I think for today’s review, I’ll look at something nice and simple that shouldn’t be at all controversial. Let me just check the internet for a moment.
Oh. Oh my.
Well, let’s see what this controversy is all about then.
Wait, really? People didn’t know all of that? And there is a rising wave of people with very strong and very constrained opinions on exactly what does and doesn’t count as cosmic horror?
Maybe 2020 really is the gateway to the worst timeline, after all.
By the way, today we’re going to look at Evil Hat’s latest Fate based game, Fate of Cthulhu, a game that is equal parts cosmic horror and Terminator storyline.
The Grimoire of Fate
This review is based on both the physical Fate of Cthulhu hardcover and the PDF version of the product. This game comes in at 258 pages. Do you like green, because you are going to get green. There are four pages of sample characters, a four-page index, and a full-page timeline tracking sheet and character sheet.
If you have seen any previous Fate products from Evil Hat, the formatting on this book is very similar, which means it has some of the clearest formatting of any products in the RPG industry. Bold headers and clear color blocks draw your attention to the right places. Professional, clear, and attractive, without a lot of background embellishment.
The interior is full color, and while Fate products from Evil Hat uniformly have strong, attractive art, this one is especially colorful and atmospheric in presentation.
Disclaimers and Discord
Many modern Cthulhu related game products have begun to put disclaimers about Lovecraft’s history in the products. These can vary from “he was a man of his time” to making a neutral statement about Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia.
Fate of Cthulhu isn’t neutral about any of that. It is a refreshingly blunt statement that not only condemns Lovecraft’s racism, but also calls to light how that racism influenced his work. This is the Lovecraft disclaimer I’ll measure other Lovecraft disclaimers against.
Oddly, this caused a stir online, rallying a segment of Lovecraft fandom to defend Lovecraft and condemn this book. Not only do I want to call attention to what an uncompromising disclaimer looks like, I also want to ask anyone that might read reviews of this product elsewhere to keep this hornet’s nest in mind.
Introduction/Pick Your Apocalypse
The first sections of this game introduce you to the concept of the game. This section makes it pretty clear that the goal of the game isn’t to emulate general cosmic horror investigation. Instead, the protagonists of the story are soldiers from the future coming back through time to attempt to make the future a better place by stopping, or at least mitigating, the coming of some Great Old One (which I noticed abbreviates as GOO, and for some reason that amuses me).
There is a balance in the setup between traditional cosmic horror, and the Fate assumption of competent, proactive player characters. Some of the horrible stuff that the GOO introduces to the world will still happen, but the characters can attempt to give humanity a better future by undoing some of the worst aspects of the apocalypse.
Multiple Great Old Ones and the timelines associated with their arrival are presented. The goal of the player characters is to take what they know about the various events leading up to the arrival of the Great Old One and do what they can to act against that element of their coming.
Character Creation/Fate Condensed/Fate of Cthulhu Fractals
The next section of the book is a streamlined explanation of the Fate Core rules, as well as the unique elements added to the rules to model the Fate of Cthulhu setting. For anyone unfamiliar with Fate, there are four main actions whenever a character rolls–attack, defend, overcome, and create an advantage. The dice are skewed towards providing a 0 result, so in addition to skill ranks added to the roll, invoking aspects, true statements about a character (or place, or thing), is very important to success. Spending a Fate point allows you to invoke your aspects.
The aspects that a character will have are their high concept (the sentence that describes who and what they are), their trouble, a relationship aspect tying them to other player characters, and some free-floating aspects that can add more detail. Fate of Cthulhu also introduces corrupted aspects.
Instead of leaning heavily on a sanity mechanic, Fate of Cthulhu instead focuses on corruption, and the gradual loss of humanity a character suffers from being exposed to cosmic forces. Characters with corrupted aspects gain corruption stunts, which let them do superhuman things, at the cost of more corruption. Characters have a corruption track, and when it fills, another aspect is corrupted. Once you run out of aspects that can be corrupted, your character has lost touch with humanity.
Part of this shift from sanity is an attempt to remove the stigma attached to mental illness, as well as provide a more sensitive vector to explore encroaching doom. There is advice for players that wish to incorporate psychological decay as part of their corruption, the biggest thrust of which is to come up with a detrimental character trait, without attempting to fit that character trait into an incomplete understanding that would imply a specific diagnosis.
This explanation of Fate is also being used as the basis of Fate Condensed; a more streamlined explanation of the Fate Core rules. Most things work the same, but if you are a long term Fate player, the main differences come from what you do with your aspects, greater flexibility with skills, and stress boxes that utilize a 1:1 tracking scheme.
As someone that has gravitated to the Fate Accelerated implementations in Dresden Files Accelerated and Iron Edda Accelerated, I like the streamlining that has been put in place in these rules. I also appreciate how succinctly this section expresses the core concepts of Fate.
Reading a Timeline/The Arrival of . . .
