Cthulhu Dark is a simple, stripped-down roleplaying game of cosmic horror written by Graham Walmsley (Cthulhu Apocalypse, Stealing Cthulhu, Play Unsafe), Kathryn Jenkins (various articles at Final Thoughts of a Murdered Guard) and Helen Gould (Classic Monsterhearts, “The Sores” in Fear’s Sharp Little Needles). Although the basic Cthulhu Dark rules were released by Walmsley as a free two-page download in 2010, this review will cover the expanded 2017 version of Cthulhu Dark, which was funded via Kickstarter in mid-2017.
Cthulhu Dark: Back to Lovecraftian Basics
Cthulhu Dark is part of a long lineage of Lovecraftian horror roleplaying games going back to the acclaimed Call of Cthulhu (1981). On the surface, Cthulhu Dark is similar to those games in just two ways: It is about relatively normal human investigators encountering macabre and alien horrors from the bleak and nihilistic visions of Jazz-age author H.P. Lovecraft; and it has rules to track the growing insanity caused by said horrors in the minds of the investigators.
What sets Cthulhu Dark apart is its extremely simple rules. Most other horror RPGs inspired by Lovecraft’s Mythos have at least some medium level of rules complexity, with long lists of skills, careers and systems for combat. They usually offer plenty of rules for horrific ways to die as well as multiple flavours of insanity. Meanwhile, Cthulhu Dark’s core rules consist of two short pages. Investigator characters don’t require any complex statistics or record-keeping, just a name, occupation and a single die to track their growing insane insight (on a scale of 1 to 6). They are also especially limited in how much social status and power they have in the setting (more on that below).
The Insight Die starts at 1, and when an investigator experiences something disturbing, they roll the Insight Die. If they roll above the current Insight level, Insight goes up by 1, representing a traumatic revelation that brings the investigator closer to the bleak cosmic truth – which, in typical Lovecraft stories, leads to insanity and destruction (when Insight reaches 6).
Players roll a six-sided die when attempting to do most things, with higher results achieving greater success. If the activity is related to their investigator’s occupation, they roll an additional die. They can also roll their Insight die, but at the risk of increasing Insight if they roll too high (explained by “seeing too much”). Anyone (not just the game master) can call for the Failure die to oppose the “do things” die roll. If the Failure die is highest, the task fails. Investigation tasks automatically succeed in getting the key clues needed to progress in a story, much like in the GUMSHOE rules of the Trail of Cthulhu RPG.
Cthulhu Dark expands on the original two pages of rules from 2010 with more advice, suggestions and examples for players and the game master (called the Director). The book also features practical and useful guidance for the game master to craft horror mysteries in a variety of historical, modern or future settings. Walmsley, the lead writer, discusses the use of recurring and often inexplicable imagery and elements, called Creeping Horrors, to ratchet up players’ unease and bafflement. And he includes a section with concise but flavourful outlines of Lovecraftian monsters and threats, and the themes associated with them.
No Room For Power Fantasies
In Cthulhu Dark, players portray doomed investigators. The “doomed” part is just as important as the “investigators” part. The player characters are very human and very vulnerable, and their lives will be hit hard by the horrors that they discover. This is a key distinction for Cthulhu Dark. Many other Lovecraftian horror RPGs can end up being played as power fantasies, despite their reputation in the gaming scene for creating narratives of inevitable protagonist defeat, destruction or insanity.
Achtung! Cthulhu defaults to heroic WW2 pulp action in which the protagonists get to punch Nazis and blow up alien monstrosities. Similarly empowering narratives can easily come up while playing in Delta Green, Cthulhutech or the more action-packed Call of Cthulhu pulp adventures. This is something Cthulhu Dark tries to avoid.
Lovecraft also tended to write about protagonists who were wealthy, privileged and white. Non-white people were always associated with degeneracy and barbarism. For decades this trope has recurred in many published Lovecraftian horror RPG scenarios: You would have British or American protagonists usually by default, often investigating in a foreign “exotic” land where the temples, slums or jungles would hide primitive and corrupt worshippers of inhuman eldritch horrors. In his Cthulhu Dark design notes, Graham Walmsley recalls how his players used to revel a bit too much at playing snobbish Great White Explorer types from some upper-crust gentleman’s club. And I still cringe at the racist jokes I’ve heard in the guise of “playing a historically-accurate character” in a 1920s Call of Cthulhu game.
