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Saturday
Jul202019

Review: Sandy Petersen's Cthulhu Mythos for 5e

Product Format: Physical book and PDF
Method of Acquisition: Kickstarter Rewards (purchased)

I am not the world's greatest fan of H.P. Lovecraft by any stretch of the imagination. If you want proof or a sense of just how true that statement is, take a look at this post I wrote for Saving the Game. So it should say something that I picked up Sandy Petersen's Cthulhu Mythos at all.

As I mentioned in that other blog post, however, my issue is with HPL himself and not the people who have taken it upon themselves to make the mythos he and his contemporaries created into gaming products. I'm also on record as being a fan of a lot of the monsters in the mythos - things like Hunting Horrors, Shoggoths, and Hounds of Tyndalos are legitimately scary and cool, and having stats for them is nice as a GM.

I picked the book up on Kickstarter based on some samples that Petersen Games had posted on the kickstarter page. I'd been on the lookout for high-quality third-party 5e content and this book certainly qualifies. Originally I backed at the PDF-only tier, and since Petersen Games is one of those companies that does all of the writing, art, and layout first and then kickstarts the physical goods costs, I got the PDF shortly thereafter. After spending some time with the PDF, I realized that this was a book I wanted in physical form and upgraded my pledge through the pledge manager.

It's worth mentioning at this point that the production values in this book are nothing short of amazing. The art and layout are beautiful; the book has the feel of a spooky old forbidden tome without sacrificing readability (the arcane circle watermarks on the pages are a nice touch there), and the artwork is genuinely unsettling without being offensive or gratuitous (with perhaps one needlessly-sexualized exception in the whole book), which is perfect for a product of this type. The text is organized in a usable fashion, and paper, cover, and binding are all at least as good as official WotC product. The pair of sewn-in cloth bookmarks are also a very nice touch. I would actually put the overall look and feel of the product as slightly higher quality than my WotC books.

The PDF is also very nice to use. The table of contents is hyperlinked, it has plenty of useful bookmarks, it's searchable, and it's sufficiently-optimized so that using it is smooth on both my PC and my tablet. All of the previous praise about artwork, layout, and design applies here, too.

The book is broken down into 9 chapters of varying length.

Chapter 1 is the introduction and also contains some general advice on how to mix horror elements and heroic fantasy together. The advice in here is understandably very focused on using Cthulhu mythos elements specifically, but some of it is general enough that if a GM were running a game based on Darkest Dungeon or some other mix of fantasy and horror instead, it would probably still be applicable. It's a short chapter; only about 6 pages. If I have any complaint with this material, it's that I'd really like to have seen a nod in the text to the fact that HPL himself, while very creative, was not such a good guy and to be aware of some of the less-savory origins of the material he created, rooted in prejudice and xenophobia as they were.

Chapters 2 and 3 were probably my favorites in the book. Chapter 2 includes stats for several mythos races, namely Dreamlands Cats, Gnorri, Ghouls, and Zoogs. The Gnorri, Ghouls, and Dreamlands Cats are actually more like a half-dozen races each; there are numerous sub-races present, and the book goes into much greater detail about these races than other 5e materials typically do. It's well-balanced, flavorful, and the races all feel truly unique rather than generic. Just reading the chapter was enough to convince me to add several of the races to a homebrew setting I've been working on. I was particularly fond of how they made sapient cats into a viable character race.

Chapter 3 builds on chapter 2, provding a bunch of new subclasses, some of them race-specific. I was again impressed by the quality of writing and game design here, and also by how portable the material is. If you are running a whimsical, not-at-all horrific game, some of the material in here will still be useful, in particular the two Dreamlands Cat racial subclasses (a rogue archetype that makes cat-sized creatures lethal to adventure-sized foes and a sorcerer bloodline that lets a cat PC act as another arcane caster's familiar while still being just as powerful as any other sorcerer), the Mystery Warrior fighter (which reminded me of Dean Winchester from Supernatural), and the Ritualist wizard subclass which seems like an extra wizardy wizard. There's too much here to go down the whole list, but every one of the base classes in the PHB gets at least one new subclass and most get at least 2 or 3. I'm going to start sounding like a broken record here, but again, it's high-quality, interesting and very usable material. There was nothing that raised my GM hackles over power creep, and yet as a player I'd love to try probably a good half of these options. A lot of them have the same classic feel of the PHB subclasses, and in a few cases, such as the wizard subclass, they almost feel like they're covering things that were "left out" of the PHB. The chapter also includes 4 new backgrounds and a bunch of new feats, most of them racial feats for the new PC races. I plan to make a number of these options available to players in all future games I run, mythos-influenced or not.

