I love everything having to do with the Roman Empire. I think it’s the mix of familiar places and then exotic names and culture. I also love everything Lovecraftian so needless to say Cthulhu Invictus was pretty high up on my list. When Golden Goblin Press announced that they were Kickstarting a new version using the 7th Edition ruleset, needless to say that I was pretty excited. The Golden Goblins told me that the supplement will be available soon on their site but in the meantime, here’s what you can expect!
So what is Cthulhu Invictus? In a nutshell, it’s a setting for Call of Cthulhu during the Roman Empire. It’s a simple idea, but it requires a lot of consideration to work well. Luckily, the folks over at Golden Goblin Press have a lot of experience in that regard. The original Cthulhu Invictus sourcebook was produced by Chaosium but Golden Goblin Press made supplements of such quality (specifically De Horrore Cosmico and the authors’ stuff with the now-defunct Miskatonic River Press) that they were must-buys for any Invictus campaign.
The idea is to make not only a quality adaptation for Call of Cthulhu, but to make something which also accurately reflects the Roman world. The first edition was a great start but this new version goes a long way towards immersing you in the Roman world. Even if you don’t have any interest in engaging with the Lovecraft Mythos in ancient Rome, if you want to be running a Roman campaign (including Chronicles of Darkness Roman settings) then this is an invaluable sourcebook.
Now, “the Roman era” is a long period so specifically this setting is the Antonine Period when some of the most celebrated Roman emperors ruled and, arguably, the empire hit its most glorious period. It’s a stable, peaceful time (unless you’re German) but under the surfaces is the Shadow War between humanity and the elder creatures that haunt the night. This is the familiar ghouls, cthonians, and shoggoths but also harpies, gorgons, bouda, and other mythological creatures that allow you to tell stories specific to this time period. You might be slaves, citizens, freemen, barbarians, or anything else you can think of, just like a 20th century Cal of Cthulhu campaign, but you are certainly different in a lot of ways from other campaigns.
In order to create a character in Cthulhu Invictus, you still need Chapter 3 of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition core rulebook. Sorry. This isn’t a stand-alone book, which is actually a good thing as it allows the authors to concentrate on the new stuff. Just like standard CoC you roll characteristics, choose an age (although there are new categories to reflect the reduced life expectancy), assign skills, equipment (obviously new choices here), and creating a backstory (likewise).
A new skill of Status takes the place of Credit Rating and makes social interactions a little more along the lines of Roman society. Although it still represents income to a certain degree, it also reflects social class which was thickly intertwined with money in ancient Rome. While Call of Cthulhu does a good job not getting bogged down in bank accounts and pocket change, it actually makes sense to do that in Cthulhu Invictus just like in D&D. Status levels run from vagabonds with 1d6 sestertii in starting funds through to the super rich who start with 10,000 times their Status rating (which is a minimum of 100) in sesterii. Seriously, you can pretty much play Crassus.
There is also a full page of inspirational tables for backgrounds, either to give you ideas or to roll on randomly. You don’t have to be an expert in Roman history (something that people legitimately worry about in my experience) since you can use this to give yourself a skeleton of a backstory and work out the details as you would with any character. It’s obvious that a lot of attention and detail have gone into this so I am just in love with it.
Likewise, the new list of occupations have their own skills and stats, obviously, but also descriptions of how they fit into the wider societies and references to other parts of the book for convenience. Do you want to be an augur? A merchant? How about a sailor? What is life like for a Roman sailor? What the heck is a vigilis or a saga? How about a criminal collegium and what’s the advantage of being a member? The answer to all of this and more lie in this book.
Part of starting in on a game set in the Roman Empire is immersing yourself in the culture of the time period. Among the amazing cultural resources in this book are…
- A four-page section on mundane Roman items such as social classes, slavery, telling time, units of measure, food, and clothing.
- A full-page spread detailing forty-four Roman holidays through the year.
- Four full pages (!) of Roman names and a thorough discussion of naming conventions. This comes in the form of a random name generator.
- Lists of terms from types of animals to articles of clothing and transportation.
- At least half a page on each of the Roman Provinces amounting to a concise fifteen pages of geographic info.
- A nine-page guide to the city of Rome including sample maps and life in the city.
- Twelve pages detailing the Roman legions and what a soldier’s life is like.
- Five different patrons for PCs to work for, a big thing in the Roman world.
- Five different organizations for PCs to belong to, something that is also big for Romans.
There can be a lot to get through here but I think the beneficial part of this is that it’s concise. There are history books (and the amazing History of Rome podcast) for detailed information on the Roman era. For the record, my go-to for easily accessed Roman info are books by Phillip Matyszak but that’s not the point here. The point is that you can’t hand your players a textbook and expect them to read the whole thing. What the Golden Goblins have done is strike an incredible balance between brevity and completeness. Players won’t have an exhaustive picture of the Roman world from this sourcebook but they’ll have more than enough to compellingly portray Roman characters. Isn’t that the point anyways?
The first toe-dip into the mythos part of Cthulhu Invictus is a look at the real-world religious beliefs of the Romans. Roman life included a lot of different spiritual beliefs that might seem strange to modern players: not just pantheistic gods but protective charms, ancestral spirits, omens, and others. There’s even an optional rule to include ill omens in your game, things that stress people out enough that they can suffer small SAN losses just like if they saw a dead body or freaky situation in a modern game.
There are discussions of the Twelve Olympians (plus Pluto), Magna Mater, the Imperial Cult, the Mystery Religions (including Christianity), and philosophical schools, all brief-but-awesome just like the geographical descriptions above. There’s another optional rule for replacing the modern Luck stat with faith from monetary donations to temples. The Romans didn’t subscribe to blind luck, figuring that if you had misfortune it was because you’d angered the gods, and you can reflect that mechanically. You can also just roleplay, of course, and there is a lot of personal advice in these pages to help you do that effectively.
Speaking of stats and sanity, what happens to insane people in the Roman world? Well, not anything good unless they’ve got some money. Someone can be hired to care for the insane in their home or else you can turn them out on the streets. This isn’t the only familiar Lovecraftian aspect to be treated differently in Cthulhu Invictus. Magic works the same mechanically but in the setting it is literally a legal issue: witchcraft is something that people believe in and so they have rules against its use. This book has new spells and a list of appropriate spells from the core Call of Cthulhu rulebook and from The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic. Lists of tomes and Roman artifacts from throughout the Empire (and beyond) provide some ready access to the mythos as well as cults that are purely Roman creations or cults of familiar Great Old Ones like the Cult of the Dark Venus (Shub-Niggurath), the Heralds of the Deep (Cthulhu), and the Cult of the Black Sun (Azathoth).
Plenty of mythos creatures from the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition rulebook can be used in Cthulhu Invictus but there are also new mythos creatures appropriate to the setting. From the Egyptian snake-creature Apepi (avatar of Yig) and the ravenous Cerberus hounds (created by ancient sorcerers) to the dryads (growing from seeds that fell from space) and the goddess Nemesis (a Dreamlands deity of violence and black jealousy). Throw in two really awesome adventures and you should be ready to hit the ground running with a whole campaign of Invictus fun.