Game Review: Tiny Cthulhu
|Tiny Cthulhu Cover Art by
Tom Brown; ©2020 Gallant
I am a Cthulhu Mythos fanatic, and have a bookshelf full of Lovecraft's fiction, and the work of his circle and modern "Lovecraftian" authors to show for it. One of my all-time favorite campaigns in any system was one I ran designed as a mashup of The Silver Key, The Festival, Celephais, the video game The 7th Guest, and the anime series Witch Hunter Robin.
Oddly, I have never played the original Chaosium Call of Cthulhu. I found the version of the rule-set I got my hands on was unappealing. But Call of Cthulhu d20 was one of my favorite systems, and still sits on my shelf. The problem is that Eldritch Horror just doesn't jive well with a level-based and combat-heavy system like d20. and the charm of that adaptation wears off pretty quickly.
I've tried to capture the Cthulhu Mythos in a lot of systems since: Mage: the Ascension, the new World of Darkness, GURPS, Cypher System... All with mixed results.
I am also an Arkham Horror junkie.
I have a theory that the Mythos really does need a purpose-built system to work. Games built to make characters the heroes, or at least give them a fighting chance often fall flat. And I have been looking for a good CoCd20 alternative to tell my Weird Tales. I was thrilled when I heard that Alan Bahr was taking a stab at the Mythos in the chatter after my recent interview with him. I've been watching the calendar for my shot at this review for months. And I am not disappointed.
Tiny Cthulhu is built using an updated version of the Tiny d6 Engine, a super-minimalist engine that is built on handling every critical task as a test using 2d6. Normally, a 5 or 6 on either die represents a success. If your character is particularly good at a task they get Advantage, rolling 3d6. If the odds are against them they get 1d6. Characters can spend an action to focus and increase their chance of success by counting 4s as a success. Your character has a one-line background and a list of four traits that define what rolls you have Advantage on by default.
Tiny d6 is a simple system, using zones, depletion dice, 2-action turns, and a simple hit-point economy to make an engine that has a lot of torque and ports well to a lot of different playstyles. It is effectively classless, Level-less, and Old-School lethal.
Tiny d6 comes in a dozen flavors from Old-School dungeon crawling in Tiny Dungeon 2e, space opera in Tiny Frontier Revisited, post-apocalyptic survival in Tiny Wasteland, superheroes in Tiny Supers, Westerns in Tiny Gunslinger, and more beyond. The key is in the mix of enemies, add-on subsystems, heritages / archetypes (a sort of race / class option that only grants hit points and determines 1 trait), and traits offered.
With a few tweaks, Tiny d6 can emulate almost any genre in a rules-light, low-crunch manner. Which is, frankly, perfect for a Cthulhu Mythos story: too many rules would tempt a GM to work hard to shoehorn events into the mechanical structure of the game. This really shows in Call of Cthulhu d20, for example, where they tweaked the monsters endlessly to shoehorn them into an even spread of Challenge ratings, and sratted out the Great Old Ones, just in case PCs end up fighting Cthulhu (even depicted in the manual).
|Dungeons & Dragons Iconic Characters battle Cthulhu by Wayne Reynolds; ©2002, Wizards of the Coast
In a Lovecraftian Horror scenario, part of the point is that the terrors you are facing don't play by the rules. The fewer the rules, the easier that is to do.
Tiny Cthulhu adds a pretty solid Corruption mechanic that replaces the usual sanity check. It avoids the messiness of the way Call of Cthulhu presents mental health with a simpler system. Make a test, modified by just how horrible the situation is. Fail and you have to make a choice: your character blacks out and wakes up in some new situation d6 days later after a dissociative episode, or theylose 1 point from their Corruption pool. This is a very slow-healing (with therapy or solitude) stat that you have set between 3 and 7. Once it hits 0 your character has either gone irretrievably mad, or become a monster themselves.
While there are a range of combat traits in the Traits list, Tiny Cthulhu includes a lot of traits designed for investigation and exploration.
