A Lazy Sequence

The Apocalypse Machine

Note:Pelgrane Press provided a copy of The Apocalypse Machine for purposes of this review.

Cover of The Apocalypse Machine for Trail of Cthulhu.

The Apocalpyse Machine is the second release in Pelgrane Press’s Cthulhu Apocalypse series for Trail of Cthulhu. This line of PDFs is written by Graham Walmsley whose previous work for the Trail of Cthulhu line includes the four well received Purist scenarios1. The premise of the Cthulhu Apocalypse line is that on November 2nd, 1936, the world ended. Now, the stars are right, and horrific aliens have claimed the planet for themselves. This book concerns itself with the setting and general rules for this setting.

Physically (as much as that is with a PDF) this is a 73 page duotone PDF like the rest of the Trail of Cthulhu line. The artist for this book is Alessandro Alaia rather than Jerome Huguenin, the line's regular artist; this variation backs up the dramatically altered tone of the setting. All the internal art is in the form of dramatic wide location pieces that span the bottom half of two page spreads. Like prior releases, special glyphs mark particular sections of content that relate only to certain specific sub settings.

This book provides a campaign frame toolkit with which to create your own alternate history for apocalyptic mythos adventures, and while part of the same series as The Dead White World it is not dependent on it in any way2. The book contains roughly four major sections:

  • Guidelines for creating your particular apocalypse.
  • Character creation options including new and modified occupations, drives, and abilities.
  • New and updated mythos creatures.
  • Tips and guidelines for both investigators and keepers.

The text of the book deviates away from the neutral, descriptive voice that many RPG authors prefer and instead takes a direct and prescriptive tone. This results in a lively, readable book that shows Walmsley is both excited about the Cthulhu Apocalypse setting and is keen to describe how such games run, leaving little doubt for both players and keepers about what to expect and how to achieve it. However, some readers who prefer a more à la carte approach to setting, or a more neutral authorial voice, may find this book difficult to read.

The Apocalypse Machine is expected to run in the Pulp mode laid out in the Trail of Cthulhu core book. However, in spite of the pulp rules this setting is going to be grim. This earth is one where the majority have been wiped out. Only a handful of humans are left, and their cities and infrastructure are in ruins. Action and investigation drive play as the players attempt to answer the central question the keeper has devised with the aid of The Apocalypse Machine. Finally, two sub modes are presented: Aftermath and Wasteland. In aftermath games play starts shortly after the apocalypse strikes, and in the wasteland the apocalypse is part of recent history for the few survivors.

Creating Your Apocalypse

At the heart of this book is the Apocalypse Machine itself: 13 pages of guidelines on how to construct your own apocalypse. There are two primary steps to the process. First, determine the Cause, Disasters, and Casualties of the apocalypse. Second, set the four dials that control the details of the campaigns tone: Humanity, Time, Adrenaline, and Weird.

In the first step, Cause determines Disasters which determine Casualties. Each section is broken down into specific options, with suggestions on what they may cause at the next stage. A chart is provided to diagram the relationships between all the major options. Each section is full of suggestions and color, as well as boxes providing additional ideas or alternatives: for example one larger box contains suggestions of how you might wish to include a nuclear disaster in your plans3.

Causes is one of Mythos, Humans and Nature. One of these three triggers the events of the apocalypse. Did the stars align? Did man tamper with thinks best left untouched? Was this just an inevitable result of the chaotic whims of nature? The specific disasters describe how the various causes may have triggered them.

Disasters describes how the end occurs: Monsters, Technology, Weapons, Disease, Heat, Floods, Earthquakes, Cold, Meteor, Wind, and Barbarism. Each entry lists other potential disasters they may lead too, as well as possible casualties. In addition to color and ideas for your apocalypse, each entry presents questions for the keeper to consider to either answer themselves, or leave open as targets for the players to investigate. Sample answers are provided for each question. Individual disasters are more destructive and wider reaching than their equivalent disaster movie would portray.

“Monsters hold a special place in the Apocalypse Machine: whatever your apocalypse, it must always include monsters.”

