Tuesday, May 28, 2013

[Review] Eldritch Skies


The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I hear this tap at the window. Turns out it’s my old pal Marty the Mi-Go. He was lookin’ pretty good for a space crab bug fungus thing. I hadn’t seen’im in this level of the space-time continuum lately, so I was eager to hear what he had to say.

“Bzzzzz... I am here to prezzzzzent you with a review copy of Eldritch Skiezzzzz... A roleplaying game of Lovecraftian zzzzzzzience fiction...” he says.

“Lovecraftian sci-fi?” I says. “Interesting... So how do ya fit a space helmet on a Shoggoth?”

“Foolish ape-thingzzzzz...” he says. “Eldritch Skiezzzz takezzzz Lovecraft’zzzzz vizzzzion and carriezzzz it into the future... Explore a Lovecraftian galaxzzzzy.... Trade with Mi-Go... Battle Moon-beastzzzz... Meddle with forbidden technology and zzzzzorcery... Zzzztop vile cultzzzz on worldzzzz beyond your pitiful human imaginationzzzz.... Now READ, before I am forzzzzed to place your feeble mind in brain canizzzzter!”

And with that, he tosses the book onto my desk with one horrific claw and flies out the window.

Marty can be kind of a jerk sometimes.

But I appreciated him givin’ me the buzz.


This chapter introduces the reader to roleplaying games, Unisystem, and cinematic science fiction, but its primary function is to explain the concept of Lovecraftian SF (as opposed to Lovecraftian horror). In short, the universe is a place full of wonders and terrors, but it is not a place in which humanity is doomed in the immediate future. In fact, humanity is no more or less special (or especially doomed) than any other intelligent species. Knowledge is to be valued, not feared, and science rules all -- even if some science is so outlandish as to be called “magic”.

Chapter 1: The Eldritch Past & The Mythos Present
Until recently, I’ve never been a fan of Mythos gaming set after the 1930s, mainly because the real-world’s modern day just doesn’t seem like a natural extension of the events of Lovecraft’s stories. There’s just too much that’s been discovered and that’s waiting to be discovered for history to proceed as it has.

Well, Eldritch Skies completely addresses this issue. Not only does it offer an admirable prehistoric Lovecraftian sci-fi timeline, but it also sends history spiraling off in an alternate direction as of Lovecraft’s version of the 1930s. The U.S. government is aware of the Deep Ones and the Elder Ones (a.k.a. the Old Ones/Elder Things) by the beginning of the 1930s as per Lovecraft’s own tales. By 1947, the government knows of the Mi-Go (thanks to an alternate Roswell Incident), and by 1948, the public is aware of the ancient cities of the Elder Ones and the Yithians. Earthlings visit Mars secretly in 1958 by hyperspatial gateway and the moon publically in 1966 via advanced rocketry. The public knows of psychic powers by 1967, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years later, the public learns pretty much all of the alien-related secrets that the governments of the world had held up to that point. Hyperspace technology makes humanity an interstellar species as of 1994, and gameplay begins in the year 2030.

All of which merely scratches the surface of the contents of this chapter, which also details the state of society, nations, threats, and technology as of 2030. I’d describe the latter as vaguely resembling the tech level of the Alien movies, albeit with psychic powers, hyperspatial sorcery, and genetic modifications in play.

Of particular interest is the UN Office of Paranormal Security (OPS), which provides an easy hook for PCs who need a reason to work together.

Chapter 2: Civilians and Operatives
The vast majority of character creation mirrors that of the other games in the Cinematic Unisystem line, which I’ve already covered in my Buffy the Vampire Slayer review. However, there are some noteworthy differences that I’ll address here.

Characters come in three power levels: Civilian, Operative, and Veteran. These correspond to the White Hat/Hero/Experienced Hero division found in Buffy. The big difference here is that while White Hat and Hero types work well together in other Cinematic Unisystem Games, Civilians and Veterans only work smoothly together in the Pulp level. More on that in a moment.

