July 18, 2023

Cosmic Horror, Cthulhu Dark Just Does it Better

NOTE: I take problem with Lovecraft’s outlook on humans (in case you didn’t know he was a racist/fascist) and as such I am left wanting to enjoy the type of story telling he helped to bring to humanity while avoiding those troubling outlooks that he himself held about humanity. Fascists are never welcome in my circles unless you are truly repentant for your past ways. I welcome anyone who is willing to denounce fascist ideologies, unfortunately Lovecraft never did this before his death so it is with caution I cite anything that references his work here. Know that it is sincerely referential and not a communication of my support for the ideologies he supported in his lifetime.

I love horror. Horror was a big part of my up bringing. Reading endless novels by Stephen King as a youth, watching horror movies with my father (much to my mother’s darting looks of annoyance with my father), and telling stories in the woods at night with friends. I grew up a little weird to many of my friends and never fully was able to embrace and share this with others while growing up. Cosmic horror is a genre that stems from the King in Yellow which was released by Robert Chambers in 1895. This in turn took influence from Poe and other horror written before it. We could spiral down a hole looking for the origins of horror but I think we would find it is based in our own prehistory and centrally based around how humans interact with the world… but enough about that. Cosmic horror is best know from the view point of H.P. Lovecraft (see note above.)

Enter Cthulhu Dark (DriveThru PDF, Indie Press Revolution Print) by Graham Walmsley. This game does a tremendous job of providing the feeling of existential dread and terror, all while providing a very basic and easy to understand set of rules. It has also become the basis of many other games (I think Reddit sucks but there is good stuff in there if you know where to look.)

I would like to take some time reflecting on the simplicity of the game while talking a bit about how the game solves many problems with investigation style games. first lets look at the game that is most well known for playing cosmic horror style games.

Is It Horror?

Call of Cthulhu (CoC), by Chaosium is a game that is well known across the world, in fact I think it is pretty high in the list of best selling RPGs worldwide. Nothing wrong with that I suppose, but lets briefly talk about the game. It is a d100 roll under system, there are 7 Character attributes, a full skill system, a sanity” system that is supposed to replicate a human’s sanity as they proceed through the adventures, and a large library of adventures that have been created in the last 40ish years. there are also many different offshoots and currently CoC has a plethora of games that are based on the system that can be played in different settings outside of the canonic 1920s of Lovecraft fame. It is a well known and popular game and there are countless actual plays of it out on the internet if you’re interested in seeing it played, as well as countless reviews and how to plays, seriously the internet is rife with this stuff I’m sure you can find it if you want too.

Now all of this is wonderful but I have a problem with the game.

Yes, it is a d100 game, I am fine with that.

Yes, it is roll under, long time readers will know that I enjoy roll under a lot (probably my favorite type of resolution mechanic in most OSR games, I know throw rocks if you must.)

Yes, the game uses problematic language like sanity”, I do take some issue with this and it could easily be solved by just replacing one word in the game and discussing why it is a problematic word to use. Mental health is no laughing matter and the game could easily adopt something that would not be mischaracterizing and belittling people who suffer from these conditions, which do not in the slightest way have to resemble that classic” depiction of insanity found in pop culture… the halfling steps off his soap box and fixes his shirt… come on Chaosium, we’re looking at you here, just take the step to fix it…

Where I really feel that issue with this game comes from is that a lot of the times the system gets in the way of the players enjoying and truly feeling the sense of dread and horror that is offered through play.

The age old question arises here. Does system matter? Sometimes, because systems can get in the way of the true intent of the medium.

This is where I may get some hate. I am okay with that, yes I understand that CoC is designed to…. yeah yeah yeah we get it, and I am fine if that is the game you want to play! What I am positing here is that feeling true horror and dread will not easily come from something like CoC where the system itself can be so invasive that it can easily take away from the joy of experiencing cosmic horror and dread.

art by Perplexing ruins

What Walmsley has done with Cthulhu Dark (CD) is create the barest minimum bones for telling a story with people, while still have a mechanic of sorts to lean on in times of need. He has created in CD a means to let the players and referee work together to create horror together through shared visions. He lets the players and through them the characters fears become front and center in the game.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter of CD that describes a brief overview of what the referee is to the game

Imagine yourself as an artist, who gives the players a half-finished canvas. You wash it with dark colours, with glowing patches of alien beauty. You give hints of lurking horrors. Then you let them complete the painting.

