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Friday 18 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Achtung! Cthulhu Keeper's and Investigator's Guides (part 2)

(note that this is the second part of the review of these two books; the earlier part, focused on the Investigator's book as this one does with the Keeper's, was presented in yesterday's blog entry and can also be found at this location on theRPGsite's reviews subforum)

The "Achtung! Cthulhu" Keeper's Guide begins with lengthy "Secret Chronologies" (i.e., of weird stuff) of the war in general and of the history of Nazi Germany.  These are mostly though not exclusively real-world weird events.  This section also contains an essay by Kenneth Hite advising GMs that they should avoid depicting the Nazis as "inhuman" and certainly avoid a campaign which suggests that the Nazi's evil was secretly caused by Mythos forces that were "behind it all" (as this, in essence, lets the monstrosity of the Nazis off the hook; as suddenly it wouldn't be their fault, but the fault of supernatural inhuman forces).  That's good and probably necessary advice for a lot of people to hear.

A section on the military follows, which provides unit and rank structures for the German forces, and some rules and guidelines for the allied war machine, including rules for things like obtaining supplies and handling injuries, and guidelines for how things like prisoners of war were handled. Statblocks are given (for both systems) for standard opponents: German infantry, officers, panzergrenadier, combat engineers, snipers, parachute veterans, mountain troops, German commandos, waffen-SS, and the Einsatzgruppe death squads.  Stats are also provided for different classes of US, UK, and French (both standard army and Free French veteran) soldiers.
Then there's a chapter on Intelligence, with significant details on the various MI branches of British Intelligence, the departments in charge of making secret weapons, the SOE, the PWE (the propaganda branch), and the LCS.  There's also details on the American OSS, Naval Intelligence, and FBI; and the Canadian "Camp X" and Hydra.  There's also details on the intelligence operations of French Resistance forces.  On the other side, there's information on the various intelligence branches of the Germans: the Abwehr (which in fact, under its director Wilhelm Canaris - who was personally responsible for saving the lives of several of my family members - secretly worked with the allied intelligence forces against the Nazi state trying to undermine it), the SD, and the Gestapo.

We then get to the chapter on Secret and Occult societies. Here we get into a seriously large section (50 pages of the book) on a variety of groups that are a mix of historical occult fact infused with Mythos-based fantasy.  There's real groups, some invented groups, and a couple that may or may not have been real.  A few significant figures in real occultism are mentioned, such as the incredible British magician Dion Fortune, or the fairly despicable German "volkish" magician Jorg Lanz "von" (in quotes because his claim to aristocracy was patently false) Liebenfels.  Fortune was the head of a real-life secret order called the Fraternity of the Inner Light who worked magically in real history to try to oppose the Nazi regime (in the game, they are active in the dreamlands under the guidance of the Elder Gods).  Liebenfels was the head of the influential but ultimately suppressed (in favor of even more overtly nazi groups) "Ordo Novi Templi", who had a huge influence in the esoteric details of the Nazi regime. 

Curiously, there are some very big names that are missing.  The authors chose to almost completely ignore Fortune's mentor Aleister Crowley, the biggest name in Occultism in the world at that time; who, although already an old man (but he would outlive both the war and Fortune) was tapped by his friend and contact Ian Fleming (also not mentioned in the book) to provide some occult intelligence in the early stages of the war, and was the inventor of the "V for Victory" sign (the Investigator's guide does have a brief sidebar box on the V sign and its creator, but that's the only mention they make of Crowley in either book, as far as I could find).  And there's no mention at all (again, unless I missed it) of Jack Parsons, the young and dashing millionaire playboy inventor who was Crowley's protege in America, working with the American branch of Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis, and at the same time one of the head scientists of none other than the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he developed jet fuel and the rocket fuel that would eventually put man on the moon.  He was also involved (at exactly the same time) in sex-magic rites and desert invocations of great goddesses.  One would think that a guy who was a rock star of occultism in that period, and a very important scientist of the American war effort, would have been worth at least a mention. These omissions led me to wonder if whoever wrote this section for Achtung didn't have some kind of anti-Crowley bias going on.

