Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Five or So Questions with Graham Walmsley on Cthulhu Dark

Today I have an interview with Graham Walmsley on the new Kickstarter project, Cthulhu Dark. In spite of all of my misgivings about Lovecraftian themed games, I do still love the aesthetic and a lot of the elements - and Graham is pretty considerate about topics that matter most to me in the setting. Because of this, I'm excited to share this interview with you all!


Tell me a little about Cthulhu Dark. What excites you about it?

When you see Cthulhu Dark, the first thing you notice is how simple it is. But that's not the thing that excites me. What excites me is how precise it is.

Take the Insight rule as an example. Your Insight starts at 1. Every time you see something that creeps you out, roll a die (that's an "Insight roll"). If you get higher than your current Insight, your Insight increases by 1, until it reaches 6 and you lose your mind.

That sounds like a simple rule, but it's designed very precisely. It means that your Insight increases fast at the start, then slower later. When it reaches 5, you're on a knife edge, where every Insight Roll could send you over the edge but only if you roll a 6. (I did hours of thinking about probabilities for that rule.)

The whole game is like that. It looks simple, but it's all perfectly engineered. And all of that feeds back into the game. Every so often, the dice throw out a little surprise that makes the story better.

That's what excites me about the rules. There's a whole bunch of other stuff that excites me about the project: the settings, my cowriters, the art, everything.

What kind of settings do you have as a part of, or in addition to, Cthulhu Dark? What in them shows the themes of the system?

Cthulhu Dark comes with four settings: London 1851, the dirty, stinking capital of the British Empire; Arkham 1692, Lovecraft's city in a time of witch-hunts; Jaiwo 2017, modern-day West Africa; and Mumbai 2037, cyberpunk India.

Each of them comes with a scenario that showcases Cthulhu Dark's trademark style of bleak horror. But there's something subtler going on too.

One of the main themes of Cthulhu Dark is: you play people with little power, investigating horror at the heart of the power. For example, in London 1851, you play thieves, beggars and other slum dwellers, investigating monsters within the aristocracy. That's a deliberate choice: in other games, you'd be more likely to play aristocrats, investigating a horror in the slums. Cthulhu Dark switches that around. It means you play Investigators you wouldn't usually play.

by Matteo Bocci, Mumbai 2037

How have you developed Cthulhu Dark - a lot of playtesting, revisions, new ideas?

Since the original two-page version of Cthulhu Dark, I've played it to death, and so have lots of others. It's a robust, polished set of rules, so it didn't need much revising.

What's new is everything else in the book. There's a section on how to use Cthulhu Dark's rules to full effect, with all the tips and tricks I've learned over the years. There's a guide to Writing a Mystery, which takes you step-by-step through the process of writing a horror story to play, starting with the things you fear and ending with the finished mystery. And there's a section on Playing A Mystery, which tells you how to play horror at the table, and another describing the Threats of the Mythos and how to use them in your game.

And then there's the four settings above. There's a lot of new stuff.

You know that this is well within my interests, so I have to ask - anything with the term "Cthulhu" in the title approaches the question of how mental health and "insanity" are handled. How did you approach this concept in Cthulhu Dark?

Instead of "insanity", the new Cthulhu Dark talks about Insight. That's your insight into the horror, the dark patterns behind the universe, the Mythos. Every time you see something that creeps you out, you roll to see whether your Insight increases.

To the outside world, your Insight looks like insanity. But you know better. You see things others don't see. You understand things they don't understand.

Cthulhu games haven't always treated mental health well, but there's no reason that they can't. After all, Cthulhu is really the only genre that even includes mental health. You never think about mental health in a dungeon-crawling game, but you have to think about it in Cthulhu games. So, I think there's the possibility of doing something really positive with mental health and Cthulhu gaming.

What sort of play does Cthulhu Dark do best? What can players expect when they sit down at a table?

Cthulhu Dark does bleak, mindbending horror. You can't fight the Mythos: you can only run, hide or watch helplessly.

When you sit down to play Cthulhu Dark, expect your Investigator to spiral slowly down into darkness. Expect to be creeped out. Expect hyperpowerful creatures, which you cannot understand, let alone fight. Expect all that, then enjoy the ride.

by Matteo Bocci

Thanks so much to Graham for the interview! I'm excited to see the final product, it sounds really great! Readers, remember to check out Cthulhu Dark on Kickstarter and share with your friends!

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