Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cthulhu Rising - not bad, needs polish

I'm a bit puzzled by Chaosium's monograph series. The monographs are publications written primarily by a single author and with limited editorial oversight by Chaosium staff. They typically present alternate settings for the Call of Cthulhu. What I'm not clear on however, is how the works are commissioned. Are they little more than well-written fan scripts that have been submitted unsolicited to Chaosium or are they written by freelancers who have been commissioned by the company? Because of this, I have been somewhat reluctant to purchase any of them (that and the fact I haven't run or played CoC in almost 20 years), figuring they would probably be rather amateurish. Unlike many old-school gamers, I've never been enamoured with the DIY approach to game design and prefer to have my games complete and play-tested before I buy.

So it was with some reluctance that I decided to buy the pdf for Cthulhu Rising, a monograph by John Ossoway detailing a far future (but pre-End Times) setting for Call of Cthulhu. The mundane aspects of the setting are pretty standard fare for space-based game settings. The earth nations are balkanized, but there is a beefed-up version of the UN mandated to ensure we all play nice. There are scheming megacorporations and rebellious colonies, space pirates, rogue mercenaries and shadowy government telepaths. One notable omission from the usual list of space age tropes is aliens. As is common in the space horror genre, aliens are not our friends. They are either unknowable puppetmasters or vicious anthropophages and when you are talking about the Cthulhu Mythos, they can be both.

Cthulhu Rising starts out with a detailed timeline of the next 261 years of future history complete with the obligatory "2271: NOW" ending. I didn't know people still did those things. I thought they went the way of van murals and guitar solos. After that is a brief, but useful description of technology, politics and explored space in the 23rd century. This is, in turn, followed by a few pages on the Cthulhu Mythos and how it relates to the setting. All the setting material is sufficiently thin to allow GMs to customize their own settings with little need to edit.

The next section deals with character generation. There isn't much in here that varies from the basic Call of Cthulhu rules. At this point, I should clarify that I own the 3rd edition rules of CoC. The game is currently in its 6th edition. I also do not own Basic Role-Playing (BRP), the generic game system upon which CoC is run. So, some of the things I am about to write may be rendered moot by more recent versions of the rules of which I am not aware. So, a few changes included in this section include hit location hit points and melee damage modifiers for high STR+SIZ. There are also bonuses for high ability scores based on a classification scheme of skills presented by the author. One of the problems with Cthulhu Rising pops up here. There is no listing of which skills fall into which category. Some are obvious. For example, knowledge skills should be fairly self-evident. However, there are likely to be some toss-ups when categorizing manipulation skills vs. agility skills, for example. Indeed, weapon skills are given special treatment in that Attack uses the manipulation modifier while Parry uses the agility modifier. This classification may appear in later editions of CoC or in BRP, but I'm not aware of it and, in any case, there are several new skills in Cthulhu Rising and the classifications are not provided for those either.

I do quite like the psionics section of this setting. Although there is no mention of it in the acknowledgements, I get a distinct Babylon 5 feel from it, right down to the use of the P-rating system and the existence of an organization called PsiCorps. PsiCorps is a branch of the Earth military in Cthulhu Rising, while another organization called MetaPol is a psionic investigation agency attached to another branch of government, the Federal Law Enforcement Authority (FLEA). The psionics aren't flashy and, much like in Babylon 5, most psychics are incapable of performing much more than minor feats of telepathy and precognition. Jedi-style telekinesis is possible, but requires an extremely high rating which would be all but impossible to generate under normal conditions.

The rest of the book provides rules for high-tech and zero-G combat, as well as lists of equipment and weapons. Oddly, except for a few pages in the setting section, there is very little about the Cthulhu Mythos in Cthulhu Rising. It turns out, that sort of information is intended to be provided in supplements dealing with different parts of human space. The first of these is called Jovian Nightmares, which I will review in the near future. All in all, Cthulhu Rising is decent, if a bit dull. A motivated GM could take it as a starting point to build something truly inspired. For the rest of us, I hope future supplements add some much-needed spice to the broth.



A Paladin In Citadel said...

Cosmic horror in space? I'm curious, does it give any rules for travel between the stars? I always thought it would be fun (but bloody) to run a traveller campaign based on event horizon.

Rognar said...

Nothing about space travel beyond a brief description of the FTL drive. It's definitely not a game for gearheads. The upcoming Chthonian Stars marries the mythos to the Traveller system, but the designers specifically chose to make it a no-FTL setting. They like the idea of trapping humans within the Solar System as some kind of cosmic nightmare closes in on us.

Rognar said...

By the way, I loved Event Horizon. It's one of my favourite movies. I realize, however, that I am very much in the minority in this view.