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Monday 16 February 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour

This is a review of "World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour", a setting book for Call of Cthulhu published by Cubicle 7, and written by a design team of various authors (who, according to the back cover, were "the award winning team behind Cthulhu Britannica and The Laundry RPG").

There must be something in the air... or maybe the stars are right? In any case, this is the second World War II Cthulhu product I've reviewed in the last year.  The other one being "Achtung Cthulhu", which was pretty great (though it didn't turn out to be quite as "pulpy" as the title made it seem). World War Cthulhu is another one of these, this one done by C7, and in this review we'll see just how good it is!

First, the physical structure of the book itself:  World War Cthulhu is a hardcover book, with a full-color (but very dark-toned) cover, showing some shadowy tentacles with a WWII fighter plane flying overhead (implying that the tentacle thing, which may or may not be Cthulhu, it's too dark to tell, is massive in size).  Not a bad cover but I think it could have been just a little bit less dark; as it is, the whole thing is just a bit too 'muddy' and obscure.

(NOTE: the actual physical cover has this image but several shades darker, so that the tentacle thing is practically impossible to see other than the 'eyes' and a couple of the tentacles)

 The book has interior black and white art that's fairly good, in the standard CoC style (lots of portrait drawings of NPCs, and action shots of tentacle-monsters).  The book is about 215 pages long.

So let's get right to it.  First of all, I want to repeat that this is a setting book; as such it requires the use of the CoC main rulebook to play.  Presumably, the latest edition of CoC, though in point of fact you could probably use any edition, as CoC's editions are all sufficiently similar as to be compatible with this book.

After a bit of introductory fiction (in the form of in-setting files/field reports), the book starts out with a description of the different British Intelligence agencies.  These include MI5 and MI6, naval intelligence, RAF Intelligence, the SOE, and a (made up) group called "Network N" that it is assumed your PCs will be working for.

The book provides all the steps for creating a character, the only part not included being the actual rolling conventions and the 'pre-war professions', which have to be referenced from the CoC main book.  For the most part, the process is fairly identical to standard CoC creation, with the following exceptions: you select a nationality background (which provides specific skill choices depending if you're from the U.K., a European exile (Polish, French, etc.), Australian/New-Zealander, or Canadian (or American, which use the same template as Americans)). You select or roll a personality type, which also gives bonuses. After choosing your pre-war career (and the skills related to it) you also choose a type of military service (adviser, agent, civilian operative, commando, diplomat, infantry, intelligence analyst, royal marine, mobile infantry, pilot or radio operator), any of which give you even more skills.  Then you choose or roll for an "initial mythos encounter" (which modifies your sanity and Cthulhu Mythos or Occult skill), a reason for joining "Network N", and initial additional training you received in Network N (which gives you even more skills, plus a chance to roll a special check that lets you very slightly reduce SAN loss on some mythos encounters).

All of this adds up to the creation of a character that is still a standard CoC character, but with considerably more skills than normal.  I don't know that this is necessarily a bad thing, it's presumed that these are very experienced field operatives, as opposed to New England academics who run into something horrible by accident.  Plus from a game perspective, WWII would have a host of dangers as a setting that peacetime New England in the 1920s would not.

There are a few new occupations to choose from besides the CoC ones: politician, scientist and spy.  There's also a few new skills for the WWII setting: Command, cryptography, demolitions, gunnery, military science, operate radio, survival, and tradecraft (which is a skill specifically about the 'craft' of spywork, things like shadowing, losing a tail, arranging info exchanges, surveillance, infiltration, etc.).   Some brief rules also explain how to update a 1920s era PC forward in time to the second world war, which is a useful tip if someone wants to use this book as a sequel campaign to one of their old CoC 1920s games.

The next 8 pages are dedicated to "intelligence operating procedures", which detail in essence what the PCs would know as the correct procedures (that they would have been trained in) for handling a variety of situations. It covers things like compartmentalization, communications, intelligence gathering, signals intelligence, debriefings, interrogation, recon, and movement of personnel and equipment, as well as "direct action" (i.e. killing someone). This is followed by a 5 page section on small unit tactics, describing weapons, use of position and cover, urban combat, snipers, etc.  Both of these sections are given without any system rules, but implicitly as an explanation as things PCs would know; thus no rules are mandating any of this but it is a given to player character assumptions.  I think that was the best possible way of handling it, as this was all information that needed saying, without needing to be ruled-on.

