RPG Review: CthulhuTech

Sometimes, to get a great RPG, you’ve got to take a few risks and combine a few concepts that most people would never think of putting into the blender.  Deadlands is a classic example of this, mixing elements of supernatural horror with cowboy westerns, and Wildfire did something no less odd for their CthulhuTech RPG.

ctechfrontWhat is CthulhuTech you ask?  It’s the end result of what happens when you blend H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos with high-profile anime series such as Robotech , Neon Genesis Evangalion, Guyver, sprinkle in the works of Masamune Shirow, then decorate with some really great artwork.  Fair warning, the subject matter in this game doesn’t pull very many punches, and some of Wildfire’s descriptions of the bad guys will leave readers very uneasy.  It should tell you something when every single book in the line has a “Mature Audiences” disclaimer on the credits page.

The world of CthulhuTech is set in the future year of 2085, and humanity finds itself in the midst of a three-way war between the insectioid alien Migou and the depraved cultists who seek to return the Old Ones to the mortal world.  Amongst humanity’s weapons are powered armor fueled by arcane generators, a race of genetically altered humans called the Nazzadi that have chosen to defy their alien masters to stand with Earth, brave souls that have chosen to bond with supernatural entities to become inhuman warriors, and towering genetically-engineered cyborg behemoths called Engels that can rip conventional mecha to shreds.  It bears mention that in spite of the bouts of optimism that you’ll see here and there, the general outlook in the world of CthulthTech is pretty bleak; while the government-backed media may paint a rosy picture for the masses, those in the know a fully aware that humanity’s chances of survival, much less victory, are grim.

CTmechsThe general backstory to CthulhuTech is pretty well detailed, covering a lot of details that most characters will be aware of, such as the introduction of the D-Engine (a true source of near-limitless energy) to the public and the dates of the First and Second Arcanotech Wars.  There are a few behind the scenes elements that few player characters will ever unearth, particularly in regards to the Shadow War and the major players involved, but for the most part Wildfire did a good job of charting out the future timeline and how things would change in the wake of some of the major technological developments, such as the previously mentioned D-Engine, nanotech factories that are pushing society into a post-scarcity model, and anti-grav engines that actually permit flying cars.  The first 40 or so pages of the core rulebook do a pretty good job of laying out the world and the major factions for both the player and the GM, though some of the information listed really is more for the GM.  Also, if you the reader have any sort of passing familiarity with anime series such as the ones I’ve noted above, then you’re going to recognize a lot of elements in CthulhuTech — and this is 100% deliberate on the part of the writers. They freely admit to drawing very heavily on those classic series for this game.  Sadly, there’s no indication of transforming fighter jets… at least not yet.  It bears mention that CthulhuTech does have a loose metaplot, primarily in the form of a timeline of events that begins with 2085 and progresses gradually, with the supplements Damnation View and Burning Horizon each advancing the timeline by one year as well as giving updates on mortal society, the war effort, and the schemes and plans of the villainous factions.

One of the common compliments of CthulhuTech is the artwork, and it frequently does a good job of carrying across elements of the Strange Aeon.  The books are all of solid quality; I’ve routinely read and re-read sections of my copy of the core rulebook, and it’s held up very well.  One criticism that I’ve also seen about the artwork is in regard to female Nazzadi, who are quite frequently treated as providers of fanservice, so that may be a drawback for some.  Granted, it’s not anywhere near as bad as some of the fantasy artwork of the past, but some people may find it off-putting.

The core mechanics of the system goes by the name of Framewerk, and while it’s generally a solid system, it’s not without its warts.  It’s a blend of White Wolf’s Storyteller dice pool system and Wizards’ of the Coast’s d20 mechanic, enabling the players to roll a number of 10-sided dice equal to their skill rank, and then add the skill’s governing attribute plus any relevant modifiers to determine your total.  There’s also an element of poker when it comes to the dice rolls, allowing doubles and straights to play a factor if you’ve got enough dice in your pool.  One complaint I do have with the dice system is one that I had with White Wolf’s Storyteller system, in that the more dice you roll, the greater your chances to botch, even if you’d otherwise succeed at the task simply because you rolled more 1’s than anything else.  It’s a minor thing, and a common house rule that I’ve seen to address this problem is you only botch a roll if you roll more 1’s than anything else and fail the roll.

