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.

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