||Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/04/02/tabletop-review-cthulhu-
When Chaosium sent me Cthulhu By Gaslight, Third Edition to review, the first thing I did was go to my bookshelf and pull down my second edition version from 1988 along with 1993′s Sacraments of Evil, the follow up supplement so that I could do some comparison and contrast. After all, it’s been twenty-four years between editions. I have a lot of fondness for Victorian Cthulhu as the campaign I ran my senior year of college used Gaslight and it still remains a particular favorite campaign of my friends I gamed with over a decade ago (I’m old, you see). Hell, old PC Brian Chumley, the 44 year old Barrister, had his character sheet tucked in the back of Gaslight still.
It makes sense to re-release Gaslight as 2011 saw the 30th Anniversary Edition of Call of Cthulhu. It’s always had a strong cult following and as a quarter of a century has passed since its last update, it was a smart choice to re-release this. However, this third edition is so fundamentally different from first and second edition that an attempt to compare or just cover “what’s new” would be insulting to all three editions. Third Edition has a completely different layout and is a much longer book. The original adventure, “The Yorkshire Horrors” is gone completely from the current edition and in its place are two new adventures: “The Night of the Jackals” and “The Burnt Man.” Third Edition is also a far more thorough affair. Second Edition was only 128 pages – forty-four pages of which were the adventures. Third Edition is 196 pages, fifty pages of which are for the two adventures. So Third Edition has a lot more content, twice the number of adventures and a LOT more detail. Now there is some carryover of William Barton’s original text from the previous two editions, but there’s a ton of new stuff too. I was really impressed by everything in this latest Edition and I was also intrigued by what was left out and/or changed. Either book will also pair wonderfully with Cubicle 7′s Cthulhu Britannica line for a comprehensive campaign set in the United Kingdom. Whichever you go with, you’re in for a book that is both a great gaming resource, as well as a fun read. Now, let’s take a look at each of the four sections in this latest incarnation of Cthulhu by Gaslight and let you know what you’re in for.
I. Victorian Characters
The first thing we are presented with is character creation. Now you’re probably wondering why they include rule for making a character in Cthulhu by Gaslight when the core rulebook would have this already. Well, it’s not to make this a stand-alone rulebook. It’s actually to show off some slightly new rules for character creation. Most of the rules are subtle but potential game changers. You can know put your stat rolls in any order –as long as it’s the right type of role. So your 3D6+3 rolls can go in STR, CON, POW, DEX and APP in whatever order you want. Same with the 2d6+6 rolls. The game has also modified age-related stat changes, The game originally had you lose one point of STR, CON, DEX or APP at age 50 and then every ten years of character age thereafter. This game now has this start at 40! This is a bit intense, but remember, Victorian England had shorter life spans than we now do in the 21st century. Characters also gain 1 point of EDU at 30 and then every ten years thereafter so things are balanced out – especially when you consider that point of EDU also comes with 20 skill points. Middle aged doesn’t sound so bad after all.
The game now offers Traits. These are similar to Merits and Flaws from the White Wolf Storyteller line. It’s an optional piece and it’s oddly done in several ways. First it’s optional, but if you agree to roll, you don’t have to take your result. As well, the Keeper can bribe a player to keep a negative result with 3D20 extra skill points. I don’t get any of this. First, It’s good role-playing if you end up with a negative trait. You shouldn’t have to bribe anyone to flesh out their character. Secondly, this is just going to reinforce a munchkin/power gamer attitude with the extra skill points, which is the exact opposite of the type of gamer that should be playing Call of Cthulhu in the first place. Finally, if Chaosium was worried that people wouldn’t accept their results on an optional random chart, why not create more balanced traits. Say something that gives both a positive and negative? Maybe even let gamers pick from a balanced list instead of randomizing it. It gets even weirder when you use a d6 AND a d20 to roll on the chart, You don’t add the rolls together. Instead you just look at what the separate numbers give you. So for example a roll of 6, 14 gives you “Unseen Property” where your character inherits land from someone they don’t know or have never seen. Said land, be it a building, home, business or whatever is probably going to come into play as a storyline too. Don’t get me wrong; I think the chart is neat and there are some neat ideas here. It’s just Chaosium seems all over the place with the Traits and almost afraid of implementing it. That makes sense as this is the newest rules change to the system in man, twenty plus years. Still a little tweaking in a few spots would have made that a lot smoother. That said, I know I’ll be implementing it in any CoC games I run from now on, just to see what people get and how they use them.
The rest of the chapter contains professions appropriate for the era, along with tables and lists of weapons, clothing, Victorian era terminology and more. Pretty much everything in this first chapter is exactly what I wanted.
