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Eric Dodd
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The short summary - if you have Convicts and Cthulhu, you should pick up this light version of the game. Not only does it neatly summarize some of the background sections and themes of that game, it also includes two awesome random tables. And if you have Cthulhu Hack and any interest at all in playing in an early 1800s setting then you should also pick this up as an example of using this system in other settings.

Written by Cthulhu Hack author Paul Baldowski, this little book is 33 pages black and white in PDF. It is not quite a complete game for Cthulhu Hack, as you do need the original Cthulhu Hack for the Character Classes and some rules explanation.

PRESENTATION:

As in the main book, the layout and style is very clean and easy to read. The headers are in bold block capitals with a little fading suggesting pulp printers. There’s no italic footers or character sheet this time. The tables are clear and well designed. There’s no table of contents or index, but this is not a major hardship for such a short and clear set of rules.

CONTENTS:

You can read my Convicts and Cthulhu review for details on the background of early 19th century convict Australia. This Cthulhu Hack version discusses the setting and background in less than 4 pages, before diving into the game mechanics. Characters are rolled up with 2d6+4 for all their old school characteristics, reflecting the harsher conditions and that ‘exceptional’ abilities are harder to achieve and maintain. No differentiation is made between convicts and guards or free settlers here. Flashlights and Smokes are renamed as Lamplight and Rum, but work much the same way. Rum is more explicitly a currency in the Convicts setting, so the Keeper may make refreshing these pools harder than in the pulp 1920s game.

The Classes are retained from the base game, but roles are limited to four options: Convicts, NSW Corp Officers (Guards and soldiers), Government Officials (Administrators) and Free Settlers. The Occupation table gives 100 different jobs, which Convicts and Guards can roll against to see what they did before they came to Australia. Free Settlers also roll d100 to see what their current job is, while Administrators just roll 1d10 to select between the official jobs in the new colony. The author notes that he felt there was enough range and conflict with just these options and so he has not converted the Aborigine character generation from Convicts and Cthulhu. In the sense that it’s best not to touch on something sensitive if you can’t cover it well that’s probably for the best. For Convicts the 100 offenses table can be used to generate the main crime that saw the character transported, and the rules suggest that using this ‘background’ might result in an advantage or Disadvantage dice when attempting an appropriate Save. E.g., a Convict with a violent crime in his past may get an Advantage dice roll when saving against CHA to avoid trouble with other Convicts.

The scarcity of useful equipment in the colony is emphasised, with the main reasons for difficulty of supply listed. The economy works on rum (and Rum) and promissory notes, while Convicts can attempt to use threats or take beatings to get what they want. Details of 19th century guns and local weapons such as Boomerangs and Spears are listed. The heading here has been unfortunately copied over from the original rules - weapons will not be got from a gun shop or as an heirloom from the World War in this era. Investigation sources are summarised from the Convicts and Cthulhu rules, while emphasising that there are few well-stocked sources of books.

Shock is a new Sanity rule that replaces the degradation of Sanity with short periods of strangeness or incapacity. It’s not so authentic to the Lovecraftian source but may be more playable for desperate convicts.

Antagonists suggests that players will mainly face human foes, who will be 2 or 3 Hit Dice in strength with equipment and abilities to carry out their schemes. Normal guards and convicts will usually be 1 Hit Dice. I’m happy to see that Random Encounters are promoted in that old school way, starting with wild animals or angry convicts, heading up to more dangerous foes as the players approach their goal. Creatures and Monsters from 5 to 12 Hit Dice in strength are listed, covering Aboriginal and Cthulhu Mythos. I like the suggested use of Lamplight or Rum clues to find out about the spoor or techniques of the creature. The final page of the sourcebook covers a short history of Lovecraftian Australian as well as the intersection with traditional Aboriginal belief.

Longships and Short Fuses is an adventure set at the coal mines of Hunter’s River, 100 miles from Sydney. Players are probably convicts or guards who find themselves at the mine after a disaster and an unusual discovery. The official in charge has gone missing - or has he? - and it’s up to the players to save the miners and explore the find as they see fit. Three different options are giving for running the plot in this location, and a neat if unlabelled map is provided of the mine and the find area. It’s a pretty good mixture of traditional fantasy and Cthulhu tropes, with an unusual find. The plot can be used to carry on from the main adventure in the Convicts & Cthulhu book, and presents a nasty villain with an ongoing plan. It shows the flexibility of the Cthulhu Hack system in the different plots and how new foes are presented.

An Appendix provides 20 era-appropriate first names for men and women and surnames. The last page is the Cthulhu Hack and Black Hack license notices.

VERDICT:

My summary at the start is my verdict - this is a smart mix of an interesting setting and a simple but focussed RPG that gives additional background for those interested in the Colonial setting or quick pick up and play for those wanting to try a Mythos game.


Pluses:
- Good summary of the reasons and differences for using this setting
- Great random tables
- A good adventure and additional monster ideas

Minuses:

- Some cut and paste from the original Cthulhu Hack
- Needs both sourcebooks to get the best from it

For fans of the Hacks, look out for The Haunter of the Dark Cthulhu Hack which promises more advice about adapting Cthulhu stories to the system. For fans of the Convicts setting and Australia, cross your fingers that the new sourcebooks will see the light of day eventually.
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Clark Timmins
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Thanks for this review - the Shock/Sanity rule sounds intriguing.
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Paul Baldowski
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Really appreciate the time you've taken on this review - and picking out the oversight in the Equipment section! Darn...

ctimmins wrote:
Thanks for this review - the Shock/Sanity rule sounds intriguing.
I posted a 'playtest' version of the Shock rules on the Just Crunch blog.
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