Another aspect setting Eldritch Skies apart is the treatment of superhuman abilities. Characters may be Deep One hybrids or half-breed Ghouls, may be psychics or know hyperspatial sorcery, and may have biotech augmentations.

Both psychic powers and hyperspatial sorcery are fairly low-key. The former are mostly of the information-gathering sort -- those seeking powerful abilities with physical manifestations, such as pyrokinesis and telekinesis, will be disappointed. And the latter, whether through “old-school” rituals or technosorcerous devices, takes time -- no fireballs or lightning bolts here.

Augmentations fall into three categories of legality: legal, restricted, and hyperspatial. Legal augmentations are pretty much just nice to have, like a biofilter or low-light vision. Restricted augmentations creep a bit further into the realm of low-grade superpowers, like armor, enhanced attributes, regeneration, and wall crawling. Hyperspatial augmentations stem from trade with the Mi-Go and are both seriously illegal and extremely hazardous -- if you aren’t a criminal or some form of spec-ops, forget about it. The four such augmentations currently available to the OPS are an extendable field of damaging hyperspatial energy, a hyperspatial force field, a ranged field of temporarily-solidified hyperspatial energy (there’s your TK!), and a flight augmentation using what amounts to Mi-Go wings. (I particularly like that last one.)

The chapter wraps up with six pregenerated characters:
  • Independent Sorcerer

  • OPS Strike Team Commando

  • OPS Psychic Spy

  • Half-Breed Ghoul Cop

  • Civilian Psychic

  • Astronaut

Chapter 3: Rules & Gear

The core rules are fundamentally identical to those in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I refer you there for that information. However, there is one big difference: Eldritch Skies offers Gritty, Cinematic, and Pulp levels. Gritty removes Drama Points from play altogether. Cinematic, the default setting, includes Drama Points but makes them somewhat weaker than those in the standard Cinematic Unisystem game. And Pulp is just good ‘ol Cinematic Unisystem. These levels also have setting implications, which I will cover shortly.
What I would like to focus on here is equipment, because it provides a good window into the nature of humanity’s status in the setting. In all honesty, when it comes to weaponry, there’s not a whole lot separating Eldritch Skies from modern-day Cinematic Unisystem games -- the stats for such things as assault rifles are identical. The end result is a sort of Aliens feel, with the obvious changes to weaponry being largely cosmetic. Likewise, you won’t find any powered armors here. The top of the line seems to be bog-standard body armor with a limited chameleon-like ability to mimic the color of the background.

There are, however, three exceptions in the weaponry department, all of them energy weapons based on alien technology. The “zapper” is a sort of wireless taser, a pale echo of the Great Race’s lightning gun. The electric cannon is a sort of heavy-duty zapper that can be carried about like the Ghostbusters proton pack.

And then there’s the hyperspatial distruptor, which is in a class by itself. Any living target caught in its beam is instantly killed, and any hyperspatial entities less powerful than a Great Old One are instantly destroyed. Furthermore, the blast instantly banishes a Great Old One. Now, granted, the banishment only lasts 1d6+3 hours, and the weapon’s range is only that of a pistol... but still, a human weapon that can make Great Cthulhu just go away with a single shot? Wow. That seems a bit excessive to me.

Chapter 4: Arcane Secrets
Hyperspace & Hyperspatial Exposure

Call of Cthulhu is notorious for its Sanity death-spiral. Eldritch Skies aims for a more hopeful and adventuresome tone but seeks to maintain an air of horrific menace. The game accomplishes this very well via the concept of hyperspace.

Hyperspace is the other-dimensional home of the Other Gods and the Great Old Ones, the power source for magic and certain advanced devices, and, as the name suggests, a means of faster-than-light travel. Rather than Sanity, Eldritch Skies measures levels of Hyperspatial Exposure, which affects both the mind and (eventually) the body. The stages are rated from 0 to 5, with 0 being a total lack of exposure and 5 being complete mental and physical mutation.