What I Loved
Seventy two of Tiny Cthulhu's One-Hundred Eighty pages are devoted to presenting ten micro-settings for the game by different contributors. They are presented with no mechanics, and could very easily be played with any other Lovecraftian TTRPG.
While some of them have glaring flaws as written, each one is unique and inspired. Every one of them that I read made me want to grab a group and play right away. And each one provides a radically different twist on classic Call of Cthulhu play.
The settings are well worth the price of the book, even if you don't use the Tiny Cthulhu game itself. I doubt I will ever run out of Lovecraftian adventure ideas by reading this.
Some of the real stand-outs includd:
The Dark Forest: a surreal fantasy forest bent by the dreams of an alien Dragon. Those who wander in it slowly lose themselves, warping to fit the imagination and expectations of the Dragon.
YG-359: A Space Horror game about asteroid miners finding themselves pulled into the orbit of Yuggoth as their Mines break into Mi-go hives, and their own crew become increasingly mad and violent. Think Aliens and Event Horizon.
The Slithering World: PCs try to survive and keep their freedom and resist a tyrannical cult in an environmentally ravaged Earth that has been conquered by Serpent-folk, overrun by dinosaurs, and devastated after humankind served as soldiers in the serpentfolks' war on other Mythos creatures.
Unspeakable Voyage: Call of Cthulhu meets Pandemic, the PCs are members of a specialized team devoted to stopping the spread of mutation- and psychosis-inducing viruses that have been unleashed to make mankind more suitable for the coming Aeon,
One of the problems with the zone system is that it is too relative. You can break everything into Close, Near, and Far... but to what? The center of the action? Your Target? Your character?
Generally, when that system is used it is all of thee above as needed. Games that use this system assume you will change the centre of the zones to meet the particular narrative moment.
Tiny Cthulhu removes the ambiguity by stating that Close, Near, and Far are always ranges relative to a designated character, and if you want additional crunch, actual distances in feet are added. Removing this ambiguity will help new players a lot.
Tiny d6 With an Actual Magic System!
Tiny Cthulhu starts just like other Tiny d6 systems in magic: you have two magic traits, one that allows you to do minor effects at will, but nothing too dramatic (Sorcerer), and another that let's you activate powerful magic stored in written form (Tome Reader). Most Tiny d6 games stop there. It was a pleasant surprise to see that Tiny Cthulhu goes a lot farther.
In Tiny Cthulhu there is an extensive list of Call of Cthulhu-inspired spells that can be found in Lesser Tomes, along with a list of Greater Tomes (Mythos books like Unausprechlichen Kulten) that include the possibility of permanently changing PCs or giving them the power to cast spells without a Tome.
True to the genre, gaining magic powers lowers your corruption threshold and using magic forces a Corruption test.
It also includes a collection of weird science creations, called Innovations, inspired by the weird science gadgets in Lovecraft's fiction, which are creatable by PCs or useful as adventure MacGuffins.
Included Genre Rules Subsets
Tiny Cthulhu includes sections that give a rundown of the optional rules to make your game more like a Noir Mystery (Tiny Noir) or a hard-boiled pulp fiction (Tiny Pulp) as optional rules overlays. This is effectively giving you two extra Tiny d6 role-playing games if you decide to strip out the Mythos elements. This is an amazing couple of add-ons.
Minimalist Systems Suit the Mythos
Lovecraftian Horror stories aren't served by a lot of crunch. Anything that lets players gain huge advantages over Mythos creatures via system mastery is going to hurt the feeling of horror and hopelessness that should permeate the game. It also encourages players to look for and demand hard mechanics for things tha're are supposed to be inexplicable. In general, I have found the lighter the rules, the better the experience.
The GM advice section in Tiny Cthulhu is light. It doesn't give you a lot of the kind of guidance you might see in Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Confidential, but it boils down some of the most fundamental advice for a horror game into three very memorable points:
1. You can’t choose to not play the game.
2. You can’t win the game.*
3. You can’t leave the game.
The expansion on these points are worth the read, eve if you are a veteran at running Lovecraftian games.
