Kickstopper: Friends, Romans, Great Old Ones!

One of the recurring strengths of Call of Cthulhu is that it’s very easily adapted to other time periods. Tweak the skill list to remove anachronistic skills, introduce skills appropriate to the time period, and update the baseline skill values appropriately – people are likely to have a generally higher level of computer skill in a present-day game than one set in the 1970s, where computer use is likely to be a highly specialised skill, for instance. Once you’ve done that, you’ve done 90% of the work; do an equipment list and a career list and you’re basically there.

Cthulhu Invictus is a game line which takes this principle to heart by adapting Call of Cthulhu to ancient Rome. It’s also not a game line which Chaosium themselves are interested in directly managing these days – though they did put out material for it for 6th Edition Call of Cthulhu, and did include some conversion guidelines in Cthulhu Through the Ages.

Instead, in 2017 they gave Golden Goblin Press, a third party publisher, a 3-year licence to handle the line, beginning with The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus – a new core book, updated to the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu rules. What happens when that three years up, I rather suspect, depends on how well Golden Goblin do as custodians of Cthulhu Invictus. How’s the line’s flagship product, as produced via this Kickstarter? Let’s have a see…

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

Golden Goblin are old hands at Kickstarter – this was far from their first rodeo. In fact, their third Kickstarter in 2014 was intended to fund De Horrore Cosmico, a collection of Cthulhu Invictus adventures, and I suspect that Chaosium entrusted them with the licence in part because of their established track record on delivering Kickstarters.

This experience was bourne out by the fact that they estimated shipping at a conservatively high level and then offered to overseas backers a specific tier which would entitle them to a copy of the book produced via print-on-demand, rather than a copy from the more conventional print run they were going to produce, which allowed people to avoid the higher shipping costs if they wanted. In the end only 21 people took advantage of this (including me), but it’s a very sensible option.

They also stayed modest; asking for $20,000, they eventually hit some $43,101 in funding.

What Level I Backed At

Provincials Citizens – Backers at this level receive both a Print on Demand physical and a digital copy of the 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus. Backers at this level get all unlocked digital stretch goal rewards and digital add-on items are permitted. No physical unlocked stretch goal items or physical add-on items are permitted at this backer level.

Delivering the Goods

The original plan called for this to be delivered in October of 2017; in fact, it didn’t get to me until the end of November, 2018. Though Golden Goblin have done Kickstarters before, this time around they seem to have substantially underestimated how much time they would need to complete the editing and layout process for this one, which they seemed to particularly sweat over – presumably because they wanted this to be a true flagship product, and felt that compromising on quality would set a bad precedent for the rest of the line.

It also took a little prodding, back when the printing process kicked off, before they’d give proper updates on what was going on with the print on demand copies. Granted, this was probably a lesser priority for them, since we’re talking 21 customers out of 598 backers, but even so it was a little annoying that it took those pokes in the comments before they acknowledged that this obligation existed too.

Reviewing the Swag

Rather than immediately jumping in to review the new 7th Edition book, I thought I’d start by covering the previous version that Chaosium had put out themselves, and then compare the two books a bit when judging the 7th Edition.

The 6th Edition Supplement

Cthulhu Invictus started out as an entry in Chaosium’s “monograph” series – basically, interested fans submitted their homebrewed game material to Chaosium, and if Chaosium liked it they would release it as part of the monograph series, with the caveat that 99% of the layout and editing was done by the authors so these typically weren’t professional-quality products. In its own way this was a little pioneering – you can see it as a precursor to schemes like the DM Vault that Wizards of the Coast are running on DrivethruRPG. It let fans air their works with the benefit of the Chaosium name drawing attention to it, and didn’t involve much time or investment on Chaosium’s part.

However, whilst an interesting idea in principle, some aspects of the execution were wanting. The pricing on the monographs was pretty steep for what they were, probably a result of the fact that rather than selling them on a PDF and print-on-demand basis, which is what the format would tend to be more useful for, the Krank regime at Chaosium decided to do conventional print runs of the things. (We know this is the case because, after Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen ousted Charlie Krank from Chaosium and began the process of restoring it to its former glory, they kicked off a big fire sale to clear out unwanted product from the old Chaosium warehouse so they could shut it down – and that included stacks of monographs.)

