What is Cthulhu Dark? It's a system with very few rules created by Graham Walmsley to play investigative lovecraftian games. It's very lite, the main rules comprise only two pages and, using a small font and no cover, you can even fit all of it in one page. Although I know the system for years now and have seen it play a few times, I never had the chance to run it myself. In fact, my gaming table was never fond of the idea of playing it. The simplicity of the system, the lack of hard rules, the lack of customization and overall liteness drove them off. I was just able to play it myself on the other day and it was amazing.
Character creation is made in seconds. The player thinks on an archetype he wants to play, describe the character succinctly and gives them an occupation and a name. For example, Jonatham Walles, the old seasoned linguistics professor of Arkham. Or Margareth Jennings, the young and dashing journalist from the Los Angeles' 'Daily Currents'. Then, the GM presents a situations to be investigated and things catch on from there.
The main mechanic is very simple. Any time an investigator is challenged by a hard situation, or you want to see how well he's done some task, roll 1d6 if it is possible to be done by any human, +1d6 if it is something the character is specialized with and stick with the highest number. Then, the GM interprets the results, ranging from 1 (your action succeeds just by the skin of your teeth, probably with very costly repercussions) to 6 (not only you do it well, but you may also gain benefices from it). If there is a chance of failure, a player (or even the GM) mays state how clearly you may fail and roll 1d6 against you. If he rolls higher, the character does not succeed. It is a very fast and simple resolution mechanic.
The other mechanic is insanity roll and insanity die. The insanity rolls is, at any time you are confronted with a horrific situation or unnatural (dealing with magick, seeing the mythos creatures, reading a mythos tome), you roll 1d6 an compare it to your Insanity value. If the roll is higher than your Insanity, add +1 to your insanity level. Everyone starts with 1 insanity and, when you get to 6 insanity, you go completely insane and loses your character. The insanity die mechanic is, at any time you exert yourself and accept sacrificing your sanity to do something, you may roll your insanity die. If the insanity die is the highest one rolled, you now have to do an insanity roll.
One of the most amazing qualities of Cthulhu Dark is its adaptability. With a few tweaks, you can play anything with it. In forums it is possible to look at rules for emulating dungeon crawling, rules for playing cyberpunk, rules for playing splatter-horror, survival-horror, action-thriller. All you have to do is shift the focus by changing the Insanity attribute to something that fits the setting, while using the same mechanics.
In a cyberpunk setting, give a list of cybernetics characters can buy which widens the scope of actions one can do and change Insanity to Machine/Hollow. Every time you use your cybernetics to the expenses of your humanity and soul, roll the die. When you get Machine 6, you've become a soulless machine. Or if you want to play an action-thriller (similar to Max Paine and Matrix) or even action horror (like Dead Space), substitute Insanity with Slow-mo, Bullet-time or just Karma. Every time you test your luck, goes beyond your limit or just call down the bullet time to make everything go slow, roll the Karma die. When Karma gets to 6, it is time to pay your debt to destiny as finally a bullet hits you right in the head, or your body give in to the stress and injuries you suffered during the adventure. However you rename and re-do the Insanity aspect of Cthulhu Dark, just remember to use it to evoke what you are trying to simulate.
Now, talking about one of the less appealing aspects of the system to me, I don't like that it does not work very well to play long running campaigns, although that is by design – as the game was made to be simple and fast. But I believe it is not hard to implement a few rules to allow character growth. For example, having at the end of each investigation all the surviving player characters add a specialty linked to a fact that happened during game. For example, if in the game the character had successfully hidden from a monster, the player could add to the character sheet 'light feet', 'quiet' or anything that fits. Anytime such specialty could be used in future games, it adds +1 die to the roll. Also, to diminish the lingering effects of insanity, at the end of an investigation all Insanity scores should be halved (rounded down). This adds a dimension of growth to the characters and the possibility to make long lasting campaigns possible. Although a very simple approach, It is nonetheless very similar to how diceless games, such as Amber and Karma, do. While you don't have many numbers, stats and values to handle and thousands of xp points to deal with, you can still develop your characters in a way that both reflects their story and the game mechanics.
Overall, Cthulhu Dark is an endearing system, fast paced and simple to use. It never seems to get in your way when you are narrating and gives you enough tools to develop narration and plot without interference. As of now, I'm thinking of the many possibilities of Cthulhu Dark and may be developing those ideas in later posts.
Until next time