The Eldritch Skies
RPG turns H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos sharply toward science fiction. In an alternate 20th century, various governments secretly investigated the alien city “At the Mountains of Madness”, artifacts recovered from Innsmouth, a crashed Mi-Go transport at Roswell (!?) and other traces of alien influence on Earth. After the fall of the Soviet Union, these secrets leaked out to the world at large. By 2030, humanity had expanded to the stars through hyperspace and the judicious use of sorcery. Ghouls and Deep Ones are ab-human minorities, and a UN-run space patrol battles devious mi-go and marauding moonbeasts.
The PDF consists of 270 pages. The text pages have a fairly clean layout: two columns, black print on white pages, and borders illuminated with machinery and tentacles. It contains an Introduction, seven chapters, and an Appendix with useful charts and tables. A piece of short fiction precedes the introduction and another follows the Appendix. Quotes from Lovecraft and a few paragraphs of fiction begin each chapter.
Unfortunately the PDF lacks and index, and the Table of Contents refers to chapters as “Chapter 1”, “Chapter 2”, etc. with small but uninformative illustrations next to each one. If the PDF had book marks, and any future dead-tree versions had an index or at least chapter names, it would be far more useful.
Explaining The Spaces Between
In Snead’s reinterpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos, the Great Old Ones and lesser creatures live in hyperspace. Hyperspace consists of numerous parallel realities very different from our universe, mostly invisible to humanity. Exposure to hyperspace or hyperspatial entities allows humans to perceive these realms dimly, and sense concentrations of hyper The “science” of Lovecraftian sorcery, and to a lesser extent psychic powers, manipulate the energies of this realm to violate the laws of normal physics. Devices like the Hawking-Gilman Drive can take a shortcut through hyperspace to travel at an effective 2000 times the speed of light, with a fraction of the fuel. Its invention triggers an age of interstellar exploration in a parallel 20th century.
Hyperspatial Exposure is an interesting concept that in some ways replaces Sanity Loss as the penalty for dabbling in the Mythos. When the secrets of the Mythos leaked to the general public, humanity at large successfully shifted paradigms. After all, in the modern world notions of exotic physics or alien visitors no longer shock us, and a looming threat of annihilation no longer scares we survivors of the Cold War. In
Mechanically, every character has a Hyperspatial Exposure level from 0 to 5. Much like radiation, characters with lower levels risk greater exposure from higher-level sources. Psychics begin with a permanent exposure of 1; sorcerers have a permanent exposure of 2. Others gain exposure from hyperspace travel, gate travel, direct contact with hyperspatial beings, and so forth. As one’s exposure goes up one’s perception of and control over hyperspatial energies increases … and so does one’s estrangement from humanity. An individual with Level 4 exposure thinks more like a ghoul or mi-go than a human, and his offspring may develop mutations. Level 5 physically mutates an individual into a unique and horrific monster incapable of mating with any natural creature.
About Cinematic Unisystem
Eldritch Skies licensed the Cinematic Unisystem from Eden Studios. Except as noted below the Eldritch Skies version is essentially the same as the one in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, Angel, Army of Darkness, and Ghosts of Albion. Anyone familiar with those games can skip this section.
For those not familiar with the system, players and GMs (or “Directors”) create characters using point buy. The player distributes Attribute Points among six Attributes – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Perception, and Willpower. Quality Points buy unusual aptitudes or abilities. Optional Drawbacks impose restrictions on a character for extra Attribute or Quality Points. Skill Points are spread among twenty broadly-defined skills like Guns and Science and possibly an arbitrary “Wild Card” to represent an uncommon proficiency.
Finally, characters have Drama Points. By spending Drama Points, a character may succeed at a skill roll, convert severe damage to something less severe, come back from almost certain death, or perform some other unlikely but dramatic feat. Characters regain Drama Points by spending experience points, acting heroically, or suffering tragedy.
When success is not assured, players roll d10 + Attribute + Skill + modifiers, or occasionally a variation thereof (e.g. the same Attribute again in place of a skill value). In uncontested checks, a total value of 9 or more succeeds, and every 2 points above 9 grants an extra “success level” which translates to higher damage, extra information, and the like. Contests between players go to the highest roller. Against most NPCs players roll against a static Ability value calculated from the NPC’s Attributes, e.g. Muscle (2 x Strength + 6). In practice, GMs almost never roll dice, so a character’s fate is literally in the players’ hands alone.
Each combat round characters can perform one or more Combat Maneuvers, although some require high levels of skill. Weapons usually do a fixed amount of damage, although an option in Eldritch Skies uses random rolls instead.
“Vectors” recounting the invention of the Hawking-Gilman Hyperspatial Drive (a.k.a. the Dragonfly drive) which allowed space ships to travel faster than light. Normally I dislike fiction in game books, but “Vectors” evokes both the social realities of the 1980s we know and the subtle influences of the Mythos on humanity.
