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Thursday 17 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator and Keeper's Guides (part 1)

This is a review of the two main handbooks for the "Achtung! Cthulhu" game, which is not a stand-alone RPG, but rather a very complete and detailed setting for playing Cthulhu mythos adventures during World War II.  These books thus require a system to play in; and the books are set up to support play with either Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition, or Savage Worlds.  They are written by Chris Birch et al., and published by Modiphius Entertainment.

The first thing that struck me about these books was just how impressive the production quality is.  Both are hardcover (the investigator's guide being about 145 pages long, the keeper's guide about 290).  Both have astounding covers, full colour interior with very impressive art, excellent layout, excellent maps of wartime Europe on the inside covers (front and back of the Investigator's guide - my only caveat being they could have put something else on the back- while the keeper's guide has a "secret europe" map on the front, and an advertisement on the back); and both books feature an attached bookmark-ribbon.  I'm a sucker for those; including them almost always scores you an extra point in the ratings!

Then we get to the content itself.  As it turns out, I personally ended up finding the books less fantastically useful at first reading then I had hoped.  But I realized that perhaps I was not really the target audience for these books, for several reasons.

First, I was expecting the setting on the whole to be very Pulpy.  I expected "Achtung! Cthulhu" to be all about out-there near-gonzo pulp heroes fighting Nazi Deep Ones with lots of 40s-super-tech and arcane mysteries.  If that's what you are hoping for, you will not really find Achtung to be satisfying; that's not what it's designed to do.   On the other hand, if you are hoping for a very detailed complete setting guide for running Call of Cthulhu in the way CoC is normally run (i.e., investigators who are not pulpy super-guys, going around looking into dark and dangerous things in a historical setting with great attention to detail) that will be what you'll be getting here.  Heroes in "Achtung! Cthulhu" are somewhere in between the weakling hapless-academics of a typical 1920s Cthulhu campaign and the super-trained experts of a Delta Green campaign.  They are already tough people (but totally within the boundaries of a "realistic" level of personal training and power) because they are already in the middle of the worst war history has known to date.  But they won't be flying rocket-jetpacks or dressing in flashy costumes with domino masks.  The style is a lot less "Inglorious Bastards" or "Indiana Jones" and much more "Saving Private Ryan" or "Valkyrie".

Second, I found that a lot of the material wasn't directly Cthulhu-related, but related to the historical emulation of the Second World War.  My first reaction to this was "I already know all this stuff"!  However, again, I'm not a standard case, and the information on the WWII era (not just the war but everything else about the period) is actually magnificently detailed here.  I already know it all because
a) I'm an historian, and even though WWII isn't my area of expertise, I've certainly taken a look at it.
b) I have a personal stake in the period, what with my personal family history being intimately intertwined with it, my family having lost their standing and fortune, lost two sets of great-grandparents in German Concentration Camps, having been forced to flee a homeland occupied first by Nazi Germany and then by a long and brutal Soviet Russian regime, and with at least three generations of my family having been seriously fucked-up by the scars of living through the war in Europe.
c) I had only just recently engaged in a very thorough researching of this very historical period in preparation for my Golden Age ICONS campaign.

So unless you've got that same background, you're almost invariably going to find the "historical recreation" segment of these books far more useful than I did.  And the detail is truly great: the Investigator's guide has material on British meal programs during the war, notes on the evolution of male and female fashion in the UK, US, and Germany during the course of the war, details on rationing, music, film, press censorship, etc.  There are decent timelines from the '30s to the late '40s for the UK, France, and US.  You also have very detailed information on the structure and nature of the armed services and Intelligence services for the UK, US, Germany, and the French resistance (not so for the Polish resistance, who were larger and more significant than the French resistance, in spite of the latter being better-known by having a more positive post-war PR machine - but then, the book focuses pretty exclusively on the western front).  Character creation guidelines (for CoC or SW alike) are very much framed around trying to make a tight historical context of service in the war effort (albeit with a wide variety of options).

So in other words, the central appeal of the books as written is going to be for those particular kinds of CoC-fans, today possibly in the majority, who really get off on a careful and detailed "reconstruction" (in play) of the historical era.  I have been told that this had always been the dominant style of CoC-play in most of Europe, and in North America it increasingly became so as repeated products made ever-increasing attempts to show off just how historically detailed they could become.  There's definitely nothing wrong with this; although if what you're looking for is something a little less serious and a bit more drawn to the action-adventure side of things you may find some of the information to be unnecessary to your needs.

The Investigator's Guide is meant for the players, of course, and mainly focuses on introducing players to the time period (with all the aforementioned details), and creating characters.  Character creation covers both systems, and as CoC and Savage Worlds are two very different games, this means that if you don't plan to run both at some point or another, at least some portions of the book will be useless to you.

The CoC material for character creation is detailed and well-organized.  You have procedures for generating characters from the U.S., from the British Commonwealth, or displaced exiles from one of the occupied nations of Europe.  There are random tables provided if you want to randomly choose your Commonwealth or Exile origin.  Likewise, there are random tables to determine your occupation, with separate tables for Civilian, Covert Ops, or Military. There are also amusing tables for randomly determining your connection to the Mythos. Each occupation has a description, plus information on earnings and connections, as well as a list of specializations. 

To generate a military character, there are some slightly different procedures.  Players decide whether to have their character enlist or be drafted (in the latter case, the branch of service is determined randomly).  Characters must then make a roll against their CON attribute to see whether they passed the physical tests of basic training. In some cases, they may be rejected outright (in which case they must instead choose a civilian occupation), or they may be relegated to rear-echelon roles, or they may be accepted, potentially with a bonus to their CON from the training regime.  Characters that pass basic training receive bonuses to a list of skills related to their branch of service. If a character meets certain prerequisites he may be eligible to receive NCO or Officer rank, which provides additional bonuses. There are optional rules allowing for a character to rise up the ranks by making a series of checks against a promotion table (with the risk that he may begin the game having already been wounded (and taken attribute damage) in the line of duty).

Civilian characters can also opt to attempt to enlist or be drafted, and will also gain benefits from doing so, although they will begin the game at their initial rank rather than play through the pre-game process of potential promotions.
There are rules too for elite occupations (e.g., the Scots Guards, the Commandos, Red Devils, Phantom, and the famous Devil's Brigade; though for some reason the latter here is only referred to by its formal name, the First Special Service Force, even though all the others are referred to by their popular monikers).

The Investigators' book also has new skills and updated skills, which are detailed in their own chapter.

Chapter 7 is a 20-page chapter with rules for character creation, along similar lines, but for the Savage Worlds system. 

Finally, there's a 15 page chapter of new equipment, for both systems, with important stats and tables for WW-era weapons.

That's the Investigator's Guide.  Again, quite useful as a sourcebook on WWII in general, and specifically if you want to make a standard CoC campaign but set it in WWII. I'll note that there is almost NOTHING here (aside from the aforementioned tables in the CoC character creation process) that is specifically mythos-related, or even supernatural at all.  If you had this book alone, it would make a very decent WWII-era BRP or SW book for historical and non-mythos play.  To get into the mythos part of things, you really need the Keeper's Guide.

(Continued tomorrow with part 2: the Keeper's Guide)


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