Kickstopper: Turning the Lights Out On Those Who Most Need Them

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

Cthulhu gets into everything these days; it’s become an unfortunate nerd culture cliche that almost anything can potentially get some sort of Lovecraftian-themed special edition, and some addled fan will be fool enough to buy it. The descent into kitsch and cliche has not yet prevented the Call of Cthulhu RPG from continuing to be a major success; nor has it prevented Pelgrane Press’s Trail of Cthulhu from providing an alternative which has become a significant success in the RPG market in its own right, and nor has it prevented other hands from trying to pen RPGs intended to support their personal vision of what a purist Lovecraftian game should be like.

One such game is Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley, who ran a Kickstarter to fund the production of a full-sized rulebook after a prototype version of the game gained traction through free distribution online. That basic version, whilst a little rough around the edge as you might expect for an early draft, is really remarkably rules-light – the question remains as to whether such a light, simple prospect can really justify a full-sized RPG rulebook by itself.

As it turned out, though, the full-fat version of Cthulhu Dark isn’t just an extremely lean, mean, rules-light delivery mechanism for quick and easy horror gaming. Walmsley also has a number of laudable aims he wishes to pursue with it – aims which I find entirely worthy of support in general, but which give rise to a number of serious problems when you combine it with the rules system presented.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The Cthulhu Dark Kickstarter campaign set a modest £6000 target and exceeded it very comfortably, to the tune of about £65,000. Wisely, Walmsley and his collaborators didn’t let this got to their head; rather than going wild with the stretch goals, they sensibly kept them modest – split between additions to the book which were kept strictly limited in scope or material to be provided as a PDF separate to the main book itself.

This meant that the delivery process of the main book wasn’t rendered so overblown and ambitious as to make the completion of it drastically more complex, and also meant Walmsley wasn’t committing to deliver a complex portfolio of different physical rewards, both pitfalls that have laid other Kickstarters low in the past. With sensible award levels at sensible prices, and a planned product modest enough to be believably within the grasp of an independent publisher, I felt able to back this one with few qualms, especially after I read the preview of the rules chapter which was offered for free on the campaign page.

A particularly neat idea was Cthulhu Dark Zero – a mostly already-written draft of the final book, comprising the rules and the scenario design guidance plus one of the four sample settings (and its associated adventure), ready to be put out as a PDF very quickly after the end of the Kickstarter (with coupons to get a print-on-demand version if you wanted one issued later on). The fact that Walmsley was in a position to put this out was extremely reassuring – it was a clear promise that much of the writing of the core of the book was already done – and providing it to the backers so quickly meant that Walmsley could at least put something in their hands to show for their pledge, which would both help stave off backer anxiety and anger should the main book be delayed and limit Walmsley’s liability for refunds should everything go absolutely wrong.

(Plus, from a more pessimistic backer’s perspective, Cthulhu Dark Zero made for a good canary in the coal mine – had it failed to come out shortly after the end of the Kickstarter as promised, that would be an early sign that something stunk and that further investigation and queries were called for.)

What Level I Backed At

The Book: You get Cthulhu Dark in hardback. You also get the preview edition, Cthulhu Dark Zero, in PDF. You’re welcome to print this and I’ll give you a DriveThruRPG code to do that.

Delivering the Goods

As it turned out, the delivery process ended up being nice and smooth. Not only did the Cthulhu Dark Zero PDF come out nice and quickly (print-on-demand taking a bit longer, because it always does due to the need to order test copies and adjust the print files accordingly to get them nice), but the main Cthulhu Dark book was completed and shipped to backers a month before the estimated December 2017 delivery deadline, with Walmsley offering updates to backers which were universally informative and reassuring rather than bombarding them with excessive spam. This level of competent, fuss-free delivery is almost unheard-of in RPG Kickstarters, so Walmsley and his collaborators at the very least deserve props for pulling it off with a level of calm, efficient professionalism that seems to be beyond the ability of larger and more established publishers to pull off.

Reviewing the Swag

Cthulhu Dark Zero

This was released in a PDF to backers the day after the end of the Kickstarter and with print-on-demand hard copies made available a short while thereafter. This is a neat idea because it allowed Walmsley to get something into the hands of backers nice and quickly, which always helps keep backer relations smooth and steady.

As a very brief take on the core book, Cthulhu Dark Zero consists of a player’s section giving first a very brief rundown on the rules and then a fuller breakdown of them, a Keeper’s section discussing the rules from the Keeper’s point of view, principles of scenario design and running the game, and a sample setting (Victorian London) and adventure set therein. It is clearly slimmed down from the promised package for the main Cthulhu Dark book, but it’s substantial enough to let you start playing the game just based off this text.

