Cthulhu Dark Kickstarter and Impressions

Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu is probably my favorite RPG. It has a system very well matched for its genre and it realizes its genre fantastically well.

It's definitely an old-school game - in many ways it is a living fossil - you could take an adventure for its 1st edition from the 1980s and very easily use it with the most recent 7th edition, converting things on the fly. If you come from a D&D background, the rules are pretty easy to pick up (I'd argue that Call of Cthulhu is easier to pick up than D&D).

But there are other ways to play a game of Lovecraftian horror, and reasons you'd want to go in that direction, depending on what you are looking for in a game. Call of Cthulhu is very traditional, giving players minimal narrative control. Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu injects a laser focus on investigation, insuring that no game comes to a halt because of a failed skill roll. One can see that Trail had an influence on the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu.

Graham Walmsley has written a number of adventures for Trail of Cthulhu, written in the "purist" mode - games where achieving survival and sanity are extremely unlikely. They're fantastic adventures, filled with great atmosphere. My own tastes lean a little pulpier - less pulp than Pulp Cthulhu, more like your "Dunwich Horror" where some form of victory is possible if the investigators are careful and lucky.

He's also written Stealing Cthulhu, a system-less sourcebook on using various themes from Lovecraft and remixing them. My own games have benefited tremendously from this thin volume. I really enjoy Walmsley's style - it's a sort of "let's chat, here's an idea to consider - if you don't go with it that's fine, just give it some thought". I've read blogs and books filled with "one true way" to game that will condemn your BadWrongFun. Stealing Cthulhu is nothing like that - and my occasional interactions with Walmsley online have all been extremely pleasant and informative.

The last few pages of Stealing Cthulhu had the rules for Cthulhu Dark, a 2 page RPG for playing Lovecraftian horror. Your investigator has two statistics - a textual occupation and an INsight score . When you perform a task you roll at least one six-sided die - your "human" die. If your occupation is applicable you roll a second die. And if you want to risk your sanity you roll an insight die. Your highest die roll determines how well you succeed (or how awfully you fail if everyone things failure is more interesting). It's a very loose process - a roll of "1" isn't allowed to block the game - if you are investigating something you find the bare minimum needed to move the plot forward. If you jump out a window to escape you make a huge racket and everyone sees you.

There's a few catches though. If you rolled an Insight die and it is your highest roll, you have to make an Insight check. If you rolled a 6 on any die you have to make an Insight check. When you make an Insight check you roll a die and if it is higher than your current Insight (starting at 1) your Insight goes up by 1. If it hits 6...
When your Insight reaches 6, you understand the full horror behind the Universe and leave everyday life behind. To the outside world, you appear insane. This is a special moment: everyone focusses on your character’s last moments of lucidity. Go out however you want: fight, scream, run, collapse or go eerily silent.
Cthulhu Dark is a really simple game. I've not had an opportunity to play it yet but my read of it is that it could do a lot of stuff really well. If you're looking for detail on how you fight cultists or want skill checks, it won't work - and truthfully, that is often what I do want. Nevertheless, I can see how one could really have a blast going for a moody, dark scenario. Or even a campaign in such a style. It could, for example, do a fantastic job with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward or The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

You don't have a lot of guidance on how to handle combat - the idea is if you fight a Mythos horror you die. So you should run. However, I do regret a little not having much for a fight with your cultist foe, though admittedly that is more a function of how I game and not particularly Lovecrafitan. (Confession time - I'm a huge Clark Ashton Smith fan whose stories have protagonists who are a bit more resilient - and that definitely impacts how I run Cthulhu games.) But it doesn't seem difficult to add, for example, a "Body" score to go with your "Insight" one, to represent risks to your physical well-being as well as your mental.

I do like the fact that Cthulhu Dark stays clear of detailed insanity - having dealt with mental health issues, both in myself and with family, I'm a bit sensitive to seeing things like "OCD" appearing on a random table. Indeed your investigator might not be insane - he might just understand what it is he is witnessing.

I also like the way in which your Insight score will go up rapidly at first and then slow down, though you'll reach a point where a single roll will have a 1-in-6 chance of taking you out.

As far as the Kickstarter goes, you can check it out here: Cthulhu Dark. It seems odd to have a Kickstarter for a two-page set of rules (which you can download from the Kickstarter page) but the Kickstarter also brings you lots of player and keeper (GM) advice on using the rules and crafting scenarios, along with various settings for Cthulhu Dark. Based on the quality of Walmsley's previous work (and the preview material at the Kickstarter page) I'm really looking forward to it. Even if I never play a game of Cthulhu Dark (which writing this has really filled me with an urge to try out) I'm certain I'll be getting my money's worth from this one.

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