In any case, there are several other historical, quasi-historical and pseudo-historical individuals and groups detailed in this lengthy chapters, ranging from the relatively serious, to the wacky, to groups like "Section M" and "Majestic" which are clearly set up to be organizations that justify the formation and patronage of a PC party.  These two are given a considerable amount of detail compared to some other groups, but wisely the most information and detail is given to the antagonist group the Nazi "Cult of the Black Sun" which are a magnificent mix of pure race-supremacist evil, theosophical bullshit about Atlantis and the Hyperborean age, the real-life Thule Society, and the Mythos.  The Black Sun was not a real occult group, but it is clearly based on a number of Nazi occult streams and movements, and from their inspirations (the 'black sun' symbol was a real symbol of the SS, and its ideas came from racialist-occult theories about the "Aryan Race", the "Vril-force" and ancient atlantis).

This is where we get to the most Mythos-laden area of the setting to date; and it makes clear that the Nazis, though not run by the Mythos, are clearly dabbling with it to a level far beyond the allies, who have nowhere near the equivalent magical resources.  Its true that historically, the Nazis were always far more interested in the Occult than the allied powers, but that didn't necessarily make them better at it.  Of course, in a Cthulhu game, magic usually equals "horrific things Man Was Not Meant to Know", so the setting is obliged to present the allies at the occult underdogs.  There's nothing really wrong with that from a game perspective, since it puts the PCs in the position of heroes facing very challenging odds.

The major (villainous) heads of the Black Sun are statted out for the keeper, as well as statblocks for the Black Sun foot soldiers and special forces. And of course, their twisted Cthuloid monstrosities.

There's also another group, the Nachtwolfe, who are the "Weird Mythos Science" group in place of the Black Sun's "Weird Mythos Sorcery" group.  They have access to dangerous remnants of inhuman "atlantean" technology.  Here at last we get some weird tech stuff that's almost the kind of "pulp" stuff I had in mind, except of course that most of it is tainted and dangerous.  Again, statblocks are provided for major players and common archetypes within the organization.

The next chapter slips back into normality, with rules on travel by air, train and ships, crossing borders during wartime, smuggling, and details on military vehicles of all sides (including tanks, trucks, planes, ships, and subs).  Stats are given for vehicles in both systems.

There's also stats for German weaponry (allied weaponry being presented in the Investigator's book).  We dip back into the esoteric with some special Mythos-powered weapons and equipment for the Black Sun and Nachtwolfe groups, and then after that there are rules and guidelines for creating your own custom weapons and vehicles.

The next chapter deals with CoC mechanics handling various combat situations, things like dogfights, fighting with tanks, artillery, mines, and bombings, naval conflicts, random encounters (table provided) during large-scale battles, rules guiding being in command of units, and sanity loss for the (non-mythos) horrors of war.  The following chapter is pretty much the same, only for Savage Worlds.

The section on Artefacts and Tomes is for both rule systems, and details some new full-blown mythos artifacts, again mostly stuff in Nazi hands.  There are descriptions of several Mythos tomes; some already well known to CoC players.  The latter are only given descriptions and Savage World rules, while the new tomes (or altered ones) are given stats for both systems.  Among the latter there are the grimoires "Cult of the Idisi", the "Hanseatic Codex", "Culte Des Femmes Guerrieres Du Nord", "Merseburg Incantations", "De Origine Et Situ Germanorum" (written by Tacitus), the "Codex Aesinas", and "The Complete Works of Tacitus".
This is followed up with rules for how to use Mythos Knowledge in Savage Worlds, modifying the existing SW magic rules to fit the mythos, and listing some of the best-known CoC spells to SW rules.  There are a few new spells as well, which have stats for both systems.

Then we have a list of the (more common) Gods of the Cthulhu Mythos, with some explanations. Savage Worlds rules follow for stats of the most common Mythos creatures (byakhee, Dark Young, Deep ones, Elder Things, Fire Vampires, Flying Polyps, Nightgaunts, Shoggoth, etc.).  Its quite a few pages of material that is neither new nor useful to CoC fans.  There are also some new monsters that get double-stats:  Bloodborn, Cold Ones, Cultists of the Old Ones, Die Draugar, Die Gefallenen (nazi zombies), Ldendorff's Golem, Manneskin, Augmented Mi-Go, and Servitors of Nyarlathotep.

