It’s (at the time of this writing) October. The trees are losing their cloaking leaves, revealing the long skeletal fingers of ancient beings whose roots draw life from deep underground. The vitality of Summer is giving way to the chill of Autumn, as the life force slowly drains away from the northern climes to make way for the season of darkness and cold. With that in mind, why not get into the spirit of things and look at Cthulhu Awakens, a new AGE system game by Green Ronin Publishing?
I backed Cthulhu Awakens when it was crowdfunding, but I was also given a review copy by Green Ronin Publishing. I have played the AGE system and reviewed other iterations of the rules, but because of some of the unique variations of the rules in this version of the game, I wanted to present this article as a first impression rather than a full review. In addition to reading through the rules, I also took the time to create several characters and run them through some practice scenarios, but only as a solo experience.
Cthulhu Awakens: AGE System Mythos Roleplaying Across the Weird Century
DESIGN: Sharang Biswas, Elizabeth Chaipraditkul, David Castro, Hiromi Cota, Howard David Ingham, Steve Kenson, Khaldoun Khelil, Danielle Lauzon, Ian Lemke, Monte Lin, Oz Mills, Jack Norris, Malcolm Sheppard
ADVENTURE GAME ENGINE (AGE) CREATED BY Chris Pramas
DEVELOPMENT: Malcolm Sheppard
EDITING: Skylar Mannen
PROOFREADING: Matt Click
GRAPHIC DESIGN: Hal Mangold
ART DIRECTION: Hal Mangold
COVER ART: Svetoslav Petrov, Based On An Original Design By Jacob Walker
INTERIOR ART: Joewie Aderes Michelle Boceda, Stanislav Dikolenko, Francesco Di Pastena, Toby Fox, Istockphoto.Com/Grandfailure, Jack Hoyle, Danil Luzin, Louie Maryon, Victor Leza Moreno, Tentacles & Teeth, Andrey Vasilchenko, Jacob Walker
CARTOGRAPHY: John Wilson, Mark Richardson
PUBLISHER: Chris Pramas
The Not Quite Forbidden Tome
This review is based on the PDF of Cthulhu Awakens. The PDF is 290 pages long, including a title page, a two-page table of contents, a two-page character sheet, and a four-page index. While the headers and formatting are like other AGE system offerings, including two column layout and stat block format, colors, page backgrounds, and header fonts have been customized for this expression of the rules.
For a long time, mythos creatures have been defined by Chaosium’s interpretation of those creatures. This isn’t a bad thing, and it’s understandable based on the sheer volume of mythos-based work they have done. That having been said, I’m really fascinated to see how other companies present the appearance of some of these creatures when they aren’t trying to emulate the Chaosium template, and this book has some stunning interpretations of mythos monsters and entities.
The focus of Cthulhu Awakens is the “weird century,” the time between the 1920s and the 2020s. This is the period where millennia of information on the mythos starts to come together and build upon previous knowledge. It also just happens to be the period from when HP Lovecraft’s initial stories were published to the current year.
The Weird Century doesn’t try to be a purist’s version of any mythos stories, and this is fully intentional. Not only does it include elements of the mythos that were added by other authors, it also seeks to reverse several established “facts” in Lovecraft’s work that define non-European cultures as intrinsically degenerate or prone to evil actions in the service of the mythos.
Millions of years ago, Earth was a battleground for various alien species, and in the wake of their conflict, life on Earth may have accidentally taken the form it has now. While there have been cults and secret societies, the history of the Weird Century explicitly states that most human achievement as well as most human atrocities have their genesis with human beings. The mythos doesn’t rob any culture of their accomplishments, nor does it absolve them of their sins.
Some additions to the Weird Century include Misty Valley Junior College, an HBCU that rivals Miskatonic University with its studies of strange events and esoteric tomes. While Miskatonic has deeper pockets, Misty Valley encourages more open minds. The more modern end of the Weird Century also features The Carter-West Agency, an organization devoted to exploring weird phenomena and founded by descendants of Randolph Carter and Herbert West. This helps to answer the question of “how do our investigators know one another,” if your campaign framework doesn’t want to start with everyone wandering into their first mystery cold.
