Review: Achtung! Cthulhu – Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War
Dust off your flak helmet, shine your boots, and pin on your jump wings, kids; it’s time to go to war. Not just against the Axis, though, but against the nameless and faceless horrors that exist just beyond the realm of possibility — those powers that are awaiting nothing more than to simply devour the world.
Yeah . . . this might be a little tougher than we thought.
Achtung! Cthulhu is a Lovecraftian World War II setting developed by Modiphius Entertainment for use with both Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds roleplaying games. (It’s interesting, to me, to see a sourcebook that’s dual-use like this — I know it’s not terribly uncommon, but it’s the first one I’ve seen.) After a successful Kickstarter in 2013 raising 177,000 (pounds sterling) from nearly 2,000 backers, both the Investigator’s Guide and the Keeper’s Guide were published.
The Investigator’s Guide itself is a handsomely printed, 150-page, full-color volume, with a striking piece of cover art that encapsulates the mystery of 1930s and 1940s era occult investigating. The book has a nice, solid binding, and the front- and rear-inside covers are maps of Europe during Autumn 1941. There are also four full-color ads in the back for Call of Cthulhu, for other Modiphius books, for Weird Wars fiction (Savage Worlds), and for Achtung Cthulhu miniatures (Spartan Games).
The writing style is decidedly British in nature, which adds a pleasant formality and a bit of freshness to the read. (I actually felt the facts I was reading were somehow more legitimate, which was an interesting phenomenon.) And being a copy editor by trade, I can’t help but mention that while the Investigator’s Guide is relatively free of typos, it’s not quite perfect. In all fairness, though, I have yet to see a perfect, typo-free RPG book. Modiphius has come close, and for that I applaud them.
As noted, the Investigator’s Guide provides a means to create WWII-era characters for two different game systems. As such, it is structured somewhat differently than typical player’s handbooks, branching off in the middle to address first one, then the other, and then coming back together in the last few chapters. I’ll provide a brief breakdown of the chapters so this all makes a bit more sense.
Ch 1 – Welcome to the Secret War. In which the events from the Armistice of 1918 through the Spring of 1945 are chronicled (both real and imagined).
Ch 2 – Keep the Home Fires Burning. In which we learn about how the general populace is affected by the war and the war efforts. This chapter provides wonderful background material and commentary for adding realism and grit to the world. We see how rationing impacts the common citizen, the changes in men’s and women’s fashions, the use of propaganda, popular forms of entertainment, the inevitable black market enterprises that spring up, and much more. This chapter really gets the player into the period and is one of my favorites.
Ch 3 – Home, Sweet Home. In which we see individual social timelines for the UK, US, and France. I learned much that I had not previously known about WWII and spent a lot of time looking up names and units that were mentioned in this chapter, to further my understanding of their tasks and projects.
Ch 4 – In the Service of One’s Country. This chapter lays out the overview of the military, intelligence, civil, and auxiliary services of the US, UK, Germany, and France.
Ch 5 – Your Country Needs You! If you’re not interested in fluff, you can skip the first 47 pages of this book and jump right to Chapter 5 and learn about character creation, backgrounds, and occupations for Call of Cthulhu.
Ch 6 – Getting Your Hands Dirty. This chapter provides 10 pages of skills that are either specific to the military setting (Artillery, Command, Drive Tracked) or are new to the world since the 1920s setting (Bombardier, Parachute, Comptography, etc).
Ch 7 – The Savage Practice of War. In which we get the character creation rules, packages, and skills for playing Savage Worlds.
Ch 8- The Tools of the Trade. A list of common equipment, weapons, and clothing, both military and covert.
Ch 9 – Quick-Play Guide. A brief overview of how to get started using both game systems.
Ch 10 – Suggested Resources. A list of more than 100 books, TV shows, movies, museums, web pages, and roleplaying games that can be used as supplementary material or for more information. My second favorite chapter.
NOTE: In contrast to the 48 pages dedicated to CoC character creation and skills, the Savage Worlds treatment clocks in at a mere 18 pages. This is due, in large part, to the nature of the two games. Savage Worlds is a much leaner game and, as such, requires less by way of explanation, whereas Call of Cthulhu is a bit more crunchy and benefits from the deeper dive.
You can see how things stay together for chapters 1-4; diverge for 5, 6, and 7; and the come back together in chapters 8, 9, and 10. It’s quite nice if you fancy one game system over the other, as it allows you to cut out a significant amount of reading if you want to jump right into things for your preferred system.
It’s also important to note that nearly the entirety of the Investigator’s Guide is given over to character creation and fleshing out the military and civilian aspects of a world at war — there’s very little information (almost none, actually) on the occult, mysticism, or what goes on behind the veil separating us from the infinite darkness. The Achtung is very definitely present, but the Cthulhu is somewhat lacking in this tome. There are some short inserts that make mention of the mysterious and there are a few tables that help establish where you’ve encountered the Cthulhu Mythos before, but that’s about it. I’m assuming that more of this will come to light in the Keeper’s Guide, but at the risk of spoiling this review by knowing too much, I have yet to crack that tome.
If you’re looking for a way to take your RPG adventures into the weird world of the second Great War, Achtung! Cthulhu is a great place to start. It’s not for the faint of heart, though. There’s a lot of preparation required to run a full-blown WWII campaign using this rule-set. It’s not something that you can pop into immediately and expect to pick it all up at once. The GM will have a lot of prep to do to get things ready, especially the way the interconnectivity of global events plays out on the military stage of this period.
There are new rules, new skills, new packages, and new equipment to learn. Creating a military character isn’t simply rolling stats and assigning skill points. There are a lot more hoops to jump through.
You need to go through basic training and determine your physical fitness level; then determine if you’ve been promoted and, if so, how high; what awards and commendations you’ve received; whether you’ve been injured in combat and, if so, how severely. Then, if you want to become a special forces soldier, there’s are more tests to be rolled and more tables to be consulted. It’s possible that all the fiddling with character points, dice rolling, and determining how to allocate skills could go to waste. The difference between a standard infantryman and an elite combat ranger really comes down to a series of dice rolls that, even after reading this section a few times, I still don’t quite understand.
+ A well-written book, providing an in-depth historical overview and perspective – much more than would be expected from an RPG title.
+ Great introduction to role-playing during the WWII era.
+ Lots of options for character creation.
+ Over 40 new occupations and 40 skills for Call of Cthulhu, and 40 new occupations and 20 skills for Savage Worlds.
– Needs More Cthulhu! (As in, at least include some Cthulhu).
– Lots and lots of abbreviations to keep track of, requiring constant review of previous sections.
– Index is only 3/4 of a page. For my money, size does matter when it comes to indices.
– Military character creation is not a quick endeavor.
All in all, I’m impressed with the Investigator’s Guide. It’s well put-together, is a solid read, and provides a lot of background and history of some of the unsung areas of WWII – there many snippets on topics that I’d never heard of. I found myself heading to Wikipedia several times per page to learn more about what was mentioned. To me, that’s the sign of a good read!
While Modiphius does a great job sticking to the real when it comes to character creation, it feels a bit unwieldy at times – especially the CoC side of things – and almost too nitty-gritty. If in-depth character creation is your thing, give it a look! If you’re looking for a bit lighter fare, you may want to look elsewhere; once the multi-tentacled Cthulhu grabs hold, he won’t let go!