What Do I Know About First Impressions? Achtung! Cthulhu (2d20)

Picture2Over the last few months, Modiphius has sent me a few releases for its upcoming Achtung! Cthulhu line. The initial one is the Achtung! Cthulhu Quickstart rules, and the two subsequent releases have been the Operation Vanguard and Under the Gun scenarios.

Now that I’ve had a little bit of time to digest them, I wanted to put out a First Impression article looking specifically at these three releases. I own some of the Call of Cthulhu version of the Achtung! Cthulhu line, but I haven’t had much of a chance to look at them, as they were part of a larger bundle. I have, however, reviewed and played several of Modiphius’ 2d20 line of games.

Expectations

Before I get started, I wanted to talk about what I’m expecting from this line between the marketing and similar media that I’ve seen in the past. I’m definitely getting more of a pulp vibe from this. It may not be possible to punch Cthulhu out, but it sure is possible to shove a Nazi into an extra-dimensional summoning portal that they have opened.

In my mind, I’m picturing slightly more over the top than Indiana Jones, maybe a hair less over the top than the World War II sequences in Hellboy. I’m also thinking of movies like Overlord and maybe games like Wolfenstien with some elements of Doom thrown in for good measure. Let’s see how close I am.

The Quickstart Rules

World War II has enough gravitas even in the modern era that the rules don’t spend too much time specifically on the conflict, but instead, it jumps into defining some of the setting specific organizations at play. This includes Great Britain’s Section M, the United States’ Majestic, and two organizations that sprang out of the Nazi war machine, Black Sun and Nachtwolfe.

Black Sun is more “cultists first, Nazis second,” and are big into the concept of summoning and making pacts for power. If they have their way, it’s probable that nobody will win the war, but for right now, they are essentially a German asset.

Nachtwolfe is much more “Nazi first, use weird technology and bioengineering second.” Less cultists and more super scientists and soldiers with weird science weapons. The Nazi higher ups pit these two factions against one another to keep them both producing results and trying to prove themselves.

The rules should look familiar if you have seen any other 2d20 games. You have an attribute and a skill, and if you roll below the total of those two numbers on a check, you get a success. If you have a focus in a relevant ability, you get two successes if you roll under your skill number. Momentum, threat, and fortune are all currencies that work in a similar manner to other 2d20 games (i.e. buy extra dice to roll, buy an automatic success, or give the GM currency to use).

This is a “challenge dice” implementation of the 2d20 rules, so it’s more like Star Trek Adventures or Conan than the versions of the system that do not use challenge dice, like Dishonored or Dune. This means that instead of doing a set amount of damage with a weapon or making a set amount of progress on a progress track, you roll d6s to see how much progress or damage that you do, with some results adding special effects to the roll beyond standard damage or progress.

Characters can suffer mental or physical stress (using the same track), with cover and armor reducing physical damage, and courage or morale providing a reduction in mental attacks. I’m not sure if this will be true in the core rules, but there aren’t any fiddly and potentially troubling sanity rules in the quickstart.

Characters that have the right traits can study spells and hold a certain number of “battlefield” spells in their mantle and roll checks to enact a quick spell. Spells have a specific cost, which might be something like taking a certain number of stress dice in mental damage. Ritual spells work like Star Trek Adventures work tracks. You make checks at different intervals to see how much of the track you fill up towards completing the ritual. There are also special potential issues with the complications that can be generated by working on a ritual.

The base concepts are all explained in this section, but you don’t get specific character creation rules. This makes me wonder if this will have the same “custom build” versus “lifepath” options that some other 2d20 games have. Also, given that this has a lot of elements in common with the Star Trek Adventures and Conan implementations of the rules, this feels like it’s facilitating pulp action.

