I never spent much time with the Call of Cthulhu version of Achtung! Cthulhu, but I own the Fate version of the game. The idea that characters will potentially be bringing heavy artillery against mythos creatures sets a much different tone than I usually associate with Call of Cthulhu. The pulp action feel did feel like a good fit for Fate. Unlike Call of Cthulhu, where you may be risking your sanity to perform a ritual to send mythos creatures away, or you just run, in Achtung! Cthulhu, calling in an airstrike or finding an experimental ray gun are viable options.
Despite the more “direct approach” that characters are expected to take, however, even the Fate version of the game spent a lot of time looking at timelines of the actual war, and even the list of inspirational material skewed towards a more traditional look at WWII engagements, with Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade as the main media which engaged with supernatural elements.
Today we’re going to be looking at the new version of Achtung! Cthulhu, published by Modiphius, both the Player’s Guide and Gamemaster’s Guide. I don’t usually bite off more than one product at a time in an article, but it’s hard to separate a game that launches with both the Player’s Guide and Gamemaster’s Guide at the same time.
The version of Achtung! Cthulhu presented in the 2d20 books very much presents super-science and supernatural adventures in the forefront, with the war as a backdrop to those stories. This version of the rules feels very much at home using things like Hellboy and Captain America: The First Avenger as inspiration as well.
I was provided with the PDFs for both the Player’s Guide and the Gamemaster’s Guide from Modiphius. They have also been providing me with the adventures that have been leading up to the official launch of this game line, which I’ve been looking at on my own blog.
Secret Files of the Secret Wars
This first impression is based on the PDFs of these products. Both books are full color, with covers that emulate pulp magazine covers, right down to calling these out as “issues 1 and 2” of the series. The background of the pages are slightly crumpled, with a beige and olive drab color scheme that gives them a WWII era military feel.
Artwork in the books follows a similar theme. There are pages that present information as notes on corkboards, or photographs clipped to file folders. Pages are weathered around the edges. Several call-out boxes are formatted as typed pages of a report. There may also be a few bloodstains here and there.
The Player’s Guide is 191 pages, and includes a credits page, a table of contents, a three-page character sheet, and a two-page index. It is broken up into the following chapters:
- A Secret War?
- Playing the Game
- Heroes are Forged
- Tools of the Trade
- The March of History
- Allied Forces
The Gamemaster’s Guide is 271 pages long including a credits page, a table of contents, and a two-page index. It is broken up into the following sections:
- The Secret War
- Secret Weapons of the Secret War
- Magic and the Mythos
- The Gamemaster
- Heroes and Villains of the Secret War
There is some repeated content between the two books, mainly in presenting history or general resolution structures. In these cases, the Gamemaster’s Guide generally expounds on what was presented in the Player’s Guide and adds more nuance and options to what was presented in that book.
The Game System
Previous versions of Achtung! Cthulhu were produced for Call of Cthulhu and Fate, but this current version uses Modiphius’ 2d20 system. This is the same system used for other games like Star Trek Adventures, Dishonored, Fallout, and Dune: Adventures in the Imperium.
If you aren’t familiar with the 2d20 system, each implementation has a few tweaks to better emulate the setting for which the games were written. In most games, characters will have abilities and skills. Adding both together creates a target number that the player will try to roll under on a d20. Difficulties range from 0 to 5, and if your character has a specialization of some kind, rolling under both your target number and your skill produces two successes.
There are two kinds of narrative currency for players – momentum, and fortune. Momentum is freer flowing, with fortune having some more powerful effects, but being harder to get after your initial supply. Gamemasters have their own currency, threat. You can use these to buy extra dice or pay for other narrative permissions. Characters that are out of momentum can grant the Gamemaster threat to buy extra dice, and some Gamemaster NPC effects cost threat to trigger.
In addition to Attributes and Skills, characters can have talents, which are very similar to feats or stunts in other games. They give bonuses in certain circumstances or allow the character to ignore or twist some of the other rules of the game. This includes “weird” talents, that may represent supernatural abilities, or other talents that represent characters that have learned magic from a tradition, rigorous study, or reckless practice. Battlefield magic usually involves a skill check on the field, which may take its toll on the caster in the form of stress. Spells can be miscast, and some spells may be imperfectly learned, and have lesser, more dangerous effects when cast.
