The Rudis Review: Shadows of Cthulhu

Book: Shadows of Cthulhu
Length/Type: 130 pgs., PDF
System: True 20
Author: Russ Brown
Publisher: Reality Deviant Press
Licensor/Endorser: Chaosium Inc., Werecabbages

(5 0f 5 rudii)

Something interesting about Call of Cthulhu always strikes me when I re-read, as I periodically do, Wizards of the Coast’s 1999 study (released 2/7/2000), “Adventure Game Industry Market Research Summary.” Namely, 8% of all gamers play Call of Cthulhu. Think about it for a moment: according to some conservative estimates, at least something like 6 million people play RPGs each month, with Cthulhu players closing in on the 500,000 player per month mark1. Yet no company publishing Cthulhu products – including Chaosium -- has any RPG market share of which to speak. No company has turned Cthulhu into a product with traction.

In the world of PDF publishing, that may be changing.

‘Cause Russ Brown and RDP’s Chaosium endorsed, Shadows of Cthulhu is one helluva book, marrying the True20 system seamlessly – and I mean seamlessly – to CoC horror role-playing. I have to confess, I was skeptical. As a Werecabbage, I had an insider seat when the concept for the book first reared its head (much like Putin, only not in Alaska). I was even in on the initial design discussions, and, while graciously asked to participate, regretfully declined, as I was overbooked at the time.

Declining looks like a mistake, now. You see, my skepticism revolved around the fundamental challenge of taking a game like CoC – where characters are pretty much guaranteed to die or go insane in 10 sessions or so – and marrying it to a system built, at core, around a leveling-up mechanic. Russ tackled that problem two ways. He hit it head-on by discussing it openly and then succinctly advising narrators on style and approach. He also hit it mechanically three ways: (1) by adapting and adopting True20s Conviction point system; (2) introducing a new and similarly structured Mythos Awareness point system, and (3) eliminating CoC sanity points – without eliminating insanity. After all, what would Cthulhu be without insanity?

I particularly enjoyed Russ’ turning the question of sane/insane into a save versus a DC assigned to the mind-bending experience. Making the type of insanity suffered on a failed save into a property of the mythos creature encountered is sheer gaming goodness gravy. Yet for those who don’t care to give up their sanity points, Russ also includes an alternate sanity system, with a mental damage tracker, in the appendix.

This alternate sanity system stands as a hallmark of Brown’s approach to design. For nearly every mechanical innovation, he provides an alternate approach to help gamers retain the feel they may expect or prefer from their Cthulhu. At the very least, his clear cognizance of True20s intersection with traditional Cthulhu play style empowers gamers while harnessing True20’s unique attributes and power. For example, among the topics he addresses: how to incorporate True20’s core roles; how to integrate the True20 Companion’s previously published insanity rules; or what to do with the supernatural powers already extant in the True20 system.

However, the real power of Shadows lies in its thoroughness, its attention to detail, and the rich mythos tools it reverently places in the hands of players. Beside revisiting and tuning beloved classics from Cthulhu role-play, Russ gives us new roles, new mythos traits, new and modified skills, new and modified feats, new insanities (lovingly detailed), and new mythos powers. He and RDP deliver new and exciting ancient places, forbidden books, mythos artifacts, cults, adversaries, allies and more. He even delivers a classic mythos infested village, Dunwich – the ideal location to kick off your players’ descents into madness and horror. And he does a damn fine job of it. The topper? Every entry in the mythos bestiary comes with motivations (where the beasties are not mindless or utterly inscrutable) or an adventure hook. This book just bleeds adventure and story.

The goodness doesn’t stop there. Shadows is thoroughly researched. Impressively researched. Many of the ‘new’ mythos items and places are heavily grounded in the odd and mysterious artifacts of real world history. I was utterly gripped by Brown’s taught, streamlined 9 page summary of the 1920s: its daily life, its political and economic factions, and its technology. I’ve opined elsewhere that when a work requires good authors to summarize something that isn’t their primary topic (life in the 20s, for example) as a prerequisite for getting to their primary topic (destroying life in the 20s with ancient gods and brain-sucking tentacles, for example), the author frequently does a better job codifying than the experts (probably because experts have a tendency to step on their own dic..er…tails when expounding). Russ doesn’t disappoint, and he doesn’t slog into so much detail we drown. In all honestly, I’ll be using his clean, concise summary of the 1920s as authoritative research for a creative project on which I’m currently engaged. Thanks for saving me a ton of library time, Russ Brown!

But Brown doesn’t stop with historical research. He gives us authoritative mythos and Lovecraft research as well, delivered with veins of subtle humor and evident love for his subject. Here’s a short sample from "Chapter 3: Narrating Shadows of Cthulhu"

Horrifying Aliens
These are not the aliens of traditional science fiction. They don’t travel through space in sleek metal ships or demand to see our leaders. Many of them glide through interstellar space without ships, even crossing the folds of time and space to reach Earth. Many are already were, and were were long before the human race took its first bipedal steps and fashioned its first tools. Their alien motivations are incomprehensible. They may have outposts hidden in the hills where they mine the Earth’s rare metals. They may be the last remnants of a primordial civilization destroyed by even more terrible enemies or imprisoned by strange supernatural forces. They may be unimaginably powerful and godlike, floating mindlessly in the interstellar voids and imposing an order in the universe that appears insane to the limited human mind. Or they may just want to remove our brains.

Russ’s simple, condensed and considered breakdown of Lovecraft’s often chaotic, even inconsistent Cthulhu mythos in Chapter 3 is not to be missed.

So don’t miss it. RDPs PDF is clear and beautifully laid out. Given my druthers, I may have organized a few sub chapters differently, but production quality is very high. Like the book as a whole, Jason Walton’s illustrations are deceptively simple but marvelous. Gray scale, crisp, almost – but not quite – pure graphic novel; his choice to portray chthonic creatures of shadow and horror in clean, heavily inked lines really works. To my surprise, his design choices convey a surprising realism that somehow just perfectly captures the subtle wrongness of mind-bending, slobbering mythos creatures imposing on the real world. Simultaneously he captures the sense of adventure that thrills us at the prospect of engaging these horrors – or serving them.

Bravo, Russ. Well done, RDP.

Lovers of True20 meet Cthulhu. Lovers of Cthulhu…uhh…what are you doing with those tentacles!? Ahgh. Yugh. Aww damn – that’s just wrong.

Want to learn more about Shadows of Cthulhu? Read on...

1 http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/wotcdemo.html http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3655627.stm http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/whatis/demographics.html

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