by Graham Walmsley

When people ask where I got my ideas for Cthulhu Dark – that’s my rules-light Lovecraftian roleplaying game, which is currently on Kickstarter – I tell them one of three stories.

Story One: It’s our gaming night. Simon Rogers from Pelgrane and I are talking, before our 13th Age game starts. Specifically, we’re talking about a GUMSHOE hack we’ve found on the Internet, in which you roll dice rather than spending points. I joke about this: why would you want to replace points with dice? Isn’t the point-spend system one of the best things about GUMSHOE?

Now, I should never joke about games, because I end up designing them. (Don’t ask about the time I joked about an Apocalypse World hack for disco).

True to form, I start thinking how GUMSHOE might work with dice. Maybe, I think, the dice don’t tell you whether you succeed, but how well you succeed and what you find out. Then I let that idea sit in my subconscious for a few years.

Story Two: I’m selling my Trail of Cthulhu scenarios at a UK convention. They are special editions, with nail polish dripped on them to look like blood (for Dance in the Blood) or ichor (for Watchers in the Sky). And I think: I’d like to put some rules into these special editions, so people can just pick them up and play.

As I stand there, I start inventing a short Cthulhu system, which I could put in the back of my scenarios. Maybe, I think, I could call it Cthulhu Light. But, wait, you can’t call a Lovecraftian horror game “light”. It would have to be…

And so I design Cthulhu Dark. I’m inspired by the simple-but-beautiful die mechanics of Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer. When you want to do something in Cthulhu Dark, you roll one die if what you’re doing is within human capabilities, one die if your occupation is relevant and one die if you risk your mind to succeed. The highest die tells you how well you do.

Then I playtest endlessly, running all my scenarios with Cthulhu Dark. I tweak the rules obsessively. I calculate probabilities, with vast spreadsheets and long die-rolling sessions.

Everything I’d wanted from a Cthulhu system goes into Cthulhu Dark. You can roll for anything, not just something you have a skill in: if you want to control your dreams, remember a childhood memory or decipher mystical carvings, you can roll for it.

And the higher you roll, the more you find out. But, if you roll a 6, you find out more than you wanted to know and glimpse the horror.

As I write, I’m inspired by my work on Trail of Cthulhu. In Cthulhu Dark, just like in Trail of Cthulhu, you can’t fail to find information if you need it to proceed with the scenario.

And I use the bleak horror I developed in my Trail of Cthulhu scenarios, but this time I write it into the rules: in Cthulhu Dark, you can’t beat any Mythos creature in a fight. You must find another way instead: run, hide or watch helplessly and await your fate.

That’s how I wrote the original two-page Cthulhu Dark, which you can still read and play. Since then, the rules have had years of play. They are as solid as they’ll ever be.

Sometimes, people ask why we need another Cthulhu system. Aren’t there enough in the world already?

But, to me, every Cthulhu system gives a new way to look at Lovecraftian horror. Call of Cthulhu was the original, focussing on sanity, with a side order of combat. Trail of Cthulhu focussed on investigation. And Cthulhu Dark is engineered for bleak, cosmic horror.

Whatever your favourite Cthulhu system, you’ll learn something from trying another one. If you love Call of Cthulhu, you’ll discover new tricks from the GMless style of Lovecraftesque. If you love the way the dice work in Nemesis, you’ll learn something from the very different die mechanics of Unspeakable. If you love Trail of Cthulhu, you’ll learn from Cthulhu Dark’s advice on playing and writing horror.

You don’t need to abandon your current system. You don’t need to commit to Cthulhu Dark exclusively. It won’t get jealous. Steal all the best bits from the Cthulhu Dark rulebook and use them in Trail of Cthulhu. I won’t mind.

Story Three: I’ve just played my original version of Cthulhu Dark with experienced players of Lovecraftian horror. We have a great and horrifying game. Afterwards, they ask whether I’m going to publish it as a big rulebook.

Oh, sure, I joke, that’s the plan. I’ll expand my two-page system into a two-hundred page rulebook with a glossy cover. But I should never joke about games, because I end up designing them.

