Out of the Ashes – APOCTHULHU Roleplaying Game

APOCTHULHU

Roleplaying Game

Author: Dean Engelhardt, Jo Kreil, Kevin Ross, and Friends
Publisher: Cthulhu Reborn Publishing
Page Count: 330
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $22.95
Softcover/PDF combo – $46.95
Hardcover/PDF combo – $60.66

Disclosure: Physical and digital copies were provided by the publisher for this review.

APOCTHULHU is a tabletop roleplaying game that allows you to play out gritty adventures in a Post-Apocalyptic version of our world, one afflicted by the ravages of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In the writings of H. P. Lovecraft and others within the genre, there are countless warnings and anecdotes about the return of the “Great Old Ones.” Unlike the multitude of other roleplaying games out there that have the Cthulhu Mythos at their core, APOCTHULHU flips long-standing genre concepts on their head. No longer are you playing an investigator trying to thwart plans of otherworldly horrors; now you’re a survivor living in the aftermath of those failed plans. The world has been forever altered; populations decimated. Welcome to APOCTHULHU!

Seasoned gamers will quickly find familiarity with the mechanics and core concepts. Let me address what APOCTHULHU is not. It is neither Call of Cthulhu nor Delta Green though you can readily see their influences throughout APOCTHULHU’s design—particularly Delta Green.

Note: This review is broken into two parts. Part one covers game concepts, rules, and resources. Part two covers a fully developed setting, scenarios, and appendices. Following each, I will present my thoughts. At the end of the review, I will outline product quality and give my final thoughts. 

PART 1 – Concepts, Rules, and Resources

A High Level Look at Core Concepts & Game Mechanics:

SettingAPOCTHULHU’s settings comprise three distinct aspects—its place in time, space, and environment; its “Harshness.” Settings begin anytime after the great apocalypse, suggested at the beginning of 1890s, the height of the Industrial Revolution, or decades, centuries, even millennia into the future. The setting’s environmental “Harshness” dictates how difficult it is to survive with the resources available. Harshness directly impacts several elements of character creation and can introduce mental damage and directly affect Bond scores.

Resources – Resources are an abstract concept represented by a numeric value between 0-20 defining the size, value, and utility of a Survivor’s personal pool of resources (“at-hand”/stowed/stored). Survivors in need may attempt a Resource test to see if they have an item. A series of “checkboxes,” based on one’s rating, remind a Survivor how many times they may call upon their Resources during a scenario. Resources may be pooled, gained, or lost as the narrative dictates.

Bonds – There are two types of Bonds—Individual and Community. Individual Bonds represent the people that give a Survivor their strength. Community Bonds represent a Survivor’s status with a community group. Mechanically, at a meta-game level, Bonds serve as a way for Survivors to attempt to resist Sanity (SAN) loss or to stave off the acute effects of an existing disorder.

In situations where SAN loss is required, Survivors may “project” this experience onto one of their bonds in an attempt to reduce it. Similarly, when an existing disorder’s acute effects are triggered, Survivors may attempt to take “strength” from their Bonds. Two rules govern how much SAN is “projected” or “strength taken” from a bond. In either case, these actions strain their Bonds.

Skills – Skills represent expertise gained from learned knowledge and intense training. A Survivor’s starting skills package is determined by the archetype chosen during step 3 of character creation. Additional skills can be purchased, or existing ones increased in step 6 through Adversity Skill Points and Bonus Skill Picks. Unlike Survivor Statistics (3-18), skills are percentile-based.

Resolving Tests – Using a d100 engine at its core, actions or “tests” are resolved using the percentile dice. Each test has a “test chance,” a final total after all modifiers are applied. There are four outcomes: Critical Success (01 or success with doubles), Success (rolling equal to or below), Failure (rolling above), and Fumble (00 [100] or failure with doubles).

Note: for an opposed test (e.g., combat, some skills, etc.), unlike other d100 games, you must get a Success and your roll must be higher than your opponent’s to win the opposed roll.

A Moderator may call for a test to resolve an unknown or unpredictable situation. Tests are rolled with modifiers, if applicable, that affect the final “test chance” total. If the Survivor’s skill rating meets or exceeds a certain percentile, it’s automatically successful.

Luck – Like other Mythos-based games, “Luck” is a game mechanic but is not represented on the character sheet. When a Luck roll is called for, there is a flat 50% chance of success.

Combat – Combat is brutal and death swift. Strict rules determine success or failure. A combat turn represents just a few seconds in which Survivors may attempt one action. Once taken, some actions serve as a “fight back” option where the result from those actions serves as an opposed roll result for each attack made against the Survivor until their next turn. Every weapon in APOCTHULHU uses variable weapon damage, with some possessing a “lethality” rating where there is a chance (i.e., 20%) the damage could outright kill the target or inflict an increased amount of damage (2-20 points).

