A World Lit By Fire – A Look at Cthulhu Dark Ages 3e

Cthulhu Dark Ages – 3rd Edition

Author: Chad Bowser, Andi Newton et al
Publisher: Chaosium
Page Count: 274
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $21.99
PDF (Chaosium) – $21.99
Print – Available Summer 2020

And if death does take me, send the hammered mail of my armor to Higlac, return the inheritance I had from Hrethel, and he from Wayland. Fate will unwind as it must!

-Beowulf (Translated into Modern English)

Cthulhu Dark Ages is a supplement for the 7th edition of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG. This is the third incarnation of this book. It began life as a German supplement by Stephane Gesbert as Cthulhu 1000 AD. It became Cthulhu Dark Ages in 2004 and was a stand-alone roleplaying game, containing an abbreviated version of the 6th edition Call of Cthulhu rules. Chaosium published a number of adventures for it as part of their line of monographs and could also be used with the BRP Mythic Iceland supplement. Following the release of 7th edition, Chad Bowser and Andi Newton developed a revision, officially known as Cthulhu Dark Ages Second Edition, that was available in very limited quantities – it was a black and white book and as I understand it when Chaosium was reformed under new management they decided that all future supplements would be full-color. Chaosium has since released the full-color version of Bowser’s and Newton’s work. At the time of this writing, it is available as a PDF, with the print version coming, summer 2020. If purchased now from Chaosium, you’ll receive a discount coupon just before the physical book goes on sale to offset the PDF purchase price you have already paid.

The PDF for Cthulhu Dark Ages clocks in at 274 pages in length. It is full color and illustrated throughout, with a combination of modern drawings and contemporary art from the Book of Kells and the Bayeux Tapestry. There are several maps in the book – of Anglo-Saxon England, the town of Totburh (a default base for investigators), a map of the Western Marches (near the English-Welsh border, along the Severn River – which includes Totburh), the nearby Monastery of St. Swithun’s and of locations from the adventures within the book. The maps are conveniently reproduced in a PDF pack that comes with the PDF purchase – which also includes sample characters, a character sheet, and handouts from the adventures.

While the original Cthulhu Dark Ages (and Cthulhu 1000 AD before it) was more of a generic guide to the Europe of around 1000 CE. The newest version, while it can handle campaigns anywhere in Europe, focuses on Anglo-Saxon England of 950 to 1050 CE. It should be noted that the authors’ have opted to use the CE notation for all dates – I will, therefore, do likewise. I remember liking the original Cthulhu Dark Ages but being a bit at a loss as to how to bring it to life. The period around the year 1000 CE is rather foreign to people of our time.  While traditional Cthulhu games set in the 1920s have their own challenges, it is still a world we are able to recognize. Narrowing the focus allows for additional details which makes me as a reader far more comfortable trying the game out. Given Lovecraft being well-known as an anglophile, the location seems rather appropriate. As a history aficionado (though far from a professional), I’m not a huge fan of the term “Dark Ages” for this period, but it nevertheless seems an appropriate title for a Cthulhu game set in such a period.

While I’ll go over the book in a fair amount of detail, at a high level I like it a lot. It feels less like a history textbook and more like a sourcebook to prepare you for a game in this setting – with a trio of well-written adventures to get you started. Throughout the book, it has options for adding Mythos elements – to pagan beliefs, to nearly all the inhabitants of Totburh, etc. – with the caveat that one shouldn’t use all such hooks. In a setting where the majority of the population, possibly including your characters, are illiterate, there are new rules for an oral tradition that allows characters to learn more about the Mythos and gain spells. I have visions of a wandering storyteller singing the tale of The King in Yellow… Too often a historical RPG or supplement leaves me feeling that it’s an awesome idea and setting, but I’m not up for the challenge of realizing it. Cthulhu Dark Ages gives me a feeling of “you can do this”.

Throughout the book are boxes with “Playtest Examples” – discussions of how things worked out in various playtest sessions provided lots of context. I liked these discussions as it gave examples of various ways the setting and rules worked out in actual play, what sorts of things surprised the authors, etc.

A large part of this review will be dedicated to a brief walk-through of each chapter of the book.

