World War 2’s Secret War (2d20)

Achtung! Cthulhu Quickstart Rules, p. 29

In the midst of the massive explosion of the One Ring, 2nd Edition Kickstarter, and the Wizard of the Coasts’ announcement about a new Ravenloft / Domains of Dread campaign setting as well as the rumors swelling around a possible upcoming Dragonlance setting, you’d be forgiven for missing the news about Achtung! Cthulhu‘s new Quickstart Rules firmly bringing it into the rest of the 2d20 camp. Modiphius announced their port of their popular World War 2 setting for Call of Cthulhu to their own 2d20 game engine. The Quickstarter rules were released with an accompanying adventure, “A Quick Trip to France.” And Modiphius just announced the full rule set will be available for preorder starting today, 9 March.

Quickstart Cover

In this post I’ll layout the game-specific 2d20 mechanics presented in the QS as well as a quick review of the included mission. For those wanting to get right to the heart of things. If you are a fan of the 2d20 system, like punching Nazis, and the Cthulhu Mythos is your vibe; it is definitely worth taking a look. And with a free price-tag, how could you say no? I will say that there were a few elements I felt were missing in the first section on game mechanics; I saw things in the adventure module that made we want to know more about how things worked (you really need to dig into the NPCs and Pregen PCs in the adventure to find them) but was not discussed in the rules-section. I did reach out to Modiphius and was told that those elements would be covered in more depth in the Core Rulebook, but the QS gave you everything necessary to play the included scenario. It does make me wonder though, why we were teased with it? Perhaps a player may wish to continue utilizing the Pregens in future stories, but my experience tells me that once a player knows how to make a character, they will make their own character.

2d20 Mechanics

Right off the bat, I was appreciative that we are given a little bit of the overall lore associated with Achtung!. If you aren’t familiar with the setting from its older incarnation, we learn there are 4 factions fighting the “Secret War.” The British Section M and the American Majestic forces work together to thwart their fascist counterparts, Black Sun and Nachtwölfe (Night Wolf). The Order of the Black Sun sees the Nazi war machine as an expedient means to bring about its own aims, which is to awaken Yog-Sothoth. The Nachtwölfe is a rebellious offshoot of the Black Sun, who want to harness the power within the Mythos to provide the weapons and other occult artifacts to aid in an Axis victory in World War 2. The chaos and evil unleashed by the Second World War provides a nice backdrop for release of these mythic forces into the world.

Some elements of the Achtung! mechanics will seem familiar to those who know the 2d20 System, but the magic mechanics, which appear to work well in the system, will be new. As with all Modiphius’ other 2d20 games, there is a dice pool for determining success or failure on a Test, which is based on a target number determined by the Player Character’s Attributes and Skills. There are six Attributes (Agility, Brawn, Coordination, Insight, Reason, and Will) and twelve Skills (Academia, Athletics, Engineering, Fighting, Medicine, Observation, Persuasion, Resilience, Stealth, Survival, Tactics, and Vehicle). There are not any Character Creation rules available, as expected in a QS, so its not certain how a player chooses Skills for their PC. In the Pregens the number of Skills vary between PCs but they either have 7 or 8 of them. Some of those Skills have Focuses applying directly to the Skill. Again how that is determined is unknown, but drawing again from the Pregens there is one who only has 2, but the others vary from 4 to 5 Focuses.

Stats for Agent Daphne Rogers, p. 36

If you are familiar with Traits in Star Trek Adventures and Descriptors in John Carter, the Truth mechanic works very similarly. There are direct mechanical advantages as in John Carter, though the actual mechanic is left to greater interpretation for the GM and Players, which makes them more situational focused. They can either increase or decrease the Difficulty of a Test or make something impossible to be possible or vice versa. And then as in Star Trek Adventures, they can be applied either to an environment or a PC. In “A Quick Trip to France” there are examples of each to see how they work in situ (pp. 22 & 27). 

Some of the other similar mechanics include Fortune, Momentum, and Fatigue. Fortune is the currency for making those epic scenes that are expected in 2d20 games to happen. It is possible for a Player to have up to 5 Fortune points, and they start each session of the game with 3; so more can be gained in play. An example of how those might be awarded are demonstrated in the included adventure as well (p. 26). Uses of Fortune include the ubiquitous additional d20 with an auto-crit, but the QS also lists: dice pool re-roll, Avoid Defeat (once down being able to get back into the fight), and Make It Happen (making a new Truth related to the PC and the current scene); as other uses. The only thing to really mention about Momentum is that in addition to Momentum reduction at the end of a scene, there is also the loss of 1 point at the end of each combat round. It gives Players an incentive to use Momentum in combat encounters. Finally, Fatigue is related to Stress but is its own mechanic. Fatigue can be generated either due to the environment or the events happening in game. Each point of Fatigue received reduces a PC’s maximum Stress by 1. If a PC’s max Stress is reduced to 0 by Fatigue they fall unconscious; and if more Fatigue is inflicted while unconscious, they will die. Before that sounds too dire, Fatigue can be removed via a Skill Test and subsequent Momentum spend.

