COREthulhu Playtest – After Action Report

by | Jul 17, 2021 | GM Notes

Well, I ran my first playtest of COREthulhu last night. It was kind of a mixed bag, maybe to be expected and I have some thoughts, but, let me back up.

What is CORE you may ask? CORE is the Creative Options Roleplaying Engine and was created by game designer Tod Foley. Those who are regular listeners of the podcast know that CORE is the system that drives DayTrippers. CORE is a light and nimble system that doesn’t get in the way of telling good stories. It’s a narrativistic system with solid player facing elements like progressive character development and can be easily re-skinned to tell stories in any kind of setting.

A little while back Tod had the idea of stripping CORE out of DayTrippers and just making the rules set available as a stand alone product. That gave us CORE Micro, available on DriveThruRPG. On the heals of that was the idea of promoting it so that people could take it and hack it to make new skins and mechanics. Jesse and Kurt both ran with the idea, creating Monster Hunt and Welcome to the WWA respectively. Tod also created a new setting called Unnatural and is currently working on The Land of Ooo. My immediate thought at the time was to do a Cthulhu hack and even coined the name……COREthulhu.

Brilliant, right?

So while they were all busy at work on their various projects I did what I normally do, nothing. Well not nothing. Working, podcasting, editing, chores, you know life stuff but not creating (as if podcasting and gaming aren’t creative endeavors but I digress.) Many times the IDEA of a thing is greater than the DESIRE to do the thing. It’s stupid and doesn’t make a lot of sense but there it is. The idea of having COREthulhu is awesome but sitting down to do the work, well, that’s hard.

Mostly it’s getting started that’s tough, taking that first step as it were. What finally got me going was Jesse. Most nights after we finish a game Jesse and I will stay up into the wee hours of the morning to talk and hangout. It makes getting up for work the next day an excruciating experience but I wouldn’t trade it.

Anyway, we were chatting about all manner of stuff (as we do) when the conversation turned to CORE. I, of course, made excuses for why I hadn’t actually done any work on the game and Jesse sort of gently pushed and prodded until I said I would do something. I think I said something to the effect of, I’ll try and put something together this weekend, Monday at the latest, that way he would have at least an outline to look at. The weird thing was that I actually meant it. A switch got flipped and that was it.

I started by skimming through the CORE products that were out there. Then I copied and pasted most of what I wanted from what everyone else had already done. Seems kinda shitty but almost immediately I had a working project, sort of. There were no COREthulhu elements to it but I had header and sections and an outline to work with. Everything that I copied was just a place holder until I started to really put the work in, which as it turns out, didn’t take long.

Character Professions was the first section that I worked on in earnest and for that I used Monster Hunt as a template. After that it just started to roll. I moved from section to section expanding, deleting, rewriting and creating new from whole cloth. Once I started working on it it only took me a week or two, maybe, to “finish it”. Leading us up to last night and the first play test.

My intent with COREthulhu was to bring Lovecraftian game play into the realm of CORE. Horror gaming and Lovecraftian gaming in particular is popular in all of it’s various iterations, so why not CORE? In some ways CORE is like Savage Worlds in that it’s setting agnostic. You could use CORE to run a game in any setting with a little pre-planning. So the hack that I was working on aside from lightly applying a setting prompt and sample NPC’s and monsters was to create a sanity mechanic for CORE.

There are similar mechanics in the DayTrippers GM’s guide and Players handbook but this was to be “sanity” specific and that’s the tough part. Games using that kind of mechanic have been taken to task at various times for not being fair or accurate in their portrayal of mental instability or how they handle trauma. Using that as a starting point I tried creating something that felt, “better”. I was influenced in the design by the Alien RPG and it’s use of the Stress mechanic. The Stress Table in COREthulhu has a similar feel and provides that initial shock that the characters feel when discovering weird, strange or horrible things.

Coupled with that is the Trauma Track which represent symptoms of long term exposure to, well, Trauma. Specifically in the game setting to the Mythos and the horrible things that entails. The Trauma Track is intended as role playing prompts for characters as they continue to experience exposure to the Mythos. Currently there are two ways for a PC to gain Trauma. The first is to roll a 12 on the Shock Table. The PC will immediately take one Harm to their Psyche Stat and gain one Trauma. The other way is to fail a Psyche check by missing the DL (difficulty level) by more than two, resulting in a No And result.

