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Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Esoteric War in the East

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front is one of three supplements that each focus on one of the three main theatres of World War 2 for Modiphius Entertainment’s Achtung! Cthulhu campaign setting which pitches the stalwart men and women of the Allies against the outre and the occult being harnessed by the Axis powers to win the war. The first, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa, explored the conflict back and forth across the sands against the Germans and the Italians, whilst the third, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front, looked at the war in the Far East against the Japanese Empire. Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front examines the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, primarily from the opening salvos of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 until almost the fall of Berlin in 1945. This is a massive conflict that will see the German war machine invade on a thousand mile long front and get almost to the gates of Moscow, besieging great cities in the process, only to be thrown back first by the dreaded Russian winter, but then by a combination of the Soviet Union’s huge armies, an economy that is eventually harnessed for war, and the fierce patriotism of the Russian people. It is no wonder that the war becomes known as the Great Patriotic War.

As with the core books for the line—Achtung! Cthulhu: Keeper’s Guide to the Secret War and Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret WarAchtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front is written for use with both Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition and Savage Worlds. It perhaps gets a little busy in places where the writing has to switch between explaining the rule systems, but overall the supplement is well written. The supplement’s single map of Russia and Eastern Europe is also done in full, vibrant colour, actually covering Eastern Europe and the Baltics as well as the Soviet Union.The book itself is done in full colour, but in muted shades as is standard for the line, with decent, if stylised artwork, the layout done as a burgeoning sheaf of documents.

The supplement begins by setting the scene, with a chronology that runs up to early 1945. Although the primary focus of this chronology is the war itself, it actually begins in 1831 with the birth of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the occultist and founder of the cult Theosophical Society whose writings would influence numerous esoteric societies in the century following her death in 1891. Its runs up to the start of World War Two, charting the rise of the Bolsheviks and the Communist Party as well as the founding of various occult societies such as the Theosophical order, ‘Spirit is Life’, and their eventual suppression by the Soviets. It is accompanied by an overview of the Soviet state and an extensive gazetteer of the Eastern Front—and regions beyond! For not only does Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front have to cover the thousands of miles long battle front from Leningrad in the north to the Caucasus in the south, it has to cover the Winter War in Finland, the Arctic convoys from Great Britain to Archangelsk and Murmansk, Tito’s Communist insurgency in Yugoslavia, and of course, the inhuman treatment by Nazi Germany of many of the peoples it conquers. In the process it examines the defence and in some cases, virtual destruction of various cities, Leningrad and Stalingrad obviously, but also Kharkov, Minsk, Sebastopol, Warsaw, Kraków, and more...

The makeup of, and the influences upon, the Soviet military and war machine is covered in some detail. At its most basic, this details its military structure and its arms and equipment. Primarily, the former looks at just the Soviet army, but it does include the air force. Notably it also includes units of the infamous NKVD, which serve as the USSR’s internal military consisting of troops that run the GULAGs, prisons, railways, factories, and more; border troops that protect her borders; and of course, national security units that root out spies and traitors and guard Soviet and party officials. It also highlights the lack of experience of Soviet forces early in the war—primarily due to Stalin’s pre-war purges, and the lack of sophisticated radio equipment that hampers Soviet military operations; Order 227 which directs troops never to retreat; the use of both penal military units and women on the battlefront; and last, but not least, the role of political commissars.

Secondly, the very many various pieces of equipment that the Soviet Union fields are listed. This includes the personal arms, such as the Mosin-Nagant rifle and the PPSH-41 SMG and vehicles like the T-34 tank and the ZIS-5 truck. Since the Soviet Union runs desperately short of vehicles early in the war, American vehicles like the P-39 Airacobra and Studebaker US6 truck, supplied under the terms of the Lend-Lease are also listed. Axis vehicles are not ignored, though they tend to towards to the more extreme tanks like the Elefant and the Jadgpanther. Overall, this is a good mix, though perhaps the one omission is the aerosani, the propellor-driven snowmobiles used by the Russians for reconnaissance across areas of deep snow. Perhaps the oddest of the mundane pieces of  equipment fielded by the Soviets is the protivotankovaya sobaka, the anti-tank dog, trained to crawl under  a German tank and detonate the mine strapped to its back. Unfortunately, the use of dogs in this fashion proves unreliable, particularly as they attack Russian tanks because of poor training.

