Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Year in Cthulhu RPGs 2014

Perhaps we can truly see the dark and limitless power of the Old Ones through their ability to eternally remain in fashion. Or at least to dive deep into oversaturation, and yet not become uncool. So even after a year in which AEG delivered Smash Up: The Obligatory Cthulhu Set, we still have more and more. Will a final product release coincide with the heat death of the universe?

In any case, I’m once again inventorying 2014 rpg products for particular genres. I’ve already covered Supers, Post-Apocalyptic, and Steampunk & Victoriana. I’d hoped to have these by the end of 2015, but that didn’t happen. So we’ll just pretend the eerie gap connects to the leap year or something. Perhaps the Lunar New Year (which I still missed). In any case for this list I decided to try something new. Usually I lump all the Horror items in a single unwieldly list. This time I broke that into Horror: Cthulhu and Horror: Everything else.

A surprisingly even split.

If you’re a podcaster or blogger and want to talk with me about these series, drop me a line. I got nominated for an ENnie last year, so that’s something…maybe. If you’re a designer for games I’ve mentioned on any of these lists and want to talk about your work and thoughts about the genre in general, I’d love to have a chance to do that.

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I’ve group entries by major publishers and then individual new core books or oddities, followed by category roundups. I’ve considered something “Cthulhu” if it explicitly references that, calls itself Lovecraftian, or uses non-bastardized names of the Old Ones. Some of that’s subtective. I include Kickstarter projects if they actually released in 2014. I give pdf-only releases their own entry if they’re notable, of significant size, or come from a major publisher. I consolidated some material into” Category” items at the end. I’m certain I missed some releases. If you spot them, leave me a note in the comments.

1. Call of Cthulhu: Chaosium
This year’s roar came from the new 7th Edition's semi-appearance and delays with the Horror on the Orient Express. Kickstarter. Both suggested problems with Chaosium’s publishing strategy. That would be confirmed in 2015 with a complete management shake up, cutting of lines, and a refocus for what remained of the company. We'll see what that new approach brings. Call of Cthulhu has many competitors, but remains the beast at the top of the heap. Will the new edition draw in other companies or will they go another direction?

This year’s big releases are the Keeper Rulebook and Investigator Handbook for CoC 7th. These pdfs landed late in the year, just making it in. At first I assumed that Chaosium had oddly split the core rules into a Player and a GM book. But more oddly the core rules seem to be contained in the Keeper book. The Investigator volume adds to the character options and isn't necessary to play. Apparently there's some weirdness with the naming? A strange situation.

As with previous new editions, Call of Cthulhu 7th lifts a chunk from its predecessors (literally and figuratively). It makes incremental rather than revolutionary changes (percentile stats!). If you like CoC you've probably already decided to dive into Ry’leh or not. Is it a good jumping on point for new gamers? It remains a fairly traditional game with lots of skills, detailed equipment, and the ability for none of that to matter when you actually face adversaries. So maybe, but less so for new players coming out of Story Games. Also, as far as I can tell, Chaosium still hasn’t released print versions of these rules. (You can get the Keeper Rulebook pdf for $28!).

The company did back that release with two modules: Cold Harvest and the revised Ripples from Carcosa. The first is a scenario set in Stalinist Russia. I'm unsure if it connects with the earlier Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37. Chad Bowser does the writing, so I suspect it’s dynamite. On the other hand, Ripples is an odd choice to drop as an entry product for your revised system. Rather than the standard 1920's it has two historical and one near-future scenario. The revised campaign release Horror on the Orient Express seems seems the most conventional release (and works across editions). But of course it isn't. It’s a weird, sprawling, massive campaign of non-traditional mythos with elements drawn from Thomas Ligotti. It's amazing, but not where I'd want to start new players. It also falls on this list by virtue of finally arriving to KS backers (a year late).

2. Call of Cthulhu: Other Publishers
The big question is whether other companies who've produced CoC products will follow down the 7th edition path? At the present the trail looks fairly empty. Hopefully Chaosium can generate enough excitement and support to lure them. That’s vital since these publishers have put out amazing products over the years. For example, the ongoing "Age of Cthulhu" series. Starfall Over the Plateau of Leng offers an investigation moving back and forth between the real world and Dreamlands.

Other releases include Tales of the Crescent City, a large sourcebook for 1920's New Orleans. The anthology format includes essays and adventures, making it a solid resource and companion to the earlier Secrets of New Orleans. Investigator Weapons, Volume 2: Modern Day feels like a throwback. It's been a while since I've seen a "gun" book for anything other than Shadowrun. It's the kind of thing my high school group would have fawned over and then ignored in play. The book's 240 pages, with illustrations for the individual weapons. It this is your bag full of guns, then more power to you. World War Cthulhu: Europe Ablaze presents scenarios for Cubicle7's take on WW2 and the Mythos. Finally Byzance is a MASSIVE French supplement covering the Byzantine Empire. It hints at either a huge community playing Dark Ages Mythos campaigns or the dedicated work of Medieval Studies Grad Students. Either way, a cool look a historical corner often overlooked in gaming

3. Call of Cthulhu: Pegasus Spiele
This German publisher more than deserves their own entry for this year, delivering even more CoC material than Chaosium. I have to begin with another huge and amazing volume: Gaslicht- Horror in den 1890ern. Here Pegasus Spiele takes on Cthulhuby Gaslight (3rd Edition), expanding, revising, and creating new adventures. It looks amazing and shows the strength of this line overseas.