Sanity – What would a Lovecraftian game be without Sanity at its core? Sanity points represent a Survivor’s resilience to the world around them. Survivors are likely to start the game with some mental scarring due to the setting. There are three major threats to Sanity—Violence, Helplessness, and the Unnatural. When facing threats to Sanity (SAN), rolling equal to or below deals a diminished SAN loss; above incurs a greater loss.

Sanity loss takes two forms—small, almost inconsequential amounts (1-4) that can add up over time or a substantial loss (5+), taken at one time. When losing 5+ SAN in a single roll, Temporary Insanity ensues; a Survivor may Flee, Struggle (lash out), or Submit (shut down) to the situation.

Losing Sanity has two long term effects on Survivors, gaining a long-term disorder or becoming Hardened. Losing too much Sanity and reaching their Breaking Point saddles a Survivor with a long-term disorder. Disorders have a tendency to rear their ugly effects at the most inopportune time. Suffering many small SAN losses without either going Temporarily Insane or reaching the Breaking Point may result in a Survivor becoming Hardened to specific stressors.

Sanity losses can be reduced by “projecting” onto Bonds or recovered by defeating Unnatural creatures, after a dangerous scenario, destroying accounts of the Unnatural, getting help with a mental illness, pursuing personal goals, or caring for individuals. The latter two occur during Downtime.

Downtime – Short vignettes between adventures allow Survivors to explore deeper, meaningful narrative elements. All of which have in-game implications.

Character Creation Summary

Creating a Survivor is straightforward, following an eight-step process, although several customization options give particular aspects a “gamey” feel. Each step is thoroughly explained and explores associated rules. Sidebars—”The Making of ‘Mad’ Maxine”—walks readers through each step of the creation process. Other sidebars—”The Testing of ‘Mad’ Maxine”—give presented rules context.

APOCTHULHU’s Survivors statistics are the same as those in Delta Green. Each stat’s value is multiplied by five to keep in line with the percentile dice mechanic. Several attributes are derived from each of the six main statistics. Archetypes are used to give the Survivor appropriate skills, bonds, and a starting resource level. Further customization, which feels gamey to me, allows players to sacrifice “Bonus Skill Picks” to increase Resources or Community Bonds.

Resources for Game Moderators

“APOCTHULHU is designed to be used as a rules engine that can fuel any … possible nightmare worlds.”

Game Moderators have thirty pages of resources and tools in Part II, “Apocalypse-building Resources,” to dress their post-apocalyptic setting and to create scenarios. Moderators answer eight questions to steer and create their vision into a usable setting. Upon completion, they will have a clear picture of how their Mythos apocalypse played out, what the world now looks like, and what horrors haunt the landscape. They can then use the additional remaining resources to create scenarios in their new setting. A brief list of scenario themes is provided to give Moderators a springboard from which to start. Themes include basic survival, thirst for knowledge, the dark side of human nature, those who revel, the bonds that matter, and rebuilding industry and civilization.

Several additional resources are provided so that Moderators can flesh out their emerging settings and scenarios. Specifically covered are rules and implications of resource scarcity; these are post-apocalyptic settings, after all. An in-depth look at incorporating “Tomes of Terror, ” the game’s term for Mythos tomes. Advice on where to look for Mythos monstrosities to use (none are provided) and guidelines for converting other games’ monstrosities are in the Appendices. One thing of note, oddly placed (p. 104-108) are rules for vehicles and optional rules for guns. These I feel would be better suited in the previous section, Part I, “Rules of the Game.”

Part III, “Sample Apocalypses,” contains eight sample settings. Each setting is thematically unique, representing very different times from our recent past to the far-flung future. These settings are ready to use for Moderators wanting a jumping-off point.

Summary of My Thoughts

Other RPG games have clearly influenced APOCTHULHU’s core rules, particularly Delta Green and, to a lesser extent, other OGL-based games, but APOCTHULHU is not those games—it’s unique unto itself. Although not revolutionary or elegant, the mechanics and core concepts are surprisingly straightforward. Those familiar with other Lovecraftian games should have little difficulty grasping and implementing the rules. Initially, I thought the d20 OGL was used to establish initial statistical values (3-18), which are then converted to percentile for use in the game (e.g., INTx5). After re-reading Delta Green’s Agent’s Handbook, it’s clear that character generation and data presentation is nearly identical in both games. The melee combat bonus is based on the STR stat, is clearly taken from the d20 OGL.

