Cthulhu Invictus


I just purchased Chaosium's Chuthulhu Invictus, a Call of Cthulhu setting for Ancient Rome. Both adventures and a lot of the material (with minimal editing) are perfect for Conan. I've always thought that the CoC game does a great job of capturing the man versus the cold, uncaring universe theme--a repeating storyline in the Conan novels and great for any Hyborean campaign.

There's a lot to like here. The Cults and Secret Societies portion can be converted with a little effort, and there's more material you can salvage from the Bestiary. The author even ties Roman religion to the Cthulhu Mythos--who would've thought that the goddess Diana was really a representation of Shub-Niggurath, the dark mother?

Of course, the stats are all for the Chaosium Basic Roleplaying/percentile system, so more work is required there. Below is the review posted on RPG.net that prompted me to buy the book. I agree with the conclusion--very good material, but also pricey.


Cthulhu Invictus
Capsule Review
Wood Ingham
August 9, 2004

The Personal Investment Statement
When I buy RPG supplements, I tend to buy them because I have some sort of interest in them. Well, you do, don't you? I bought the Farscape RPG, even though I don't play D20, because Farscape was one of my favourite TV shows. I bought Ramsey Campbell's Goatswood because I'm a Brit, and because I like Ramsey Campbell's stories.

I bought Cthulhu Invictus, Chaosium's MULA Monograph for Call of Cthulhu games set in Ancient Rome, because I have a MPhil Research degree in Latin Literature, with a side order of Ancient History at BA level. If there's any setting I'm conversant with, it's Ancient Rome. Rome, Sweet Rome. Of course, with all that academic experience, why would I need a setting book?

Well, duh. It's because I'm lazy. I want people to do the work for me, although I then reserve the right to nit-pick about the history. Does that make me a bad person?

Don't answer that. It was a rhetorical question.

Sorry. What's an MULA Monograph?
Recently, Chaosium have started producing half-supplements, if you will. They get a document submitted with all the formatting and art done by the author, and put it up on their website, available by internet mail order only. They're cheaply produced, tape-bound, in black-and-white card covers.

I've not seen any of the other MULA (stands for "Miskatonic University Library Association") Monographs, so I'm not really sure how this one holds up in terms of quality.

It looks like it was run off on a fairly decent office laser printer. The tape-and-glue construction seems solid enough. The maps and artwork are digitally done. The cover, which depicts a tentacle curling around a romanesque coin, was done in a 3D rendering programme. The maps, also digitally rendered, are a bit pixellated, and, like the inner artwork, is a bit grainy, due to the print quality more than anything.

Essentially, this looks like a superior piece of desktop publishing, rather than a professional supplement.

Let's talk about history
Cthulhu Invictus, with its limited page count, deals with the Roman Empire during the reign of Claudiius (41-54CE). The historical research is generally very, very good. Bowser & co. have clearly done a lot of research on what it's like to be a Roman, and it's good research. They include all the data you want to know: Names, what days are holidays, food, travel times, how Roman legions worked, all the stuff you want to know. It's a short book, though, so the info is cursory in a lot of places. However, a trained eye (or mine for that matter) can tell that even those bits which aren't so well covered were still well-researched.

There's a subtle difference between someone splurging what little they know on the page and someone who actually knows their subject only putting down what they need to put down, or have space to put down. The data here falls into the latter category. It's not quite enough to run a game. But what they do have is all the data that crosses over with a game. Mechanically speaking, it's very thorough.

There are also quotes from various Roman historians, poets and philosophers, interspersed throughout the text in little boxes, including my favourite quote of Tacitus, the one where he sums up the terror of living under Diocletian. Dark, and psychologically revealing. Like the other quotes, pretty much. Good stuff.

It's not perfect, though. The timeline says that the next emperor after Vitellius was Trajan. Oops. Vespasian! It was Vespasian! Trajan wasn't for another 30 years! It's confusing. Given the quality of the rest of the historical research, I can't help thinking it's an honest mistake, born out of a slip rather than out of ignorance.