Most importantly, your job is to creep the players out. Aim, not for full-blown terror, but for a lingering uneasiness. And do this for real: try for a horror that makes everyone, you and them, genuinely uncomfortable.

It isn’t about evil monsters with waving tentacles. It isn’t about chanting cultists. It’s about the things that creep us out, that drive us mad, that make us lose control.

Cthulhu Dark, Page 24, Graham Walmsley

The goal is not to write a complete story and lead the players through, often with games that come from the indie game scene (FitD and PbtA) are misinterpreted as being completely narrative and the referee writing stories that players are lead through, and in some instances that may be true, though what is an RPG without some player agency? Anyways you are creating a story that the players interact with a basis for the horror to bloom from, you are not able to tell the story of your cosmic creature without the help of the players to describe how their characters are interacting with the world, how they are becoming changed by the horror they are facing. The terror is not in the creature itself, but how the characters and ultimately the players interact with the terror.

As an additional note, the original edition of CD finds Walmsley including a dice called with insanity die, and the players had a single stat called insanity, he changed this with the second edition citing that he saw the problem with the term insanity and changed it to insight. Insight represents the world of the horror being revealed to the characters and making them more aware of the truth beneath the surface of reality, this is a welcome change and helps to not minimalize the role of mental health in society.


Cthulhu Dark Cover, Art by George Cotronis

Lets get to the skeleton of the game. The rules are small enough to fit on a single sheet of paper, and in fact are freely available here (the free version of the rules unfortunately do still read insanity as I have not been able to find an updated free version with the change to insight. This character sheet does a wonderful job of collecting the rules

Cthulhu Dark uses a dice pool system utilizing one to three six-sided dice depending on the situation at hand.

One die is rolled for being a thing that is possible as a human.

One die is rolled for being something that your profession would be proficient in.

The third die is the Insight Die and can be added in different situations and can be used to reroll an undesirable result.

The highest die is read, A scale for completion of the task is from 1-4, meaning you get the bare minimum to complete the task on a one and a result of four gives you exactly what you were trying to do to complete the task. A result of five rewards something extra to the player, and a six reveals too much and they see into the horror somehow, this will often prompt an insight roll or if the highest die rolled is the insight die an insight roll is prompted.

A roll to do stuff should be called when the characters are investigating, or doing something that could have consequences related to them or might be related to the horror itself, or in some way interacting with things that might be connected to the mystery or problem at hand. It may take a little time to feel out when you want to ask for rolls. You do not want to have rolls all the time because that will slow down the game and the beauty of this system really relies on moving the game forward and not being caught up in rolling dice all of the time.

Insight rolls are how the player slowly succumbs to the horror. Your insight starts at one, as you are called to roll insight through the course of the game anytime you roll above your insight something is revealed to you and your character, it could be something prewritten by the referee or something that has come out of the fiction of the game, that is up to the referee to decide though with any narratively focused game they may ask for input from you the player as well.

When the character has reached 6 insight they have been lost to the horror of the game. Their character may be dead from a rending creature, or perhaps they have become so focused on the minutia of the bugs in the earth that they refuse to do anything outside of dig in the ground with their bare hands, this could be decided by the referee solely or with the help of the players, depending on the comfort of the group.

Where is the failure?

Another dig that narrative play gets from time to time is the lack of failure” and this game has been lumped into this category time and time again. Failure is not interesting, unless it is of course, in this game. Players and Referee should feel very comfortable when playing this type of game. Trust is key. There is also a certain amount of understanding that the goal of this game is not to win against the cosmic horror, but to let the horror engulf the characters and lead them to an ultimate demise.

There is a certain agreed upon amount of knowing that everyone around the table has a similar goal in mind, follow the story until the players are taken over, killed, or otherwise have the cosmic horror so revealed to them that it changes their whole existence going forward.

Failure is built into the game, everything moves you forward toward the ultimate failure of the game. Becoming consumed by the horror itself.

This is not a tale of the heroic adventurers overcoming the big bad in the end. the game is designed to take you through the dread of knowing that you will submit and become lost to the world. Failure is desired in the final outcome. This is where the game sails past other forms of cosmic horror (like CoC). CoC often has the possibility of being killed or lost to the thing, but it is not the goal, there is the possibility of defeating the thing, this automatically puts you in a state of opposition between players and referee. Failure is a way to push players away from winning in these other games. Cthulhu Dark embraces and gives the players and referee a common goal of failure.

