Grab Your Smokes and Flashlights – A Review of The Cthulhu Hack RPG

The Cthulhu Hack
Author: Paul Baldowski
PublisherJust Crunch Games
Page Count: 44
Available Formats: PDF and print
PDF (DTRPG) – $2.50
Print (DTRPG) – $6.24
Print/PDF combo (DTRPG) – $7.49
Print (Lulu) – $5.66
Print (Just Crunch Games) – £4.00

The Cthulhu Hack is a Lovecraftian-based and mythos-dripping game with stripped-down mechanics that are an homage to early Dungeons and Dragons. The Cthulhu Hack is an adaptation for The Black Hack, the fantasy version of these rules. The “Hack” system takes early Dungeons and Dragons, strips it down to the framework, and rebuilds it into something new and innovative.

I own both the physical book and the PDF. Let’s talk about the PDF first. The PDF is nicely done and very readable. It scales well on both PCs and tablets; it even scaled well on my phone. I also own the physical book from two of the three available sources. I first acquired the book from Lulu and then directly from Just Crunch Games in England. Both are very nicely produced with solid spines and semi-rigid covers. The glaring difference between these two printed versions is that the paper used in the Lulu version is thinner and bright white, whereas the Just Crunch printed version uses slightly thicker paper that is off-white. I would recommend the Just Crunch printed version over the Lulu version as it is easier on the eye.

The book contains no artwork, but the cover art is awesome! The font size used makes reading a pleasure; it is a little larger than you might typically find in other RPG books. The layout is smart, well thought out, and helps to keep the page count low.

MECHANICS (High Points):
The Cthulhu Hack uses the old-school stats of games like Dungeons and Dragons without all the frilly bits and flare. Let me be very clear, this is not D&D in any real, recognizable way save for the generic character stats we have become accustomed to. In The Cthulhu Hack, the stats are called saves.

Saves are used in place of any skill system. If a character needs to jump down from a ledge to a balcony, the player would make a DEX save by rolling a d20 and trying to get equal to or less than their DEX score. It’s that simple! Any other result is a failure, and the GM gets to narrate the outcome.

Without any sort of skill system, like those in many of today’s and yesterday’s RPGs, The Cthulhu Hack has implemented a few specific values or resources for a player to take advantage of during play. In this iteration of the “Hack” line of games, these are called Sanity, Smokes, and Flashlights. These are perishable resources in the game represented by usage die values. A usage die value simply represents anything that can be depleted.

As you might expect, Sanity is a perishable resource every character has. Anytime the GM asks for a sanity roll, the player rolls a d8 any result besides 1 or 2 is a success. If a 1 or 2 is rolled, it’s a failure, and two things will happen. First, the failed sanity roll effects are determined either by rolling a sanity die (separate purchase) or d6 roll and consulting a sanity table in the book. Second, the Sanity die value lowers to a d6. This represents a perishable resource. All further subsequent failed Sanity rolls would further reduce the die value.

Smokes and flashlights are perishable resources, like that of Sanity. Anytime a character wants to interact with someone, illicit information, persuade, talk their way out of some bad situation, Smokes rolled is called for.  Whenever a character wants to search, look for clues, recall something, or other similar things, a Flashlights roll is called for. Every character has a starting die value based on the class type they took during character creation. Like sanity rolls, any number other than a 1 or 2 is a success. A 1 or 2 is still a success, but the die level drops by one.

d12 > d10 > d8 > d6 > d4 > No resource left. Once a d4 usage die roll results in a 1 or 2 a character is no longer able to use that type of resource again until the next session or investigation.

d10-1 Character creation is fast and streamlined
d10-2 No bulky skill system to slow down the narrative
d10-3 Facilitates highly narrative infused stories
d10-4 Usage die represent depleting resources well
d10-5 Saves are a simple way to resolve most things
d10-6 Adaptable framework for all sorts of investigations
d10-7 Self-contained rulebook with only 44 pages
d10-8 Little to no learning curve for players
d10-9 Finding clues and interacting with the story is easy
d10-1d10-0 No mythos knowledge required; includes a mythos 101 primer
d10-1d10-1 5 Classes and 30 occupations to work with

d10-1 GMs have to think when to best require a usage die rolls, not always intuitive
d10-2 No starter investigation included with the rulebook
Players could feel useless when a usage die is depleted
d10-4 No luck value like Call of Cthulhu; no catch-all resource

I have only run the game once so far, and as the GM, I really liked it. The save system is smart! It kept the story progressing forward while at the same time providing a way to adjudicate something with speed.

I would want to change two things about the system in my future games. First, I would modify the Smokes and Flashlights resources to align with Sanity. I would insist that a 1 or 2 is a failure and that whatever they are trying to do or find is unsuccessful. That would be in addition to the drop in the usage die level. Keeping them in line with the Sanity roll would expedite play and provide more dramatic moments. I will admit this would then place more emphasis on me as the GM to ensure somehow they find the clues should they fail, more like in Call of Cthulhu and less like Trail of Cthulhu. To be fair, I would have to see how this works during play. Second, I would add luck usage value. Something to symbolize everything that does not immediately fall under a Saves, Smokes, or Flashlights roll. There were two occasions during play that I would like to have made the characters roll for luck.

As an experienced D&D and Call of Cthulhu player and GM, I found The Cthulhu Hack fun and innovative. I’m not a fan of the investigation I ran (review forthcoming), but I loved the system! I look forward to exploring the system more and putting investigators into Sanity-depleting situations on what I hope will be a regular basis.

~ Modoc

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