Review of CthulhuTech

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

December 14, 2007


by: The Unshaven


Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

CthulhuTech is an ambitious, creative book - although its ambitious quality draws attention to its flaws. Despite these, it is a solid system with a very neat setting within which to tell stories, and I recommed it for any fans of mecha anime and Lovecraft.

The Unshaven has written 13 reviews, with average style of 4.31 and average substance of 4.46. The reviewer's previous review was of [Horror Week] Nemesis.

This review has been read 24912 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: CthulhuTech
Publisher: WildFire
Line: CthulhuTech
Author: Matthew Grau, Fraser McKay
Category: RPG

Cost: £30.00
Pages: 288
Year: 2007

ISBN: 978-0-976330-60-8 | MGP6107


Review of CthulhuTech
Well folks, itís been a long time coming. Welcome to the Cthulhutech review. For another exploration of the book and discussions of its quality, check out Skywalkerís thread here.

From prior experience, my reviews tend to be long, and Iíve slowly worked into the habit of giving a prťcis for the people who want to get an impression before I go on to expand on it, so here goes. The most important information goes first:

I like Cthulhutech. It has not grabbed me by the lapels and shaken me like a bag of coathangers the way that REIGN and the rest of the One Roll Engine has, but it is a quality product. I believe it to be a worthy purchase.

Disclaimer the First! Iím not going to lie to you folks, there are some problems with the printing of the book. However, after this section, I am not going to mention them. A fair amount of this section is going to be explaining why.

Firstly, there are better places than this review to get information on those problems, as there are open discussions on RPG.net and at the Cthulhutech website. The forums there are very informative, and the creative crew step in regularly. [They also happily answer system questions.]

Secondly, despite the fact that my copy is one with printing problems, it doesnít worry me. Why? Because communication with Mongoose publishing has been quick and clear, and they are replacing my copy without even charging me postage, and I donít have to return the copy that I have. Wildfire are even as we speak updating the PDF as typos and the like are found, and small print-runs mean that we do not have a problem where the entire available run is Ďtainted.í When I communicated with Mongoose, I was even presented with an option: a) Get the book replaced now, and have all of the printing issues fixed but not the typos, or b) Wait until the core files are updated, and have all of them fixed.

I greatly appreciate the fact they provided the option, and have gone for waiting for a more complete replacement whenever thatís done. After all, in the meanwhile I still have the book, and itís certainly readable. I explain all this because itís my rationale. It may not be yours, so fair warning.

I apologise to any of the Wildfire and Mongoose guys for how this might sound, but this is the simplest, most ruthless and mercenary way I can think of describing the situation: If you are contemplating whether Cthulhutech is worth £30.00 plus postage, I believe that it is, particularly when the worst case scenario is getting two copies of the book at £15 each. Instantly, this is a situation where I will wind up with a fixed copy for myself, and a spare copy that I can travel around with without concern, or lend to friends. I view this as a win.

As I say, Iím really not trying to run down Wildfire, Mongoose or Flaming Cobra here, I just think thatís a pragmatic way of potentially encouraging people to buy the book. The worst case scenario is, from my perspective, hardly a disaster in the long run. As always however, your mileage, and viewpoint on the situation, may vary.

So there we go. From now on, the only problems with the layout or printing Iíll discuss are those which are part of the deliberate design of the book, rather than mishaps.

Now thatís out of the way, we can get onto the Actual Review.

First Impressions of the Physical Book.

CthulhuTech is very pretty. The cover is glossy and screams Epic! in the megawatt range, and flicking through the book demonstrates good quality shiny paper, more evocative art, and good layout. I like the look of the thing.

However. There is one issue I noticed pretty quickly to do with the interior art which is not due to printing problems, itís a design choice. The spine of the book is clearly quite deep, and there are some images which are spread across both pages. The problem is that the middle of the picture is frequently bisected by the spine, meaning itís difficult to see whatís going on. The same problem occurs with the World Map, but there are already suggestions that a digital version of that is going up on the Cthulhutech website soon. Itís a problem because the interior art is good, and itís a real shame that you canít get the full impact from some of the images.

In terms of the typos that have been noticed, I will quickly say that thereís no Page XX problems, and the page references are cohesive.

Now we move on to content.

