing, so the results range simply between +4 and –4. The result is added to the player’s skill, aim being to beat a target set by the Game Master, an Average target being +1, a Fair target being +2, and so on, the targets matching the skill values in terms of progression. Should a player’s result match the target, then he succeeds at a cost; if the result is one or two points or shifts above the target, he simply succeeds; and if the result is three or more  shifts, he succeeds with style. In combat, shifts usually represent damage inflicted upon a target, but should a character succeed with style, then he can place a temporary Aspect in play, that can either be used once and then it is lost, or used once for free with subsequent uses requiring a Fate point to be expended.

Aspects like this can be set up on locations, objects, on NPCs, and on player characters, and then during play both the players and the Game Master can interact with them, Invoking and Compelling as necessary. Similarly, the Game Master can design and create places, people, and things all with the simple use of Aspects that get to the core of anything that he designs and creates, and again these can be Invoked or Compelled as part of FATE Core collaborative play between the players and between the Game Master and the players. Unlike FATE Core there is less of this collaborative effort involved during character creation, primarily because FATE of Cthulhu does not involve the worldbuilding that is part of the core rules.

One of the big differences between FATE of Cthulhu and other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror is that where in those roleplaying games the corrosive effect of witnessing or employing the Mythos, whether that is seeing a Mythos entity or reading a Mythos tome, or casting a Mythos spell, is mental. In other words, investigators lose Sanity. Now in FATE of Cthulhu, the corrupting effect of the Mythos can work that way, but in the main, its effects are physical. Every time an investigator is exposed to the Mythos or uses it in the case of casting a spell or ritual, or using a Corrupted Aspect or Stunt, the investigator will face backlash as the universe tries to protect itself against the changes forced upon by the unnatural nature of the Mythos. If the investigator cannot withstand this backlash—the backlash being equal to the success of the use or power of the Mythos—he adds points to his Corruption Clock. Fill that in, the Corruption Clock is emptied, but the investigator is drawn further into the influence of the Old Ones and one of his Aspects is corrupted. Should an investigator have all of his Aspects corrupted, he is lost to the Mythos.
For example, Francine Hernandez is attempting to find where her husband, Hector,  is going to be as she knows that he will be participating in a great ritual to learn the location of a lost tomb. He has already managed to deceive her as to where he is going, but Francine and her compatriots need to know. Francine’s player decides to use her Gets lost in the Future Corrupted Aspect. Francine’s player pays the Fate point to Invoke the Aspect. This will give a bonus of +2 to Francine’s Notice of +1. The Game Master takes Hector’s Deceive of +4 and rolls blank, blank, ‘–’, and ‘–’, to give Hector a total of +2. Francine’s player rolls blank, ‘–’, ‘+’, and ‘+’, for a total of +5. This beats Hector’s attempt at Deception, and means that Francine learns where he has gone. Unfortunately Francine suffers backlash equal to the roll her player made or +5. Her player has to make a roll using her Will of +1  and rolls blank, ‘–’, ‘+’, and ‘+’, for a total of +2, which is not good enough as it leaves three mental shifts to absorb. Francine can absorb one of the shifts on her mental stress boxes, the other two having been filled earlier in the investigation. For the remaining two mental shifts, Francine can either take a point of Corruption and have part of her Corruption Clock filled in, or suffer a Consequence. Francine’s player decides on the latter and Francine gains ‘Visions of an alternate failed timeline’.
Despite the physicality of the Corruption Clock versus the Sanity mechanics of other Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying games, there is still a downward spiral of being exposed to, and in this case, using the Mythos to fight the Mythos, over and over. Essentially, it may well be necessary to fight fire with fire, but the cost…? Once gained, Corruption is fairly difficult to lose, though it is possible if no Corruption has been gained during an investigation or through a supreme act of sacrifice upon the part of another investigator.

Instead of giving a greater sense of the Mythos, FATE of Cthulhu focuses on five distinct threats—five distinct threats powerful enough to bring about an apocalypse. Each threat is essentially a separate campaign or timeline in which someone from the future of 2050 has some knowledge of. Each of the five timelines—which in turn deal with Cthulhu, Dagon, Shub-Nigggurath, Nyarlathotep, and the King in Yellow—consists of five events, the last of which is always the rise of the Old One itself. The events represent the roadmap to that last apocalyptic confrontation, and can each be further broken down into four event catalysts which can be people, places, foes, and things. The significance of these events are represented by a die face, that is either a bank, a ‘–’, or a ‘+’. These starts out with two blanks and two ‘–’, the aim of the players and their investigators being to try prevent their being too many, if any ‘–’ symbols in play and ideally to flip them from ‘–’ to blank and from blank to ‘+’. Ultimately the more ‘+’ there are, the more positive the ripple will be back down the timeline and the more of chance the investigators have to defeat or prevent the rise of the Old One. Conversely, too many ‘–’ and the known timeline will play out as follows and the less likely the chance the investigators have in stopping the Old One.

Each of the five timelines comes with details of what a time traveller from 2050 would know about it, more detail for the Game Master with a breakdown of the events and their Aspects, Stunts, Mythos creatures, and NPCs. Most of these can serve as useful inspiration for the Game Master as well as the advice given on running FATE of Cthulhu and her creating her own timelines. In addition, FATE of Cthulhu highlights two issues with Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. First it makes clear that in spite of his deplorable social views, H.P. Lovecraft’s writings and creations are worth examining as sources of inspiration, as are the writings of more modern writers who do not share Lovecraft’s views, race, or gender. Second, it makes clear that in FATE of Cthulhu, Corruption is not Sanity—or the loss of it—and that in Corruption, it not only has a far wider array of effects to apply to investigators, it wants to avoid any stereotypes or insensitivity that the portrayal of insanity or other mental illness might lead to. It goes on to give good advice about the portrayal of those affected by Corruption and how to avoid clichés. Both are fair, balanced, and mature approaches to their subject matters, being aware of the sensitivity and difficulty that some gamers may have with either subject.