This was an odd book to read; by the end of the player section, I was rather sold on Cthulhu Dark as a system for running quick, one-off Lovecraftian investigations. On reading the Keeper section, I rather soured on it.

Actually, that’s slightly mischaracterising my reaction – if I am being honest I think the process of losing interest began the second time the player section restated the rules. The principle of giving a brief summary of the rules followed by an extensive description of them is a good one, but in the case of such an impressively streamlined system it starts to feel like overkill. Whilst in general I can applaud any effort made to make a rules set simple and accessible, I think the brief description of the rules largely accomplishes the job, and only a few subjects really merit additional explanation.

In particular, I think there is such a thing as overexplaining something – hitting a point where you talk about a subject enough that it starts to seem more complex than it actually is and your audience is prompted to overthink the matter in question. A rule which someone happily accepts and absorbs when explained in a sentence can look more daunting and fiddly to apply if explained in a couple of paragraphs.

Still, the rules are genuinely nice for the purpose of running cosmic horror-themed investigations, and the two-page description is quite excellent – it is, in fact, specifically that preview which convinced me to back the project in the first place. Characters are described in Cthulhu Dark extremely simply: you have their name, you have their general occupation (or, with party setups where “occupation” wouldn’t be a meaningful differentiator because you’re all soldiers or kids or something, some general tag giving an idea of your area of specialisation or particular talent), and you have their Insight rating, which starts at 1.

When attempting to take an action, you roll up to three six-sided dice. You get to roll your Occupation Die if the action in question is the sort of thing your character would be expected to be good at given their expertise, a Human Die if the action in question is generally considered to be within the normal bounds of human activity, and your Insight Die if you are willing to risk your mental stability in order to succeed. (The emergent consequence of this is that if something is outside your expertise and beyond what’s generally accepted as humanly possible, you flat-out can’t roll unless you are willing to put your mind on the line.)

The result of a roll is based on the highest number rolled on any of the dice. In general, a 1, 2 or 3 will give some sort of partial success unless a roll is contested by a different character or if someone decides to roll the failure dice because they think it might make for a more interesting story if you fail. (Failure dice may only be rolled in situations where failure would be interesting – you can’t do it, for instance, if success on a roll would be necessary to progress the investigation.) On a 4, you get exactly what you were aiming to achieve, no more and no less, on a 5 you get a little something extra, and on a 6 you get that plus a disturbing insight into the underlying reality of the world.

Whenever your character’s worldview is shaken – because they got a 6 on a roll and got a disturbing insight as a result, or because on a roll which they chose to add their Insight Die to it rolled higher than their current Insight score, or because in the action of play they ended up confronted by something horrible – they have to make an Insight roll. This is a roll on a single die which is compared to their current Insight score – if it is higher than their current score, their Insight goes up by 1, representing a greater appreciation of the awful cosmic-scale truth.

Once a character has hit Insight 5 for the first time, they gain the ability to reduce their Insight score by the ruthless, dramatic suppression of Mythos knowledge, which can keep them in play at the cost of behaving in such a way as to potentially put them in conflict with the other player characters. Once they reach Insight 6, they have reached a full and undeniable appreciation of the meaninglessness of everything, and are no longer viable player characters – whether they lapse into nigh-catatonic apathy, go ostentatiously insane, flip their allegiance for the sake of serving the true powers of the universe or just plain die, they’re no longer an effective member of the investigating party.

That is pretty much it. The system is deliberately simple; the complexity usually involved in adding a combat system is avoided by simply saying that fighting supernatural creatures gets you killed so you instead have to just run and hide. (It’s basically the Amnesia: the Dark Descent RPG in this respect.) It feels to me like it is simple and freeform enough that it probably would start to feel rather shapeless if used in the context of a long-running multi-session campaign, but the ticking time bomb of the Insight score and the simplicity of the system makes it feel perfect for the purpose of running quick, spontaneous, one-session-and-done Lovecraftian investigation games. (In particular, character creation is vastly faster than in more conventional RPGs, so you can start playing really quickly and with a minimum of fuss, and the fact that the system doesn’t really define anything except the current Insight level of the player characters means that the Keeper doesn’t have to fiddle about with NPC stats at all.)

