Elementary, My Dear Carter – Cthulhu by Gaslight (2012)

Cthulhu by Gaslight

Author: William A. Barton, Kevin Ross, et al
Publisher: Chaosium
Page Count: 196
Available Formats: PDF  (Print edition is out of print)
PDF (DTRPG) – $15.92

When I was first introduced to Call of Cthulhu, there were three eras of play. The classic game was set in the 1920s, Cthulhu Now took place in the present day (1980s – eek!), and Cthulhu by Gaslight gave us the 1890s.

To the best of my knowledge, there have been three versions of Cthulhu by Gaslight. The first one, a boxed set, was published in 1986. Interestingly this edition dealt very heavily with Sherlock Holmes (it included a full-length adventure that featured Holmes and Watson) and a discussion of HG Wells’s fiction, which fits into the Mythos rather well. A second edition was published in February 1989 as a softcover book, which was essentially a reprint of the first edition transformed into a single book. The third edition was a substantial revision, taking out all of the Holmes influence and expanding greatly on what remained. This review will concern itself with the third edition as it is still available for purchase at both DriveThruRPG and at Chaosium. The first edition had been available for digital purchase, but that appears to no longer be the case.

Although originally written for use with Call of Cthulhu 6th edition, Cthulhu by Gaslight 3rd edition is still relevant and usable with Call of Cthulhu’s latest edition. Much of the book remains usable “as is” or is easily converted on the fly. Its continued use is possible because Call of Cthulhu has changed very little between editions. Even the 7th edition, which probably represents the largest single-edition change, still represents a fairly modest change. Keepers should be aware of two things: the need to multiply all stats in Cthulhu by Gaslight by five (as stats in the 7th edition are percentile-based) and to adjust character generation. Cthulhu Through the Ages, also for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, has rules for characters of different time periods, including Gaslight, and may be used as an additional supplement.

Cthulhu by Gaslight is centered on London of the 1890s, though my tendency is to kick off campaigns in the era just a few years earlier. It also details the larger Victorian world, with a strong emphasis on the British Empire. It is the time of Sherlock Holmes, HG Wells, Jack the Ripper, and Count Dracula.

A modest-sized book, Cthulhu by Gaslight, is a little under 200 pages in length. Aside from a color cover, it is illustrated with black and white art, much of it in the style of Victorian Era drawings. Annoyingly, the digital version does not appear to have bookmarks—at least the copy purchased from Chaosium back in 2012 wasn’t, and I see the DriveThruRPG version was last updated back in 2012.

The book is divided into four parts with two appendices – Victorian Characters, The Victorian World, Strange Britain, Victorian Adventures, Suggested Sources, and Handouts and Maps.

Victorian Characters

The profession section is probably the least useful, mechanics-wise, for a game using the 7th edition rules., Call of Cthulhu 7th edition professions have eight skills each, whereas the professions here ten or more. However, the flavor text is quite useful, and skills lists can undoubtedly be used as a guideline for 7th edition games (with many of the professions also being realized in the 7th edition core books). Notable Gaslight professions include Adventuress (like Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes), Consulting Detective, Inquiry Agent, and Spy (among others).

Given the setting, there is also a section discussing the differences between Victorian society’s various classes. Cthulhu Through the Ages further supplements this, discussing how penalty and bonus dice can be used to represent the challenges in interacting with classes other than one’s own—or advantages one might find when able to take advantage of their class.

The book also introduces the optional rule of traits, similar to advantages and disadvantages found in many RPGs, which provide minor bonuses and penalties. I believe this was the only 6th edition supplement to use them, though I might be mistaken.

This section of the book also includes details on alterations to skills, a glossary of Victorian terms, and details on the era’s equipment/clothing. There is also a discussion of the bizarre pre-decimalization coinage of the era. However, as an American who has to do inches/feet/miles, I’m in a very weak position to criticize. It is certainly useful in helping to give readers an idea of what the cost of living was during this period, depending on your social class.

The Victorian World

The section on the Victorian world is a guide to the world the characters inhabit. A wide variety of subjects are covered—none in excessive detail, but enough to get one started. It covers the overall world, a timeline, bizarre events, the British Empire, the lands of the United Kingdom, government, and people of the era. A large part of the book focuses on London—its criminal underworld, cases like Jack the Ripper, neighborhoods, club life, etc.

Strange Britain

This chapter begins with an overview of the era’s actual occult world —Freemasonry, The Golden Dawn, The Theosophical Society, etc. Looking at it from the perspective of a 7th edition game, it seems that occult organizations of the era make for great framing organizations for Investigators.