Chapter 1: Anglo-Saxon England

With Anglo-Saxon England being the default setting for Cthulhu Dark Ages, the opening chapter introduces us to the country. The various types of settlements receive detail – including the fortified settlements known as Burhs – they are where coins are minted and are centers of commerce. King Alfred planned the network of Burhs so that no Anglo-Saxon settlement was more than a day’s march from a Burh. This makes them great home bases for campaigns – and Totburh is given its own chapter to fully detail it. The list of kings discusses how control of England started with the House of Wessex until 1013, was taken over by the House of Denmark 1013-1014, taken back by Wessex, taken back by Denmark in 1016, and taken back by Wessex one final time in 1042 (lasting until the Norman Conquest of 1066, though that is just beyond the default period of 950 to 1050 for the game). I did find myself wishing for a bit more detail on the changes in power between Wessex and Denmark – what it meant for the people of the land, though the internet will be my friend for this I suspect…

This chapter also teaches much about the social structure of Anglo-Saxon England, the role of family, women, children, and marriage in the culture. In this time period, slavery is still practiced – with many going into slavery due to being unable to pay the fine associated with a criminal penalty or meet other debts.

Architecture is discussed, including the prevalence of Roman ruins. Given characters will, in addition to facing Mythos creatures, will be facing dangerous humans, the section on crime and punishment is of great interest.  Readers will note two aspects of the criminal code that are strange to our modern sensibilities. A crime committed in secret carries a greater punishment than one done openly and the severity of a sentence is dependent on the social class of the victim.

Aspects such as religion, entertainment, warfare, literacy, etc. are all discussed and are all relevant to such a game. While officially Anglo-Saxon England is Christian, the pagan influences of the “old ways” of Anglo-Saxon beliefs are discussed, as is Norse paganism. Ways to link Mythos deities to pagan beliefs are discussed, with the warning not to include the Mythos in everything.

Health, healing, and death get their own section – this isn’t a set of game rules but rather a discussion of sanitation, illnesses, treatments, and death and burial practices.

The section ends with a gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon England, with options for injecting Mythos elements.

Chapter 2: A-Z of the Dark Ages

The second chapter provides “thumbnail details” of various aspects of life around the year 1000. This includes a reminder that the Dark Ages were quite different than the High Middle Ages that most fantasy RPGs take their inspiration from. Unlike the previous chapter, this chapter is more generic, focused on overall life in the period. It covers concepts such as battle, castles, the devil, hostage-taking, knights, literacy, oral traditions, magic, criminal justice, the hierarchy of the church, rural life, serfdom, slavery, the supernatural, time-keeping, travel, and the wilderness.

While there are no game mechanics in this chapter, save for a discussion on how to represent literacy in game terms, I found it another valuable chapter. It is full of details to help run or play in a game in this era. A reminder of how important community is, how strangers are looked on with suspicion. How castles are usually wood and earth, with stone beginning to be used in Norman donjons. There is even a section on humor, such as the famous anecdote from Njal’s Saga, reproduced here:

Thorgrim the Easterling went and began to climb up on the hall; Gunnar sees that a red kirtle [a coat or tunic] passed before the windowslit, and thrusts out the bill, and smote him on the middle. Thorgrim’s feet slipped from under him, and he dropped his shield, and down he toppled from the roof.

Then he goes to Gizur and his band as they sat on the ground. Gizur looked at him and said: “Well, is Gunnar at home?”

“Find that out for yourselves,” said Thorgrim; “but this I am sure of, that his bill is at home,” and with that he fell down dead

Reading this chapter really brought the period to life in a way that lists of kings and earls and equipment prices never could.

Chapter 3: Dark Ages Investigators

Unsurprisingly, now we start getting into some game mechanics, detailing how to generate a Dark Ages investigator. The process is largely the same, but there are several changes to the skills to better represent the period. It is unlikely that any Dark Ages investigator will have a skill for driving an automobile. Some of the more notable skill changes include:

  • Status – Status replaces credit rating, though is used for essentially the same purpose. Depending on your style of game, there are options for having multiple Statuses for various organizations/groups. It measures your importance, relative wealth, and access to goods for barter (as barter is far more common than simply exchanging coins).
  • Read and Write – Speaking a language does not grant literacy, Reading and Writing can optionally be two separate skills – and in any case, literacy is on a per-language basis.
  • Own and Other Kingdom Skills – These skills form a sort of area/social/legend knowledge for various kingdoms.

There is a list of occupations for the era. Not as many as in the Investigator’s Handbook, but a nice variety – warriors, hermits, healers, jugglers/minstrels, priests, scholars, sailors, etc. I’d have liked to have seen a Viking occupation but I imagine the warrior or sailor occupations could be used for one – or even the trader one.

The various tables for ideologies, significant people, meaningful locations, treasured possessions, and traits have also been adapted for the period and a table for life events (which can give small bonuses and penalties to various skills and attributes) has been included.

