Kickstopper: Punch Nazis and Feed Them To Cthulhu

by Arthur B

The Achtung! Cthulhu Kickstarter mashes up Nazi-bashing with Cthulhu investigation. It's an odd mix.
~
I had expected to publish this Kickstopper article over on my RPG-dedicated blog, on the basis that the subject matter is a little niche for Ferretbrain purposes. But I’ve since changed my mind. The controversy over the latest Wolfenstein game is absurd and illustrative of a wider absurdity: it's startling how quickly violent opposition to a Nazi regime has gone from being entirely uncontroversial (to the point of being a bit tired and cliched) to being regarded as somehow politically controversial.

Thus, in the service of supporting games where you fight Nazis, I’m going to cover a game line blending the action of the Call of Cthulhu RPG with all the Nazi-shooting goodness of World War II. Hang on to your Indiana Jones hat, we're going to cover Achtung! Cthulhu.

Usual Note On Terminology


Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you've read, there's a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else's. In particular, I'm only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can't review rewards I didn't actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I've received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the "Name, DNA and Fingerprints" section notes whether I'm embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I'll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I'd bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I'd never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I'd back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign


Modiphius Entertainment have grown rapidly to become one of the more prominent UK-based RPG publishers, with recent forays into wargaming expanding their range of products. Notable successes have included landing major licenses like Fallout, Conan the Barbarian and Star Trek.

It was Achtung! Cthulhu that saw them really start to build up steam, however. Thanks to Chaosium being generally quite generous about giving third parties licences to make Call of Cthulhu-compatible products, Modiphius were able to turn heads and tap into a pre-existing fanbase with a string of adventure modules set during World War II, depicting conflicts with Lovecraftian horrors taking place in the shadows of the wider war. The intention of the Kickstarter campaign was to bankroll the production of a wider product line; the baseline goal was simply to produce a pair of core setting guides for players and Keepers (what Call of Cthulhu calls the referee or game master), whilst stretch goals went to fund both improvements to these books, further supplements, miniatures, and tie-ins with other RPGs and wargames.

What Level I Backed At

PRINT MASTER: PDF Master Reward level PLUS A print copy of the Keeper's Guide and a print copy of the Investigator's Guide *** PLUS a copy of every book in PDF funded by Stretch Goals. You will be able to add print copies of Stretch Goals using Add Ons***.

Delivering the Goods


The final product line ended up being decidedly ambitious, even on a budget of just over £177 thousand, but to their credit Modiphius seem to have industriously been producing everything they promised. I got my hard copies of the two main books in December 2013, which is four months after the original delivery estimate of August 2013 but understandable given the extensive improvements funded via stretch goals. Later products squeaked out later on down the line, with final shipments coming out in late 2015/early 2016.

Reviewing the Swag


Thanks to the stretch goals a large stack of books got backed; the ones I intend to cover here constitute the core guides for players and referees the supplemental guides to the various different fronts and to monstrous foes in the Secret War, and the two major adventure releases. I’m not going to cover the various products offering crossovers with other game lines (like GODLIKE, a cult RPG about World War II superheroes), because I’m personally not especially interested in them.

At the end of the article I will also review World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour, a similarly-themed product that came out at around the same time as Achtung! Cthulhu but took a rather different approach to the whole “cosmic horror in World War II” deal.

Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War


The main player-oriented book, as expected, contains next to no Mythos-based information (which you would tend to expect would be referee’s-eyes-only stuff) and focuses mostly on providing a toolkit for players to construct characters for Achtung! Cthulhu games and background information to help players get a handle on life in the war years. Due to stretch goals, it and the Keeper’s Guide come in two variants; one in which the game mechanical material is expressed in terms of the standard Call of Cthulhu system and using the Savage Worlds system from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, and one in which the game mechanics are presented using Evil Hat’s FATE Core system. (The other books are all dual-statted for Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds.)

For reference, the version I got was the dual-statted one, and since I have played vastly more Call of Cthulhu than Savage Worlds I’m mostly going to be interpreting the books through that lens. That said, I think it’s worth commenting on the choice of alternate systems here. Savage Worlds and FATE Core are systems with extremely different underlying assumptions from baseline Call of Cthulhu - they tend to be more action-packed, with Savage Worlds being generally held to be quite good at presenting fast-moving, tactically interesting combats whilst in my experience FATE is less concerned with tactical fine details and more concerned with teasing out characters’ personality traits, special talents and Achilles heels as often as can be justified. That Modiphius even considered these systems appropriate picks to adapt Achtung! Cthulhu to suggests a more pulpy, high-octane, action-oriented approach - “Pulp” as opposed to “Purist”, to use terms Chaosium have adopted in relation to Pulp Cthulhu (though note that Pulp Cthulhu hadn’t come out when this was released and wasn’t drawn on by Modiphius in designing these products).