Another organization that makes an appearance later in the Weird Century is Thalassology, a modern “enlightenment” movement based on finding truth by establishing a spiritual bond with the ocean, which is the modern incarnation of the Order of Dagon. Related to this development is the Innsmouth Development Corporation, an organization devoted to developing seaside property around the United States.
The Rules of the Cosmos
Cthulhu Awakens began life as a supplement to Modern AGE but was spun out into its own game. That said, it’s still extremely compatible with most Modern AGE options, and incorporates some of the alternate rules that have appeared in that game’s supplements.
The key components of game resolution involve rolling 3d6 and adding a modifier, compared to a Target Number. One of the dice should be a different color and be designated as the stunt die. Meeting or exceeding the Target Number is a success. Rolling doubles generates a number of stunt points equal to the number on the stunt die, which allows players to choose an additional effect to add to their successful action, from a chart of additional effects. These effects vary in cost, and the player can “buy” stunts with the number of stunt points generated.
One aspect of the AGE system I have always appreciated is that Advanced Tests, tests that may require building on successes over time, feel very intuitive to the system. Advanced Tests have a success threshold, so with each successful check, the number on the stunt die is added to the total building towards the Success Threshold. While this has been present in all of the other iterations of the AGE system, it gets a lot of use in this version of the rules, as it forms the basis of casting the workings of the mythos, as well as in some investigations.
Individual characters may have different focuses to abilities, granting them an additional bonus in one subset of the use of that ability (for example, a longarm focus gives you a +2 bonus to Accuracy rolls for shooting a single shot rifle). Characters also pick up talents that let them bend the rules in specific ways based on the character’s expertise, and the benefits from talents are broken up into Novice, Expert, and Master levels. For example, Contacts gives you access to characters that have access to something you may want and are at least neutral toward your character, while Expert level may make them more likely to do favors for you, and at Master level, your Contacts are zealously loyal to you.
Starting at 2nd level, you can pick up a specialization, which is very similar to a talent, except they are broken into Novice, Expert, Master, Grandmaster, and Apex levels. These serve as more character defining talent trees. One interesting aspect of this is that older AGE supplements started specializations at 4th level, while Fantasy AGE 2nd edition starts specializations at 1st level. Cthulhu Awakens splits the difference and assumes you live in your skin at least a little bit before knowing the archetype you want to follow.
Bonds are another aspect that have existed in some other AGE system rules, but they have a more integrated function in Cthulhu Awakens. Personal bonds allow you to spend points equal to your bond on stunts that relate to actions you take related to that bond. So, if you have a bond to the place where you work, and you are attempting to put out a fire, you could spend extra stunt points on attempts to put out the fire at your headquarters. External bonds are bonds that the GM can spend either when relevant NPCs roll against you, or when you fail a roll related to that bond. For example, if you have a bond showing you are in debt to the mob, the GM may get to add extra points for stunts when you are in a scene where you are in conflict with mobsters.
But What If I’m The Weird One?
There are rules for having an inhuman background, as well as specializing in sorcery, or having psychic abilities. While the inhuman legacy talent appears in the character creation chapter, there are additional inhuman legacy details in the entries on deep ones and ghouls, and the sorcery and psychic rules are in a separate chapter on supernatural powers.
Psychic abilities are the easiest to deal with. These work in a manner like other psychic or magical abilities that appear in other AGE system books. In this case, you aren’t spending a certain number of points whenever you successfully use them as a limiter, but rather, you make a Price Test. The Price Test measures how much of a toll your psychic ability has taken on you, which can range from taking a penalty to future rolls, gaining fatigue, or even injuring yourself (cue random nose bleed).