A gazetteer of Strange Britain is provided, giving an overview of many real-world places with occult histories. None of these have Mythos elements per se, but that’s not to say they couldn’t… Following the gazetteer is “Mythos in the Gaslight Game.” In generalist terms, this remains unchanged, but there are discussions of where to find many of these Mythos beings, what they might be doing, and similar topics. There is also a brief section on the Severn Valley, as written by Ramsey Campbell (while his stories took place in the modern era, the book notes that those tales imply a longstanding Mythos influence in the era). While your humble author was younger than “today years old” when he learned the Severn Valley is a real place (unlike the Miskatonic Valley), it was much closer to today that such a discovery was made.

The chapter concludes with a  lengthy section on fictional characters of the era; it provides stats for the likes of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Wells’ Martians, Count Dracula, Spring-Heeled Jack, Captain Nemo, and Buffalo Bill (wait, wasn’t he a real person?).

Gaslight Adventures

Cthulhu by Gaslight contains two adventures. The first of these is “The Night of the Jackal.” It is intended as an introductory adventure, giving the players exposure to things like Scotland Yard, Egyptology, Clubs, the Empire’s military, etc. It is centered around a Mythos artifact brought back from Egypt and those who are aware of just what it is. It does feature the famous “investigator’s uncle” trope—the next time I make an investigator, I’m going to specify their parents were both only children. The second scenario is “The Burnt Man.” It takes the investigators to more rural Britain, on the trail of a murderer as the winter solstice approaches. Its tone is deliberately based upon the Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It’s been several years, but I have run the first of these, “The Night of the Jackal.” My recollection is it took us about three short sessions to play through it. The biggest piece of advice I could give in running it is to make certain your players have multiple chances to get clues — like many mysteries, it is easy to lose the case’s thread. In its favor, I greatly enjoyed the way it exposed investigators to various aspects of life in Victorian England.

Suggested Sources

Running a game in a historical era can feel a bit overwhelming. I especially find this challenging with an era that seems to be just around the corner, periods we can easily picture. There’s so much information available that it is easy to suffer from analysis paralysis. One can read newspapers from the 1880s and 1890s online, find guidebooks and maps from the period, etc. How do you evoke the feel of such an era properly without turning it into a research project?

Cthulhu by Gaslight provides a series of useful references Keepers and players might wish to pursue. These include contemporary and modern fiction, Cthulhu Mythos sources, nonfiction, tv/film, and RPGs (both from Chaosium and others—though one unfortunate omission, in my opinion, is Castle Falkenstein). A great many Call of Cthulhu adventures take place in Britain of the 1920s and the modern era, which Keepers can often adapt to the Gaslight era.

Adapting to 7th Edition

Shortly after publishing the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium released the product Cthulhu Through the Ages. It is a supplement that provides brief overviews of various settings for Call of Cthulhu—it essentially provides brief updates to various setting books from previous editions of the game.  The Gaslight section is only four pages long, so it is unlikely worth purchasing just for the Gaslight portion alone. With that caveat in mind, it is fairly useful, providing updates to five Gaslight professions, adjustments for skills, rules for social classes, possible investigator organizations (centered around clubs), and a plot seed. None of the content is vital to getting use out of the Gaslight book with 7th edition—I’d consider it a nice to have.

For an example of a 7th edition Gaslight Call of Cthulhu campaign framework, I’d suggest checking out Stygian Fox’s Hudson and Brand, previously reviewed here at Rolling Boxcars. You certainly don’t need Cthulhu by Gaslight to use it, but the two books work well together.

Closing Thoughts

At the time of this writing, Chaosium has indicated it is working on a new version of Cthulhu by Gaslight. So is this version worth getting? The products Chaosium has been producing for the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu have been absolutely gorgeous, so it is a pretty safe bet that the newer version will be “better.” I’m a little unclear as to when the newest edition is due out. My advice is if you’re in the mood for a Victorian-era Cthulhu game in the near-term, absolutely get this older version of the book. If your needs are further out, it might be worth waiting.

With that caveat, if you’re looking to run a Cthulhu game in the late Victorian era, I can’t imagine you would regret this purchase. It is an excellent guide to the setting, full of gaming inspiration. Even if one weren’t planning a Cthulhu game, it makes for a great reference given that Mythos Gaslight is awfully close to our own 1890s. Unlike many Victorian-era RPGs, this is not an alternate history; there are no superheroes running around (not that there’s anything wrong with Victorian superheroes— The Kerberos Club is one of my favorite RPG settings).

While most of my Cthulhu gaming has been in the 1910s and 1920s, I’ve run in and played in a few Gaslight games. I experimented with a  “Penny Dreadful Cthulhu” game once—using Pulp Cthulhu with Cthulhu by Gaslight. It went well, though I do find my tastes do run more towards a traditional game. I’ve just begun a game using Stygian Fox’s Hudson & Brand campaign frame. While we’re using the 7th edition rules, the 6th edition Gaslight book has proven useful.

~ Daniel Stack

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