Random Encounter – The Cthulhu Hack

Every fortnight or so we take one of the many indie RPGs lining our shelves and give it a try. For our very first Random Encounter we rolled up The Cthulhu Hack, from Just Crunch Games.

I’ve never quite been able to pin down quite why there are so many Cthulhu-themed tabletop games out there. Sure, it’s an interesting setting but if you head to any gaming conventions you’ll find yourself tripping over mysterious, be-tentacled creatures and knowing nods to Innsmouth and Dunwich.

Perhaps this is because most RPGs set within the mythos prominently feature two things that many other modern tiles lack – an emphasis on investigation over mindless combat, and an attrition rate that would make even the most callous of generals reconsider their career.

Over the course of a few hours with The Cthulhu Hack, we can safely say they’ve got those parts nailed down pretty firmly.

The core rules of the game are based on The Black Hack  – a streamlined fantasy RPG system itself based on the venerable OSR rules. It is designed to be incredibly light, with an intense focus on investigative storytelling.

All in all, it took maybe 15 minutes to get everyone at the table familiar with the rules and roll up a few characters. Most of these were loosely/shamelessly based on film and television favourites, ranging from Bertie Wooster to Indiana Jones.

What followed was perhaps three hours of exploration, puzzle-solving and intrigue, ending in five minutes of thoroughly lethal combat. This is all rather fitting, as most of the class abilities aren’t based around combat but rather advancing the plot.

For example, once per play session the ‘adventurer’ can essentially ask the GM for a hint on what they should be doing next, while the ‘academic’ is able to improvise their way out a situation.

All of this requires a fair amount of improvisation on the part of the GM, but seemed to work well enough – though as with all limited abilities it’s vital that the players actually use them when appropriate, rather than simply hoarding them against future problems.

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Similarly, while saving throws and ability checks – based around rolling a d20 under a classic D&D style attribute score – play a role in the game, it’s much more common for the players to use their ‘smokes’ and ‘flashlights’.

These are tools the players can use to confirm hunches and talk their way past problems. Each class gets assigned different dice for each, and when you need to use them you simply need to roll anything but a 1 or a 2. If you fail you still advance – probably with some complications – but your dice drops down one size.

This is an elegant, easy-to-use system that worked out well for the most part. In fact, it seemed such an integral part of the game it made me wonder why we needed six other attributes taking up space on the character sheet. Sure, it comes part and parcel with the game’s OSR heritage, but it felt like an unnecessary complication to a system that prides itself on five-minute character creation.

All in all, we managed to survive the adventure with a perfectly respectable 50% survival rate, though one of those survivors was driven utterly insane and the other was so tortured by what they saw that they quit the life of an investigator for good.

Which seems an entirely appropriate way to end an encounter with cosmic horrors, if I’m honest.

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