Yesterday I started a survey of Cubicle 7’s major Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters by picking apart Cthulhu Britannica: London and its associated products. Today, I’ll finish the process by tackling the second Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstater of theirs I backed – that for World War Cthulhu: Cold War.
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.
It had always been Cubicle 7’s intention to do four sub-product lines for World War Cthulhu; one for World War I (potentially very useful for people wanting to play Great War veterans in 1920s-based games), one for World War II, one for the Cold War and one for World War III. The World War II line, World War Cthulhu: Darkest Hour, I covered in my review of the Achtung! Cthulhu Kickstarter, due to them coming out close to each other and having very similar themes, and that might be why Darkest Hour didn’t have a Kickstarter associated with it – it would have looked too much like a hop onboard the Modiphius bandwagon, even though so far as I am aware the two game lines are a matter of parallel evolution rather than one ripping off the other.
Of course, Cold War material hasn’t exactly been overlooked by Call of Cthulhu publishers either; the new Delta Green product line includes The Fall of Delta Green, a standalone GUMSHOE-powered game set in the 1960s. However, that’s narrow enough in terms of focus and time period (and setting assumptions) to leave ample room for alternate takes on the Cold War through a Mythos lens. The World War Cthulhu: Cold War Kickstarter was intended to fund not just the core book but, through stretch goals, help make a call on what support materials to produce and how many resources to throw at them. (For instance, several stretch goals involved budgeting for a higher page count for Yesterday’s Men, the big fat super-campaign that was going to be part of the line.) Unlike Cthulhu Britannica: London, there was no talk of making card decks or big fancy boxed sets – just simple books like Cubicle 7 are used to producing – so I anticipated that it would be subjected to less delays than that campaign.
What Level I Backed At
SECTION HEAD – Everything! The standard edition World War Cthulhu: Cold War core setting book plus the 4 supplements – the actual physical books and the PDFs, and your name in the book!
Delivering the Goods
The estimated delivery date of my tier was April 2016, and I actually got the core book in November of that year, so that’s a seven month delay – shorter than the delay on Cthulhu Britannica: London, mind. As previously, reasonable amounts of communication were maintained to keep everyone in the loop, and with the PDF of the core setting book delivered in May 2016 we at least got something to sink our teeth into whilst we waited for our hard copies. One supplement, Our American Cousins, managed to get delivered to us as the end of Cubicle 7’s Call of Cthulhu licence started to bite, so I suspect that few people who weren’t Kickstarter backers got much of a chance to buy that one. As for the epic Yesterday’s Men campaign… I’ll get to that when I get to it.
Reviewing the Swag
World War Cthulhu: Cold War
The main book is a chunky hardcover beast, weighing in at over 200 pages and presenting a lot of material in that space. The interiors are black-and-white, generally quite readable, with art that isn’t mindblowing but is generally effective.
The basic conceit of the supplement is that it’s the 1970s, and Network N has metamorphosed into Section 46, a segment of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, popularly known as MI6) which, as well as handling conventional work, also fights the Mythos under N’s direction. There’s also the option to play members of the CIA friendly to N’s cause, though the Our American Cousins supplement is meant to give more full support for that. As well as providing background information on the workings of intelligence agencies during the era, the supplement also provides some useful guidance on how to handle various common espionage escapades using the Call of Cthulhu system.
In terms of setting material, to a large extent the lead of World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour is followed, with notes on significant Mythos forces provided as well as an overview of various countries PCs might undertake missions in, with examples offered in each of both conventional tasks and Mythos-related missions. The major difference is, of course, the time period, and the murky nature of the Cold War which by its nature raises far more “Are we really on the right side here?” questions than the World War II setting. (Take, for instance, the entry on South Africa, which doesn’t flinch from reminding the reader that apartheid was very much the major story out of that quarter of the world and something which intelligence agents may well have deep qualms about interacting with, especially since the apartheid regime is in principle an ally of the West and the anti-apartheid forces are widely held to be backed by the Soviets.)
The sense of paranoia is heightened by a shift in the dynamics of N’s network. As well as N himself becoming older and frailer, and thus having less direct control of the network, there’s another force exerting its influence over matters: a mysterious woman nicknamed “H” by Section 46, who has taken to appearing in the dreams of some of the network’s agents. The fact that any player character could be unconsciously passing information to H in their dreams – or even be subverted into doing work for her – adds a paranoid dimension that nicely contrasts with the more “We’re all in this together” camaraderie of The Darkest Hour’s World War II setting.