Achtung! Cthulhu Quickstart Rules, p. 30

Magic and 2d20

The unique mechanic for Achtung! Cthulhu is certainly how it deals with magic. Knowing this is only a Quickstarter with the basic game mechanics, after having read the section on magic (pp. 18-19) I didn’t feel unprepared to run the included scenario. Sure, I would have have liked more background and explanations, but for the included scenario you will be able to run it or play in it without a problem.

“Hammer of Thor,” Achtung! Cthulhu Quickstart Rules, p. 39

At the beginning of the section on Magic there is a little bit of a lore dump to explain how it generally works in this setting. Archetypes for magic users are divided into three different groups: Traditional, Researcher, and Dabbler. At the heart of the Traditional school is the recognition that Magic can be dangerous not only for the subject but also to the wielder. Spells themselves do affect the practitioner’s Stress, as outlined in the text for the Spell under the Cost heading. Negative effects will also happen as a result of Complications during Skill Tests to use Magic. The Traditional school mediates those effects through traditions (rules and taboos about Magic) passed down within the tribe or family. Researchers on the other hand are more cavalier in their approach. They seek out tomes, lore, and fragments of power. They lack the restrictions and often grow greedy searching out new avenues to advance their knowledge or power. The final category of Dabbler seems to be people who stumble upon artifacts or fragments of the Mythos. These pieces are incomplete and extremely dangerous to use. The trade off for these categories is that though the Traditional school may be limited in types and rules, because their Magic has been cultivated for generations it can be quite potent and stable. Both Researchers and Dabblers might have greater breadth of possibilities, but their Magic is not as powerful and may have higher side-effects. In order to run Magic mechanically, there is a new stat included – Power. Each archetype has a beginning Power rating that can be increased, but as magic is more powerful there are more potential side-effects too. The Acthung! Cthulhu Quickstart Rules do not include ways to increase that rating however. Increasing a PC’s Power stat will generate Threat when Effects are rolled. The Power stat also dictates how many Spells a PC can have “prepped” when using Battlefield Magic. Your spells are channeled into a Mantle and the number of Spells the Mantle can hold corresponds to the Player Character’s Power ranking. The Spells prepared in the Mantle will remain there until either the PC sleeps or is unconscious.

Acthung! Cthuhlu Quickstart, p. 9

Since I made mention of it, let’s go ahead and switch to how Magic can be used. There is Battlefield Magic, which is described in the QS as “shorter-term enhancements, spells, hexes, charms and blessings, which are primarily used to aid forces involved in combat,” (p. 18) and the primary ability of 2 of the 5, Pregen Player Characters available in “A Quick Trip to France.” The other type is Ritualistic Magic, which is more complicated and intricate, but conversely immensely more potent and powerful. It is this kind of magic used to communicate with strange forces and higher darker beings, or effect permanent and lasting change in the mortal plane.” (p. 18) The remainder of the Magic section goes on to describe how Battlefield Magic works in general. There appears to be a bit of Ritualistic Magic also taking place in the included adventure; it isn’t labeled as such but is a good inference from the above description. Based on the “A Quick Trip to France” adventure, Ritualistic Magic works as a series of Tests to complete different stages of the ritual, each with their own potential rewards and complications.

The Battlefield Magic mechanics require the PC to make a Test based on an Attribute (Traditionalists use Insight; Researchers use Reason; and Dabblers use Will) and the Skill listed in the Spell under the Skill heading. Irrespective of Success or Failure the Spell will enact the Cost for casting the Spell as outlined in its description. On a successful Spell Test, the player is able to spend Momentum in order to enhance the spell as well. In contrast, another Magic-user is able to cast Counter Spell. It does not count as one of the Spells in the PC’s Mantle, it is assumed they have access to it. Counter Spell, however, can only be used once per Combat Round and only when the Player Character is able to see an enemy casting a spell. The way it works is that when casting Counter Spell, the player rolls their Power dice equal to their Power rating and the number of Effects rolled increases the Difficulty of the Magic Test for their opponent. The trade-off for using this ‘reaction’ is that the PC casting Counter Spell will not be able to cast a Spell of their own during their Combat Turn. It isn’t explicit in the Quickstarter, but I assume it means on their next Combat Turn in case their in-round Turn has already happened, so the threat of Counter Spell remains for either caster.

What’s Missing?

