Shadows of Cthulu

If you’re into tentacles…and not like that…have I got a game for you!

I was just given a copy of Shadows of Cthulhu, a True20 rendering of Lovecraft horror. I want to open by mentioning this isn’t a complete RPG book; it’s a setting book for True20. If you buy this book alone, you might be able to fudge a game using nothing more than a familiarity with the d20 system. But to really mine it for all of it’s worth, you’ll need the True20 rules as well.

If you’re not familiar with Cthulhu or Lovecraft’s fiction, here’s the nickel tour.  You’re in America in the 1920s.  There’s success and opportunity all around you, but something dark is growing.  The professor at your university is experimenting with forces best left alone.  There’s a cult near the docks that thinks we’d be better off under some dark god.  And the farmers in the small town just to your south are slaves under the domination of a wretched demon.  You’re willing to stand up to these evils, but you’re not prepared.  How could you be?  You don’t have an unflinching psyche.  You don’t have a proton pack or any magical weapons.  All you have is your wits and maybe a few friends helping you face down nigthmares that no man was meant to see.  Even if you win this fight, there’s a good chance you’ll be permanently scarred in the process.

Shadows of Cthulhu opens with a full-page explanation of the intention behind the roleplaying game. I’ve seen that in other RPGs, but quite frankly, I wish it was typical of all games. When I pick up a new book, it’s fairly obvious which genre it’s for. But exactly what spin will they use? It’s a long walk between the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and George Lucas. A precursory look into the author’s mind saves me the need to study charts and tables before figuring out what this game is going for.

So what did I learn from the introduction? Let me quote just one paragraph.

“Call of Cthulhu did something no other roleplaying game had done up until that point. It made it all right to be afraid. By assuring that you were probably going to die or go insane, it eliminated the desperate need to develop your character’s abilities. But it replaced the drive for power and increasing numbers on a piece of paper with a true drive for character development and story. It made bad character traits and debilitating insanities fun.”

I like that.

I fully understand the desire to play a hero of great stature. I understand why people don’t want to play quadriplegic farmers (as some of FtB’s editorial has been polemically rendered). But weakness gives you a chance to explore parts of your roleplaying that have nothing to do with getting the biggest gun or tweaking your feats so you never fail a roll. And a game like Cthulhu gives you permission — nay, it requires you — to be weak. It’s ok to fail, because everyone else is too. And since you no longer have to min-max for that perfect character, you feel free to pick options that are interesting and colorful instead.

The book includes several new Backgrounds that are appropriate to 1920s pulp fiction. You can come into the game as a cultist, xenophobic yokel, gangster, or star athlete. If you’re not familiar with True20, expect that to work just like choosing your land of origin in D&D 3.0 Forgotten Realms. If you’re not familiar with that either, let’s use hand grenade accuracy and say it’s like picking an elf.

They also add classes for academics, investigators, and reverents (i.e. people of strong faith or conviction). I appreciate their handling of the latter. It’s rare to see a game where your faith has a real world effect, without becoming full-blown spells — your character isn’t a holy wizard, but that doesn’t mean God is silent.  My only regret here is that they didn’t offer a slightly better variety of powers, but I understand why they didn’t.  If you could drive back Cthulhu in the name of the Lord, it would defeat the point of the game.

Just in case you’re in a rut, they offer a variety of archetypes for each class, giving you different spins to consider. For example, the investigator could be a film noir detective, but he could also just be the town gossip.

If you’re not familiar with the time period, the book includes a four-page primer on 1920s America. There’s information on business, gangs, fashion, minorities, etc. The section does a fairly good job of giving you a taste of life in the decade, but it seems a bit short.  I wouldn’t advocate a droning history lecture, but giving some specifics on entertainers, politicians, events, and other nuances of the time period would help GMs make their setting pop by moving from generalities into the details of life. So you went to see a sports game, but who was the big star on the field everyone’s there to see? Fortunately, this is all information you can get from any public library or trip around the internet. And the information you can’t get as easily (i.e. the Cthulhu mythos) is spelled out in excellent detail in other chapters.

As any roleplayer knows, the real trademark of Cthulhu games are their rules for handling insanity. Mental illness is one of the areas I’ve thought RPGs never handled very well. Most games screw up either the explanation of a condition or its root causes. I remember famously playing Rifts, only to encounter some great beast whose visage left me with an incurable fear of boats.  I wish I was joking.

While this game isn’t perfect, I’ll give it credit for doing a better job than most. For example, if you develop a panic disorder, you make Will saves when under great stress. If you fail, you become stricken with panic. With real panic disorder, one of the most important traits of the condition is that the sufferer has attacks when there’s no obvious reason to be frightened. To people who are detail-oriented, stuff like this might bug you. But, in my opinion, it’s close enough to work. After all, this is a Lovecraft RPG, not the newest edition of the DSM.

Sanity saves are relatively simple. You don’t have point pools or anything similar to keep track of. Instead, when a stressor appears, you make a single save. If successful, all is well. If unsuccessful, you’re mentally scarred by the event. From there, you have to determine which condition the unfortunate character receives. While there are charts for random rolls, most monsters and situations come with some common sense rules to help GMs pick the right condition. A nightmarish beast should no longer cause a crushing fear of boats. Unless it’s a boat mimic, in which case that might make sense.

The game uses an Awareness mechanic to show the double-edged sword of exploring the unknown. Reading a tome that describes the horrors lurking in our universe may twist your mind to the breaking point. But you’re also growing from those experiences. Awareness points represent that growth, allowing you to buy down mental problems or unlock forbidden powers to help in your quest.

The layout of the book is clean and easy to follow, and I’m pleased to see an index in the back. I find it very frustrating when an RPG book doesn’t have one.

As I mentioned before, you’re presumed to be familiar with the True20 rules.  There are numerous references (both implied and explicit) to those rules, so if you don’t know them, the book may feel a bit incomplete.

In conclusion, if you’re not into Lovecraft, you prefer playing the ass-kicking hero, or you’re completely satisfied with a previous incarnation of Cthulhu games, this is probably not for you. But if you like the d20 system, enjoy investigative games, and are either new to the series or looking for an update, I think you’ll be pleased with Shadows of Cthulhu.

Want to learn more about Shadows of Cthulhu? Read on…

Or pick up a copy at RPG Now!

Comments (3)

DonnovanNovember 21st, 2008 at 8:39 pm

Nicely stated review. Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu was my first RPG, and still my favorite rule-set regardless of setting.
As a fan of Lovecraft roleplay, I’ll probably pick up a copy of this one too.

Another game is Trail of Cthulhu, which uses the Gumshoe system and is set more in the 1930’s.

Gary "Kendermage" PhillipsNovember 21st, 2008 at 9:10 pm

Thanks Dan. It isn’t often us True20 junkies get a great shout out like this. It is much appreciated for a fantastic setting like Shadows of Cthulhu for True20. I hope you don’t mind but I took the liberty of linking to your review to the True20 Forums I’m sure everyone else will be just as excited by your review as I was.

AnonNovember 24th, 2008 at 4:21 pm

This coincides nicely with a certain forum topic on the subject:

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