You can see that in the other mammoth releases like Düstere Orte, a collection of six adventures set in "dark places." Die Träume des Nophru-Ka and Der Tag der Bestie are the second and third parts of a gigantic 18-chapter world spanning campaign. Each volume has six linked scenarios and clocks in at about 300 pages. Things finally slim down from there. Niemandsland- Edition Stahlgewitter revises and consolidates an earlier book covering WW1 and the Mythos. Wuchernder Wahn und andere Abenteuer collects material from Cthuloide Welten magazine. Totholz and Der Preuße both present single CoC scenarios designed for conventions and tournaments.

4. Trail Of Cthulhu: Pelgrane Press
At least half of the Cthulhu game threads I read revolve around Trail. It seems to be the key Gumshoe product (alongside Hite's other masterwork, Night's Black Agents). Part of what makes ToC releases special is the split between solid adventures and ambitious sourcebook projects. Dreamhounds of Paris is one of the latter. It brings together Lovecraft's Dreamlands and the rising surrealist ideas of the 1930's. I'm surprised we hadn't seen this combination explored before. To complement Dreamhounds, Pelgrane also released The Book of Ants, a systemless, player-facing surrealist book filled with glimpses and weirdness.

Another large volume, Mythos Expeditions covers travel-oriented adventure for ToC. It includes ten scenarios as well as additional rules for travel and survival. Locations range from the Sargasso Sea to Paraguay to Mongolia. Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu is a collection of WW1 adventures. One of the three, Sisters of Sorrow, appeared previously, but I believe the other two are new. Slaves of the Mother finishes out the “Cthulhu Apocalypse” trilogy. It has three scenarios set several years after the Earth has fallen to a cosmic horror. Soldiers of Pen and Ink explores something rarely covered in rpgs, the Spanish Civil War. The investigators pursue a mystery even as the country bathes in blood and war. Finally the monthly series Ken Writes About Stuff includes a ton of Lovecraftian or Lovecraft-adjacent material.

5. Achtung! Cthulhu: Modiphius
This was a huge year for Achtung! Cthulhu. Released the previous year Modiphius followed up with strong support and new adaptations. Since then we’ve seen the company invest heavily in this line with crossover products and an upcoming miniatures skirmish game.

This year significantly expanded the setting via three products: Guide to the Eastern Front, Guide to the Pacific Front, and Guide to North Africa. Each hefty sourcebook (128 pages) offers new character options, details on military operations in the area, deeper monster info, and an exploration of the role of the Mythos in the region. Similarly Terrors of the Secret War offers a bestiary. It includes horrors both cosmic and human.

Achtung! Cthulhu expanded their support beyond Savage Worlds and CoC (6th) with reimplementations of their core books: Fate Investigator's Guide to the Secret War and Fate Keeper's Guide to the Secret War. Ryan Macklin handled the conversion to Fate Core. He always has striking ideas for the system, so Fate players may want to look at these. Modiphius also offer a limited edition combining the two books, The Fate Guides to the Secret War.

Smaller products included several adventures. Kontamination is a stand-alone module set in late 1944. They also adapted their Zero Point campaign series to other systems with Heroes of the Sea and Three Kings. Lastly Plotting Cthulhu and Secret War Documents are pdf-only releases designed for generic use as well. The first features plot generators and the second form-fillable documents from the period.

A new Cthulhu RPG with a unique system. Designer Jonathan Rowe has a lengthy post on his site about what made him skip existing systems in favor of new mechanics. I like that he doesn’t completely dismiss the others, pointing out what he likes from those approaches. Cthulhu Abides has a stated  focus on flexible Sanity and new ideas for handling magic. The game calls itself “Pick-Up & Play (PUAP) RPG.” I’m curious about the systems built to support that. It focuses on Edwardian England, placing it in that strange post-Victorian era of industrialization which culminates with World War I.

Abide: accept or act in accordance with; be unable to tolerate; to have one's abode; to continue in a particular condition; to wait for, await. I assume this last one’s the sense the author intends. But try as I may I cannot hear that word without thinking of The Big Lebowski.

A new Spanish rpg offering a new take on Cthulhu. The pitch line talks about reinvention and bringing the Mythos into the modern era. The game seems to focus on secret societies and groups. In fact the PCs are members of the cults you’d normally fight. The art's striking and I like the simplicity of the character sheets. Cultos Innombrables has gotten decent reviews. If you're curious I recommend checking this review or this one via Google Translate. I haven't been able to find much follow up on this line, but I may be missing it in my hunt. Very cool seeming, especially if you know Spanish (which I used to, but that’s a long story).

