REVIEW: Cthulhu Dark Ages

Sandy Petersen once observed that while Chaosium may have agreed to publish an RPG based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, there were always more interested in the idea of a historical adventure game inspired by the kind of golden age pulp magazines that would habitually refuse to publish Lovecraft’s work. While the names at the top of Chaosium may have changed a few times in the intervening decades, there remains an institutional bias towards the historical and against the horrific. This is obvious in the company’s habitual production of globe-trotting adventure campaigns, in the tendency of sourcebook to resemble Lonely Planet guides to 1920s cities, and in the range of topics covered by their experimental range of monographs.

Chaosium’s innate bias towards historical Simulationism was also influential on non-Anglophonic versions of the game produced by third-party publishers who would often attempt to localise Call of Cthulhu by providing sourcebooks designed to help you play in your native country. Indeed, many of my early experiences with the game involved scenarios set against a background of a France still recovering from the trauma and chaos of World War I. While a lot of these localisations were content to swap currencies and provide male adventurers with differently-shaped hats, some local publishers proved a touch more ambitious.

For example, back in the early 00s, the German games company Pegasus Spiele were publishing a Call of Cthulhu-related magazine entitled Cthulhoide Welten when they received an English manuscript by Stephane Gesbert about running games in dark ages Germany. Pegasus translated the manuscript into German and released it as a special edition of Cthulhoide Welten entitled Cthulhu 1000AD. In 2004, Chaosium took Gesbert’s ideas and used them as the basis for Cthulhu Dark Ages, a game designed to support Call of Cthulhu campaigns set in dark ages England. Successful enough to prompt the publication of several supplements released through Chaosium’s slightly iffy monograph series, Cthulhu Dark Ages is now on its third somewhat chaotic edition.


I am aware that not everyone shares my opinions on what should go into a Call of Cthulhu game set in the dark ages. I have opinions, I have preferences and I am aware that not everyone shares these beliefs. As a result, I am going to try to talk about the book’s general production quality before moving on to a more fine-grained engagement with some of the ideas in the book:

Style

Like everything released under the auspices of 7th edition Call of Cthulhu, Chad Bowser and Andi Newton’s Cthulhu Dark Ages comes in the form of a very pretty and well-paginated book. The artwork is mostly pretty good and the book is littered with images from medieval tapestries and manuscripts that really serve to set the mood.

Unlike the books published as part of the Secrets Of line, Cthulhu Dark Ages reads less like a Lonely Planet guide to dark ages England and more like a supplement designed to support and inspire play. Yes, there are lists of towns and places of interest but all of these are bound to Mythos-related ideas that are clearly designed to inspire you to create your own adventures. The bestiary section is also excellent as the book contains not only listings for Mythos-beasties but also listings for the kinds of supernatural or monstrous creatures that residents of dark ages England might believe in. Even more fascinating is the fact that each listing comes with some descriptive text and some suggestions as to what these creatures do and how you might work them into an adventure or a campaign. This seems like I might be damning the book with faint praise but none of the 7th edition core books or any of the lavishly-produced bestiaries actually bother to do this and so I feel the need to congratulate Bowser and Newton for clearing what is admittedly a very low bar.

Cthulhu Dark Ages is a very well-written book, it does re-iterate some of the rules that feature in the core books but where re-iteration does take place, it manages to be systematically clearer than anything in the core texts. The same is true of any additional rules that the book happens to include; I may not necessarily agree with all of them but there is no denying that they are well and clearly written. To be frank, I would even go so far as to say that Cthulhu Dark Ages is a better and clearer book than either of the core texts though, again, we are talking about a bar that has been set very low indeed.

Though described as a ‘setting guide’ Cthulhu Dark Ages is somewhere between a supplement and a self-contained game. What this means in practice is that while the book does contain a full set of character creation rules as well as lists of spells and descriptions of skills, you won’t find stuff like sanity or magic rules. The assumption must have been that anyone purchasing the book would be familiar with the rules of Call of Cthulhu but would not want to be moving between books to create characters and as such, I would say that Cthulhu Dark Ages gets the balance pretty much spot-on. You wouldn’t be able to run a game using only this book but you could certainly create characters and deal with most tasks that might involve leafing through books during an active game.

