Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Atomic Age Cthulhu: A Review

I'll admit it.  I'm a fan of modern gaming (with or without powers) and sci-fi gaming first, low fantasy a close second, and high fantasy not much at all.

This takes me to the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (hereafter titled as Call of Cthulhu).  Unfortunately, Call of Cthulhu is, by and large, stuck in the 1920's.  This is, in my opinion, an unfortunate decision.

Yes, H P Lovecraft wrote the bulk of the novellas and short stories that would inspire the game in the 1920's and 1930's.  But at the time Lovecraft wrote his stories, he was not writing historical fiction.  Lovecraft's stories included the latest technologies available or conceived of at the time, such as submarines, airships, airplanes, automobiles, trains, etc.  I think, if H P Lovecraft had lived long enough to see Call of Cthulhu come to fruition, he'd have been genuinely puzzled by Chaosium's being stuck in the 1920's.

I say this, because judging by the Kickstarter, Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition seems to be determined to be stuck in a historical timewarp that none of its players have ever lived in.  Frankly, my players can't relate to it for the most part, which has led to their enjoyment of Delta Green and modern scenarios far more than the 1920s.

So when I heard that Chaosium was publishing support for the Cold War Era of the 1950's with Atomic Age Cthulhu, I was rather intrigued.  Would it be a great book full of adventure hooks, source material, and maybe an adventure or two to give the keeper's some ideas of how this stuff might be worked into the game or was it going to be adventure heavy?  Let's take a look and find out.

Atomic-Age Cthulhu: Mythos Horror in the 1950's.
Authors: Too many to list

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
224 Pages, Perfectbound paperback
Retail: $31.95

General Layout and Design
The cover art is excellent, very evocative.  It sold me on the book pretty quickly.

The interior layout for the book, is, how do I say it, primitive.  It reminds me of RPG supplements done in the early 1980's (and not from the companies/games that survived into the 21st Century either).  Very art light, and were those actually Dot-Matrix Printer Jaggies on some of the larger font sizes?  Frankly, Chaosium should be a bit embarrassed at how far back they set the art of graphic design with this one.

Enough on the sizzle, let's look at the steak.  After a short introduction, the book is straight on to the first adventure, which to me is another questionable decision, but the reason why will become obvious in a few moments.

This Village Was Made for Us

I'll try to keep these scenario chapters as spoiler-free as possible, and merely describe the setup where possible.

This Village Was Made For Us is a scenario that could be very easily converted to a Delta Green Cowboy Years game.  Set in one of the small towns (Hanford, Washington) built up around a nuclear facility that grew out of the original Manhattan Project, it captures the feel of such a town excellently (I've spent some time in Los Alamos, New Mexico, another town that grew out of the Manhattan Project).  A nuclear scientist commits suicide, and its up to the investigators to find out why.  The group melds crazy cultists, the nuclear facility (still going strong at the time of the scenario), and the Mythos into a wonderful casserole of crazy.  Of the scenarios as written, this to me is the most intriguing of the bunch, and that's high praise.

TV Casualties

Having hooked into one of the 1950's nightmare scenarios (Great Old Ones and Nuclear Weapons Facilities) with the last scenario, TV Casualties picks up on one of the very real nightmares that parents, teachers, educators (not to mention movie theater owners, and sporting event ticket sellers), etc. thought was a nightmare from the 1950's.  This, of course, was television.

It's very easy, in this cynical, jaded, postmodern world to realize that there were actual living, breathing people who were convinced that television would be the downfall of humanity and America in particular.  This scenario, of course, takes those worst fears, adds a dose of the Mythos, and says, relax, everything you feared about television, well, it's all true.  The setup in this one is a small town that is seeing a sudden rash of violence.  A decently written scenario, the biggest thing will be convincing investigators it's not the joke we in the 21st Century now know the evils of television to be.

The Return of Old Reliable

The 1950's saw the dawn of the Space Race.  Missions to launch satellites (starting with Sputnik in 1957) and even animals into space happened with both the US and USSR, though sadly, the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, didn't take place until 1961.

Still, the space program as it existed in the 1950's is the subject of this scenario.  The scenario mixes a test animal launched into outer space, and creatures from beyond time and space together and launch a plot that could easily destroy the world.  Much like This Village Was Made For Us, this one could be easily converted to a Delta Green cowboy years game, or run as a straight up FBI investigation.

Forgotten Wars

The Korean War gets short-shrift in a lot of ways.  So far as I know, this book may be the first published scenario I've ever seen for an RPG set in that conflict, and it's a gem.  Forgotten Wars sets the players as the crew of an M4 Sherman Tank.  Light on investigation, and heavy on combat and survival horror, it involves crazy cultists, a powerful Korean sorcerer using the Korean Conflict as an excuse for his plot to bring about the end of the world, and oh, yeah, there's a war going on that the crew is in the middle of.  If you've ever wanted to see how a Sherman Tank would do up against a Great Old One, here's your chance.