Open Fiction and Setting Introductions.

The first piece of opening fiction, entitled Mismatched is sadly one of the mistakes I believe was made with the layout of the book. Itís not that the story is bad per se, itís that it really shouldnít be first up. Itís full of jargon and terminology that we simply havenít been introduced to yet, and thatís not what you want the audience to hit first Ė particularly if they donít already know what the game is about. The problem makes the fiction bewildering, and this isnít helped with many of the characters being referred to by two different names without an explanation. It winds up being clear that sometimes itís a callsign, but the audience is left with a lot of work to do. My girlfriend, who has been gaming for a decade longer than me, picked up the book and was intrigued by the cover and the blurb, but lost interest while trying to fight her way through Mismatched.

This was doubly unfortunate, because the second piece of opening fiction, Aeon War Syndrome is not visually differentiated from Mismatched in layout, meaning she skipped that too. This is a real shame, because by contrast Aeon War Syndrome is exactly what you want from a piece of opening fiction: it explains itself as it goes, is evocative and introduces you to the tone of the world.

Chapter 1: Welcome

Chapter 1 is very short, and introduces what the game hopes to be Ė a hybrid genre between an anime world of mecha and Lovecraftian horrors Ė then moves into a glossary of game terms. The game uses different phrases for GM, PC and NPC, but explains the rationale for why and notes that anyone who doesnít like their spin will ignore their phrases anyway. We then move onto more specific setting terms, in strict alphabetical order. I like the idea of a setting specific glossary, and itís good to see the thing up front to give people tools. However, the strict alphabetical approach does have some problems in that frequently subcategories wind up being described before the overall entry of which they are a part. The layout italicises those entries, making it fairly clear as to where to look next, but the downside to this overall approach is that readers run straight into Jargonville again Ė and using my girlfriendís experience as a guide again, can be quite intimidating. Your mileage, as always, will vary. There are also sidebars discussing the next books planned in the CthulhuTech line, and actually addresses internet piracy with a request that if you like the book, please buy the thing. Next the chapter discusses source material from both Lovecraft and anime which were influential for CthulhuTechís genesis.

Chapter 2: That Was Then, This is Now.

Chapter 2 begins with a historical timeline, taking Earth from the present day through to 2085 and the time of the Aeon War. It manages to combine the traits of being told in broad strokes while remaining a detailed account. For the most part, the timeline focuses on key events rather than on key people, the only exception being Teresa Ashcroft Ė who winds up being the initial inventor of the neat technology within the CthulhuTech setting Ė and the people who follow her.

The timeline does a good job of showing the steps which carry humanity towards the Aeon War without getting bogged down in minutiae. The note of how the US and the UN hybridised at a command level caught my attention because itís pretty much exactly how some of the gun-nut extremists at the moment claim that the US government is going to sell out the country to the United NationsÖ and in turn gave me the idea for a CthulhuTech game dealing with the players running into an isolated group of survivalist nutters who are convinced that the whole Ďalien invasion/dark godí thing is a vast conspiracy designed to justify handing the reigns of the nation over to foreigners.

But back on topic. After the timeline, the chapter breaks down the main factions within the CthulhuTech setting Ė and a few rumours based around each. Ever since Unknown Armies introduced me to the idea, I love rumours. Theyíre such a great way to put across plot seeds and characterise the setting without dumping canon information on us, and essentially give some insights into guys on the street, or certainly What Guys In Bars Say to Other Guys In Bars. Iím glad to see them here.

The factions are:

The New Earth Government: The good guys. Humans fighting overwhelming odds and trying to claw themselves a future, despite being corrupted from within. Among them are the Engel pilots, brave people who submit to Ďcommuningí with giant alien war machines in an attempt to save the world, while trying to stop the experience driving them mad.

Who is corrupting the NEG? A variety of cults, and the Chrysalis Corporation, who are Nasty People themselves corrupted to the point of being entirely controlled by one of the bigger, more organised cults.

The Eldritch Society: A religious group that the NEG doesnít know about and wouldnít approve of, the Eldritch Society and their holy warriors, the Tagers, are covertly fighting the corrupting influence of the Chrysalis Corporation. Tagers are people who have symbiotically bonded with an extra-dimensional entity Ė essentially becoming covert Were-Horrors Ė as an answer to the elite monstrous warriors of the Chrysalis Corporation, the Dhoanoids.

