Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Secret Terrors

To date the focus of Achtung! Cthulhu, the World War 2 setting of Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Modiphius Entertainment has primarily been upon the human participants, that of the Allies against the Nazis and the uses to which secret enemy organisations harness knowledge. What this has meant is that the place of some of the more traditional forces or elements and some of the major figures of the Mythos has really been absent in the Achtung! Cthulhu setting. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing, since it leaves room for the dedicated Keeper of Call of Cthulhu lore to draw upon upon other sources and other histories to develop them for himself. Nevertheless, the Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War actually address some of these concerns and does so in an interesting fashion. For although Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War looks very much like a manual of Mythos Monsters, it is much more than that. Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War is a manual of Mythos Monsters with an application!

Indeed, for whilst Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War does indeed include some twenty or more major entities of the Mythos—known as Terrors in this supplement—and their servants, it includes the means to combat them too. From Abhoth and Arwassa to Yegg-ha and Y’golonac, not forgetting Cthulhu himself, the investigators can take the battle directly to the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, all with units of infantry, tanks, and even artillery in support of their efforts. In order to do this, Terrors of the Secret War presents a new and simplified set of rules for handling mass combat; descriptions of various Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, their attacks and weaknesses, and the means to banish them; a grimoire of new spells; and an armoury of new weapons, including some for the Allies—that is, the player characters to wield! As with other titles in the Achtung! Cthulhu line, Terrors of the Secret War is written for use with both Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition and Savage Worlds.

The ‘Simple Mass Combat System’ introduced in Terrors of the Secret War is designed as a faster, easier alternative to that presented in Acthung! Cthulhu Keeper’s Guide that also keeps the players and their investigators involved. It first organises everything into units, including regular military forces, Great Old Ones, any servitors—whether summoned by the Great Old Ones or the Nazis, and so on. Even advantages are treated as being the equivalent of units, although they are ‘virtual’ units. So units in cover or that are considered to be elite units, have a Combat Advantage, each Combat Advantage considered to be a virtual unit. The number of units on both sides are compared and any losses deducted—one side needs to have a three-to-one majority over the other in order to inflict losses without suffering any itself. Achieve a three-to one-ratio and the side with the greater advantage can knock out one enemy unit, if they have a two-to-one ratio, then both sides lose a unit, and if the ratio is just one-to-one, then there is stalemate.

For example, Unit 242 is a platoon of commandos assigned to Department M to strike at Nazi activities involving the Mythos on mainland Europe. There is intelligence that the Nazis are summoning Deep Ones off the coast of France and Unit 242 is ordered to ambush both whilst Department M agents attempt to grab the lead Nazi cultists involved. It also has the support of a squadron of three Motor Torpedo Boats that will provide supporting fire. Unit 242 is an elite unit, has done this task before, is attacking from cover, and has the element of surprise, plus it can call on a strafing run from the Motor Torpedo Boats. The Keeper decides that this is equivalent of five extra Virtual Units—on the first round at least—to give the Allies a Combat Advantage of six. Arrayed against them are the Nazi sorcerers and the Deep Ones. They are equivalent of two units and receive no other benefits, both being distracted by the summoning. This gives the Allies the three-to one-ratio for a successful mission.

The first round begins when a Department M agent fires a flare over the summoning site. Immediately, the Motor Torpedo Boats roar into attack, their heavy guns opening up on the Batrachian humanoids wading through the surf. The Deep Ones are cut down, their bloodied corpses splashing into the water. At the same time, the British commandos target the Nazi sorcerers, not to kill, but to pin in place. Under the hail of bullets the agents rush forward to snatch their targets... 

Initiative in the ‘Simple Mass Combat System’ is equally as simple. The investigators and any NPCs act first, followed by the military forces on both sides, and then the Terror itself. What this and the ‘Simple Mass Combat System’ is designed to do is keep a game moving at the same speed as normal play. It is also designed to keep the players and their investigators involved, the players directing the Allied forces and their investigators acting to thwart both the enemy NPCs and the Terror.

