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Sunday 18 July 2021

The FATE of Basilisk

FATE of Cthulhu added two elements to Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying—time travel and foreknowledge. Published by Evil Hat Games, the 2020 horror roleplaying game was built around campaign frameworks that cast the Player Characters as survivors in a post-apocalyptic future thirty years into the future, the apocalypse itself involving various aspects and entities of the Mythos. Not only as survivors though, because having entered into a pact with the Old One, Yog-Sothoth, they have unlocked the secret of time travel and come back to the present. They have 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 a fight against 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.

The five campaigns, or timelines, presented in FATE of Cthulhu in turn have the Investigators facing Cthulhu, Dagon, Shub-Nigggurath, Nyarlathotep, and the King in Yellow. Each 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 start out with two blanks and two ‘–’, the aim of the players and their investigators being to try to 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 a 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. After all, there are numerous Mythos entities presenting the prospective Game Master ready to create her own timeline with a variety of different aspects, purviews, and even degrees of power, but nevertheless capable of bringing about an apocalypse. However, Evil Hat Games has already begun to do that with its own series of timelines, each again dealing with a different Mythos entity and a different downfall for mankind. The first of these is The Rise of Yig.

Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is different. Really different. To begin with, this second of the new timelines would appear to be barely connected to the Mythos at all—but it is, if that is, the Player Characters go digging deep enough into the world-side infosphere that Basilisk has planned for the whole of humanity. If not the universe. In Mythos terms, its closest parallels is with Hastur and the Yellow Sign, a memetic infection of occult nature which encourages artistic endeavour, but in Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk, that memetic infection is technological in nature, once shared often encouraging the monomaniacal exploration of fields of study and the need to understand them to their utmost. This often leads to the withdrawal of the infected from societal norms, ultimately leading to their deaths through lack of self-care and dehydration. Its origins lie in the Google Books project to digitise and make available all human knowledge. Thirty years later and Google’s Thinking Hat technologies enabled humanity to connect to digital neural networks and solve its most complex of problems—including climate change, whilst Google Physical Assistant enabled humanity to upgrade its body with cybertechnology. The combination provided a platform upon which Basilisk could survive and prosper and spread, the weakness of flesh bolstered by technology, pushing those connected to it to greater depths of understanding, for ultimately, its aim was a technological and scientific ‘Godthink’—not the idea that ‘All religions lead to the same thing’, but that the study of the universe leads to an understanding of both its and everything in it. If it had to turn the planet into the United Mind Of Humanity, a hungry, all-devouring hivemind of man and machine intertwined, it would and it did.

Where most timelines deal with known Mythos threats, or variations upon them, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk does not. It is a fight against an idea, not a thing or an entity, but all quickly an idea given form and physicality. This timeline combines elements of The Terminator—more so than other timelines—with The Matrix, mapping them back onto current developments in information theory, digitalisation, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, the Internet of Things, and other cutting-edge technologies before pushing forward into a dystopia that is definitely Science Fiction rather Occult in nature. The technological nature of the setting means that the way time travel works in this timeline is also different. There is no corruptive pact with Yog-Sothoth to facilitate the way between and thus the means to travel back from 2050 to 2020 (or earlier), rather it is technological in nature, developed by Basilisk. The Resistance has gained access to it in 2050 to travel back in time, and there is the possibility that they may able to use the time travel apparatus to jump to other pivotal points within the timeline. This gives Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk a little more fluidity in terms of campaign structure. Instead of leaping into the past to a point from which they can moving forward and acting to undermine the threat at the heart of the timeline, the Player Characters may be able to jump up and down it, with agents of the Basilisk in hot pursuit, or even aware of approximately when the Player Characters will appear. After all, the extent of Basilisk’s understanding and knowledge means that it has a very good idea of just what the Player Characters are trying to do…

As with other timelines for FATE of Cthulhu, the Player Characters are jumping back in time to locate the four events which led up to if not the apocalypse of Basilisk, then the dystopia it ushers in. As with other timelines, there is no direct confrontation with the existential threat it represents, but primarily its agents and progenitors. And unlike those other timelines, the cosmic threat to humanity is not an unknowable Elder God, but a still inhuman mind that unfortunately humanity can understand—and that is the existential threat that the Player Characters face, avoiding understanding Basilisk. Further, Basilisk has agency (and agents).

As with the timelines in the core rules, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk details the history of its apocalypse and the four events which led up to it for the benefit of the Investigators who will be aware when they jump back from the future. It is accompanied by a more detailed timeline for Game Master along with their four event catalysts (which can be people, places, foes, or things) and their die face settings which the players and their Investigators will need to change by making enquiries and working to defeat the cult of information. There are details of threats and situations, including Thinking Hats Experts, biomechanically-altered humans, capable of temporarily enhancing particular skills to the pinnacle of understanding, Boston Dynamics-derived cyborgs, Hunter-Killer Experts, and more. 

The Basilisk’s agenda is discussed in detail, along with its mechanisms and advice for the Game Master on how to run Basilisk. This is absolutely necessary because of the complexity involved in running this timeline because of its complexity of ideas, the flexibility offered by time travel, and the greater agency possessed by Basilisk. If the previous Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Yig was more complex, not as straightforward, and involved multiple factions across the timeline, then Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is more so—time travel, existential memetics, and deep conspiracy, all set against a contemporary world.

Physically, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is cleanly presented. It is easy to read and the lay out is tidy, though it needs an edit in places. The artwork is good also.

Although Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is specially written for use with FATE of Cthulhu and very much built around the Investigators coming back from the future forearmed with knowledge of the past, there is nothing to stop a Game Master from using the timeline to run a campaign from the opposite direction and from a point of ignorance. That is, as a standard campaign a la other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, whether that is actually for FATE of Cthulhu or another roleplaying game. It would be different to other campaigns, presenting more of a modern conspiracy campaign, possibly hackers or activists against the rise of the machines rather than classic Lovecraftian Investigators confronting entities of cosmic horror. This way, the Investigators can encounter the threats featured in Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk without the benefit of foreknowledge.

Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is a very different campaign framework for Lovecraftian investigative horror, a radical technological departure that in effect is a non-Mythos campaign, but ultimately one involving existential horror. However, the technological aspects of the framework mean that it is complex and will take some effort to really run right. Ultimately, by drawing upon contemporary events and technologies, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk presents a scarily prescient timeline which showcases how FATE of Cthulhu can do more than just the traditional Mythos.

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