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