Cthulhutech — Aliens, Ancient Gods, Battlemechs and Sanity-Crushing Horror

March 15th, 2012 by Billy Gibbs

What do ancient gods, giant robots, insectoid aliens, evil shapeshifting horrors, good shapeshifting horrors, telekinetics, and drow have in common? Cthulhutech.

CthulhuTech is an RPG made by Wildfire Studios. It’s set in a future where non-Euclidean physics has given birth to the D-Engine, a source of infinite clean energy that had the unfortunate side effect of getting our little ball of dirt noticed by forces best left to sleep. Magic is real, highly dangerous and highly regulated by the New Earth Government. The obvious comparison is to Shadowrun, the other “future with magic” RPG , but that’s not really a fair comparison. Shadowrun is based very much in the cyberpunk Neuromancer vision of the future. CthulhuTech is what mecha anime would be if it swallowed Lovecraft, then cleaned out the leftovers from the trope fridge. That is not a criticism, if you like either Lovecraft or giant robots there’s something here for you, if you’re more into Starship Troopers, you can fight bug aliens from Pluto.

Confused? Here’s a quick history lesson. Humanity invents the D-Engine based on a combination of quantum physics and eldritch power. This gets us noticed by the Migou, a race of highly intelligent insects. Deciding that humanity is a threat to their solar system, but having a terribly slow reproduction cycle they decide to create a warrior race based off human DNA but with some alterations designed to strike fear into the hearts of humanity. The Migou gave their creations jet-black skin, red eyes, false memories, and the name Nazzadi. The Nazzadi attacked earth in a brutal war before discovering the lie behind their existence and turning on their creators. Meanwhile the Esoteric Order of Dagon has launched attacks on the world’s coasts, striking from the sea with their aquatic mechs. Hastur’s avatar is leading a horde of monstrosities on a rampage through china and Nyarlathotep’s avatar is running a megacorp that is evil to the point of Captain Planet villain. Of course, Nyarly has better PR than Hastur. Oh, and big band music is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

If that seems like a lot going on you’d be right; one of the most common criticisms of Cthulhutech  is the lack of focus. It may seem like a bit of a kitchen sink setting, but it’s the execution that makes it shine. Every element is built into the setting so that it feels organic and alive. The setting shines in the fiction sections between chapters. The stories range from secret agents hunting illegal magic users to mecha pilots fighting on the front lines, but all of them fit. Playing a game as members of the Office of Internal Security is very similar to playing more traditional mythos games, with the slight reassurance that if you go missing your backup might be able to hurt whatever ate you. Playing as a tager is similar to the traditional investigation, with the twist that you are a human-horror hybrid that is more capable of giving and receiving punishment. It’s the recommended quick start choice, providing a modicum of survivability for new players, without the complexity of mech warfare. Cthulhutech reminds me a bit of Mechwarrior in that it’s really two games, one played on foot, and one played in robots. The big difference mechanically is that I think Cthulhutech scales better between its two power levels, though it is still a terrible idea to mix mechs with mortals. Mechwarrior is very much designed for mech combat first with infantry being a bit of an afterthought. Cthulhutech handles both mechs and foot well, thanks to Wildfire’s proprietary Framewerk engine.

A d10 based system; Framewerk is a hybrid of D&D’s roll-and-add system, a dicepool system, and Yahtzee. Players roll a number of dice equal to their skill, and then choose to sum all duplicates, take the highest, or add up a straight of three or more. To that number they add their associated attribute rating to determine success. The neat thing about this mechanic is that it really makes the skill levels matter when the master arcanotechnition has the potential to roll 5 tens, while his student could be topping out at ten or twenty in total. The straights also add a great deal of additional consistency at third level and higher. It really pulls forth the flavor that the master marksman is far and away better than a novice, but he still misses occasionally. It avoids the invincibility factor that develops in d20 games when mismatched levels do battle, and avoids Shadowrun’s issue of the statistics necessary to play the game not accurately reflecting the descriptions of skill levels. In this system a professionally skilled character with average stats will succeed at an average difficulty task on average, and is quite often capable of more. The only issue with the mechanics is that it will slow down new players. The counting and adding and figuring out if they can get a better pattern will make dice rolls take longer, but I’ve found it leads to much excited and intense moments when players are trying to make that trickshot work perfectly.

Fair warning, this game is more lethal than it looks. Characters have a multistage system of hit points, with each stage equal to that character’s vitality statistic. The average human will have five stages of ten hit points for a total of fifty. Damage hovers around 2d10 for assault rifles, making it look like characters can take a decent amount of punishment before death. This is true. It is also true that any damage that takes you past the first tier will require a week in the hospital to heal. It’s three months to recover after the second stage. It only gets more unpleasant further down. There is no mid-combat healing other than stabilization of dying characters. Anything else will take medical facilities. Wear armor, keep your head down, and don’t pick fights with power armor.

Leaving the game mechanics and turning to the presentation, these books are some of the most beautiful RPG books I’ve seen. Each page has some piece of full color art, the fiction pieces are all illustrated in the beautiful style from the cover, vibrant enough to catch the eye, but evocative of the mood the fiction presents. These books are just flat out beautiful. I love to just look at the art, and I’m a very word-centric gamer. It’s amazing how well-produced this game is for being the creation of three men with day jobs unrelated to RPGs.

Currently the line is between publishers after getting burned one too many times, but they have their .PDFs on sale at drivethruRPG, with reduced prices in an effort to raise capital for their next book. If you’re looking for a setting of high technology, scary magic, and unique mechanics this is for you. Go buy it, right now. If you only like one of those things, buy it and adapt it. There’s enough space in the setting for a lot of things.

(You can’t play an ancient god. You can, however play a dark elf trombonist whose band uses their tours as cover for their monster hunting.)

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2 Responses to “Cthulhutech — Aliens, Ancient Gods, Battlemechs and Sanity-Crushing Horror”

  1. Comment by Philo Pharynx

    Another dice mechanism that’s pretty much designed to make it hard to calculate the odds. I like the idea, but the mechanics would not be welcome at my table.

  2. Comment by Billy Gibbs

    After using it, I can say that it’s consistent enough that you can match skill levels to difficulties very well. Most things are opposed tests, and you can really see the difference in strengths. I know that mathing the odds is a big deal for balance, but in this case it is really easy to use the skill levels to compare how well players will do against NPCs, and the suggested targets for statics tests are given in an obvious fashion to enable easy match up to skill levels. It’s like they did the math for you. I will admit that Skill levels of three are far better than skill levels of two. If your primary role skills can be a three, do it. It really represents that point in the learning curve where you have a solid amount of skill, while ranks one and two are more “Student” levels. I’d suggest looking at the quickstart rules, they have the difficulty table for your study.