- Eseweald: Oswyn, the thegn of Totburh, is concerned about the disappearance of his son, sent on a diplomatic mission to calm tension with a neighboring community, who seems to have vanished without a trace in the dark foreboding Eseweald forest.
The first is 220 (!) pages long. In contrast to the book's 2004 edition, the setting is firmly anchored in England during the period between 950 and 1050 CE. The first chapter is called Anglo-Saxon England, and discusses a multitude of issues. We learn about the (real) history of the land, its settlements, the social structure, the people, the buildings, currency and taxes, crime and punishment, food, farming and hunting, traveling, entertainment, warfare, beliefs, health, healing and death- should I go on? I am not talking about minor, one-sentence entries. These are all extensive sub-chapters. They might not instantly turn one into a history buff, but they do provide enough meat in order for the Keeper to understand the context in which he can place the Mythos. Expect anything from pronunciation guides of Old English to Anglo-Saxon pagan gods, and from riddles to appropriate punishments following a particular crime.
A-Z of the Dark Ages is a chapter that presents well-defined concepts in a rather limited number of space (anything from four lines to just over two pages). Examples include battles, communication, hierarchy and magic. Religious themes are quite dominant. The devil gets his own entry, as do heresies, religion, monastic life, and the supernatural. In some cases the information provided here is more detailed than the one found in the previous chapter. In others, a broader lens is used for the Keeper set a game in other locations in continental Europe.
The 40-page Dark Age Investigators deals with the rules behind Cthulhu Dark Ages. There are six steps in creating an investigator, as opposed to the Keeper Rulebook's five. After generating the investigator's characteristics and picking his age (same as in the line's main book), a Life Event is determined. Life Events distinguish investigators. Some events are outright positive (e.g. +5 DEX), others outright negative (e.g. -5 STR) while others still are a combination of the two (e.g. +10 Dodge, -5 Status). Derived Attributes are determined next, in the same way as in the standard rules. A player picks his Occupation amongst the 20 on offer. Examples include the Beggar, the Free Farmer, the Merchant and the Trader. Each occupation gives access to different skills, a different number of occupation skill points, and a different status, which replaces the standard game's credit rating. Each character has a backstory. If you run out of ideas, a series of tables can help you on your ideology and beliefs, the significant people you know and why they are significant to you, your treasured possessions etc. One finally equips his investigator before unleashing him into the world. Call of Cthulhu was never about the accumulation of wealth. The system uses the silver penny as an abstraction, in reality however you are more likely to barter for goods and services than exchange coins. Eight pages are devoted to equipment and services, along with their costs. Don't expect any magical weapons; if you do find some, they are certain to include a catch on the non-gamist bonus they confer. Half a page is devoted to gender during the Dark Ages, seeing how sexist the environment was compared to our standards. Players can incarnate female investigators which behave differently than what was considered usual at the time, yet they should better have a solid backstory behind it. Even though organizations like knightly orders or mercantile guilds did not gain prominence until the 12th century, the book provides two samples: the Congregants, monks who eradicate otherworldly corruption within the church, and the Tithing of Eawulf, a small group of extremist men trying to rid the world of the devil's physical presence. You read that right: physical presence.
The Game System takes up 31 pages. It stays close to standard CoC, while at the same time showcasing the differences of a 10th century society. Particular attention is given to barter, with items rarely having a fixed value. Idem for the oral tradition, seeing how few people knew how to read, let alone write, back in that day. Combat covers different situations like mounted combat, shield use (and the wish to simply defend), ranged and thrown weapons, concealment etc. Hit point loss can lead to wounds (a narrative effect, at least with these rules), while diseases and poisons may also incapacitate your character. Optional rules include rolling for initiative, deadly combat (where the fighting skill is used in order to defend, not attack, and damage is dealt left and right round after round), escaping close combat, knock-out blows, shock following a major wound, concealed damage, and many more.
