20 June 2020
Give me your pants and your tentacles
You can’t fling a tentacle into a gaming store without having a sucker latch onto another re-imagining of Lovecraftian horror, but Fate of Cthulhu manages to distinguish itself from the herd with two tools: explosions and time-travel.
The time travel thing isn’t just an excuse for the setting, which reads like an eldritch take on Terminator, but also feeds into some of the game’s coolest ideas. The result can be a little mind-bending to begin with, but once things start flowing – and you stop worrying about which tense to use – you can appreciate how this little shift in perspective beings so many fresh ideas to the table. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the structure.
Like many other games drawn from Lovecraft’s writing, Fate of Cthulhu is all about trying to prevent the arrival of some terrible cosmic horror fated to destroy the world. However, this time around the party has time-travellers on their side, and they’re armed with the most powerful weapon in the world – information.
This means that each mini-campaign in the book, which should take maybe a dozen nights of gaming to get through, gives the players a to-do list of pivotal apocalyptic events that need to be disrupted. The details of the missions will always be murky and there are still plenty of secrets to uncover, but the players still enter every adventure with a few names, dates and locations already in the bag. In other games, it would be like they hadn’t exactly read the adventure cover-to-cover, but had skimmed enough to get the gist of what’s going on.
When this works well it can be an absolute blast. It can give you the tools to pull an Ocean’s 11 on the bad guys, infiltrating organisations and planning extraction routes, but the wibbly-wobbly nature of time travel means there’s still plenty of room for things to go wrong.
It’s a little irritating, however, that after handing out such a cool toy, many of the pre-written campaigns immediately try to snatch it back. Several of the evil entities looking to chew up the planet have weird temporal powers of their own and work to change things up wherever possible.
Yes, it works as an effective way of ramping up the tension and keeping the party off-balance, but it also feels like the game should embrace the power of time-travel rather than shy away from it. It’s not like a bit of forewarning is going to help an adventurer stand up against shambling dimensional horrors, anyway.
Actually, that last bit might not quite be accurate, as another theme that distinguishes Fate of Cthulhu from its more restrained brethren is the toughness and general badass-ery of its heroes. Rather than the vain socialites or stuffy college professors of classic Lovecraftian horror, players step into the shoes of time-travelling soldiers, modern day spies and reformed cultists capable of tossing fire from their hands.
When deformed monstrosities burst through the door, the characters are expected to whip out shotguns and scream defiance, not cower and gibber in the corner. Despite the apocalyptic themes, there’s an air of frantic, furious energy to Fate of Cthulhu. The party doesn’t investigate; the party gets things done.
All this action is channelled through a slightly tweaked take on the incredibly free-form Fate system. The core rules about fighting bad guys and making checks are incredibly simple – albeit reliant on custom dice that some might find annoying – but a lot of customisation comes into play with aspects and stunts.
There are little flourishes that help to define your character and the world around you. In practice they stand in for the special powers and abilities used by other RPGs, so you could use them to make a hero an excellent navigator, for example, or to give them a special crushing attack with their mutated claw.
The twist, however, is that the players don’t simply pick from a pre-written list buried in the rulebook. Instead, they write their aspects and stunts themselves. Essentially, they get to write their own rules.
There’s enough guidance to keep this from being too overwhelming, but it can still be a rather daunting prospect – especially if the players are new to RPGs. If the players can embrace it, however, the limitless options can quickly become inspiring rather than intimidating.
Between the time-travel, the mutations and the free-flowing rules Fate of Cthulhu is just about weird enough to work. If nothing else, it brings something new to the rather crowded table of Lovecraft’s roleplaying spawn.
PLAY IT? Probably
Tired of Lovecraftian tropes? Try shooting them with a rocket launcher alongside time-travelling super-soldiers.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED… Pulp Cthulhu
Designer: Evil Hat Productions
This review originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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