Terrible New Worlds
I like post-apocalyptic games that feature strange new worlds, the struggle for survival, and horror. In 2020, Cthulhu Reborn published APOCTHULHU, their post-apocalyptic, mythos-infused game. Always eager for the chance to check out a new game, but ever mindful of my biases and preconceived notions, I was a little apprehensive. However, the core game and its guiding principles impressed me with its wide-ranging adaptability (read my review). One year later, Terrible New Worlds, the first supplement for APOCTHULHU, was released on August 20th to coincide with H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday.
Note: Cthulhu Reborn provided Rolling Boxcars with a review copy for this article. If you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review, please visit our Product Review Request page.
This 250-page tome brings four mini-campaigns by Dave Sokolowski, Christopher Smith Adair, Emily O’Neil, Fred Behrendt, and Dean Engelhardt with their specific brand of twisted horrors to bear.
The term mini-campaign represents a longer than average scenario, each representing a unique post-apocalyptic world. At their conclusion, each provides suggestions for further adventures. For clarity, I don’t consider these mini-campaigns because they lack traditional hallmarks—wide-ranging stories, interconnected adventures, significant recurring characters, etc. That said, each is a fully developed scenario with plentiful setup and background information, story narrative, and supporting details. Please note that I use the term “scenario” throughout this review as you read on.
A Small Price
Written by Dave Sokolowski and Dean Engelhardt, “A Small Price” is the first of the four scenarios. Its post-apocalyptic setting is five years after the end times plummeted the world into a twilight-like state as a large-scale military project—PROJECT ABERDEEN—goes awry. PROJECT ABERDEEN was an “off-book” Top Secret project designed to monitor U.S. citizens’ and foreigners’ electronic communications.
PROJECT ABERDEEN, headed by an academic university professor with research interests at the intersection of quantum mechanics and ancient occult wisdom, proposed to open gates or “nexuses” at dimensionally weak spots to facilitate global communications monitoring. Initial laboratory results proved very successful. As a result, the project got scaled up to operational capability, employing seventeen naturally forming nexus sites throughout the U.S. When PROJECT ABERDEEN went live, it catastrophically failed. Instead of covert communications monitoring, destructive explosions of high energy blew dirt and debris into the atmosphere creating terrifying “booms.” Nexus gates in the U.S. and those around the globe ripped holes in space-time, creating interdimensional rifts through which alien energies flowed—causing an apocalypse of death and insanity, through which Shadows being were unleashed. In the aftermath of the apocalypse, Survivors quickly came to realize these shadows were parasitic— attaching themselves to humans, siphoning off their life essence, and shedding the dead husks like a piece of trash.
Five years later, the global population has been decimated—leaving only small enclaves of Survivors. A charcoal-colored sky hides the sun. Frequent acid rain burns the skin of those caught out of doors
, and the Shadow “beings” roam the world searching for human hosts. As the human population dwindles, Survivors live their lives on a day-to-day basis, scavenging for food, resources, and safe shelter. All while remaining wary of outsiders who might carry a Shadow. This is the world in which “A Small Price” is set.
Player Survivors are threatened when a Shadow compromises their safe house. Now forced to search for another, Survivors come across an old U.S. military bunker called Aberdeen 1. Here, they find a small enclave of Survivors who, after some precautions, readily accept them in. Aberdeen 1 is an old decommissioned nuclear bunker. Unbeknownst to players’ Survivors, it’s also the home of the original PROJECT ABERDEEN. Those who live there now include the remnants of the project’s operational team, former military personnel, and others that have found their way here in the intervening years. Two of Aberdeen 1’s prominent residents are scientists who have independently made breakthroughs in dealing with the Shadows— believing their breakthrough offers the best possible long-term outcome, but no one knows for sure. Internal strife between these two threatens to destroy Aberdeen 1 from within, and players’ Survivors will need to decide if they take sides or remain neutral. Not only have the experiments led to interpersonal conflict, but they routinely tax the bunker’s nuclear-powered electrical system— putting the system on a trajectory to failure.
The scenario’s premise is interesting because it plays up to the idea of a world where one’s survival is not promised. It’s written and structured so that players’ Survivors will be operating in a self-contained sandbox environment. However, they possess the ability to leave Aberdeen 1 at any time—effectively ending the scenario. This option requires the Moderator do some heavy lifting to keep the players in the story, possibly returning to Aberdeen 1. The scenario will challenge players’ Survivors with various physical and social situations. There is a heavy emphasis on the social conflict and alliances resulting from the two scientists who think they each know best.
