In our regular games night, we played a game of Cthulhu Dark because we suffered a couple of withdrawals from the regular gang and needed something to fill the gap. While I find these intermissions frustrating when we’re in the midst of an adventure, sometimes the outcome can be just as entertaining and fulfilling. In this instance, both the adventure and the game system made the evening very much appreciated.
So, we had this one-shot, pick-up game set in an asylum. I suspect all good games of anything with Cthulhu in the title should include at least a reference or a flying visit to a mental institution, so using one as a setting took the experience to the extreme. Why wait to get made late in the game when you can start out that way! Two players – me included – chose to play patients, while two played staff. I played Edgar Grebe, one time doctor at the asylum, now confined as an inmate following some unorthodox self-administration of experimental drugs. Fellow patient, Johnathan, perhaps got a little too close to his artistic creations and visions for the theatre, slipping into a state where the world became his stage. Of the staff, we had Tony, an orderly, making a small profit out of selling the bodies of the dead – of which this sanatorium seemed to have an oddly high number. We also had Sebastian, the enthusiastic doctor who took over Grebe’s position, a man keen to experiment with practical (and impractical) approaching to curing the ills of the residents.
Cthulhu Dark offers a very clean, simple system – all about degrees of success, ensuring the story keeps moving along and doesn’t get bogged down in the dead-ends of failure. Yes, you can go insane, but you can’t end up hammering your forehead against a wall simply because you could roll lower than a target percentage. When you roll a die to check for a result, you can get anything from a vague and unsatisfactory success through an adequate one, all the way off toward something awe-inspiring and potentially mind-blowing. Getting a 6 can mean you achieve the level of success that opens your eyes to a whole new level of understanding, and in Cthulhu that kind of thing can drive you mad. You choose an occupation at the start of the game, and when an activity fits the chosen role you get a add an extra die to the mix. Fancy pushing yourself and your sanity, then add another – differently coloured – die into the set and increase your chances of rolling a high. However, roll the highest value on the sanity die and you’ll risk taxing your mental stability in the face of all that alien horror.
I used a variation of the Dark system to run a science fiction adventure a little while back, using differently coloured mental and physical stress dice. You could choose to not only rely on simply luck or actual skill, but on pushing yourself harder and harder. Alternatively, mental trauma or threat of physical damage could cause you to have to roll one or both dice and face long term disability.
Anyway – in the end, I suspect I died. The curtain fell on my tale before my demise, but sitting in the wreckage of a doctor’s office, surrounded with burning files, watched by baleful red eyes from amongst the shadows… it can’t end well.