I’m here reviewing a copy of the Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War thanks to the power of a good illustrator – the cover of the book was gorgeous, and it caught my eye at the Modiphius booth at GenCon this year (if you’re curious, the right hand of the agent on the cover is resting on a copy of the first Achtung! Cthulhu book, the first part of the Zero Point campaign). So, what is this book that I have because of the pretty, pretty picture on the cover?
Achtung! Cthulhu started as a pair of campaign books, fast-forwarding from the usual Lovecraftian time frame to World War Two. That campaign setting birthed a Kickstarter, focused on the Investigator’s and Keeper’s Guides to the Secret War, which has so far led to another dozen books beyond that. As you might guess from the titles, the Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War is a player-focused book, while the Keeper’s Guide to the Secret War is for the GM.
Achtung! Cthulhu is a campaign setting supporting three different rules systems – Call of Cthulhu (sixth edition), Savage Worlds, and Fate. Two of those – Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds – are supported in the standard Investigator’s and Keeper’s Guides, with the Fate material in its own book (which combines the two guides).
The Basics of the Book
As noted above, the Investigator’s Guide is a specifically player-focused book. This means that it is not a full presentation of the campaign setting. The secret parts of the Secret War are reserved for the GM, in the Keeper’s Guide – players can read the Investigator’s Guide from cover-to-cover without a single spoiler of the supernatural elements of the setting, letting the GM control the mysteries revealed to the players. With that material set aside for the GM book, and the core rules housed in Call of Cthulhu or Savage Worlds, the 143 or so content pages of the Investigator’s Guide are fully saturated with setting-specific character creation rules and the basic non-supernatural aspects of the setting that the characters are likely to know at the beginning of a campaign.
The Investigator’s Guide focuses on the basics of an Achtung! Cthulhu campaign, characters operating as agents on the European western front during World War Two, including the home fronts in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States (supplements are available providing coverage of the European eastern front and the war in the Pacific). The first 50 pages provide setting information, focusing on the impact that the war has on everyday life and on organizations like the intelligence services, the French resistance, and, to a limited extent, the military (there is, thankfully, no effort to provide a military history of WWII). The remaining 90+ pages provide mechanical information, very heavily consisting of character creation and character options, but also some rules for gear.
Presentation: The Investigator’s Guide is a 150-page full-color hardcover. Graphic design is excellent, with page borders in the book designed to make the book look like stacks of paper in a dossier. I particularly liked the notes “paperclipped” or “taped” to the pages. The interior art (by Dim Martin) is also solid.
Call of Cthulhu Mechanical Information
The approximately 50 pages devoted to Call of Cthulhu mechanics are split between a character creation chapter, and a chapter on skills. There are about 14 basic military occupations (plus another 8 elite/special forces occupations), 5 intelligence/espionage occupations, and 11 civilian occupations. Civilian occupations include black market dealers, entertainers, journalists, scientists, nurses, and spiritualists. Intelligence occupations include law enforcement, ‘normal’ secret agents, and resistance members. The military occupations, which exist in a more involved character advancement process (basic training, training packages, promotions, and stacking of multiple occupations), include aviators, infantry, artillery, snipers, sailors, medics, communication specialists, engineers, and special forces. There are also several pages of tables for those who want to randomly roll to find out what their character’s first experience with the mythos was, or other background aspects of the character.
The skills chapter provides information on about 45 skills. These are not typically new skills, but rather more updated and detailed information on existing skills to examine their fit within the Achtung! Cthulhu setting, especially the ~20 years of technological change that elapsed between the default Call of Cthulhu timeframe and the early 40s of Achtung! Cthulhu.
Finally, the 15-page chapter on gear covers both Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds. The material covered is mostly weapons, but also includes food, covert equipment, and clothing.
Savage Worlds Mechanical Information
The Savage Worlds chapter occupies only 20 pages, although that reduced page count is partially due to cross-references to tables in the Call of Cthulhu mechanical section. The Investigator’s Guide includes 35 military occupational specialties and civil occupations, covering the same ground as the Call of Cthulhu occupations noted above, although with some reorganization (for example, there is no difference between a civilian merchant marine sailor and a navy sailor). There are also modifications presented for about half a dozen skills (or over 20 skills, if you include all of the knowledge specialties). Round that out are five new hindrances and three dozen new edges. And, as noted above, the 15-page chapter on gear covers both Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds.
The Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War is an excellent introduction to the campaign setting. It’s main “flaw” is that it leaves you wanting to know about the setting … but that’s kind of the point of the point of splitting the player’s and GM’s books, so it’s kind of unfair to even air quote the word ‘flaw’ there. Indeed, I think the fact that reading the Investigator’s Guide made me want to immediately go read the Keeper’s Guide is a testament to the quality of the former (I’m not even much of a Cthulhu Mythos fan, so the book is really standing on its own in that regard).
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.