Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cthulhu Invictus: A Review

OK. I'll admit it. I've gone in the past few years from a guy who'd never run a horror game in his life to somebody who counts Call of Cthulhu (and particularly its third-party setting, Delta Green) amongst his favorite systems.

One of the things I like about Call of Cthulhu is the ease with which it can be modified to play cosmic horror in a variety of historical eras. The core rulebook itself provides support for games set in the Victorian era, the 1920s, and current day. A few years ago, Cthulhu Dark Ages took the tentacled beasties back to the 10th Century. Cthulhu Invictus, Chaosium's latest for the game line, takes Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, the Deep Ones, a whole bunch of new Lovecraftian horrors from ancient mythology and Cthulhu himself all the way back to the First Century AD, during the Julio-Claudian dynasty, when the Roman Empire was at its absolute zenith.

Cover and layout:

Cthulhu Invictus is a gorgeous work. The front cover is haunting, the interior illustrations (mostly charcoal and or pencil drawings) evocative of the setting, and the rest of the layout economic and best of all, uncluttered.

4 out of 5.


The challenge of gaming in a historical period can be daunting for a gamer unfamiliar with the period, and requires different thinking than a modern day or more recent setting period might. Wisely, Cthulhu Invictus acknowledges this.

Chapter 1 begins with a good section on Rome the city, as well as Roman culture, followed by a timeline of historical events leading up to 80 CE (the setting pretty much wraps up around this time, during the reign of Titus, who was the son of Vespasian, who was the last man standing during the Roman Civil War of 69 CE, known as the "Year of the Four Emperors." This is then followed with a very thorough survey of the myriad of regions of the Roman Empire, along with barbarian territories on its border. This section takes up a good third of the book, meaning that Chaosium did its job.

Chapter 2: Character Creation takes a look at some of the differences between a 20th Century and 1st Century game, with a suggestion on character names, new occupations, aging, money, etc. Besides the obvious differences in occupations, it's worth noting that aging is tweaked substantively to reflect the shorter lifespans of the day.

Chapter 3: Skills modifies the skill list, adding a lot of the same skills that are found in Cthulhu Dark Ages, a host of new weapons skills, and obviously deleting the historical anachronisms from the regular Call of Cthulhu game. Credit Rating is effectively replaced by Status, Natural History is replaced by Natural World, and a few other skills are added.

Chapter 4: Equipment and Supplies adds Roman era equipment.

Chapter 5: Recovering Sanity (a single page) outlines the difficulties in recovering sanity in a day when Sigmund Freud wouldn't exist for another 1800 years.

Chapter 6: Combat, adds some important changes to combat to add more options to melee combat, as well as adding a variety of new melee and ranged weapons, armor, herbs, and poisons.

Chapter 7: Siege Weapons briefly outlines the larger siege weapons of the period, as well as Greek Fire (which is something of an anachronism for a game set in the First Century, as Greek Fire really wasn't developed until well after the demise of the Western Roman Empire, and well into the Byzantine period (which is the reason it's called Greek Fire, not Roman Fire). My guess is that the various Siege weapon skills in Cthulhu Invictus will be about as useless as the Operate Heavy Machinery skill in the base game.

Chapter 8: The Grimoire, speaks about Roman religion, provides a host of new spells, new tomes, and melds right into Chapter 9: Bestiary, with a variety of new creatures, as well as hints for how to work existing Mythos creatures from the corebook into the setting. Rejoice, oh, Dark Young can be devoured by them in Rome as well as Arkham.

Chapter 10: Cults and Secret Societies takes a look at the more esoteric religions, cults (both mythos-related and more benign) evolving in the Roman world at the time. While Christians may object to the description of their own religion at the time, considering its small following some 250 years before the rise of Constantine, cult is probably an apt description.

Finally, the book wraps up with a section on the legions, a short scenario, and a bibliography/selected reading list.

The section is thorough, and gives a good amount of information for running a Roman era game. I don't think it could be better without becoming a history tome.

5 of 5

Overall Value:

For the most part, Chaosium seems to be content to live off of past glories. The company does a lot more republishing of its classic titles (and slight revisions to its rulebook) these days than publishing new titles. Cthulhu Dark Ages was an exception to that a few years ago. Still outside of the Monograph program (where Chaosium sticks a front cover on what is otherwise an author written, edited, and laid out creation), whose work can only be regarded as of uneven quality (Cthulhu Invictus itself saw an earlier life as a Monograph, this new version is a much improved revision), a lot more third-party stuff from publishers (Pagan Publishing/Arc Dream, Miskatonic River Press, SuperGenius Games, Goodman Games, etc.), as well as third-party licensed games (Pelgrane's Trail of Cthulhu, Realms of Cthulhu etc.) than actually gets put out by Chaosium.

Still Cthulhu Invictus shows that Chaosium can still support its game. A book of scenarios is published for it (Cthulhu Invictus Companion), and Miskatonic River Press has published a campaign for it. Hopefully this won't be the last we see of the game.

At a cover price of $25, if you like Call of Cthulhu, have an interest in the Roman era, and like the idea of throwing the two together in a blender and hitting frappe, you could certainly find worse places to spend $25 than Cthulhu Invictus.

5 of 5.