Characters have a stress track, which is the same track for both mental and physical attacks. The type of stress suffered does determine if a wound is physical or mental, which changes the kind of endangerment that befalls a character. Surviving a near death (or near breakdown) gives the character a scar. There are examples of both physical and mental versions of these.
Through the 2d20 Lens
If you are familiar with other 2d20 games, the magic system is less complicated than the Sorcery from Conan, but a little more complicated than the supernatural powers from Dishonored. Unlike Dishonored, a character picks a subset of spells that are active in their mantle, rather than having access to all of their known spells all at once.
The momentum attrition in the game is more accelerated, like in Conan, where it erodes at a rate of 1 momentum per round in combat, as opposed the 1 per scene erosion that is common to non-combat scenes to other 2d20 games, and is always true in Star Trek Adventures.
Both characters and monsters in the game are meant to spend more time on the battlefield taking punishment. Unlike some 2d20 games where a single wound can take a character out, and two are very serious, characters in Achtung! Cthulhu take three before they are dying or in danger of breaking down. Various supernatural characters and creatures may gain additional wounds they can suffer before being defeated, and larger and bulkier creatures take more stress before they suffer a wound. Instead of tracking special currencies for NPCs, effects that player characters trigger with fortune are often triggered by the GM by spending multiple points of threat.
What Goes Where
The Player’s Guide gives an overview of the power groups active in the setting, broadly explaining Section M, Majestic, Black Sun, Nachtwolfe, Mi-Go, and the Deep Ones. There is an explanation of the 2d20 rules, how combat works, and the character creation rules, including talents. Mundane or generally common equipment and vehicles are detailed, as well as the magical traditions available to player characters. There is a quick overview of history, and some statistics for allied forces, but without stats for the more important NPCs in the setting.
Characters pick an archetype, pick a nationality, and a background. There is a list of common nationalities that include the following:
- United Kingdom
- United States
All the other aspects of character creation can be determined by random die roll, and the common nationalities can be determined this way. However, there are “expanded nationalities” that can be chosen but aren’t presented as the default. These include Belgium, Cameroon, Ceylon, Cyprus, Denmark, Gambia, Ghana, Greece, Ireland, Kenya, Luxembourg, Malta, New Zealand, Nigeria, Rhodesia, South Africa, Spain, the Caribbean, the Netherlands, and Yugoslavia.
We’ll circle back around to this, but there is a sidebar stating that the game isn’t meant to be historically accurate, so marginalized people should be allowed to play whatever role they wish. They also mention that many of the nations on the expanded list are likely to have the background that denotes that they are from colonies of Great Britain, brought in to fight for the Queen.
The magical traditions presented for player character use are the Celtic tradition, Runic spells, and psychic and ESP talents. In the Player’s Guide, it mentions that the United States doesn’t have much in the way of long-term magical traditions, so they developed psychic individuals. We’ll revisit that assumption in a bit. For characters that want to play traditions other than Celtic or Runic, players are told to rename existing spell effects to match that tradition.
The Gamemaster’s Guide has a much more extensive presentation of both World War II events, with an eye towards supernatural events and the history of the organizations presented in these books. The history of the war is very much presented as happening in a very specific way, complete with what I assume are the events of previously published adventures. While it can be extrapolated, the main events that aren’t detailed are those events that are called out as being detailed in upcoming adventures and campaign guides.
There are references to more mythos creatures that play lesser roles in the overall conflict, as well as infighting between mythos creatures and power groups. The historical narrative jumps around a lot, as different fronts are revealed to have supernatural elements. This is all presented as background, and not written specifically to a GM using this setting material in an ongoing campaign.
The weapons chapter of the Gamemaster’s Guide features more super science, magical, and alien equipment, some of which can be used by player characters. Player characters can gain access to some of these items through a requisition system presented in this book. That means that when characters are going on critical missions that are known to involve supernatural threats, they have a much better chance at getting that lightning gun, or the specially empowered hand-to-hand weapons they may need to face the threat.