In addition to the elements noted above, there are a few other rules not included in the Quickstarter but do appear listed in the included Adventure. Again, it is important to remember this isn’t a Core Rulebook, but when you see these things listed with the Pregens Player Characters you may be tempted to hunt them down in the rules section; so I’m pointing them out to you so you’re aware of it beforehand. Each of the Pregens is given an archetype that for now is only a descriptor (Occultist Investigator, Dauntless Resistance Leader, British Officer, Genius Mechanic, and Fearless Soldier). They are fairly straightforward, but what advantages may be gained for one over the other or who has access to Magic will have to wait for the Core Rulebook. Apart from the Occultist Investigator and Dauntless Resistance Leader, none of the other Pregens have a listed Power rating, so supposedly they would not be able to use any Spells. Also given the name of the archetype, Occultist Investigator, I assumed they would be a Researcher-type Magic user. However her Spell casting Attribute is Will, so that would place her as a Dabbler.

Acthung! Cthuhlu Quickstart, p. 34

The other missing game mechanic I noticed was Qualities for weapons. The weapon’s Effects are found on p. 17 but not their Qualities. Some have names that are identical to other 2d20 games, such as Hidden, Escalation, and Inaccurate, and so probably the rules would be the same. There are a couple though that have names that are extremely intriguing, so I want to know what they do. A good example is in the stats for Jans Stöller, a Black Sun Master NPC. He has a weapon called the Black Sun Degen with three Qualities: Hunger, Bane, and Parrying. Parrying is pretty self-explanatory but the other two … let’s just say that might make for some interesting gameplay.

On to the Adventure …

Acthung! Cthuhlu Quickstart, p. 21

I think “A Quick Trip to France” is designed to be completed in a 3-hour session, but with all estimates it does depend on the group playing. If they are already familiar with 2d20 then probably less, but if they are heavy into exploration and roleplay it will definitely take more. What the Player Characters know from the start is that Allied intelligence received a transmission from a Resistance fighter, Aramis. He had indicated that a Black Sun squadron with gear had arrived in the small, French village of Saint Sulac, which is southwest of Rouen. Before more information could be given, the transmission abruptly ended. The mention of the squad’s commander, Jans Stöller, was enough to get Section M involved. The PCs begin the mission in a plane over France, about to parachute into the vicinity of the village. Their objective is to meet Aramis, find out what’s happening, and throw a wrench into Black Sun’s plans. I don’t think this will give anything away given the genre, but minor spoiler in the tag. ||SPOILER TAG|| And through it all, the scenario teaches the players and gamemaster the fundamentals of how to play 2d20 Acthung! Cthulhu.

Acthung! Cthulhu Quickstart Rules, p. 4

Given that the purpose of the adventure is to teach people how to the play the game, it is not too surprising that “A Quick Trip” is a little railroady. I’m not sure if it is a feature of the system, but each scene does have Scene Objectives; and there is a sidebar in the adventure detailing on how to keep the players from jumping into the final fight right at the beginning: 20 Black Sun troops will immediately start shooting at you! It is a straightforward, pulp-style adventure. The Player Characters will begin gathering information, find out where the enemy is doing their nefarious deeds, infiltrate the base, and stop the ritual. There are two encounters prepped for the possibility of heavy fighting, where the PCs can test out their various abilities.

There are some heavy dialogue boxes for gamemasters, which depending on your style of play you may like or hate. Nevertheless they do provide plenty of information for GMs to adapt it to a more fluid RP session and they aren’t awkward or cumbersome for new GMs to use them effectively. The scenario provides an opportunity to see both human and Mythos enemies. The included Mythos creature is powerful enough on its own to convey a good sense of the dangers inherent in the Mythos but the weapons available to the human enemies are also strong enough that they cannot be taken for granted either. You are also introduced to a good Minor Boss in Jans Stöller. The scenario tell us that he is ambitious, so he could make a return appearance in further adventures as either a double-agent or a straight-up villain; assuming, of course, he survives his encounter with the PCs.

“A Quick Trip” ends with a fitting epic, final battle. Minor spoiler in the tag. ||SPOILER TAG|| In the midst of all the chaos, it provides good direction for a novice GM on how to run this part of the scenario with suggestions for things they can do. I was also appreciative that they did provide an expansion, step-by-step, instruction on how to do the ritual on the same pages as the battle, so the there isn’t a need to keep flipping to the back of the adventure to reference it. It clearly lays out the various Tests necessary as well as the actions and potential consequences of rolled Complications.

The one thing I did feel missing from the starter adventure was combat maps. The art in the QS is phenomenal, which is a hallmark of Modiphus. They even provide a great overview map of Saint Sulac, but if the players are not familiar with the Zone mechanic in 2d20 it may be a little hard to picture how it works. As noted above, there are two opportunities for combat in the scenario and not having a map for either of them just seems a missed opportunity.