Two arguable improvements over Sanity come to mind.

First, exposure automatically fades over time. There’s no real equivalent to the ever-decreasing “maximum Sanity” from Call of Cthulhu. Granted, Level 1 exposure doesn’t go away, but that’s almost a good thing, as a total lack of exposure leaves you blind to hyperspatial radiations. (Level 1 is a given for any spacefaring PCs, since traveling via hyperspace is an automatic source of exposure.)

And second, characters do not gain increased exposure levels from repeated exposures to the same or lower levels of hyperspatial radiation; i.e., if you have Level 2 exposure, another source of Level 2 exposure will have no effect on you. This prevents the equivalent of a Call of Cthulhu character who’s previously seen Great Cthulhu himself from going bonkers at the sight of a Deep One.

Hyperspacial Sorcery

From a mechanical standpoint, the basic rules for hyperspatial sorcery mirror those for magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: i.e., getting a spell to go off isn’t all that difficult. It’s getting a spell to go off correctly that gets tricky, especially for more powerful spells. However, unlike Buffy magic, hyperspatial sorcery requires the Sorcery Quality to use spells at all and requires spells to be learned and purchased individually rather than simply “discovered” in an occult library.

In addition, hyperspatial sorcery is slow. There are several options for casting, including physical rituals (10 minutes/spell level), meditative sorcery (5 minutes/spell evel), and scientific sorcery without computers (30 minutes/spell level) or with them (2 minutes/spell level). Even using a technosorcerous device requires that the device be calibrated to the immediate circumstances, taking 15 seconds (3 rounds)/spell level.

Again, there are no fireballs and lightning bolts here. Instead, the relatively small grimoire of spells focuses on such things as travel, remote viewing, and protection (yes, the Elder Sign makes an appearance). Of course, what would a Mythos grimoire be without a few nods to summoning Things Man Was Not Meant to Know?

Chapter 5: Realms of the Mythos

Wow... I hardly know how to convey just how awesome this chapter is.
The Worlds

It starts out by covering the Solar System -- a largely desolate place, although human colonies do exist. Native life is making a slow comeback on Mars as a side-effect of terraforming, and a reclusive and potently psychic race lurks beneath the icy surface of Europa.

From there, the chapter takes us into deep space -- first to reveal the likely fates of interstellar civilizations, and then to show us the planets.

The lovely, lovely planets.

Eridanos, where the only atmosphere is to be found in deep, lush valleys in an otherwise barren landscape.

Post-apocalyptic Wei-Ming, where massive armored six-limbed mammals wander among the ruins of a civilization that long ago destroyed itself.

Hathor, with its amphibious flying sharks.

Eden, with its island-sized raft-jellies that support their own ecosystems.

Firefly, with its eternally benighted phosphorescent forests comprised of warring intelligent super-organisms that are entire ecosystems in their own right.

Pacifica, with world-spanning ice-bottomed oceans filled with amoeboid and crystalline psychic life forms.

And mind-bogglingly huge Colossus, an artificial shell constructed around a gas giant featuring 542 continents, 21 distinct ecosystems, and four different biologies.

And those are just some of the major worlds. There are minor worlds as well, with dinosaur jungles, floating islands, planet-wide tunnel complexes, and even a world that never rotates sporting a sorcerous Renaissance-era culture living on a narrow strip of eternal equatorial twilight.

The Dream Realms

Eldritch Skies includes Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, presenting them as a purely psychic phenomenon. I get why this was done, since the possibility of physical travel to a fantasy world doesn’t really fit with a sci-fi setting. It’s still a shame, though, since here the game outright contradicts (rather than simply reinterprets) Lovecraft’s stories. Also, the lack of a Sanity mechanic leaves travel to the Dream Realms basically risk-free. Even if a character “dies” in the Dream Realms, he simply jerks awake and can’t return to the Dream Realms for a month. The result almost seems like a kind of virtual reality game-within-a-game.

