Actual Play Review: Cthulhu Dark

With a brief break from our Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea game taking place due to some travel going on in our group, we recently had the opportunity to try out Cthulhu Dark. It was just three of us, myself and two players, which in my experience can work pretty well for horror games.

Cthulhu Dark is designed for Lovecraftian horror. It is about as stripped down a set of rules as I could imagine. Your investigator has a name, a description, and an occupation. He or she has one stat, Insight, which begins at 1. If it reaches 6, your investigator is pretty much insane. Game over, man.

How do you resolve tasks? It's pretty straightforward. If your task is something a human could do you doll a d6. If it is related to your occupation, you roll another d6. Finally, if you are willing to risk your mind to succeed you can roll an Insight Die. You pretty much always "succeed" unless Failure Dice are bing rolled. Your overall roll is the highest of all your dice rolls. If the highest is a 1 you get the bare minimum needed to move the investigation along. If you roll a 4 you get everything a competent investigator would get - or if doing a non-investigative task, you succeed competently. A 5 gives a little extra. So does a 6... But you also get a glimpse of something beyond human knowledge. Giving you an Insight Roll which we will discuss below.

If your Insight Die is higher than any other die you also make an Insight Roll. If its the highest and a 6 you make two Insight Rolls.

An Insight Roll is a bit similar to a Call of Cthulhu sanity check. You also use it if you encounter something horrifying. If this d6 roll is higher than your current Insight, your Insight goes up by 1. The game is designed to quickly bring your Insight up to a 3 or 4, something we encountered in actual play as well.

There is also the Failure Die. If the Keeper (i.e. the GM) or other players think a failure would be interesting on a test, then you also roll a Failure Die. If it is the highest roll then the task fails. This is not an option if failure will block an adventure from proceeding, only if it is potentially interesting.

That's pretty much the rules. They fit on two pages. Cthulhu Dark is a lot longer than that, with sections for player and keeper advice as well as sample settings and adventures. The main game contains Victorian London. Other settings include Arkham 1692, the fictional West African country of Jaiwo in 2017, and Mumbai in 2037. I'm not certain if those other settings will be in the final Cthulhu Dark or if they are Kickstarter backer exclusives.

I first encountered these rules in author Graham Walmsley's earlier Stealing Cthulhu book. To be honest, I glanced at them but found them too "light" for my tastes. After some successes with Fate coupled with considerably less free time due to attending grad school part-time I gave it another look and began appreciating it more and more.

From our single trial, I'll say I liked the game quite a bit. We played in Arkham of 1692. I'll not do a full writeup here as it is a new adventure and I'd rather not give it all away. Suffice to say the protagonists are involved in something very much like the Salem Witch Trials. In play I found the players reaching for the Insight Die on their own, with little prompting from me. By the end of the adventure they had done unspeakable crimes and were no longer the sane normal mortals they were at the start of the adventure. It also played extremely fast - we got a pretty full adventure in, character generation included, in under two hours.

I think it could be used for campaign play as well - the adventure we played was very much designed to remove characters from their normal life by the end, one way or another. Graham Walmsley indicated he tried out the Cthulhu Apocalypse adventures he had written for Pelgrane Press's Trail of Cthulhu game with these rules. I don't think it would work for all styles of play, nor do I believe it was designed to. I definitely had fun with it and my players seemed to enjoy it as well. That's not to say I'll never play Call of Cthulhu again - and I still have a good Trail of Cthulhu (or maybe Night's Black Agents/The Dracula Dossier) game in my bucket list.


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