The next section is divided into the broad “Reading a Timeline” section, which explains the timeline sheets and how the timeline is used in play, and then features multiple “The Arrival of . . . “ sections that detail the individual timelines for different Great Old Ones. The detailed timelines include:
- The Arrival of Cthulhu
- The Arrival of Dagon
- The Arrival of Shub-Niggurath
- The Arrival of Nyarlathotep
- The Arrival of The King in Yellow
The timelines are comprised of four events, culminating in a final, fifth event, which is the actual arrival of the Great Old One in question. The four events aren’t locked in place. They are events that will happen, but maybe not at a set, exact date, which means that the players can tackle these events in whatever order they wish.
Each event has a Person, Place, Thing, and Foe, and each one of these has a particular rating based on the face of the Fate die (a plus, minus, or blank). Depending on the face, that determines how troublesome that element of the event is. For example, a “+” person is likely willing to be an ally, that may need to be recruited, and a “-” place is likely a dangerous, hostile environment. Depending on how events resolve, they cascade forward, eventually setting the four boxes for the Great Old One and the Resistance.
This ends up determining how well humanity is prepared to weather the storm, and how weak the Great Old One is when they finally arrive. A strong resistance and a weak Great Old One means maybe that Great Old One can be banished from Earth and the future is far less tumultuous. A strong resistance and a strong Great Old One means humanity may be equipped to survive, but it’s going to be a rough, torturous time of it.
Each of the Great Old Ones has a strong theme, not just in how they manifest (sea creatures, disease, etc.) but in the thematic story elements that weave through the events and the tenor of the apocalypse. For example, Cthulhu’s coming revolves around gathering what has been scattered, and the loss of control. Dagon’s coming revolves around confronting the past and choosing between bad options. Shub-Niggurath’s coming involves cycles, repetition, and persistence. Nyarlathotep’s coming involves the subversion of trust in institutions of authority. The King in Yellow’s coming involves the unpredictable and doubt.
Each of the timelines detail what the resistance knows about events from the future, giving players a good amount of information from which to proceed. There are multiple twists in events that make resolving the events more complicated than the history books might indicate. The various stat blocks that serve as examples in the different timelines also introduce some fun widgets to use in other implementations of Fate, like giving singular, tough opponents additional consequences, or changing the Fate Condensed assumption of 1:1 stress to more stress per box to represent hordes.
In addition to mining the stat blocks for some versatile Fate rules that can be used in other games, the individual timelines were very compelling to read. The twists are all clearly expressed, and don’t feel like “gotcha” moments. They seem like fun plot elements to introduce at the table. I enjoyed how easy it was to see an emergent theme for the different Great Old Ones, and how those themes resonated across all of the events for that timeline.
Being the Game Master/Running a Fate of Cthulhu Campaign/Building Your Own Apocalypse
This section revisits some of the concepts introduced at the beginning of the book, with an eye towards the GM side of the game. It reinforces the Fate point economy, as well as providing some best practices for compels and scene framing. It also discusses the importance of setting stakes for various scenes, and pacing story elements.
From general Fate advice, the next chapters specifically addresses the setting of Fate of Cthulhu. This discusses specifically leveraging elements like corruption and managing corruption and the timeline trackers for the various Great Old Ones.
There is also a chapter that looks at creating unique timelines for Great Old Ones not covered in the book. It discusses emulating other figures from existing cosmic horror stories, as well as creating new Great Old Ones for unique stories. I’m not surprised, since so much of this came through in the individual timeline chapters, but a big focus of this section is about finding a theme for the Great Old One, as well as defining the way the Great Old One accomplishes its goals (for example, its signature supernatural moves and the creatures most likely to serve it).
Riding the Temporal Wave It has a voice, and that voice is slightly irreverent and definitely action-oriented.
The tone of Fate of Cthulhu is inviting and clear. It has a voice, and that voice is slightly irreverent and definitely action-oriented. The subtle streamlining of the Fate Core rules works well with the natural energetic flow of the book. There are great examples of how to implement the Fate rules built into various stat blocks, and toys like the corruption clock and the corrupted aspects and stunts introduce a new vector of Fate widgets for storytelling.
Collapsing the Waveform
Some of the fun rules widgets that appear in the stat blocks would have been great to call out expressly in the GM section as ways to model narrative items. While I like the way the timeline tracker works and how it models the cascading timeline, it does take a careful read to make sure you understand what’s going on.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you are a fan of Fate in general, this is a great product for summarizing and streamlining the Core implementation of the game. It delivers on the promise of the weird hybrid of Terminator and Lovecraft Mythos, and it wouldn’t take much work to drift the structure of a timeline to other “fix the timeline” style campaigns.
Cosmic horror has been around in roleplaying games for a long time. What are some of the best ways that cosmic horror has been cross-pollinated with other genres over the years? What made that hybrid appealing to you? We would like to hear from you in the comments below.