Tabletop Review: Cthulhu Through the Ages (Call of Cthulhu)

Cthulhu Through the Ages (Call of Cthulhu)
Publisher: Chaosium
Cost: $7.47 (Free to Seventh Edition Call of Cthulhu Kickstarter Backers)
Page Count: 75
Release Date: 02/26/2015
Get it Here: Chaosium.com

So this is a cute little PDF. Cthulhu Through the Ages is essentially a primer/sampler of multiple settings for Call of Cthulhu. Now the seven settings here are official first party ones only, so you won’t see options for licensees like Modiphius’ World War Cthulhu or Cubicle 7’s Cthulhu Britannica. What you will get are seven very different time periods for playing Call of Cthulhu. All of these seven settings have appeared in print before, however some of them will be complete new to a gamer depending on how much of a CoC completionist they are. After all, Mythic Iceland was branded with a BRP logo, not a Call of Cthulhu one and Cthulhu Icarus first appeared in the Worlds of Cthulhu magazine. That’s pretty obscure for a lot of gamers. There’s also the last setting The Reaping, whose name is often interchanged with The End Times. From the way this book reads, it seems like editorial changed its mind on the actual name of this setting halfway through but didn’t catch all the places the name needed to be changed. That’s why the Table of Contents, character sheet and header for this setting is labeled The End Times but whenever it is mentioned in a body of text, the setting is called The Reaping. Of course, it could just be that Chaosium remembered they already had a setting called End Time, which is vastly different from this one (and was used in last year’s remake of Ripples From Carcosa or that the guys in charge of 7e were just paying too much Warhammer Fantasy, which considering who they are, is entirely possibly.

Each section is about seven pages long and gives a bit of basic information on the time period, some sample Investigator classes for you to choose from, skills that would only be in that time period and some slight rules changes when necessary. It should be noted you are NOT getting a full setting or mini sourcebook for each setting. This is merely an introduction to these periods and if your curiosity is piqued, you are meant to go out and purchase the full sourcebook for each. Chaosium is your pusher and the first hit is free. Well, $1 per setting anyway. You can take what’s here and create a one shot adventure or even a mini campaign depending on how familiar you are with both Call of Cthulhu and your chosen setting. Many gamers will probably need to purchase the full book in order to really make their setting(s) of choice work. So in all seriousness, Cthulhu Through the Ages is essentially a gateway to make you spend more money on other Call of Cthulhu products. The joke’s on Chaosium though –I already own (and have reviewed most of) these settings. Ha ha ha! Oh wait…

First up is Cthulhu Invictus. I have to admit, out of all seven settings, this is my least favorite. It’s not that the core idea is bad. I love it. I just find the majority of Cthulhu Invictus adventures to be badly done. It’s the weakest line Chaosium puts out in that respect. It’s the only time I’ve actually fallen asleep reading a CoC (or any gaming line) adventure, so I’m always very hesitant to pick up more than the monograph/core sourcebook. I even skipped out on Golden Goblin’s upcoming Cthulhu Invictus adventure collection, De Horrore Cosmico because of it. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t write your OWN adventures, which is probably good advice. Here you’ll find one new spell, ten classes like Surgeon (NOT the modern medicine kind), Gladiator, Speculatore and Courtesan. There are nine new skills like Drive Horses/Oxen, Civics, Empire and Shield Fighting. All cool stuff. Again, the setting and core books like the Cthulhu Invictus Companion are well done. It’s the adventures where the line falters.

Next is Cthulhu Dark Ages. This has always been a favorite of mine, although I don’t play it much, nor do I know too many people who do. Again, the layout and content is similar to the previous setting. It’s just that the details are completely different. Classes include Cleric, Healer, Monk/Nun, Hermit and Scholar. Skills here are mostly the same as the Roman setting but we also have Potions. There is also Status which replaces Credit Rating. You don’t have a lot of options for Dark Ages. Just the core book and five monographs, but all range from decent to great, so if you are a completionist you can get everything for pretty cheap without having to scour for a lot of out of print stuff.

Mythic Iceland is the third setting. I was pleasantly surprised to see it get its own chapter here since it is in the same time period as Cthulhu Dark Ages. Mythic Iceland is Basic Roleplaying rather than Call of Cthulhu though, so Chaosium might just be trying to highlight its existence here. I’m glad to see it. I was one of the first people to really rave about what a terrific release Mythic Iceland is and it even ended up winning our “Best Campaign Setting” in our 2012 Tabletop Gaming Awards. You should just read my review here and then buy the book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

With Mythic Iceland‘s section, you get a little more world background than the two previous ones, with concepts like money and magic being brought up in (slightly) more detail. You also get some sample names to make sure you don’t have a Ted Kord or Awesomus Maximus running around in 930 AD. You’ll see some new skills like Prophecy, Second Sight, Skiing(!) and Literacy, but also a slight change to the standard Occult skill. 7e’s Luck stat is also used very differently in Mythic Iceland. Luck lost, can never be regain compared to the more fluid pool used in 7e. There are also two sample monsters, which is nice!