The book opens with a brace of chapters on background material, though happily a lot of it won’t be necessary for players to read in any particular campaign. Modiphius here have produced an extremely adaptable resource with an eye to providing excellent support for three specific “home front” settings - the USA, Britain, and France (other areas are detailed in the various guides to the other fronts) - as well as support for games based around covert operations or military manoeuvres. In each case they provide timelines and background details which, yes, you could research for yourself perfectly well, but which are nicely focused on detailing the practicalities of day-to-day life or specific incidents which suggest interesting possibilities for scenarios. In addition, for each of the home front settings, they provide helpful suggestions as to styles of scenario that would suit each of them - for instance, it’s pointed out that since the US is never in any serious danger of an actual invasion during the war it’s a good locale for noirish detective investigations and covert espionage and counter-espionage activities, whilst setting your game in France opens up the opportunity for all sorts of cool Resistance-based activities.

The book is rounded off with chapters covering creating characters for the setting. In the dual-statted edition, you have an entire two chapters covering Call of Cthulhu-based rules (one for character generation, one for new skills introduced in the book), and one chapter covering Savage Worlds stuff. It’d probably be for someone who actually likes Savage Worlds to review how good the Savage Worlds rules here are, but as far as the Call of Cthulhu material goes, it’s pretty good - not only providing robust rules for providing career military characters complete with fully-detailed ranks and specialisations, but also providing rules for civilian characters getting skill boosts through boot camp if they get drafted or volunteer for the armed forces. (In other chapters aside from these three here and in the Keeper’s Guide clear symbols indicate where rules apply to Call of Cthulhu and where they apply to Savage Worlds.) The book concludes with a reasonably detailed equipment chapter, an extremely useful quick play guide which indexes where in this book and in the core Call of Cthulhu or Savage Worlds rulebooks various subjects are covered, and a listing of suggested resources.

The book’s focus on the Western Front is slightly problematic, because it’s a front which is rather overhyped compared to (for instance) the Eastern Front, where the fighting was far more intense for a substantially longer period and arguably the bulk of the work in exhausting German military and economic reserves took place. At the same time, a book covering all the different fronts to the same extent as provided here would have become unwieldy - not to mention inaccessibly expensive for something which is meant to be a player’s guide - and to be fair, Brits and/or Americans are thick on the ground in enough of the other fronts aside from the Eastern Front that providing the details for creating US/UK spies and military personnel in the core allows you to use such characters in other fronts easily and so gives you the widest field of play for the page count provided. And at least Modiphius are at least providing guides to the other fronts, and I can see an argument that the Eastern and Pacific fronts in particular have complicating factors in the form of the Soviets and the Japanese who really need to be carefully detailed in the support materials if players and Keepers are going to do them justice.

On the whole, Modiphius do an excellent job here of walking the tightrope between packing useful material into the book and avoiding it being inaccessibly dense, and the end product would be a handy reference for any roleplaying game set during World War II, since the Mythos-specific information has been held back for the Keeper’s Guide and the research here has been conducted with an eye to helping create a sense of verisimilitude about the setting. The production values on this and the Keeper's Guide are also, for the most part, gorgeous, though there's the occasional flub. (I am super not keen on how close the cover art to this one is to having the model just do a full-on boobbutt pose.)

Keeper’s Guide to the Secret War


This, of course, is the make or break product, since it provides most of the actual secret aspects of the Secret War, and its handling of the occult forces ranged against the player characters could potentially be highly offensive if the tie-in with the Nazi regime is handled tastelessly.