Still, a very few monographs managed to have a wider impact, and one of them was the original Cthulhu Invictus monograph by Chad Bowser, Andi Newton and Deanne P. Goodwin – in fact, it got enough traction that Chaosium had them expand it considerably to arrive at this 2009 supplement. As implied by the Latin title, it adapts Call of Cthulhu to the era of the Roman Empire (specifically the 1st Century AD, for those who recall that “Roman Empire” takes up an extraordinarily broad span of history). It’s about the thickness of Cthulhu Dark Ages, but unlike that book doesn’t make the mistake of trying to present a complete standalone game in that page count – it adapts the system by providing appropriate skills and careers but doesn’t need to explain the BRP basics or the standard Call of Cthulhu procedures, which leaves much more space for Rome-specific flavour.

(Speaking of system adaptations, there’s a nice rule where, recognising that psychotherapy isn’t really available in the Roman era, characters can instead regain Sanity by watching some nice cathartic bloodshed in the gladiatorial arenas – the rationale being that Rome was a violent society and people saw violence as being part of the natural order of things, and so would tend to be comforted by watching people solve nice, conventional problems with some nice conventional brawn.)

A good chunk of the book is taken up with an extensive gazetteer of the world as perceived by the ancient Romans, with both locales within the Empire and regions beyond described – and peppered with various Mythos oddities and weirdness. (Probably sensibly, they steer well clear of making Judea all Mythos-y.) This is the sort of thing I felt was missing from Cthulhu Dark Ages – a Mythos gazetteer of 10th Century Europe would be of great use in that book, but because it’s stuck explaining to you how to do Sanity rolls and skill checks it doesn’t have space to do such a thing justice to the extent Cthulhu Invictus does.

That overview is important because of the sheer breadth of examples it offers of how the Mythos can interestingly arise in the Roman era – which in turn helps give a picture of what a Cthulhu Invictus investigation might focus on, and in turn does much more to make it a viable setting for gaming than simply throwing out a skill list and some occupations and monsters and expecting us to go with that. (Core Call of Cthulhu has the advantage that we have ample Mythos stories set in the signature periods of the 1920s or the modern day to draw inspiration from – less so these more unusual time periods.) A nice sampling of Mythos-tainted mystery cults also helps.

In short, this supplement does exactly what it needed to do: not just give you the tools to run Call of Cthulhu in the Roman period, but convince you that this is an excellent idea that you should definitely try out. For an “alternate setting”-type supplement, that’s mission accomplished.

The 7th Edition Version

This is also exactly what it needed to be: an update of the original supplement with a stack of updates, tweaks, and additions, comprehensively updated for 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu.

With a new lead writer in the form of Oscar Rios, it’s perhaps inevitable that there are some changes. In fact, some sections are substantially different – I think the cults and secret societies are largely new, for instance. In addition, there’s no fold-out map of the Empire here. On the whole, there’s enough overlap to provide a useful introduction to the time period and its expectations for newcomers, but enough differences that it doesn’t wholly render the old supplement redundant.

There’s also a couple of sample adventures which I didn’t think much of, though they are at least a handy source of NPC ideas. In particular, one of the adventures is designed to have two wholly separate supernatural things happening at once, but in a way which seems to naturally lend itself to PCs tripping themselves up by assuming that they have a common cause. Not only is this a cheap and dickish trick to play on your players, but it also tends to assume that supernatural instances are somewhat more common in the setting than I think I really want them to be.

Still, on the whole I find the presentation of the supplement decent. The quality of the print-on-demand copy is perfectly fine so far as I can tell, so I can’t say I feel like it would have been worth shelling out for the shipping for one of the conventional print run copies. Oh, and I quite like how the cover is a sneaky Roman reskin of a scene from The Dunwich Horror.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say Just Right. If I had backed at a higher tier I might have been able to get physical copies of other stretch goals, like the 7th Edition update of De Horrore Cosmico, but to be honest given that I wasn’t that keen on the scenarios presented here I suspect I’m just not keen on Golden Goblin’s in-house scenario design approach and would rather just have the core book and apply my own philosophy to designing and running investigations with it.

Would Back Again?

This is another “depends on the product” one. If it’s just for a scenario, no, I’m not interested – if it’s for a more substantial resource, then maybe.

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