The Introduction introduces the notion of role-playing games, the premises of “Lovecraftian Science Fiction”, and key concepts of the setting.
Chapter 1: The Eldritch Past & The Mythos Present explains a prehistory shaped by Elder Ones (a.k.a. Old Ones, Elder Things, Primordial Ones) from “At the Mountains of Madness”, Flying Polyps and the Great Race of Yith from “The Shadow Out Of Time”, Mi-Go from “The Whisperer in Darkness”, Serpent People, and a forgotten “Thurian Age” (a shout-out to Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith perhaps). It also describes man’s exploration of the mythos, extra-solar colonies, and more mundane details of alternate 20th and 21st centuries up until the starting point in 2030. Notably, the UN Office of Paranormal Security (OPS) becomes custodian of hyperspatial technologies and peacekeeper of human space, which seems a little unlikely given the UN’s real-world history. History and alt-history buffs can no doubt poke other holes in this chapter. Still, as a pretext for near-future interstellar adventure with time-traveling Yithians and piratical moonbeasts, it works.
Chapter 2: Creating Civilians and Operatives describes how to build characters of the 2030s, using Cinematic Unisystem. Players may choose among three character types: highly-trained Operatives, above-average but fairly normal Civilians, or larger-than-life Veterans. Operatives have more Attribute, Quality, and Skill Points than Civilians, and Veterans even more than Operatives. Civilians start with the most Drama Points, followed by Operatives and then Veterans, substituting luck and dramatic license for excellence. GMs may forbid particular character types depending on the campaign; in a “gritty” game that excludes Drama Points, Civilians might die like flies.
Chapter 2 includes typical human Qualities and the “Ab-Human Qualities” of being a Deep One Hybrid, Half-breed Ghoul, Psychic, or Sorcerer. It also includes Qualities for biotechnological and hyperspatial Augmentations available in 2030. The chapter concludes with six Archetypes (sample characters) and at least one typo under the Astronaut’s drawbacks.
Chapter 3: Rules & Gear presents the remaining Cinematic Unisystem rules, pretty much as described above. This chapter is so similar to other Cine-Uni games I skimmed it on first reading.
Chapter 4: Arcane Secrets describes the effects and mechanics of Hyperspatial Exposure, Hyperspatial Sorcery, and technosorcerous devices. Sorcery spells should not surprise anyone familiar with Call of Cthulhu, The Laundry, or Lovecraft’s original works: the Voorish Sign, the Elder Sign, Open Gateway, Summon Servitor of the Other Gods, Summon Great Old One, plus a few related to hyperspatial exposure or just generally useful. Each spell has suggestions for possible technosorcerous devices and an Exposure level.
Chapter 5: The Realms of the Mythos describes human colonies elsewhere in the Solar System and around other stars. Each extra-solar colony includes details on population, gravity, atmosphere, native or transplanted life, remnants of intelligent life (nearly always ruins), and potential story seeds. A section touches on the fate of other known civilizations – transcendence to hyperspace, extinction, or stasis. It also describes the Dream Realm (HPL’s “Dreamlands”), which includes the Pastoral World and Underworld of Lovecraft, a cyberpunk Future World, and a Space Sector that veers between hard SF and sword-and-planet. The latter two realms arise from dreams of futures unrealized.
Chapter 6: Eldritch Threats and Alien Wonders details creatures of the Mythos from human cultists to mutants, ghouls, Deep Ones, Elder Ones, Shoggoths, Mi-Go, and all the rest. Each entry gives not only game stats but their history, motivation, and relations to humanity.
Chapter 7: Storytelling Advice is the obligatory Game Mastering chapter, adapted to Eldritch Skies. It discusses the distinctions between Gritty, Cinematic, and Pulp series, the organization and role of OPS, considerations of an all-Civilian series, and possible starting points in a setting encompassing other planets and the Dream Realms besides.
An Appendix presents useful tables and conversion notes for older Unisystem games like All Flesh Must Be Eaten and Witchcraft.
The final fiction piece, “Serendipity”, presents the final moments of a joint U.S.-Soviet Moon mission in which technology failed and sorcery remained the only option.
Those readers who made it thus far can breathe a sigh of relief.
In summary, John Sneed’s Eldritch Skies recasts Lovecraft’s mythos as science fiction, and by and large it succeeds. His alternate history is a sprawling playground that accommodates space opera, SF horror, or action-oriented pulp SF. Cinematic Unisystem suits all those genres, but the setting transfers easily to any system that can represent the Cthulhu Mythos, i.e nearly all of them. If only Snead et al paid more attention to the physical presentation, this could be an amazing game.