Every monster, godlike being, and greater tome includes notes as to which stories it originally appeared in, Often accompanied by key passages. These are done with way more consistency than I have ever seen in a Lovecraft-based game before.
The Hungry Gods
Tiny Cthulhu does a great job of cataloging many of the Great Old Ones, Elder God's, Outer God's, etc. that are counted as canon to the Mythos. However, Tiny Cthulhu also add a pantheon of new entities from the stars called The Hungry Gods., complete with detailed motives, cults, and rivalries. This is a great way to keep Cosmic Horror fresh to players who already have encyclopedic knowledge of the Mythos.
Tiny Cthulhu adds a system for using the environment in play that is lightweight and simple using a set of descriptors. Each environment descriptor adds advantage and disadvantage to different sorts of rolls. Common locations from Lovecraft's works such as The Dreamland, Arkham, The Plateau of Leng, and Dunwich are listed with a description and their suggsted environmental descriptors.
For each godlike entity listed, Tiny Cthulhu offers a description of the typical cults that venerate it, including motivations and methods, and stats for cultists and leaders. This is a great tool for adventure planning.
There are puns seeded in several of the microsettings using a blend of odd spellings and apostrophes that are so bad they would even make Venger Satanis groan. I am known as an irredeemable punster among my friends, but I know when not to use them... Such as when I am trying to create a sense of existential dread. A high priestess of Yig named Alligator primed me to look for them, and, of course, I found them everywhere, even where they were not intended, much to Alan's chagrin.
Mind you, this is impossible not to do with Lovecraftian gibberish on occasion.
Not Ideal for Campaigning
I have said this in my review of Tiny Dungeon 2e previously: Tiny d6 is an engine that works best for one shots or very short campaigns; it does not offer tools for a highly extended campaign. It does not provide satisfying character advancement, any meaning to wealth or treasure, or an effective system for building up reputations, factions, etc., and so does not provide much metagame incentive for characters to continue going back into danger. Campaigns have to be pushed forward by patron or plot.
Now, for a dungeon crawling game or a space opera, this can be a problem... But for a Lovecraftian Horror Game this works fine, it is a millieu where one-shots are often preferable, and a whole campaign needs to run a bit on the rails. After all once a character has become aware of the Mythos the adage is "You can't leave the game,"... Except in a straight jacket or a body bag...
But even most other Lovecraftian Horror games make some other adjustments to TTRPG convention to reward the players for remaining engaged. The optional character growth rules in the game will probably be necessary to make that happen.
Monsters as Bags of HP
Generally, I am disappointed when monsters amount to just an HP total ad a few rolls they are good at. But, for a minimalist setting where the monsters have pretty much the same complexity as the PCs, I don't know what else I could expect. Maybe more options, or perhaps a list of weird effects or suggestions on ways to make monster encounters more unreal and unpredictable? I just feel like Tiny d6 in general could offer us more...
Might be an article in there...
Unless you are intentionally playing in a two-fisted pulp style version of a Cthulhu Mythos scenario, the general rule ought to be that those who stand and fight die... If they are lucky..
While a few of the microsettngs here are clearly meant for pulp, like The Slithering World, there are quite a few presented as straight horror. Some of these are built in a way that assumes that the characters will end up doing a lot of fighting against the horrors they encounter. I find that this is a major departure from the genre into a more modern horror style, and feels less coherent with the Mythos in general. The settings are universally cool, but some don't jive with my inner purist, in other words.
Running a good Lovecraftian Horror game requires a game that is built with a small, tight set of rules that are built to reward caution and cunning, and make combat terrifying and lethal. It needs a clear and bounded magic system for humans, but lots of room for supernatural weirdness for the GM. It needs heroes that feel like they are slowly sliding into madness, but who still feel like they might be able to accomplish a few victories before the Void claims them.
Tiny Cthulhu checks all of these boxes. And even if you don't find Tiny d6 to your taste, The settings, Hungry Gods, GM guidance, detailed references, and well thought-out cult descriptions make it a worthwhile resource for any Cthulhu Mythos inspired gaming table.