There is a section discussing the sex of your character – including a discussion on exceptional women such as the Canoness Hroswitha, the Byzantine Theodora, and Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and “Lady of the Mercians” – who led her forces into battle. The main point being, don’t let the sexism of the age interfere with making a character you want to play of any gender.

As in the Investigator’s Handbook, there is a section on investigator organizations. It begins with the caveat that knightly orders, far-reaching religious orders, and mercantile guilds won’t become prevalent until at least the 12th century – though that warning aside, groups are encouraged to feel free to use such organizations if they work for their campaigns. Two sample organizations are given. The first is the Congregants, groups of Benedictine monks and lay brothers who investigate monasteries – formed after one such group found unspeakable horrors at one monastery, with just a single survivor. The second is the Tithing of Eawulf. The priest Eawulf had his congregation – and briefly, himself, fall under the spell of a demon, posing as a priest named Forstes, who perverted their worship. Eawulf burned his church down, though the creature, which he believes to be the devil, escaped. Eawulf went mad when he realized he’d burned his entire congregation. He now wanders with ten tithingmen, searching for Forstes.

The chapter ends with a section on equipment – ranging from musical instruments to wiring supplies to provisions to arms and armor. Weapons are about what one would expect for the time period – axes, flails, knives, spears, swords, bows, slings, and crossbows. Armor provides a variable amount of protection, ranging from 1D2-1 for heavy clothes to 1d8 for chainmail. Additionally, there are rules for shields.

Chapter 4 – Game System

While Chapter 3 dealt with rules for making investigators during the Dark Ages, Chapter 4 focuses on gameplay. It addresses items likely to come up in Dark Ages era games as opposed to 19th through 21st-century games. This includes barter, breaking things, using oral tradition to impart Mythos tales, many adjustments for combat (optional rules, details for shields, mounts, etc.). There are rules for poisons, potions, and diseases. There are optional rules for combat – some of them making combat quite deadly, with options for major wounds. Other options cover concepts like weapon breakage and wear and tear.

There are tweaks to the traditional sanity rules as well. This includes a discussion on mental health concerns during this period – with two recognized mental illnesses – “idiocy” (something you were born with) and “lunacy” (something that happens to you). There are no concepts like paranoia, agoraphobia, etc. (though characters may still suffer from them).

Given the greater amount of violence in the era, characters don’t need to make sanity checks as often for everyday occurrences, though they are just as vulnerable to the supernatural as modern characters are.

Characters who suffer bouts of madness have slightly altered tables to roll on. Recovery from insanity can be done with home care, at monasteries, or by going on a pilgrimage. Those without a way to recover may be cast out and become wanderers, a rather dangerous position to be in an era where the community is so vital to one’s survival.

There are some alternate rules for Sanity Checks – instead of making sanity rolls, characters make a roll against their Natural World or Religion skill, depending on the situation. If they “succeed” at the roll they were not able to process the situation, just as if they failed a Sanity Check. This also results in an experience check against that skill, which is immediately rolled for improvement. This provides an effect similar to that of the Cthulhu Mythos skill (which is still present) – as those skills improve, a character becomes more mentally vulnerable, while at the same time being able to gain some benefit from those improvements.

Chapter 5: Investigative Horror in the Dark Ages

Chapter 5  is one of the Keeper’s core chapters and focuses on how to run the game. It covers topics like bringing the group together (one example discussed a group consisting of a bailiff, two woodsmen, and two heretics) and bringing the world to life. It also discusses the eternal question in historic games, “how much history is enough?”

The section on clues discusses the very real possibility that none of no characters will have the ability to read the various Mythos tomes so often found in more modern-era games. One possibility is using the oral tradition – Beowulf possibly having Mythos elements, for example. One common warning is not to make everything have Mythos elements;. – not every saga is a Mythos tale, just like not every book in the 1920s is full of Mythos lore. Additionally, even without reading tomes, Mythos clues can be imparted – animals reacting to Mythos elements, a blasted heath from a Colour Out of Space, etc.

One piece of advice often found in Trail of Cthulhu is here as well – don’t hide important clues.  For example, when looking for a clue, turn a failure into an opportunity to introduce a complication instead of not gaining the information. There is also guidance for avoiding hack and slash – something I appreciated with the players in my group making most of their characters having minimal combat skills – they consist of a craftsman, a cunning woman, and a warrior. There is also the always important advice on maximizing horror and chipping away at sanity.