Eldritch Workings are the “is it a spell or is it a weird scientific experiment” mechanics that pull on the power of the mythos to warp reality, doing things like summoning or banishing entities, empowering items to do supernatural things, or mutate a physical form. You don’t have to be a sorcerer to use these workings, and most people that end up dabbling with them probably aren’t, but sorcerers can invoke some of these workings without having an eldritch tome on hand because they have taken the time to learn the ins and outs of the working.
Learning a working can get a little involved, and in addition to making checks to see if you have internalized the instructions, each step of the process causes you to check for Alienation (we’ll get to that). That’s in addition to any Alienation that might be triggered when you actually use the working. The benefit to being a sorcerer isn’t just that you don’t need to always have that eldritch tome with you to cast a spell, but that you are more likely to have the required focuses needed to cast the spell (otherwise, you take a penalty for each focus that a caster lacks), and that the Success Threshold lowers for more accomplished sorcerers, meaning the working goes into effect sooner, and with fewer checks.
For each failed check while casting an Eldritch Working there are minor, moderate, or major repercussions. Continuing a spell after you suffer a moderate repercussion means that the spell might just resolve without your active participation and go wild.
I like the way the AGE system handles tests, and I think the Advanced Test method of resolution is perfect for the kind of ritual magic that pervades mythos storytelling, but I also wish there had been some kind of summary chart that pulled together all of the steps detailed in the various paragraphs detailing the process so that it was a little more obvious how it all works. As it stands, reading through the process may be a little daunting and discouraging for players that envisioned having a sorcerer as their character.
In addition to psychic abilities and sorcery, there is a section on the Dreamlands. One of the talents in the character creation section even facilitates having a character that can willingly control their dreams, making it easier for them to guide others into the Dreamlands. If PCs don’t end up finding some supernatural means of bodily moving into the Dreamlands, their adventures there generally won’t lead to their demise, but spending too long in the Dreamlands can lead to a melancholy external bond that can slowly erode the character’s desire to live in the real world.
Mythos stories almost always include some aspect of research and investigation. This is one of the reasons that Trail of Cthulhu exists, to lean more heavily on the investigation/mystery side of these stories. Cthulhu Awakens adds a few rules to the AGE system toolbox, and repurposes others, to emulate this investigation.
Characters can obviously make checks to learn information and can use Advanced Tests to find information that needs to be assembled or unearthed. There are also a few other rules that are added to investigations to facilitate them.
Individual clues can come in three different types. Some clues are evident to anyone that says they are looking for them in the right place at the right time. Other clues are available to characters who have a focus in investigation, without rolling. It’s also worth noting that investigation focuses are spread out, so that someone good at asking the right questions to get answers may have a Communication (Investigation) focus, and someone that’s good at hitting the books may have an Intelligence (Investigation) focus for their abilities. One might get an automatic clue from talking to the right person, while another might get an automatic clue from visiting a newspaper’s morgue.
The GM can set a number of clues to trigger a revelation. The PCs may understand the importance of the clues and be ready for what is about to happen, or they may just find enough clues that they happen to be in the right place at the right time to witness an event happen, but they have no foreknowledge of what is about to go down, other than that they knew something was about to happen.
Cthulhu Awakens moves away from the concept of characters losing their sanity as they encounter the mythos, but that doesn’t mean your continued ability to function isn’t impaired. Alienation is what replaces sanity, and it’s a nuanced but important distinction. Alienation represents characters encountering elements that challenge their assumptions about reality. As they begin to integrate supernatural, hyperdimensional concepts into their mindset, they become less able to function in a world that does not take these conceits into account.
The point of this is to emphasize that your character isn’t randomly becoming schizophrenic or turning into a kleptomaniac because their brain is broken. Using real world illnesses in this manner undermines the reality of people that suffer from mental illness. Alienation is meant to explain that it’s very hard for a human brain to be aligned to understand it’s base level existence, as well as calculating the infinite permutations of other realities once exposed to those realities. In other words, your perception is being supernaturally spread across multiple dimensions, and eventually can’t focus enough on the reality you live in to function.