The Migou: Alien fungoid insects bent on returning humanity to a state of helplessness, trapped on Earth and no longer threatening their interests. One of the fun elements if that the Migou are just as terrified of the gods that the cults are trying to bring back as sensible people are.

The Rapine Storm: What happens when an elder god wakes up in central China and starts havoc. Connected, although certainly not controlled by, the Chrysalis Corporation.

The Esoteric Order of Dagon: The Deep Ones and their giant lord, who are intent on locating and bringing back Dread Cthulhu himself.

One thing I will mention for fairness since it turned up on the forums, is that if you are someone for whom the abstract notion of rape makes you deeply uncomfortable, it does appear within this section of the book regarding how the Deep Ones have been capitalising on the confusion of the Aeon War and increasing their numbers. If thatís a dealbreaker for you, I figure better you find out now.

Chapter 3: The Art of the Game.

A brief two-page spread which introduces how RPGs work to people who havenít really encountered the idea. It does a serviceable job, but I imagine most RPG.net regulars arenít going to need it. That said, weíre really not the people it was written for, and I imagine those folks will appreciate it.

On to the Rules.

CthulhuTech uses the Framewerk rules. I understand these have seen use before in Weapons of the Gods, but I may be wrong on that score Ė and Iím not familiar with WotG anyway. As such, this is my first encounter with them.

The book is written clearly and explains things as we advance through the book, and leaves me with the impression theyíll work really well for the kinds of stories CthulhuTech is designed to tell. I will admit that my understanding is based on reading the rules on the page rather than trying them out, just to table that first.

The basic idea is that Framewerk is tied to d10s, and that you want to roll high. There are, however, several ways to achieve this. Firstly, you can choose the highest number that you roll from your d10s, and add whatever base your stats give you to it. Secondly, if you get a set of the same number, like two 4s, you can add them together if thatíd be higher than your highest single number rolled. Thirdly, if you get a straight Ė defined as three or more numbers in a row Ė you can add those together before adding the base from your stats. These rules are applied consistently throughout the whole system Ė with the single exception of damage where you just add all of your dice together whether they match of not.

Whatever number you wind up with is compared against target difficulties, and in direct contests against another player or an NPC, you both roll and whoever got the higher number wins. This applies for combat Ďto hití rolls as well.

The consistency is good, and means that the game lacks complicated subsystems for magic and the like. Itís well explained, my only query is that I can imagine the multiple ways of gaining the highest number possible could add some resolution time as players figure it out. I can certainly envision that happening with my group, but I hazard to say I havenít tried it yet, so thatís just an impression.

Critical success and Failure operate within the same framework. Beat a target number by 10 or more, and itís a critical success. If half of your rolled dice, rounded up come up with 1s, then itís a botch. I know there are some discussions on the forums about whether this means that the odds of botching vary widely depending on the size of your dicepool, so I figured it was worth mentioning.

Generally, the game privileges skills over stats, with what are called Attribute Feats being used when no skills can sensibly apply in comparison to how strong you are. They are resolved as normal.

The system also utilises drama points, which can be used to raise or lower any dice pool by one dice per point. You can make your opponentís pool worse, your own better, or support other players in the group in their rolls. Itís quite fluid, and thereís a note to say you can add DPs both before and after you roll your dice Ė itís basically down to you. There are notes to say that antagonists can also have drama points, and Iíll mention here that there are suggestions in the book that DPs not apply to either insanity rolls, or magic backlash rolls, so as to keep things nasty and interesting. However, these are suggestions, nothing more.

The book does split up the basic rules for the game and separate them out from combat rules, which are discussed later. Next, the book moves ontoÖ

Character Generation.

Character Gen is point buy, and stats (Attributes) can influence each other in the same way as Shadowrun does it. For example, Vitality is an average of the characterís Tenacity and Strength, plus five. This makes sense to me as a higher than average Vitality very rapidly makes the character much harder to kill than baseline, and so this makes it harder to simply amp it up. It also means that thought has been put into how the system works cohesively: someone with average strength but high tenacity and mental fortitude will be Ďtougherí than normal when it comes to damage, because they need to hurt more before suffering penalties.

