I have seen the cover of this being bandied around Google+ a lot of recent weeks. People are excited by the unknown creatures of a Lovecraft like world being married to the apocalyptic world of Mad Max it seems and I must admit, I smiled at the ingenuity. One of my contacts on Google+ that I frequently have conversations with popped up one day recently and asked if I would review it as he had written a story in it and so I thought that it was time to take a look at Chthonian Highways and see what it was like.
It is hard to pinpoint a market for this game. The premise of it is cool, but there is little in the book that actually gives it life. The artwork is cool, but pretty straightforward. The story my contact wrote is alluring and mysterious but that is not really where the game seems to go with its mechanics. I found that after I read the book, I was well confused.
It is at its heart a d20 system that is a roll high, add skills to beat the challenge level game at its heart. But then they sneak in the D&D advantage disadvantage rule as edge and handicap. Then I see the FATE Core influence flowing in with zones and stunts and almost beneficial one off bonuses that feel like a situational aspect. It is a mish-mash of rules that seem to come from other games, and they further complicate those rules as they go. I realised that this game is less than a 100 pages in length but during the game I would have to be flicking through the virtual pages just to make sure I was doing things right. It is not intuitive at all.
The editing in it could have been better also. There are four editing mistakes that I picked just on a quick review read and two of those mistakes actually change things. They made me question my sense of scale and had to go ask Mr. Google some questions about conversion rates in the US and Australia.
The rules are laid out bare and very few rules actually come with any sort of example to help people out. In fact the setting itself is really thin in this book. The history details really being the only source for the setting and the history section felt really unbelievable. Monsters started appearing out of sink holes and we fought but they got big and tough so we nuked them and now there is an apocalypse with monsters and mutants. Pretty much sums it up, no real heart or mystery, which I expected from the story at the start.
The game is really focused at driving cars and shooting things, probably monsters. The rules really focus on this and the skill list also. Want to negotiate a price? Tough luck – there is no skill in it because it does not involve shooting things or driving. Oh, and the old chestnut I love to hate, owning Drive the skill allows you to pilot planes, boats, helicopters and probably space shuttle for all I know.
Then there are the prices for things. It is an apocalypse but the cheapest thing is food, despite the history telling me that food is really scarce. But then again, most of the items for sale are cars and, you guessed it, weapons.
There is no GM section to give you hints about how to run this game, and even more disappointingly, no monster section. How can you have a game about driving and killing monsters when there are no monsters to kill? The book ends with an adventure that gives you two flavourless monster blocks to use in a chase type battle, but in reality it is barely a passable adventure. And with no section to help people run this as a GM you will get very few people starting their role playing game in this system.
Overall, if you want a night of laughs over beer and pretzels, find a different game. If you want to run a serious Lovecraftian version of Mad Max get Atomic Highways and Irradiated Freaks from Drive Thru or run a FATE session. There really is little in this game that offers any value, which is a shame from my point of view. It could have been something really special. Keep rolling.