The only place the historical stuff falls down is in its presentation of myth. The writers seemed to have conflated the Greek and Roman mythological pantheons, and not really explained the difference. Or maybe it's that there's a lot of stuff which is not Roman, but in fact Greek, which is termed as Roman, and the Greek Gods are victim of that. Either way, Roman religion doesn't get that much coverage, and what there is is a bit jumbled up with the Greek stuff.

Having said that, the setting-specific stuff, where the Roman Empire and its connection to the Cthulhu Mythos is examined, is very, very well done. The idea that the sacred flame that the Vestal Virgins guard is actually keeping Something Awful from awakening is a great idea. Similarly, the dark reason why Athens never seems to change is splendidly creepy. And notwithstanding the conflation of mythologies, the bit where the Greek Gods are tied in with the Dreamlands is another great idea. In fact, the connections with the Mythos are all very well done. There's a selection of Roman style spells, which all have the right flavour, and some (Greek) mythological monsters statted up Cthulhu-style, an idea which may be suitable for some games, but not for others. (but then, the authors declare in the introduction that they want to facilitate sword-and-sandal fantasy just as much as horror, and I think they succeed admirably in this.

My only real niggle with the Mythos stuff is the omission of reference to the Mythos fiction set in the Roman empire, like Robert E. Howard's Worms of the Earth, or Richard L. Tierney's Simon of Gitta cycle. Simon gets one mention in the intro, but the link with the stories isn't made cleart, if it's there at all. But that's just a niggle.

I would also have liked a bibliography of historical sources and Mythos stories. You will have to look for more material if you want to run this thing - some pointers would have been nice.

The character creation rules are mostly sensible (although I'd have specified age limits for diferent occupations. But then, I'm anal about historical accuracy, which the authors aren't, so that doesn't matter). Same for the quipment, money and combat stuff. It's all pretty solid. Oh, and I really, really like the rule about Romans regaining SAN from watching gladiatorial violence. I'd never have thought of that myself, but it makes so many kinds of sense. Nice one.

The two adventures at the end make good use of the setting material. They're both very Roman in flavour, while still being decent, solid adventures. Not awe-inspiring, but good showcases of the source material. Again, good stuff.

Let's talk about an editor...

The problem, as I see it, with getting an author or a small team of authors to do all the editing themselves is that it's impossible to do the editing properly. And this book is in need of a lot more proofreading and a lot more editing, at least one more iteration of it, anyway. There are a lot of typos, mis-spellings and one or two accidental malapropisms.

The layout looks like it was done by a very talented amateur rather than by a professional. All in all, the thing has the look of the work of a decent small press outfit.

And therein lies the problem. Because it costs $20, the same as many professionally produced RPG supplements of the same size. Essentially, I found myself wondering if spotting for what is a laser-printer document (along with the scary overseas postage price to get it here to the UK) is really worth it. I mean, the content is good, great in places, really great, but it's still desperately in need of an editor and, no matter how talented the amateur graphic designer, it deserves a more professional touch. But... should we be paying a professional price for a piece of desktop publishing?

Sic Transit...
So, then, is it worth it? Well, it's a moot point. I checked to see if it was still available on Chaosium's site this morning and it looks like it's been pulled after only about six weeks of being available. Which means they must have sold out.

Who knows? It might get turned into a proper supplement, with proper printing and a professional layout. It might not. It may well reappear.

Is it good? Yes, it's very good. But in my opinion, it's only worth it if you're going to use it or if you're a manic completist. So: good content, but a bit over-priced for what it is.
I didn't read this monograph but it is more a setting that could have been discovered in France, that is in Gaul.
In his memories Julius Caesar justified the systematic slaughters of the religious body of this people (the druids) because they performed human sacrifices and other unclean rituals.
The facts is that Gallic tradition was mostly oral with no recorded facts or history.
It is thus very possible that divine cults in some forsaken regions were very different and darker than in known areas.