The Alexandrian

Review: Cthulhu City

January 17th, 2018

Cthulhu City - Gareth Ryder-HanrahanGreat Arkham.

The year is 1937 and the little towns of Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport have been swallowed up by the cosmopolis of Great Arkham. This sprawling city of cyclopean skyscrapers, dimension-twisting alleys, and Dagon-touched mobsters has no place in history as we know it; it may not even have a place on Earth at all.

Great Arkham is a place where the Stars Are Coming Right. (Or perhaps they already have.) The skein of reality is stretched taut across the Mythos here, and horrors intrude into the daily lives of the citizens. Most have learned how to shut out, suppress, or deny what surrounds them. Some exploit their secret knowledge, embracing damnation and slow obliteration for the temporary blaze of glory. Others, like the PCs, fight back (or seek to escape).

Unfortunately, those are the ones most likely to find that the frontiers of the city are shut to them: Geography warps. Trains break down. Or the enigmatical and terrifying Transport Police (supposedly fighting a never-ending battle against a strange plague of “typhoid” which is never cured) will enforce a quarantine and turn would-be émigrés (escapees?) back… or detain them in facilities where inexplicable and alien lights gleam from barred and shuttered windows.

If that doesn’t immediately sound kind of amazing — a sort of Dark City mixed with glasshouse panopticon mixed with an obscene glut of Mythosian truth that would be almost pulp-ish if it wasn’t so overwhelmingly nihilistic — well… I guess Cthulhu City isn’t for you.

If it does sound amazing, then I’m happy to report that in many, many ways Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan has delivered brilliantly on the concept. He has stitched together a vast array of Mythos elements — something which, in my experience, often goes awry — into a cohesive whole, and in the places where things don’t necessarily quite work out he adroitly turns the weak joint into a point of strength by tying the inconsistency into the bleak, existential horror of the whole thing.

And despite the Kafka-esque oppression inherent to the entire concept, Ryder-Hanrahan nevertheless weaves into the tapestry enough hooks of hope that those not interested in embracing hopelessness, despair, and inevitable destruction can fight back against the darkness.

The result is a rich, intriguing, and potentially very rewarding setting that will allow you to frame unique scenarios that would otherwise be impossible to create. And that, in my opinion, is very high praise indeed.


Unfortunately, I now need to damp that enthusiasm a little bit with a number of reservations.

The first thing I’ll note is that Cthulhu City is sort of an Advanced Trail of Cthulhu in terms of its setting. It assumes that the GM will be possessed of a fairly vast knowledge of the Mythos both broad and deep, and so frequently contents itself with merely making evocative allusions to various elements of the Mythos with the expectation that you will recognize the reference and fill in the details. (Perhaps the most surprising allusion, for me, was to Roger Zelazny’s A Night in Lonesome October, which is a truly delightful book that I make a point of pulling out for a rereading each Halloween season.)

Which is probably fine. Because Cthulhu City really shouldn’t be anyone’s first foray into the Mythos. So whether you build up that stock of Mythos knowledge by voraciously consuming everything Lovecraft (and the other likely suspects like Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth) wrote or by running a campaign or three of Mythos-tinged horrors, Cthulhu City will be waiting for you.

The second thing I’ll note is Ryder-Hanrahan’s technique of describing the setting through “multiple truths”. The book, for example, doesn’t resolve the question of whether Greater Arkham is an intrusion into our reality; a dimensional pocket; a poor recreation of 20th century life by an alien civilization or some future epoch; the true history of our world scooped out of the timeline by intrepid heroes in order to make reality a better place; or something else entirely.

Ryder-Hanrahan drills down and uses this approach at every level of the setting. Every NPC, for example, is described in three different versions — Victim (generally meaning a problem for the PCs to solve); Sinister (someone actively aligned with the Mythos); and Stalwart (a resource or patron for the PCs to benefit from). Every location is given a Masked (the Mythos may be there, but isn’t overt) and Unmasked (the site is a source of immediate danger) version. (Often multiple versions of each are given. There’s at least one NPC who is presented in six different versions.)

Ultimately, this “three versions of the truth, pick one” thing doesn’t work for me. I see what Ryder-Hanrahan is doing. I even praised the similar approach used by Kenneth Hite in the core Trail of Cthulhu rulebook to present the Mythos entities as a catalog of mysterious possibilities instead of an encyclopedia of cemented facts. The problem is that when you apply the same technique to specific setting material, the setting material stops being specific and the tack-on problems become significant.

To start with, I’d rather have two or three times as many cool things, instead of having a handful of things which could be cool in three or four or five different ways. But the bigger problem is how this lack of specificity turns everything into mush. For example, consider Aileen Whitney: “Whitney’s father is a wealthy businessman. A member of the city council visited the family home in Old Arkham one night to discuss a proposal with her father, and Whitney overheard the terrible thing they plotted together.” Which city councilor? It can’t say, because the book doesn’t know which councilors will be cultists. What terrible thing? It never explains, because any explanation would force some other quantum uncertainty in the book to resolve itself.

