Cthulhu Dark – Looking into the Darkest Corners

Cthulhu Dark

Author: Graham Walmsley
Publisher: Graham Walmsley
Page Count: 4 (original version) or 200 (expanded version)
Available Formats: PDF and print
PDF (catchyourhare)Free
PDF (IPR)$21.00
Print+PDF (IPR) $43.00

H.P. Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror” genre has another of RPGs that seek to emulate it. Obviously, there is Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG. Pelgrane Press has a Gumshoe variant in Trail of Cthulhu. There are adaptations for game systems like Savage Worlds and ArcDream has their own version with Delta Green.

Call of Cthulhu is probably my all-time favorite RPG but one often-overlooked gem is Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark. Walmsley has written a number of Lovecraftian RPG books. For Pelgrane Press, he has written a number of “purist” Trail of Cthulhu adventures as well as a primary contributor to their Cthulhu Apocalypse adventures. He’s also written a fantastic guide to designing Cthulhu adventures, Stealing Cthulhu.

There are two main versions of Cthulhu Dark out there and I’ll be discussing both of them. The original version is a four-page pamphlet which can be downloaded for free at http://catchyourhare.com/files/Cthulhu%20Dark.pdf. There is an expanded version available at Indie Press Revolution – either as pdf or print+pdf. That version is regrettably not cheap – $43.00 for the print+pdf, $21.00 for the pdf-only.

Cthulhu Dark is designed as a rules-lite system for Lovecraftian adventures. It is probably easiest to simply rattle out the rules and then discuss them.

A character in Cthulhu Dark has a name and an occupation. He or she has one statistic, “Insight” (originally renamed “Insanity” in the original edition). When a character sees something disturbing, they roll a d6 – an Insight roll. If they roll higher than their current Insight, their Insight goes up by 1. If it reaches 6, your character understands the full horror of the universe – effectively, your character is insane.

For task resolution and investigation, you will roll one or more six-sided dice:

  • If the task is something within human capabilities (almost all tasks), you roll a d6 that represents a Human Die.
  • If the task is within your occupational expertise, as defined by the occupation you chose, you roll a d6 that represents an Occupation Die.
  • If you are willing to risk your sanity to succeed, you roll a d6 that represents an Insight Die.

If you rolled an Insight Die and its value is higher than any other die’s value then you have to make an Insight roll to see if there was any damage to your sanity.

Your highest die indicates how well your character did. On a 1, they achieve the bare minimum required to advance the plot. On a 6 they succeed very well – perhaps too well as this a game where knowing too much can be dangerous – and need to make an Insight roll. For example, if you were hiding from Innsmouth hybrids and roll a 6, you are perfectly hidden – and get a good look at the horrifying mob looking for you, possibly damaging your sanity.

If you are not happy with your result you can reroll – as many times as you want. However, rerolls must use the Insight Die, risking your sanity.

Generally speaking, failure is only possible if it would prove interesting. In such cases, a Failure Die is added to the test. If the Failure Die is the highest die, the task fails.

This bears a certain amount of resemblance of Trail of Cthulhu, a game where investigative tasks will always succeed. There’s very little in the way of combat. Fighting with full-blown Mythos horrors will result in your death. Fighting with a human foe uses the regular task system, possibly including the Failure Die. It requires a lot of interpretation and buy-in from the group.

What does the 200-page version give you that the free version doesn’t? A lot of settings, a discussion of adventure creation, guidance on using the rules, and ideas for hacking the rules. This includes discussing interpreting various die rolls, how to concoct a good mystery with “creeping horrors”, and a discussion of how to use various Lovecraftian horrors such as “Rats in the Walls”, “Colours Out of Space”, etc.

The full version also discusses getting away from the traditional Lovecraftian characters and assumes a default emphasis of people at the margins of society – it is worth quoting the section on “The Setting and the Power” on page 26 of the book:

In every setting, someone has power. Power is often about money, government or social class, although other factors may be important too. For example, in Victorian London, the gentlemen of the aristocracy have power, along with scientists, traders and the Church. In Mumbai 2037, those with money and those who were born into a high position in society hold the power.

The Investigators are always people with little power. They might be thieves, housewives or dockworkers. They might be skilled people, such as teachers, carpenters or nurses. But they won’t be aristocrats, tycoons or those in government.

By contrast, the horror is close to the power in some way. For example, in Victorian London, the Investigators might uncover a horror in a university, bank or church. In Mumbai 2037, the horror might be in a technology company or relic of the British Empire.

The book has four settings, each of which has an adventure. They are:

  • London 1851. The adventurers are artists, beggars, burglars, cleaners, clerks, housewives, nurses, etc. “Screams of the Children” features missing children and monstrous offspring.
  • Arkham 1682. The adventurers are townsfolk of Arkham, Massachusetts. They have colonial occupations such as blacksmith, doctor, farmer, slave, etc. In “The Doors Beyond Time”m the investigators get caught up in witchcraft accusations and trials.
  • Jaiwo 2017. The adventurers are inhabitants of the small fictional country of Jaiwo on the west coast of Africa. The characters have more modern occupations like bartender, journalist, taxi driver, or teacher. “The Curse of the Zimba” deals with the legacy of colonialism and the conflict with traditional beliefs.
  • Mumbai 2037. This setting is deliberately a bit fuzzier than the others, with a strong division of wealth and class between the haves and have-nots – skyscrapers and stockbrokers hand-in-hand with poverty and ancient tenements. Characters might have roles like engineers, cleaners, or police officers. The adventure “Consume” features the investigators working in a vast building where lives are being mysteriously lost.

When I first saw Cthulhu Dark I had a difficult time “getting” it. However, it was one of those games that stuck in my head and when the Kickstarter for the expanded version of it came out, I decided to support it. It was with that expanded version that everything clicked.

I’ve played a few adventures with my group and they’ve fit the genre of cosmic horror remarkably well. A good sign was the fact that the players, on multiple occasions, suggested something they saw should merit an Insight check. That’s a sign of great buy-in. The Insight system is rather clever – initially, you will find your Insight rapidly increasing but as you reach higher levels of Insight, probability will naturally slow down the rate of increase – though with greater drama over each roll, to the point where a single roll will have a 1-in-6 chance of causing a character to go insane. It’s a fantastic mechanism for elevating dread as the session progresses.

I have Cthulhu Dark as a reliable standby for when we lack a quorum for our regular game, but I know of people who have run full campaigns with it. I do find it works really well for a game of doomed protagonists and represents an interesting change of pace from more traditional Lovecraftian RPGs. It’s a deceptively simple game, with its small number of moving parts fitting remarkably well together.

~Daniel Stack

Follow Daniel on Twitter at @DStack1776
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