The Pregens

I wanted to look at these since this will be the only PCs you have available until the full rulebook comes out (which appears to be coming sometime this summer, as of this writing). The full list of pregens included are as follows:

  • Agent Daphne Rogers (British Occult Dabbler)
  • Sven Nilsen (Norwegian Runeweaver and Resistance Leader)
  • Captain James Swann (British Officer originally from Trinidad)
  • Private Dan Gregg (American military mechanic and inventor with mob ties)
  • Corporal Sarah Walker (Australian commando with a dog . . . and a boomerang)

First off, I just wanted to say, Modiphius, honestly, I would have believed that Corporal Walker was from Australia even if you didn’t give her a boomerang. I trust you.

Second, this may be as good a time as any to point out the potential issues with the “good guy” factions. Section M in Great Britain is portrayed as being a bit outdated but leaning on a variety of traditions from across the empire, and able to work on unorthodox solutions. Majestic, from the United States, is portrayed as more military minded, and better equipped and regimented, but potentially lacking in occult expertise in some areas.

It’s a little uncomfortable to see Great Britain’s expansionist empire as a strength, and at least a little of the implication that Section M is better with the occult is that they have more “exotic” resources to draw from.

I know it’s very much in keeping with World War II stories to run with the United States or Great Britain taking the lead in some aspect of the war, but I would love to see more diverse third party where a wider range of people from around the world are more directly involved in running the organization and not just being used as a resource for the superpowers.

Spoilers for the Scenarios Mentioned in this Section.

Just in case you might be a player in a game that is using these scenarios, there will be some spoilers up ahead. You may want to skip these summaries if you don’t want to learn some of the twists and turns.

A Quick Trip to France

The quickstart adventure is a generally linear adventure, but I think it works well for introducing the concepts of the game. I appreciate that there are clear scene objectives listed for each of the individual encounter sections, and there are clear examples where characters might use their truths to make tasks less difficult. There are also reminders of when to remove momentum from the momentum pool as you transition to different parts of the adventure.

The PCs are trying to track down a member of the French Resistance, gain some information from them, determine how to infiltrate a chateau that has been occupied by Black Sun, and then stop a ritual to summon a powerful Mythos entity.

There are notes on what happens if the PCs try to be too direct, and there are a few places in the story where PCs will get hit with psychic attacks as the byproduct of the ritual to remind them of the ongoing threat. Overall, I like the pacing of this adventure, and I like the balance between the more grounded elements of WWII (meet up with the French Resistance) and the more fantastical nature of the enemy.

In addition to standard statistics for troops, this adventure also gives you some supernatural minion statistics, as well as a profile that can be repurposed for other Black Sun sorcerers.

Picture3Operation Vanguard

Operation Vanguard is a scenario that is available for purchase now for Achtung! Cthulhu 2d20. It is intended as the follow up adventure to A Quick Trip to France. There isn’t a lot of direct connective tissue, but it does serve to have the PCs encounter the “other” Nazi faction, as this scenario has you facing Nachtwolfe rather than Black Sun.

There are several interesting aspects to this adventure. While it mentions the quickstart, there are sections of this that reference the requisition system in the final rules (which I am glad to see, since I would much rather a military/organization-based game not get too fiddly with making and spending money). I also appreciate that there is a section that mentions just giving players a minimum rank in a skill because they get time to train in it as part of the mission briefing. That circumvents a lot of mission-based issues I’ve seen where people wonder why their character is being given this mission if they have no skill in something at all.

The overall plot of the story is that Nachtwolfe is using Deep Ones to make a regenerative serum for their soldiers, and they have set up in this region due to past Deep One activity here. The player characters will be expected to talk to local fisherfolk to find out the lore of the region, investigate a site where the Nachtwolfe agents apprehended some of the Deep Ones to find more clues as to what is going on, then formulate a plan to get past the more sophisticated security functions on the island.

One spin that I appreciate in this scenario is that the Deep Ones seem to have a relatively peaceful coexistence with the fishers, and Nachtwolfe is presented as abusing and exploiting the Deep Ones the way Nazis are abusing and exploiting populations across Europe at this time. The Deep Ones are as much victims of the Nazis as the occupied people.

