Cthulhu Invictus is the latest setting for the Call of Cthulhu RPG, following on from the recent success of Cthulhu Dark Ages. It introduces a unique and original setting for the Call of Cthulhu game, quite unlike any modern game you may have played. The book is well produced, well illustrated and contains most of the basic information you might need. For fans of Roman history this is a game you will want to try for yourself.
Originally this book was produced as a monograph which I had a copy of but was not very impressed with. It was poorly written and illustrated, missing out important information and in some cases getting its facts completely wrong. Chaosium however obviously saw something in it and gave the go ahead to produce this much improved version.
It is an attractive book in its appearance with a coloured mosaic Cthulhu on the front and black and white illustrations throughout. The interior illustrations seem to be mainly by the same artist who uses a cartoon like style that in most places seems to work very well. I always think the art is vital in setting the mood and tone of the game and I think here it sets the scene admirably.
The main text is also very clear and easy to read, with side boxes for extra background information, tables for reference and stat blocks where necessary. There is also an impressive pull out map of the Roman Empire ( around 80AD )suitably decorated with Mythos creatures. In all its a nice professional publication, of the quality you might expect from Chaosiums better products.
The content itself is a mix of rules and background material, with a short scenario included at the end. To deal with the background material first I would say that on the whole this is pretty good. Its not going to cover everything about Roman history, nor is it intended to. But it gives a good introduction to the subject from the point of view of running a Cthulhu game set at that time. A tour of the Empire for example includes many game hints and suggestions of possible Mythos activity in different parts of the known world. These are mixed in nicely with the historical facts so it feels a natural mix of styles rather than trying to crowbar the Mythos in. There are a few nice little maps including a map of Rome and a map of a typical villa which should prove of great practical use in running a game. Any GM writing his own adventures in ancient Rome will however have to go beyond this book and do their own research. There are plenty of resources on ancient Rome ( including a BRP sourcebook ) but its probably harder to get the facts right than for say a game set in the 1920's.
The rules themselves expand on the rules in the Call of Cthulhu rulebook, so if you don't have it you will still need to get a copy of this. They cover such obvious things as character creation with a mix of Roman and barbarian ( ie non-Roman ) character occupations. On the whole these are pretty good but as a GM you have to be aware that some backgrounds are going to fit together and some are not. Giving players free reign to choose may end up with a party consisting of a senator, a gladiator and a tribal charioteer hanging out together.
Skills are also revised so they look pretty similar to those in Cthulhu Dark Ages. There is also a pretty comprehensive list of weapons, armour and equipment to choose from. As you might imagine these give the game a slightly more martial slant than other settings due to the violent nature of society at the times. That said there are no major changes to the combat rules so expect any combat to be short and bloody.
For the GM there is a section on new magic, a bestiary and a section on suitable cults and secret societies. The magic section I have to say is fairly run of the mill with no radical new rules being introduced. Dissapointingly there is little coverage of the Roman gods or the powers they might grant their priests. The bestiary is nice though with a lot of detail going into describing creatures from the Roman myths from a Mythos point of view. Each monster is illustrated and fully described, including where in the world you might encounter them. As for the final section on cults, this is probably the section you will use most when writing adventures as it covers possible adversaries as well as groups players might ally with. To avoid the game becoming too combat focused this shifts the attention instead onto making the game one of conspiracy and diabolical plots.
After all that the adventure which is included is a bit of a dissapointment. It is fairly linear and not particularly atmospheric. There are combat encounters throughout and it seems aimed only towards one specific type of character. Although I might use some ideas from this I would rather write my own adventures than run this particular scenario which would be a poor introduction to the setting.
Overall though I was very impressed with this book as it gives me a chance to mix my interest in Roman history with my love of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. For those who have played Call of Cthulhu before in other settings this should provide a completely different experience. For those new to Call of Cthulhu it might provide a way into the game for those who don't like the more modern settings.
My only real criticism of the game would be the need to recognise more fully the fact that the society it is set in means this is going to be a more combat orientated game. Without the firearms available in modern settings, which allow PC's to deal large amounts of damage at range, most combat is going to involve PC's fighting hand to hand. Unlike similar fantasy RPG's there is no healing magic, and few facilities for caring for badly wounded characters. Any GM running this setting will need to recognise this and do what they can to avoid combat where possible. If the PC's do get involved in combat they will need extra help such as superior armour, NPC support fighters or supernatural help, or else they are going to end up dead or badly wounded very quickly.
With this is mind writing adventures for Cthulhu Invictus can be more challenging than some other games. The right balance must be struck between investigation and combat to make the game exciting and challenging. This is no fantasy RPG, and the danger is that some players may approach it as one and expect to win through intimidation and force of arms. Thankfully there are now new scenarios being published for this setting so it is receiving extra support from Chaosium. I would reccomend this game to anyone who wants something different for their Call of Cthulhu game, but be prepared as a GM to put the extra work in required for this setting.