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Review: Realms Of Cthulhu

roc [1] A long while back, fellow gnome DNAPHIL [2] offered up the chance for the readers to pick what book he would pickup from Gencon and review [3]. The two leaders were the new Hackmaster [4] and Realms of Cthulhu [5] (I’ll be abbreviating it RoC). Phil picked up his copy of Hackmaster and and reviewed it here [6]  and here [7]. I picked up Realms and proceeded to let it get piled under a whole slew of projects, hoping to get a playtest, and some experience with the Savage World System, in before reviewing it. Neither of those things happened until this last Con On The Cob. I got to play a good game of Savage Worlds with the creator of Realms of Cthulhu, Sean Preston.

A Confession
Since Phil felt the need to make a confession in his review, I’m going to make a confession myself. I am a huge fan  of H.P. Lovecraft [8]. I mean HUGE. My collection of audiobooks contains more than a few lovecraftian stories [9]  and my bookshelf has more than a few versions of the various collections of his works. I often fall asleep while listening to Guerilla Productions Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath. [10] Rumor has it that my car has a license plate holder from Miskatonic University. Needless to say, I was excited to find out about Realms of Cthulhu. I’d also like to say that I picked up the copy myself since Gnome Stew readers wanted to see RoC reviewed. There was no comp-copy involved. With that out of the way, on to the review!


The Base System
The system for Realms Of Cthulhu is the wonderful Savage Worlds system. A system whose motto promises Fast! Furious! Fun! gameplay and does a good job living up to it. I’m not going to review the Savage Worlds system. Kurt did it here [11]. Go check that out if you aren’t familiar with Savage Worlds, [12] which is needed to play Realms of Cthulhu.

The Bones Of The Book
I know the first place I look at to get a feel for a new book is the table of contents. It gives me a feel for what the book is and how it is laid out. Looking at the page numbers also tells me how much of the book is dedicated to which sections, and thus what the designers felt was most important.

Additions/Changes To The Savage Worlds System
RoC makes a few changes and additions to the Savage World System in order to better reflect the feel of Lovecraftian horror. Characters are built like traditional savage worlds characters with the addition of 2 new areas. Sanity and corruption. Sanity is a derived stat that determines your character’s mental toughness. Corruption is an attribute that reflects your continued contact with the unspeakable. It starts at nothing but raises as your character’s knowledge progresses. Combined, these two stats do a fairly good job of mechanically representing your character’s contact with the unspeakable horrors of the world and their ability to stay sane despite said contact.

The sanity rules are fairly complex, but provides a framework for players to use when they suffer mental affects. Madness can be incredibly hard to deal with in a game, but it is a big factor of the Cthulhu mythos. The sanity and madness rules provided definitely help deal with madness issues and how to heal from them, somewhat.

Roc also adds a few new hindrances, skills, and edges as well as disallowing some edges that would ruin the feel of a Cthulhu-style game. It also adds a new element called Interests*. Interests are derived from a characters smarts. They are not skills in themselves, but they grant a +1 to a Common Knowledge roll when the interest is relevant. This helps define the character’s auxiliary interests while making them mechanically relevant to the game.

* Note: I couldn’t find definitive wording that states Interests are unique to RoC, but I could not find any listing of them in any other Savage Worlds book that I own or in any research that I did.

A Huge Help To GMs
The GMs section of RoC is significantly bigger than the players. One thing that can’t help but to be noticed is that the book strives to help the GM run a good Lovecraftian game. Sidebars are found everywhere in the book. Each one contains information that a GM would find relevant to the section.

RoC has a large section containing information on the mythos and its feel. Much attention is given to how to craft a mythos tale and what elements one contains. To this end the book has a whole section on creating mythos tales and includes a generator for rolling them randomly to get inspiration. Also, four fleshed out mythos tales are provided as a starting ground. Roc also contains information on various play styles and how to classify your campaign on a mental/physical and gritty/pulpy scale.

Two chapters in the Keeper’s Section that do not focus on Mythos Tales or GMing advice are the Magic and NPC sections.  The Matters of Magic chapter starts by talking about forbidden knowledge and ancient books and tomes, pulled directly from Lovecraft’s own stories. This sets up a framework for where investigators could research spells but it also works as an excellent reference for the GM to drop an ancient tome into their game. The rest of the section deals with mythos specific  magic that are used to by cultists, dark priests, and sometimes the investigators themselves. Most relate to the calling of creatures or gods and each have their own conditions as to when and where they can be cast. Other magic includes dread curses, the creation of sigils and signs, or some combat magic modified for a Lovecraftian feel.  All magic in RoC have some kind of toll they take on the caster.

