Featured Product: Cthulhu Dark Ages – Cover to Cover (Part 1)

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Cthulhu Dark Ages – Cover to Cover (Part 1)
By Aaron T. Huss

Learn more about Cthulhu Dark Ages here.
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Welcome to the latest Featured Product series by Roleplayers Chronicle. In this short series, we’re featuring Cthulhu Dark Ages from Chaosium. Part 1, Cover to Cover, takes a look at the ins and outs of the book and what’s different compared to Call of Cthulhu.

A Different Look

Cthulhu Dark Ages is not a historical setting for Call of Cthulhu, it is actually its own RPG with its own version of the Basic Roleplaying rules. It is designed to be more accommodating to the Dark Ages, although there is actually little difference between the two. The setting, however, is considerably different.

Before finding out why, there’s one major thing to understand. Cthulhu Dark Ages is published by Chaosium, but it really wasn’t developed by Chaosium. It was instead developed by the team from Pegasus Spiele, who I believe published the German version of Call of Cthulhu along with the publishers of the defunct Worlds of Cthulhu magazine. This produces some interesting changes from regular Chaosium publications. For one, it has a trade dress throughout that looks like old, torn paper along the edges, the same one used in Worlds of Cthulhu. The artwork is okay, although I often question the value of what they chose versus what they could have chosen (such as more period-oriented artwork). The setting is definitely written by someone that did a lot of research into the Dark Ages, along with understanding the Cthulhu Mythos. When it all comes together, you get a fantastic set of core mechanics and setting material… but the scenario falls a little flat.

Here’s my issue. When you look at the modern era Call of Cthulhu scenarios, adventures, and campaigns, they all have that sense of modern horror in a modern setting using modern tools. It all has a good synergy and fits well. When I look at the Cthulhu Dark Ages scenario that’s included, it almost feels like a regular Call of Cthulhu scenario moved into the Dark Ages with a period-friendly environment. To me, it doesn’t feel like the Dark Ages.

I am not a historian, but I do have a huge interest in the Dark Ages. My Savage Worlds setting Faith & Demons: The Rising is set in the Dark Ages and I’ve been collecting Vampire: The Dark Ages books. Thus, I have a huge interest in it, drawing me to Cthulhu Dark Ages. But when I think of the Dark Ages, I think of lands that are considerably different depending on where they’re located. The Occidental, which is the base location for Dark Ages, is considerably different than a game placed in Constantinople. However, the former lands of the Roman Empire were chosen as the “home base” for Cthulhu Dark Ages scenarios. Obviously you could take these scenarios anywhere, but let’s stick to the base environment.

When you look at life in the Occidental (which basically means the lands in the west), you had a lot of scattered villages, tribal homes, the rare large city, and a whole lot of ethnic groups caught in the flux between their pagan heritage and the spreading Christian missionaries. Of course, this also depends on where those missionaries come from. So what does that mean? Unless you were in a national army, there’s a 99% chance that you never left your home village, town, or city. When you look at Cthulhu Dark Ages, it is as if the PCs are a group of random people thrown together either purposely or accidentally, and getting involved in an investigation; possibly after you are walking along and come upon a village. Unless you were nomads, this probably never happened. Missionaries traveled; armies traveled; warriors probably traveled; the common freeman, probably not. Someone with a feudal lord; almost definitely not. From here, the basic experiences of Call of Cthulhu are being transplanted into the Dark Ages.

It just doesn’t make enough sense.

I will follow-up with this; if a Keeper does his research of the Dark Ages before starting a game, he can easily make this work. How? The PCs are missionaries or compatriots of the missionaries, making their way across the land to convert the pagans. Another idea is that during a hunt, the PCs come upon an abandoned village. Or maybe the PCs are charting new territory for their feudal lord or king. There are definitely no shortage of ways to bring the PCs together and have them involved in a scenario, but it’s much different than with a modern Call of Cthulhu game. Thus, you cannot simply place Call of Cthulhu in the Dark Ages, you should make sure everyone understands what life was like in the Dark Ages and how different it was than modern day. This was something that could have been developed better in the core rulebook and definitely could have been considered in the included scenario.

Why the Dark Ages?

Everything listed above could make it difficult to put together a campaign in the Dark Ages. It’s possible, but no in the same context as regular Call of Cthulhu games. The Keeper definitely has their work cut out for them by bringing in flavor from the period into the game. But why would one want to play in the Dark Ages? Well, it’s definitely a considerably different feel for the game you would play. Everything could be much more horrific and you lose the ability to to regain your sanity like you could in an asylum or with good therapy. However, the Dark Ages is filled with colorful religious beliefs that can be combined with the Cthulhu Mythos and given a new purpose. It’s a time of change and danger with the threats of barbarous armies invading your village or creatures of indescribable fear. It’s a time of religious change as your pagan history is replaced with Christian beliefs.

In terms of horror, it’s everywhere and it’s inherent in the setting. Especially if the characters avoid being warriors and are simple folk who have never ventured any farther than the edges of their village for hunting, foraging, and farming. It’s a time of freemen and vassals (dedicated to feudal lords). The technology of the Roman Empire is lost and the protection of medieval knights has yet to come. You may have to watch out for Viking raiders, or Muslim armies. It’s a dangerous world and when you throw in the Cthulhu Mythos, the horror is increased tenfold.

So what’s the lure of the Dark Ages? Awesome, horror-filled gaming! The modern age has a lot of tools to help you in your investigation. You may not be so lucky in the Dark Ages. You may have to get creative. Just remember, in the Dark Ages, even weapons are hard to come by in the Occidental lands portrayed in the setting. PCs may get desperate to overcome those horrors, forcing them to get creative. If the PCs can survive, they’ll probably learn to leave the unknown alone and get back to a simple life.

You could make a case that Call of Cthulhu is investigative horror while Cthulhu Dark Ages is survival horror.

Part 2

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