Written by Graham Walmsley
Cthulhu and Lovecraft are so prevalent in the world of tabletop it is often hardly worth noticing when someone comes along with these names slapped on their product. Every noteworthy game like Munchkin, Gloom, or Smash Up will inevitably have the Cthulhu expansion. The tabletop RPG world has Call of Cthulhu at the top of a virtual mountain of madness of games (Trail of Cthulhu, Age of Cthulhu. Delta Green, etc.). There are some great games amongst all of this, but for me personally, I am very picky about how horror and games meet, especially the weird fiction genre of Lovecraft. My preference is always for a role-playing system that is light and allows for a lot of creative freedom at the table. I know this is not everyone’s style of game, but after writing lesson plans for weeks and weeks and weeks, if I run something I want to have to do very little prep-work and be surprised by my players and where they take the story. Cthulhu Dark seems to do just that.
This was my second Games on Demand experience at Origins 2017, this time with Brendan Conway running the session. Conway is the designer behind The Last Days of Anglekite Dungeon World supplements Masks. He’s a partner at Magpie Games and both a great game designer and GM. I backed the recent Cthulhu Dark Kickstarter and had been aware of its existence as a free document online for some years. With Brendan Conway running the table I knew we’d be in for an enjoyable time.
To provide the players with a structure of what kind of story we’d be partaking in, our GM made use of Rafael Chandler’s The Starship from Hell supplement. This document is a randomizing tool to create adventures in the vein of Alien, Event Horizon, Dead Space and the like. Very Clive Barker-esque space horror. The Starship from Hell is an incredibly evocative tool that helped generate a brilliant framework for our particular game. Scenarios are one area I found tricky when it came to the lightness of Cthulhu Dark. There’s always the option to borrow from existing adventures from other Lovecraftian systems. I found Sean Preston’s tremulus game while having some tricky bits, has a great scenario selection system built in.
Character creation in Cthulhu Dark hinges on whichever method you have to create the situation. Unlike other games with multiple classes and character sheets, Cthulhu Dark only tells the player to choose a name and occupation, then describe the character. Conway informed us we would be the crew of a mercenary ship and then went around asking each player what a job on that ship might be. These positions were recorded onto index cards and randomly handed out with the option to trade if we wished. Everyone held onto their first card, and that element of character creation added a sense of lite improv. Our crew was as follows:
- Dr. Tera Able, Medic
- Jona Irons, Captain
- Ellen Everhart, Engineer
- Sev, Security
- Laird Tremblay, Navigator (Me)
Our scenario involved a distress call from a royal science ship, sent out by an aristocratic figure to find new technologies and species that could be used to augment himself. The ship is now sending a distress call and has a massive tear in the hull. A nearby phenomenon was a rogue pulsar hurtling through space that may or may not be connected to the incident with the ship. Like all good space horror, our crew arrives, and we discover that something has definitely gone awry onboard the vessel. The interior walls of the ornate ship are bubbling and secrete a strange pink liquid. Their captain appears to have been at the center of the explosion. Star charts and mission details are hidden behind security on the ship’s computers. The culmination of the story has us running frantically for our ship as a horde of ballroom dancing ever-grinning “people” stalk the halls of the ship killing and skinning the faces of anyone in their path. Our brave engineer, Ellen, sacrificed herself to rig the ship’s transmergent engine. The rest of us barely survived, watching the rogue pulsar blink out of existence as the royal ship was phased into a dark pocket of space.
Cthulhu Dark is just the sort of horror system I love. The conflict resolution is based on of Powered by the Apocalypse, you pick up a d6 if what you are attempting can be done by a human, another d6 if it ties directly to your Occupation, and you have the option to include your Insight Die (another d6). The risk of using an Insight die is that every time you roll higher than your current Insight value (starts at 1) you have to move it up a tick. If Insight ever reaches 6, you have been exposed so directly to the horror you are driven mad.
This is a system that demands a lot in the moment from its GM and players, the balance of not having a meticulously pre-written adventure. The players need to be engaged in every scene, even if they are offscreen at the moment so that the story has cohesion. The GM, like in many PBTA games, has to find the right balance of screen time for characters. While the system and mechanics are light, the investment at the table is high, and I can see the game falling apart for people who prefer more dungeon crawl style games. Built into Cthulhu Dark is a rule that the supernatural horror can never be directly confronted and that any player who does dies automatically. This is not a game about killing the evil. Instead, you try to survive body and mind and make it to some sort of safety.