Under the Gun

Under the Gun is a shorter scenario than Operation Vanguard. Unlike the other two scenarios described, this one takes place in Dover, and is framed as more of a “now that you are back home, there is trouble here as well” kind of adventure. Local excavations have found a building that might be millions of years old, and the PCs are sent to investigate.

This one doesn’t have the scene-by-scene objective breakdown that A Quick Trip to France has, and it doesn’t have as many sidebars addressing what may or may not happen, or how GMs might want to modify the adventure, in the manner of Operation Vanguard. There is a section explaining the intended feel of the culmination of the adventure.

PCs are expected to explore the ancient ruin and find out that their minds are hindered by being inside the site. The adventure culminates in a three way battle between members of Black Sun, drawn to investigate the site, and a contingent of Deep Ones, looking to reclaim a sacred site that has been lost to them for thousands of years.

The middle part of the adventure, the exploration, is mainly noteworthy because they might gain clues about who will be coming to reclaim the site, and because it may allow them to research more spells (something that isn’t especially useful just using the pregenerated characters from the quickstart).

Picture4Scenario Thoughts

I like that both Operation Vanguard and Under the Gun are written to be usable with the full version of the game, although Operation Vanguard feels more open for use with both the full version of the rules and the quickstart.

While it doesn’t have the scene-by-scene objectives listed in the same manner as A Quick Trip to France, Operation Vanguard still has a lot of direct conversation with the game master about the purpose of scenes and how to modify them to create different effects. Because of this direct and clear discussion about the purpose of different parts of the adventure, I think both might be better for providing an example of the game’s assumed play cycles than Under the Gun.

It probably doesn’t help that I read Under the Gun after reading Operation Vanguard, but Under the Gun feels less textured for it’s less imaginative use of Deep Ones as a story element. It still doesn’t frame them as being allied to the Nazi factions, but it does make them into an equal antagonist in the scenario. That’s fine in some cases, but I don’t feel the stakes here as much.

If I start up a campaign of this, I’m much more likely to use Operation Vanguard and A Quick Trip to France. Not only do they feel like they give a broader and deeper idea of the setting, but I also like the idea of constant globe hopping to different hot spots.

Temporal Anomalies

While none of them are directly linked to a specific time, all three scenarios suggest a timeframe to utilize, in part because they are after Germany has arrived and secured different parts of Europe. However, the timeframe mentioned probably excludes the American pregen character included in the quickstart, since all the scenarios are set around 1940.

It’s not really an mistake, per se, but while Corporal Sarah Walker is said to have served early in the war, at least one operation that she is listed as participating in takes place in 1943. Regardless, I’m sure the boomerang came in handy.

Future Wishes

This may not be what people think about when playing a pulp World War II game, but I do hope the game addresses some of the issues with both the British and American governments, so they don’t get too lionized for their opposition to Germany. I would love a realistic discussion of how the US military segregated black troops, or to address the internment of Japanese Americans. This might even be a good plot point to show that Majestic needs to be more progressive than the military and the country as a whole, to utilize the best available agents.

While I want the game to address these topics, I also want the book to make it clear that you don’t need to focus on these elements if the table doesn’t feel safe or comfortable addressing them. Not every table will be the same in this regard, but I would hate for World War II to progressively become a fable devoid of it’s actual context.

I’m still holding out hope for a more multi-national anti-Nazi force. I would also like to see missions that branch out from different fronts in Europe to other spots on the globe.

Final Thoughts

In general, I like a lot of the genre tropes that are being utilized in this game line so far. I like most of the implementations of the 2d20 system that I have seen, and I think it will work well for an action-based game.

I really hope to see the game directly address the realities of the time, as well as the problems with Lovecraft himself. It’s a simple twist, but I loved the way the Deep Ones were utilized in one of the adventures and would love to see more of that “outside the box” implementation of mythos lore.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this line. That said, it’s a little weird to me that one of the special edition covers being offered is the Black Sun cover. Even an imaginary Nazi organization isn’t something I want adorning the cover of a gaming showpiece that I’m purchasing.

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