The "allies and nemeses" section details information about a number of important major figures, including Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover, Patton, FDR, Churchill, Dr. Hugh Dalton, Sir Hugh Dowding, Lord Mountbatten, Daladier, De Gaulle, Max Moulin, Petain, Paul Reynaud, Wilhelm Canaris, Goring, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, and Hitler. 
None of the above are given stats, but the chapter also contains descriptions and stats for typical NPCs of a variety of backgrounds: an air raid warden, a woman's auxiliary volunteer, a home guard volunteer, a local squire, police constable, postmistress, lifeboat volunteer, CID detective, black marketeer, war correspondent, French gendarme, partisan, refugee, resistance fighter, collaborator, Hitler youth, gestapo agent, ordnungspolizei, U.S. factor worker, gangster, G-man, and private eye. 
There's also some descriptions of sample locations: airfields, army base, boatyards, country house, farm, hospital, industrial town, research facility, university, and village.
This chapter is what I'd term "moderately useful"; I could see some of this material as being potentially usable, but at the same time a great deal of it probably didn't need to be either described or statted out.  The information about the really major figures in the war are reachable by a Google search (indeed, any of their Wikipedia entries would garner far more information); the sample NPC stats would only very occasionally serve any real purpose, and the location descriptions are largely self-explanatory.  There's a lot of pages (20 in total) taken up in this chapter for the actual value contained.

The final full chapter contains 10 adventure seeds, each relatively short (a few paragraphs) and not exactly complete but enough for a Keeper to build something decent out of.  They run the gamut of scenarios that make good use of the default setting and material.  I won't go into detail about them to avoid spoilers but they form the basis of a good start for a campaign (or several good starts, rather, as they represent a few different orientations for a campaign; it highlights effectively that the Achtung setting can be used in several different ways, depending on whether you're focusing on military, intelligence, the home front, or insurgency).

Finally, the book closes with a quick reference guide for where to find rules in either system (referencing pages in either CoC 6e, or SW, and the appropriate pages in the Acthung Cthulhu books).  There are also bullet-point summaries of some of the new rule or mechanic ideas. Then there's a long list of suggested reading, and an even longer list of Patron's names from the kickstarter.

So what can we conclude about both the Keeper's Guide and the "Achtung! Cthulhu" setting in general? 
The great part of these books are that they are visually stunning, quite detailed, and yet accessible to the reader and well laid out for actual use.  They provide all you need to at least start a fairly focused WWII-era campaign. 

You may not like this setting if you are hoping for a super-pulpy, or super-gonzo type of campaign.  This is Cthulhu in the classic sense, it is not a setting where the Mythos is at all played for laughs or taken lightly.  This is a game setting where the mythos is deadly serious, and where the PCs are not the kind of heroic pulp figures expected to walk away unscathed, or indeed to even walk away, from the supernatural horrors they might confront.  It is a darker game than the somewhat campy-sounding title or the notion itself might imply, particularly these days where it seems that the Mythos gets ever-more watered down into something campy.

Finally, I'll note that while a great deal of attention to historical and military detail is provided, the level of attention to detail for historical occultism, and its various opportunities, seems somewhat scatter-shot and incomplete, with at least a few glaring omissions (like Crowley and Parsons).

On the whole, however, a very impressive, and very beautiful project, well worth checking into.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia


  1. Mr Pundit. Enjoyable reading as always. And I agree fully, A!C is very cool indeed. I was a little disappointed at first, but after a second reading I see a pair of very solid WW2 Cthulhu sourcebooks. And they have nice pictures as well!

  2. More or less simultaneously with this, Cubicle 7 put out a "World War Cthulhu" supplement which I found to be an interesting alternate take on the concept. The particularly neat part is the way both supplements handle the "you're not supposed to be able to safely harness the Mythos" point in different ways - Achtung! has the Axis *thinking* they've got a handle on this stuff via Black Sun and Nachtwolfe, but actually both groups are horrible time bombs which will cause horrifying disasters if not stopped (I'm quite looking forward to the product line detailing the implied alternate end of the war, when the Black Sun and Nachtwolfe superweapons are let off the leash and everything hits the fan), wheres World War Cthulhu goes for an even more hardline approach where it specifically says that whilst isolated individuals on either side of the war might have Mythos dabblings, organised efforts with government backing to harness this stuff don't happen on a grand scale. (I'd actually recommend WWC as a companion to Achtung!, partly because of the somewhat different emphasis and partly because it includes a really excellent sample campaign.)

  3. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing this detail.