System Review: CthuluTech, Conclusion

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A Colder War

There’s a lot of cool things you can do with modern takes on the Mythos. CthuluTech‘s setting, even if you don’t like where it went in the supplements, is a really interesting idea. It’s not even just one idea, but a whole collection of ways to plug anime and other horror-action film influences into a weird tech sci-fi setting. You could hang a whole game just on the concept of solving our energy woes with sanity-breaking generator technology, and the game is full of little ideas like that. Even if you don’t want to take the game’s setting as a whole, there are lots of little pieces that could be built into something neat on their own.

Unfortunately, the system doesn’t parallel the interesting hodge podge of cool ideas that is the setting. It’s neither light enough to get out of the way nor crunchy enough to suggest lots of interesting options. It borrows heavily from serviceable older game design but adds clutter that makes it harder to use in play. It adds a few new ideas that are more gimmicky than useful while neglecting modern indie concepts that might have really helped. It’s just unwieldy and unmemorable.

Honestly, the most interesting thing about the system to me is how it’s forced me to realize that at some point in the last decade I changed one of my deeply-held game design beliefs. I remember, when D20 was about to become a boom, that I scoffed at Ryan Dancey’s ideas about using D&D as a freely available system for games that didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Obviously (my late-90s self believed), a purpose-built system would always be a better fit for a game concept than trying to kitbash a generic system. And when you’re dealing with a really unique game concept that wants to generate a specific mode of play, that’s probably true. Nobilis, Smallville, and Don’t Rest Your Head would be very different games if they weren’t purpose built (though out of common Cortex+ elements in Smallville‘s case). GURPS Nobilis and DRYH D20 are almost laughable in the trouble they’d have generating anything close to their original feel.

But CthuluTech is exactly the kind of thing that Dancey was right about. Other than potentially adding specialized mechanics for sanity, magic, and all that jazz, there’s nothing really interesting being done by its system that couldn’t be done in a generic system. As I’ve mentioned previously, just looking at it shows you the Storyteller influences and it’s set up so the attributes and abilities would shift almost seamlessly to a D20 model. Using GURPS or Hero might give it the good kind of mechanical crunch that its mech combat lacks (i.e., “this slows down action resolution, but compensates for it by giving me a ton of interesting options”). This is a case where building off of an established rules base might have given more time to really playtest the unique system elements and make them shine.

Instead, the engine is an unfortunate compromise. It’s purpose-built, but a lot of it seems to be an inexpert copy of other game engines. System options are complex to understand but gain no benefit from this complexity. Combat resolution is slow even when it just boils down to: “I shoot,” “Me too.” Character creation is full of traps for the newbie and minmax options for the pro. New and potentially interesting mechanics are mixed thoroughly with familiar mechanics that are just different enough that you have to look them up every time.

Ultimately, it’s a game about using your weird technology and ill-advised scholarship to fight eldritch horrors and none of those things is a metaphor that demands anything but a serviceable simulation engine that’s fun to play. It should have been D20. But it’s not and, in trying to reinvent the wheel, it winds up with a forgettable and mediocre system that doesn’t remotely live up to the potential of its setting.

System Review: CthuluTech, Part 3

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Fightin’ Crime in a Future Time

Let’s talk about the CthuluTech combat system.

In general, it’s about what you’d expect from a skill based, gunfire-favoring system that’s not too far removed from modern horror. There’s a margin of success based damage modifier. There’s a list of special attack options that includes automatic fire, using cover, dual wielding, and all the usual stuff. There’s even a scatter diagram and a common item hardness chart. You’ll feel right at home paging through.

There are a few things it does that are unusual, though.

First, and perhaps most significantly, you always get a defensive roll at your full dodge skill without using an action (unless you’re restrained or something), and this sets the difficulty for an opponent’s attack. Note that your dodge skill is on the same scale as your opponent’s attack skill in most cases. So characters with a high Agility + Dodge are significantly likely to be missed by attacks. One of the major opponents of the setting, the Mi-Go (or Migou as the game calls them), are expected to start with an Agility + Dodge higher than is possible for a starting character (they get a big Agility bonus and start with Dodge 4 when PCs have a starting skill cap of 3). Effectively, combat is a huge whiff fest against a lot of opponents until they randomly roll low on dodge.

Thus, extra actions are a big help. There’s a standard multiple-action penalty, but you can’t even try to take multiple actions unless your Agility is high. So Agility makes it drastically more likely that you’re never going to take damage, gives you more chances to deal damage, and is also the operative ability for melee attacks. You want to buy this ability as high as you can. At least it’s not also the ability for shooting (that’s Perception).