Chapter 4 is a short chapter that covers insanity, dread (a new fear mechanic that works in a similar manner to exhaustion from the core rules), the mythos language of Aklo and the dreamlands. The chapter contains a few notes about separating the supernatural madness and insanity of this material from the struggles of people in the real world, which I appreciated. One quick note on Aklo: it's pretty clear that beholders and mind flayers should be able to speak it, but they were probably left off the list of creatures in the monster manual that should speak it for licensing reasons. Though a lot of the material here is specific to the book's subject matter, one might get some utility out of the dread or dreamlands rules in a more generic campaign.

Chapter 5 covers spellcasting in the mythos and introduces a bunch of truly unnerving and creepy spells. I think my personal favorite is Grace of the King in Yellow, which kills a creature by suffusing it with molten gold from the inside. That's portable to other games as a weapon of infernal greed cults and so on. The chapter also introduces a few new familiars and the concept of formulas. Formulas are a kind of "super ritual" that even works for non-spellcasters and make for a great story resource for evil cultists and so on, especially since most of the ones here are oriented around calling up various ancient evils of the mythos. As was the case with previous chapters, this is all very well thought out and of exceptionally high quality. I like the concept of formulas enough that I'm thinking of making a few more that aren't bizarre and sinister for my games - some benign and low-mechanical impact ones, such as the ability to create holy water or keep a corpse from being turned into an undead seem appropriate.

Chapter 6 is all about items including the infamous tomes of forbidden lore that so many mythos stories include. It's an interesting and eclectic collection of items. If you've been wanting game stats for a Yithian lightning gun or the Necronomicon, you'll find them in this chapter. I particularly enjoyed the way the texts were handled; reverse-engineering them could be done to make your own magical tomes and I'll probably do so at least occasionally. As with the previous chapters, the material here is interesting, well-designed, and of a comparable level of quality to the first-party 5e content.

Chapter 7 details various mythos cults and includes notes on how various core 5e races might be drawn into such malign organizations. The chapter gives some notes about who might worship the various lovecraftian entities, why, and what they get out of the deal. This material is well-organized and presented well and notably gives some reasons other than raw, unfettered hatred and sadism why someone might wind up in a mythos cult, which is useful. My biggest objection to the book is in this chapter - once again, the material blithely summarizes lore about the Deep Ones and Tcho-Tcho without getting into the deeply racist stereotypes both of them are built on and feed into. I realize this isn't the point of a gaming book, but even a small sidebar acknowledging the problematic origins of the material would have been nice, because the Tcho-Tcho in particular are a skin-crawlingly bad collection of awful stereotypes about asians. Some acknowledgment of this would not have gone amiss at all.

Chapter 8 is probably what a lot of people who pick up or check out this book will be most interested in. In this chapter the reader will find information about using the various elder evils of the mythos in-game. Want stats for Cthulhu, Hastur, or Yig? This chaptur has you covered. One of the nice convenience features is that in the initial block of information about each of these entities, it includes the first story where they appeared. The art in this chapter is expecially good, depicting all of these terrible entities in all of their mostrous horror. Each entry goes on for several pages with all sorts of detail about how to use them in-game, stat blocks, and so on. There's even a new entity, Gobogeg, the Moon Ladder.

Chapter 9 is the second-most likely contender for book seller if 8 doesn't do the job, because it contains stats for all the various creatures of the mythos. If you want to use Nightgaunts, a Shoggoth, a Hunting Horror, or a Color Out of Space, you'll find the stats here. If there's a complaint to be made about this chapter, it's that so many of the more interesting and iconic creatures are skewed toward higher CRs, but that's really more the fault of the source material than the designers of the book. Again in this chapter the art does a great job. A lot of these monsters are freaking scary and are depicted as such. The stat blocks show a very solid grasp of the underpinnings of 5e as well. Stats are within the correct ranges for CR and things like bounded accuracy and the action economy are clearly taken into account.

The book concludes with a bunch of encounter tables, a useful index, and a list of monsters by CR, all of which are very welcome additions to the book as a whole.

I'm not going to beat around the proverbial bush here: aside from my very real frustration about the complete radio silence on H.P. Lovecraft's bigotry in the text, this is about as close to perfect as one can reasonably expect to see in a game book. The art, layout, construction, writing, editing, organization, and game design are all of extremely high quality. You can drop material from here into games otherwise using only first-party 5e material seamlessly and without any concerns of it breaking the game. It is well worth the purchase price, either in PDF or as a physical book (which, if purchased from Petersen games, includes the PDF for free). In fact, even if you normally shy away from third-party material, I would encourage you to make an exception in this case. It's also worth noting that this thing was a month ahead of the Kickstarter schedule for delivery of the finished product, which is rare. Sandy Petersen is a legend in the game biz, and this book shows 5e players and GMs that his legendary status is merited.

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