Cthulhu Dark Ages

Cthulhu Dark Ages

From: Chaosium Inc.
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Cthulhu Dark Ages is a new Role Playing Game Core Rulebook from Chaosium Inc..

Recently, there has been a new kick to explore the period in history known as the Dark Ages in horror role playing games.  At first, it did not excite me because it primarily involved White Wolf Storyteller games, and I am not a fan of those.  However, I am a huge fan of Call of Cthulhu (CoC), and I shivered in horrific anticipation when I heard Chaosium was going that route.

From the back cover:“ The Dark Ages world is filled with life, death, and the pain of old age.”

Cthulhu Dark Ages is a complete RPG Core book compatible with the Basic Role Playing (BRP) system supported by Call of Cthulhu and its line of products.  The first question I had to answer when I mentioned it to friends was “No, it’s not d20.”  That license has run its course, and I do not see Chaosium doing many more core rule books for that.  However, I have a great appreciation for the BRP system, and it is sufficient for Call of Cthulhu.

The rulebook opens with an eloquent general introduction and advisory on how to run a Cthulhu game in the Dark Ages.  Inside you can find general introductory information along with advice to Keepers on how to run Cthulhu in the Dark ages – including advice on the dreaded opening encounter and gathering parties of adventurers together.

Character Generation is not any different than standard Classic BRP CoC.  Throughout the character generation text, there are notes and advice on the Dark Ages perspective of character generation.  As one would assume, the world of the Dark Ages is quite different than 1920s or modern day.  For example, education is dealt with from a different perspective.  In Cthulhu Dark Ages, the “school of life” has the same status as “formal schooling.”  

There are 20+ occupations to choose from.  Anything from your basic Free Farmer to a City Guard, Heretic to the Priest-Exorcist can be played.  One thing I liked about CoC is that you always end up playing someone that is no different than you, as far as strengths and weaknesses, motivations and fears. In Cthulhu Dark Ages, it is even more prevalent.  How would you feel playing a simple farmer in a world where Cthulhu Mythos is haunting in the castle on the hill or the caverns in the mountains?  This aspect of the game has always added an extra level of fear or horror to the game.

Magic, in a limited form, does exist in Cthulhu Dark Ages, and a few occupations reflect that.  It is very subtle because the Keeper is advised to limit the amount of magic that he allows in his game.  Some careers allow access to the Old Grimoire (discussed later), but the Keeper is reminded over and over again that the Dark Ages were not friendly to those that practiced the dark arts.

The Skills section of the book present some new surprises that I hadn’t seen in previous version CoC.   Skills are divided out into 5 groups – Communication, Manipulation, Perception, Movement, and Thought.  Of course, the skills are trimmed down to reflect the time period, but the list is still extensive enough to add the variety one would need in skills. 

After skills, the rules sections covers the basics of the Basic Role Playing system, but it also delves into rules not previously covered or only lightly covered in other BRP books – rules on wilderness survival, chasing by foot, lighting and natural obstacles.  Due to the time period, much of these rules are very important.  Of course, this section also includes the tried and true Resistance Table and covers its uses.  Following that is the section of physical injury, followed by combat.  Combat in Cthulhu Dark Ages is like it is in CoC – fluid, simple and somewhat abstract.  Because combat is expected to be short and deadly in most Cthulhu products, this section would probably be less satisfying to those hack-n-slashers out there.  I found it refreshing and appropriately written for the genre.

From the back cover : “Vengeful hordes wash across the world.  Petty warlords fight among themselves like ravenous dogs.”

The value of the book is in the Utilities chapter, where you find all you need in the way of historical information on the Dark Ages.  Of course, it’s not comprehensive, but it covers issues like social standings within the Dark Ages, religion and heresies, clothing, cities and trade, and includes a “Quick Tour of the World.”  This includes a well-drawn Map of Eastern Europe and Northern Africa with all the Empires drawn out and labeled.  It’s a real quick and clear education of the Dark Ages times, especially for those not familiar with the times. This is invaluable to a Cthulhu Dark Ages Keeper. The section ends with equally invaluable and educational Dark Ages glossary and timelines of historical and occult events between the years 950 and 1050 AD.  This section alone makes it worth a look, at least.

From the page 74 : “All my tales are based upon the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. – H.P. Lovecraft”

The last sections of Cthulhu Dark Ages are The Cthulhu Mythos, The Old Grimoire, The Bestiary and The Tomb, a scenario set in the Dark Ages.  Each are similar to ones found in other CoC core books, except for the differences to follow. 

The largest difference by far is the Old Grimoire.  Purely a general magic section, it expands on the existing magic in the Cthulhu Mythos universe and creates non-mythos related magic and religious-based effects. “The Old Grimoire is the product of centuries of shamanic tradition, religious cults, and witchcraft.”  As stated before, it would not be good to be caught practicing these rituals and spells in the Dark Ages world. This system utilizes the Occult skill and the Residence Table a lot more.  There are a lot more practical spells in this list, unlike in the other Grimoires, but most have a Magic point and Sanity cost associated to them. There are nearly 45 spells for players to choose from. Limbo is introduced in this section – a place of chaos and insanity.  It is a living dimensional realm of mindless gloom and darkness where physical senses are useless.  Limbo holds the gateway to Hell – or the ultimate Abyss – home to Yog-Sothoth.

The Bestiary contains an abridged list of the same creatures we are familiar with in other Cthulhu core books.  However, interestingly, it also introduces some fantasy-based creatures and puts a mythos-spin on them – like halflings, dragons and goblins. It also has a Mythos version of Satan.  This brings about interesting inspiration on a new level for Cthulhu.

The Tomb is a well-written and sufficiently “meaty” adventure to get people started in Cthulhu Dark Ages.  It is no small adventure and definitely will take multiple nights to play.  The Keeper is supplied with sufficient handouts and background material to support a good adventure.

In conclusion, fans of Call of Cthulhu will love this book. Fans of Dark Ages horror will love this book.  This takes the world of the dark ages to a  new and unimaginably dark level. It is well written and organized.  It gives you just enough and not too much information to get started and also educates you in ways that make you want to seek out more.  The art is well-done, using some period sketches for the weapons and siege machines, as well as period art throughout, giving you the true Dark Age feel. Although not a huge book, it still has an extensive index useful for those quick look-ups.

If you like Cthulhu, you will love this book.

For more details on Chaosium Inc. and their new Role Playing Game Core Rulebook “Cthulhu Dark Ages” check them out at their website http://www.chaosium.com and at all of your local game stores.

Cthulhu Dark Ages
From: Chaosium Inc.
Type of Game: Role Playing Game Core Rulebook
Written by: Stéphane Gesbert
Game Design by: Sandy Peterson
Cover Art by: Francios Launet
Additional Art by: Stéphane Gesbert, Francios Launet, Andy Hopp, David Grilla, Meghan McLean
Number of Pages: 175
Retail Price: $ 23.95 (US)
Item Number: 2398
ISBN: 1-56882-171-9
Website: http://www.chaosium.com

Reviewed by: Ron McClung