So you’ve managed to land a hit against an opponent who didn’t have an overwhelming Agility advantage. Now you add up damage dice. The calculation for this is generally pretty straightforward: base dice for weapon (plus Strength bonus in melee) plus a bonus die for every 5 MoS on the attack roll. These are the standard d10s used everywhere else in the game, but for this roll you don’t count them the way you would when making a skill roll, you just add them all up. Damage dice are generally on the same scale as skill dice (i.e., you’re often rolling 1-4), so they could have been on the same curve as skill checks. Instead, they have a way more swingy high end and bigger numbers in general.

Because damage swings so high, you get a wounds system that can account for that. All characters have a lot of hit points, divided into five tiers with mounting penalties.

Effectively, combat seems to be mostly a very fiddly series of misses, complex to account for but small bits of damage, and periodic lucky rolls that obliterate the target.

Mecha Damage

Mostly, the reason for the fiddly damage seems to be an interesting conceit: the reason D-Engines have the side effect of giving pilots a sixth sense about their vehicles is so mechs can just use your own combat skills. You don’t pilot them via intense training so much as you just get in one, transfer your prioperception to its limbs, and are able to seamlessly translate your physical combat skills to mech combat. The Mech Piloting skill is used for things with no clear human analog, like flying, but you use your normal combat skills in mech combat.

So, while mechs have their own hit points, they use the same format as human-scale hit points. So human scale combat has bulk HP so mech combat can bring all the joy of marking off big blocks of hit points you used to love in BattleTech. Theoretically. In actuality, mech combat does add several more rules to baseline combat like acceleration speeds, tracking which mech systems are taken offline at different damage thresholds, and special self-repair systems that only function in the middle damage thresholds (because they don’t turn on until the mech has more than superficial damage, but are heavily reduced and deactivated at lower tiers… and they don’t really heal very much anyway).

Ultimately, I found that it was too complicated to really be on the same field of playability as regular combat in the game as it professed (and regular combat is already cumbersome), but attempting to be in line with human-scale combat meant that it wasn’t really fun as a standalone mech combat game either. As mentioned earlier, I played a lot of BattleTech back in the day, and even with the massive complications of two pages of small-print charts, multi-location HP tracking, heat sinks, ammo management, and the difficulty of customizing your mech without the aid of a computer program, CthuluTech‘s mech combat feels nearly as complicated without being nearly as fun. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I was running it with a group more invested in mech combat and against opponents without the Mi-Go’s massive dodge bonus, but I’m not optimistic.

Also, having mech scale combat required them to add mega-damage to the game (sorry, Integrity damage) so human-scale weapons can’t blow up mechs. Except they created “hybrid damage” for the occasional human-scale attack that can damage mechs… except it mysteriously does human-scale damage to humans and mech-scale damage to mechs. Effectively, there are weapons that will do the same percentage of damage against a human as against a mech with the same attack and damage roll… for some reason. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Spells

There is a spell/ritual-based magic system in the book, and it is pretty Lovecraftian in its scope. It requires a lot of downtime to work, but often produces useful things that you could use later if you wanted to make a PC spellcaster for some reason. So it’s probably pretty decent, even though the player that got the caster in my one-shot wasn’t too pleased that his magic wasn’t super useful in a shorter game.

Conclusion

System Review: CthuluTech, Part 2

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Arcanotech School is Hard

With the premise and dice system out of the way, the best way to describe the Framewerk system is that it owes an awful lot to early-90s skill-based game design. If this game had come out alongside Fading Suns in 1997, it would have been only slightly behind the curve on design elements. However, it came out in 2008, where massively complex simulationist skill-based chargen had, I thought, largely been eliminated.

Character creation in this game has it all:

  • Linear-cost point-buy attributes: you can min-max to get very high scores in the stats you’re likely to roll a lot and mediocre scores in dump stats (e.g., Strength just provides a minimal melee damage bonus so can be safely dropped for ranged characters)
  • Agility as king: you want this attribute as high as you can afford
  • Equally priced skills of widely varying utility: you could spend your points on Artist and Trivia or on Marksman and Dodge
  • Derived Attributes: these are particularly noteworthy because you regularly have to average multiple traits only to compare them to a chart (i.e., you could have just added them and then looked at the chart)
  • Cheats: that’s right, this game has Freebie Points, and you need them because they’re integral to having…
  • Merits and Flaws: excuse me, Assets and Drawbacks… for everyone who missed the min-maxing potential of getting bonus character points for flaws you never expect to come up; note that even White Wolf dropped the freebie points for flaws concept in 2004

Alright, admittedly I’m being overly harsh and a lot of other recent games have a lot of those same features. But they usually don’t feature all of them. As noted, not even White Wolf features all of them anymore. In a lot of ways, character generation feels like someone making a few big house rules to kit bash Trinity or some other 90s White Wolf game into their desired genre.