The other chapter in the Keeper’s Section is the Citizens and Denizens section. It is where supporting cast NPCs, cultists and servitor creatures, and even the Elder Gods and  Great Old Ones can be found. It is weird to even see things about the Great Old Ones or the Elder Gods written up, but there are no stat blocks for these terrors beyond imagining and caution is urged when even introducing these elements. One of the best things to me about the Mythos is the feel that humanity can know very little about the truth of these horrible and terrible huge beyond imagining things. RoC actually works pretty well as a guide to all these things, which feels weird but is necessary. It also shines in statting out and making the servitors of these unimaginable beings available to the GM. Flipping to the right section gives you all the information you need to drop a Nightgaunt, Mi-Go, or member of the Great Race of Yith into your game, complete with unsettling terror effects on the characters.

Design And Art
The design and art style for a book like this are very important to me. When tackling the Cthulhu Mythos a certain feel must be kept in order to engage players. The design and background give you the feel of looking at something old and mythic without overpowering the text. Sidebars are done as scraps of paper that lay over the “wet parchment” of the main pages.

The art in the book really gets the look of the 1920s pulp setting. It is full of people looking out at unfathomable things, researchers poring through ancient forbidden tomes, and cultists calling up dread horrors. The art of actual Lovecraftian horrors does a good job of not falling into the pit trap of looking like monsters from a fantasy game. Creatures are often shown only partially or, when shown fully, in all their sanity denying brilliance.

Does It Do Cthulhu?
My big question, when undertaking this review, was whether it would get the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos feel. My end conclusion? Realms of Cthulhu definitely gets the feel of the Cthulhu mythos down. Combined with the gameplay mechanics of Savage Worlds, a system made for pulp games, the plethora of mythos creatures and adventures, and the many pieces of advice for GMs it all works together to make a great game. If you are looking for a good horror game for Lovecraftian stories, I would definitely suggest it .

If you have any questions about the book, feel free to post them in the comments. I’ll answer them as soon as I can get back to a computer.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Review: Realms Of Cthulhu"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On November 16, 2009 @ 8:01 am

I don’t know if it’s right for the hardcore fan, but I sure liked [13]

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On November 17, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

Is the material strongly focused on the 1920s, or are the 1890s and modern also well covered? Were the older plots playable with minor adjustment, or does a cell phone ruin them?

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On November 26, 2009 @ 12:34 am

[14] – Took me a while to get back to this. The material is focused on all 3 eras fairly equally. Any of the plots that I read could easily be made modern. Cell phones ruin all horror genres, but they get written out fairly quickly. The author takes great care to give the GM enough tools and advice on ways to preserve that sense of isolationism (and other Cthulhu and horror elements) in games. I’d say that you could easily take one of the 1920s plots and update it to the modern era on the fly.

#4 Comment By Guilherme Moraes On February 12, 2010 @ 10:14 am

Greeting, this is my first contact with RoC and i already in love with the setting.

So, i wish to know if i can translate this review to portuguese? I run a blog, Retropunk.net, dedicated to turn Savage Worlds and its universo more “known” to the brazilian players.


#5 Comment By John Arcadian On February 16, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

[15] – We already talked about this over email, but absolutely!

[16] is the link to his Brazilian version.

I love the interior pics you used. They really show the excellence of the interior design.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On April 20, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

I agree with most of what you’ve said. But:

As a long time (as in as long as the game’s been in print) GM of Call of Cthulhu I was persuaded to give RoC a look. I’ll be running my own comparative review in another place as a result, but I wanted to say here that the authors and/or editors of RoC might have given some thought to the notion that people might be coming to their game supplement from the POV of someone who had never played SW (yet).

For all the production in the book I found that certain key mechanics, most notably the rules for Sanity-threatening situations, were NOT explained in a straightforward manner, and required lengthy zipping around between the worked example, the text block of the rules and a couple of monster stats to make a stab at what in R’lyeh was going on. It was clear that the authors expected people to fill in the blanks they left from their previous SW experience, but I didn’t have any. Would it have killed someone to spell out the process unambiguously in the main rule text block?

The same problem is present in the SW: Explorer’s Edition. For example, it took me a long time to work out how to calculate the parry value as nowhere does it say that one should use the relevant die’s maximum value as the fixed portion for the calculation. If you’d ever played a game it would be obvious, but a rulebook should assume you haven’t done so.

In case you feel I’m being CofC-chauvinistic here, you should know I have exactly the same sort of complaints about the latest edition of Call of Cthulhu too, which takes a very simple game system and makes it so opaque I’m surprised anyone can understand it. Is rulebook authoring a lost art?


Your article did help persuade me to take a look at the RoC product, and I am eagerly attempting to get a game of SW:RofC together to give it an honest drive around the block.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On April 20, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

One other thing: The Rather cleverly designed RofC character sheet PDF I downloaded from Reality Blurs’s website two nights ago will not print. It contains some sort of logic fart that jams the print process (semi-permanently for a laserjet, requiring a printer index finger reboot) so I recommend people use a product like Photoshop to convert the PDF into a JPEG before attempting to print it.