Attributes go from 1-10, with 5 being human average. Skills go from 0-5. One thing I do like is specialisations, allowing characters to be levels higher than their base skill at specific applications of those skills. I always liked being able to specialise in Shadowrun for weapons, and this makes the process a general part of the system Ė much as in Cheepliveís modification of how skills work for the ORE, which I use in my games.

Another spin to Character Gen is ĎCheats,í which is how the game approaches the use of Freebie Points after the rest of the character is built. These can be used to improve skills and stats, but also to buy spells for your starting character. This is the only way to get spells at the start, and itís a spin I approve of.

There are good, clearly written discussions for how to approach characters or to get inspiration for them, and then a decent exploration of professions ranging from Arcanotechnicians (those who work on, create or fix arcane technology) through to Engel pilots (the image of which has a very cool unfocused hundred-yard stare) down to soldiers and Tagers. Some of the professions have requirements on stats, which is an interesting spin, but one that makes sense to me.

A long section on skills follows, explaining the skill, and then working through what the different levels of the skill mean in practice. Simple, clear and to the point. There are also two different forms of Make Up skills, ĎHobbiesí to describe skills based around doing or making things otherwise not included in the skill list, and ĎTriviaí to likewise describe knowing things. I liked this as a touch.

Merits and Flaws for the system are also clearly written, and its here that the vibe that the game is written by gamers really starts to come out. One thing I appreciated is that along with the Merit/Flaw staples of Wealth, Amnesia and Dark Secret are other, simple things that people might actually find useful in game, like Internal Clock and Internal Compass, for people who have a good natural grasp of where or when they are in the world.

Chapter 8 describes more detail about the world of CthulhuTech, at the level of how new powersources have changed the world, how currency worksÖ all the little details. It doesnít get bogged down, and is clearly written. One nice touch was a discussion of nanotechnology, and why it hasnít been made a focus of the setting despite the fact it exists in the timeline. This leads into the gear and weapons list. The only problem with the weapon list is that it is placed before (albeit immediately beforeÖ) the rules for combat, so we donít know what the numbers mean yet.

Combat!

Combat is resolved pretty much consistently with other dice-based resolution. The pattern is to get initiative for the round, and then itís a Roll to Attack, Roll Damage, and Roll to Soak Damage system. However, steps have been taken to prevent the syndrome I found White Wolfís Storyteller system suffered from. The Roll to Attack has a direct influence on how much damage you do, avoiding the ĎHugely Successful Attack which is followed by 1 Damageí syndrome from WW. Also, although there is a Soak phase, the numbers suggest that armour is very rarely going to reduce damage to nothing.

However, although it is certainly streamlined and improved, it does mean that each attack requires three dice rolls for resolution Ė and with my player group thereís the possibility of bogging down. Itís something weíre used to, but I admit to being spoiled by the One Roll Engine on that score of late. And again, this is an impression from reading the book, and has not been trialled.

The way the system handles damage is something I like. At heart, CthulhuTech is a hit-point system, but it has some nice modifications. Basically, you have hit-points (or Vitality) equal to your Vitality attribute, times five. The fun part is that the game has Wound Levels, almost like how early Shadowrun handled damage, and these Wound Levels relate to your Vitality score. The average human has a Vitality of 10. This means that if an average character takes 9 points of damage, they have a Flesh Wound and no penalty to their action. If that same character takes 11 points of damage, theyíre into being Lightly Wounded, and have a penalty of -1 to all actions. If a character with a Vitality of 12 were to take 11 or even 12 points of damage, theyíd still have a Flesh Wound. This carries on up the chain: an average character has 50 hit points, and is near death after 41 damage. A character with 12 Vitality has 60 hitpoints, and isnít near death until after taking 48 damage.

The other seriously cool thing Iíll mention here is to do with Tagers. The way Vitality works fits with them really well. In Were-Horror form, a Tager might have a distinctly higher Vitality than their human form. If they get damaged in their enhanced form and turn backÖ they donít take any more damage, but what was a Serious Wound to their enhanced form could suddenly be much more serious when applied to the scale of their normal Vitality. Itís a neatly simple way of handling the situation, and also covers those wonderful situations where someone wins a fight, turns back to normal, and then passes out in anime.