As a result, the book is filled to the brim with these half-formed ideas. It makes for a very mysterious and enigmatic reading experience as you pour through the tome from one cover to the other. But the problem, for me at least, is that these half-formed ideas just… aren’t very useful.

If you said to someone, “Hey, I need an idea for a scenario this week?” and they responded by saying, “You could have an NPC tell the PCs that they heard somebody plotting something horrible!” would you consider that particularly useful? I wouldn’t. Useful would be the actual thing they heard; the meaningful meat that would serve as the scenario concept.

What we’re left with instead are hooks to vapor.


The other major problem with Cthulhu City is its poor organization.

The bulk of the book is made up of the “City Guide”, which is broken into sub-sections each describing one of the city’s ten districts. Virtually everything in the book — NPCs, locations, etc. — is grouped into these districts, but the district you’re currently in isn’t indicated by the page header, so as you’re flipping through the book it’s impossible to orient yourself. Worse yet, the districts are presented in a completely random order.

The book contains no general index (a major failing), but does include a couple of appendixes, one of which lists which NPCs and locations can be found in each location. This helps a bit, but there’s not really any logic to where the NPCs are listed (particularly generic NPCs): Sometimes they’re listed where they live; sometimes where they work; sometimes it seems as if they were just placed in a district that was otherwise a little light on generic NPCs.

Information is also just kind of randomly scattered around, without any cross-referencing. For example, on p. 126 the NPC description of Mayor Ward notes that, “A portrait of Ward hangs next to one of Curwen in the foyer of City Hall (p. 119); the resemblance is uncanny.” The page reference to City Hall is useful, obviously, but the problem is that neither the foyer nor the painting is mentioned in the description of City Hall. (It’s possible that the “foyer” here is a reference to the “Main Rotunda” in the City Hall description, but if so that’s just another example of the book’s inconsistencies.) So if the PCs go to City Hall and you look up its description, you’ll never include the Ward and Curwen portraits.

The book is peppered with this sort of thing. Reading through it, I was constantly noting really cool details that I was confident would never make it into actually play unless I took the effort to work my way through the entire book and carefully annotate it.

Which, collectively, is the primary problem with Cthulhu City: Between the “choose your own setting” vagueries, the tack-on problem of frequently needing to do the bulk of the work to complete the vaguery, and the need to reorganize a large portion of the book so that it doesn’t go to waste, you end up saddling the GM with a workload roughly equivalent to writing the book in the first place.


It’s also a shame that the illustrations in the book are so uniformly poor in quality: Boring compositions, atrocious anatomy, stiff poses, and crude in their overall execution. Another problem is that so many of the pieces appear to be (badly) attempting an “evocative” effect, which in practice means that they’re virtually always directly contradicting the description of the city given in the text. (Even the cover, which is gorgeous and, like so many of Jerome Huguenin’s paintings for Pelgrane, perfectly sets a mood, suffers from this problem by depicting a vision of the city which does not reflect that presented by the book.)

Cthulhu City is such a unique and unusual vision of the Mythos. It would have benefited greatly from a well-executed visual component.

The book also features an 18 page scenario. It’s a very good scenario, but one that is curiously unconnected with Cthulhu City. A few place names are dropped, of course, but these are all of a generic character and you could easily drop this scenario into literally any location without any effort at all. This is most likely an additional consequence of the “choose your own city” design of the book (a scenario would necessarily need to deal with specifics, and therefore it cannot interface with any of the characters, organizations, or locations described in the book without locking them into one form or another), but it’s another missed opportunity to provide the GM with clear direction.

(But, to reiterate, it’s a very good scenario: Clever, horrific, and almost certain to be incredibly memorable. If nothing else from Cthulhu City ever reaches my table, this scenario certainly will.)

Also: Maps without keys. Drives me nuts.


I’ve spent a large number of words discussing what holds this book back from greatness. But I don’t want that to necessarily detract from the fact that the book is very good. When I say that it’s brimming with ideas, features a fantastic scenario, and positively sizzles with a uniqueness which is all the more remarkable because it is enhanced by the well-worn elements which somehow add up to a whole so much larger than the sum of its parts… all of that is true.

And all of it is a very good argument for why you should immediately buy a copy and start devouring its contents as quickly as possible.


I am, personally, held back from giving Cthulhu City my full-throated endorsement because, at the end of the day, I recognize that the book’s flaws add up to a sufficiently bulky workload that I will almost certainly never actually use any of it.

Which, ultimately, is enough for me to drop the Substance score by a full point and, with a heavy heart, slide the book onto my shelf to collect dust.

