In their newest release, Pelgrane Press combines the 2012 ENnie gold winning Trail adaptation/variant Cthulhu Apocalypse with its two supplemental campaign frameworks and a set of eight additional scenarios. The premise of Cthulhu Apocalypse? We have failed. Whatever happens, happens, and your Investigators are survivors of a catastrophe that’s wiped out 99% of Earth’s population.
Its broad engine allows for nearly-limitless catastrophes (more on that in a moment). The campaign framework takes place across two books in a Britain under siege by either Triffid-like white flowers or Deep Ones. The eight final scenarios take place separately, though they could be worked into the overall campaign framework. Because it’s a multi-part book, I’m going to review the sections separately before wrapping up with my overall thoughts.
The Apocalypse Machine
Premise of the Apocalypse Machine? We lost. We failed. Maybe it was a Mythos entity. Maybe it was ourselves. Maybe it was a natural disaster. “On November 2, 1936, the world died.” Maybe it drowned in a new great flood. Maybe it suffered a catastrophic nuclear explosion. Maybe reality tore. The Apocalypse Machine is both an extensive source of setting material and a revisioning of the Trail abilities to fit this new world with its new needs and rules.
The machine has three axes: Disasters, Causes, and Casualties.
- Disasters – What actually happened that fateful day or the year leading up to it? Was it floods, earthquakes, or cold? Did reality tear? Did a nuke go off? Each disaster tells us what the world might look like now, includes things that could be damaged, and lists possible causes.
- Causes – There are only three causes: nature, humans, and monsters. But the machine lays out options and nuances. More than one can work in concert, of course. Importantly, if monsters cause the apocalypse, they need not be the monsters the adventurers are facing. Monsters are opportunistic.
- Casualties – When the world broke, what was broken? Is there no more water? Is there nothing but water? The machine outlines ways things may be affected.
It also has settings, “dials,” for:
- How humanity is responding. Are we “The Road” or “Day of the Triffids”?
- When it happened. We know the apocalypse’s date, but what’s today’s date?
- How Weird it gets. Do we just toss in some monsters or has reality entirely changed?
- Adrenaline. Are we hopeless survivors on the infinite beach or are we giving the Mi-Go both barrels?
I found the Apocalypse Machine engaging in its versatility. It allows for an immense variety of apocalypses with even more resulting situations. A lot of post-apocalyptic writing, even in gaming, locks you into a very specific vision of the apocalypse. I think when it comes to horror gaming, the effectiveness depends in part on what people find personally horrifying. The machine allows a GM To tinker to her and/or her players’ fears about the end of the world and provides ample support for creating whatever world they end up in.
The second part of the Apocalypse Machine text is where the core Trail hack occurs. Some professions become irrelevant. Some take on new meaning. Some drives, like Antiquarian, suddenly have to do with salvaging the Earth-that-was rather than a love of 17th century British poets. This section adds/cuts/changes occupations and what abilities they might have. It completely rewrites Investigative Abilities and adds Scavenging to the General.
This is one of the few places I ran into a mental sticking place. Scavenging reflects what I find hardest in post-apocalyptic gaming. The book offers some guidance on how and how often to do Scavenging tests, but, reading through it and the scenarios, I still found myself uncertain how I’d do it in practice. I’m also not sure how I’d deal with someone who took the Farmer occupation.
Resource management is something I think of as short-term in Trail. We might limit the number of bullets or make you search for good explosives, but ultimately they do exist. And when it comes to affording things, in most parties someone has high enough credit rating to be able to buy it. For me, this is the kind of problem best solved by being in someone else’s game and seeing how they do it.
The book then goes into a re-envisioning of Trail’s mental illness (i.e. what do I do when my Sanity hits 0?), equipment charts for the post-apocalyptic setting (with Scavenging difficulties), the Afflicted (post-apocalyptic humans shunned for their conditions—conditions which an Investigator might also acquire and even find helpful, like Psychics in Fear Itself), and Mythos entities. Frankly, there’s a lot I could write about for each of these, but I want to get on to the next section.
In brief, I found each engaging and useful when considering how I might run a game. I particularly liked the Affliction ideas as a less controlled type of power compared to Mutant City Blues, but with Investigative, General, or special utility nonetheless. In particular, I thought it was important that Investigative Afflictions exist, reinforcing the GUMSHOE underpinnings.
The book then includes two campaign frameworks and eight standalone scenarios. The frameworks, The Dead White World and Slaves of the Mother, provide a very concrete example of how one might run a game. They take place in Britain, one directly post-apocalypse and one several years later, with a very definite Apocalypse cause and two options for the main antagonist monsters. Individual scenarios bring in other horrors, jockeying for dominance in this new world. Sometimes the horror is plain old humans. I appreciated most the way these two frameworks laid out an apocalypse I hadn’t imagined and demonstrated the types of investigations players might undertake.
The final eight scenarios can fit much more flexibly into a custom apocalypse, or be run as one-shots. Most have a couple suggestions for the type of apocalypse in which they’d make the most sense. They reminded me a bit of Pelgrane’s recent one-page scenario contest, as each only takes up 2-4 pages, but they’re packed with ideas which could be expanded into longer play.
I found myself with less to say about this part, not because it wasn’t good but because I’d already said so much about the Apocalypse Machine. That part of the book fascinated me more because it had potentials I haven’t seen in most other post-apocalyptic games. What I appreciated most about the scenarios was that the path they followed was one which again diverges from the “standard” post-apocalyptic game settings.
Ultimately, if you want to play Trail of Cthulhu but you’re tired of stopping the apocalypse and want to try something different, this is the book for you. I found it thorough in imagining how things might play out, throwing off suggestions while leaving room for your improvisation. The character-building section was a strong Trail hack. And whether or not you play the scenarios as written, reading them will help any GM who’s trying to figure out how to run post-apocalyptic Investigations vs. post-apocalyptic shoot-em-ups.
Look for Cthulhu Apocalypse in the Pelgrane booth at GenCon, though I’ve been advised that supplies are limited. I’d bet money that it sells out by Friday evening. It’s also up for pre-order on their store and comes with the PDF you can get right away.
A PDF review copy of Cthulhu Apocalypse, Doomsday Edition was provided by Pelgrane Press.