I HAVE to admit I was surprised to see a Regency England setting for the Call of Cthulhu TTRPG; it’s such a strangely specific era and not one I associate with anything serious horror related.
Whereas traditional Call of Cthulhu takes place in the 1920s, Pulp Cthulhu is the 1930s and 1940s, Regency Cthulhu takes players back to the early 19th Century in the days of ladies in bonnets, tea parties in garden gazebos, duels, and elaborate balls in candlelit ballrooms with dancing and arcane social rules.
Historically the Regency era lasted from 1811 to 1820, but in a broader sense covers an era from roughly 1800 (the turn of the century) to 1837 (when Queen Victoria ascended the throne).
The obvious benchmark for the era – and the one the book itself uses – is the work of Jane Austen, but if you want to get creative (and you should, because that’s the point of role-playing games!) then the era encompasses the Napoleonic Wars, early convict era Australia, the building of the first steam railways, and plenty of other things.
Regency Cthulhu – written by Andrew Peregrine and Lynne Hardy and coming in at 224 pages – essentially has three elements: A general sourcebook/background setting for the era, the new Social Reputation rules, and lastly, a mystery adventure. It also seems pretty clear to me that there’s at least some inspiration from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies here too for obvious reasons
The Regency era backgrounder is well done and researched, as Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks invariably are – there’s everything from the typical makeup of a landed gentry’s estate to the costs of clothing and accessories and wages in the era, along with a general overview of the social mores of the day.
The first section also deals with the new (and optional) Social Reputation mechanic, which represents how the investigators are seen in the local community – someone who is known to avoid paying back their debtors, make advances on other people’s spouses, or get drunk and behave boorishly is not going to be held in nearly as high regard as someone who doesn’t have financial issues, has a stable family life, and doesn’t generally act like a Industrial Revolution-era version of Rick Sanchez.
How investigators are perceived means people may be more or less likely to give them information or help them, or a have various other effects as the Keeper sees fit.
One of the challenges the era brings is that it was historically not a great time to be a woman, LGBTQ+ person, or Not White, and pretty much the best way around that is to go for a The Great or Bridgerton– style approach where those prejudices don’t exist.
I could see the diametrically opposing camps permeating the book – on one hand, being a gentleperson of leisure and spending your days reading, painting, going to fancy balls and taking tea in gazebos with other gentlepeople of leisure is an appealing fantasy for a lot of people (and a big part of the appeal of the Jane Austen aesthetic), buuuut gentlepeople of leisure – particularly gentlewomen of leisure – historically had few opportunities to do things like “investigate eldritch horrors”.
The sourcebook does offer an alternative approach to this issue via includes some ideas for playing a “Downstairs” campaign where the investigators are members of the household staff trying to juggle keeping their posh employers’ estate running smoothly while investigating horrors from beyond.
Personally I think this aspect has quite a lot of potential and would have liked to see a bit more focus on it, although I understand the creative choice to go for the High Society lens instead. The sourcebook also contains some information for taking a more Sharpe-esque approach to things via the Pulp Cthulhu rules too, which is another appealing option for people who like their battles against the agents of horror to involve more musket-fire and swordplay than wordplay and social maneuvering.
Chapter 2 introduces the town of Tarryford, complete with Dramatis Personae in the form of local residents, story hooks, intrigue hints and plenty of other information to use the town as settings for investigations, mysteries, and campaigns.
Regency Cthulhu is rounded out by two adventures – the first entitled The Long Corridor and the second entitled The Emptiness Within.
A fancy ball is the main centrepiece/backdrop for The Long Corridor (because, let’s be fair here, it’s what most people think of when they’re thinking of the Regency Era in England), and tasks players with investigating a portal to a dark dimension which opens once a century and happens to have chosen that night to do it, while The Emptiness Within is a more traditional “Discover the horrifying secret and try not to go mad while you do it” scenario – in this case, involving a mysterious sleeping sickness with otherworldy origins and dire consequences for the town (and the rest of the world) if not dealt with.
Both adventures are well done and make full use of the material the sourcebook offers; The Long Corridor is intended to take one or two sessions with an option to stretch things out further, while The Emptiness Within is a longer affair, which follows on from the previous scenario. Indeed, the intro even notes “Players may make use of the same pre-generated investigators provided [in the sourcebook appendix] – as long as they survived, either physically or mentally.”
I really liked the subtle touches in a number of the key artworks in the book – they did a great job of portraying what seemed like a “normal” Regency setting (women in a reading room, a ball in progress, people in a library) until you looked again and saw horrifying details that were there – which is very much a recurring theme in Call of Cthulhu generally.
One thing to keep in mind, for Keepers of Arcane Lore looking to create their own adventures in the time period, is the era is nearly 200 years ago from our perspective, so it’s an ideal time to set a “foundation” campaign. Readers of the Cthulhu Mythos will be well aware a lot of it centres around legends from the 1600s-early 1800s, with protagonists in the 1920s onwards discovering those events and the horrors they entail.
Indeed, Regency Cthulhu explicitly acknowledges this with information to develop a “Part II” of the main events, set a century later (1913), exploring the repercussions of the events from the included campaign and also providing a very useful generic 1920s Small British Town setting for other Call of Cthulhu adventures in the process.
From my perspective, the social reputation etc elements of Regency Cthulhu aren’t a huge appeal for the sort of scenarios I’m interested in – but they are a worthwhile addition to Call of Cthulhu generally and given the creativity of the community (including the Miskatonic Repository creators), I have no doubt they’ll prove very useful indeed. They certainly open up a lot of role-playing opportunities for players and Keepers who want to take advantage of them, and I know there’s already player-made adventures for Regency Cthulhu being published on Miskatonic Repository too.
How worthwhile Regency Cthulhu will be for your table will depend on your interest in roleplaying the era – if you’d prefer to keep your adventures set after the invention of steamships and electricity, then you don’t need to rush out to add this to the RPG shelf.
On the other hand, if you want your cosmic horror with more fancy balls, tea parties, and people in crinolines and cravats, then being able to create your own “Pride And Prejudice And Eldritch Horrors” experience is going to be a very appealing and proper proposition – in which case you and your table are going to have a great time with Regency Cthulhu.