That aside, the chapter does a great job of not only covering the Dreamlands, but expanding upon them. In addition to the fantasy regions of Lovecraft’s tales, here called the Pastoral World and the Underworld, Eldritch Skies adds the Future World -- a science fiction realm of arcologies, cyborgs, aliens, mutant-haunted radioactive wastelands, a space elevator, and a city that spans an entire continent. In addition, while the skies above the Pastoral World retain their flying sailing ships, the Space Sector above the Future World is all about space suits, rocket ships, and laser guns.

Now, I should point out that both the planets and the Dream Realms are heavy on concepts, light on content. The book offers just 1-2 creatures per planet, three Dream Realm creatures (ghasts, Ulthar cats, and zoogs), and three mundane Earthly animals (dogs, falcons, and horses). If you want to allow your players to run wild through any of these regions, you have your work cut out for you. However, I’m given to understand that the Distant Vistas supplement will address this concern. In the meantime, this chapter is a stellar (literally and figuratively) idea mine.

Chapter 6: Eldritch Threats & Alien Wonders

I love a good bestiary, and Eldritch Skies really comes through. Stopping just short of statting up Great Old Ones and Elder Gods, the chapter covers:
  • Human Threats
  • Hyperspatial Mutants
  • Deep Ones
  • Ghouls
  • Shoggoths
  • Europans
  • Great Race of Yith
  • Mi-Go
  • Moonbeasts
  • Man of Leng
  • Serpent People
  • Yaddithi
  • Color Out of Space
  • Dhole
  • Flying Polyp
  • Servitor of the Outer Gods
  • Cthulhloid
  • Hastur
  • Nyarlathotep
  • Other Gods

In addition to the creatures themselves, the chapter offers some NPC-only psychic and physical powers and examples of alien technology. If the previous chapter was an idea gold mine, this one is a “hard facts” platinum mine.

Chapter 7: Storytelling Advice

“GM advice” chapters are pretty hit-and-miss in my experience, but this one does a great job. The focus is squarely on the Gritty/Cinematic/Pulp levels of play mentioned earlier, giving examples of what life in general is like for a PC in each, then delving into the particulars of how things work differently for OPS agents and civilians at each level. For example, dealing with OPS bureaucracy at the Gritty level could be a nightmare of paperwork and corruption, while on the Pulp end of the scale, bureaucrats may be nothing more than a running gag.

After a brief discussion of possible rewards for adventuring, the chapter deals with the considerable possibilities for adventure in the Eldritch Skies universe, be it on Earth, in the Dream Realms, on a single planet, throughout the galaxy, or even through time. The text handles the specifics particularly well. I really liked the implications of handling a cult on an isolated colony, where the entire colony may well be in on the occult shenanigans and where help for the OPS may not be exactly close at hand.

Finally, while the book lacks an introductory adventure, it does feature four cool story seeds -- two on Earth, two in space.


I have to be a bit tough on Eldritch Skies here. There’s no appendix, and the table of contents consists of nebulous images and uninformative titles in the form of chapter numbers. Frankly, I’m not sure that I could use a print copy of this book. As it is, I’ve been able to get by with the searchable PDF, albeit not very well.

Art other than the page borders is fairly sparse, but that really doesn’t bother me. I’d prefer a gaming book to err on the side of more content any day. In any case, the art that’s there manages to be quite evocative of space exploration in a Lovecraftian universe.

The layout is nicely readable throughout, organizational issues notwithstanding. No typos stood out to me.


This is one ambitious book. I wish it could have backed up more of its concepts with rules and stats, but honestly, I don’t see how that could have been possible. As it is, what you have here is a marvelous sci-fi incarnation of Lovecraft’s creations that stays mostly true to HPL’s vision while boldly exploring wild new frontiers. If you don’t mind fleshing out the parts of the universe that most intrigue you, you’ve got everything you need to slug it out with the Mythos in worlds HPL never imagined.

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