A generic Lovecraftian supplement covering esoteric New England. That's a smart and relatively under-exploited section of Cthulhuiana. I don’t mean the area, that’s been trampled across by tons of supplements. But the idea of authors bringing their local history knowledge to bear for interesting self-publishing. The Guide has seven chapters plus an introduction. These cover geography, inter-war society, prehistory, Native Americans, monsters, witchcraft, and a catch-all list of weirdness. It comes in at 144 pages, slightly smaller than typical digest format. The layout's simple and efficient. Recommended for GMs running in this locale and era. Could be a good model for others wanting to combine local history knowledge with Cthulhuiana. Perhaps an examination of the strange planned city of Gary, Indiana and its connection to occult designs?

I've mentioned this company on a few other lists. They seem to focus on quickly turning around projects to match new systems and churning out products to catch hype. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I've seen interesting stuff come out of excitable publishers. But the few reliable reviews I've seen make me leery. They released four Cthulhu-esque products this year. Present Day Cthulhu offers a take on modern Lovecraftian Adventures. They released this in two flavors, one for Fate Core and the other for Multiverse Adventures. Both contain the full system rules as well as "Mythos locations, Monsters, NPCs, the Dreamlands, an example scenario, several cults, a secret history of the Earth, and uncanny Mythos tomes, with the spells and powers they contain." All that in a short books. Cyber-Cthulhu and Cthulhu in Space are both Fate Core sci-fi versions of the Mythos. These again seem to follow a similar pattern: reprinting the whole of the CC rules and adding some fluff to it. Caveat Emptor.

A Swedish rpg, based on a fiction series. The name translates as “Swedish Cults.” You can see a little about the source books here. Short version: a linked set of stories about the Mythos tied to Sweden and Swedish history. The Indiegogo campaign for the core book offers this pitch "The real universe is cold, evil and beyond human understanding....The truth, however, has revealed to the few. Most of them have been crushed by this knowledge. But not all. Instead, they have embraced it, sought to take advantage of it. Become the old gods' servants here on earth. These people are called cultists...You are one of them...Or maybe even worse, you're a monster, a hybrid that is struggling to survive in a hostile world. A world that the other call Sweden." It reminds me a little of Cultos Innombrables above, though with more existential horror.

11. Revisions & New Editions
Sometimes I don't "get" game premises. Not dislike them, but rather I have a hard time noodling out how arrived here. Now I love cats. They're my pet of choice despite allergies. But once again I have to express my astonishment that there are two competing feline adaptations of the Cthulhu Mythos. On the one hand we have Call of Catthulhu which released a "deluxe" two-volume version of their game: The Nekonomicon and UnaussprechlichenKatzen (The Cat Herder's Guide). On the other side we have Cathulhu: Velvet Paws on Cthulhu's Trail, a translation of a small German game, Katzuhlu from 2006. Outside of furred circles, another revised edition came from Stardust publications for Dark Aeons, The Book of Shadows. That presents updated magic for the modern, loosely Lovecraftian, card-driven rpg. Finally Eldritch Skies received a Savage Worlds version (after some turmoil with their Unisystem version). Battlefield Press released Eldritch Skies (SW) and Distant Vistas. The latter's a small expansion with new rules and options.

12. Sourcebooks
The Void offers a mix of relatively hard sci-fi and Lovecraftian elements. Wildfire followed up their initial release with several smaller but substantive supplements. Secrets of the Void focuses on the backstory of the setting. It delves into the history of the Old Ones, new aliens, cults, and other secrets. Characters Unbound I: Player's Guide adds a lifepath system, new talents, and a host of optional character play rules. Horrors of the Void I: Body Horror offers four new monsters. Each body horror-focused terror gets several pages on how to use them in a campaign. The book also includes info on existing beasties.

Glimpse the Beyond reads to me like Mage: the Ascension vs. Cthulhu. That game added Dwellers In Nightmare, a character sourcebook, and Dreams of the Old Ones, an alternate "baddies won" setting. Shadows Over Vathak's a Pathfinder black powder sort-of Lovecraftian setting I’ve reviewed. They added several sourcebooks covering "The Colonies" a specific large island off the coast: A Game Master's Guide: The Colonies, A Player's Guide: The Colonies, and Vathak Grimoires: The Drowning Ceremony. The material's aimed broadly and useful wherever in Vathak you might set things. Oddly they label the player and GM guides as an 'Adventure Path,' though there's no scenario here. They also released, Enhanced Racial Guide: Bhriota, the first of what I assume will be a series of racial books. Finally there's Mythos Too, part of the Mythic Monsters series for Pathfinder. Here you can get stats and CRs for the Color Out of Space and flying polyps among others.

13. Modules/Scenarios
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History of Horror RPGs (Part One: 1981-1990)

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