The Shadow beings make for an interesting antagonist. They are challenging to deal with directly and quite deadly if one becomes a host. APOCTHULHU’s core conceit is that Survivors live in a world catastrophically devasted by the Mythos. Despite an ancient Mythos-like tome being at the heart of the scenario, Shadow beings, and the possibility of interdimensional travel, I fail to see any apparent connection to the Mythos—leaving me a little disappointed. Otherworldly, yes—Mythos, no.
As interesting as I find the scenario, it’s challenging to read. The designers’ writing style, coupled with the volume of background information a Moderator must familiarize themself with, creates a dry reading experience. Also contributing to the reading experience is the copy needs further editing to correct issues with style, continuity, and hard-to-parse sentences. For example, barracks A/B/C are also referred to as barracks 1/2/3. There are also instances where U.S. and U.K. English spellings are used interchangeably (e.g., center and centre). Nothing here is a showstopper, but it did contribute to my overall reading experience.
Hold the Flood
Written by Christopher Smith Adair and Dean Engelhardt, “Hold the Flood” is set in 2075, 50 years after a global pandemic called the Gray Plague decimates global populations by 99.9%. In this post-apocalyptic world, we find small communities of survivors trying to eke out an existence. The remaining “lucky” few live day-to-day while praying the Gray Plague remains a thing of the past.
Global society came to a crashing halt at the end of 2023 when the U.S. government released a bio-engineered bacteriological agent from a government laboratory in Maryland. The disease was part of a classified program developing controllable bacteriological and viral pathogen strains. These were designed to have a limited life cycle and counteragents. The released strain was far more virulent than expected, and all planned safeguards failed. The global pandemic known as the Gray Plague can be directly attributed to the program’s head scientist, Dr. Ozmandi, who plumbed ancient medical literature searching for anything that would expedite research efforts. In one ancient medieval text, Dr. Ozmandi learned that certain “Great Old Ones” are said to be the spiritual embodiment of disease. She also finds a promising formula in the same literature that will significantly impact her work. This research led to a super-pathogen, which the “Great Old Ones” arranged to be accidentally released.
Those infected became dehydrated, and their skin became increasingly gray. In the later stages, the infected break out in painful oozing buboes. Some died quickly; others lingered for weeks. The “Gray Plague,” as it was dubbed, was high communicable, infecting others through bodily fluids, insect bites, and even food and drink. It was only a matter of months before global society collapsed. In the aftermath, as word of the U.S. government’s involvement leaked, Dr. Ozmandi stole all available counteragents and disappeared—looking for a solution in ancient medieval text. Eventually, the disease burned itself out, claiming the lives of 99.9% of the world’s population.
In “Hold the Flood,” Survivors are performers in Professor Mysterioso’s Traveling Circus. The circus travels from settlement to settlement by colorful mule-drawn wagons. Visting communities for a few days at a time before moving on to the next in their 18-month circuit. The performers are a motley crew who have chosen a life on the road. In a world populated by isolated, insular communities, few leave the safety of their home, but the circus brings a fleeting joy to the scattered survivors.
Having just wrapped up a three-night stop in the community of Astor, the circus is en route to its next destination when several members fall ill with an infection that has all the hallmarks of the Gray Plague—though none in Astor showed signs of sickness. In an attempt to contain the spread, the circus makes camp on the side of the road. Everyone is ordered to remain in their wagons; however, the disease spreads. The troupe’s de facto leader, Belko, gathers together the only remaining healthy performers (the Survivors) to discuss the crisis.
Belko believes the crisis must have originated in Astor. He directs the Survivors to return to Astor to figure out what is going and find a cure. Belko’s ventriloquist doll named Percy begins to speak on its own. The voice emitted is sonorous and not typical of Belko’s act. Percy is quick to affirm Belko’s beliefs and adds that it wants the Survivors to “find a thing that should be dead, but is not, and is kept hidden.” With their instructions and livelihoods at stake, Survivors trek back to Astor.
Astor is a sparsely populated community that is seemingly more prosperous and resilient than others on the Circus’s circuit. Life for the residents is still hard, but they can afford some luxuries
, others only dream of. The Mayor leads the small community, but not all is as it seems in Astor. Secrets abound just under the surface, and the Survivors would do well to walk softly, lest they run afoul. Once back in Astor, the scenario takes on a more traditional investigative tone, wherein they must peel back the layers to find clues, learn secrets, and other unpleasant details. However, learning is not enough. They must act upon what they find to carry out their orders.
“Hold the Line” embodies the type of scenario established in the APOCTHULHU core book. One in which the Survivors must not only contend with the harsh reality of life itself but also one in which the Mythos plays a prominent role. Although I was purposely vague regarding the truth about the precise role Mythos plays, readers’ can be assured that it is integrated from beginning to end.
I like and appreciate the open sandbox nature of this investigative scenario. With it, some of the interesting and twisted possibilities that may arise. The survivors will have some hard decisions to make at different intersections of the scenario depending on what secrets they’ve learned and clues they find.
