What will happen when the stars do come right? That’s a question that has hung over Lovecraftian fiction practically ever since HPL laid down his pen at the end of “The Call of Cthulhu,” and that has haunted Lovecraftian gaming ever since Sandy Petersen’s first dips into the realms of non-Euclidean dicerolling. What will happen when Great Cthulhu does rise from the depths, or when the Whateleys finally open the gate to Yog-Sothoth and cleanse Earth life off the planet, or whatever other version of the End Times is in the fiction? Attempts to answer that question in a gaming context include Pelgrane Press’s Cthulhu Apocalypse, Evil Hat’s very wonderful Fate-based Fate of Cthulhu, and now Cthulhu Reborn’s Apocthulhu.
Australian RPG indie publisher Cthulhu Reborn was hitherto chiefly an archive site “providing a home for professional-looking typeset renditions of old, classic, and best of all free ‘Call of Cthulhu’ scenarios” released under Creative Commons licenses, so it’s not surprising that the book has made best use of publicly usable Lovecraftian gaming materials. (Their previous title Convicts & Cthulhu, transporting [sic.] Lovecraftian horror to early colonial Australia, has been recognized as “a historically- and culturally-significant publication by the National Library of Australia.”) The system in Apocthulhu has been almost entirely pieced together by Cthulhu Reborn’s Dean Engelhardt from existing D100 OGL material, very close to what was done for Arc Dream’s updating of the Delta Green platform. Indeed, strong hints of Delta Green recur often in the system, such as its use of personal Bonds as important pillars in a character’s losing struggle against the sanity-shattering impact of the Great Old Ones. That’s no bad thing, as Arc Dream-vintage Delta Green benefits from one of the leanest and most elegant investigative RPG systems around - one directly compatible, furthermore, with decades of BRP and d100 content for other systems, including material for Call of Cthulhu 6th and earlier editions. Apocthulhu’s mechanics are straightforward, well-tried, familiar to anyone who’s played in this genre, and occupy a relatively small proportion of the book, leaving most of its 330 pages for lavish setting detail.
Apocthulhu has inherited many of the virtues of its predecessors, yet still manages to stand apart from both Delta Green and Call of Cthulhu old and new, and be very much its own animal. For instance, the designers have put a lot of thought and work into creating a convincing resources and scavenging system for the post-apocalyptic hellscape, reminiscent if anything of the foraging mechanisms of the Fallout franchise. Potential “career” paths for survivors of the apocalypse are presented with varying levels of experience and depredation, depending on the severity of the disaster and the number of years since it befell Mankind. And rather than come up with yet another Lovecraftian bestiary, the authors have directed readers to the many that do exist, and instead whipped up eight sample apocalypses and three full scenarios, each with its own particular flavour of terror. Some of these are Mythos catastrophes involving canonical deities, or even hints dropped in some of Lovecraftian gaming’s most celebrated campaigns; others are entirely original with fresh-baked sets of very alarming horrors that more than make up for the absence of a standalone bestiary. Indeed, the game could easily be used as it stands to build a Walking Dead RPG, or to play any other non-Lovecraftian apocalyptic scenario. In a long and honourable lineage of post-apocalyptic RPGs from Gamma World onwards, Apocthulhu stands out for its grittiness and grimness, as well as for comfortably straddling the divide between Lovecraftian dread and other forms of horror.
One of its best tricks is saved, almost, for last. Apocthulhu has full d100-compatible rules for playing Willliam Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, in the longest and most detailed of its scenario settings, by Kevin Ross, which almost stands alone as a separate vehicle. Hodgson’s immensely distant sunless dreamscape, ruled by nightmare presences that besiege humanity’s last redoubt, was a formative influence on Lovecraft, but has remained very underused by RPG designers, no least because of the original novel’s turgid prose. Consequently, Apocthulhu and Kevin Ross are performing a real service to the horror RPG audience by disinterring Hodgson’s creations and framing them in such a well-proven, flexible system. Ross has said in one interview that the Night Land section is due to be expanded into a full-on standalone fork of the system, and that can’t come soon enough.
The overall standard of design and artwork for Apocthulhu is exceptionally high. Yes, there’s some style choices I may not agree with, and not every illustration is to my taste, but overall it’s at least as good-looking a book as anything you’d see from the top-line RPG majors these days. Apocthulhu is a testament to the quality and strength that modern indie game publishers can achieve in both form and content, and is likely to become many gamers’ choice for any kind of post-apocalyptic gaming, let alone Lovecraftian. You can plug it into reams of other existing games and game systems, or just ring the changes on the many options it provides by itself. The game has just gone live as a PDF on DriveThruRPG, with the print version being finalized as we speak, and you are warmly advised to snap it up. The stars couldn’t be righter.
[5 of 5 Stars!]