Style: 3
Substance: 3

Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Print Cost: $34.95
PDF Cost: $20.95
Page Count: 222
ISBN: 978-1-908983-76-3


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7 Responses to “Review: Cthulhu City”

  1. Lurker says:

    I felt moved to speak up in praise of a “choose your own city” approach, because more than one game with a metaplot I’ve been interested in has been ruined by that same metaplot.
    I wanted to play Delta Green almost from the minute I heard of it, but in the ensuing internet discussions of it I saw I learned too many tidbits about important organisations, people and places. By the time I had gotten the relevant books, I was too well-informed to play and had to run it instead. The same things happened to me, essentially spoilers for campaigns I was in, with White Wolf gamelines and with Shadowrun. One of my players was “helpfully” briefed by someone online when I was running Shadowforce Archer for them, back in the day. I have tried to avoid the most spoilery of discussions but the various features of campaigns like Masks of Nyarlathotep and The Red Hand of Doom are known to me, despite never playing or running either.
    The feature you’ve described about Cthulu City makes me more inclined to buy it rather than less. That’s because I think with a little work (maybe a fill-in-the-blank worksheet for the GM?) the book can provide useful material for a table whether they play next week or in ten years.
    Also, though mercifully not an issue with MY players, the GM can relax about players reading ahead intentionally. Maybe they shouldn’t play with cheaters, but you know how it is…

  2. Kelvin Green says:

    I love what Pelgrane does but the company needs to work on the organisation and layout of its books. Night’s Black Agents is a simple enough game, marred by poor explanation, and I almost gave up on Eternal Lies because of the poor organisation and egregious overwriting.

    The content is often great, but Pelgrane makes it difficult to access that content sometimes.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    @Lurker: I think there’s a lot of strength to be had in offering multiple versions of the city’s macro-truth (where/when is it, what is its purpose, etc.).

    But when every single element of the setting — every person, building, etc. — is presented this way, as I note in the review, you ultimately end up crippling the book. The ideas never become specific enough to be used and nothing can interact with anything else, which further cripples the utility of every single element.

  4. Wyvern says:

    The multiple-choice character allegiances was also used in the Dracula Dossier (which was co-written by GRH). As I understand it, the purpose is to allow replayability and preserve suspense; even if the players have previously played the campaign or even read the book, they won’t know who’s behind what. Are you familiar with the Dracula Dossier, and if so how do you feel about the use of the technique in that context?

  5. Johnny says:

    Very fair review. I picked up the book, about a month ago, sight unseen along with Cthulhu Apocalypse. With the intention of tearing down my campaign world and rebuild it Mythos and thought these would be foundational. Actual utility has been less than I had hoped- bait and obscure.

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    @Wyvern: I have not actually run the Dracula Dossier yet, but my impression of it there is very different. There are several keys reasons for this:

    First, Night’s Black Agents includes a rich toolbox of very specific game structures that are designed to have content “poured” into them. (This includes, notably, the Conspyramid, but also stuff like the entire HUMINT mechanic.)

    Second, the Dracula Dossier campaign has an ADDITIONAL layer of structure built into it. Most notably, of course, DRACULA UNREDACTED.

    Third, because they’re built on top of these underlying layers of structure, the “many truths” versions of things nevertheless get very specific in their content.

    For example, flipping to a random page I find the Hospital of St. Joseph and St. Mary in Budapest. It has a couple different tones (Warm/Cool), but its content is very specific: “Sister Agatha, the nurse who tended Jonathan Harker (HO161), kept a journal in which she dutifully transcribed all of Harker’s savings during his ‘brain fever’; that journal is safely locked away in the hospital’s archives, but contains information about Castle Dracula (p. 207), Exeter (p. 167), and anything Harker knew about Hawkins (p. 39) and his involvement, if any.”

    Maybe this won’t actually hold up in practice, but it seems as if everything in the Dracula Dossier is very flexible in how it can be plugged into the structures that define both the game and the campaign; but despite that flexibility, everything is given a plethora of very specific detail.

    Cthulhu City probably would have benefited from having a similar underlying structure. (Which it kind of flirts with in a couple of places, but never nails down with specificity.)

  7. Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan says:

    A wild author appears!

    Thanks for the fair and thorough review.

    I’ll argue with one point, if I may: the usefulness of a writeup like Aileen Whitney’s. While you’re quite correct in pointing out that it’s not especially useful if you’re starting with a blank slate, I find that sort of prompt works well when you’re in the middle of an ongoing campaign.

    So, if last week the player characters tangled with ghouls under the graveyard, and are now convinced they’re haunted by the ghost of Keziah Mason, then the question “what did Aileen Whitney overhear from the city councillor” becomes a more useful one, as it becomes “what did she overhear that connects to the ghouls, or the graveyard, or Keziah Mason”.

    As written, the setting’s inchoate and mushy. As the players move through it and lock down possibilities, it should crystallise around them based on their actions. At least, that’s the high concept I was aiming for. :)

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