So in essence the game is providing two separate mechanics to try and model the initial shock and the long term effects. As an example when the players run across a Deep One for the first time they would make a Psyche check against a DL of 4 (difficult) and if they fail they would roll on the Shock Table. Rolling a 12 would cause them to acquire a Mental Trauma and failing by more than 2 would also cause them to gain Trauma. The rolls are typically straight meaning that they are only rolling the number of dice listed as their Psyche Stat and not adding any skills. Psyche 3 means they have 3 dice to roll. As the DL gets higher the chance of the PC failing by more than two increases, also increasing their chances of gaining Trauma.

PCs can attempt to recover at the end of a scenario by making a DL 4 Psyche check. By design, the PCs will potentially gain more Trauma then they will be able to reduce, slowly pushing the characters to their breaking point. Now, all that being said, is the system fair and balanced? I hope so, it was my intention. I’m currently waiting on feedback from my therapist, as she agreed to give COREthulhu a sensitivity read. Once that comes back I can incorporate any changes she may have suggested. That being said COREthulhu is modular so if your group is uncomfortable using the Trauma Track, then by all means drop it. Having fun is the goal of any of this, otherwise why are we doing it.

Alright, now the playtest. I think it “failed” on a few different levels. I used a Call of Cthulhu demo scenario so it was very “check” heavy. Meaning that the scenario was designed for the PC’s to roll for a lot of different skills. That’s what CoC does and there’s nothing wrong with that but CORE’s strength is heavy Bleed. It want’s you to draw out heavy psychic content from the players and push on that to drive the narrative. I knew that going in so there’s no fault in that aspect per se.

Most times we don’t roll a lot of dice when we play, so coupled with the CoC scenario it felt weird for me. I thought it would be easy to just convert on the fly and it was to a certain extent but I hadn’t considered what the DLs should be beforehand. Like Pilot Boat will be Athletics or just Might but no thought to how hard the task should be. I wound up going with Challenging 3 or Difficult 4 for most of them. It felt kind of same same but I didn’t want to go too hard.

One of the simplest things that messed me up was tying on the roll. It’s such a subtle thing when we’re playing DayTrippers, Tod says beat a 4, meaning your success is contingent on you getting something higher than 4. If you tie the number, it results in a Yes But. So you succeed at whatever your doing but something “bad” happens. When we got to combat I just didn’t make that connection, there was a complete disconnect but that’s to be expected I guess.

As far the Trauma mechanic goes, I think it functioned as written. The Shock Table “works”, no surprise there. It’s almost more of a combat table in the sense that your Shock continues from Action Frame to Action Frame until you make the check. Outside of combat it was like well what does this mean now but we figured it was something that only lasted for a few moments. I think I missed a few No But results that would have lead to a PC taking Trauma but that’s due to my inattention and no fault of the system. It wouldn’t have mattered much in the scenario itself as the Trauma is a longer term character “trait”. Marking it down though would have been informative to see how much Trauma was accumulated.

The other thing that really threw me was the No But result in the failed Psyche check. The No and No And results are easy enough to interpret. On a No result make a roll the Shock Table, on a No And result, roll on the Shock Table and acquire a Trauma. No But, however, that’s a bit more tricky. You failed the check so you’re definitely rolling on the Shock Table but……. The And and But results don’t necessarily have to tied to the action at hand but usually that’s the default. Had I been quicker on my feet I’m sure I could have come up with something. You have to trust in the system and follow the narrative. Easier for me to write down than it is to remember while stressing during the game. That’s a me thing though.

This was also the first time I had run anything in CORE. We’ve played a ton of it in DayTrippers but it’s definitely got a different feel on the GM side of the table. I’m also not a natural GM, I really have to work at it. I get flustered and things start to get away from me. Some people, like Tod, are naturals at running games and mining psychic content. I feel that, on the other side as a player, and can get into that groove but it’s a big leap as a GM if you’re not used to it.

All and all it was probably fine, I am as always, probably being to hard on myself. We’re going to run again on the 29th so we’ll see how that game goes. Kevin has offered to run so I might take him up on that offer. It’ll be good to see how someone else handles the system.

While I’ve been working on this essay, I’ve been talking with Tod and we’ve already come up with a few changes that will get implemented in the next playtest. Some of it changes the way I was thinking about the system but I think it’s for the better. So it’s back to re-writes!

You can pick up CORE here: