Old Gods of Appalachia (2023)

Being a review of Monte Cook Games’ adaptation of the Cypher System to backwoods, remote-country, lovecraftian-adjacent horror.

Old Gods of Appalachia (2023)
Ominous, yet strangely appealing...

I should preface this by saying I know literally nothing about the eponymous and apparently really quite remarkable podcast this RPG is based on. So I cannot possibly properly review how well they have adapted the world of that podcast to the realm of tabletop RPGs.

You might wonder, then, why I backed the kickstarter? A fair question. I have three reasons to offer you. Firstly, I do really quite like the Cypher System—it would be my go-to engine in which to run a wide variety of exploration-and-discovery focused stories. I recently ran a mini-arc Planescape game in Cypher, and it worked beautifully—doing, in my humble, a better job capturing that bizarre and wondrous world than any iteration of D&D itself.

This isn’t the place for a general review of Cypher System, but if you can imagine a plausible explanation in your gameworld for the existence of widely varying, mystifying, and magical one-off use charms, tokens, potions, and so on—the titular cyphers—then it’s probably a good fit. If your narrative world doesn’t have such a wild and wacky concept, then it’s probably not the best. Backwoods magic and "lovecraftianalia" in an alternate late-19th/early-20th century world? I can imagine all kinds of cyphers, the knowledge to make them getting passed down from grandmother to child, or as gifts from creepy half-goat forest denizens who meet their human cultists in glades under the light of the full moon.

Secondly, I am an avowed fan of the TANIS podcast—which has a lot of similar themes: backwoods horror, ancient primal entities that existed in this land well before humans arrived, X-Files-ish mysteries centering shadowy conspiracies. It’s by no means the same thing, but I squinted a little and thought it lined up well enough that Old Gods might inspire me to craft a TANIS variant for the table. It’s at least an alternative take—my prior going into reading Old Gods was that I would mix up a Carved from Brindlewood experience—probably something like Public Access.

Lastly, I am a Noir Cosmic Horror guy. Adjacent to this, my preferred fantasy these days is steampunk/industrial-revolution-adjacent, gritty magic crossed with smoking, burning tech. Old Gods seemed like an interesting pitch for remixing the two strains into something new. There’s all kinds of proto-steam-scifi Gothic Horrors, but few Cosmic Horrors.

Phew, what a preamble. The review itself is going to disappoint at this juncture!

Let’s talk about the book: it’s big, and it’s beautiful. Again I don’t really know but it sure seems like there are rich seams of podcast lore aplenty here. It’s a very well crafted and immersive experience. I found myself getting all kinds of ideas of the best kind for adventure seeds while perusing through the copious setting detail. The map of alternate Appalachia is gorgeous.

Let’s talk about the system: I was greatly intrigued at how MCG might bring horror elements into the Cypher System. In my head, I imagined all kinds of little tweaks to adapt Cypher 2.0 to the setting. On this front I was quite surprised! There is only one (1) new rule that I could find—a rule designed to have escalating “critical failure” ranges across a narrative beat as a way of simulating rising tension as the Old Ones awake to the threat posed by the PCs.

This is a great rule! It doesn’t decrease the chances of success, and doesn’t take any of the system’s tools for managing risk away… it just sits there and lets you know that if and when things do start going wrong, they are going to start going really wrong. Which is narratively quite satisfying.

And that’s that—everything else is pretty stock Cypher 2.0. Which, as an aside, I think they did a really solid job adapting to the flavor/wallpaper from the setting. All the cypher system "things" here are really well done. I greatly appreciate that the book has the entire rules engine in it, rather than requiring a separate purchase and making the GM do more of the flavor adaptation. This is sort of a case-by-case thing for me: I’ve liked GURPS-style “core plus setting modules” in the past, but for some reason right now I’m liking games that are self-contained more.

But! I was, I dunno, expecting a little more seasoning on top of a system I already knew I liked. Something that gives the campaign an arc, like Gumshoe’s Sanity/Stability, or Carved from Brindlewood’s “Masks/Crowns”, perhaps. Something that makes encounters with the Old Gods’ Servitors more than a traditional Cypher System event.

If I could pick a final nit here, it is in the aids-to-prospective-GMs front. There are two included adventure modules. I read them. I cannot for the life of me recall anything that happens in them. (Okay, that’s a teensy little fib: there’s a train crash in one of them.) They feel a little tacked-on. I’m of the mind that a game—especially one like this that oozes theme, lore, and tone on every page—should come prepared with some heavy-hitter sample adventures to give GMs a taste of where the system shines. I think this is doubly important for Horror-adjacent games. There should be more advice on structuring a tight campaign arc and some solid examples of how to make the game sing.

Perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by The Gauntlet and all the work they put in to give GMs a toybox full of fun stuff to bring their games to life.

So there you have it: Old Gods of Appalachia is a big and beautiful book, with a really intriguing setting and a solid systemic core. I expected a little more out of it, though. It’s good, but not excellent. It’s a fine addition to my collection!

It’s a solid B+.

p.s. I think for my eventual take on a TANIS-like TTRPG, I’m still leaning towards Public Access, but I will definitely be bringing in and remixing some of the setting material from Old Gods of Appalachia.

Striking imagery aplenty!