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Cathulhu

Last Saturday I attended a “mini-con” in Seoul and had a great time. I got to play in two games, one of which I’ll discuss briefly today—in part because the other, I’ve been playing elsewhere as well, and would like to sum up my experiences with it in terms of both sessions. (And the other playthrough is currently awaiting its concluding session.) 

The game I’m discussing today is Sixtystone Press’s Cathulhu, by Ingo Ahrens, Adam Crossingham and Daniel Harms. It’s a BRP-derived game, featuring a percentile, roll-under system and a hilarious set of skills as well as special “tricks” that are available to specific breeds of cat, a Nine Lives system, and more. 

(Incidentally, there’s a different, similarly-titled, Lovecraftian game out there with more support for it, called The Call of Catthulhu. Supposedly the two games were released around the same time, but I have no experience with, though my impression is that it’s more rules-light and overtly comedic… I mean more overtly comedic than Cathulhu, that is, which is pretty comedic in itself. I’m guessing it’s at least partly because of the super-powered, dreamlands-traveling felines in “The Cats of Ulthar” that the idea has been put into a game system more than once.)

The game was, first and foremost, hilarious. Credit for that goes not just to the people I played with, and the GM whose original adventure was brilliant and funny, but also to the authors of the system. There are countless little touches even just on the character sheet, such as the fact that the cat’s primary human ally is referred to as “Primary Can-Opener,” or the terms for a number of the Tricks that cat characters can get. These little jokes really set the tone for the game as one in which comedy and horror are intermixed, forming a kind of chiaroscuro. Even if you’re not a huge cat person, you’ll find the character sheet provides enough prompts for you to play a cat passably, I think. 

Which is not to say there’s no horror element: it’s also got the potential to be pretty creepy, if you want it to be! Our GM, Lindsay Belton, did a consummate job of both amusing and terrifying us: at one point, my character encountered a swarm of servants of Nyarlathotep—think “Brown Jenkin” from “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and you’ll get the idea:

My character was kind of a bruiser—a massive caramel-colored Maine Coon: I didn’t know what that meant, and the image at the top of this post is what came up when I searched the breed name online—but he had the basic common sense to flee this, and as he attempted to do so, he ran into one of his NPC antagonists: Mabel, a local cat who had stolen some of his treasures (some feathers from his collection). As the swarm pursued him, she blocked his way… and basically, he threw her under the bus to ensure he could get away, a fairly predictable outcome that was the perfect mix of horror and comedy. The combat was tense, the roleplaying rich, and it worked well both for the ten-year-old in the group, and for the (grown-up) first-time RPGer among us. 

Our GM also must be commended for the great scenario she created for the game, set in Arkham in the 1920s. I couldn’t stop laughing from the brilliant references to Dream cycle and Cthulhu cycle references, and how perfectly they both were handled from a feline perspective. Without ruining the scenario, I’ll just say that it gave the characters problem that cats would definitely want to solve, as well as a serious challenge to overcome (for a handful of housecats and strays). 

The system seems to be a light hack of BRP (not that I know BRP, but it feels like that’s what it probably is). That means comes with some of what I’ve read are the typical pitfalls of BRP: combat being punishing is fine, but skill checks, I think can be over-tough and as a GM I’d probably avoid calling for rolls on stuff that most cats can normally do without a problem… or I might call for the skill check to see whether the cat avoids a complication when doing something that an average cat (or your cat, on an average day, in its current condition) could typically just do competently. Where I sometimes feel like a hidden pitfall of Trail of Cthulhu is that it simplifies some skill checks in a way that might make things a little too easy for the player characters, I guess if you’re running BRP you might have to instead err on the side of not demanding skill checks for things the PCs probably can do under normal conditions, unless there’s something making it harder.

Which is not news—that’s a common bit of GM advice—but I think the fact that BRP has a longer skill list increases the temptation to have players roll when they attempt things that match them. That’s not a knock on Lindsay’s GMing: she actually did handle that balance quite well, and for the vast majority of failed skill checks, effort was often made (either Lindsay or, in some cases, the player making the failed roll) to make the failure interesting—to give it an apparent cause or a result that made sense in the narrative, and given it an apparent consequence that was meaningful for the characters. What was apparent to me, though, is that this was one of those things that demands a GM’s energy and attention, and has a potential to distract from the story in less-deft hands. The fact I botched a bunch of rolls at the start of the session (set a trend that lasted until about an hour into it, if I remember right) helped highlight how labor intensive trad systems can be. Or maybe it’s just that PbtA games have gotten into my braincase enough for it to stick out to me how different their mechanics are in terms of governing the outcome of character actions… how they change the labour and balance with which a GM should approach the back and forth of failures, partial successes, and full successes. 

In any case, this is a game I’ll definitely be checking out sometime soon, and will keep in mind for when our son is old enough to handle a more complex system like this. He already knew who Ka-too-loo was by the age of 3 (because of the stuffed Cthulhu doll I’d given his mother some years earlier) and he’s already roleplayed being a cat many times before—yowling and meowing and making mischief—so it’s not like it’ll be totally new territory for him. But I hasten to add that the system isn’t just a kiddie thing: it’s funny and dark and great for a group of any age. 

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