By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 26 June 2019
There is a great deal of love and admiration of the Cthulhu Mythos among gamers and horror fans. There was something about “the fear of what man was not meant to know” that inspired the genre for years after Lovecraft passed on.
While we have multiple Call of Cthulhu editions and spinoffs (such as Cthonian Stars, which is essentially Cthulhu in Space, and The Laundry Files, which is modern-day Lovecraftian horror), they never really jumped out at me as something to actively work to grab. I often found the mechanics to be awkward and the heavy psychological horror as a tough sell.
So what made me grab Fate of Cthulhu during the Kickstarter this year? I guess you could say that the stars were right…
Writer’s Note: This review is of the early copy of the game, provided to Kickstarter backers. Details may change as the product nears completion later this year.
Fate of Cthulhu is pitched to be a different take on the Cthulhu Mythos; it’s going to be more Aliens and Terminator and less Shadows of Innsmouth. Instead of fighting Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones in the early 20th Century with everything being a mystery, you’ll be taking the fight to the year 2020 as you try to stop the Old Ones from returning.
The difference is, you know what’s going on. Your characters are from a near-future in which one of the Old Ones rose and destroyed the world as you know it. In a desperate gamble, humanity found a way to use time travel to send you back to put a stop to this before it’s too late. Investigation is still important, but literally fighting the minions of the Old Ones is now a viable and vital step to winning this war.
All of this will be powered by Fate Core (with extra notes for Fate Accelerated).
==What You Get==
As of this writing, the Fate of Cthulhu early-edition PDF comes in at 258 pages. The art is light, but the rules are here.
The book provides everything you need to handle Fate Core; you can run the entire game from this book alone (but having Fate Core won’t hurt to borrow other tools from). In addition to Fate Core’s mechanics, we are given a handful of new mechanics of Corruption, Timelines, and a different approach to Magic.
In addition to rules, we are given setting info, which is a basic intro to the themes and feel of the game, followed by multiple “timelines” for each of the Elder Gods: Cthulhu, Dagon, Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep, and the King In Yellow. In fact, more than ⅔ of the book is dedicated to setting specifics.
Early on, this book had earned my trust and respect. As much as I loved the concepts within Locevraft’s work (that tingling fear of the unknown), I’ve had a number of problems with Lovecraft’s ideals (racism, anti-semitism, etc) and how many of the RPGs focus more on roleplaying trope-focused mental illnesses that do more harm than good.
This concept was smashed right at the start of the book. Well, on the third page of actual text, anyway.
Instead of waiting for your character to be a gibbering mess or being forced to RP a mental illness in a harmful way, we are instead given time-travelling heroes that lose their humanity along the way. Literally, at that; you become more like the monsters you fight.
That alone is worth massive points in my book. Heroic Last Stands, slowly mutating into a monster as you fight monsters, and developing battlefield quirks is much more fitting, in my opinion, and it makes for a better game.
Speaking of, using Fate Core makes this a much easier to comprehend game. Chaosium’s mechanics are usually pretty heavy (read: percentile game with plenty of mods), as are their books, so the point of entry is a bit difficult for those games. This was alleviated a bit when we saw Trail of Chtulhu, but what I read on that line was middling at best, and we do not talk about CthulhuTech without losing our sanity in the process. (Seriously, please don’t ask me to talk about the messy mechanics behind CthulhuTech…)
As we are using Fate Core, we are treated to some new upgrades for the game. The Corruption Clock, inspired by Blades In The Dark, tracks how much Corruption you have gained and how much time you have (so to speak) before something goes wrong. We get to see Corrupted Aspects (a way to track your permanent Corruption), as well as Corrupted Stunts (which work like Mega Stunts in Atomic Robo, but come at a cost).
I’m also a big fan of the Timeline Sheet. As you play, you track the PCs successes and failures with regards to set tasks: did they take the relic, or did they hand it off to the villain in exchange for their lives? Did the kill the cultist, or did they “accidentally” post a missing ritual online? These all impact the timeline, and can either speed up or slow down the oncoming apocalypse.
Fate of Cthulhu handles this with a “Timeline Track”, which is tied to a sheet of all of the known events leading up to the Elder God Apocalypse. Once it’s full, the timeline is impacted by which side “won” that round, with the PC’s having the goal of stopping the apocalypse…or at least making the future a little bit better. It’s a fun idea and a great way to handle time travel, which most games flounder with, and I rather like it.
Going into this, there isn’t anything utterly terrible about the game, but there’s a few minor, but linked, gripes I’ve found to bring to the table.
I’m honestly surprised how little we have to work with with regards to Elder God Technology. We are given some rules for spellcasting and rituals that are fitting for the setting, and we have some NPCs that have grafts and augmentations that make them inhuman in capability and literally, but those rules are rather limited.
For example, we are given THREE spells in the Spells section of the book, THREE rituals in the Rituals section, and a few scattered samples via NPCs and timeline notes. That’s it. For a resource that’s supposed to be powerful AND a tool that gives power in exchange for losing your soul, your options are limited to spells that opens doors, a spell that stops time on a target, and a spell that enhances an object’s ability to harm Eldritch beings, and rituals that create passages that cover long distances, limited precognition, and bringing someone back from the dead. That’s it.
With the long standing “canon” of the Mythos, I expected a whole lot more with regards to ways to lose your soul, but instead it’s just a matter of using Corrupted Aspects/Stunts, these few spells, or gaining it via NPCs. Maybe it’ll be riskier and better at the table than on paper, but I’m just not sure if some of these options are worth the Corruption.
As the game is using Fate Core, I would have hoped to have a bit more to work with to support new Fate users with a strong background in the Mythos as well as old hands of Fate who are new to the Mythos. While cutting these down keeps the book short, it does leave something to be desired.
At this time, we have an incomplete book. We are given very little art to work with, and while what we have is pretty good and on brand for both the Cthulhu Mythos and Evil Hat, the unknown is always going to be a deciding factor.
The book is also receiving more input from readers, so there may be a few minor tweaks to things as production moves forward.
Honestly, there’s a bit of nebulousness associated with this that could move the game in either direction. I guess we will just have to wait and see.
As it stands, I think Fate of Cthulhu has earned itself 3.5 buns, but it might go higher with the right sacrifice, and arguably lower in the wrong hands.
For a Cthulhu Mythos game, it is readily accessible, removes some of the troublesome aspects of the Mythos, and allows players to still feel like Big Damned Heroes even if they are unable to stop the apocalypse.
Sadly, the game lacks some of the polish I’m used to seeing with new Fate games, mostly in the lack of new tech and missing support for GMs new to the genre. While some of this might be fixed by the final product, I’m not expecting much more of a page count to alleviate this concern.
If you are a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos and/or a fan of Fate, looking into Fate of Cthulhu would be a good way to go. If you hate horror, or if you aren’t a fan of the Mythos in general (and don’t think it’d add to your game), and don’t really jive with Fate, then give this a pass.
Fate of Cthulhu is published by Evil Hat and was successfully funded on Kickstarter in late May 2019. Details for the game can be found here, and more about pre-orders should be available in the near future. I would estimate the hardcover copy to cost about $40-$45, and the PDF to be in the $20-$25 range based on previous game costs and the prices on the Kickstarter.