But maybe you like this old school fiddly character generation method. It served us well for over a decade, after all. In that case, the character generation system only features two real flaws… but they’re glaring ones.

The first is that this game is actually three games with a unified character creation system:

  1. In the core game, you’re government-sponsored occult investigators. You run through arcologies and bureaucracies hunting monsters and conspiracies. It’s the classic Call of Cthulu or Delta Green tropes in the future setting. For this game, you’ll want to make an arcanotechnician, intelligence agent, occult scholar, or soldier.
  2. However, you might not just be government investigators, but actually mech pilots fighting on the front lines of the war in your D-Engine-powered mecha, possibly even in the organic hybrid Engels. For this game, you’ll want to make an Engel pilot or mecha pilot. You might also choose to make an arcanotechnician for this if the GM isn’t going to provide you an NPC to do the boring downtime work of fixing the mechs.
  3. Finally, you might just be playing as a member of the Eldritch Society, a heroic cult that operates outside of the government to track down shapeshifting infiltrators and destroy them using their interdimensional monster forms. They’re effectively a Lovecraftian take on Werewolf: the Apocalypse. If you play anything but a Tager (the shapeshifter character type) in this game, you’ll be woefully underpowered in combat.

If you try to create a hybrid of these games and let players take any character type they want, there’s going to be a substantial amount of sitting around. Mech combat takes a huge amount of time, so anyone that isn’t a mech pilot is going to spend large parts of sessions sitting out if those happen on screen. Tagers are grossly overpowered in human-scale combat, and will quickly outshine characters that thought they were combat characters in a non-mech game. Even the example scenarios in the back of the book assume that games will break down into one of the three types. But character generation doesn’t differentiate them in any way for players.

The second flaw harkens to the title of this section: there’s a very unbalanced amount of simulationism inherent in the skill lists. Specifically, to become an arcanotechnician or arcanotech engineer, you have to take a huge stack of prerequisite skills such as (regular) technician and earth sciences to high levels. And the prereqs don’t overlap much: if you want to be both a technician and an engineer (i.e., can both fix and build weird tech), you might barely have enough skill points to buy both skills at chargen. Note that both of these skills, and most of their prerequisites, are highly situational and mostly take realistic amounts of time, thus will only be useful in downtime in a typical game. So you could spend all your skill points to become an excellent engineer who is basically useless in a typical scenario, or just buy tons of combat and investigation skills and constantly be useful.

All told, there are around 50 skills in the core book, and experienced gamers are going to be able to very quickly identify and purchase the ones that are likely to matter in play, while less experienced players wind up with characters that are much less competent unless the GM is constantly looking for ways to apply their skills.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about this whole character creation system is that it would have clearly been D20 if it had come out just a couple of years earlier. The attributes map easily to D&D ability scores, the professions could easily become classes, and the skill list makes a lot more sense if there are classes with different in-class skills and available ranks to spend. Hell, there is even an extra playable race with minor stat differences from humans and combat skills are already kept distinct from the main skill list.

I’m really sad CthuluTech missed the D20 boom, because, besides making character creation work better, it would have drastically improved the combat system… which I’ll talk about next week.

Part 3

System Review: CthuluTech, Part 1

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Mind-Bending Power

CthuluTech is basically BattleTech plus Lovecraft by way of anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion. In the mid 21st century, humanity begins rediscovering old Mythos tomes, resulting in magic becoming less secretive and, more importantly, using insanity-causing dimensional theory to create an engine that produces nearly limitless clean power (sufficient to make mechs feasible). Unfortunately, the new adventure into space and ocean colonization this enables pisses off forces both undersea and extraterrestrial, and also suggests to a bunch of apocalypse cults that it’s a good time to really work at bringing back their elder gods. So there’s a multi-front war with mechs, other high-tech stuff, magic, and monsters. Give Voltron a more Lovecraftian twist and you’re most of the way there.

It’s a pretty neat setting, all things considered. And it’s usually interesting to explore “A Lovecraftian Take on” whatever non-horror sci-fi, fantasy, or supernatural genre you care to think of. I have heard that the later sourcebooks for the game line tend to follow the thought of “Lovecraft monsters have tentacles… we’re anime-inspired…” to its inevitable and squick-inducing conclusion, but I’m only working from the core book, so that’s not a concern for my review.

On the inspirations front, I’m pretty well qualified. I played a lot of BattleTech as a teen, and the old tactical-RPG Mechwarrior game was one of the first PC games I ever played (even if I didn’t stick with the video games when they became shooters). I’ve read a lot of Lovecraft, even helped make a short film on the subject, and am familiar with the Cthulu-related RPGs on the market. I’m not a big fan of anime, but I have seen a little bit of NGE and a lot of the Americanized 80s cartoons like Voltron and Saber Rider that seem to be right in the wheelhouse of giant robots vs. monsters.