Although the book assumes you are running it in the 1970s, it really shouldn’t be that hard to use it to run a game set at any earlier or later phase of the Cold War; because the Internet age hadn’t really kicked off by the time the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the overall technological paradigm of the book is broadly applicable for any time from the late 1940s to early 1990s. (You could very easily run a game inspired by Edge of Darkness with this supplement.) That said, the reasons given for picking the 1970s are sound – in the wake of the Kim Philby affair and other scandals in the UK, and the exposure of various CIA misdeeds in the USA, the West’s intelligence communities are under intense scrutiny during the time period in question, which adds a potential further complication to Section 46’s work.
The material offered here is capped off with Intersections, a sandbox espionage campaign set in Istanbul. This is a bit of a daunting prospect to run, since it moslty offers a bunch of NPCs and locations and some pointers on things which are likely to happen once the PCs are set loose, but I tend to regard that as good adventure design and expect it to be an interesting experience to run if you get your head around the way it’s presented.
Section 46 Operations Manual
This is for the most part a player-facing book-length handout – nothing less than an espionage manual, written like the sort that characters might plausibly study, with annotations from N and other Section 46 high-ups to discuss particular wrinkles that the pursuit of Our Other Enemy adds to tradecraft. There are also a range of sidebars offering brief rules suggestions of how to resolve some of the activities described there in a game context.
The supplement is an excellent resource for looking at how espionage agencies of the era would handle particular things, and is particularly handy for anyone interested in playing in an espionage-themed RPG campaign (especially a Cold War-era one, though not exclusively), but who feels constrained by a lack of prior knowledge about how espionage works.
Our American Cousins
Only the most uncritical patriot would claim that the US intelligence apparatus gained an incredibly grubby reputation in the 1970s. With extensive CIA misdeeds ranging from assassinations to illegal domestic operations to wild nonsense like MK-ULTRA exposed, Watergate destroying people’s belief in the good intentions of the federal government, and the idealism of the 1960s decaying into the malaise of the 1970s, it’s about as far from their finest hour as you can hope to get.
That’s what makes American agencies like the CIA fertile ground for exploration in the World War Cthulhu: Cold War setting. Our American Cousins discusses the American intelligence structure, how N can call on favours from its operatives, and the Mythos threats they face alongside their domestic and international operations.
This is hardly the first time that gaming products have explored the intersection of the US alphabet soup of intelligence agencies and the Cthulhu Mythos, of course – Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green line is all over that business. At the same time, Our American Cousins offers a very different interpretation of the concept. Rather than the US government being host to competing conspiracies rife with Mythos knowledge – from the sinister collaborators of Majestic-12 to the outlawed Delta Green – here the US government is presented as being overall ignorant of the Mythos, and N’s network putting a lot of effort to ensure that the dots do not get connected to a sufficient extent to lead the federal government down a seriously dark path. (At the same time, the 1970s setting means that Majestic-12’s security has never been tighter, and Delta Green has been officially shut down and its renegade mambers have not yet gotten the underground version of the project up to speed, so you could conceivably reconcile the two books by saying that N is not aware of Majestic-12 and isn’t trusted enough by the outlaw Delta Green to be taken into their confidence.
Either way, it’s a grimy slice of period flavour that nicely rounds out the Cold War line.
This is a collection of missions spanning the 1970s, which between them offer a pretty solid set of investigations. Generally they are quite open-ended, with the starting situation artfully laid out (along with both the official SIS mission and the Mythos-related Section 46 investigation that the characters are tasked with), and then quite nicely stepping back to let the players’ actions drive the action whilst giving you enough material to help you judge how those actions affect the situation.
Some scenarios offer mostly-original situations – for instance, Puddles Become Lakes feels like any number of Cold War-era scandals whilst not being clearly based on one over the others – whilst others riff on events of the era. The Forcing Move, for instance, unfolds in the shadows of the 1972 World Chess Tournament featuring Bobby Fischer’s legendary confrontation with Boris Spassky, whilst Cadenza is set during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
In dealing with real-life situations the supplement is reasonably conscious of where it gets into contentious issues – for instance, the implication of The Forcing Move is that Bobby Fischer’s increasingly eccentric behaviour at the tournament and in the subsequent years was the result of mental illness and existing tendencies to embrace far-right conspiracy theories exacerbated by contact with the Mythos, and it is suggested that groups not comfortable with that approach may wish to replace him with a fictional chess player. Likewise, Cadenza doesn’t brush over atrocities committed during the Cyprus crisis, but leaves it down to personal taste how much these figure in the investigation.