Modiphius appear to be acutely aware of this, going so far as to include an essay (Sympathy for the Devil) by veteran horror RPG pundit and author Kenneth Hite about how tricky it is to balance on the one hand including an appropriate level of distaste for Nazi atrocities, on the other hand avoiding the danger of turning the game into an exercise in gunning down Germans and feeling superior about it. (In particular, Hite points out that not only is unthinking blam-blam-shoot the bad guys stuff generally a bit tonally inappropriate for what’s supposed to be a horror game, if you dehumanise the Germans as a whole you risk succumbing to precisely the sort of us-vs-them mentality that made the Holocaust possible in the first place, and in particular risk distancing yourself from the Holocaust by painting it as a special crime which no real human being could ever actually participate in.) Complicating that tightrope walk is the necessity to work in sufficient horror elements to make your World War II horror mashup work whilst avoiding some of the tastelessness involved in making the Holocaust the result of supernatural alien meddling rather than a thing actual living people did to other actual living people.

For my money, I think in these core books Modiphius got the balance just about right. Unfortuantely, as I will get to later, the actual adventure material for Achtung! Cthulhu defaults to a very pulpy style, and one in which the Nazi characters are in full on supervillain and/or disposable faceless mook mode and where horror falls by the wayside in favour of monster-fighting action.

The major Cthulhu Mythos tie-in with the war comes in the form of the Cult of the Black Sun and the Nachtwölfe think-tank. The Black Sun cultists represent the more fantastical side of the Cthulhu Mythos by incorporating magic and the worship of sinister gods and links to the Dreamlands (a dreamworld setting which, via the epic The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Lovecraft retconned most of his early fantasy fiction into being a part of and which has subsequently become a niche but well-loved alternate setting for Call of Cthulhu adventures). On the flipside, Nachtwölfe represents the more science fictional side of the Mythos, utilising sinister technology retrieved from Atlantis in order to produce superweapons for the Reich. For those who like both the fantastic and the sci-fi sides to the Mythos, tenuous links exist between the two groups, Nachtwölfe being in effect a Black Sun splinter group which has discarded the mysticism in favour of cold, hard empiricism.

As well as providing a range of flavours of sinister adversaries, the treatment of these two groups nicely ties them in with the Nazi war machine without making them the Hidden Masters behind the Nazis, which would have been crass and irritating. In effect, both groups are bandwagoneers, latching on to the Nazi cause as a means of advancing their own personal agendas and giving the Nazis the occasional bit of help to justify their place in the Reich’s power structure but in effect following their own agendas. (They don’t even have much to do with the Holocaust, since persecuting the Nazi’s chosen scapegoats, whilst not actually inconvenient for them, doesn’t really advance or obstruct their agenda one way or another.)

This pleasingly avoids a lot of revisionist history by simple dint of being somewhat reminiscent of actual history; the Nazis really did attract a range of cranks who tried to promote their ideas by making themselves useful to the Party (see, for instance, the advocates of the World Ice Theory), so it makes sense to include one or two genuinely Mythos-savvy groups amongst those. Equally, Hitler himself doesn’t really have much to do with any of the Mythos stuff beyond deciding that Nachtwölfe’s toys look cool and approving giving them funding and status in order to continue their research; Himmler is much more closely involved via the Cult of the Black Sun stuff, but again historically Himmler was way into mystical Aryanist bullshit and putting together special archaeological teams to go uncover evidence supporting Nazi racial theories and doing all sorts of nutty shit up at Wewelsburg, which he turned into this bizarre ritual headquarters for the SS. If anyone’s going to give sinister worshippers of the Old Ones a foothold in the Nazi power structure, Himmler is the perfect candidate. In both cases, Modiphus are careful to follow a premise Ken Hite establishes in his essay, which is that they never blame Nazi atrocities on the activities of the Black Sun or Nachtwölfe - as Hite puts it, “The Necronomicon doesn’t make Himmler evil and crazy; Himmler is so evil and crazy already that he wants to weaponize the Necronomicon.”

Ranged against these forces are two organisations offered up as possible backers of the player characters, whether the PCs are actual members of these groups or just receive assistance from them - Section M and Majestic, representing respectively the UK and US intelligence responses to the threat posed by Mythos forces. (Fans of Delta Green, the X-Files-esque conspiracy-themed alternate setting for modern-day Call of Cthulhu, will no doubt delight in working in connections between the heroic Majestic grouping here and the villainous Majestic-12 in that.) These organisations basically perform the same function but with a slightly different flavour, one being a product of the British old Etonian network and the other having been incubated in the Washington DC bureaucracy. In the case of all four major players in the Secret War, a selection of important NPCs are provided whose different personalities help to bring the groupings to life.