Chapter 6 – The Cthulhu Mythos in the Dark Ages

The authors do not offer a “canonical” view of the Mythos in the Dark Ages but rather presents several options. This includes the traditional option of the Mythos being entirely alien from human experience. Another option is adapting creatures of folklore and legend masking Mythos horror. There is also a discussion about the use of religious beliefs – concepts like the non-canonical Biblical “The Book of the Watchers” discussing how 199 fallen angels stayed on Earth, how Limbo may have spawned Yog-Sothoth, and using the Dark Man avatar of Nyarlathotep as the devil.

Various Mythos places are detailed for Keepers to use, from lost islands to destinations in England to the Nameless City in the Empty Quarter. Various cults of the Mythos are detailed, a much-appreciated element, as I tend to enjoy making human foes prevalent in my games. There is also a discussion as to how the gods of the Mythos might be perceived in the Dark Ages.

There is the required section on Mythos tomes but it is accompanied by a section on Mythos poems and non-Mythos occult books. There is a discussion on different types of magic beyond the traditional Mythos magic – ritual magic (using spells that cost more than a caster’s normal supply of magic points by constant casting to allow magic points to regenerate during the casting) and folk magic (watered down Mythos magic and/or various traditional techniques of healers, witches, and cunning folk). The chapter ends with new spells, many of them being folk spells (which still have a sanity cost – magic isn’t cheap).

Chapter 7 – Bestiary

The Bestiary is divided into three sections. The first details new Mythos monsters. The second covers monsters of folklore, with Pontius Pilate making an appearance as a vampire. Finally, there is a section on more mundane animals. There is a fair amount of variety, such as the cu sith, servants of Tindalos; nameless mist; and savage skrælings, who waged war on the Hyperboreans (and will come in handy if my game ever goes to North America or Greenland).

Chapter 8 – Totburh

This is probably my favorite chapter in the book, detailing the fictional town of Totburh.  It evokes the feeling of some of my favorite D&D settlements – places like the village of Hommlet or the Keep on the Borderlands. Not in the sense that it is a town in a later Middle Ages-like in a fantasy setting – for Totburh is nothing like that. But rather it is a place come to life with interesting inhabitants, interesting and dangerous places to visit nearby, and lots and lots of potential for adventure.

Most of the inhabitants and locations have optional Mythos hooks, allowing Keepers to emphasize the type of horror most appealing to them. As a big Deep Ones fan, I was thrilled to see the potential for using them – but for those who don’t care for them, it is a hook that can be ignored.

Totburh feels like a settlement the investigators can hail from or visit. It is small enough not to overwhelm but large enough that there are plenty of blank spaces to be filled in. A burh is a fortified town centered around a mint and Totburh has its own character. Three of its sides are protected by wooden walls while a fourth, close to the Severn River, is stone. Nearby are a monastery and a Viking village that threatens the region. A nearby forest has charcoal burners, outlaws, and a variety of Mythos hooks. Also in the vicinity is an abandoned Iron Age hill fort and Roman ruins. Within are multiple churches, a marketplace, various houses and tradesmen, and the thegn’s residence.

I did catch a few oddities with character ages – these might be fixed before the book goes to print. For example, Thegn Oswyn is 34 and his eldest son, Wlencing, is 23. I suppose it’s technically possible he became a parent at age 11 but I suspect that’s not the intent.

Chapters 9-11: Adventures

Regarding the adventures in chapters 9-11; I’m a little torn as to how much detail to provide, given a lot of the enjoyment in adventures comes from surprise. I’ll try to keep these spoiler-free, giving a basic overview followed by my opinion.

Chapter 9: The Hunt

The Hunt is designed to be an introductory adventure and as such, is fairly linear. The investigators are part of a hunt for a dangerous wolf plaguing the region in late December. However, as the scenario proceeds, it turns out there is more to it than a simple predator. Though linear, there are a few paths the investigators might take – for example, there is a portion where it is expected they’ll return to Totburh but it is quite possible they may choose to bypass it.

Like most good introductory, adventures, this one introduces a number of important concepts for the investigators and players. It gets them familiar with Totburh, its inhabitants, and environs. It provides multiple ways to obtain clues – visiting a scriptorium and going over tomes is one option, but it is quite possible to gather clues and information through just interaction. The scenario has options for expansion – optional encounters and opportunities to increase the action.

Chapter 10: The Doom That Came to Wessex

Despite the similarity in title, this scenario is not related to the Lovecraft tale, “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”. It is a bit more open-ended than the previous scenario. It begins with an action scene – a Viking raid on Totburh. From there, the investigators need to go to the nearby monastery which may itself be under Viking attack. What they find instead is a monastery under the influence of Mythos magic – the investigators will need to figure out what triggered this and how to undo it. There are a number of clues for the investigators to find, making this, despite its opening scene, a good example of an investigation during the Dark Ages.

