Cthulhu Dark is a stripped to the bone system for running Cthulhu games by Graham Walmsley. The rules seem to align with the ideas and themes in Graham’s scenarios and campaigns. I had the chance to play the game with Graham GM’ing at Concrete Cow. It’s free to download and very quick to read so to some extent a review seems slightly irrelevant but I just want to share.
A character essentially consists of a paragraph sketch of the character, an area of expertise and a six-sided die showing how insane the character is (with 1 as being normal and 6 meaning insane).
In a challenge you roll a d6 unless the subject of the challenge is in your area of expertise, in which case you roll an additional die and take the highest face value. You can also choose to stake your sanity and roll the sanity dice as well (still taking the highest value).
The are two resolution mechanics: contested and uncontested. Though we only seemed to use the contested mechanism at Concrete Cow, perhaps because the game we were playing did not require clues to advance the plot.
In the contested version the GM or another player (depending on where the challenge is coming from) rolls a number of dice equal to their perception of the challenge and the highest score wins, ties going to the player facing the challenge. In the uncontested version then the highest score indicates how well the action is carried out with higher being better.
Encountering the supernatural or winning a challenge via the Insanity die calls for a Sanity challenge where you roll the character’s Insanity die. If you roll over the character’s current Insanity then it rises by one. Hit six and the character goes insane.
To mitigate this you can try to lower your Insanity by destroying evidence of the Mythos. You can only do this if the character’s Insanity is 5 and the reduction is only one point if you can roll under your character’s Insanity score.
Overall this system is great, really fast moving and its simplicity supports the structure of a Cthulhu investigation scenario in a way that is hard to explain in just an explanation of the rules. Essentially Cthulhu Dark takes something like Gumshoe system and distils it again so that you are even closer to the essence of a Call of Cthulhu plot line.
It also mirrors Graham published scenarios where the essential plot of the scenario is fixed and the game experience is the speed that you progress through the plot and the success you have in saving people along the way.
The one area where I think the game underplays its mechanisms is with the Insanity die. Playing in a convention you are tempted to push mechanics to their limits and in the course of a few hours most players had managed to get to 5 Insanity. However Insanity develops at a funny pace. A single investigation is likely to push you to the middle ground but the higher your Insanity score the safer you are using your Insanity die for any old check you like. While Graham seems to like the characters to go insane during the course of the story I am not sure mechanically this feels right with Insanity being careful gambled and then becoming routine. Gambling an Insanity die should be both more powerful and more risky than it is at the moment.
The Insanity die could also be used as a game timer, with the scenario basically being investigation until a character’s score hits 5 after which they start surpressing evidence of what they have uncovered and committing the truth to journals that they then hide in obscure corners of dusty libraries until they hit 1 or 2 Insanity again. Alternatively they can push their luck and stay the course on the investigation either solving it or finally pushing themselves into Insanity.
Overall though a really impressive step forward for horror investigation games and as it is free and only a page long, one you should think of giving a go.