Aside from descriptions of these major factions and a sprinkling of minor occult groups, the book offers a wealth of other useful information. Background chapters on life inside Nazi Germany and the structure of the German military are provided to give roughly the same level of detail as the Investigator’s Guide gives on Britain, France and the United States. In principle, you could use the material here to very easily play a game set inside Germany itself in which the player characters are German civilians, but Modiphius have decided not to include these details in the Investigator’s Guide in order to underscore the point that this is not a default option, but should be something which the entire game group should agree on before going ahead with it considering how grim and emotive the subject matter is likely to be. As far as military characters go, NPC stats are provided but fully-developed player character generation processes are not, so if you really want to play a game where the PCs are all German soldiers (or SS officers, if you and your players are really sick puppies) then you kind of have to do your own heavy lifting for that.

The chapters on German civilian life and military structure would be of use for any game in which those become relevant, of course - it’s useful to know what infiltrating spies or escaping POWs will encounter in Germany, and likewise useful to have some working knowledge of how the German military forces are structured - and most of the rest of the book is at least as broadly useful as that, if not more so. Chapters on the workings of the various wartime intelligence agencies, details on transportation and vehicles (subjects which become profoundly more exciting in an era of tank warfare, closed borders, and exceptional scrutiny of travellers), spot rules for handling battlefield situations that aren’t typically accounted for in the core Call of Cthulhu or Savage Worlds rulebooks (aerial dogfights included!), and a swathe of new spells, artifacts, and Mythos creatures. (Savage Worlds owners get a bit of extra love in the form of full writeups of all the core monsters and spells from Call of Cthulhu in Savage Worlds terms.) A sprinkling of useful NPC stats, adventure ideas, and another very useful quick play guide and collection of suggested resources rounds out the book.

As with the Investigator’s Guide, this book is extremely information-dense. As well as providing a large number of adventure ideas, more or less every page drips with inspirational material to suggest scenarios, and on the whole it rounds out the central two book set nicely - certainly, you run a credible Western Front-focused campaign with just these two books.

Guide to the Pacific Front


Primarily written to provide support for the Japanese and to detail the various European colonial presences in the Pacific region (the mainland US of A having already been adequately covered in the core books), the Guide to the Pacific Front on the one hand is important for covering an aspect of the war often under-emphasised, but on the other hand has the distinction of having no actual Asian people contributing to its production. As is the case with the Keeper’s Guide, the assumption is that you won’t be playing a game where the characters are members of the Japanese military, but unfortunately the Japanese military itself isn’t described to a similar level of detail as the Third Reich’s war machine was in the core books; moreover, unlike the core books, there doesn’t seem to be much consideration given to the idea of playing civilians in the Japanese homeland (though it is somewhat more viable to play civilians in Japanese-occupied regions).

It’s not that the authors have necessarily outright ignored Japanese perspectives on the war. As well as the obvious Studio Ghibli references in the “suggested resources” section - Grave of the Fireflies and The Wind Rises - they also cite Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy as a history text. The thing is, though, these are the only Japanese texts they recommend amongst a sea of British and American treatments of the Pacific Front. (As for accounts from the various peoples colonised by Europeans or Japan during the time period in question, forget about it: they are not here.) Granted, the authors are working in a context where we in the West are absolutely awash in our own accounts of the period, and it would have been all too easy to produce a supplement like this without even watching Grave of the Fireflies, but it still remains that this is a book which, despite its exhortations against othering and demonising the Japanese, still works on the assumption that most of its users will be playing people fighting the Japanese rather than playing the Japanese themselves. To give the authors the benefit of the doubt, it is entirely possible that they felt they simply didn’t have enough knowledge and expertise to do justice to an insider’s-eye-view of Japanese culture at the time, but then again you think some of the Kickstarter funds could have extended to finding a Japanese co-author to help fill that gap. (It isn’t as though Call of Cthulhu doesn’t have its own Japanese fanbase, after all.)

The coverage of the Japanese war activities are also somewhat patchy. On the one hand, the historical chapters strike a decent balance between acknowledging war crimes like Unit 731 and the like and at the same time avoiding presenting Japanese culture as a monolithic bloc, making it clear that the expansionist tendencies that drove the march to war were at once a not-unpredictable response to similar European expansionism in the region and also not wholly uncontroversial, but were driven by ultranationalist and militaristic forces which weren’t without opposition from other sections of Japanese society. On the other hand, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to providing game systems for playing through internment in a Japanese POW camp, which seems kind of crass. On the one hand, abuses of prisoners did in fact happen;’ on the other hand, it needlessly raises the awkward question of which war crimes it is and isn’t appropriate to play through. There isn’t an equivalent section on playing interned Japanese in the USA, and the core books don’t exactly have a subsystem for being a Belsen inmate, so this whole captured-by-the-Japanese lark seems to fall into a weird space where somehow the Holocaust is too awful to handle in the books and internment isn’t quite nasty enough, but Bridge On the River Kwai is just the right level of horrible.