After these three settings, we get an intermission of sorts as the book provides us with a chapter called “Swords and Arrows.” This chapter highlights combat rules for the three “primitive” CoC settings the book has already taken a look at. Armor, swords, crossbows, shields and combat order are all discussed in this short section. It’s only three pages long but in many ways, combat becomes your standard D&D type fantasy game. DEX = Initiative and armor essentially gives you extra hit points. Reading this makes me want to have my 1920s characters carry around chainmail. Do you know how great an extra 1d8 Hit Points can be?

After that it’s back to the settings – this time with my personal favorite: Cthulhu By Gaslight. I’m not some uber Victorian loving gamer, but there has always been something about Cthulhu By Gaslight that has been fantastic. I own all three editions and there are some of the best books Chaosium has ever put out. I reviewed the third edition three years ago and loved every bit of it. Cthulhu By Gaslight and Mythic Iceland would be my two picks for you to invest in if you like what you see in Cthulhu Through the Ages, but if you find something you like better, get those too! Cthulhu By Gaslight is almost exactly the same as the core 1920s game mechanics and character creation-wise. There are a few differences. Credit Rating is even MORE important and there are a few classes specific to the Victorian era, like Consulting Detective. Otherwise this section is really short. It’s only four pages long and really exists to let you know that there is a big beautiful book out there for you to purchase.

Our fifth setting in this collection is Dreamlands. Again, this setting has been around since the earliest days of Call of Cthulhu. It also gets regular adventures releases for it by first and third party CoC publishers. Even if you have never played Call of Cthulhu before, if you are a Mythos fan, you are aware of the Dreamlands to some degree and so this will be the easiest setting to recognize. Conversely, it is also perhaps the hardest setting to run a full campaign in for multiple reasons. That doesn’t mean you should buy it. Just the opposite. It’s merely a warning that is takes an experienced Keeper to get the most out of a full-on Dreamlands adventure or campaign. Oddly enough, this is the first of the settings that currently doesn’t have a PDF version of it for purchase over at Chaosium.com or Drivethrurpg.com. This means, Dreamlands is the priciest of the options unless you find an old used version somewhere. Hey, maybe we will get getting a 9e version of Dreamlands shortly. I know I still have my old 5e copy I purchased nearly twenty years ago. Hey, not much has changed.

Dreamlands is only four pages long, along with a full page color map of the world, but the assumption here is that you already know SOMETHING about this setting. This section talks about how to get there, the Dreaming skill and how it is used in-game and also how one dies in the Dreamlands. You can also find stats for Gugs, Zoogs and Moon-Beasts. I was actually shocked Gugs are missing from the core rulebook this time around. I never even noticed that until now.

The second to last setting is Cthulhu Icarus and it’s by far the most obscure of the settings offered in this book. You’ll have to track down Worlds of Cthulhu magazine for the original, and it’s not worth it unless you have severe collector’s OCD, so just stick with the eight pages of content here – two of which are full colour maps and diagrams of the Icarus. This setting Is designed really to be a one-shot affair, but a good Keeper can use this as a springboard for so many things. I’m sure the temptation will be there to run a game of Cthulhu Icarus like Event Horizon or Hellraiser: Bloodlines, and there is nothing wrong with going that route. Heck, two of the three plot seeds in this section follow that same path. However, there is a whole universe of horror waiting to be discovered and it is limited only by the imagination of your Keeper. So feel free to go nuts with it. There is a LOT of potential with Cthulhu Icarus but in some ways it is also the most limiting as everyone who tries it will has the same basic premise and adventure hook. Still, this might be the easiest of the settings for a newcomer because everything you need to play it is right in this book.

Finally we come to Cthulhu End Time aka The Reaping. The setting is reminiscent of Deadlands: Hell on Earth, in that you have a post-apocalyptic world after the big bad of the game have completely ravaged it. It’s not the most original of settings, as several video games and other RPGS have done a similar thing, even with Mythos creatures and characters. Still, there is something enjoyable about a post-apocalyptic game, so why not have an official version for Call of Cthulhu, right?

There are lots of ways this version can go. Maybe your Investigators are the only sane people left in an insane world. They are just trying to survive and/or find a place untouched by the Great Old Ones. Perhaps they are members of a cult trying to spread the good word to those who have not been touched by the glory of Nyarlathotep or some such. Occupations are pretty different considering it’s “after the fall” so to speak. You’ve got a hunter/gatherer, a Scavenger, a Lore Seeker (Cthulhu Mythos is a class skill!) and other things to reflect the fall of society. Some skills are different such as characters beginning with 1d10 Cthulhu Mythos, Scavenge and Tech Repair. Sanity Loss are all substantially less considering Mythos creatures are a daily occurrence. Fun stuff.

So, for a gamer new to Call of Cthulhu with Seventh Edition, Cthulhu Through the Ages is a fantastic idea. It lets you get a snippet of seven different settings without spending $20-40 on some sourcebook that just ends up sitting on yourself after you realize it wasn’t what you actually wanted. It’s a gateway to many well written sourcebooks and sources of new adventures for you and your gaming crew. For long time Call of Cthulhu fans, you probably own all of the books covered here and there isn’t much of the way for 7e conversion in the limited space allotted to each section. As such, this is a fun read but by no means a “must purchase.” The shining star here is probably Cthulhu Icarus, not because it’s super great fantastic, but simply because it’s the hardest to track down of the pieces previously published. Either way, this is a nice little sample pack to celebrate the many ways one can play Call of Cthulhu outside of the usual 1920s rigmarole.

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