You couldnít talk about CthulhuTech combat without discussing Mecha fighting, and so thatís what Iíll get into now. Firstly, combat in mechs is not mechanically distinguished in any way from normal fighting. You use the same skills, and the same systems. This prevents those situations where you have to buy Fighting, and then Fighting (Mech). I approve of this.

CthulhuTech also has a system for very simply and intuitively putting mechs within the same system as humans without needing different combat systems and damage Ė it boils down to a very clever, non-stupid variant of Mega-Damage. Humans have Vitality as their hitpoints, and anti-personnel weapons do Vitality damage. Mechs and vehicles are on the Integrity scale instead. Each point of Integrity equals 50 points of Vitality, meaning that Vitality weapons can conceivably damage Vitality targets Ė but if those targets are armoured, itíll be a waste of time. Anti-vehicle weapons are sensibly enough on the Integrity scale. Itís also true in reverse: each point of Integrity scale damage, i.e. what mecha will smack each other with, is 50 points of Vitality damage. So a human being hit by an anti-vehicle laser is going to be ash. The point is that it doesnít slow things down by introducing new systems. Thereís even a middle-ground called Hybrid damage, which does Integrity damage to Integrity Scale targets, and Vitality Damage to Vitality scale targets, to cover situations where the weapon will effect a building or a big entity, but not totally vaporise a human. An armour piercing rifle round that would punch through an engine block, for example, is going to wreck an engine and seriously maim a human Ė but not to the same extent as a bigger weapon.

I think itís a great solution.

Insanity

In CthulhuTech, characters donít lose sanity points, they gain Insanities instead. Thereís an explicit distinction between Fear tests and Insanity tests, so that the GM can be horrible to the players as much as youíd expect without making them unplayable.

The rules are clear and seem to work well, and in an environment where everyone knows certain things make you loopy, thereís no social stigma against therapy. This means that people can expect to gain and lose insanity regularly, and the rules reflect that and take it into account. One thing I will note is that the Insanity system does include a mechanical death-spiral where it gets increasingly harder to avoid gaining more Insanity Points Ė however, this has been deliberately gauged to be a solid distance into the process. Also, there is a point at which your character will become an NPC if they go Just That Nuts. This is slightly unfortunate, as I preferred NEMESIS approach of never taking the character away, but providing ongoing consequences for however mentally damaged they wound up being. With that said, itís a good system and again, I donít believe it will bog things down in play.

Bring on the Mecha!

Chapter 10 introduces the numbers and stats for the mechanised stomping weapons of war the different factions are turning on each other. One thing that is clear is that the designers have spent a fair amount of time playing war games. In case that freaks anyone out, I donít mean that as a bad thing: thought has gone into presenting rules where you can be as insanely tactical as you wish, using minis and hexes and the like, or you can just get down to the Good Fight. Itís clearly written, and comprehensible. One impression I do have is that Ė and this is my problem rather than that of the book or the system Ė that the level of detail is slightly higher than Iím used to running. For example, the mechs and engels have acceleration and deceleration rules. They are simple, sensible and a great tactical element to have in play. As a GM, Iím at a level where my players need to remind me to give them scribbled maps of combat situations so they know what Iím talking about. As such, taking such a map and bringing in a consistent scale might be a bit beyond me at the moment.

Again, this is not the systemís fault, and itís an element of it I actually really appreciate being included.

The mecha, engels and tagers have quite distinct artwork, have their own feel, and the little write-ups for each give you a good impression of how they work.

Magic, Monsters and Misc.

The magic section outlines both magical tomes, the context for magic users within the world of CthulhuTech, and how spells work. One thing I do definitely like is the fact that magic is not Always Evil Ė you can be a licensed sorcerer, and certain spells require equivalent permits as those you need to have legal guns. Itís a nice point of parity, and helps characterise the setting.

The Monsters section is appropriately as detailed as youíd expect. One nice touch is that one faction doesnít have mecha as suchÖ they just have monsters which work on the same scale, giving things a touch of individuality.