Character creation is fast and well thought out, though I feel the buy/sell/trading of the “Bonus Skill Picks” injects a “gamey” aspect I find annoying. Putting that aside, character creation results in interesting and unique Survivors ready to tackle whatever the Game Moderator has in store. The combat mechanics are designed to speed up combat resolution while remaining focused on the action, not the mechanics. I’m glad to see Lethality ratings were ported over from Delta Green; they fit well with this game. The Sanity rules are sleek and quite intuitive. How Sanity and Bonds are interwoven is not new but rather a proven mechanic that is fitting for this genre.

Parts II and III provide Moderators with a robust toolbox of resources. Despite my concern about the misplaced rules, the totality of Part II, “Apocalypse Building Resources,” is complete and gets the job done. The sample apocalypses in Part III are all uniquely interesting; some readers will find some more appealing than others. I found three particularly appealing—Nyarlathotep Unmasked [Very Harsh], Shake the Disease [Normal(ish)], and This Fecund Planet [Harsh].

My quibbles are few. Namely, some areas are a little too wordy and need to be tightened up, editing anomalies that could have been avoided by using a style sheet, and the repetition of some copy even within the same rules section. The latter may be by design to minimize flipping back and forth. My last quibble, one that connects these three together, was the repeated use of the term “he or she.” Here, my issue is that gendered terms are on their way out unless specifically addressed upfront, which they are not. “They/them/their” are more appropriate terms of address. Furthermore, they were used excessively, sometimes multiple times in a single paragraph.

PART 2 – Settings, Scenarios, & Appendices

The second half of the book begins with Kevin Ross’ in-depth look at William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. Ross takes us through the story’s origins and its many variations over the last century. At the heart of this 41 page expose, Ross dissects The Night Land, showing readers how and why, in his opinion, it is a perfect setting for a far-flung future APOCTHULHU game.

Throughout, Ross, using a later linguistically easier to read version of The Night Land, presents readers with a thorough look at many, if not all, of the story’s locations. These are keyed to a map of mediocre visual appeal, but it serves its intended purpose. Beyond richly detailed locations, there are discussions on languages, technology, good and evil forces, optional rules for physic powers, and an in-depth discussion on Sanity and Power. Rounding out The Night Land is a bestiary followed by a handful of adventure seeds to further fuel a Moderator’s imagination.

The first of the two included scenarios is titled “Kick the Can,” written by Jeff Moeller. In this scenario, Survivors have been sheltering in a bunker for nearly a year as the world around them burned and became an ash-strewn wasteland. As events play out, they must travel from their bunker (wherever it’s located) to Washinton, D.C., in an attempt to stop the Church of Melqart from completing a horrific ritual. If the ritual succeeds, the previous catastrophe will seem mild by comparison.

“Kick the Can” is a complete scenario and uses one of the book’s sample settings—”The Fire Lands of Melqart.” This scenario, in my opinion, should be approached with caution. It does contain grotesque and graphic scenes that some players may find objectionable. There is a content warning on the first page; however, it is not very prominent.

Taking the objectionable material into consideration (which can be toned down), the scenario was a fun read. I can see myself running it with a few little tweaks for my gaming groups. As enjoyable as it was to read, it is not without its problems, however minor they may be. First, there are some editing and style concerns, as seen previously. Second, some inconsistent references relating to handout #3. Handout #3 is a voice recording that the Survivors pickup on their CB radio, later referred to as a text message. Lastly are the pre-gen Bonds; given the setting, I find the Bonds questionable. “To qualify as an Individual Bond, the person must be someone the Survivor believes (hopes?) to be alive.”

The second scenario, “A Yellow and Unpleasant Land,” is written by Jo Kreil with contributions by Dean Engelhardt. As the title hints at, this scenario features the Yellow King. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic version of Victorian England, in which the morally corrupt forces of the Yellow King have overthrown the cultured and conservative Victorian Age. The King in Yellow, published in 1890’s Paris, spreads to England, where London becomes the seat of a spreading calamity. The Survivors become entangled in a plot to stop the Yellow King, but not all is as it appears. The scenario interestingly blends The King in Yellow and Arthurian legends into a cohesive and playable story. An interesting design element of this scenario is it can conclude in one of two ways—hopeful or nihilistic. The “hopeful” option gives Survivors a shot at defeating and banishing the Yellow King, while in the “nihilistic” ending, they learn their quest was only for the Yellow King’s entertainment.

To be aware is to be forewarned; many scenes may feature excessive decadence and debauchery as a result of the Yellow King’s influence. Some players may find these scenes crossing personal boundaries. A prominent sensitivity warning appears on page one, and the scenario’s authors encourage establishing boundaries, and the use of the X-card is highly recommended.