There are multiple forms of Alienation based on what aspect of reality is being challenged. Each of these can generate their own external bonds to be used against a character, and they are:
- Entities (encountering more “mundane” supernatural creatures)
- Visitations (encountering an aspect of a major mythos entity)
- Phenomena (seeing reality being bent in a way that it shouldn’t be)
- Revelation (seeing a connection between things that you didn’t see before)
Once you have more than five levels of bonds with any of these versions of Alienation, you zero out those bonds and acquire a Distortion, a roleplaying quirk tailored to how your brain is now processing information. Once you have five Distortions, the next Distortion you acquire removes your character from play. You are too far removed from reality to participate in it.
The Option that Makes This Tricky For Me
The Expanse RPG, which also uses the AGE system, introduced Fortune to replace health. Instead of taking direct damage, you have a pool of Fortune that you can spend to reduce the damage that you take, or that you can spend to replace die rolls. This makes your character more competent, and in the case of The Expanse, it helps to explain why your character can survive a firefight while still appearing to be a normal human, because you are explaining how Fortune intervened so that you never took the damage. You gain Fortune as you gain levels.
Core Modern AGE divides the modes of play into Gritty, Pulpy, and Cinematic, and the default of Cthulhu Awakens seems to be a mix of Gritty and Pulpy mode. In general, unlike Fantasy AGE, where Health continues to scale with level, Modern AGE in Gritty mode doesn’t grant additional health at higher levels, while Pulpy and Cinematic modes do. Fortune doesn’t straight up translate to Cinematic mode, because it’s a resource that can be pulled on both to increase competency and survival, but it does make it harder to visualize how much more survivable the late game is against more powerful creatures with an additional resource at play.
GM Facing Material
Two of the most important aspects of this section include the section on safety and the section directly addressing H.P. Lovecraft. At this point, I’m uncomfortable with any mythos-based game that isn’t willing to directly address Lovecraft’s odious personal beliefs and doesn’t point out how detrimental it is to unquestioningly accept some of the premises he espouses on humanity in his work. The text does a good job of pointing out that Lovecraft was exceptionally racist even compared to his peers and discusses where his stories need to be challenged and what not to use as a basis for events. This approach is supported elsewhere in the book where the Weird Century’s “definitive” history is expressed. My only real wish is that we hadn’t even gotten a picture of Lovecraft in this section, because I’m so sick of seeing his face in mythos-based games.
The section on safety tools talks about the bare minimum expected experience for the game in seven bullet points, then moves on to having a Session Zero, establishing Veils and Lines, making games accessible and open to players, and using active safety tools at the table. This is two pages of material, but there are various sidebars and direct discussions elsewhere in this book that reinforce this nod toward safe play.
In Gods Best Forgotten, the book establishes what Outsiders are assumed to be at play in the setting, and introduces the default assumptions around how they are organized, acknowledging that both in setting and in the real world, these classifications may not hold up to how others perceive them. In general, we get Outsiders that are Elder Gods, Earth Gods, and Dream Gods, defining if they have a primary manifestation in the world, beyond it, or in the Dreamlands. For what it’s worth, if you’ve gotten used to a standardized Cthulhu appearance, you’ll both recognize and see some new elements in this version.
The Entities chapter provides some regular human stat blocks, mundane encounters, and a whole mess of extra-planar weirdness, with a lot of names you probably recognize if you have looked through other mythos inspired game material. These threats are based on this scale:
- Minor (levels 1 through 4)
- Moderate (levels 5 through 8)
- Major (levels 9 through 12)
- Dire (levels 13 through 16)
- Legendary (levels 17 through 20)
These levels aren’t meant to imply that a party of 15th level characters can put their heads down and level a Dire Threat. It’s mean to say that a party of 15th level characters can probably survive long enough to figure out what to do in order to banish or capture a being of that threat rating, and fighting it headlong is not going to work out in the long run.