Some of the gear is wholly the property of the Deep Ones or the Mi-Go, with little chance that a player character is going to be able to use that item, although they may see it used against them. Since all requisitioned and confiscated items are collected by parent agencies at the end of missions, PCs aren’t expected to have an ever-expanding list of extraordinary weapons, although they can always requisition their favorites again later.
The magic section of the Gamemaster’s Guide provides more traditions and rituals, although these are more GM facing in nature. While some heroes may learn mythos spells and rituals, they are mainly the domain of NPCs. In addition to traditions stemming from service to various mythos creatures, there are also a collection of Mythos Tomes that detail various spells and rituals, as well as granting bonuses on various checks made to identify supernatural creatures and phenomenon. While the majority of both books focus on a pulp action tone, this section feels the most like a 2d20 treatment of the Cthulhu Mythos, with some pretty grim rituals, and some bleak histories associated with various tomes.
The Gamemaster section is probably one of my favorite Gamemaster sections in any of the 2d20 books that I have read. It very clearly presents how to frame scenes, how to gauge opposition in the system, and is extremely clear when presenting rules like extended tasks. It also has a very good treatment on pacing the player-facing currencies and awarding XP. While I wish it had more on safety, session zero, and setting expectations (more on this later), the advice it has specifically for this implementation of the 2d20 system is very good and is probably worth reading if you run other 2d20 games as well.
Heroes and Villains of the Secret War has more stats for Allied troops and special operatives of Majestic and Section M, as well as stat blocks for the leaders of those organizations. It also includes Black Sun and Nachtwolfe forces, including undead minions and mutagenically altered soldiers. The leaders of both of those organizations are given stats here as well. There are “famous” units associated with the Allied organizations, such as Gopal’s Gurkhas and the Pathfinder Demon Hunters, which despite being famous for their training in fighting supernatural forces, don’t seem to warrant “named” NPC leaders.
The bestiary rounds out the Gamemaster’s book, including everyday animals, horrors and monstrosities, and a staggering array of different stat blocks for Deep Ones and Mi-Go. The final section of the bestiary includes stats for various Great Old Ones. I take a weird pleasure in reading game breaking stats for various cataclysmic entities but given that in this setting you might build a supernaturally equipped tank regiment, maybe you do have a chance to temporarily disrupt the physical form of one of these creatures. This section also highlights how the system deals with extreme statistics. Since stats in the game are used for a roll under mechanic, stats above 20 don’t make much sense. In the case of powerful supernatural creatures, they instead gain a number of additional successes that are added to their initial success if one is rolled on the die.
Safety, Sensitivity, and Tone
This is a game set during World War II, where some of the greatest atrocities in human history happened. This is a time when the Nazis were capable of breathtaking evil, but Great Britain was still in its Imperialist phase, dominating cultures around the globe, and the United States wouldn’t allow the troops fighting for the nation to deploy in non-racially segregated units. Despite the atrocities of the Nazis, Great Britain and the United States heavily bombed the German city of Dresden for tenuously being a communication hub, but really killing 20,000+ people to break the will of Germany towards the end of the war. There was a lot going on.
The book has a few scattered sidebars discussing how it is important to not dwell on the most horrific aspects of the war, especially if it makes people at the table uncomfortable. Some of the sidebars mention not restricting characters from marginalized groups from taking part in aspects of the war where they would have likely been excluded. The focus, reinforced in these sidebars, is that the game is about pulp action, where the PCs are fighting clearly evil Nazis and clearly monstrous supernatural creatures.
Despite wanting to set a pulp tone, however, it’s impossible not to introduce actual historical issues into the game without completely rewriting the history of the war. The tone is very patriotic regarding the resolve and bravery of the British and the Americans, but casually mentioning the segregated fighter pilots of the Red Tails, or the Indian troops deployed by the British, without spending any time discussing the reality of the situation, feels very superficial.
There is a Japanese American character that joined Majestic after his family moved to America, fleeing Japanese Imperialism . . . but within a year of joining, that character’s family is likely to be held in internment camps in California.