About 50 pages in, you get to the "Keeper's Handbook" section of the book.  It starts out with some guidelines for how to run the game; and here we get one significant difference from "Achtung Cthulhu".  In both books, it is very clear that a significant effort is made NOT to conflate the Nazis with the Mythos, so as not to end up explaining away Nazi atrocity or excuse it as actually having been caused by inhuman motivations; this is extremely important, to make it clear that the Nazis aren't evil because they're secretly led by the Great Old Ones, or because they were warped by things man was not meant to know, they were evil because they were human beings who chose human evil.  But in this, while Achtung Cthulhu chose to include elements of the Axis forces using Mythos stuff for their own purposes, World War Cthulhu seems to be choosing an even more conservative stance; it explicitly states that in this setting (although there could be lone madmen on either side dabbling in the mythos) "neither the Allies nor the Axis powers used magic or the Mythos in the war". This in stark contrast, again, to Achtung Cthulhu where you had the secret branch of the SS that was in fact getting involved in and using the Mythos.

Now, I'm not going to say one is a better choice than the other; first, both are GOOD choices in the sense that neither ends up going with the deeply crappy route of doing something that would end up excusing the Nazis overall, or denying the humanity of their evil.  I do think that Achtung Cthulhu made what might be a more popular choice: to surmise, in a world where the Mythos is real, that the Nazis (with their famous obsessions with occultism and doctrine about 'master races' and total ruthlessness to try to win) would have tried to make use of the mythos for their own pre-existing purposes.

And after all, World War Cthulhu is definitely wrong on at least one point, when they said that neither side of the war used magic, since in fact we know that in our real history BOTH sides used magick. The nazis made extensive used of the occult, and the allies tried to make use of the same to counter them; the most famous example perhaps being how Aleister Crowley was called in to advise British Intelligence, and came up with the idea of Churchill making use of the "V for Victory" mudra (a magical sign) as a magical symbol to cut off the power of the equally-occult Nazi salute and swastika. Whether you accept the efficacy of magick or not, both sides were making use of it.
But on the other hand, World War Cthulhu's take on things may, in being the less expected setting-choice, also be the bolder one.  It makes for a game where instead of getting a mash-up of a Mythos-enhanced War, you have a setting where there are two wars being fought: the second world war, and the supernatural war against the mythos.  This 'division of conflicts' can also have its value.  

Next up, we get a bit of speculation as to just who the mysterious "N" (the PC's boss) really is.  Instead of some enforced meta-plot, what the book cleverly does is provide a range of options, some 'good' and some with the by-now obligatory 'evil twist'; N can be a successful former occult-investigator, an agent of an international secret-society dedicated to fighting the Mythos, a lunatic, a magician, a mythos-sorcerer secretly out for power, a cultist, and of course (with a letter like "N", what do you want?) he could also secretly be Nyarlathotep himself!

After some guidelines for the types of 'mission plots' (both in terms of WWII missions and mythos-missions) you can run, and how to manage them, we get to the section on "Intelligence Theatres".  This is, so far, the most impressive section of the book.  Up until now, I had felt that World War Cthulhu and Achtung Cthulhu were basically equally good, but in this section I have to give the prize to World War Cthulhu.  The chapter details the situation in pretty much every European area of significance (even Monaco!), and in each region it has a few sample missions (each standard war-missions with a mythos-mission appended to it).  The ideas are good, the context is good, and the clarity of the information in this chapter is excellent. It covers just under 30 pages.

The next chapter is also fairly valuable, it covers what various of the major Mythos cults are doing during wartime.  The Black Pharoah Brotherhood, the Yellow Sign cult, the colours out of space (which are curiously described as being 'highly intelligent' and strategic in taking advantage of the war; which really isn't how I've ever considered them), the Cthonians, Cthulhu (asleep at this time), Cyaegha (which I wasn't familiar with until now), the Deep Ones (who are particularly concerned with the expansion of submarine warfare), Eihort and Glaaki (the local English menaces), Elder Things, the Ghouls (very active in Occupied Paris), The Great Race, Hastur, Ithaqua, Lliogor, the mi-go (who are involved in a war of their own, with the brotherhood of the Yellow Sign), the degenerate races of K'n-Yan and the Tcho-Tchos,  all of these are given at least a paragraph or two of information.