My main qualm about the system concerns the feature of being able to reduce Insight once you hit 5. I can see the thinking behind it, but I think that having a player character suddenly start wanting to suppress and destroy information turns them against the rest of the party in a way which is less about an interesting, organically-arising fundamental disagreement about how to proceed and is more about the game mechanics giving a powerful motivator for disruptive play. To put it simply, once one or two party members are on that kick, it’s going to be tremendously hard to progress the investigation without the other party members either directly coming into conflict with those who’ve hit Insight 5 (which makes the lack of a developed PC-vs-PC combat system a tricky stumbling block) or freezing those player characters out of the investigation; either alternative seems more frustrating than atmospheric/entertaining.

At the same time, it’s not really viable to run a game with all or the majority of the characters in full-on suppression mode, because they have no real interest in following the investigation to its end – they’re much more likely to destroy all the evidence and ice all the witnesses and call it a day. Not only is this another pointer towards Cthulhu Dark not really being appropriate for campaign play, it also presents potential problems in a one-shot investigation. It would be much better to simply remove the rule and accept that Cthulhu Dark is a game for one-shot investigations rather than trying to introduce a rule to conserve player characters at the cost of disruptive play.

In the Keeper section what tended to turn me off was the voice in which the book’s various guidelines, rules and advice for running Cthulhu Dark is written in. The general style reminds me of the text of some of the indie RPGs produced by contributors to the Forge website, which was at one time not merely a source of enduring controversy but also a major source of support and advice for those self-publishing RPGs back before the tools for doing so were as widely accessible and useful as they presently are. (It is no surprise to see the Forge and some of its main thinkers thanked in Walmsley’s endnotes.)

The Forge style creeps through here and there in the prose, which is often overly didactic to the point of being outright patronising. It envisions that Cthulhu Dark scenarios will be designed and run in a very specific way by the Keeper (despite much of this not actually being especially enforced by the game rules), and proclaims these requirements as dictats from the designer. This is something which inevitably gets my back up because in an RPG refereeing context I hate feeling like a game designer is trying to run the game for me; I didn’t invite Walmsley to my table, he doesn’t know me or my players, after he’s provided the game rules and support material he doesn’t really get a say.

This sort of backseat refereeing is chronic in Forge-type games, which are so laser-focused on delivering a particular game experience that they are often not very good at providing anything else. On the one hand, that’s exactly the case with Cthulhu Dark because its system is really very good for purist cosmic horror one-shots but not great for anything else. On the other hand, Walmsley attempts to impose further constraints on the sort of stuff you do in Cthulhu Dark beyond that which the basic game system imposes by making bold proclamations about how scenarios should be designed.

In particular, Walmsley states as a requirement of the design that the horror at the heart of a mystery should in some respect be associated with the seat of social power in the setting – so for instance, in the Victorian London setting presented in these rules that would be the likes of the Church of England or the aristocracy or Parliament or whatever. Similarly, it is encouraged that player characters should arise from those without social power in the setting.

Now, I don’t think I am coming at this from a reactionary angle – in principle I am sympathetic to the apparent thinking behind both of these constraints. Lovecraftian horror has too often followed Lovecraft himself in identifying disempowered communities with civilisation-wrecking threats, and it is a good idea to discourage that; equally, it’s good to encourage the use of a more diverse range of protagonists than has been typical in the genre so far. It is, admittedly, bringing in an aspect of social commentary to the game which on the face of it seems incompatible with the nothing-means-anything nihilism of the purist style of cosmic horror the game promotes itself as adhering to, but in principle I can see some benefits to such a compromise. (Unfortunately, as we’ll see, the compromise is present only in the scenario design advice, not intrinsic to the system itself.)

I have no particular problem with the “player characters originate outside the locus of social power” constraint; as well as prompting people to play something a little different from the same ol’-same-ol’ doctors and dilettantes and anthropologists and librarians, it also sets a constraint which gives rise to interesting play. (Specifically, since the player characters are the sort of people that the authorities at best ignore, at worst are hostile to, then you have an instant answer to the “Why don’t the PCs just call the cops and have done with it?” question – they don’t do that because they know, broadly correctly, that doing so won’t do them any good.)

I do feel like the constraint that the horror must be associated with the locus of social power is a problem. I have no problem with ruling out associating the horror specifically with the disempowered, that’s the sort of “punching down” we can do without – but not only does saying the horror must be associated with power in the setting run against the cosmic horror aspects of the setting, but I also think it inadvertently closes the door on a great range of important social commentary which screams out to be made in this day and age and which Cthulhu Dark would otherwise be perfectly suited for.

It feels to me that in the age of austerity “Bad shit happens to those not in power because those in power don’t give a shit and aren’t paying attention” is an important and useful premise for this sort of social commentary horror – but to my mind that doesn’t really fit the criteria of associating the horror with the people in power, because it honestly isn’t associated with them – if anything, their power allows them to keep out away from them and preying on those without.