The scenario could benefit from one final proofreading to correct the few anomalies I encountered. Despite this and the volume of information for the Moderator to grasp, I found reading this scenario to be an enjoyable experience. The authors’ writing style is engaging, but the prose is concise with the proper levels of detail and virtually no loose ends.
A Throne of Corpses
Written by Emily O’Neil and Dean Engelhardt, “A Throne of Corpses” is Emily’s first published roleplaying game credit, but not her first published work. Set early in the 21st century, perhaps within a year or two of our present day.
As global warming accelerates to the point of no return, climate scientists splintered into factions—amounting to little more than vitriolic online debates, except for Humanity’s Last Stand (HLS), a hardline extremist faction actively sabotages projects perceived to worsen climate change. As global headlines focus on HLS and other less extreme voices, a small, secretive sub-group of HLS plumb the depths of ancient arcane and occult lore, searching for a solution. Stumbling upon a rare treatise, they believed they’d found salvation.
Researchers located a ritual to decrease global temperatures within an old medieval tome. Performing the acts necessary to complete the ritual brings about a series of unnatural weather patterns that rapidly blanket the north and slowly spread south. Weather forecasters report it as a freak occurrence. The affected areas find themselves contending with unseasonable snow and ice storms. The online climate debate heats up as the weather worsens—southern Texas and northern Mexico recording their first snowfalls. On the night the ritual reaches its pinnacle, many parts of the country receive their annual precipitation in 24 hours in the form of sleet or snow. The media coined the situation the “great mega-freeze.” Those unprepared for sub-zero temperatures freeze to death. Structures collapse under the weight of snow and ice. The country’s communications infrastructure failed within days. As the situation worsened, flying monstrosities appeared over population centers, swooping down to devour survivors by the hundreds. The United States suffered catastrophic depopulation. Unable to communicate, the far-reaching effects of the “great mega-freeze” remain unknown.
The scenario begins in a small community with the players’ Survivors members of “Numbtown Rats” under attack by Shantaks—winged reptile creatures. With their safehouse destroyed, several members dead or dying, and in complete disarray, the “Numbtown Rats” flee into a snowstorm. With no supplies or shelter, the group turns to the Players’ Survivors for leadership.
The Survivors find themselves on a path that may eventually lead to the end of the deep freeze if they are resourceful and think outside the box. However, this path is no walk in the park. Not only will they face ever-present environmental threats, but the dark forces that brought about the apocalypse are still a very real threat. There too, will come a time when they must bring themselves to contemplate doing the unthinkable and unspeakable things that will challenge their morality.
I am impressed with the overall writing quality and development in “A Throne of Corpses.” As I noted above, Emily is a seasoned writer, with this being her first roleplaying game credit. It is well developed, leaving no loose ends, but earns its graphic gore content warning. Moderators would be well advised to heed this warning and consider those in their group before running this scenario.
A little pre-game set up by players and Moderator is necessary to personalize their post-apocalyptic city. Players identify “safe” and “unsafe” areas, safe houses, and other known locations on their map. Using a copy of the player’s map, the Moderator then adds scenario-specific places the players’ Survivors may encounter during the scenario. Examples of each map are shown along with step-by-step instructions; however, the GM’s map, which is supposed to have the other additional locations marked, does not.*
* I submitted this error to the publisher, who corrected the digital version immediately. The print version will take a little longer to correct as it requires a print proof first.
The scenario is broken into segmented sandboxes; at key locations or events pivotal to the scenario. It gives players plenty of room to explore the story and forge their own path. I was happy to see Emily incorporate a fully-realized Mythos connection, cultists, a Tome of Terror, horrible rituals, and a Mythos entity. Emily gets it!
Even Death May Die
Written by Fred Behrendt and Dean Engelhardt, “Even Death May Die” is set in our near future, before the apocalypse. The scenario follows the extraordinary voyage of an experimental deep-sea bathyscaphe mission to explore one of the globe’s remotest corners.
The bathyscaphe Hierophant is out to sea somewhere off the coast of New Zealand. Here, accompanied by Acolyte, its support vessel, it is conducting “shakedown dives” to test its systems and seaworthiness Calm seas and clear skies are forecast for several days, ideal for the trials. The players assume the roles of high-powered observers who are aboard the Hierophant during the shakedown dives.
The scenario begins 4000m below during the first of two scheduled dives. While the crew performs system tests, the players’ survivors get to know each other and explore the Hierophant. A video link call comes through before the bathyscaphe can return topside to refit for the next days’ dive. On the monitor is Nathan Essex, Director of DSEF, warmly addressing the crew and observers on a job well done. More exciting is his news of recent unexplained seismic activity in one of the deepest trenches of the Pacific—a place called the Horizon Deep, near Tonga. Essex scrapes the planned second dive and orders the relocation of Hierophant to Horizon Deep to run a full-depth dive there instead. This is an opportunity for the company and crew to make history and investigate an unexplained mystery.