Chapter 11: Eseweald

This final scenario deals with Totburh being threatened on two fronts – by the nearby Vikings and by the Cymric. Oswyn sent his son to lead a delegation to negotiate a treaty with the Cymric but hasn’t heard back from them. The investigators must determine what happened to the delegation while dealing with fraying relations with the nearby Cymric town of Corduon. In this scenario, the Mythos is, rather than the primary threat, a catalyst that threatens to trigger a war in the region. I enjoyed how this scenario sets the stage for later events – the actions of the investigators can lead to the Cymric allying with the Anglo-Saxons of Totburh or siding with the Vikings.

Appendices

The book ends with four appendices. The first of these is a Dark Ages glossary. It is a wide-ranging glossary, ranging from what books are like to water clocks, languages, and relics. It’s not really the type of thing I think keepers and players will find themselves looking up but rather a good resource for inspiration.

The second appendix is a Dark Ages timeline, covering 950 to 1054. Unlike most of the book, it is not centered around Anglo-Saxon England, though major English events, like the Danish conquest of England in 1013, are covered.

The third appendix is a Who’s Who, beginning with God. It discusses a variety of important monks and has lists of kings and emperors – covering regions like the Byzantine Empire, France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, Roman popes, and more. These are simple lists, the book acknowledging it doesn’t cover the bloodshed and betrayals various rulers used to attain power.

The final appendix is a bibliography of sources for the era, both popular and academic, used for making Cthulhu Dark Ages. There’s a lot of books there – a few of them I was familiar with, though most were new to me. I would have really appreciated a bit of detail about each book – which books are great for an overview, which are tough academic reads, etc. That said, I found it very useful and have used it for some purchases. There is also a list of films for inspiration. This is quite the varied list, with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Seventh Seal, and The 13th Warrior all on the same list. All great films, and all very, very different…

Closing Thoughts

As I’m currently running a Pendragon game, I thought it unlikely I’d find myself wanting to fill my second campaign slot with a game set in a similar period (albeit a few centuries later). But, having enjoyed the original Dark Ages books, I was curious enough to pick it up.

After reading the book, I was filled with ideas for a Cthulhu Dark Ages campaign. It screamed “don’t just read me, play me” in a way that only the best gaming books do. Who am I to refuse a book that speaks to me like that? It is not Cthulhu D&D. It is still Call of Cthulhu but in a different setting. Combat is as deadly as it ever was – perhaps more so without access to modern medicine. There is still the balance of learning about the Mythos, gaining spells, so as to better fight them – but going further and further along the road to being consumed by them as a result.

Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown“.  Like in any Call of Cthulhu game, characters in this setting will be facing horrors beyond the comprehension of their era’s understanding of reality. In a more modern game, the investigators’ understanding of science is inadequate to describe the Mythos. In the Dark Ages, the religious and scientific beliefs of the time are just as inadequate. Both modern and Dark Ages investigators’ understanding of the universe is inadequate, painting incorrect pictures of reality. They struggle to understand their foes, albeit through different lenses, but the result is still the same: an ineffective understanding of the Mythos. A character who comes to fully understand the Mythos is likely a mad one, whether in 1020, 1920, or 2020. 

There are two things that I’d have like to have seen in this book that didn’t make it in – though I can absolutely understand why they aren’t included. Consider these part of a wish list for future supplements. The first is just something I personally like – I’d have loved to have seen something focusing on Clark Ashton Smith’s fictional Averoigne region of France. Alas, those tales are a few hundred years later and a bit less grim than your typical Cthulhu tale. Maybe a Pulp Cthulhu supplement? The back cover did indicate compatibility with Pulp Cthulhu (and it certainly is) but the book itself never really goes into what changes you might need to make for a pulp game. Though I’ve got a hunch Averoigne would be its own license, a pulp-centered Dark Ages book would seem a good thing. The second thing I’d have loved to have seen was a bit more information on Vikings. Given the Viking influence on England of the time – there is a Viking settlement near Totburh and England itself was under Danish rule for part of the period – it would certainly have been a lot more appropriate than Averoigne. Entire RPG books have been dedicated to Vikings so the omission is understandable. I do have some images of running some games in Vinland – I had a very enjoyable RuneQuest game of Vikings and Lenape set in a fictionalized Manhattan of 1000 CE.

Neither of these are big complaints – Cthulhu Dark Ages is, in my opinion, one of the best Call of Cthulhu books to come out, from any edition. Light your torches, descend into the crypts beneath the monastery and figure out what horrors are plaguing the monks…

~ Daniel Stack

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