Monday, May 13, 2019

Cthulhu Dark is so simple there’s nothing but the horror

Lovecraft leaves a long shadow, in part because of the disturbing and disturbed creativity of his work and in part because it’s now public domain and people can just go crazy with it, pun intended.

I picked up the original, bare bones version of Cthulhu Dark a while ago and finally decided to take the five minutes to read it. It is one of the most rules light Lovecraftian RPGs I’ve seen. The mechanics take up four pages, including clarifications and design notes.

Your character consists of a name, an occupation and a sanity score that starts off at one. If you want to do something _that is within human capacity_ you roll. If your occupation can reasonably help, add a die. If you want to risk your sanity, add your sanity die. Three dice is as big as your dice pool can ever get. Unless you’re challenged, you will succeed. Your high roll will determine the level of success. One being barely succeeding and six being an amazing success.

Sanity rolls, which are required every time you see or do something that shakes your sanity, require rolling under your sanity or your sanity goes up one. Hit six and you are hopelessly insane and out of the game.

A few other observations: Trail of Cthulhu is clearly a big influence. If you’re investigating, you will always learn enough to move on to the next scene. There are no combat rules. Fight a horror and you automatically die. If you try to cast a spell or such, that’s out of the realm of human action so you just use your sanity die. You can do it but it’s a really bad idea.

Okay. I have looked at a lot of Lovecraft RPGs over the years. Call of Cthulhu is one of the big influences on my RPG life. I have also looked at a ton of rules light systems. Cthulhu Dark surprised me by hitting a lot good notes for both.

This is Lovecraft as bleak, cosmic horror. Your characters are fragile, powerless pawns facing forces that can overwhelm you by existing. Even compared to other Lovecraftian systems, you are so very weak. As mentioned, combat is ‘you die’. While sanity isn’t a spiral, the long odds are not with you. Doom is pretty much assured, hard baked into system.

If you’re going for cosmic horror, all this is a good thing. The universe is an empty place that will crumple you up like a used tissue. Embrace it! 

I understand the Cthulhu Dark has been expanded to a full book. The rules are still the same and minimalist but you get design notes, settings and adventures. At some point, I now want to take a look at that.

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