This is an aspect of social inequality and injustice which, through the best of intentions, Walmsley rules out by-the-book Cthulhu Dark adventures from commenting on, and I genuinely think that this is a mistake – it thematically limits Cthulhu Dark from addressing subject matter which is actually wholly in keeping with its intentions in this respect.

The more basic problem, though, is that Cthulhu Dark seems to simultaneously want to go hard down the cosmic horror route and go hard down the social commentary route, and I am not sure that’s entirely possible. Yes, numerous Mythos authors have incorporated some form of social commentary into their work – Lovecraft himself did it (the fact that most of us don’t agree with his social commentary does not change the fact that it’s present), and Ramsey Campbell has done it a lot too. However, to my mind you can’t sustain a perfect balance between the two: any particular story has to break one way or the other eventually, either accepting the utter nihilism of cosmic horror and its indifference to social and moral distinction or falling on the side of social commentary by expressing some form of social or moral judgement, even if that’s only on the level of narration.

The thing about cosmic horror is that on the scale of the cosmos, social power distinctions simply do not matter; the horrors that arise in cosmic horror are more like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption than anything else; the powerful and wealthy may be able to shield themselves from the results of such better than others, and even enact policies which leave people disproportionately vulnerable to them, but I can’t really see that forces of nature are in and of themselves associated with the privileged; earthquakes don’t have country club memberships.

In fact, the Cthulhu Dark model ultimately ends up sabotaging both its cosmic horror aspects and its social commentary; by mandating that horror is associated with social power, it enforces a partialism incompatible with cosmic horror, and by mandating that there is no way to get a good ending the social commentary ends up being an expression of sheer hopelessness and denial of the idea that any progress is possible beyond momentary localised victories.

LIke I said, I can see what Walmsley wants to accomplish here: too much Lovecrafiana is focused on middle-class-and-above protagonists tackling evils arising outside of the locus of social power. Emphatically encouraging that people take the other route usefully helps to redress the balance and to criticise that assumption. However, blankly stating this as an immutable rule rather than encouraging it as best practice and giving a compelling argument for doing so feels like the wrong way to go about it – it means that the people who most need to be persuaded of the necessity of that are likely to just ignore the scenario design advice and go straight ahead on doing as they want to do, whilst the people most likely to follow the rule are the people who were probably going to do something like that anyway.

In addition, the underlying axioms of the game mechanics ultimately mean that Cthulhu Dark prioritises cosmic horror above social commentary on a systemic level. There is absolutely nothing in the system obliging you to play characters lacking social power (having occupations like “aristocrat” or “dilettante” or “bishop” would absolutely work), whilst the Insight mechanic enforces a slow march into hopelessness that is classic cosmic horror. The unfortunate (and I assume unintentional) implication if you follow the proposed principles of scenario and character design is that those without power are best off not interfering in the business of those with power, lest they see things they cannot cope with and are destroyed as a result. That feels like it’s the opposite message to the one that Walmsley wants to run with, but it’s the unavoidable and inevitable consequence of how the system interfaces with the declared requirements of designing scenarios.

Another issue with this deep discussion of scenario design is that it feels like the wrong system to give this advice in. It assumes a substantial amount of pre-game prep and thought, whereas – as I’ve outlined – it feels like Cthulhu Dark is vastly better suited to quick, one-shot pick-up-and-play games. As such the advice provided feels more like it would work better as a guide to writing socially conscious horror scenarios for publication or for a well-prepared game session, and the advice that would be needed to make Cthulhu Dark really sing – namely, a set of solid tools to help Keepers ad-lib investigations on the spot – is altogether absent.

This is kind of a shame, because actually Walmsley’s guidance on writing socially-conscious horror actually feels like it would be really useful not just to RPG referees but to authors and artists in other mediums besides – in fact, it feels like it’s useful for more or less everything except the sort of spontaneous pick-up-and-go sort of play I would be inclined to use Cthulhu Dark for. Given the assumption that the scenario will progress in a broadly linear fashion to an inevitable end-point, and the rules refusing to allow you to let people fail to get the information they need to progress on a particular roll (thus ruling out failures in the moment as a means of controlling pacing), the thing this advice seems most useful for is designing thematically distinctive and socially conscious scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu, for which Walmsley has written scenarios in the past.

That said, the principles outlined in the section have clearly been of use to Walmsley in designing this particular product; the scenario creation notes really pick apart the process of setting and adventure creation, and the sample setting and adventure are built from the examples given across the Keeper’s sections. The sample setting was detailed and interesting enough to partially win me back over; the sample adventure, whilst fun, has a climax which feels to me like a bit of a cheap shot, a quick and lazy kick to the taboos which of course in play would provide a shockingly emotional moment, but still somehow feels like enough of a creative shortcut to be dissatisfying to me.

