The Cthulhu Hack Review
This is author Paul Baldowski’s answer to old-school style Black Hack Call of Cthulhu. It’s a reasonably priced PDF that printed rather nicely on my duplex laser - except for the cover which is a page of black. I’m not printing that even if you pay me. I’d suggest reversing the cover of the PDF; black on a white background will get used - the reverse? I’m not so sure.
I got my copy from RPGNOW.com which describes the product as a 42 page PDF. It doesn’t say up front that these are digest-sized pages so you’re getting about 20 pages of content. The text is large and liberally spaced; the file could have been much smaller and achieved the same result. On the plus-side the acres of blank space gives the reader plenty of room to scribble in their own notes and house rules.
The writing is friendly and conversational and only occasionally a little clumsy for example some words and combinations are over used from time-to-time and the author treats just about everything as a proper noun requiring capitalisation. This isn’t a huge issue but it makes a block of prose feel, well, clumsy. For example we’re told that a Turn lasts a Minute. You might get away with Turn as your proper noun (not that I’d bother) but Minute? No. There are literally dozens of other examples that a proof reader could have weeded out.
The Black Hat layout still needs some work. When creating your character you’ll need to start with the section entitled Rolling Stats then visit every other section of the rule book to complete your character sheet. The vital statistics of character classes is reserved for the last few pages of the book.
The core of the game is elegant and simple; generate your character’s statistics with a throw of 3 six-sided dice for each and throw a twenty-side die to test the stat in play. You need to throw under the number by the way, which strikes me as odd. The rules are essentially telling you to refer to your character sheet and not throw the number indicted. But the confusion is short-lived. The text doesn’t offer any suggestions on what to do when your character is an incompetent idiot with perilously low scores. I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing but in my group Stat Envy is a real issue and a session where all of the characters are bumbling Inspector Clouseau wannabes whilst potentially fun will set a tone that may be undesired and probably provide for a short and bloody game session.
Player’s throw almost all the dice in this game; throw to hit; throw to be missed; throw for clues et cetera. I like this style of play a lot; it’s particularly conducive for an investigative game.
Investigation is quietly the centrepiece and is handled deftly. If the players investigate the right location or character they receive a clue but must then check their flashlight or smokes die. Flashlight covers any kind of investigation involving searching and smokes refers to interaction. After finding a clue, the player throws a die (eight-sided for example); if the result is 1 or 2, the next time a throw is called for, the next smaller die (six-sider) must be used. When the player has used the last d4, that line of enquiry is closed. For now. The important part of the process is that the clue is revealed before the die is thrown; rarely will a mission be derailed by poor dice throws.
The mechanic referred to above is called the Usage Die. Not a term that trips off the tongue but it’s serviceable. Alas even in this iteration of Black Hack it isn’t presented in the best light despite being the cornerstone of what makes this series of games different. My take on the mechanic is this: when you make meaningful use of something tracked by a usage die, throw the die and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The rules instead tell you that the game is divided into discrete turns which are really game minutes and in each minute exists an unspecified number of moments. A moment is when you do things, a minute is when you throw the usage die. Clunky. I’ll stick with my interpretation.
A brief interlude: starting cash for characters. Each class starts with a number of dollars based on the character’s charisma score. My sample clergyman begin with $8 in his pocket. The author takes a paragraph to say “don’t abstract cash, it’s better to use dollars and cents” but doesn’t give the reader any clue what comes after his character has blown his $8. Now, if ever there was genuine cause to wheel out the usage die, this is it. A revolver for example has 6 bullets but we don’t keep track of those six shots instead, the usage die comes into play; in theory you could continue to discharge your service pistol until Great Cthulhu was reduced to a ragged stump but when it comes to buying a pack of Lucky Strikes and a beer, well, you need to keep detailed records. Hmmm… missed opportunity? Probably. Giving a rich character a usage die of d10, for example, and letting them throw for every expense would soon whittle the resource and, importantly, provide the drama that the author is seeking with his reliance on loose change.
Sanity! You can’t have a Cthulhu game without it right? Right! In my book, this is another win for The Cthulhu Hack. Sanity is represented with a usage die based on character class and triggered by various unsavoury events. Throw a 1 or 2 and the die drops to the next smaller poly and the character suffers a period of temporary insanity. This nicely mimics the original game whilst retaining some pulp survivability for the characters. For my money, sanity recovers too quickly at one die per day of rest - I’ll probably stick to recovery when the character levels up or not at all depending on the nature of the shock.
The game skilfully manages to reduce the referee’s tasks to running the story and interacting with the players as the adventure’s ancillary characters; he or she is mercifully saved from throwing dice and consulting charts. Enemies are described by one rating: hit dice. The more hit dice the enemy has the more damage it inflicts when the character fails to defend and the more damage it can sustain. A very nice touch is that monsters with more hit dice than the character fighting it apply the difference as a penalty to the player’s dice throws. Monsters scale effortlessly with the characters.
The rest of the game’s elements are left to individual players, for example: characters level up pretty much when the referee says they should but there are guidelines. There isn’t much in the way of assistance for new players and referees to fathom what certain classes might be capable of; a few examples would have sorted that out and there’s no shortage of unused space in the book so I think the author could have expanded that area a little.
I’m very happy with my purchase and will definitely play this game almost complete as written. My preferences mentioned earlier do little to alter the game’s intent. The Black Hat and by association, The Cthulhu Hack are so far removed from the original D&D of 1974 that the any claimed comparison is completely redundant; the ability names (strength, dexterity et cetera) remain, everything else has changed. However, as first an investigation based role-playing game and secondly as a publication that captures the feel of Chaosium’s first edition Call of Cthulhu, this is a win.