So I’m more than passingly familiar with the subject matter and I like the ideas behind the specific setting. By all rights, this should be a game that I’m excited to play and run, and for which I’m willing to overlook small flaws just to get at the monster-smashing eldritch technology goodness.

Unfortunately, there are significantly more than just a few small flaws.

Core Mechanics

The game engine for CthuluTech is called Framewerk, and is clearly intended to be used for other projects. It features a pretty straightforward, if idiosyncratic, core dice mechanic:

  1. Choose an attribute and pick flat mods: this is your base result
  2. Choose a skill and roll that many d10s
  3. Determine which d10s you keep and add their result to the base result
  4. Compare the total number to a target, with margin of success improving results

Step 3 is the idiosyncratic part. Determining which dice to keep is a multi-step process:

  1. Keep the highest die unless you have a higher double or a straight (e.g., I roll 9, 7, 3 and keep 9)
  2. If you have doubles, add them together unless the highest die is bigger or you have a higher straight (e.g., I roll 9, 6, 6 and keep 6+6=12)
  3. If you have a straight (a sequential series of 3+ dice), add them together and keep them unless you have a higher single or double (e.g., I roll a 9, 8, 7 and add them all together to get a 24)

The dice curve for this system is weird as hell. Because of the way doubles and straights work, you’ll frequently get probability spikes at certain totals surrounded by impossible rolls (e.g., on three dice, there are 6 results that give you 21, 24, and 27 but no results for 22, 23, 25, or 26). I had to brute-force the results, and only got up to three dice (but it’s rare for starting players to roll more than three dice on a skill). One die’s average roll is 5.5 with a high of 10, two dice gives you an average of 7.7 and a high of 20, and three dice gives you an average of 9.7 and a high of 27.

So, despite how strange it is, the dice system does seem to give out a pretty steady +2 average result for each die you get with a gradually diminishing spread on the top end (assuming greater numbers of dice follow basically the same trend). And, in practice, even though it’s confusing to describe, it quickly becomes pretty easy to use at the table. Well, not just easy, but fun as well: the act of picking out doubles and straights isn’t significantly more time consuming than just counting successes on d10s, White Wolf-style, and my players really seemed to enjoy it.

Unfortunately, calculating dice results was about the only thing they enjoyed about the system. And I’ll start to explain why next week.

Part 2

CthuluTech Scenario: 48 Hours

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I ran CthuluTech yesterday to test the system out, and it went pretty well. I ran the session convention-style: pregenerated characters for a limited scenario intended to be played in one session. It’s loosely based on one of the scenarios from the core book, but I felt that was too railroady and combat heavy.

Here are the files:

Combat takes way longer than I expected, so we took about 8 hours to do half of the module. It also takes a little while to get going before the first sets of events get triggered by time passing: you might want to give the players daytime assignments for the first day that keep things moving until events start to happen. Even though I used fewer mechs than the book’s scenario, I only had time for one mech fight: Migou dodge like crazy, so fighting them involves a ton of missing.

I’m likely starting on the TechNoir system review this week, then CthuluTech will follow. Are there any games called [Something]Cthulu? I feel like I’ve established a pattern and need to keep it going :) .

Serial Numbers Filed Off: Bad Neighbors

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CthuluTech: Scare Where

Dude, your next door neighbor is a Dhohanoid.

Those are myths, man. Everyone’s just pissed at the Chrysalis Corp because they overcharge on stuff. They’re not secretly run by monsters.

Really? A high ranking Chrysalis Corp executive moves in next door to you, people start to go missing, and he’s obviously renovating his apartment into a fortress. He’s clearly up to some shit.

This is the New Vegas arcology. There’s a giant rift to who knows where thirty miles south of us. People are going to go missing. They probably went outside and got eaten by a monster. We’ve still got gene scans to get inside. Occam’s Razor.

Sure, they slapped this thing up as an evacuation center when the rift opened and it ballooned into a full arcology in six months. You think they didn’t leave holes in the security? Look, I know this guy, Peter Vincent.

The guy who stars in the Migou Fighting Action Hour show?

That’s just his cover. He’s a member of the Eldritch Society.

Myth.

They’re not a myth. My cousin in Atlanta got saved from a bunch of cultists and monsters by a freaky other monster that didn’t eat him. It’s the worst kept conspiracy in the world. Monster superheroes.

I’m not going to go break into the studio wing, tell a local celebrity that I think he’s a shapeshifting vigilante, and ask him to deal with my neighbor just because a crazy guy claims he’s a Dhohanoid.

Your funeral, then. Better hope he doesn’t come after your girlfriend or your mom…

 

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