Cthulhu Dark Zero, then, consists of 2 pages of rules which I was very impressed by, an exegesis of those rules that I don’t think I or my players especially needed, a bunch of patronising didacticism (there’s a bit giving you an honest to goodness script for explaining the rules to your players in a structured way which punches all of my “Fuck off, Walmsley, I’m not unfamiliar with this and nor is anyone I’m likely to be playing a niche indie RPG with” buttons) which has good intentions which in some respects the advice supports, in other respects the advice inadvertently undermines, an adventure that ends with a cheap shot and a quite nicely-realised setting.

After reading Cthulhu Dark Zero, I decided to keep hold of it at least until the main Cthulhu Dark book arrived it to me. My expectation was that the basic rules would remain solid and the Keeper advice would remain annoyingly patronising at best, a well-meaning act of self-sabotage at worst, but I also hoped that the additional settings provided would substantially increase the value of the book as far as pick-up-and-play stuff goes, and that adding other people’s voices to the mix would make it grate less on me. I also hoped that Walmsley would also expand the refereeing advice and tools to better support improvised mysteries. On the whole, I suspect Cthulhu Dark Zero will end up occupying an awkward interstitial space between the two-page rules summary and the full-fat book, and in the long run will seem rather redundant in the light of the final product.

Cthulhu Dark

As it stands, it turns out Cthulhu Dark Zero was most of the way there as far as the development of the core rules went. The text for the main rules and the scenario design and refereeing advice sections differ only slightly, with a few tune-ups here and there: the main distinctions I spotted is that the character generation process specifically tells you that you have to make a character who isn’t especially powerful in the setting in question (though there’s still no game mechanical barrier to playing such a character – you’re just told that you shouldn’t), that whilst in general fighting a monster with the intent of defeating it will get you killed that isn’t the case if you’re just trying to shove your way past it or if the creature is one of many and taking down one won’t materially solve the problem, and that the Keeper is now called a Director – a term which suggests an emphasis on a linear story progressing through a planned sequence of scenes, which isn’t particularly to my tastes but which I suppose the system does lend itself to.

The additional settings added are interesting enough, though I find that they all miss the mark somehow. There’s one which is by Kathryn Jenkins which tackles Lovecraft’s Arkham in the 17th Century Puritan era, and whilst that’s an interesting concept at the same time I feel like if you’re playing in a vague Salem analogue in the time period of the Salem Witch Trials you may as well just play in Salem. Helen Gould offers a modern-day setting set in Jaiwo, a fictional African country, which on the one hand is an interesting approach but on the other hand feels like chickening out of depicting a real-world African country, and potentially problematic when the local culture of Jaiwo seems to consist of a mashup of various concepts pilfered from other African cultures and fed through the weird fiction filter.

Walmsley himself offers a cyberpunk-esque setting based in Mumbai in 2037, which again is a salubrious attempt to broaden the scope of settings and to write about a non-Western setting, but on the other hand the description doesn’t seem especially vivid; I’m not sure whether Walmsley has ever actually been to Mumbai, but the chapter doesn’t give me the impression that he has. Not that you absolutely need to have gone to a place to write about it – but if your description of a place doesn’t have at least a ring of authenticity to it, that’s kind of a basic failing.

The book closes out with some designer’s notes that just kind of ramble on and on interminably; “designer’s notes” in the back of a game tend to be self-indulgent blog posts at the best of times, but this could really have done with an outside editor giving it the once over to scale back the irrelvant waffle and hone in on the stuff which is really central to the philosophy of the game. The motivations behind Cthulhu Dark are largely confirmed here; Walmsley talks about how he was a bit tired of the common Call of Cthulhu adventure premise of a bunch of posh sorts poking about in the Mythos, because he tended to find such characters unpleasant and felt that players used it as an opportunity to play unappealing characters.

For my part, I can sort of see his point – revelling in pretending to be an awful colonial-era tosser isn’t something I’m particularly keen on – but I feel like the “braying toff” angle is more of an issue arising from the players Walmsley was associating with than something intrinsic to Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu – there’s all sorts of ways you can play an upper-class character and if your PC is an inhuman monster that’s kind of on you. Moreover, I don’t conflate playing a particular character with endorsing that character; whilst I can completely see how there’d be players out there who get off on doing awful shit and using “It’s just a game!” as a cover for, say, being wildly classist or racist in the stuff they say as their character, I can also see someone playing a horrible snob as a satirical exercise – setting the character up as a heel so that as and when the horrors of the Mythos consume them there’s a sense of poetic justice.