Art by Perplexing Ruins

As a teacher I know that it is fun to put kids against one other in the classroom and watch them duke it out, but learning and ultimately a better experience is achieved when the students are all working together towards a greater goal. CD achieves this goal. A shared failure, an engagement in what happens to the characters by everyone playing, without a true antithesis of player and referee.

What is in the book?

The rules light system encompasses about 12 pages, with an additional 40ish pages that are intended to help a referee learn how to run and design an adventure. Then

there are three fleshed out settings with fully designed adventures ready to be played. The three adventures are set in different time periods showing the freedom you have to play in different settings throughout time.

There is a couple appendices to help guide you in hacking the game and learning of the games history.

there are even some pages that can be copied or printed as handout for players to use in the adventures outlined in the book.

The book totals around 200 pages and is worth its weight in gold. the adventure creation section if very informative in creating a world for you to play in with your players.

What is this not good for?

Cthulhu Dark is not a hand holding type of game. There are plenty of pieces of advice to help a referee run the game, but the fun really comes from the interactions at the table. Making the shared experience, players need to be willing to give to the game. Many tables suffer from players who want to only engage as reactionaries to a set of situations that are being presented,

While Cthulhu Dark expects that players will be engaged in a deeper way with the game being played and excited to have the potential to reveal the horror more, ultimately leading to the demise of your character. A player who wants to feel like their character is a hero may not find this as exciting, at first, at least until they realize the fun truly lies in describing how the horror has effected their character.

Anyone looking for a simulation style experience may not find this system to their liking, letting go of how much damage a fall does to a players hit points will feel bad at first, but realizing this is not the point of this style of game will help to alleviate that concern.

A full on campaign to defeat the bad thing is not in the cards here either, throwing lots of characters at a thing to defeat it is not the goal. In fact there is a rule that states that if you try to fight the horror you are consumed by it and your character is lost or dead.

Now these points are easy to mend. The beauty of such a simple system is that there is a lot of room to hack in things that groups may desire. Combat has been added to hacks before to make more long running games possible, recovery of insight points is possible as well. There is a rule that allows others playing to roll against someone if they feel that failure is more interesting. checking the list of hacks and inspired games mentioned earlier in this post will give some examples of each of these and then some for you to peruse.

Other Dark Games

As mentioned above there are a number of games that have been inspired or hacked from Cthulhu Dark, some are better than others but they each have a place at the table for different groups

I would like to highlight Trophy Dark and by extension Trophy Gold. These are explorations of the doomed character into something that is beautifully different, Simple by nature but also in a sense more involved in a lot of ways. Highest on my list to check out for anyone looking to extend the rules of Cthulhu dark to a more fantastical (though not necessarily) setting. Trophy Gold is the answer to wanting a longer campaign style game.

the other game I would like to specifically call out here is Cosmic Dark. A yet to be released version of Cthulhu Dark set in a science fiction setting. Now while there is no release yet for this game you can find Graham running the game out in the wild in a few places to get an idea of the game. it is very similar to Cthulhu Dark, but has some quality of life improvements like character creation through play, and a change to insight now being called changed. I am very excited for this and in case you are curious Graham is talking about it openly on his SubStack (liked at the beginning of this post) and here is a link to a series of three podcast episodes (Extraction Ep. 1, Extraction Ep. 2, and Extraction Ep. 3) that were released by Ain’t Slayed Nobody where Graham runs a group through a scenario, that is intriguing to say the least.

Graham recently revealing the cover of Cosmic Dark on a live stream with Symphony Entertainment, before playing a game of Cthulhu Dark. Link to the stream

As always please leave any comments below or feel free to engage with me on any of my social media platforms. I would love to know how your experience with this game ahs been or if you choose to try it after reading this please share your stories!

Derek Bizier, the Halfling Cultist” Master


I first learned about this game through a local con in 2020. The rules were printed on a Referee Trifold Screen and given (I don’t actually remember if it was free, I may have paid a few bucks for it) to people at the con (SnowCon). After reading the rules I got excited and have since purchased my own copy of the 2nd edition rulebook from Indie Press Revolution. Here is the referee screen and my copy of the 2nd Edition POD book.

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