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The Cthonic Codex

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on February 15, 2016

Tagged: OD&D AFG OSR

Paolo sent me a copy of The Cthonic Codex, which I had been meaning to buy a physical copy of for sometime. (I am a fan of pretty handmade books—who isn’t?) I had thought this set described a game in the vein of OD&D, but it is in fact a setting supplement for that iteration of D&D you like the best, describing the strange world of the Hypogea of the Valley of Fire. In The Cthonic Codex world building is done through the descriptions of monsters and spells rather than tedious histories and ethnographic studies. This approach to splat books is of course objectively better.

The first codex is a bestiary full of monsters one may encounter in the Hypogea. The monster descriptions hint at notable figures, events, places, etc, in addition to describing the monster in question. Stats for creatures are given for Paolo’s AFG game, in addition to generic D&D. Creatures are for the most part weird, chimeric, magical sorts of beasts. This booklet hints at things revealed in the subsequent two books. Starting with the bestiary seems backwards, but I think it helps make the initial read through of all the booklets fun.

The second codex is about magic. There is a lot of good stuff in this booklet: new rules for spell casting, making potions, new spells & associated schools of magic, etc. These rules are a nice addition to the game: they give the players reasons to wander the wilderness in search of adventure. (Carcosa’s rituals are similar in that they require players go to this or that hex, or find this or that component, but who wants to cast any of those spells?) There are brief histories about the schools and the world scattered throughout this book. You can picture the sorts of magic users that belong to each of the schools. Like Wonder & Wickedness, I found the spells in this book to be an improvement to those spells presented in traditional D&D. They feel magical rather than “gamey”. You could use this booklet by itself to replace the magic in your D&D game with something a bit more exciting, even if you ignored all the bits and pieces about the game world.

The final codex is my favourite. I suspect it would have the broadest appeal. It’s a hodgepodge of all sorts of stuff, primarily collections of random tables. One of the larger sections is the CHTHONOTRON, which are a collection of tables and rules for generating a large cavernous underworld. This underworld is where adventures in the Hypogea will take place. (I learned while reading this book that hypogea is in fact another way of saying underworld: the more you know!) This Codex is the one that presents the world of the Valley of Fire the clearest, though it is still mostly described via magic items and entries in random adventure tables and the like. The final book shines because it gives the referee and players obvious ways of generating adventure. There are random tables for encounters and events. There’s a table which is subtitled “Exceptional Events and Reasons to Roam.” These are the sorts of things I’d love to see in Carcosa. I think The Cthonic Codex does a better job of being terse, while remaining useful. Carcosa is a bit of a mixed bag in this regard.

There is lots left unsaid in these booklets. As the DM you can decide how you want to use the information within: what’s rumour and gossip, what will be a true fact in your game world. In this way it is similar to Carcosa and other such setting books, with its hands off approach to what is the “official” version of the setting. I like books short and to the point. There is a lot of flavour to The Cthonic Codex, all done without an excessive word count. Commendable.

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