On the way home, I start thinking about that Cthulhu Dark rulebook. How would it work? It would start with the Cthulhu Dark rules, simple and effective. Then I’d delve into those rules, explaining all the tips and tricks I’ve learned in six years of running the game.

There’d be a full guide to writing a Cthulhu Dark mystery, starting from the things you fear and ending with a mystery you can play. I’d add a guide to playing a Cthulhu Dark game, too, with techniques for running horror at the gaming table.

Finally, there would be settings, taking Cthulhu Dark into different places in time and space. The first setting would be dirty Victorian London, in which you’d play thieves and beggars from the slums. There’d be a cyberpunk setting, too. And I’d work with up-and-coming authors to help them write their own Cthulhu Dark settings.

Over the next few years, all of this became the Cthulhu Dark rulebook. I worked with other authors, Kathryn Jenkins and Helen Gould, to create the settings, which are London 1851, Arkham 1692, Jaiwo 2017 and Mumbai 2037.

It’s taken five years, but my two-page game has become my dream Cthulhu system. You’ll get it all when you back the Kickstarter. I hope you enjoy it. I hope it creeps you out.

You can get 20% off all the standard edition and PDFs of Cthulhu Apocalypse and The Final Revelation in the store with the code BKS#GRAHAM17 while the Cthulhu Dark Kickstarter is running.

by Graham Walmsley

Cthulhu Dark is a rules-light system for Lovecraftian games. It is a ‘pick-up-and-play’ system, the rules can be learnt in a matter of minutes. It’s influenced by GUMSHOE and is minimal: the rules fit on one sheet of paper.

Download Cthulhu Dark

Now, when people see Cthulhu Dark, they often get an urge to hack it: for example, by adding rules for combat or character improvement. That’s fine. Hack away. This article gives you some guidelines.

1. First, play it as written.

When I wrote Cthulhu Dark, I thought players would want many more rules. For example, I thought they’d want rules for skills and character improvement.

However, when I playtested it, nobody missed these rules. When I asked whether I should put rules for specific skills in, everyone said no.

So play Cthulhu Dark before hacking it. You may find you don’t miss certain rules. But, if you do miss them, start hacking.

2. Keep it simple.

Cthulhu Dark always favours simplicity over detail. Here are some examples.

  • If you’re adding rules for weapons, don’t list all the different guns: just give an extra die for a particularly effective one.
  • If you’re adding rules for combat, don’t give different hit thresholds for different monsters. Just set the standard hit threshold as 4.

Always keep it simple, even if you lose subtlety by doing so.

3. If a rule makes no difference, leave it out.

Let’s say you’re adding rules for Armour. When someone wears armour in combat, you want to give them an extra die.

But, in a game, won’t this make everyone wear armour? And won’t all the important monsters have armour too? Most of the time, everyone will get that armour die.

Again, keep it simple. If a rule won’t make a significant difference, leave it out.

4. Add and subtract dice, not numbers.

Let’s say you want to add rules for combat. For example, when someone has a particularly effective weapon (for example, they’re using silver weapons against werewolves or water jets against Cthonians), you want to give them a bonus.

Give them an extra die, rather than +1 to the roll. Similarly, to give someone a bonus, subtract a die, rather than giving them -1.

Why? Because the mathematics of success are finely tuned. +1 and -1 are extremely powerful. Adding and subtracting dice affects the roll, without being overwhelming.

5. When you have a pool, make it work like Insanity.

Let’s say that, for a Delta Green hack of Cthulhu Dark, you want to represent how close the Investigators are to blowing their cover.

Represent this with a die, which works like the Insanity die. Let’s call it the Exposure Die. When the Investigators do something to draw attention to themeselves, roll it: if the result is above their current Exposure, it goes up. When they do something to cover their tracks, roll the die: if the result is below their current Exposure, it goes down. When Exposure gets to 6, the Investigators’ cover is blown.

Try a similar die for Social Status in a Gaslight hack or breaching the Veil in an Esoterrorists hack.

I hope you enjoy hacking Cthulhu Dark. The hardest hack is combat. If you find a fun way to represent that, let me know.