“A Yellow and Unpleasant Land” is an interesting scenario that gives readers a different look at both the Yellow King and an early apocalyptic setting, highlighting the versatility of APOCTHULHU. For a slower burning, longer scenario, this is will surely shine bright. For all that is good with “A Yellow and Unpleasant Land,” like “Kick the Can,” it suffers from a small number of editing and/or proofreading errors and oversights that really should have been caught; none affecting the scenario, but they do stand out when reading it.

Note: Both scenarios include a separate PDF resource pack that includes all the handouts and pre-generated character sheets—quite handy for printing or working with virtual tabletops.

The appendices include the previously mentioned process for converting material from other games. Specifically, this addresses converting creatures from d100 games. There is also a conversion example for Moderators to follow as they work the process themselves. Specific guidelines are also provided for converting Gumshoe creatures since that system is not in the d100 family and is uniquely different. An extensive “Suggested Further Reading / Viewing” list is provided for readers interested in such things. The Appendices end with scarcity tables for each of the eight example settings included, a blank character sheet, and an index.

Summary of My Thoughts

The second half of the book has a real “wow” factor about it. The Night Land setting is fleshed out and usable as-is. It didn’t grab me, but then again, I haven’t read the book on which it’s based. Despite some minor editing and proofreading concerns, the two scenarios are structurally sound, well thought out, and otherwise skillfully written. They each hit all the story beats I want to see in an APOCTHULHU scenario—desperation, looming and overt horrors, escalating tensions, and a winner-take-all climatic scene. For me, they capture two very different vibes on opposite ends of a spectrum and really show how versatile APOCTHULHU can be.

Product Quality & Final Thoughts

I was provided both digital and print versions of APOCTHULHU, and there are some quality concerns I need to comment on.

Front endpaper hinge tear

First, physical books are currently only available as Print on Demand (PoD) through DriveThruRPG. Unfortunately, PoD quality is not on par with traditional offset printing. While my copy arrived in excellent condition, the front endpaper hinge started to tear within days of light reading. As a result, the first block of pages has also begun to separate from the glue binding. Second, the layout and arrangement are nice, but there are points in which the copy gets very tight (left to right justification), and it’s hard to tell if there are spaces between the words or not. Although still readable, it comes across as unpolished. The last issue, and an important one, in my opinion, is the use of three different fonts. One particular font, I believe it is called 01-01-00, is used for mid-sized headers and has soft edges, which gives it a distressed look (see inset). This distressed look also gives these headers a blurry appearance, and some readers, like myself, may find this font choice headache-inducing.

“fuzzy” font used (zoomed in)

 

Conversely, I would like to point out that both the book and PDF are visually appealing and user friendly. Presented in full-color throughout, each page has black text on a white background, framed by a richly colored border. The border enhances the book’s appearance by framing and focusing your attention without hampering the reading experience. For consumers of digital media, the PDF has an option to turn off this feature if you find it distracting or intend to print any particular sections. The PDF also has a fully hyperlinked table of contents and index. The artwork is visually appealing, dripping, and embodying the book’s themes throughout. The scenario resource packs are also a nice touch and make running the scenarios much easier.

Final Thoughts

APOCTHULHU is a fun new addition to the lineup of Mythos games that are currently available. It most assuredly takes the traditional Mythos concept, characters attempting to stop some Mythos madness from happening and turns it on its head, allowing us to interact with the Mythos in a new and exciting way. Its core mechanics are not revolutionary, borrowing heavily from elsewhere, though gamers of all skill levels will find the rules easily approachable. APOCTHULHU provides just enough crunch to appeal to gamers while equally focusing on the narrative, placing the story before mechanics. The result is a well-crafted game using tried and true mechanics to support the narrative, not impede it. For everything that it is, it is not without its aesthetic issues in the form of that horrible font choice for mid-level headers and various editing, proofing, and stylistic issues. I would also mention that the name doesn’t roll off the tongue easily; I have no idea if I am pronouncing it correctly.

Having read and presented my initial thoughts regarding the Quickstart Rules previously (APOCTHULHU – A First Look), I was a little apprehensive about how the full rules would present. After a thorough read-through, I am now more confident and excited. As a complete package, the book has everything you need to hit the ground running—rules, Moderator resources, a fully fleshed out far-future setting, two fully developed scenarios, and appendices to help convert your existing material to APOCTHULHU.

TL;DR: With its different take on the Mythos, it won’t be for everyone, but I challenge you to give it a look; at least have a peek at the Quickstart Rules to see if it’s a game for you. As for me? I am trying to figure out when I can get one of the two scenarios to the table.

~ Modoc

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