Characters in this game are built upon and evolve using a point-buy system, giving the player a great deal of freedom in how they want to design their character and let them grow.  The character creation system as detailed in the core rulebook is fairly straight-forward, though it does include a group of sample character templates that can help a novice player get into the action that much quicker, not unlike Shadowrun and its use of character archetypes.  There’s also a merit and flaw type of system, so GMs may need to keep alert to ensure that unscrupulous players don’t try to abuse the system to provide a bunch of free build points by taking disadvantages that won’t have much of a negative impact on the character.

CTSwordWhile most RPGs are built with the idea of a “mixed party,” in that you can play all sorts of character types in the same campaign, CthulhuTech breaks from that mold, and generally has a handful of different campaign types that don’t allow for a lot of inter-mixing.  After all, it’s rather difficult to have an Engel pilot, a Federal Agent, and an occult investigator in the same party without problems cropping up.  Here more than perhaps any other RPG, it’s very important that the GM and the players have a clear understanding of what sort of CthulhuTech game they are going to be playing; it’s a rather rude surprise for a player to show up having rolled a Nazzadi mecha pilot only to learn the game is going to focus on the Occult Underground, delving and surviving the arcane periphery of modern society.

Of the various campaign types, there are generally three forerunners, those being the Agents of the New Earth Government, Military Mecha Pilots, and Eldritch Society.  The first of these, Agents of the New Earth Government, focuses mostly on the player-characters working to stop the various malign cults from destroying human civilization from within, and tends to involve a mix of investigation and combat.  For the most part, the characters are humans and Nazzadi, perhaps with a couple of trained soldiers and a licensed sorcerer for some extra occult power when the situation warrants.  If you’ve played Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG, then this isn’t too different from playing a group of investigators, except that you’ve got government sanction and resources, perhaps even including powered armor for those times when the heroes stumble across something really nasty.

The second campaign model, that of Military Mecha Pilots, places most of its focus on the Aeon War, with the player-characters being on the front lines of the war for humanity’s very survival, trading fire with the insectoid mecha of the Migou, the otherworldly horrors of the Rapine Storm, a ravaging horde devoted wiping out all living things in the name of the Dead God Hastur, and sometimes even with the Cthulhu-worshipping Esoteric Order of Dagon.  Most characters in this campaign model will be mecha pilots, either operating the standard class of mecha or being one of the elite and piloting the monstrous Engels, bio-engineered cyborg creatures that may just be the ace in the hole that humanity needs to win the Aeon War.  The game’s basic combat framework does get some expansion to cover giant mecha, introducing only a handful of new rules to cover the differences in combat between human-sized opponents and opponents that stand several stories tall and pack enough firepower to level a city block.  There’s generally not going to be a lot of variety in this style of campaign, as most players are going to be eager to have their characters at the controls of their mecha of choice and laying waste to the enemy in vast swathes.  The Engels do have a slight edge of the other mecha available to the characters, but being an Engel Pilot has enough built-in drawbacks that having one or two Engels while everyone else is piloting regular mecha designs won’t create too huge of a power discrepancy.

cthulhutech_arcano(1)The last campaign model is probably my favorite of the three, that of the Eldritch Society.  It’s similar to the classic “investigator of the occult” model that Call of Cthulhu uses, except for two rather hefty differences.  The first is that the player-characters are generally pretty well-informed about the supernatural, since their duty as members of the Eldritch Society is to actively hunt down and destroy the various monsters and minions of the cults, in particular those in service to Nyarlathotep and the Chrysalis Corporation, whose primary minions include inhuman shapeshifters called Dhohanoids, able to take the form of mortals but in truth being sanity-bending fiends with no shred of their former humanity left to them.