However, while I think that Cthulhu Dark Ages’ range of subject matter and actual content is all very good and well-written, the organisation of this book is an absolute catastrophe. The book opens with a guide to Anglo-Saxon England that ranges from stuff like how people dress to rules on medical treatment and suggestions as to which Mythos deities correspond to which Norse gods. We then move on to a sub-section entitled ‘Gazeteer of Anglo-Saxon England’ which is a list of towns and then on to an entirely different chapter entitled ‘A-Z of the Dark Ages’ which is an alphabetised list of paragraphs on vague topics ranging from the devil to serfdom. We then get the character creation rules including gear and 7th edition-style backstories. The book then marches on through a further series of chapters with a similar structure to those of the 7th edition core books but the chapter heading are very vague and there’s not much in the way of organisation within each of the chapters so if you pick up the book in search of a specific piece of information, you’re effectively provided with a series of more-or-less alphabetised piles. What this means in practice is that if you want to know what happens when you fumble a medical roll, you will wind up looking at the skills section, then at the A-Z of the dark ages chapter and then at the character creation rules before eventually alighting at the stuff at the front of the book. The organisation of Cthulhu Dark Ages reminds me of what happens when I try to organise my DVDs or my books: I’ll start out with three distinct piles and then I’ll run into edge-cases that blur the purposes of each pile until I end up with about seventeen different piles that I have mentally labelled ‘Misc’, ‘Purchased from that shop where I dropped my phone’, ‘Has a green spine’, and ‘Doesn’t fit in any of the other piles’. In fairness, the book does have an index but it isn’t exactly detailed. I would sincerely recommend a searchable PDF.

Substance

One of the reasons why I decided to break this review down into two parts is that I am aware that the name “Cthulhu Dark Ages’ conjures different things for different people. Some people’s minds will naturally be drawn to Vikings and King Arthur while others’ will drift quite naturally to stories like The Name of the Rose orthe Seventh Seal  despite the fact that neither of these stories are set during the dark ages.

In truth, this duality is merely a period-appropriate reflection of the same tensions that lurks at the heart of Call of Cthulhu: For some people, Call of Cthulhu is about travelling the world and gunning down cultists while, for others, it is about upper-middle class professionals confronting the limitations of their worldview and going slowly mad as the truth about the world is slowly revealed to them. There is a tension at the heart of Call of Cthulhu because while the subject matter is all about the latter, Chaosium wanted to make a game about the former. It is thus inevitable that any attempt to build a game around a Dark Ages iteration of Call of Cthulhu is going to be caught between the urge to make a game about warriors in chainmail fighting Deep Ones and a fundamentally incompatible urge to make a game about monks pouring over manuscripts, realising that the Word of Christ is a lie, and then going slowly mad in a monastery off the coast of Scotland. Cthulhu Dark Ages tries to speak to both set of demands but is arguably more interested in Shield Walls against the Darkness than Beyond the Matins of Madness.

The reason for this preference is less a question of intent and more a question of developmental ease. Indeed, when Bowser and Newton decided that they needed some additional rules to help people play melee-based Call of Cthulhu characters, all they had to do was dip into Chaosium’s back catalogue, look at how previous BRP-based games had dealt with stuff like shields and fighting from horseback and drop the rules straight into this book. These rules are old, they are robust, they have stood the test of time, and Cthulhu Dark Ages explains them all really well. For example, despite having played a lot of BRP-based games, I have never been all that clear on how the system was supposed to handle shields but Cthulhu Dark Ages explains the rules with great clarity and now I understand them perfectly.

The fact that the rules for BRP melee combat were already in existence meant that Bowser and Newton could be as detailed as they wanted when it came to combat and so Cthulhu Dark Ages has a significantly larger array of combat options than traditional Cthulhu. You might very well respond that these rules are as optional as any other and that their presence in the book does not mean that they are meant to be used and I would absolutely agree only to then ask you back: If they are not meant to be used, why are they there? Why did Bowser and Newton feel that Cthulhu Dark Ages needed special rules for fighting from horseback or with shields when traditional Call of Cthulhu didn’t? The decision to add those rules is not creatively neutral; it speaks to the kind of game that the authors imagined we would want to play.