No matter how the world ends, a host of monsters will arrive up to pick of the pieces and war for the remains. In an aftermath game, the monsters will be new to everyone. In a wastelands game the general population has heard of the horrors, but in generally they don’t know much about any particular type of monster. The menagerie of monsters includes not only familiar staples of Lovecraftian horror such as the Deep Ones or Migo, but also classics such as Triffids and H.G. Well’s Martians. If your idea of the an apocalypse campaign does not include hordes of monsters fighting over the wreckage of earth, this campaign frame is not for you.

Lastly, Casualties describes major features of the earth that have been severely damaged by the disasters. These include Biology, Water, Food, Soil, Books, and Reality. Like the previous sections each entry has color and ideas for the keeper as well as questions to answer. Lack of resources is a theme of this setting, and in addition to the details covered in each entry, is backed up with mechanics I’ll cover in the next section.

With these options forming the foundation of the setting, the Dials provide guidance on the particular tone of the game, and which particular sub mode (Aftermath or Wasteland) that the game occurs in.

The Humanity dial indicates how humans react to each other; the scale runs from entirely threatening and bleak (for example Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road) to more optimistic (for example the movie I Am Legend). Notes are provided for each of the settings, and the book suggests avoiding the two extremes.

The Time dial is straight forward: how far after the apocalypse does the campaign take place. This directly relates to the sub mode your game occurs in.

The Weird dial indicates how much the world deviates from what we know. This is particularly relevant in the context of disasters where reality is a casualty.

Lastly, the Adrenaline dial has a parallel with the Pulp / Purist dichotomy presented in the core book.

The Survivors

Investigators in the Cthulhu Apocalypse are the survivors. Unlike the majority, the player characters are driven to investigate the horrors that make up the new or emerging landscape. As you might expect, The Apocalypse Machine contains new and modified Occupations, Drives, and Abilities suitable for this new world, as well as providing additional rules for equipment and sanity.

Not all the Occupations provided in the core Trail of Cthulhu book are available after the apocalypse. Some (e.g. Artist) of them only make sense in an aftermath game. In addition, new occupations suited to the new world are covered. The most notable change to occupations is the addition of a Scavenging Speciality. This ties in with the new Scavenging ability described later in the book. I’ll talk more about scavenging and equipment below.

As with Occupations, Drives covers the material from Trail of Cthulhu in terms of the post apocalyptic environment, removing some (e.g. Artistic Sensitivity) and introducing new replacements (e.g. Self Preservation). Finally a new rule is provided to allow characters to switch drives once during a campaign.

Occupations and Drives cover many of the nuts of bolts aspects of the setting; they clearly frame the setting and are written with active, player stimulating prose. Like in the Purist scenarios, Walmsley shows how to use just a few carefully chosen details to describe interesting, motivated characters.

A handle of Occupations (e.g. Pilot) and Drives (e.g. Hunted) include notes on how their inclusion in your campaign may drastically alter the nature of the game. One entertaining new Occupation that falls into this category is Veteran; the character is the (broken) survivor of some mythos encounter from before the apocalypse.

Abilities also get a recap that highlights their new utility in the setting. A new General ability, Scavenging, is introduced in this section. Unlike core Trail of Cthulhu you are not assumed to have the equipment needed for an ability just because you have the ability. Instead, characters scavenge in ruins for the appropriate equipment.

The resource management aspects of The Apocalypse Machine are a particular high point. With relatively few mechanics and limited bookkeeping it maintains resource constraints on the PCs while simulating survival fiction, and ties into a core theme raised during setting creation. There are two connected mechanics here: The Scavenging ability and Reserves.

Finding a useful piece of gear takes time and a scavenging roll. The more specific the item, or more pressure to find it, that harder it is. The difficulty number is calculated with a simple table. Specific failure conditions for Scavenging are provided: Based on the margin of failure, there are a set of options that the keeper can choose from to describe what the players find instead of the item. This ranges from a substitute that is not quite as good, to exactly what you are looking for in a dangerous location, or an extremely risky substitute. An occupation’s Scavenging Specialty reduces the difficulty in scavenging for items that fall with that classification.