On the plus side, the book does give a discussion of what stakes the various Western colonial powers had in the region that goes beyond mentioning that the British ran India at the time, which is more than I expected, and it does open the door to playing a diverse range of local characters on the Allied side, making the war decidedly less whitewashed than it’s typically portrayed as being. Equally, the major supernatural threat in the Pacfic region - no prizes for guessing it’s the Cthulhu Cult, seeing how the theatre of war here encompasses R’lyeh itself - is handled with suitable sensitivity, making it clear that the cult (as well as other local supernatural forces) is a (literally) alien infiltrator in local cultures rather than something intrinsic to them. At the same time, the setting still includes the “Tcho-Tchos” - a hidden race from the Himalayas warped into cannibals through the influence of the Old Ones, and one of the more directly racist features of Lovecraft’s Mythos.

At the end of the day, whilst the Guide makes a good start at both introducing the history of the Pacific Front and proposing suitable Mythos-based adventure hooks that can take place there, it feels like there is a lot more work to be done to give Japan the properly rounded treatment it deserves - let alone the other nations of the region.

Guide to North Africa


The advantage this Guide has is that the North African front actually wrapped up comparatively early in the war - although Rommel and his Afrika Korps had a good stab at turning the situation around after the Italians dropped the ball early on, by 1943 the action had more or less concluded, leaving the south coast of the Mediterranean as a staging ground for strikes against the southern portions of occupied Europe. The upshot of this is that the book can give a reasonably complete picture of the action there without getting into the late war alternate history metaplot that Modiphius want to play coy about.

On top of that, the region in question has been richly mined for Cthulhu-related media in the past; more or less every culture with any significant presence in the Mediterranean over the past few millennia has left its footprints in North Africa at some point, and that means there’s ample scope for ruined cities concealing aeon-old dangers. Lovecraft himself set some of his stories here, such as Under the Pyramids, and the combination of Egypt’s staggeringly ancient history and the boom in Egyptology in the 1920s has made it a regularly featured location in published Call of Cthulhu adventures. (Most particularly, the fan favourite Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign has an entire chapter set in Egypt.)

As with the Guide to the Pacific Front, it is a mild shame that no actual North African residents contribute to the design of this book. On the other hand, the major distinction between the two fronts is that the Pacific Front includes Japan, an entire Imperial power not covered in the core Achtung! Cthulhu books and a full-scale belligerent in the war in its own right, whereas the entire Mediterranean coast of Africa was under the sway of one European power or another when the war began, with the nominally independent Egypt effectively under British occupation. (To be fair to the supplement, it does give a summary of the situation in Ethiopia, the major independent power in the region, including details of Haile Selassie’s active involvement in its liberation.)

As a result, many depictions of the war in this front have tended to come across as the various colonial forces - British, French, Italian, German, and eventually American - going off to play war in the sand whilst the local peoples occasional pop up to provide support and/or background colour. This seems to be the approach that the developers have mostly taken here. Although the Guide doesn’t really give enough cultural details that I’d be comfortable using it to run a game from the point of view of the actual residents of the region, at the same time it would be entirely viable to run a campaign focused mostly around the colonial powers’ armed forces and their clashes. (You even have stats for the French Foreign Legion!) This is a shallow take on the area, but one which lends itself to the strengths of the Guides - providing expansive details on the equipment and personnel involved in the various European armies operating in the area means that a substantial page count can be dedicated to equipment lists and stats for particular military specialities, with the writeups of local Mythos almost being a token effort. Perhaps because the European powers involved are the same, the Guide tends to make the North African front feel like a reskinned version of the Western European front, with deserts and “exotic” cities taking the place of bombed-out villages and idyllic countryside. Of the four different fronts of the world covered by the Guides and the core books, this one feels the least distinctly and flavourfully evoked.

