Cthulhu Dark is a game by Graham Walmsley, Kathryn Jenkins and Helen Gould. In it you take on the role of a doomed investigator, where you don’t play to win. The system is simple and easy to learn.
There have been many games released lately that focus on Lovecraft’s setting and his Cthulhu Mythos. Some of these games are great, while others are okay. The thing with Cthulhu games is that they tend to get compared to Call of Cthulhu, which is probably to RPGs based on Lovecraft’s work what D&D is to fantasy RPGs. Since CoC is by far the most known (and probably most played as well) Lovecraft RPG, it casts a long and dark shadow over all the other games that stem from the same source.
Cthulhu Dark was published this year and I got the book a few weeks ago. I’ve been digging my way through it, slowly but purposefully. Graham Walmsley is the main game designer. He has designed and written modules for games like Trail of Cthulhu and designed a few other games as well. He also wrote Stealing Cthulhu, which is a guide for game masters to Lovecraftian storytelling.
Cthulhu Dark is a game about doomed investigators and players are not intended to play to win. Instead they should enjoy losing and experiencing their investigators slowly loosing grip on sanity, as the horrors unfold and their insight into vistas beyond imagination opens before them. Cthulhu Dark is truly a storytelling game about Lovecraftian horror.
Cthulhu Dark’s system
As I grow older the more I like simple system and, most of all, systems where the narrative is the main focus point. Cthulhu Dark is exactly like that, the system is simple and easy to learn. It uses d6 and you can roll as many as three dice, but only the highest number rolled counts. Rolling 1 gets you a minimal success, while rolling 4 is a normal success. Rolling 5 is a great success and you get something extra, you learn something more. Rolling a 6 however grants you all of what rolling a 5 would but also some terrible insight beyond human knowledge.
Every character can roll as many as three dice. One for being human, one for occupation and one for Insight (see below). The system calls for that your Insight die to be green, though I suspect that it is sufficient enough to have it in different color than the other two dice.
Creating a character is quick and easy. All you need is a name and an occupation. No need to roll for stats, no need for allocating skill points. The only score you have is Insight and it starts at 1. As you glimpse through the veil and spot the horrifying reality beyond, you roll you Insight die. If you roll higher than your current Insight score, your Insight grows (and trust me, this can happen quite fast). When your Insight reaches 6 your character has gone insane.
The rules are straight-forward and easy to understand. In fact, they are easy enough for younger and inexperienced players to understand en enjoy. Perhaps many hardcore Cthulhu fans will find these rules too light for their liking, but from what I’ve read and tried they really seem to amplify and reward role playing and the horror the investigators experience.
I also like the cooperative storytelling nature of the rules. Since there’s no way for the investigators to fail a roll (even rolling 1 will get you minimal results) there’s a mechanism for failure. If there’s anyone at the table who thinks that the story or mystery would be more interesting if you fail, they can step in, describe what would happen if you failed and roll a Failure die. If their roll is higher than yours, you fail as they described it. This can add so much flavor to a game, if used correctly.
Four settings and a hanging
Cthulhu Dark offers a different approach to the Lovecraftian setting than you normally see in game pulling from this source. Traditionally you’d take on the roles of antiquarians, librarians, aristocrats or other people of higher standing, and very often, if you stay true to the Lovecraftian narrative, white privileged men. Men who have so high credit rating that even his majesty, King George V, wouldn’t refuse to see them for a cup of tea and biscuits.
In Cthulhu Dark you don’t do that. Instead you get to play the people from the lower classes, people of no power and with little or even no education. Prostitutes, hairdressers, housewives, butchers etc., these are the kind of investigators you’ll be playing in Cthulhu Dark.
What’s more, and this was something that I underlined when I read through the book at first, the Lovecraftian approach to class and power is turned upside down. Instead of the outcasts, the half-breeds, the uneducated and the degenerate being the source of evil, hidden away in some New Orleans swamp and worshipping tentacled sleeping aliens, the powerful and the wealthy play that role.
This came as a bit of surprise, since this kind of reversed class distinction isn’t something you normally see in a Cthulhu game. On the other hand, once I read through the Designer’s Notes (please do so and preferably before you read through the rules) I got a better perspective on both the game and the designer’s intention.
There are four different setting presented in the book, each comes with its own module. Each setting is distinctive and has its own flavor. You get good information on both setting, narratives and how to make the horror come to live.
Arkham, year 1692
What is a Lovecraftian game without Arkham or the Miskatonic valley? The setting provided in Cthulhu Dark, written by Kathryn Jenkins, is set in 1692. It has the witch-hunt in Salem written all over it, but in a good way. The setting has a good guide and the module, The Doors beyond Time, is nice.
London, year 1851
Cthulhu by gaslight! The Victorian era is loved by many role players, though I must admit I don’t find it that interesting. The setting however is well laid out and the module, Screams of the Children, can really send shivers down your spine. It’s really that good!
Jaiwo, year 2017
Africa in the present day. The fact that Jaiwo, setting written by Helen Gould, is a fictional place on the West coast of Africa didn’t bother me at all, as a matter of fact I found this setting the most interesting one. Perhaps because it is fictional. Perhaps because this is maybe the setting where I found it easiest to experience the upside-down approach of the power roles in Cthulhu Dark (see above). The module, Curse of the Zimba, is a good read and I can’t wait to run it.
Mumbai, year 2037
Cthulhu and cyberpunk! Mumbai is an interesting read, though I didn’t really connect with it. Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of the cyberpunk genre. But for those who are and like Lovecraftian games, this should be right down their alley. The module, Consume, is good and offers great opportunities to explore class-related subjects.
Feel and look of Cthulhu Dark
This is a game about horror and it takes that role seriously. The designers have gone the extra mile in helping game masters create their own mysteries and on how to convey horror and describe it so that the players actually feel it. I think this makes the rule book even more valuable, since the methods explained work just as well using other systems.
Much as I love the cover of the book, I must admit that I don’t like its interior layout. It’s too minimalist, too simple and feels like I’m reading through a school essay. The text is superb, the artwork great, it’s just that black/white layout that actually did nothing for me. Compared to most recent publishing of other Lovecraftian games, e.g. the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark’s layout is dull and boring.
Cthulhu Dark is a great role playing game. If you like simple, rules-light horror games, that’s fun and interesting to play, Cthulhu Dark is great pick. If you like games with cooperative storytelling and where you don’t need to “win”, Cthulhu Dark is a superb choice. If you are a Lovecraft-traditionalist or prefer a more rules-heavy approach, then perhaps you should steer away from this one.