The Pathfinder Demon Hunters are Tlingit Indigenous people, people from the Pacific Northwest, in Canada and Alaska, are noted as learning how to fight the supernatural by opposing “Wendigo.” Wendigo is an Indigenous spirit from Algonquin people. It’s used as the name of a mythos creature that may have been the inspiration for Wendigo and Yetis in different cultures, but since the name “Ithaqua” isn’t in public domain, Wendigo becomes the name of the entity. But the problem is, using a sprit’s name from the Algonquin people for a spirit harrowing Tlingit people perpetuates the idea that all Indigenous people are a monoculture.
I’m not saying you can’t do a pulp action story in World War II, and that you can’t focus on fighting Nazis and the supernatural. But you don’t do any favors to your own product by both pointing out racist and imperialist events on the side of your “heroes,” and then saying to gloss over those issues to not ruin the pulp feel of the setting.
What could be done in this circumstance? Having a whole chapter discussing how to address these issues in game, how to set tone and expectation, how to have a session zero, and what active safety tools to use would help a lot. Having sections of the book that deal with marginalized people highlighted instead of buried in text would be great as well. We’re seeing more and more games that deal with Cthulhu addressing Lovecraft’s racism, and more and more big budget RPGs spending significant page space on topics like safety. A book that deals with actual Nazis, Lovecraft’s legacy, imperial Britain, and segregationist America, really should have a devoted section dealing with this.
If you are wondering what you can do with the Player’s Guide, and if you need the Gamemaster’s Guide, I will say that you could run all of the adventures they have published so far with just the Player’s Guide, but the Gamemaster’s Guide is going to be much more useful if you plan on writing your own adventures, as well as better understanding why the system does what it does with its rules.
I wish that the history section in the Gamemaster’s Guide were framed more as a GM facing tour of potential game scenarios. By presenting it as history, almost all the war is mapped out, and it makes the space for your PCs feel constrained by all these things that “will” happen. Instead of the linear narrative, I would have loved to have seen different fronts described in terms of what factions and plans are active there, with a few adventure hooks for each of these fronts. From looking at the Fate treatment of the setting, I also really wish we had seen some of the Soviet supernatural organizations that were detailed in that book. Anytime the book mentions Russian or Japan, it almost feels jarring, since these rulebooks do little to establish any supernatural elements to those nations. Also, I’m pretty sure Italy existed.
Hope and ExpectationsWhere it does focus on two-fisted heroes blowing up super science bases, or paranormal scholars traveling to remote locations to disrupt potentially cataclysmic rituals, I want to play this game. I want to picture people like Captain Carter or Professor Broom fighting people like the Red Skull or Karl Rupert Kroenen.
I would love to see more magical and supernatural traditions detailed, rather than leaning on “reflavoring” the existing traditions. That said, if those traditions are based on marginalized communities, I really want to see people from those communities writing those sections of the books. For example, while we were told there wasn’t much in the way of supernatural traditions in America, Majestic has a base in New Orleans specifically for recruiting practitioners of Voodoo. I want to see that tradition, and details on that base, but I want to see it written by someone who should be telling that story.
While much of what I want to see probably should have been in a Gamemaster’s Guide, I would love to see an “Atlas of the Secret War” that details various sites around the world and gives marginalized voices the chance to write about those locations. I would also hope that such an “Atlas” would end up with the treatment on safety, tone, and session zero practices that these books should have included.
I may have been hard on this product, but where it does focus on two-fisted heroes blowing up super science bases, or paranormal scholars traveling to remote locations to disrupt potentially cataclysmic rituals, I want to play this game. I want to picture people like Captain Carter or Professor Broom fighting people like the Red Skull or Karl Rupert Kroenen. But seeing how great supernatural media like HBO’s Watchmen or Lovecraft Country handle uncomfortable truths about our past, I don’t want to preserve the pulp feel by just putting blinders on.
I think this game line has some amazing potential. I think it’s exciting, and it’s a great implementation of the 2d20 system. The Gamemaster’s Guide is at its best when discussing how to use the tools to tell a story. I just want to see the presentation of the setting grow beyond what may have seemed like an acceptable presentation of history in 2012 as a setting for Call of Cthulhu.
What are your favorite historical settings for RPG? What is your favorite system for historical roleplaying? What game has done the best job of marrying fictional content with historical content? We want to hear from you in the comments below.