Guide to the Eastern Front


For the most part this follows the pattern of the other Front guides, providing history, expansive equipment and vehicle details, as well as character creation pointers and local occult mysteries. This time around we’re dealing with the Eastern Front, which in practical terms means that the major job of the supplement is to present the Soviet side of the story - which means, of course, details not just of the conventional forces but the powerful NKVD, plus a range of occult conspiracies within Stalin’s government that could be friends or foes to the PCs.

A key advantage this time around seems to be that the development team was able to take on a number of members with personal connections to the region - Ilya Sadchikov doesn’t make a big deal of it in the introduction he pens for the book, nor do Yuri Kalugin and Sergey Kataev say much on the subject, so I might be wrong in assuming that any of them have familial roots in the region based on their names, but it seems a linguistic safe bet at least one of them does. Their presence doesn’t magically transform the book into a “how to be authentically Russian” primer, but it does at least reassure me that the book isn’t going to be egregiously and overtly inaccurate.

Of course, most Eastern Front PCs are going to be part of the Soviet war machine, or civilians, or perhaps agents of the NKVD. Although the supplement repeats the by now well-worn exhortation to pay heed to Ken Hite’s essay in the core book about taking care not to dehumanise people, even the perpetrators of war crimes and tyranny, I think the situation calls for a bit more consideration of the particular difficulties of presenting a situation where Stalin and Beria at best represent the lesser evil, and even there’s room to debate that one. Still, the advantage of the Soviet system is that its inner circles can conceivably be home to all sorts of curious cabals and cliques, and the various occult conspiracies presented here are decidedly more colourful than those presented as being active in, say, the USA or Japan. Part of this apparently comes from Sadchikov’s interest in the development of Russian occultism under Soviet rule, a subject that I frankly know nothing about (my knowledge of Russian esotericism in general involves being aware that Blavatsky and Gurdjieff came from Russia, and that’s about it) but which seems to have taken fascinating turns whilst labouring under official disapproval. The particularly well-realised occult threats, blending Lovecraftian invention with wild conspiracy theories and the occasional dose of real history, makes the Guide to the Eastern Front probably my favourite of the three front guides.

Terrors of the Secret War


This book details various creatures of the Mythos for the purposes of Achtung! Cthulhu. In a few cases this entails giving conventional game statistics and a writeup of the nature of the entity in question in a manner reminiscent of other Call of Cthulhu bestiaries, but the bulk of the book is based on giving writeups of Mythos entities of vast power for the purposes of running combats against them through the presented “simple mass combat system". This involves stepping away from giving the creatures in question conventional BRP stats, instead defining them in terms of actions they can take in that system and actions investigators and their military backup can viably affect them in a fight.

That last bit really cuts to the heart of whether or not you will find this supplement at all useful, and more broadly how far you might want to go along with the very particular take Achtung! Cthulhu has on Mythos-based roleplaying. If the idea of roleplaying through a pitched battle between a World War II-era army and a titanic Mythos entity makes sense to you, then Terrors of the Secret War will probably be your jam. If that Godzilla stuff feels to you like the opposite of the cosmic horror experience you want out of Call of Cthulhu - and I put myself in this class - then the supplement will be of much less use.



Shadows of Atlantis and Assault On the Mountains of Madness


These are big fat campaign books, one set towards the start of the war and one towards the end, that exemplify Modiphius’ idea of what a long-term Achtung! Cthulhu campaign actually entails. In both cases it tends to culminate in a big military operation in which there's reasonable odds that you're looking at a battle between human forces and Mythos monstrosities, including actual gods; in short, the pulp style that was strongly implied across the line is hammered home strongly. Whereas the core Achtung! Cthulhu materials and the front guides could be spun in a more purist direction if you wanted to, it would be really hard to do the same with these adventures, which tend to go full Indiana Jones and resort repeatedly to running the Nazi characters like they are flat-out cartoon supervillains.

The Competitor - World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour


World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour is part of a wider projected World War Cthulhu line by Cubicle 7 putting a Mythos-tinted lens on the major conflicts of the 20th Century, with planned supplements in the future to World War I (very handy given that investigators in the popular 1920s setting for Call of Cthulhu could well be Great War veterans), the Cold War (now available thanks to its own Kickstarter campaign), and of course World War III. Announced prior to Achtung! Cthulhu, I think it manages to be both a strong product in its own right and complement Achtung! Cthulhu nicely, partly by offering a substantially more focused and limited concept for Darkest Hour campaigns to follow and partly by having a very different philosophy on how to incorporate the Mythos into a World War II setting.

