Monday, 1 January 2018

Achtung! Cthulhu: The Fate Guides to the Secret War

I didn’t know much about the Achtung! Cthulhu line, but the artwork made me think that it was a pulp game of fighting the Cthulhu Mythos during WW2 in the spirit of Hellboy. So when the Fate book was recently on sale, I picked it up as Fate (or at least Fate Accelerated) is currently my system of choice.

So these are my thoughts on Achtung! Cthulhu: The Fate Guides to the Secret War (or A!C:FGSW from now on).

TL;DR: Too much background, not enough game.

It turns out that A!C: FGSW isn’t very pulpy at all. Instead it’s a hugely detailed look at what the world (or at least the Western Front) was like during WW2. There are, for example, four pages describing the German military organisation, and another four pages detailing the different German units. And similar detail covering Allied units. There are pages and pages of detail about the different weapons and vehicles used in WW2.

A!C: FGSW also contains a wealth of information about life on the home front. For example, there’s half a page on music and songs of the era, and a section listing American/British/French/German movies.

(And there are four different timelines. Four! A general chronology of events from 1918 to 1945, plus a Britain specific chronology, plus a USA specific chronology, PLUS one for the Secret War.)

And I have to be honest, none of this was very useful for me. I already have a pretty good familiarity with most of this stuff - and if there was stuff I didn’t know I’d rather look it up in a “proper” reference book rather than a gamebook.

More importantly, I’ve never found this information particularly relevant to running a game. It’s just not necessary. And if that means that occasionally when I’m GM-ing and I don't know something, I would rather make something up and keep the game going rather than interrupt play to look something up.

Not enough game

By “game”, here I mean material to inspire me to run a game. I don’t mean character generation stuff and new rules and statistics for monsters. Those don't actually explain to me how the designer of the game is expecting Achtung! Cthulhu to be played.

All we have are some evocative captions to some of the pictures, and seven pages of (very brief) scenario seeds. Now I know I created Tales of Terror, but they were always meant to supplement the existing game materials, and not be the only inspiration.

So for me, there isn’t enough game material. The scenario seeds are fine, but I would also have liked to see two or three fully fleshed out scenarios as well.

(I think the answer to my question of “How does the designer expect me to play Achtung! Cthulhu?” is that the designer doesn’t have any intention of telling me how to play. A!C: FGSW contains advice for different modes (pulp action, military narrative, Lovecraftian bleakness, etc) and different USA and British organisations to employ the PCs. So it’s clearly there to support whatever style of game I want. But I’d still like to see some scenarios and adventures.)

Physically, what do you get?

Physically, A!C: FGSW is a 376 page softback book. The cover is colour, but the interiors are all black and white (although the pdf is full colour throughout). The art is lovely, although it’s a bit dark in the paperback (it’s much better in the pdf, where it is in full colour). The font, however, is tiny; for my eyes, I need to read it in good light.

This is a colour photo - honest!
The internal design is okay. Most modern RPGs are over-designed to my eyes, but this is relatively subdued with good contrast between font and background (if only the font were bigger!). The tables, illustrations and illustrations are held in place with tape or paperclips, giving it the feel of a briefing dossier, which I Iike.

The book is heavy - it’s heavier than the hardback Cthulhu Dark.

A!C: FGSW is split into two books. The first is the investigators’ guide, and the second is for the Keeper. So there’s a bit of duplication (and that’s why it contains more than one timetable).

Overall, with it’s teeny font, significant heft, and huge page count, A!C: FGSW feels intimidating to me.

The mythos and the war

Achtung! Cthulhu, in an essay by Ken Hite, cautions against using the Cthulhu Mythos to excuse the Nazi atrocities. Instead, several mythos-aware organisations are presented: Section M, the American Majestic (American), Cult of the Black Sun (Nazi) and Nachtwolfe (Nazi - a spinoff from the Black Sun). These are presented in the same detail as the rest of the history, including their founding and the different personalities (with statistics) involved.

Unfortunately there’s one sidebar detailing Codename: Starfish which involves using a colour out of space for British night-time aerial defence. Unfortunately this turns a creature of the Cthulhu Mythos into being horrific into just being a tool. It’s very pulpy, and is quite different to the tone in the rest of the book.

A!C: FGSW also includes 22 pages of mythos creatures, all with Fate statistics, stunts and other abilities. To be honest, that’s more crunch than I can manage - one of the reasons I prefer simpler, more free-form systems is that I can’t remember the crunch.

And what about the Fate stuff?

A!C: FGSW contains good rules for kicking off an adventure, including advice on modes (as mentioned above) and character creation. Fate Core’s phase trio is amended to include a reason why the PC has come to the attention of either Section M or Majestic, life before the war, and crossing paths with the other PCs.

There are plenty of NPCs presented - either key figures from history (Barnes Wallis’ aspects are brilliant all-around engineer, willing to get my hands dirty, highly sought after for my mind), example characters, or villains. I don’t always find it easy to come up with new aspects, so I liked having lots of examples to choose from.

The chapter on sanity tries to fit Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules into Fate. I’m not sure how successful this is - my personal feeling is that if you want to model Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules, you’d be better off playing Call of Cthulhu. If I were running a pulp game I’d just use mental stress and consequences as per Fate.

(As an aside, I have never been a fan of the sanity system - to me it always felt like another set of hit points to keep track of. And personally I’d rather my investigators make it through the scenario rather than go insane part way through. But that’s a topic for another time.)

There are some new crunchy rules to reflect the nature of warfare in WW2. The most interesting of these is Scale - which one side gets when it has an overwhelming advantage (say a tank against an infantryman). Scale gives the side that has it a +4 shift bonus. There are also rules for armour, artillery and other crunchy stuff that I will probably forget (for the reasons mentioned above).

I’ve mentioned creatures above, but it’s worth mentioning that as well as having +6 “Rend and destroy all around”, shoggoths also have Scale… Best run away then.

There is also the obligatory list of tomes and spells (17 pages of spells!), all set up for use in Fate. A!C: FGSW introduces a magic point system for spells, a bit like Call of Cthulhu’s POW. Despite running and writing several Call of Cthulhu adventures, I’ve never actually let my players use magic and cast spells.

So who is Achtung! Cthulhu for?

As far as I can tell, the best use for Achtung! Cthulhu would be a great reference if you wanted to run a Call of Cthulhu game during WW2. There’s loads of detail, and a couple of mythos organisations to use either as employers or opponents.

But you don’t actually need Achtung! Cthulhu to do that. You could just use Call of Cthulhu and a couple of history books of your choice.

So who is A!C: FGSW for?

I have no idea. I've not tried using Fate for horror, but I'm not convinced it would work. Instead, I would use Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Dark. (I do wonder if part of the problem is that A!C: FGSW started life as a stretch goal for the Achtung! Cthulhu Kickstarter. It was therefore always an add on.)

I can imagine running a Hellboy-esque game of pulp horror set in WW2, but there’s very little in A!C: FGSW that I would need for that.

Which is a bit of a shame, as clearly so much effort has gone into it.


  1. RPG books like that border on being coffee table art books for me, rather than something to game with.

  2. Yes, I'm with you there. Seems to be a trend in modern RPG book design, though.