The bulk of Terrors of the Secret War is devoted to descriptions of the twenty or so Great Old Ones and Outer Gods. None of them are new to Lovecraftian investigative horror or to Call of Cthulhu, though many are new to Savage Worlds and many, especially the avatars of the various deities, are little known. What is immediately obvious about the write-ups for each is that not one of these Mythos entities is accorded any stats. Instead, taking a leaf out of Trail of Cthulhu, it presents the ways in which the investigators and others interact with the particular Mythos entity, primarily during the use of the ‘Simple Mass Combat System’. These are Investigator Actions, Military Actions, and Terror Actions; that is, actions that can be undertaken by the investigators, by the military forces, and by the terror itself against the investigators and military forces arrayed against before it. So for example, in the entry for Cthulhu, Master of R’lyeh, the possible Investigator Actions include ‘Evasive Manoeuvres’ (successfully avoid his claws whilst driving or piloting a vehicle) and ‘Psychic Chain’ (work with allies to withstand some of the Great Old One’s psychic attacks); whilst possible Military Actions include ‘Diversionary Fires’ (distract Cthulhu with firing patterns or types of attacks) and ‘Drive Him into the Sea’ (sufficient attacks will force him back underwater). In turn, the Master of R’lyeh’s Terrors include ‘The Stuff of Nightmares’ (affect the dreams of the sensitive) out of combat, but in combat he can of course make a ‘Claw/Tentacle Attack’ as well as both ‘Blessing of Cthulhu’ and ‘Blight of Cthulhu’ (gives a bonus to forces opposing the Allies and inflicts a penalty upon the Allies respectively). In addition, each of the entries includes plot hooks, possible servitors, victory conditions, and some commentary and evidence. The commentary takes the form of advice from an expert who consults for Department M, whilst the evidence comes in form of newspapers, letters, after-action reports, and so on. They add colour to Terrors of the Secret War, but of course can also be used as handouts.

The primary aim in encountering any one of these Terrors is for the Allies to banish it—of course there is no question of being able to kill it—and there is a means provided for each Terror described. As much as Terrors of the Secret War ups the scale of these encounters by involving military units and taking it a step towards being a  wargame, it never gets away from the individual scale of the players and their investigators. Whilst the players will be rolling dice for the Allied military forces and even directing them, it is their investigators who will be running about the battlefield, trying to get closer to the Terror in order to banish it.

In technical terms, Terrors of the Secret War offers new options for both the Allies and the Nazis. For the latter, it packs the already horrifying Shoggoth into various advanced pieces of technology for monstrous effect, whilst for the former, the Allies get arms and armour created in response to the Nazi use of Mythos-enhanced technology. They include the Blevins Steam-Assisted Enzymatic Carbine and Pistol, Electric Discharge Weapons like the ‘Crackler’  M5-1 Bazooka, the Eastin-Bakhaus Arclight Rifle, and the ‘Prometheus’ Lightning Cannon. In the main, these are bulky, unwieldy weapons, and it should be rare that the investigators be assigned them, though knowing that they have to face a Terror is probably reason enough.

Rounding out Terrors of the Secret War is a short grimoire of spells. From the semi-absurd Attract Fish—it does of course, have its uses—to Wave of Oblivion, the majority of these spells will be familiar to anyone who has played a lot of Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition. Rather than presenting new spells, the grimoire, much like the descriptions of the Terrors earlier in the book, is actually providing details of these spells for use with Savage Worlds for the first time. Given that the focus of Terrors of the Secret War is upon the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, the bulk of these spells are summon/dismiss and contact spells. Pleasingly, page references are given for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition for all of these spells.

Physically, Terrors of the Secret War is well presented and well written. There are some great illustrations too with everything being in full colour. The content is backed up with a short, but decent index.

There is a lot of information in Terrors of the Secret War, but it is not necessarily information that is easily or readily applied to a campaign. Whilst it is definitely written for use with the Achtung! Cthulhu setting, some of its content—the various descriptions and details of the Terrors and in particular the spells in the grimoire, will be of use to a Keeper who is running a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror using Savage Worlds. For the Keeper who is running a Call of Cthulhu campaign that does not take place in the Achtung! Cthulhu setting, there is less that is useful here. Yet even then, the bulk of the contents have limited application given that facing the Terrors described herein tends to occur as the climax of a campaign. Or at least they do if the Keeper is running his Achtung! Cthulhu campaign in a style akin to a traditional Call of Cthulhu campaign, but the Achtung! Cthulhu setting takes place during a global conflict that escalates everything. In the real world, this was primarily technological progress, but in Achtung! Cthulhu, the rate of technological advancement is matched by mankind’s growing knowledge of the Mythos and by the frequency with which contact is made with the entities of Mythos. This is mostly by certain agencies of the Axis powers, who desperate for great power have turned to ever more summonings of great powers… So it makes sense for there to be more encounters with Terrors in Achtung! Cthulhu, but the Keeper should probably avoid using too many of these Terrors lest their impact is lost.

Overall,  Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War provides lots of information for the Achtung! Cthulhu setting. More importantly though, Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War does a solid job of upping the scale of the conflict against the Mythos.