by Matthew Pook
Cthulhu Dark Ages
Published by Chaosium Inc.
Written by Stéphane Gesbert
Cover by François Launet
Illustrated by Stéphane Gesbert, François Launet, Andy Hopp, David Grilla & Meghan McLean
Cartography by Stéphane Gesbert & Björn Lensig
176-page perfect bound soft bound
2004 saw an exceptional few months for the German RPG. Where in the past we have seen a crop of French RPGs translated and published for the English-speaking market, of late it has been the turn of the Germans. White Wolf Studios began the trend through their d20 System arm, Sword & Sorcery Studios, with Engel, a stunning presentation of Feder & Schwert’s post-apocalyptic game of angels and nano-technology, and this was followed by FanPro’s translation of The Dark Eye (Germany’s answer to Dungeons & Dragons), and Steam Logic’s The Mechanical Dream. Perhaps it takes more than three RPG titles to make a trend, but four points to something going on, and that fourth title was the most eagerly awaited.
Cthulhu Dark Ages was originally a supplement for Chaosium’s classic RPG, published in 2002 by the German licensee, Pegasus Spiele GmbH. To the delight of the game’s many fans, it has now been upgraded to a full standalone RPG all its own by Chaosium. After a not unexpected delay, the book arrived. The question is, can Cthulhu Dark Ages do for the pre-medieval world what Delta Green did for Cthulhu Now, and what The Golden Dawn did for Cthulhu by Gaslight?
The 172-page book is laid out using the same template first seen in the GM Pack published to support Cthulhu d20. This is dominated by a burnt page motif that unfortunately in places impinges upon the text and makes it difficult to read. The book is well written overall, with just the occasional lapse in its English. The book’s artwork is variable in quality, much of it being publicly available prints, and while the best does invoke a sense of the game’s time and place, the general standard of artwork does not equal that of other Call of Cthulhu supplements.
Into the Dark
As the title suggests, the setting for Cthulhu Dark Ages is the Europe of the Dark Ages, roughly between 950 and 1050 AD. This is a time between the fall of the last vestiges of the Roman Empire in the West, and the centralizing of power that came with the spread of Christianity. The majority of Europe’s population is rurally based, living as farmers in the small villages dotted among the dark forest that blankets nearly the entire continent. Most settlements are relatively self-sufficient, and there is little in the way of long distance trade. Learning and knowledge remains the province of the Roman Catholic Church and the monasteries, which are once again rising in importance.
Yet as Europe is Christianized, the influence of the Catholic Church can only go so far in explaining the unknown in the minds of its recent converts. Likewise, the mind of man remains limited in its capacity to understand the true nature of the universe as explained by the Mythos. Relatively minor occurrences of strangeness can be explained by knowledge of the occult, itself a dark science only fully comprehended by sorcerers, magi, and perhaps some monks. Actual outbreaks of Mythos activity expose a witness to the true nature of the universe, and since there is not the room in the mind of mankind for both this and what they have always held to be true, the knowledge is enough to push them into insanity.
Knowledge of the Mythos is not unknown though, for in 950 AD, the Byzantine Theodorus Philetas translates the al-Azif into Greek and renames it the Necronomicon. For a century this blasphemous tome will circulate freely, before being condemned and copies destroyed. Access to the book allows its readers to learn about the dread threats that lie out in the dark forests and at the top of mountain peaks. Thus, as in other periods detailed for Call of Cthulhu, a knowledge of Latin and of even the Mythos itself, is the key to defeating the horrors out there. And in comparison with those other periods, knowledge is likely to be the only effective method, as investigators of the period do not wield firearms of any kind, but are instead armed with swords, spears, axes, and bows and arrows. All of which are wholly inadequate to deal with anything but the most minor of Mythos being, and perhaps not even then.
Although Cthulhu Dark Ages is a complete Basic Roleplay game, employing the percentile mechanics found in all but a very few of Chaosium’s RPGs, a few changes have been made to take account of the thousand year difference between this setting and that of 1920s Call of Cthulhu. This starts off with a whole new set of investigator occupations that include the Beggar, the Craftsman, and the Juggler/Minstrel, Monks and members of the clergy, soldiers and warriors of various types, the Scholar, and the Pilgrim.