Thankfully, the changes that this book makes to the Call of Cthulhu rules are not limited to a more detailed combat system. For example, widely discussed (and applauded) has been the attempt to reconcile the core game’s sanity mechanics with the fact that people living in Dark Ages England actually believed in monsters, demons, and goat people who live in the swamp. When a modern person sees those things, their assumptions about the world are undermined in a way that’s quite traumatic. When a dark ages peasant sees those things, they would most likely think ‘Oh, it’s one of those goat people that the priest keeps on warning us about’. Cthulhu Dark Ages handles this difference by having people who see monsters roll against their knowledge of religion or the natural world. If the check is successful, then the character will realise that the supernatural event is not explained either by science or religion, at which point the game progresses to a traditional sanity check. While most reviews seem to think these rules are great, I am mindful of the fact that they add an additional step to the sanity-check mechanics and that the step itself does not make that much sense.

Think of it in these terms: You go out in your fishing boat and you see something weird. Depending upon how well-educated you are, this sight is either traumatic or it isn’t. According to the rules as written, the more you know about science or religion, the more fragile your worldview becomes as someone who is absolutely ignorant about religion and the natural world would fail every check and thus never face a sanity check. Surely this is the wrong way round? Someone who is knowledgeable about religion would see something weird and have the intellectual skills to explain away what it is they have seen. Similarly, someone who is knowledgeable about science would see something weird and immediately assume it was some new phenomenon. The thing about scientists is that they are very good at tentatively erecting frameworks around stuff they don’t understand. If anything, it’s profoundly ignorant people who are shocked and horrified by every new discovery.

In fairness, this is actually only half of the optional rules for sanity checks as the book also suggests that, rather than determining your starting religion and knowledge natural world scores from points allotted at character creation, you start with 100 and then remove your power. The remaining number is your starting score in the relevant skills. Thus, people who put all of their skills into shield are not doomed to fail every worldview check. The problem with this side of the rules is that it doesn’t make much sense to me either: Power is supposed to represent not just magical potential but also will-power so the suggestion is that the stronger your personality happens to be, the less you know about science and religion. This makes sense if religion and knowledge natural world cease to be skills and become a secondary SAN score because then a strong personality would result in a lower likelihood of having one’s worldview overwhelmed but in order for that to work you completely knacker two quite important skills.

The problem here is that Bowser and Newton are trying to fix the Call of Cthulhu sanity mechanics without engaging with the assumptions behind them. If you look at the core mechanics, you’ll see that all of that stuff about strength of personality and fragility of worldview are already built into the sanity mechanic. In fact, that is precisely what your SAN score is supposed to represent. Bowser and Newton have hit on the idea of having SAN be dependent not only upon POW but also on skills and so they have bodged together this weird skill-based buffer between the horrors of the world and sanity loss.

Aside from the fact that the optional rules, as written, don’t make much sense, I think this whole initiative is profoundly wrong-headed. Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity mechanics are an abstraction based upon Sandy Petersen’s understanding of H.P. Lovecraft’s understanding of 1920s psychiatry. They bear as much of a relation to the workings of the human mind as hit points do to human physiology: Yes, they’re abstract. Yes, they’re a bodge. No, they’re not realistic. We keep them around because they more-or-less work and most groups that play Call of Cthulhu will either tweak or interpret the rules to suit their own preferences. Start picking at that vagueness and you are in for a world of conceptual hurt as sanity is not and has never been a finite resource.

Another area where the designers have tried to be a bit clever is by confronting the fact that dark ages England was largely illiterate meaning that the traditional investigator workflow of learning about a paranormal event and hitting the books to do some research simply would not work. Any dark ages investigator desirous of learning about ancient evils would probably have to travel hundreds of miles to a monastery where the resident monks might not be keen on some random weirdo asking to peruse their books on ancient evils and heretical magic. In an effort to make an end run around the fact that dark ages England was mired in the middle of a literal dark age, the book suggests that a lot of hidden truths might lay buried in the epic poems that were passed around as part of the oral tradition. While I was much amused by the idea of investigators rushing off to the nearest poetry slam, I’m not sure I quite buy the idea of stuff like Beowulf or The Ruin filling a similar slot to the core game’s books of forbidden lore. Aside from the fact that the kind of knowledge embedded in those poems was very different to the kind of knowledge that were embedded in Lovecraftian grimoires, I think it poses a serious problem in that knowledge buried in books is accessible to anyone who can read whereas knowledge buried in the oral tradition is accessible only to those who can access people whose job it was to memorise and recite those kinds of poems. In practical terms: When a 1920s investigator wants to do research, they go to a library and when a 920s investigator wants to do research, they go to a scop, a skald, or some culturally-equivalent NPC with a really good memory. Aside from the fact that asking an expert is a lot less cool than pouring over old books, it effectively takes a large chunk of the research and investigation part of a Call of Cthulhu adventure and reduces it down to ‘asking someone what to do’ at which point, why bother having investigation skills at all?

