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Memories of d20 Cthulhu: A Review

Updated on August 15, 2011

d20 Cthulhu Review: Good intentions, but ultimately flawed.

H. P. Lovecraft is well-regarded as an American horror writer. Though not in the same literary league as Edgar Allan Poe, he is still the origin point of much of modern American horror literature, cinema, and games - and Cthulhu d20 is no exception.

His rich worlds of horror, and the cosmic nothingness that is our universe and its eldritch denizens, still captivates many fans to this day. In an ironic twist, Lovecraft's grim world has spawned a panoply of merchandise, from other books in the "Cthulhu mythos" to T-shirts and comic books to games of all kinds. One of the most popular games is the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game.

Lovecraft's world translates nicely into a Dungeons and Dragons/role-playing game like setting. The original game was produced by Chaosium, and is still the preferred version by many gamers today. However, Wizards of the Coast threw its hat into the ring with its d20 version of the game. d20 Cthulhu benefited from the "open source" like system behind d20. Despite d20's overall success, the Cthulhu version would not fare very well. It is discontinued today.

The game plays, understandably, like other d20 systems, with the standard array of attributes (strength, constitution, etc.), hit points, armor class, and the like. The skill system is well developed and detailed, and like all other stats linked to experience points and levels. Herein lies the first flaw of d20 Cthulhu, as it never quite treads the balance between D&D style powergaming (a foundation of d20 system) and the Lovecraftian vision of utter powerlessness in the face of overwhelming power. The equipment section is filled with all kinds of weapons and body armor, but this seems to go against the spirit of Lovecraftian horror, as the heroes of the Cthulhu mythos are often woefully overmatched by their foes. Of course, d20 Cthulhu could be played as a storytelling RPG (as Cthulhu probably should be), but of course the d20 system does not lend itself well to storytelling in itself, instead doing better with number crunching and hack-and-slash.

d20 Cthulhu does nicely bring in the "sanity" system, capturing characters' descent into madness and insanity as they encounter the horrible critters populating the universe and their personal ultimate meaninglessness. The game also can be played in a modern setting (and that indeed seems to be the default in this version), though of course the game can be taken back into the 1920s era, the standard time for Lovecraftian stories. The sections for Storytellers (aka GMs or DMs) on how to construct stories, arcs, and campaigns is also well conceived, as is the collection of beasties that a GM can set upon his or her players.

Overall, however, the world of d20 Cthulhu and Lovecraft Cthulhu mix like oil and water - they don't. It's an enjoyable game, and something of a collectors' item now that it has been discontinued, and may be worth picking up if it can be found at a cheap price. Overall, however, stick with Chaosium's version for the true Lovecraftian experience, especially with the release of a new edition. Regardless of the ultimate choice you make, you will still have fun.

Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!


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    • Shaisty-Chase-Tea profile image

      Shaisty-Chase-Tea 6 years ago from The Outskirts

      I have short stories and poetry... I'll follow you as a fan of fans of literary fiction... haven't read it but i know who lovecraft is to at lesat two big fans... I aspire to be like modern throughback to artists devices in early american lit. please look at my fiction hubs... i write literary horror, sci fi, and fantasy, and my goal to bring those long forgotten true to living art in lit early divices back into the plots, genres, and character elements that popular in genre fiction ... to be the to be in the next (cliche expression) 'day and age'