I was very excited when I learned that Savage Worlds had a Cthulhu setting. In case you couldn't tell by the number of Lovecraft related posts on this blog, we LOVE Cthulhu games. So, what is Realms of Cthulhu all about and how does it play?
Guts and Intelligence. These two are the most important ways to handle the mind bending insanity that is the Mythos. The Sanity system follows the same mechanics as the physical damage system in Savage Worlds. First, you may pass a guts check, if so, you are just a little worse for wear, but no lasting damage. If you fail, you can take madness damage for every 4 mental anguish you take over your sanity statistic (in Savage Worlds terms: one madness per raise over your sanity). Just like physical damage, you are first shaken before you take more enduring sanity damage. Suffer 3 madness points and go insane, although not always as permanently as in Call of Cthulhu. Wild Cards (player characters) can immediately use a bennie to try and "rationalize" the mind bending effects and potentially stop the damage by using their intelligence.
As in Call of Cthulhu, knowledge of the Mythos reduces a Wild Card's maximum sanity. This setup makes sense as you sacrifice one statistic (Sanity) for the ability in another statistic (Mythos). Some very interesting ways to play in "pulpy" or "gritty" variants are included with the book, but require some careful reading to play right. In fact, I am still not sure I understand all of the differences between the variants and just play the way I want to as GM. From what I can tell, "pulpy" characters can take up to 3 levels of madness before going insane. Each level reduces checks by -1. "Gritty" characters need to make checks and if they gain any level of madness, they must roll on the insanity table and add a condition such as "amnesia." I can see the fun of both ways, depending on what type of game I was playing. One shots will get "gritty" levels of madness from me. I have more fun with more people playing random psychoses.
Cthulhu Conversion Tables
One of the great sections in Realms of Cthulhu is the conversion tables for converting your favorite monster, items etc from Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium to Savage Worlds. This one section of the book adds the entire Chaosium library to Savage worlds with a little work by the GM/Keeper.
Random Encounter and Monster Generator
I made this part of the book its own heading, but don't have much to say beyond pointing this benefit out. About 15 pages are set aside to help you design new adventures, stories and monsters. Pretty much every aspect of designing an adventure is included. In some ways, it feels like starting a Fiasco game by yourself. Simply playing around by rolling some dice has already started a number of gears moving in my head that I may never have moved on my own. Probably my favorite part of the book and usable (at least the plot generator) in many other games.
Realms provides a number of campaign starters/ideas and a well fleshed setting in Drake Manor. This setting is complete with location, NPCs, etc. The setting starts the characters out with a fairly normal murder investigation that, of course, has a number of nasty turns and ways for a Keeper to make things more interesting or take the plot in a different direction.
Beyond this information are a number of Savage World stated monsters, items and books. The book has enough information and tools to run a large number of scenarios and campaigns without resorting to any outside source books. This is especially important since the book is $39.99.
The character sheet for Realms is one of the best I have ever seen. Well organized and taking up a single sheet of paper would be enough without the very cool mental asylum patient file design. The sheet gives fair warning to those investigators foolish enough to not know what they are getting into.
Overall, I am a fan of this book. The price is somewhat high, but it is an all-color book with fairly good, large art (and somewhat mediocre smaller art). The rules and conversion tables were tested and worked for a long time. I am sometimes annoyed by the attempts at humor in the book, but that is a fairly minor detail and says more about me than it does about the book. These side comments are fairly rare and do not remove anything from the utility of the book. My copy is also bound slightly off center from the spine and still smells strongly of the printing.