Sanity works differently than in the standard game, and discusses mental health the way a man of that age would have understood it. There is idiocy (what you are born with) and lunacy (what happens to you during your life). There is a discussion on the four humors (black bile, blood, phlegm and yellow bile) which must be balanced in order for an individual to stay healthy. The world at that time is much more violent than our world, or even the 1920s. Thus, sanity is not lost when characters encounter mangled carcasses or even human body parts or corpses lying around. In a rather ingenious alternative to rolling sanity checks, characters may roll either Natural World or Religion checks, depending on what feels more appropriate based on the understanding of the world at that time. If the test is successful, the character fails to insert what he sees into his worldview, and loses sanity. To recover lost sanity, characters may try to go it alone, in monasteries, through pilgrimages, or even through worshiping relics.
Cthulhu Dark Ages includes three short adventures taking place around Totburh. The Hunt is a linear, one-session, 11-page plot that starts in he background as a quest for status through hunting a ferocious wolf. The investigators can get involved in a number of ways, like trying to sort out the disappearance of a farmer, or simply seeking refuge for the night. The Doom That Came to Wessex is also a 10-page scenario that can be played in a long session. Depending on the backgrounds of the investigators, it can start either with an action scene (Vikings!), or with a more awkward and surprising setup where local monks and a Viking raiding party are and aren't friends at the same time. Eseweald is an 8-page, non-linear, investigative scenario set in the dark forests around the Severn. It is the most complex scenario of the three, and involves politics and diplomacy. The Mythos acts as a catalyst towards the events that unfold. Once again, secrets abound.
It is nοt much of a contest to be honest; the current edition blows the previous one out of the water. The 2004 edition was a product that didn't need its contemporary Keeper's Rulebook to function, yet how many of us didn't own the game's basic rulebook when we bought it? As an independent product, it pointlessly repeated many of the game's processes wholesale. The 2020 edition doesn't need to do that: it only states what changes from the game's basic setting. In 2004 the book was as generic as it could have been, trying to cover an impossible ground from the shores of Iceland to the oriental reaches of the Eastern Roman Empire. The present book grounds itself to England, and provides as much material as its 272 pages allow it to. That's an increase of almost 55% when it comes to the page count alone. Rules-wise, the 2004 edition didn't blindly follow the rulebook of its time; yet under no circumstances can it be compared to the current edition and its incredibly thematic modifications. Bartering for resources; deadly, utterly deadly combat where every attack hits; sanity rules that will make you feel like a primitive, prejudice-ridden, mud-covered sub-peasant under a constantly raining sky which might or might not fall on your head. Every new rule in this setting guide is about the feeling, about how to bring forth a Dark Ages experience with Mythos element. It's brand new, it's exciting, it's refreshing!
As incredible as the writing and game design is, the art leaves a lot to be desired. The cover art is wrong on every count. It opts for an action scene where the participants look weird and wooden, while the adversary looks as if it just graduated out of a CGI-101 workshop. Contrast this to the 2004 edition's hair-raising lonely, melancholic knight pondering in the darkness with his torch illuminating a magical seal. The same goes for the book's new logo. It looks uninspired, an unrefined exercise in computer rendering for a job that had to be done. The situation improves inside the book, but only at times. Four artists contributed towards the book's imagery, not all however cut it. The real medieval art that is reproduced throughout, along with the scene in Horig's domain or the gotti village is the kind of art that elevates the theme. Unfortunately, most pieces follow inappropriate drawing styles that have more to do with old-school or system agnostic RPGs. Pucel on page 175 and Mildoina on page 206 are two glaring examples of images that could have fit in other RPGs, yet they look out of place in Call of Cthulhu. The same goes for many of the maps, with a computer generated drawing style that undermines the book's theme.
The reason for this lack of support seems to be linked to Cthulhu Dark Ages biggest flaw - the historical time period in which it is set is not well suited to a game normally based on investigation and intrigue. Although Cthulhu Invictus is set in an earlier time period it is one in which civilisation is flourishing, with laws, education, cities and even libraries for investigators to delve into. By the Dark Ages though all that is gone and most people are living in small villages made up of wooden houses. The most advanced structures are going to be either the ruins of Roman buildings or perhaps the wooden motte and bailey castles built by the Normans. The only libraries are kept in monasteries and its unlikely that the characters can read anyway. Add to this the previously mentioned flaws in the combat system and what are you left with ? 2b1af7f3a8