That said, just as there’s no systemic barrier to playing powerful characters in Cthulhu Dark, there isn’t really a systemic one to playing marginalised characters in Call or Trail. That said, it is notable that most scenarios tend to assume player characters of middle class or higher backgrounds, which is where I think Walmsley has the kernel of a point – but the solution to that particular problem isn’t to make a whole new game that many won’t adopt, it’s to write more scenarios for the existing games with an existing fanbase so as to redress the balance there. Again, the spiral into hopelessness of the base system of Cthulhu Dark is excellent for the purposes of an inevitable death march into nihilism and cosmic horror, but it does more or less nothing for this declared goal of the game beyond telling participants that they should consider playing characters lacking social power and leverage; the setting material does this by providing a suitable set of professions for such characters, but again, you can do that with setting material for Call of Cthulhu and probably reach a greater audience.

Another thing which Walmsley identifies as something he dislikes in published campaigns is the sort of model inspired by the likes of Masks of Nyarlathotep, where a bunch of primarily American or British investigators go globe-trotting and visiting foreign lands, drinking in how Foreign it all is and getting spooked by evil nastiness that lurks in the depths of the local cultures (often colonised indigenous cultures at that). This is something I have much more of a problem with as far as published Cthulhu gaming material goes – when it comes to the characters people play, I tend to regard the players in question as having primary responsibility there, but when the assumed mode of a published campaign consciously or unconsciously involves replicating shitty racist adventure fiction of the colonial era for a cheap pulp thrill I find it massively off-putting.

Again, though, I tend to think of this as a problem not with the game systems in question but with the published scenarios for them, best solved by writing more such scenarios. Walmsley was in with Pelgrane Press, and so could presumably have kept writing stuff for Trail that they’d have happily released (especially since Walmsley’s sensibilities when it comes to cosmic horror are perfect for what Trail calls the “Purist” style). Alternately, Chaosium tends to be quite generous in allowing third parties to get licences to put out Call of Cthulhu material, especially when the individuals in question have a track record in writing such material. Either game has a much larger audience than a small-press indie release like Cthulhu Dark can usually expect to gather.

Moreover, Walmsley could have magnified the effect of his ideas simply by persuading other scenario writers to adopt similar principles of not glorifying social privilege or Anglo-American colonialism. Cthulhu Dark seems in some respects to have been a carrier for Walmsley’s essays on scenario design, but there’s nothing stopping him from promoting those in the context of a system-agnostic How to Write Amazing Horror Scenarios-type book or blog. (Indeed, he already did produce such a thing – Stealing Cthulhu – though apparently the scenario-writing advice here is all new.) Again, making an entire game to support the concept seems to be overkill, especially when the system of the game in question doesn’t put any particular barriers in the way of running a “colonial sorts run into a foreign nasty in Darkest Somewhere” story.

Actually, there’s a further irony here. As previously established, the basic underpinnings of the Cthulhu Dark system inadvertently give the impression that – assuming you follow Walmsley’s principles of best practice in scenario design – people without social power shouldn’t really investigate stuff because they’ll just get chewed up by forces their silly little heads can’t understand anyway. Let’s imagine someone breaks Walmsley’s principles of scenario design as far as character concepts and settings go, but adheres rigidly to the Cthulhu Dark rules system and the scenario design process otherwise, and runs a game about posh colonial sorts gradually losing their tether overseas. Then you end up with the message that the hubristic holders of social power in the colonial era were actually culturally blinkered fools, so stiff and unyielding in their view of the world that when forcibly confronted with matters outside of their narrow understanding they simply cannot possibly cope with it. You also get the impression that their heavy-handed intrusion into a foreign culture that they considered themselves intrinsically superior to was a massive mistake, and that they should have never attempted it.

Sure, you also have the nasty “bad things live in Foreign places” angle, but in almost every other respect the implied story enforced by the system here is actually less problematic than the “Know your fucking place, pleb” story enforced by the combination of the game mechanics and the scenario design notes if you follow them to a letter. This is a major problem as far as Walmsley’s declared intentions are concerned.

The good news is that as far as the colonial assumptions of globe-trotting campaigns go, I feel like the tide is already turning on them. The sort of big globe-trotting campaign mimicing the likes of Horror On the Orient Express or Masks of Nyarlathotep still gets published, but it’s one model among many and one which is increasingly less dominant. Not only does such a campaign involve way more research than one which stays in one region for most of its action, but you also inevitably end up with a far more shallow treatment of the cultures in question than you could have offered had you remained focused on them for the entire supplement.