Scavenging is a tool to allow the players to get themselves into more trouble (and thus, more fun). Keepers are encouraged to use this to encourage players to take on more risk.

As I mentioned earlier, the other part of the limited resources system is Reserves. Gear have a limited a number of reserves: for example guns have ammunition, flashlights have batteries etc. Rather than noting the specific units of these you just note the bulk number of reserves. By default all items come with 1 reserve. If you wish to find more reserves, it will increase the difficulty number for the scavenging roll.

The brilliant aspect of this reserves mechanic is how they run out. Like the genre being emulated, reserves run out at the worst possible moment. To simulate this, reserves fail whenever your stability drops below zero. Technically this is an option rule, but it is so flavorful I can’t imagine anyone not using it.

Like everything else on the character sheet the sanity and stability mechanics have been retuned and realigned to suit the setting. Most interesting to me is the two pages of era appropriate mental illnesses with guidance for how the player and the group can portray them in fun ways, and a rule called Insight that allows the player to put the illness into the background once it is no longer fun to play.

Another staple of post apocalyptic settings is mutants. In the Cthulhu Apocalypse setting, this is The Afflicted. Afflictions take the form of psychic powers and weird physical mutations models as abilities. Afflictions in general, and Psychic powers in particular are not a super powered alternative to the standard investigative and general abilities. Instead, they represent potential for grim foreshadowing, murky exposition, more trouble, and most importantly roleplaying opportunities.

The End of the World

Rounding out the book is a section on the Mythos that recaps horrors from the core book, tips for players and keepers, and finally a couple of pages on what the formerly civilized world looks like in the years following apocalypse.

The Mythos Entities section is typical for a Trail of Cthulhu book. Monsters from the the core book are treated to a set of bulleted ideas, some of which are in conflict. Many great ideas for wrecking the world are presented here and the keeper should have fodder for many scenarios without stepping outside the suggestions. As mentioned earlier, aliens such as the Triffids and H.G. Wells Martians have been elevated to the pantheon of Mythos menaces in this section.

Tips for Players and the Keepers section, Building Mysteries contain the most prescriptive text in the book. Tips for Players in particular lays out clear expectations for the players:

  • Investigate the Central Question
  • Investigate the Horror
  • Stay on Track
  • React
  • Build Relationships

This framework provides a clear social contract for the players in the apocalypse sandbox and is complemented by the mechanics and guidelines for keepers.

Building Mysteries updates the spine and clues model for creating scenarios presented in the core book. In addition it provides guidance on how to present the scenario. One of the key points is Strong Visual Images; the keeper is encouraged to start and end each session with large, dramatic images. Some examples:

  • An army of Deep Ones surges through San Francisco.
  • Cthulhu rises from the sea.
  • In Paris, the Champs-Elysees is covered with grass and flowers.

Keepers are also encouraged to follow a Monster of the Week format, with a particular monster or race of monster being used as the basis for each scenario.

In Summary

Of the campaign frames released for Trail of Cthulhu to date, The Apocalypse Machine diverges most from the assumptions of the default setting. Keepers, aided by this book, will need to do more groundwork to establish the details of the apocalypse, and determine the central question to be answered during play.

The setting’s assumptions set this product up to be a great fit for some groups. The tradeoff being that if your group want a more typical Trail of Cthulhu campaign frame you will probably be disappointed. In particular, the strong focus on monster of the week may not be to your tastes.

The text of the book vividly describes its setting, integrates its new and tweaked mechanics deftly, and should provide both keepers and players with all the material they need to quickly get up to speed with this new frame.

  1. The Purist scenarios are four independent but related scenarios set in England’s Lakes District that are intended to be played strictly in the Purist mode. It has been mentioned that these four may become available as a single printed volume, they are current available as individual PDFs:
    1. The Dying of St Margaret’s.
    2. The Watchers in the Sky.
    3. The Dance in the Blood.
    4. The Rending Box.
  2. I have not read The Dead White World and it did not present any problems.
  3. Including possible historical anachronisms you might want to consider.
31 October 2011