“if anyone were to try to write the Necronomicon, it would disappoint all those who have shuddered at cryptic references to it”
Cthulhu Abides is a Pick-Up & Play (PUAP) RPG inspired by the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG and Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu RPG.
So why bother with another Cthulhu-RPG?
Call of Cthulhu is the godfather of non-dungeon RPGs. Arguably, it's the first RPG to find a way of making the tabletop conventions work for RPGs focusing on investigation and stories rather than skirmishing. It's a deserved classic. However, I've never liked the Basic Roleplaying mechanics, with its percentage-based skill system. Character generation is slow, assigning lots of points in a somewhat arbitrary manner, and although the rules for Insanity and SAN-checks were revolutionary in their day, they're somewhat simplistic. Chaosium's product support for this game is simply brilliant so I've always wanted to play the published scenarios but with better rules.
I thought Kenneth Hite's Trail of Cthulhu would be the answer and - yes! - there's a character generation system based around clearer personality traits, a much more sophisticated madness system, an elegant investigation mechanic and a very inspiring treatment of the Lovecraft Mythos. The character generation system is still slow, based on assigning points, and the basic rules engine is very blunt, offering automatic successes or a single die-roll pass/fail.
Graham Walmsley's Cthulhu Dark is a very elegant one-page RPG offering a rules-lite mechanic that can be bolted on to other games, letting you play through published scenarios without the "clutter" of the official rules. I salute this sort of thing and commend Graham's free rules to anyone looking for an approach to horror gaming that places character and drama over dice-rolling. However, the rules-lite approach is slightly too lite for my tastes and what gets lost is character differentiation - how is my journalist better/worse/different from your psychoanalyst?
When it came to dusting off Cthulhu for my own players, I ended up wanting something that took the best (for me!) points of Ken Hite's Trail and Graham Walmsley's Dark but putting a different structure in place. I knew I wanted a quick and easy character generation system that turned out strongly differentiated characters from an Edwardian setting. I wanted to go further with madness, away from SAN-loss as a penalty and towards the idea of mad player characters experiencing advantages as well as disadvantages. I wanted a systematic approach to gathering clues that would speed up investigation and head off dead-ends (like Trail of Cthulhu) without letting players succeed automatically at every plot point. And I wanted a freeform magic system that left behind the '80s-style "Spell Lists" in favour of using Mythos-knowledge in a creative fashion to thwart the monsters, so long as the personal cost was always high.
So. That's how Cthulhu Abides came about. The "poker-dice" mechanic is similar to Mike Nystul's Whispering Vault but scaled back for mortals. There are several novel treatments of over-familiar Mythos entities. There are Cultists-as-heroes and even some sympathetic Ghouls. Cthulhu fhtagn!
Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s ‘American Gothic’ fiction was written in the 1920s and part of the appeal of games based around his work is the atmosphere and sensibility of the period – Modernist and sophisticated, but poised uneasily between the horrors of the Great War and the as-yet unsuspected bloodshed of the Second World War. Lovecraft’s distinctive take on science fiction celebrates the pioneering and adventurous spirit of the age, a time of great explorers, discoveries and an exponentially widening universe, but it also subverts those notions, suggesting humanity’s scientific discoveries and exploratory journeys will ultimately bring it only madness and “a new Dark Age”.
The austere and bleak vision of Lovecraft’s science fiction/horror is balanced by another strand in his work, the fantastical, tantalising mock-epic of his stories of Kadath, Sarnath and the Dreamlands, inspired by Lord Dunsany’s whimsical fantasies. Many readers and games ignore this side of Lovecraft’s imagination, but Lovecraft never stopped referencing them even in his more purely philosophical horror short stories and novellas. Lovecraft’s legion of fans, friends and imitators have developed his sprawling baroque mythology still further, often (but not always) focusing on the horror at the expense of the fantasy and frequently downplaying his pessimism and sense of tragedy in favour of a Pulp-style adventure fiction.
Some of these authors, like August Derleth, were systematizers who tried to impose an overarching schema on Lovecraft’s ideas. Lovecraft himself resisted this sort of thing, nevertheless, this game is an attempt to go ‘back to Lovecraft’ and find a new way of pursuing Lovecraftian roleplaying adventures. The original Elder Sign has been reinstated instead of Derleth’s more conventional pentacle, the monsters and gods of the Mythos are recontextualised from a fresh reading of some of the source stories and a rules engine here encourages some of the flamboyance and swashbuckling verve of the Dreamlands tales, while retaining the oh-so-human limitations that are crucial to the horror of his science fiction tales. In place of lists of spells there is a freeform magic system, allowing Monsters and Sorcerers to call upon whatever foul powers the GM can devise, but also encouraging players to try to synthesize some sort of mystical counter-attack, if only they have access to the right books and are careless of their sanity.
The biggest change these rules propose is to treat Madness as a dynamic characteristic, rising and falling throughout a story. Following Lovecraft’s own counter-Enlightenment thinking, there are clear benefits to be gained from going mad. The trick is in going just mad enough.