Physically, FATE of Cthulhu is well produced, nicely illustrated, and well written, including numerous detailed examples. It is however more limited in scope than other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, being focused on a certain type of campaign, and if a Game Master wanted to do more with it than run those campaigns—although any of the five offers opportunities for roleplaying and action—she would have to make more of an effort. In terms of the five timelines and the concept behind FATE of Cthulhu, what is really missing is the point of departure for any time traveller (or time travellers if the Game Master was running a full on ‘Chrono-Commandos versus Cthulhu-style campaign), so no details of what the future is like. There is advice on how time travel works, how it is possible to meet your past self and even have them die in your past, but no background about what life is like in 2050. Also as written, it is very much focussed upon the timelines, so writing a solo adventure would also be challenging.

As befitting a FATE Core roleplaying game, FATE of Cthulhu is more action-orientated, more direct, and more upfront about its confrontation with the forces of the Mythos. It definitely veers to being Pulp in nature rather than Purist and can probably be best described as High Derlethian. Further, its ‘time commando comes back from the future to stop…’ may not be original, but FATE of Cthulhu does provide a fresh approach to confronting the Mythos with Lovercraftian action horror.


  1. On page 6, they crap all over HPL as being a horrible person and “ extremely racist even for his time”. Yet they have no problem profiting off of his work. SJW hypocrisy. Do not buy this book or support Evil Hat in any way.

    1. Lovecraft was a racist, so the publisher was entirely correct to make this clear and it is entirely possible to separate the views of the man from his creations. I do not agree with you that this hypocrisy, although you are welcome to hold such an opinion.

      As to your use of 'SJW' as a slur, well as far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with being a 'Social Justice Warrior'. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make changes for a better world nor with highlighting the injustices of the past.

    2. Mate, what the heck? If you have a problem with the description of HPL (which seems pretty accurate) - maybe take it up with Evil Hat, rather than weirdly yelling at the end of a review?
      Or, better than that, maybe don't; and either quietly pass this game by, or have a think to yourself why a description of a man (who wrote some great stuff) as a racist makes you feel so defensive?

  2. The "going back in time" element was because Evil Hat was too broke to afford a Terminator license, so had to rework their game completely to a royalty-free author dead more than 75 years (but which can't include Cthulhu-mythos stories by a few later authors). So definitely not Derlethian! Also too optimistic, as if humans have a chance to win against the Cthulhu horrors.
    On occasion, midgets stand on the shoulders of literary giants, but this is a rare case where the midgets are back-biting the literary giant at the same time...

    1. Perhaps you mean a Days of Future Past license, where Kate Pryde went back in time to save the X-Men, the comic-book issues predating The Terminator by three years?

      Or, golly gee, it might just be an _idea_ that's appeared in literature many times. (Heck, it's appeared in the X-Men comics about 50 times since Days of Future Past.)

    2. These lovecraft fanboys who can't stand to hear that he was a racist are hilarious.

      Also gents it's a game. In order for a game to be worth playing the characters need to have a chance to win.yes, humans have no chance against a great old one if he awakens, thats the point of PREVENTING that from happening. The characters fight cultists and monsters which happens IN ALMOST EVERY CTHULHU GAME MADE. They aren't fighting CTHULHU or the King in Yellow.

      You all defending a racist, and let mw clarify by saying a well documented racist, need to self evaluate.

  3. I am pleased to say that I disagree with every single opinion you have expressed. Even if Evil Hat Productions could not obtain The Terminator licence, this is not the first time that a publisher has reworked a concept because it was unable to obtain a licence. For example, FASA developed Renegade Legion after failing to get the Star Wars licence in 1986.

    As to FATE of Cthulhu not being Derlethian… It is Derlethian in tone. I never said content. (And Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying need not always be Purist.)

    “On occasion, midgets stand on the shoulders of literary giants, but this is a rare case where the midgets are back-biting the literary giant at the same time…”

    What a very silly, unjustifiably bitter comment.

    1. For what it's worth:

      We didn't even pursue the Terminator license, because we judged the history of the rights around that property to be too thorny and likely full of headaches to be worth it.

      This was still at the brianstorming phase when the project team hadn't even been worked out yet.

      In contemplating what other genres might fit the themes and style of Terminator, I hit upon the idea that elder gods are probably pretty well suited to reach into the past to try to bring about their presence in the future, so that became the seed of the project pitch as we built out the team: "Terminator, but Cthulhu is SkyNet."

      Lots of ideas happen this way!

      As to the whole thing about us having the temerity to identify HPL as an extreme racist even for the time he lived in (setting aside the intellectual bankruptcy of the conceptual construction that being from an earlier time makes it okay to be an unexamined and unquestioned racist), I don't think any company publishing anything inspired by HPL's material is doing their customers any favors by not calling it out.

      It's okay to like things someone abhorrent has created. It's okay to make things inspired by those things. What's not okay is perpetuating a culture that excuses the creator's abhorrent behavior as the socially acceptable alternative to opening embracing the abhorrent behavior as one's own. Neither is actually acceptable; one just took a whole five seconds to dress up in a mask of legitimacy first.