High Octane

In the 1950's, two new social phenomena appeared.  The rise of mass car culture, and similarly, the rise of the first motorcycle gangs.  Oh yeah, and more than half of America thought Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khruschev was going to jump out of the broom closet and go Boo!  Mix all of these elements together, add somebody getting a hold of the wrong sort of books, and you've got High Octane.

L A Diabolical

If The Call of Cthulhu (the story) and L A Confidential (the film) had kids, they would look a lot like L A Diabolical.  The only question left is why did it take Chaosium 32 two years to do the chocolate in my peanut butter thing with film noir and Lovecraft.  Oh well, at least we've finally got it.

Destroying Paradise, Hawai'ian Style

If L A Diabolical is a crazy mix of film noir and the Mythos, this one takes another 1950's staple, the teen-oriented surfing movie (in this case, a surfing movie being produced in pre-statehood Hawaii) puts it into the blender with the Mythos, and hits frappe.  The results are about what you would expect.

1950's Sinister Seeds

A short 5 pages, this provides some adventure hooks for the time period.  They're OK, not great, but OK.

1950's Sourcebook

And this is where the wheels come off the horsecart.  First, when buying a book about Mythos Horror in the 1950's (it's in the title, Chaosium), it seems to me this chapter should be fairly meaty and deep.  After all, the 1950's were 60 years ago at this point.  A teenager growing up in the 1950's would be pushing 80, or over 80 by now.  Instead, we get 25 pages, near the end of the book.  The handout pages from the various scenarios at the back of book get almost as much space. 

Now don't get me wrong, what's here is solid.  The bulk of that 25 pages is writeups of various topics of interest during the period, the same sort of general cultural stuff one finds in the 1920's Investigator's Companion, or Cthulhu By Gaslight.  Finally, the section ends with some new professions tailored more toward the era.  What's disappointing is that this chapter could be so much more.

Missing (and seemingly strangely), first and foremost, are a firearms and equipment section.  If I'm thinking of running a game in the 1950's, it might be nice to have a list of generally available firearms during the period.  While there are some mixed in the scenarios, they are not exhaustive lists, and even for weapons that might carry over from the 1920's, prices would be nice.  And a list of generally available equipment (with prices) would also seem like a necessity.

Finally, I'd have liked to have seen a few of the more iconic movie monsters get a treatment anywhere in this book.  The 1950's were pretty much a Golden Age for B Grade Sci-Fi and Horror Films.  Giant, irradiated ants, cockroaches, rats, and even terrible lizards off the coast of Japan would seem to be a must for the era.

Honestly, I'd have been happier seeing the size of the Sourcebook section doubled, even at the expense of cutting one or two of the scenarios.

So what's the bottom line?  Here goes.


Several of the scenarios appear to be first-rate, and they do cover a broad brush of Americana circa the mid-1950's.  Though I haven't run any of them, there's a few I look forward to running when I get the opportunity.


The Sourcebook section needs more meat.  I can write scenarios.  What I really need is the setting material to properly run games in the era.  Sadly some of this was lacking in Atomic Age Cthulhu.

Finally, the ratings:

Style: 2 of 5

The 1980's called and said they want their dot-matrix printer desktop publishing tools back.  Seriously, Chaosium ought to be embarrassed at the layout of this one.  I expect this sort of stuff in a monograph.  Not so much in an actual Chaosium imprint.

Substance: 3 of 5

Really, the scenarios here aren't the problem.  They're easily a 4 out of 5, maybe even 5 out of 5.  However the thin page count of the setting material, and all the things that could have been part of it but weren't are where the problem lies and its tough to overlook.

The Bottom Line:

If you like the 1950s, and are looking for some Call of Cthulhu scenarios set in the era (and don't mind lazy layout) this is the book for you.

If you are looking for games and information on how to create 1950's Call of Cthulhu scenarios (and frankly have no idea about the time period), this book alone isn't going to do it for you.

After the brilliant successes that were Cthulhu Invictus and the new Cthulhu By Gaslight, this book is a letdown.  I know the bulk of their resources are devoted to Horror on the Orient Express and 7th Edition, but Chaosium really should have taken a closer look at this one before shoving it out the door.  With a little more care, this could have been so much better.


  1. The layout and presentation values of their publications really does seem to be a stumbling block for Chaosium. They are now producing new books instead of reprints but they all suffer from looking amateurish even when compared to tiny Indie publishers. Which is a great shame as I really love Call of Cthulhu and want them to succeed.

  2. Well, some of them are better than others.

    I thought the two Cthulhu Invictus books, as well as the new Cthulhu by Gaslight book were both top notch. This one looked amateurish, by comparison.