Let’s deal with that more focused concept first. Unlike Achtung! Cthulhu, The Darkest Hour does not go out of its way to support adventures revolving around civilians investigating funny goings-on in the home front, or military personnel on the front line: the assumption is that all the player characters are going to be intelligence agents working for Section N, a special part of the Special Operations Executive operated by the mysterious N. (This name is obviously very similar to the “Section M” of Achtung! Cthulhu, but this is probably coincidence rather than plagiarism - both books follow the naming convention of Special Operations Executive subdivisions during the war, and since it cast a wider than typical net in recruiting agents the SOE is perhaps the best part of British intelligence to incorporate Call of Cthulhu investigators.)

N is blessed with a range of contacts across Europe, a spy network predating the war itself; more than that, N has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Mythos and a range of other advantages that make him ideally placed to direct investigations of Mythos threats. (For instance, he’s a master hypnotist, so if a player character’s sanity has been especially ravaged by a traumatic investigation N can provide some semblance of repair.) This, and N’s tendency to piggyback investigations into Mythos matters onto the back of SOE operations, obviously raises a number of questions about who exactly N is and what his agenda is, but this is a matter which is left up to individual Keepers to decide. Whatever his true nature, N effectively acts as a source of investigations for the player characters; it is assumed that Darkest Hour campaigns will involve the player characters going off on SOE intelligence operations whilst in parallel conducting investigations for N.

This two-stream approach, with the PCs simultaneously following two different sets of orders - one Mythos-related, one more directly connected to the war effort - ties in with the second major point of difference from Achtung! Cthulhu, which is the approach to the Mythos. Whereas Achtung! Cthulhu presents Mythos threats as piggybacking on (but not controlling or directly inspiring) the Nazi cause, here the struggle against Mythos threats and the war effort are basically orthogonal; whilst the supplement suggests that it’s possible that individual representatives of one of the parties in the war might become interested in Mythos dabbling if they find out about something which sounds weaponisable (especially if they don’t quite get enough information to understand the risks), for the most part Cubicle 7 want to present the deities and creatures of the Mythos as being basically disinterested in the war, and there being no institutional collaboration between the Nazis and Mythos groups, on the grounds that if the Mythos can be successfully weaponised that reduces it from cosmic horror to a mere tool.

That’s a good point, and to be fair it’s a hurdle which Achtung! Cthulhu had to go some lengths to overcome. There, one of the crucial points the book conveys is that Black Sun and Nachtwölfe do not represent a reliable, controllable harnessing of Mythos forces: they’re both, in their own ways, ticking time bombs which will, if they are allowed to fester, either purposefully or accidentally cause an utter disaster. This makes sense for the symmetric approach applied to setting design in Achtung! Cthulhu, in which you have Mythos-aware agencies from the US and UK facing off against Mythos-based conspiracies on the German side, but here Cubicle 7 seem to be going for a more asymmetric design - Section N is, so far as the disclosure presented in the book is concerned, the only Mythos-investigating organisation to latch onto the war effort in this way, and whilst it can count on the support of the wider SOE and other British forces when it comes to action against the Axis, in its fight against the Mythos it is terribly, terribly alone.

That is in keeping with the more bleak and sombre take on cosmic horror the supplement offers compared to Achtung! Cthulhu, which the book encourages Keepers to hype up. Despite the fact that player characters tend to get a little more out of the military/espionage training rules here than they do in Achtung!, equally I’d expect a game taking The Darkest Hour as its primary inspiration may well be more challenging, with the players obliged to balance the demands of the war effort against their Mythos investigations. Of course, this means that Keepers need to think up useful war-related missions to go alongside Mythos threats; a crucially helpful part of the book in this respect is the gazetteer of Europe, which highlights potential missions and Mythos threats in each country. (I was particularly impressed by the fact that the book doesn’t neglect neutral countries, instead pointing out that whilst on the one hand missions in neutral countries are in principle a bit safer, on the other hand they also need to be more discreet, lest the countries in question become markedly less neutral).

This gazetteer in particular would be useful for Achtung! Cthulhu Keepers who want a bit more detail on what’s going on in each individual country than is provided in that game’s materials, but I’d say that this book as a whole is extremely useful for Keepers who like the idea of running a World War II-themed Call of Cthulhu game but would like a little more guidance than Achtung! Cthulhu offers. Achtung! Cthulhu gives you a very diverse toolkit and then steps back to let you piece it all together as you wish; conversely, The Darkest Hour provides more specialised tools with more advice on how to use them, which might help Keepers who would prefer something that requires a little less prep work and major decision-making by the Keeper before play starts.