2. The Victorian World
This chapter is primarily flavour for the Keeper. You have timelines, a history of Victorian England, a list of British colonies, a brief commentary on the rest of Eurasia and what they were like at the time, and then a list of famous and/or noteworthy people from the era. The rest of the chapter is a look on England proper, started with a detailed look at London, followed by various region of Britain. It even has a paragraph in this section of varying accents, which I loved. You get a very detailed look at the government, crime, forms of travel, publications and anything. It’s extremely well done and this section alone is worth picking up the book for as you can easily use it for other games/systems set in Victorian England. If you want rules for coach chases, information about a specific hotel or criminal slang for characters to use if they ever get incarcerated by the bobbies, this is for you.
3. Strange Britain
I absolutely adore this chapter as once again, it can easily be adapted to any setting or system that takes place in Victorian England. The chapter starts off with a look at various occult societies from the era like the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and t6hen it moves into things like Spiritualism. You also get a Fortean timeline, which was a brilliant idea. The chapter then moves onto to a list of spooky or ominous locations. You then get a listing of Cthulhu Mythos stories that take place in the United Kingdom and stats for things not found in the core rulebook. This chapter even gives you stats for famous fictional characters from the time period like Count Dracula & Phileas Fogg ! How cool is that? For those that are saddened by the excise of the Holmesian content from the first two editions – at least you have their stat blocks intact in this version. Strange Britain concludes itself with a NPC listing and some tips on how to run a successful Victorian campaign and/or adventure. Incredibly done from beginning to end.
4. Gaslight Adventures
This final section of Cthulhu By Gaslight contains two adventures. One,”The Night of the Jackals” is meant to be an introductory adventure while the second, “The Burnt Man,” is meant to be for more experienced players. I’m glad they gave us two adventures, both of which are new, as it means I can own this and the second edition version of Gaslight and not feel like I’ve paid for the same book twice.
“Night of the Jackals” is an exceptionally well done adventure. It’s a murder mystery that involves a bit of the supernatural, only a subtle hint of the larger Cthulhu Mythos and a good deal of what was typical of Victorian occultism. In other words, a lot of Egyptian lore and artifacts. It’s a slow burn adventure that is designed to help one get a feel for both the system and the era. It’s perfectly balanced and the adventure can easily be run by keepers both new to Call of Cthulhu and long time vets alike.
“The Burnt Man” is an equally awesome adventure. It takes the old English faerie legends and turns them on their head Cthulhu style. This adventure also features a very subtle nod to the creatues of Lovecraftia – at least until the climax where the investigators get a full, in your face, experience with a Dark Young in a dramatic chase scene of all things. The crux of the adventure revolves around a evil old man who pissed on the Little Folk. His widow believes their home is now haunted and hires the players to discover why and how his ghost is still there. Of course, nothing is what it seems and the entire adventure is so full of twists and turns the players won’t know what to expect. Simply wonderful.
The chapter the ends with a few aides for players and Keepers alike. It gives a list of quality fiction from the Victorian Era to read, followed by books about the time period. It even gives a list of excellent Cthulhu Mythos fiction set in Britain to read. It ends with a list of other RPG systems that could easily make use of the info in this book, ranging from Masque of the Red Death (A Ravenloft offshoot) to Vampire: The Masqueade. Awesome. This is something more companies should do.
All in all, Cthulhu By Gaslight, Third Edition is easily the best Role Playing campaign book I’ve read this year. It’s amazingly well done and reminds me why I wish Chaosium would print as much as it used to in the 1990s. That being said, I can’t recommend the PDF as it was released with a massive series of errors. The PDF itself is readable but almost all the art and a good deal of the handouts are missing. There is simply blank space or an empty frame where these should be. As Chaosium PDfs are way overpriced compared to their contemporaries, I’d definitely suggest spend the eight dollars extra to get the good version of the book. I’m sure the PDF will be fixed eventually, but right now the missing art and handouts makes the PDF a shadow of the actual softcover version. Once that’s fixed, I’ll definitely recommend that with as much praise as the physical copy, but Chaosium takes a long time to fix their pdfs (if they ever do…), so keep this in mind if you’re thinking of going digital with this one.
Even though the PDF is a bit bungled, Cthulhu by Gaslight is definitely a book any Call of Cthulhu or Victorian England fan should pick up, even if they are nopt going to play an adventure and/or campaign in this setting. The book is so exceptionally done and the wealth of informative is so tremendous that this is going to be a hard book to top in 2012. Cthulhu By Gaslight is a wonderful example of how to make a near perfect RPG book. Anyone thinking about make a supplement, campaign setting, or core rulebook should read this and take notes.
[5 of 5 Stars!]