Sound like a hopeless suicide mission?  Yeah, it would be, except for one very important factor… the player-characters have undergone a mystical rite of their own to bond with otherworldly symbionts to become superhuman fighting machines known as Tagers that make fighting a Dhohanoid and quite a few other monsters a rationale concept.  The trade-off is that while Tagers are humans that can assume a monstrous form, they’re generally beholden to the Eldritch Society, whose goal is to protect humanity and the New Earth Government from the sinister influence of the many cults.  While most of the players will be Tagers, an Eldritch Society game also has room for regular mortals, such as occult scholars who may know a few ritual spells or even competent investigators with a steady nerves and a steadier aim.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be a game based upon the Cthulhu Mythos without the inclusion of magic, and CthulhuTech is no exception.  However, magic in this game is quite different from many other RPGs.  First off, there’s really not much in the way of “flashy attack spells” like you’d expect to find in Dungeons & Dragons and similar works; magic in CthulhuTech is of the ritual variety, taking specific preparations and a lot of time to cast.  That doesn’t mean that magic can’t be useful, it’s just that you really have to plan ahead both in selecting what spells you’ve learned and when you’ll need to cast them.  The second big difference is that magic is officially recognized by the government, and as such there are laws in place as to what sort of spells are legal to know and which ones will see you incarcerated for the rest of your natural life, and if the federal authorities catch wind that you’re an unregistered sorcerer mucking about with illegal rites, boy are you in for a world of trouble.

One common element from anime that was missing in the core rulebook was that of psychic powers, or para-psychics as they are called in CthulhuTech.  Well, the supplement Vade Mecum has you covered if you want to add a few dashes of Akira to the mix.  It’s worth noting that para-psychic characters generally aren’t going to be very powerful in the onset, as it takes a lot of time and experience points to grow and develop para-psychic powers.   Plus, just like magic, the government has regulations on para-psychic powers, and displaying or even just possessing powers that can be used to directly attack a person, physically or mentally, requires that you register or suffer internment for life.

On the topic of supplements, there are some pretty good ones for CthulhuTech, and some not-so-good ones.  Vade Mecum, also known as The CthulhuTech Companion, is an almost must-buy for anyone that is playing or running a CthulhuTech campaign.  Not only does it add psychic powers to the mix, but it also expands upon many other aspects of the CthulhuTech setting, both in terms of mechanics and setting.  Mechanic additions include new edges, new magic spells (many with a focus on dream magics), and new Tager types, while also including more setting information and some alternate campaign models for GMs to work with.  The rest can be taken or left as the GM sees fit, although I will say the Ancient Enemies supplement is a welcome addition if you’re running an Eldritch Society campaign as it provides a wealth of information not only on the Society’s history, but also what day-to-day life is like for its various members, mortal and Tager alike.  Books like Mortal Remains (detailing human, Nazzadi, and even Migou society) and Dark Passions (discussing the lesser cults of the Strange Aeon) are helpful informational resources, but they’re far from being required to run any sort of CthulhuTech campaign.  Damnation View and Burning Horizon also fall into that “nice to have but not necessary” category, and perhaps are even less useful if the GM plans to totally disregard what little metaplot there is and just do their own thing.  If there’s one supplement I’d suggest avoiding, it’s Unveiled Threats, which is primarily a gear book, and really doesn’t offer up enough new material to make it worth the purchase, particularly if you’ve got players that are eager for new weapons and armor.  There are also a few items that not only were they intended for the bad guys but are also quite disturbing, which I won’t mention here for just that reason.  Yes, it’s labeled as a “mature audiences” book, and I’ve got a pretty open mind, but these two particular items really didn’t need to be included or given game stats.

So if you’re looking for an RPG that offers up something different in terms of setting than your usual fantasy or sci-fi, then give CthulhuTech a look.  It’s not without a few problems, but Wildfire has created a generally solid product that delivers the goods, lending itself to a number of different styles of play even if using just the core rulebook.

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