In fact, a large part of The Darkest Hour is devoted to providing a very substantial adventure - a full campaign in itself, in fact - set in a small village in Vichy France. The setting details, cast of characters, and so on are all very nicely realised, as is the way the adventure provides a detailed rundown of early phases in the campaign before opening out to allow the Keeper space to adapt the adventure to the players’ actions. There’s no scope here for the campaign being derailed simply because nobody made a Spot Hidden roll, because rather than provide a strict timetable of events the developers instead provide a range of suggestions of things which might occur once the players arrive in the region, giving the Keeper a free hand when it comes to deciding when (and if) to use the incidents in question. It’s a solid adventure design which proves that you don’t need to adopt any cop-out “automatically give the players the information needed” to have a fun Cthulhu scenario - yes, if the players miss particular rolls they may lack the information they need to get an optimal ending, but one gets the impression from this book that optimal endings in The Darkest Hour should be hard to come by - the game, after all, is in working out what you need to do to accomplish that in the first place. And the campaign is set up so that a suboptimal ending will at least be an interesting ending. More Call of Cthulhu adventures would benefit from this.

My main criticism of the book is that whilst it is ostensibly presented as a general World War II-themed supplement, it really presents a very British perspective of the war. This, to be fair, is perfectly in keeping with Cubicle 7’s existing Call of Cthulhu line - Cthulhu Britannica, a series of supplements dealing with running Call of Cthulhu adventures in 1920s Britain, which Cubicle 7 have developed to capitalise on the local game design talent available to them. (I suspect they, like me, remember all the rather dodgy RPG supplements you used to get in years gone by where American game designers who hadn’t really done their research would try to provide UK-based adventures or setting details and get it comically wrong, or at best present Britain “as a quaint and enchanting faraway land that some people at the game table might have visited” rather than “the lump of rock we happen to be sat on right now.”) I would say that ideally the World War Cthulhu line ought to be a subset of Cthulhu Britannica if the other products are going to take this approach; I don’t mind a UK-centric supplement, because after all everyone I play regularly with face-to-face lives in the UK and running games where the action is rooted in a familiar place provides useful familiarity for games set on Earth. (It’s particularly fun in horror games, where you can add a sinister twist to things that the players will find intrinsically familiar.) But I think disappointment might ensue if someone expected this book to reflect, say, the Russian or the American or the Japanese experience of the war, and unlike Achtung! Cthulhu I’m not seeing any compelling evidence that the product line is going to expand to cover those at all.

World War Cthulhu: the Darkest Hour also has its fair share of support material; the Europe Ablaze adventure supplement I found pretty forgettable, but The SOE Handbook is worthy of note. Mostly presented as a fully in-character document, the bulk of it consists of an explanation of SOE methods and techniques for doing that voodoo that they did so well across Europe, with additional notes from N concerning how these are applied to or modified in light of the Mythos threats that N’s agents must face. Little side boxes offer suggestions on how to resolve the use of these techniques and procedures in system terms, should this be necessary. Simply providing this book to your players can do more to help get them into the perspective of an SOE operative than any amount of GM waffling, so I’d say it’s a very handy supplement indeed - and because the Mythos stuff is clearly delineated it’s also a handy resource for handling similar activities in other Basic Roleplaying-derived games.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints


It’s always a bit of a risk having your name associated with something that heavily features Nazis, but in this case I’m broadly satisfied with the core Achtung! Cthulhu books, which is where these credits actually appear, so in this instance I don’t mind.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong


I’d say I got this one Just Right; the hard copies of the core books are gorgeously produced, and the PDFs of the stretch goals are a welcome bonus. (I actually liked the various Front guides enough to get hard copies of them too.)

Would Back Again?


Modiphius might have run the risk of biting off more than they could chew with the extensive stretch goals presented here, but to their credit they were able to deliver a ton of stuff without excessive delays and with decent-quality production standards in the final product. I’d say that on balance I’d feel safe about backing future projects of theirs, provided it was for a property I was interested in getting into in the first place.
~

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

~
Comments (go to latest)
at 10:11 on 2017-11-18
No comments on this article. Why don't you post one?
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in October 2017