Alrighty folks, this is a new one for me. Here is a review of CthulhuTech I wrote back in 2007 which I am embarassed about in hindsight, which I’m including here anyway because Transparency Is A Good Approach. It can safely be considered the “Rose-Tinted Lenses” view of the subject, in that it contains accurate information interpreted very positively. It made sense at the time: I’d had issues with a badly printed book, and the people at Wildfire and Mongoose handled the problem well and sent me a replacement copy. I was feeling well-disposed, but over time as I attempted to actually use the book, that dropped away.
In summary, this is not a good book. I’ll do something a little different and frame the entire review in terms of the traditional Grade Summary.
This is basically the strongest point that CthulhuTech has going for it, since the basic concept boils down to “Mix Neon Genesis Evangelion with Lovecraft, mix to taste.” It was Pacific Rim long before Pacific Rim existed, except Pacific Rim is awesome. Essentially, the end times have come, and humanity uses the tools of the enemy to fight back, which mostly involves EVA-style biomechanoid monstrosities that nobody notices aren’t just advanced mechs, or bonding with extra-dimensional alien symbionts. There’s promise here, but it falls down in the implementation: the setting is supposed to be on a desperate war footing, but because of matter fabrication technology nobody wants for anything, and there’s all sorts of discussion about what music people are listening to and a seemingly relaxed modern (and very American) mall-based culture. It’s a miss-match that just doesn’t seem to have been noticed.
Then there are the weird generalisations. Anyone religious (with a special emphasis on Muslims, as I recall) had a total meltdown in response to the end times, so everyone is an atheist now.
Yeah, there’s a bunch of things like that. The Chrysalis Corporation is a big scary thing infiltrating the government of the good guys, except they seem about as competent as the villains from Captain Planet in that they’re sabotaging society in really obvious ways that could be traced back to them and which ultimately don’t help their own cause: it’s just eeeevil. And yet nobody notices, which either implies the ‘good guys’ are deeply stupid or gives GMs work in trying to explain this stuff. (Note: that’s a complaint that’s going to keep coming up.)
Also everywhere in the world responds in the same way to situations for the same reasons, and is basically identical to America in terms of cultural norms.
Essentially, the setting has big conceptual holes in it, and was clearly not the point of the book. The point was to have an excuse for giant robots to punch cthulhu, and for the Guyver analogues to punch monstery badguys.
How Easy Is It To Explain The Setting To New Players: B-
On the one hand, the setting is easy to explain because the core concept is a strong one. The regularity that you find holes or weirdness knocks it down because it’s hard to make a decent, sensible character in a storytelling context which itself doesn’t make much sense.
The system is mechanically consistent, which in principle I like. It just seemed to duplicate some fundamental issues from White Wolf’s Storyteller system in terms of resolution taking too long and it seeming to take forever to accomplish anything – like inflicting damage. It’s interesting, because it doesn’t have much in common with the WW system beyond using D10s. You roll your D10s and look for the highest number, except there are poker mechanics where identical numbers add together, as do straights, meaning that a 3, 4 and 5 add together to 12.
There are circumstances where multiple actions seem to bog down hugely, and attention focuses disproportionately on the people who are able to do that. I haven’t played recently, but it did feel like it duplicated mechanical problems from both Shadowrun and White Wolf despite handling the dice differently.
Additionally, there are weird points where the mechanics flatly break down. The botch mechanic means that having 2 dice in something is more dangerous than rolling 1, because if half the dice roll 1s then Everything Went Wrong. There are similar points elsewhere in the probability curve for this issue and others that just come to a grinding halt as a result, because they don’t make sense.
How Easy Is It To Explain The System To New Players: C-
I’ll be honest here: I’m being generous. The central mechanic isn’t too hard to explain, but the details and how they relate to character stats and skills up the complexity, and then there’s a whole other pile of fiddly details to consider. I’m still pretty convinced I must have been misunderstanding things, and that’s despite some definite trying on my part. If I’m generous, I’ll file this as “Not My Sort Of Fun, But Might Work For Other People.” If I’m less charitable, I’m not entirely convinced the system actually functions.
Is Character Generation Safe?: D.
NOPE. Skills and Attributes influence each other, and so there’s a bunch of hidden interactions that aren’t immediately obvious if you don’t already know the system. As an additional bonus, there are entire character archetypes introduced in this book and down the game-line which follows it that are actually broken, and where you can’t expect to play them as-written and have them work. Some of them are just pouring character-points down a drain where you won’t get any bang for buck, and some just cannot be expected to be played in the same group as other archetypes and have any fun: some of you are soldiers while some of you can hulk-out into extradimensional horrors and some of you pilot robots the size of buildings. The creators of the game seem to have very strong compartmentalisation in mind where the PCs are all one type of thing, and so don’t consider the problem to be an issue.
My biggest issues are the points where it’s possible to minmax or accidentally field a character who will be mechanically useless, seemingly by design.
Practicality of Use in Play: D+
I think some thought was actually given to this, but it doesn’t do the job. For example, the stats for weapons are before you reach the combat section, meaning they’re piles and piles of numbers and information that haven’t actually been explained yet. Take that as a representative example, and as you might expect, things are hard to find.
Additionally, there are statements regarding rules which can be interpreted multiple ways and very little in the way of clarity.
Ease of Running Sample Adventures: D-
And this is where the game completely falls apart. I’m going to expand this section from what I normally do to include both sample adventures and the metaplot of the series, because it all embraces the worst elements of 1990s metaplot and campaign design.
In the Cthulhutech book, there are two sample adventures. One of them goes like this: The players get hold of an eldritch tome that they can’t understand. There is one person who can translate it for them, and he will only do so if they leave it with him overnight. If the PCs refuse, there is literally no information for how to proceed: it’s a single point of plot failure. But wait! If the PCs agree to the translator’s terms and give him the book… he copies it and betrays them, leaving them with a useless duplicate.
So it’s a campaign module which forces the players into behaviour which it then punishes them for.
Elsewhere in the game line we have campaign modules which include “Save Versus Being Fatally Raped” rolls, and entire sequences where the players can have no impact on the story except to witness horrible things happening to people.
I cannot think of a single thing that the campaign modules or metaplot in this game do right, and that’s the part that gets to me most.
Entertainment Value: C- to C
I do remember there being moments in the writing where entertaining hooks for story ideas surfaced in interesting, foreboding ways, but I also remember sections being jargon heavy. Overall, the book isn’t pitched at being something that’s read for fun. Whether or not that’s relevant is entirely up to you.
There are elements of CthulhuTech which showed promise, but the actual implementation doesn’t work for me. If anime pop-culture plus Lovecraft appeals to you, you can do better by picking a system you like and building it yourself. Eclipse Phase would be a place to look as an alternative.