On top of that, there seems to be an increasing tendency towards collections of standalone adventures rather than big long continuous campaigns. Self-contained investigations are much easier for people to deploy in their home campaigns because they require less time to play through, and they’re much easier to make them genuinely open-ended with a decent amount of player freedom because in a long prewritten campaign you tend to have to constrain the players a lot in the earlier sections to make the later sections viable. People seem to have a much better understanding of that these days, with the result that the idea of the epic globe-trotting prewritten campaign, whilst far from dead, is far from the assumed model of top-tier adventure publishing for Call of Cthulhu.

One thing which Cthulhu Dark’s underlying system specifically encourages, which would tend to mitigate a more extensive globe-trotting campaign, is brevity of play. The way Insight claws its way up indefinitely means that characters become unplayable substantially faster than in Call or Trail, which means that an extended campaign is unlikely. As I said when I was discussing Cthulhu Dark Zero, I really thought that the rules were nicely optimised for one-shot play of standalone scenarios, and could be really useful to support improvised investigations, and that I hoped there’d be some discussion of improvised sessions in the book.

I have not been able to find any; bizarrely, Walmsley instead decided to add notes on how to run a campaign instead, by providing a game mechanic to allow characters to return for sequel adventures. This works by allowing you to just reset your character’s Insight to 1 at the start of a new investigation, on the basis that the new investigation is going to be into a new, different horror that you don’t know anything about and your previous insights are of little use here.

This has several problems, the first and most basic one is that it flies in the face of what the baseline rules tell us Insight is. By definition, in Cthulhu Dark Insight is not merely an understanding of the immediate mystery in front of you – you can learn all sorts of stuff about it without necessarily raising your Insight, after all – but your appreciation of the ultimate cosmic nihilism underpinning everything. In other words, it represents a change in your worldview, and it seems strange that your worldview would have snapped back to what it originally was between investigations.

In fact, it’s especially strange to think that since, as per Cthulhu Dark’s scenario design principles, your previous investigation ended with you realising that whilst a minor localised victory might – might – be possible (and it’s quite likely that not even that is possible), ultimately the horrible threat you have uncovered cannot possibly be fought or defeated on any big-picture scale and we are doomed to have to live with that particular Sword of Damocles hanging over us forever. You would think that after someone has discovered that, they’re never going to look at the world in the same way again – and yet by definition in these “returning character” rules they absolutely do.

About that previous investigation: because by definition the previous investigation ends with the player characters discovering the nature of the evil they are investigating, but also discovering that it cannot be finally defeated, that poses a number of hurdles. The first is the question of “Why did my character give up?” Sure, sure, they discovered that they cannot completely defeat the evil – fine. What stopped them from trying to warn the world, or from taking up a doomed crusade to continue defending the world against it? Maybe they can’t finally defeat it, but they can play whack-a-mole and slap it down whenever it rears its tentacular head, which might be enough for them.

In particular, if the players feel that the previous investigation hadn’t really, truly exhausted all possibilities for fighting the threat uncovered there, it’d probably seem jarring for the PCs to just go “Oh well, it looks a bit hard so we may as well give up now, despite the fact that we know for a fact that tremendous harm will come to others as a result of this nightmare thing we’ve uncovered.” It’d sort of make those PCs seem like apathetic douches, which may well be extremely jarring compared to the way people played them – particularly since “apathetic douche who decides that it’s just too much bother to get involved” is a terrible concept for an RPG character.

(Well, obviously there’s a barrier there, insomuch as characters of low social power may not have the ability to dedicate that much time to such a project and still eat – but if you’re planning on using the characters in a subsequent investigation, then by definition they must have the capacity to provide time and resources to that investigation, so why didn’t they provide it to fighting the horror they originally discovered?)

Even if you can suspend disbelief that the player character in question could tear themselves away from the previous Mythos threat to go check out something else, there’s another factor which the light of experience brings in. Remember, the previous investigation ended with a clear indication that there’s no hope of defeating the threat. This next investigation is going to come to the same conclusion, and so will the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that, because that’s how Cthulhu Dark is set up. Whilst the character doesn’t know for sure that later investigations will end as hopelessly as previous ones did, the more investigations they get under their belt the harder it is to believe that they won’t be completely demoralised and lose all hope that anything can be helped.