Cthulhu Dark is Walmsley’s rejection of the trope of having the “little guy” be the main source of evil or corruption. The Director is advised to set the source of the horror among the people with power in a setting, not the people without power. In a game set in Victorian London, the ultimate evil ought to lie with a conspiracy of the rich and powerful, not amidst the slums or poorhouses. Walmsley advises the Director to have players create investigators who have little power in the setting – poor or middle-class instead of being rich; indigenous people in a colonial or post-colonial setting instead of being the colonisers, and so forth.
Because horror is amplified when there is no room for players to indulge in power fantasies.
The default settings of Lovecraftian horror RPGs vary vastly, but the 1920s/1930s era is one of the most popular settings, as Lovecraft’s most influential stories were written during this time. Other games like the conspiracy-themed Delta Green take place during the modern era. Meanwhile, some games put Lovecraft’s weird horror into future settings such as the cyberpunk milieu or the depths of space. Cthulhu Dark is hardly unique in providing support for horror gaming in multiple settings.
The four different settings and their sample adventures emphasize different themes. Walmsley tackles inequality and class in London 1851 and Mumbai 2037. Jenkins outlines Lovecraft’s iconic town of Arkham in 1692, a place of witch-trials, of fear and superstition. Gould writes about a fictitious African nation in Jaiwo 2017, a setting strongly shaped by colonialism. Setting information includes in-depth looks at typical investigator occupations and what they entail, providing a ground-level view in each place and time from the eyes of the everyday people. The towns and cities are described in terms of law and governance, trade and markets, entertainment, travel and all the other features of daily life – not in dry textbook style, but rather with an eye towards fleshing out the worlds in which the mysteries take place.
The sample adventures for each setting provide examples of protagonists with little power: working-class women in 1851 London; black citizens with strong connections to a rural village in Jaiwo 2017; a circle of family members who all work as tech company peons in near-future Mumbai, and so forth.
Cthulhu Dark is a roleplaying game for a Director and an indeterminate number of players. The sample adventures provide four or five sample investigators each, but given the simplicity of the rules, an experienced Director might be able to handle up to six players, in my view. At the same time, unlike games with tactical combat like Shadowrun or Night’s Black Agents, which suffer below a minimum team size, there is no reason why you can’t run the game with as few as one or two players. The investigation rules enable even a solo investigator to find their way into the heart of a horror mystery.
I feel that the best horror roleplaying game books imply and suggest horror, rather than shocking the reader with gore and explicit content. Cthulhu Dark discusses many disturbing elements: death and destruction, breeding with monsters, cursed bloodlines, mental abduction, the end of the world, and more. But none are described in excruciating detail. It’s left up to the Director and players to determine how dark a game gets, and what goes beyond their comfort zones.
The book is a standard, roughly A4-shaped RPG hardback with just under 200 black-and-white pages. There’s a generous amount of white space and font size is similarly not too small. This may not be the first time Walmsley is accused of padding out a book with too many pages and too little content, but on the other hand, I feel that the readability and ease of referencing the book on the fly is helped by the larger font choice. Writing and editing are above average for an independent RPG publication, and I found no glaring errors at all.
If you’re still on the fence about this book, go download the free version from 2010, and see if the style appeals to you. The 2017 version is really about Graham Walmsley’s philosophy of horror roleplaying, and expands on the original tremendously.
Whither Cthulhu Dark?
Graham Walmsley has employed other authors such as Chris Spivey and Adam Gauntlett to write additional scenarios for Cthulhu Dark beyond those offered in the core rulebook. If you want to create your own scenarios, it’s fairly easy, and the game lends itself well to improvised play due to the simple rules. I would actually recommend using Cthulhu Dark with other horror scenarios from other publishers, especially the excellent Trail of Cthulhu adventures published by Pelgrane Press, like The Final Revelation, which collects the first Graham Walmsley scenarios that I ever read. These embody some of the best horror adventures I’ve ever seen and are worth a read.
Cthulhu Dark Briefing
And here’s a quick briefing about the game that you can show your players.
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