Achtung! Cthulhu, Fate Edition – Mechanic Makes Mood

Achtung! Cthulu sourcebooksI was recently part of a playtest group for the Achtung! Cthulu Fate Edition, and while I had a fun time playing, it was much more of a Fate fun time than a Cthulu and/or Nazi fun fun time. Which is to say, it was a zany, gung-ho adventure that did not even begin to approach survival, grit, and/or horrror.

Achtung! is a Cthulu horror game set in WWII, the premise being that Axis powers are summoning eldritch nightmares in their bid for world domination, and it’s up to some special Allied units to discover what’s going on and put a stop to it. The game was originally designed to work with either Call of Cthulu or Savage Worlds (the Fate version was a Kickstarter stretch goal), but my Achtung! experience proved (to me at least) that there are some things Fate just can’t do. Like I said, I enjoyed myself, but it wasn’t exactly what I would call Lovecraftian.

But can’t Fate do everything?

I’ve been a Fate player since its Kickstarter, and I’m a big fan, but my conception of the game has changed with time. At first, I was tremendously excited about the idea of a system that could do anything. Fantasy! Sci-fi! Superheros! Comedy! Western! Detectives! What more could you ask for? By tweaking the rules, I was told, you could even bring out a horror flavor. Now, though, I’m beginning to see just how much mechanic makes mood, and Fate’s anything-goes mechanics never fail to result in anything-goes games.

For instance, in my playtest group, we were supposed to go on a covert mission into the French alps to locate an archaeologist who had knowledge of the secret caves where the Nazis were attempting to summon monsters previously unknown by man. But when an enemy officer tried to rough up the town priest, we just had to intervene. Our “covert” op was blown and we were surrounded. So we made the decision that only Fate players would make: “No problem, we’ll just shoot our way out!”

When your rag-tag team of one American Bible-thumping nutjob, a Swedish ski champion, an all-business Brit and a turncoat German are allowed to tear their way out of a surrounded French church in a five-to-one gun battle and succeed, that’s not a horror game. Put another way:

Fate‘s system is designed to get you making fast choices and taking risks, knowing that you’ll either be rewarded with Fate points, or at the very least, be able to spend the Fate points you already have. A horror game achieves its sense of fear by punishing risk-taking and playing up scarcity. No matter how many tweaks you make to Fate’s toolbox, you’ll never get rid of this fundamental underlying discrepancy.

Why is this a good thing?

You don’t actually want a system that can model anything (and Fate contributor Ryan Macklin would seem to agree). One of two things will happen:

  • You’ll have a bloated, 800-page rulebook covering every contingency, or more likely,
  • You’ll have a rules-weak, flimsy system that imparts no fundamental flavor or personality and leaves you without a very strong impression.

Fate does pulp like nothing else. It is very good at that one thing, and many different types of stories play well with a pulp-ish feel. But stop trying to use aspects to make Fate model things it’s not very good at. Nobody is going to feel extra-scared because there’s an index card on the table that says “horrible scary monsters are everywhere.”

Nevertheless, I’m glad the Achtung! team decided to include a Fate version as a Kickstarter stretch goal. Doubtless some people are going to find the Nazi x Cthulu concept silly and are going to want to play silly, not-even-trying-to-be-scary games based around it. It would work very well for an Indiana Jones vs. Mythos Nazis sort of campaign. And some people just want to play Fate no matter what. Personally, I enjoyed it as food for thought about how design impacts story. But I think I’m done with the Achtung! Cthulu universe for the time being—compared to the real-life atrocities of the real Nazis, Cthulhu just looks weak.

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