The second change is the actual method of character generation. Instead of rolling dice, a player distributes 100 points between his investigator’s eight attributes. To seasoned Call of Cthulhu players, this may feel very much out of place. It is likely that the process will result in characters that are weighted either towards the physical or the intellectual, which may well be in keeping with the setting. At the same time, players still need to put points into the Education statistic, as the majority of a character’s skill points are derived from this score. This makes it as important to a warrior as it is to a scholar, as it represents not just their learning, but also their life experience. The actual process for character generation is hampered by the rules for it not being given in one place. It should also be noted that the starting age for a character is fifteen years old, which although accurate for the time, does make the character feel over-skilled for his age.
Skills are also pared down, the period not requiring as many as are needed in the 1920s. The most notable additions are Own Kingdom, knowledge of a person’s homeland, and Other Kingdom, which represents what he knows of foreign lands. Insight replaces Psychology, Status replaces Credit Rating and encompasses whom an investigator knows as much as their potential wealth, and Science becomes a category under which the seven “free arts” fall. In choosing Science, a player must specify a specialization, whether arithmetic, astronomy, canonic law, geometry, music or theology, while Medicine, also one of the free arts, remains a skill in its own right. The Occult skill becomes more proactive, its use being tied into the understanding and application of non-Mythos magic, as well as the ability to recognize its signs and spirits. In some cases, and at the Keeper’s discretion, it also enables some occupations to use magic. The skills are also categorised into five classes – Communications, Manipulation, Perception, Physical Movement, and Thought - echoing the rules for first edition Call of Cthulhu and previous incarnations of RuneQuest.
The other notable change is that characters can be allowed access to magic at the start of the game. Not the “Call,” “Contact,” “Bind,” and “Dismiss” spells particular to Call of Cthulhu, and should the Keeper want details of these, he will have to refer back to the Call of Cthulhu core book - a problem at the time of Cthulhu Dark Ages’ publication, as it is out of print. In a pinch, the book’s Contact (Creature) spell could be adapted to work in their place, but here the Keeper will be on their own. Instead, they are the spells of the Old Grimoire, drawn from the traditions of shamanism or pagan ritual. The occupations that can begin the game with magic are the Healer, the Hermit/Heretic, and the Priest, and their choices are expected to be “religiously” correct. These come down to relatively few, such as Cast Out the Devil and Heal, which unlike most spells do not incur any Sanity loss upon casting. Unfortunately, any player who wants to begin the game with spells will have to sacrifice as much as 100 skill points per spell that they want to know!
The remaining spells, from Augur and Body Warping to Soul Singing and Winds of Desolation are more suited for use by sorcerers, magi, and witches. It is the relationship between the spells of the Old Grimoire and the Mythos that Cthulhu Dark Ages begins to get interesting. Many relate to the Limbo, the human rationalization of the space between the spheres that is also home to the Outer God, Yog-Sothoth. It is possible to access Limbo using various spells, although doing so is rife with danger. These dangers include possession by spirits or encounters with Doels or the Nameless Mist. It is also the avatars of Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, and their servitors, such as Bugg-Shash and Lilith, which many sorcerers and witches worship and gain their spells from.
These and other beings are detailed in the book’s bestiary, although Cthulhu himself is not included. This is no surprise, as he lies sleeping in the sunken city of R’lyeh in an unknown part of the world. The central effort of the bestiary is to map a tenth century point of view onto these creatures, to make them not as alien beings of the Cthulhu Mythos, but to explain them away as creatures of folklore. Thus the appearance of the Star-Spawn of Cthulhu is explained as dragons, and while their description suggests that manifestations of other creatures, such as Lloigor and Shantaks, have added to this myth, their details are not included in what is supposed to be a complete game. Other creatures of folklore and fantasy are explained as human crossbreeds with Deep Ones and Ghouls for Halflings, and the favored worshippers of Shub-Niggurath as Goblins, and the man possessed by spirits from Limbo as werewolves or berserker warriors. This mapping of the tenth century point of view is an example of the game’s core concept, that of the layering of rationalizations.
For a Cthulhu Dark Ages game, the role of the player character does not differ significantly from that of the 1920s or from the early 21st century. They are still investigators, brought together to serve the same master, or at the behest of some mutual acquaintance, and what they represent are the forces of rationality. In the 1920s that rationality is science, but in the tenth century, it is that of Christianity and the imposition of a centralised government. Yet to the newly Christian farmer or soldier, the beliefs of their pagan forbears lie not that far behind them. When their new faith cannot adequately explain and rationalize the unknown, such as the activities of the Mythos, it is that paganism that they fall back upon.
