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Saturday 10 December 2022

Corvidae Versus Cthulhu

Be Like a Crow: A Solo RPG is a journaling game which enables the player to take to the skies as a corvidae—crow, magpie, jackdaw, or rook—over multiple landscapes and differing genres, achieving objectives, exploring, and growing as they learn and grow old. Published by Critical Kit, a publisher better known for its scenarios for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. The roleplaying game combines the simple mechanics and use of a deck of playing cards typical of a journaling game with five genres—‘Urban Crow’, ‘Cyber-Crow’, ‘Gothic Crow’, ‘Fantasy Crow’, ‘Clockwork Crow’, and ‘Ravens of the Tower’. Each of these presents a different place and time for the bird to fly over, land on, encounter the denizens, and more. Crowthulhu: A Cosmic Horror Setting For Be Like A Crow is a supplement that takes the game in an entirely different direction, to the edge of Lovecraft Country. As in Be Like a Crow: A Solo RPG, the player’s crow will take to the air, here encountering the weird and the eldritch, including cults of Pelicans, tentacled terrors terrorising boats traveling up and down the river, forests where the trees are dying from a luminously purple rot, as well as notables from Lovecraft Country, including Doctor Henry Armitage and Brown Jenkin.

Mechanically, Be Like a Crow: A Solo RPG, and thus Crowthulhu: A Cosmic Horror Setting For Be Like A Crow is simple. It uses a standard deck of playing cards and when a player wants his bird to undertake an action, he draws a card from the deck. This sets the difficulty number of the task. To see whether the bird succeeds, he draws another card and adds the value of a skill to the number of the card if appropriate. If it is equal or greater than the difficulty number, the bird succeeds. If an action is made with Authority, whether due to circumstances or a skill, the player draws two cards and uses the highest one, whereas if made at a Penalty, two cards are drawn and the lowest value one used. When drawn, a Joker can be used or saved for later. If the latter, it can be used to automatically succeed at a combat or skill check, to heal injuries, or to discard a card and draw again. Combat is a matter of drawing a card for each opponent, adding a skill if appropriate, and comparing the totals of the cards and the skills. The highest total wins each round and inflicts an injury. Eventually, when the deck is exhausted, the discard pile is reshuffled and becomes the new deck.

The play and thus the journaling of Be Like a Crow is driven by objectives as achieving these will enable a bird to advance through his lifecycle. An objective for the ‘Crowthulhu’ setting, might be for example, “A cult of [characters] has stolen [object] from the museum. They are performing a dark ritual with it near [location]. Attempt to stop them.” The player will also need to draw cards to identify the character, the object, and the location, and then as his bird flies from hex to hex across the map, draw cards for events in flight, and then for events when he lands. The player is free to, and advised to, ignore prompts if they do not fit the story, and this may be necessary if a prompt is drawn again, but ideally, the player should be using the prompts as drawn to tell a story and build the life of his crow.

Crowthulhu: A Cosmic Horror Setting For Be Like A Crow requires the core rules of Be Like a Crow, as well as a standard deck of playing cards. As well as providing the rules, it provides the prompts for events in flight and on land that are standard to each of the roleplaying game’s settings, but what Crowthulhu provides is its own set of tables its objectives, objects, characters, and locations. Two sets of objectives are provided, one for the red suits and one for the black suits, the same again for characters or NPCs, and again for objects and locations for Crowthulhu. Thus locations can be the dreamer’s dimension or the bedsit of an ageing musician, an object could be a scroll of Egyptian hieroglyphics which can be traded with an academic for another object or a miniature flail made tentacles that can be used in an attack, a character a crazed sea captain who talks in riddles or Herbert West, a shamed medical student researching reanimation, and an objective that cats are disappearing from the local area and the crow must find them and prevent further disappearances or a professor at the university has found a dangerous tome and plans to harness its powers, and the crow must go there and destroy it before he can!

Most, if not all of the entries have a Lovecraftian theme, whether that is investigating why a geologist has been acting strangely after he visited a recent meteor crash or encountering Brown Jenkin who will befriend the crow, but his manner is antagonistic and he probably wants you to fail. Many of the encounters involve FEAR, whether that is with a Deep One or a swan high-priest of Crowthulhu. (Crowthulhu itself is not defined in the supplement, being left up to the player’s imagination to describe.) Fear is the new mechanic introduced in Crowthulhu: A Cosmic Horror Setting For Be Like A Crow. As with other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, this measures a character’s—or crow’s—reaction to the cosmic horror of the Mythos and ability to withstand its debilitating effects. It comes into play when the Fear prompt is drawn and is tested much like a standard skill or ability test in the game. However, failure means that the crow is fearful and his player must add a tick to his Fear section on the character sheet. Once a crow has any ticks marked off under his Fear, the number acts as a penalty to all of his actions including other Fear checks, representing the traditional downward spiral of the crow’s sanity typical of the genre, though kept simple for the journaling format and style of play. It is possible for a crow to become less afraid. Either by expending a Joker card, which removes all Fear ticks, or potentially just a single one when exploring a new location.

In terms of locations, Crowthulhu: A Cosmic Horror Setting For Be Like A Crow includes its own setting, the Massachusetts town of Rooksbridge. This is the town in the nineteen twenties, supposedly built on a site where witches were executed in the seventeenth century, but is now best known for its relatively isolated location, along with its asylum and its university, which specialises in American history, and of course, has a library which specialises in the occult. From Blasted Heath and Crowdaw River to Independence Hill and Wytch House, has a decently hinted New England, post-colonial feel to it.

Physically, Crowthulhu: A Cosmic Horror Setting For Be Like A Crow is a slim affair. It is lightly illustrated with images of odd creatures, but the map is nicely done and has a period feel, plus the supplement is decently written. Crowthulhu: A Cosmic Horror Setting For Be Like A Crow flies in and out of the Cthulhu Mythos, veering between it and its own corvidae cosmic horror. It might veer too far into its own avian weirdness for the Mythos purist, but for others it provides a whole new way in which to explore the New England touched upon by Lovecraft and look upon it from a bird’s-eye view.

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