In terms of character options, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front provides information for a Soviet investigator’s background nationality and Occupations for Cavalry soldiers, NKVD Agent, and Osobist SMERSH or military counter-intelligence agents as well as the Kinolog, the Vor, and the Zek. A Kinolog is a dog trainer and handler, a Vor is a career criminal whose only loyalty is to his fellow criminals, and a Zek is a GULAG prisoner, anything from an actual criminal to a discredited and purged poet, physicist, or soldier. The only new training package available is for the NKVD, but for Savage Worlds the supplement gives new Hindrances and Edges such as Under Suspicion and Hot Blooded, the former for politically unreliable characters, the latter enabling a character to withstand the terrible low temperatures of the Russian winter. Now in comparison to either Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa or Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front this feels like fewer choices. This is understandable given that most of the options are covered in Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War, but nevertheless, these new options do lend themselves to interesting roleplaying possibilities, the Vor and the Zek in particular given their outsider status in what is a totalitarian state. 

In Soviet Russia, the existence of the occult—and worse—is a state secret, but knowledge of it has only been reluctantly accepted by the state in the face of its use by the Nazis. Various aspects of it is studied by a number of sometimes rival Soviet organisations. The Brain Institute of the VKP (B) is a scientific agency answerable to the Communist Party which exploits technology looted from the Mi-go; staffed by occulist and sorcerer zeks, Institute 21 is an arm of the NKVD that brings its outré methods to counter-intelligence; and Otdel MI or Bureau of Extraplanar Research, which has scoured the world for ancient books, relics, and artefacts, and also controls the Tunguska site. The Otdel MI is the only agency likely to co-operate with Allied agencies and whilst all three agencies are opposed to the German agencies of Black Sun and Nachte Wölfe, only  Institute 21 and Otdel MI are likely to oppose them directly. There is of course much more to all three organisations and there are of course Mythos threats to the USSR beyond Black Sun and Nachte Wölfe, such as the Nochnyye Ved’my, the Shantak-riding Night Hags that are the Mythos counterpart to the famed female bomber pilots, the Night Witches; worshippers of the charnel god, Mordiggian, beneath Leningrad and other besieged cities; and the sprinkling of Ithaqua cultists from Finland to Siberia.

The various occult organisations have fielded various pieces of equipment. The most notable of these are the unreliable energy weapons designed by Otdel MI, but the most absurd are the Bomb Wraiths, Institute 21 bombs with the means to summon fire vampires embedded in the bomb casings! The majority of the new tomes listed originate in the Far East, reflecting the interest in Tibet and other Asian countries by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and other occultists. A solid grimoire adds an interesting mix of spells, whilst the bestiary adds the Insects from Shaggai and the Krysoluds (or rat-things) for Savage Worlds as well as various new creatures and races.

Two things are apparent from the treatment of the Cthulhu Mythos in Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front. First is that it is disparate and dispersed. Second is that this feels right for the setting. After all, both the occult and occultists have suffered decades of disruption and destruction. Initially by the Soviet government, but then more recently by the Nazis. The Soviet Union is also a vast territory, so it is highly unlikely that one ‘hidden’ cult could arise to really threaten the cult that is the Communist Party. More importantly, the treatment of Russia in terms of the Mythos has always been light—especially for Call of Cthulhu. Beyond ‘Secrets of the Kremlin’ from T.O.M.E.’s Glozel est Authentique; Cold Harvest, and the Miskatonic University Library Association Monographs Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 and Terror; and Pagan Publishing’s GRU SV-8 and the Skoptsi from Delta Green: Countdown, there has been very little for the authors of Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front to go on. So where Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa and Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front have to cover hotbeds of Mythos activity and the activities of major entities and their cultists, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front only has to really address the one single issue in terms of the Mythos—what caused the Tunguska Explosion of 1908? The answer here is of course, Azathoth, but not quite and that feels perfectly in keeping with the underplayed treatment of the Mythos for Russia for Achtung! Cthulhu.

As with the other two theatre of war supplements, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front is rounded out with listings of NPCs and some adventure seeds. The former are divided between important people for whom no stats are given and the ordinary men and women who fight on the battlefront for whom stats are given. The adventure seeds focus on mysteries for Allied investigators to look into and perhaps a second for Russian characters would have added a little balance.

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front is well presented and decently written. If there are issues with the presentation, it is with the book’s treatment of its new esoteric equipment. First, none of them illustrated, which might well be a problem for the Keeper should his investigators get hold of them. Second, their descriptions are given in the mundane equipment listings where they feel out of place and hint too much at secrets explored in more detail in chapters devoted to the Mythos. The writing itself is good and does not shy away from ignoring the atrocities enacted throughout the conflict—by both sides.

As with Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa and Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front, this supplement has vast swathes of territory to cover and detail. Much like those books, it covers the mundane side of the war on the Eastern Front—and other areas, in an engaging and informative way, and the Keeper is also provided with plenty of extra details, colour information, and write-ups of interesting personalities and places. Its treatment of the Mythos feels fresh and balanced, primarily because it does not have to ignore the development of previously published Mythos elements for Call of Cthulhu. Above all, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front does a good job of capturing the dark and driven desperation of the war in the East and whilst the addition of the Mythos makes the war even darker, the Mythos in Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front kept suitably and thematically underplayed.