Just to give you an idea of how these are calibrated, a fully manifested Deep One, a thing that usually appears in number and as a minion of a greater entity, is a Major Threat. Ghouls and Ghasts, which are creepy people eaters, but still primarily quantifiable physical predators, are minor threats. A shoggoth, on the other hand, is a Dire Threat.
There are two adventures included in this book, which serve as bookends from the Weird Century. One is set in the 1930s, near the beginning of the Weird Century, while the other takes place in 2020. What’s interesting to me is that they use a more standard Cthulhu Mythos game assumption that the PCs are called together and then encounter strangeness, rather than employing some of the framing mechanism built into the setting, such as the Carter-West Agency.
The first adventure revolves around a survivor of the Innsmouth raid calling together some people she believes have Deep One DNA that can be triggered, as she begins to rebuild a new life. While she attempts to have her staff keep them drunk and happy until she can perform the ritual, the PCs can explore the grounds and find evidence of rituals, connections to Innsmouth, and potentially even a way to modify her ritual to trigger her full transformation into a Deep One without affecting all of the PCs.
The second adventure involves an internet influencer going missing in a West Virginia town after an ancient Mi-Go experimental lab is uncovered. One of the brains in a jar left by the Mi-Go is psychic and is rallying the other brains to his leadership as he uses his psychic abilities to trap people in the mines and implant the displaced brains. The influencer is the young body targeted by the psychic brain, which he didn’t expect to cause undue attention.
My main concern with the first adventure is just communicating to the PCs that even if they survive the ritual or avoid it, the main way to end the adventure is to participate in a prolonged chase, unless they come up with a particularly thoughtful way to escape without being noticed. I like the way the second adventure unfolds, but there is a bit too much backstory involving the psychic brain not only being experimented on by the Mi-Go, but having been a displaced personality from Yithian time travel, which is an element that feels unnecessary and extraneous to whatever the PCs will actually find out.
Final Thoughts My personal threshold for what I want from a mythos based game is “could I run a campaign that looks like Eternal Darkness (the greatest Gamecube game ever created, please go look it up) using these rules,” and actually, I think I could
One of the reasons I wanted to do this as a First Impression is that the AGE system is a little tricky to evaluate at high level, especially when you’ve only ever played low level adventures in it. Adding in an element that makes Modern AGE scale more at high levels, the way Fortune does, and it makes it a little harder to come to firm conclusions without more definite high level play experience.
Overall, I really like this implementation of a Cthulhu game that breaks new ground. While I don’t dislike Call of Cthulhu, it also doesn’t challenge a lot of mythos assumptions, and has helped to make some default over the years. Fresh takes always interest me, and why I really enjoyed Evil Hat’s Fate of Cthulhu take as well, it is a very specific kind of story, and isn’t meant to emulate the same kinds of stories that Call of Cthulhu storylines engage.
My biggest complaints are the same complaints I’ve had about AGE system products in the past. Many of the elements of the game seem to work well, but the more structured parts of the game aren’t summarized in the rulebooks as well as I would like. Not only is that true for character creation, as it is in other Modern AGE books, but it’s also very evident when it comes to how Eldritch Workings are expressed. These systems aren’t even really that complex compared to some games, but they are expressed mainly in text, without bullet points or diagrams to summarize what is hidden in the middle of different paragraphs. It would be similar to explaining all of the rooms in the adventures without ever providing a map.
My personal threshold for what I want from a mythos based game is “could I run a campaign that looks like Eternal Darkness (the greatest Gamecube game ever created, please go look it up) using these rules,” and actually, I think I could. After I put together some cheat sheets.
I really hope this game line gets supported. I would love to see supplements more focused around working for either of the colleges or the Carter-West Agency. I would also love to see a full-on mythos campaign book for this game as well. And maybe a book on running a very detailed Ex Libris campaign, to help me along with that whole Eternal Darkness thing.