In fairness to Bowser and Newton, I think their instincts here are absolutely spot on. The modern world is so fundamentally different to the world of the dark ages that shifting a game from 1920 to 1000AD means having to completely re-think the game. The only problem here is that while the designers were right to think about having to adapt a Call of Cthulhu narrative structures to the world of dark ages England, they did not go anywhere near far enough. In truth, a proper Cthulhu Dark Ages campaign should have the players assuming the role of skops and rather than hunting down old books and fragments of forgotten lore, the campaigns should be built around characters seeking out fragments of poetry that contain hidden secrets. Imagine a campaign modelled along the lines of Trail of Cthulhu’s Bookhounds of London or Dreamhounds of Paris but it’s Viking Skalds seeking forbidden lore in dark ages England and you have precisely the kind of campaign that I want to run. Unfortunately, this is not a campaign that Cthulhu Dark Ages is in a position to support.

Okay… that was a bit harsh but I do think that Cthulhu Dark Ages is better suited to some visions of a dark age Cthulhu campaign than others. If what you want to do is run a gritty fantasy game set in dark ages England where the players assume the role of monster hunters then this is precisely the game for you. I would even go so far as to say that the game might be improved by the addition of some of the pulpier mechanics from Pulp Cthulhu. Those stupid chase mechanics from the 7th Edition rules? They are absolutely appropriate to this setting and the kinds of game supported by this book.

As with a lot of Chaosium products, Cthulhu Dark Ages luxuriates in a commitment to historical realism that extends no further than the backdrop. This is a book that gives you detailed rules for handling diseases and stresses the fact that dark ages England was a heavily regimented society only to gloss over such issues as how the average dark-age peasant might wind up becoming an investigator. I have no problem with a game about an Anglo-Saxon warband that hunts monsters but then why not make it explicit that this is the kind of game you expect people to play? Why not support that style of play by providing rules for managing the finances of a warband? The closest this book gets to telling you how the players might fit into the world is a load of stuff about roaming monks and this is absolutely (and tragically) not Paranormal Cadfael the RPG. Sure… you could create that game if you wanted to and a lot of the information included in this book might turn out to be useful, but neither the explanatory text nor the adventures included in the book speak to that kind of game.

As you can probably guess from my increasingly-irked tone, Cthulhu Dark Ages is an intensely frustrating sourcebook. On the one hand, it is full of lovely ideas, well-articulated rules, and some genuinely thoughtful takes on how to fit the Mythos into a dark ages setting but the book feels like only half a game. I would dearly love to run a game about dark ages paranormal detectives based on the Cadfael stories and I would dearly love to run a game about Viking Skalds hunting down lost poetry fragments in an effort to make sense of the darkness that lies over the edge of the world but the gap between Cthulhu Dark Ages and either of those campaigns is so vast that I might as well sit down with a copy of GURPS Vikings and write something from scratch.

I have a lot of love for Cthulhu Dark Ages, I think it is one of the best Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks I have ever read. The fact that just writing a review of this game caused me to come up with two awesome-sounding campaign pitches speaks to the depth and richness of the material presented in these pages. I just wish that those excellent ideas had been a bit more focussed and that the book had presented you with a clear pitch for a campaign rather than a load of information dumped in alphabetised piles.

I am, in many ways, profoundly ambivalent about non-traditional RPGs but one thing I think that scene has bang to rights is the need for RPGs to throw themselves behind specific types of game. If you want to write a game about paranormal Cadfael then write a game about paranormal Cadfael. If you want to write a game about Vikings sacking temples to Cthulhu or Anglo-Saxon warbands clashing with Deep One shield-walls then write that game. What you can’t do is dump a produce a book comprising a load of mismatched rules or settling details and expect people to get on with it.

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