Unfortunately this key concept is really only given form in the book’s scenario, “The Tomb,” and not in the rest of the book’s rules. Taking place in November 998 AD, The Tomb is set on the Eastern edges of the Germanic empire, just North of Vienna. German colonists have only settled the thickly forested hills in recent times, and they now live side-by-side with the native Slavs, while to the East, the Magyars are an ever-present threat. As the scenario opens, the players are members of a missionary party travelling to the settlement of Laa, from which the monks plan to bring Christianity to the Magyars. The investigators are monks, guards, Slavic guides, and the like, who have become separated from the main body of the party. As they hurry to catch up, a figure comes crashing through the undergrowth - it is one of their fellow travellers, Brother Drogo, and he is being chased by one of the party’s warrior monks on horseback. Both are gone before the characters can react, and both this event and the subsequent acquisition of a strange black stone mark what is, for the player characters, their first encounter with the Mythos. At the heart of The Tomb is a legend about the woods that surround the settlement of Laa, one that seems able to cut a swathe of terror into the hearts of the local people. It is also one that the investigators will eventually learn is tied into an ancient tomb that lies deep in the forest.
Some forty pages in length, The Tomb is strong on atmosphere, mystery, and tension. It does a fine job of showcasing the strengths of Cthulhu Dark Ages: These are a strong sense of isolation; the fact that much of the time, the investigators will be on their own with back up invariably weeks away; how close to the surface lie pagan beliefs lie; and just beyond that, it showcases how prevalent and dangerous the Mythos is in this time and age. In parts though, the scenario is a little over scripted and obtuse in its clues, many of which will be beyond the players’ ability to interpret. Supported by several pages of nicely done maps and player handouts, the scenario does contain some fine moments of horror, some of which occur within the tomb itself.
For the most part, The Tomb also manages to avoid a potential problem with Dark Ages: that when run, it could very easily tip over into being just another fantasy RPG, something that it most definitely is not. Indeed, it is not even a fantasy RPG at all, but rather a historical horror game set in an age not previously explored before. And that raises problems all of its own.
In many ways, there is little given in Cthulhu Dark Ages to get help a player or Keeper get a firm handle on how the game is run or played. Basic information is given about the time and setting, but the book does not tell you what an individual’s outlook might be. To remedy this, a set of ready-to-play archetypes might have done. For the Keeper, the notes on running a Dark Ages game do not extend beyond the basics of running the horror genre, but at barely three pages, it is never going to be enough for somebody coming to the genre or the Mythos anew. And this in a game that purports to be complete.
For the experienced Keeper, running Cthulhu Dark Ages will not be so much of a problem, but there are enough differences in tone and feel that there should have been more information included in its pages. Further, no advice is given to support the game, let alone discuss the differences between this and any other Cthulhu-themed RPG. Essentially what this advice should have covered is the nature of the all-new genre, writing scenarios for it, and the development of long-term campaigns. The latter is a difficult prospect anyway, given the physical and social limitations placed upon travel in the Dark Ages. Perhaps then, there is hope for a companion volume to develop this side of the game.
The publication of Cthulhu Dark Ages was highly anticipated and sounded a resurgent note in Chaosium’s fortunes and their elastic publishing schedule. It also hinted at a possible source of partly prepared supplements that could be mined and presented to open up a series of new vistas for the Call of Cthulhu devotee. After all, the German speaking fans had books and boxed sets that took investigators to places as diverse as Berlin, Vietnam, the North Sea coast, and Wales, so why not the larger English speaking fan base that is eager for new material?
Unfortunately, Cthulhu Dark Ages does not live up to the anticipation. Its history is too basic and dry, and character generation is not as clearly organized as it should have been. Nor does it feel like a complete RPG, but rather still giving the impression of a supplement. But it clearly shines in places - in its approach to the Mythos, and the effort made to place the Mythos in the time and period of the tenth century, and in its atmosphere laden scenario, The Tomb. Ultimately, Cthulhu Dark Ages is too self-contained, and much of its contents are geared purely towards the scenario and not beyond it. And in The Tomb, we are shown just how good Cthulhu Dark Ages could have been.