We also get brief descriptions/biographies of some of the important figures in Wartime London; including Claude Dansey, Denis Wheatley, Ian Fleming, Stewart Menzies, Kim Philby (the infamous soviet spy), John Masterman, Colin Gubbins, Baron Rothschild, Aleister Crowley (another reason to praise this book over Achtung Cthulhu, it actually includes Crowley, who was not just a real-world famous occultist but also connected to British Intelligence), JFC Fuller, Leo Marks, and "Mad" Jack Churchill.  There's also statblocks for some generic NPCs (intelligence agents, collaborators, soldiers, secret police, or partisans).

Then we get into GM procedures, specific to all kind of things that can come up in the WWII setting, and how to handle them within the BRP/CoC mechanics. Stuff like how to handle being stuck in the middle of a large battle, taking indirect fire, snipers, etc. How to handle sanity loss from battlefield conditions. Rules for obstacles that don't come up much in the 1920s but you're apt to find in WWII Europe, like barbed wire or minefields. Scuba diving and underwater combat, using radios, deciphering codes, doing parachute drops.  Plus aerial combat and naval battles too. Basically all the commando stuff. There are some really excellent rules for handling being in deep cover and how to calculate the chances of being discovered by the Nazis, including random situations that can threaten to expose you.

There follows a large and really excellent section on equipment, covering about 25 pages of the book.  It details currencies, costs, shortages, and black market items for many of the major countries in the European (and North African) theater of war. You also get long and detailed stats of all the major weapons used in the war, as well as vehicles.

Finally, we get to the campaign included in the book; "The God in the Woods".  It's definitely a full campaign, clocking in at 100 pages or so.  It features a sandbox-esque description of a village near the border zone between Occupied France and Vichy France, with very well-crafted descrption of areas of interest, events that can happen in said areas, personalities and groups active in the region.  Then you get a loosely-scheduled but carefully detailed list of potential events for the campaign, presented in a fairly open-ended semi-linear fashion, that begin with the PCs being introduced as intelligence agents in the region.  As with every other (shorter) mission detailed earlier in the book, the operation has both a conventional WWII goal (to set up assistance for the partisan movement there) and a Mythos goal (which starts out as trying to find or find out the fate of a personal contact of "N").

I have to say that "The God in the Woods" is excellent.  Call of Cthulhu has always been a game that's been blessed with great adventure material, and this is the latest addition to the roll call of truly spectacular ones.  I'm tremendously impressed, particularly in how it's been done in a way that is not just a hard-track railroad.
In the end, "The God in the Woods" puts World War Cthulhu far beyond the standard for a setting sourcebook, or a Call of Cthulhu sourcebook (including, I have to say, Achtung Cthulhu).

So, final thoughts:  both of the relatively recent releases of WWII sourcebooks are quite good; I mean, I gave Achtung an 8/10.  And they're compatible with each other, both have some material the other doesn't, both have a slightly different style. If you're a big Cthulhu fan and really want to run an awesome WWII campaign, you will probably won't both of these.  But if you could only pick one, I have no doubt which my choice would be: World War Cthulhu is a truly remarkable product.


Currently Smoking: Brigham Anniversary Pipe + Image Latakia


  1. I'm currently running The God In the Woods (with a few tweaks of my own) and having a blast with it (campaign blog is here: - I have been slightly remiss about updating it but intend to catch up, not least because things have hit the fan in the last few sessions).

    I definitely think that of the two products, whilst they definitely complement each other and could usefully be used together, WWC has the edge. The big advantage of the Network N concept, as I see it, is that it provides a ready-made focus for the campaign, and I've found that players really enjoy the way the game incorporates N's unique training into the character gen process.

    On top of that, because the game assumes you will be working for Network N (rather than having the rather broader scope of Achtung Cthulhu), that means the setting material can be more targeted - so all the stuff in the "Intelligence Theatres" section is directly applicable to your campaign, whereas in Achtung and its supplements I find that once you've settled on a campaign concept (civilian, intelligence, front-line military, whatever) you have to do a bit of work filtering out the material that's useful for that sort of campaign on the one side and the stuff which just isn't particularly appropriate for what you want to do on the other.

    Add a campaign as detailed as The God In the Wood and WWC is the complete package - a group broadly familiar with CoC can get playing as soon as the Keeper's had a chance to give the book a quick skim, whereas unless you want to buy one of Modiphus' adventure supplements Achtung Cthulhu seems much less amenable to pick up and play immediately to me.

    1. Thanks for the comment. And yes, I agree with what you write above vis a vis the focus of WWC. Of course, that means that if you really want to run something very different from the "Network N" concept, there's some good guidance in Achtung.