Other missions are clumsier. Guardians of the Forest takes place against the backdrop of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, and is rooted in the racist old “uncontacted tribe worship alien monstrosities en mass” trope that really needs to get out of Lovecraftiana already, whilst Operation Header is based on a similarly dodgy “bloodline tainted by racial miscegenation” angle. (Header also suffers from perhaps the highest density of typos and the least polished writing of all the missions, like they just plain forgot to do an editing pass on it or something.)
Similarly apparently sloppy editing afflicts The Unclean, an adventure that has the player characters operating within Moscow itself but doesn’t really offer much in the way of support in terms of what resources they have access to or how operating in the Soviet capital works for CIA/SIS agents. (Indeed, it doesn’t seem entirely clear whether the adventure is intended for SIS or CIA agents.) There’s also major angles in the adventure which simply don’t get developed – for instance, it more or less directs by designer fiat that in a particular scene a major NPC gets shot in the head by a sniper, but doesn’t at all consider what the implications for the rest of the mission is.
With three solid but not exceptional missions and three missions I don’t care much for Covert Actions is a supplement I am glad to own in PDF but which I probably won’t be keeping hold of the hard copy version of.
This was supposed to be the big fat 1970s Cthulhu-espionage campaign. (This despite the fact that the title has me thinking in much more of a 1960s direction.) The basic premise sounded delicious; so far as I can piece together from the hints we were given, the essential idea was that Network N had a cell based in the divided city of Berlin which, prior to the beginning of the campaign, had gone dark, and N sends the player characters to try and work out what happened to the cell, what they’d been investigation, what needs to be done to tie up loose ends, whether there are any survivors of the cell and whether there should be any survivors of the cell.
The thing is, it never got released. Cubicle 7 made the decision to can it when not one but two teams failed to make sufficient headway on it. The first team assembled included Mike Mason (Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu line editor), Paul Fricker (who had co-designed 7th Edition with Mason), Cubicle 7’s own Scott Dorward (who was the overall World War Cthulhu line editor) and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, who’s a normally very reliable industry freelancer. That’s a solid set of people, but it’s also a very busy set of people, so I could see how they could struggle to prioritise Yesterday’s Men. We know less about the second team to be assigned the project beyond that Jason Durrall, a trusted designer in BRP circles, was at the helm. Simultaneously, though, Durrall had been tasked with guiding the design process of Chaosium’s new edition of RuneQuest.
It seems like that there was no stage in its development process when Yesterday’s Men was actually the number one priority of any of the named designers. That isn’t necessarily going to be a problem for a project; lots of people in the gaming industry need to have multiple irons in the fire if they’re going to have sufficient income to feed themselves, after all. At the same time, it sounds like Yesterday’s Men was always intended to be a truly ambitious project, a real major undertaking – and it seems to me that if you are going to produce something that ambitious, then at least someone on the team needs to feel as though it is their personal magnum opus. You can have people largely working by themselves and then submit their chapters and turn the project in if your campaign isn’t working on any sort of especially complex or innovative structure, but everything we’d heard so far about Yesterday’s Men suggested that it actually was intended to have quite an intricate structure, and for that sort of project you really need someone stepping up to drive it and devote a lot of brain space to it. It doesn’t sound like that was the case here.
That said, the cancellation may have had factors involved beyond the designers being a little slow. It was announced in November 2017, which was of course very shortly before the announcement of the end of Cubicle 7’s Call of Cthulhu licence, so it may be that it was simply easier to terminate the project them so as to allow for a clean divorce rather than allow the outstanding project to complicate matters.
Either way, Cubicle 7 made sure that backers who’d been expecting Yesterday’s Men were not left high and dry – we could either accept a 100% refund on it through PayPal, or a 150% refund as Cubicle 7 store credit. For my part, I took the store credit so as to subsidise my purchase of 4th edition WFRP.
I’m fine with having my name on this – although the lack of Yesterday’s Men means that the Cold War line is without a truly compelling campaign adventure, and the demise of the Cubicle 7 licence and the time it’d take for them to come up with some sort of OGL-derived equivalent system as a flag to reprint this material under means that I’m not entirely sure we will ever see one. However, the core book is very decent and it’s that that my name is on.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
I’d say Just Right, considering that I liked more of the products that I received than I disliked and I got a big fat refund for the product I didn’t get.
Would Back Again?
Absolutely. Cubicle 7’s development process may be prone to delays, but they always keep you in the loop and between this and the London boxed set I think they have shown that they always do right by their Kickstarter backers in the end. The refunds on Yesterday’s Men are a particularly classy touch.