To be fair, that’s a perfectly cromulent way of interpreting hitting Insight 6 – but in the meantime, it’s a further strain on suspension of disbelief. Moreover, whilst the character doesn’t know that the next investigation will end so dismally, the player who’s actually read the rules knows that – and players who haven’t read the rules will catch on sooner or later. It would seem near-impossible for players to motivate themselves to continue play in an ongoing campaign where each and every investigation comes to a juddering full stop as they are confronted with the fact that there’s not much they can actually do about the situation. Even comparatively bleak Call or Trail campaigns allow the PCs to have the odd victory, real or illusory, to break up the misery.

Finally, it’s the wrong game mechanic for the setting in question. A recurring thing in Cthulhu Mythos stuff, going right back to Lovecraft, is how the various horrors all touch on different horrors at the periphery. The Mi-Go have their connections to Hastur and Nyarlathotep, the Elder Things have had their issues with Shoggoths, Mi-Go, and Cthulhu, and so on and so forth. Moreover, the entire premise of the thing is about how the piecing-together of dissociated knowledge means that if you’ve (for instance) read a bunch of myths in the Necronomicon on a lark, and then you stumble across stuff in a cave in Antarctica which suggests that those myths actually had some basis in reality, that’s going to be a pretty disturbing conclusion you’ve reached. My instinct would be to start returning characters out in a new investigation at Insight 3, rather than 1, to reflect the fact that having seen what they’ve seen already, they’re going to be more open to insights and conclusions that those without such experience would discount at first.

I don’t mean to be excessively down on Cthulhu Dark. To a large extent I actually agree with what Walmsley is trying to do here. The problem I have with it isn’t that what he’s attempting to accomplish – it’s the way that his motivations are conflicted and cancel each other out at best, completely sabotage each other at worst. Walmsley needed to make a call here. He could have chosen option A, where the cosmic horror was the most important aspect of the game, at which point the guidance about character types and setting and scenario design absolutely needed to be weighed against the fact that you are telling a story about absolute, utter hopelessness and you don’t want to inadvertently preach against the very possibility of social change as a result of the intrinsic properties of the game system.

Or he could have chosen option B, and had his social agenda take priority over yet more regurgitation of the whole cosmic horror thing (which other games and writers have mined extensively and perfectly well), at which point he needed to make sure the game system reflected that social agenda, or at the very least didn’t actively contradict it.

What he tried to do here was deliver A and B at the same time, but because A was supported by the game mechanics and B wasn’t, A won out easily. The end result is inadvertently more problematic in its implications than Call of Cthulhu is – more so, in some ways. I can run a by-the-book Call of Cthulhu game in which a bunch of overprivileged snobs discover to their horror that their sense of safety and superiority is mere hubris on a cosmic scale, all in the context of vicious satire against the pretensions of the powerful; Cthulhu Dark tells you that you shouldn’t do that, which kills off an entire category of story which would otherwise be perfectly cromulent with Walmsley’s overall goal of not using Cthulhu-based gaming as a way of celebrating and reinforcing privilege.

Worse yet: I can run by-the-book Call of Cthulhu without snuffing out the hopes and dreams of the marginalised; if I run Cthulhu Dark according to the rules as written, I pretty much specifically have to do that. That’s absolutely fucking awful.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

This is a really weird Just Wrong, in that despite all of my griping above I don’t hate Cthulhu Dark – it’s just that I don’t like either of the versions I received by spending money on the project. The original mini-pamphlet release was pretty decent; the more polished presentation of the basic rules offered as a PDF preview on the project is, for my money, the absolute best version of the game. Both Cthulhu Dark Zero and the full Cthulhu Dark book, however, end up tripping over themselves due to the intrinsic conflict between Walmsley’s laudable social goals and the system as provided.

Would Back Again?

Again, this is a weird one, because whilst I answered “Just Wrong” above, at the same time I can absolutely see myself backing a project by Walmsley again, especially if the preview materials offered convinced me that a similar conflict between social aims and system axioms was absent in a future project. Like I said in the “Delivering the Goods” section, there are much more experienced people both in terms of RPG publishing and in terms of Kickstarter fulfillment who seem absolutely incapable of competent project management, whilst Walmsley makes it seem easy.

The fuss-free delivery of the project ahead of schedule, enabled by Walmsley showing excellent judgement when it came to having a significant amount of the project written and otherwise prepared before initiating the Kickstarter campaign and a decent level of restraint when it came to stretch goals, is rare in RPG Kickstarters – to the point where people don’t seriously expect it at all. By being able to pull it off to this extent, Walmsley not only makes the entire rest of the RPG industry look like a clumsy rabble of bumbling clowns, but means that even if I have my reservations as to the design of particular games of his, I’m confident that if I spend money on one of his Kickstarters I’ll get the product promised to me.

3 thoughts on “Kickstopper: Turning the Lights Out On Those Who Most Need Them

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