Thereís a decent discussion of how to create campaigns within the setting, and a really neat set of points regarding regular themes of anime Ė hope in the face of overwhelming odds and personal heroism, for example Ė to compare with the themes of Lovecraftian horror, which are quite hopeless, and how to reconcile the two in a coherent way. There are seeds for the three most common campaign structures Ė involving the New Earth Government military, the pilots of Engels, and Tagers Ė the covert Were-Horrors fighting the good fight their own way. The section ends with quite a significant list of varied sample characters.

Sample Campaigns.

The book closes with two sample campaigns, which are slightly connected to each other. Theyíre good, in that they provide a solid, interesting structure to work from. They donít go into huge detail, for the most part, on who the characters should be. The first one involves the crew of a New Earth Government battlecruiser, and events they stumble onto, however itís not immediately obvious whether the PCs are intended to be mecha or engel pilots, or instead normal soldiers. I think itís entirely possible that either or both would work within the scenario, but thatís left up to the GM.

The second one more specifically branches out both from the first campaign, and from one of the pieces of fiction scattered through the book, and involves Tagers hunting a lost artefact and being hunted by those who want it back.

The campaigns are broken up by suggested episodes, each with their own goals, which is good and provides some clarity. However, I would personally structure them differently, as they both seem to have moments where Horrible Things are happening that the PCs have no hope of preventing, and are just supposed to move on to the next bit where they can get involved. It fits in many ways, but Iíd just try to arrange thing differently. As always, your mileage may vary.

Overall?

Any new game has two things I look at as a way of conceptualising its success or failure: the setting, and the system.

Setting: Creative and interesting, CthulhuTech is something that has been thought about and fleshed-out for quite some time, with all sorts of opportunities for different stories you can easily place within the world. One thing that I have heard said about that game is that it doesnít have a singular focus. If you donít delineate things from the outset, itíd be possible for a player group to comprise a soldier, an arcane researcher, an Engel pilot and a Tager. Firstly, thatís going to be a weird group to manage, and secondly, the Tagerís are unknown to the NEG government, and would be assumed to be Evil Extradimensional Horrors, for obvious reasons.

I donít see this as a problem, as such. CthulhuTech is more focused on providing a cohesive setting rather than A Specific GameÖ so thereís several different games you can run with it. However, I think it needs to be thought of in those terms so that the GM and players are clear. I definitely see this openness as a positive thing, however. Thereís pretty much nothing I can think of within the Anime/Eldritch Horror milieu that canít be done within this setting.

Think of Neon Genesis Evangelion, for example. One of the first threads I found discussion CthulhuTech noted that in NGE, the military are always sent in first, for the bad guys to walk right through until the protagonists arrive. Itíd be perfectly possible to play a game as Those Guys, the ones who try to keep the enemy contained long enough for the teenagers in Big Fighty Robots Who Steal All the Glory arrive.

Bailywolf has tantalised people in CthulhuTech threads with the idea of Bourne Identity style Tager games: covert operatives who are also Lovecraftian monsters.

Itís very open to the kind of game you and your PCs want to play Ė so long as everyone knows that you need to pick one style at a time, for the most part. And the game does a good job of discussing the different styles and how to make them work.

Want to play as government officials walking the delicate rope of the black market in mystical tomes, dealing with smugglers, the clueless, and the dangerously insane? Easily do-able.

System: I like the Framewerk system, because it seems elegant, and good for the purpose of the game itís being used for. Itís not approaching the level of Lurve I feel for the One Roll Engine as a system, but Iíve been spoiled on that front this year. It solves problems elegantly, and raises possibilities.

The cohesiveness of the system across all sorts of play types and skill checks makes me think itíd be a good fit for a Battlestar Galactica game. Youíve got the hotshot pilots, and the exhausted bickering geniuses who hold their planes together, all within one system using the same mechanics.

Conclusion.

Iím glad to have CthulhuTech. Itís ambitious, and in some cases its ambition actually draws attention to where itís flawed. For example, in a less visually interesting book, the problems with images being shifted around the spine would be less obvious, and if the art was less good, I wouldnít care about missing parts of it.

Itís certainly an astounding first effort from the CthulhuTech crew, who have been trying to get this thing published for years.

I think itís at least as good as oWoD Vampire: The Masquerade Revised, in terms of its content and cohesion, and I am quite interested to see how the CthulhuTech crew move on from here. If this is their first effort in RPG publication, Iíd say that they hold a lot of promise for the future.

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