The Hierophant and Acolyte are in position three days later, and the dive gets underway. All is going according to plan. Encountering no technical issues, Hierophant proceeds to the bottom of the trench. Once on the bottom of Horizon Deep, Hierophant loses all contact with the surface. When the vessel returns to the surface, the world is catastrophically different from when they left. The crew, still inside the Hierophant, sees the broken remnants of the Acolyte briefly as they continue to float upward into a white void. They witness the Acolyte break up, and those remaining on deck dissolve into a rain of fine particles. Onboard the Hierophant, they find themselves now in a weird zero-gravity environment.
The mission now is to figure out what in the hell just happened to everything and everyone. This is not a simple task, and it will test not only the players’ Survivors but also the players themselves. The story unfolds in unique and unexpected ways through several mind-bending environments that challenge the survivors’ sanity.
“Even Death May Die” is a very different type of scenario than anything else published for APOCTHULHU to date. I will continue to be vague so as not to give away too much, but readers need to understand the scenario’s central tenant—unhealthy and obsessive toxic “affection.” The story revolves around a love triangle. One player assumes the role of The Destroyer (the obsessor), who will then causes the Apocalypse as a direct result of their obsession. A player need not necessarily play the object of The Destroyer’s obsession—The Beloved—may be a non-player character. The third person, The Rival (the person The Beloved is actually in love with), will be played by one of the players. As you can see, there is a complex web of interpersonal relationships; the scenario benefits from players assuming all three roles. To facilitate this is a series of handouts to help them understand the triangular relationship.
Given the real-life toxic behaviors central to the scenario, Moderators MUST heed the content warning and the read scenario fully before running it for their group. Furthermore, they owe to it their group to have a conversation upfront about the toxic themes—without giving away the elements that should remain secret.
While I cannot see myself running this scenario due to the real-life toxic behaviors, I can still appreciate the story’s overall design and complexities. I have mulled over ways to remove some of the toxicity, and I cannot find any. Considering all of the complexities of this scenario, it feels a little more like a mini-campaign, running counter to my initial assertion. Fred and Dean have done a spectacular job pulling all the different elements together to make this a finely crafted story.
For those who read my review of the APOCTHULHU, you may recall I voiced some concerns regarding the layout. I am happy to report that Terrible New Worlds appears to have been given a layout upgrade.
It still follows closely to the core book. Dean Engelhardt has addressed my previous concerns with the copy getting tight (left to right justification) and with difficulty determining the spacing between words. As a result, Terrible New Worlds has a cleaner, more professional appearance. However, the use of the font 01-01-00 for mid-sized headers has carried over into this book, which, to be honest, I fully expected. This font has pixellated edges, giving it a distressed look (see inset) and a blurry appearance.
The book and PDF are visually appealing and user-friendly. It is presented in full color throughout; each page has black text on white pages, framed by a richly colored border. For consumers of digital media, the PDF offers an option to turn off this feature if you find it distracting or intend to print particular sections. The PDF also has a fully hyperlinked table of contents. The artwork is visually appealing and compliments nicely. The resource packs digitally provided for each scenario, something Cthulhu Reborn is known for including with most products, continue to be a nice touch and make running the scenarios more manageable.
Terrible New Worlds puts four new APOCTHULHU mini-campaigns at your fingertips, highlighting the creativity of some fantastic writers. Each is well written, but in my opinion, some are better than others. Although it has a rather gruesome theme, “A Throne of Corpses” is by far my favorite scenario of the book. For me, it captures the feel I am looking for in a post-apocalyptic Mythos dominated world. Following in a close second is “Hold the Flood.” I like its tone and the feeling of desperation it encapsulates in the story. Although I found “A Small Price” difficult to read and parse, it doesn’t make it a bad scenario. In fact, I feel that with a bit of polishing, it will make an excellent scenario for first-time players due to its tight sandbox design. “Even Death May Die” is an outlier for me. While it is a superbly written and developed scenario, the integral toxic theme is a no-go. I can’t see any of my players wanting to engage in those kinds of behaviors, even in a fictional setting.
With the addition of Terrible New Worlds, the APOCTHULHU product grows and is now up to six fully developed scenarios with which to torture your players. If you’re like me and appreciate what the core game offers in terms of storytelling adaptability, you’re going to like these new scenarios. However, your mileage with each may vary. I would offer the following advice—read each scenario thoroughly and discuss themes and content warnings with your players ahead of time. In the end, I am confident you will get endless hours of gaming out of Terrible New Worlds!
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