Pre-Generated PCs

Corporal Walker and Crook, p. 43

There are 5 included PCs, one of which has an animal companion, for the adventure. Each Player Character has unique characteristics so that there is no overlap of roles. The choices include: Agent Daphne Rogers (Occultist Investigator, Dabbler), Sven Nilsen (Dauntless Resistance Leader, Traditional), Captain James Swann (British Officer), Private Dan Gregg (Genius Mechanic), and Corporal Sarah Walker (Fearless Soldier) with Crook (trained dog). On each character sheet is a brief backstory to help Players roleplay the character. They are not overly detailed, so it will be easy for Players to fill-in information that speaks to them. In addition to the backstory is artwork for each PC, and those with magical abilities have a secondary sheet with descriptions and mechanics for how the Spells work. Based upon those characters’ Power rating, the number of spells is limited to the imposed cap. Agent Rogers has access to Healing while Nielsen’s include Hammer of Thor (an offensive Spell) and Wisdom of Frigg (a tactical Spell). Agent Rogers’ character sheet does include Counter Spell but Nielsen’s does not. According to p.19 Nielsen should have access to it as well, so the GM may wish to make a copy of the description and provide it for a Player who chooses that character. If the GM is making copies of things, I’d also recommend cutting-and-pasting the rules for Commanding NPCs from p.14 to Crook’s character sheet too. The character sheets also include descriptions of all the Talent’s the PCs have and their effects, as well as the various weapons and equipment they are carrying.

As a Teaching Tool

Acthung! Cthulhu Starter Rules, p. 11

It is a starter adventure, so despite being a good scenario, its success is really dependent on whether or not it does its job of showing people how to play 2d20 Acthung! Cthulhu; and I’d say that it does it well. The whole scenario is written and structured for both new GMs and Players. On the players’ side it is a straight-forward mission without a lot of surprises. It runs them through the core mechanics. There are a couple of Tests that do seem to be solely for the sake of demonstrating a Test. In those cases, they can probably be skipped if running the scenario with an experienced, 2d20 group to help things flow more smoothly. There aren’t a lot of them as everyone will be focused on exploration, fighting Nazis, and a good end battle royale.

The scenario does make the assumption the Gamemaster is completely new, but not in a distracting way for more experienced GMs of either tabletop roleplaying games or 2d20 in particular. It is easy to move through the text to find what each type of GM will need to run “A Quick Trip to France.” Sprinkled throughout the adventure texts are aids, helps, reminders, and strategy tips; of particular note are a couple of places where it recommends actions to help set the tension. Spoilers in tags. ||SPOILER TAG|| The one GM direction that unfortunately, really hammered in the railroady nature of the scenario is the “Straight to the Chateau” sidebar on p. 25. The text does say the GM should work to discourage the players from going directly to the chateau ||SPOILER TAG|| My suggestion, rather than overwhelming them with 20 troops is to have a receptive villager spot them first and warn them, possible being able to direct them to where Aramis is hiding. As a pulp adventure, I think when presented with an opportunity to attack, Players are more likely to choose that option as opposed to a tactical retreat, which the sidebar explicitly tells the GM to allow to happen. One of the nice touches included in the adventure are page numbers to reference abilities and actions in the rules-section of the QS. GMs will make themselves familiar with the rules before running the game, but sometimes in the moment it is easy to forget and the fact that they are in the text makes it quick to find the spot where it is discussed and get back to the game itself.

Acthung! Cthulhu Quickstart Rules, p. 13

There are two minor criticisms of “A Quick Trip to France,” for not referencing back to the rules in a couple of places. One of the Gamemaster aids I really liked was the directions for heightening the tension, which I noted above. When used, it has the potential to cause stress damage, however, there is not a corresponding reference to p. 17 for resistance “Against Mental Attacks.” Both Nilsen and Crook both have ranks in Courage. Does this specifically apply in the case as the PC and NPC are not aware what is happening I am not sure? But running the scenario I would probably not have it apply with the first attempt but with subsequent mental attacks. The second situation is the spending of Fortune. Fortune is a key mechanic in 2d20, but during the combat scenes I would have liked to have seen something for GMs to remind their Players that they can spend Fortune. The system appears to be liberal in rewarding them, remember every Player begins the session with 3 and their is a scene providing an opportunity to earn another Fortune point, so if it is giving hints to the GM about reminding Players at other points in the scenario, I would have liked to see a reminder at the beginning of the fight scenes for how and when to spend Fortune.

Symbol of the Black Sun

In total, despite a few minor issues I had with the Quickstarter Rules and included scenario, I personally am eager to check out the Core Rulebooks as soon as possible. With each iteration of the 2d20 system for the various IPs Modiphius is responsible for, they seem to keep refining the system just that little bit to make it better and better. So I’ve a strong feeling 2d20 Acthung! Cthulhu will be no different. Like I said above, if you want to punch Nazis and battle the dark forces of the Mythos, the Quickstarter and “A Quick Trip to France” should tie you over until the full release.

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