RPG Review: Call of Cthulhu

So I have been running a Victorian era investigative game focused on the supernatural and featuring magic that corrupts and destroys its users. I had been doing so by taking an existing system not made for such tasks and crafting a homebrew out of it.  Things appeared to be going somewhat smoothly but I could see the fault lines in advance and decided to seek out a solution.

This led me to “Call of Cthulhu” an investigative game where magic and the supernatural will corrupt and destroy you. Presently I’m really digging it. Also, I’m not really sure why I’m reviewing this. Call of Cthulhu (henceforth CoC) has been around and popular for thirty years, longer than most of the people I know.

CoC is often cited as the go-to game for horror role-playing and features a sanity system that is something of a standard in similarly themed game systems. It is, of course, inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft and strives to emulate his tales closely. This includes main characters dying off or going completely insane. The game makes this work.

Character creation is a simple affair and, with a little understanding, new characters can be rolled up very quickly. To begin you roll up your initial physical stats, then your mental stats, and finally an education stat. These are used to derive three values and your starting hit points, magic, and sanity.  The player then picks a profession which will list eight skills that he gets to allocate points to. After that the player gets a second point total to spend on ‘personal interest’ skills. There are a couple more minor options, such as pay grade and personal details, but for the bulk of creation that’s it.

There is even a program available to make the process even easier and quicker. Even better, it’s free and has been checked and rechecked over the years.

Once into the game it becomes primarily about investigation. CoC features such skills as accounting, library use, and astrology and each of these could come in handy at anytime. The player’s primary goal is to uncover ancient plots and put a stop to them, hopefully without dying or going crazy. The game, and in fact the rulebook, makes a very strong point about the limits of combat. It is fast and deadly, and not something you want to encounter very often. The maximum hit points a character can receive at start is 18, the highest I have rolled is 13; a modest pistol does 1D6 damage, twice that if a critical is rolled. Imagine now going up against a group of crazy cultists, armed with shotguns and hiding in a barn. Combat is purposefully made to be unappealing. Add to this a person wielding a gun usually gets the chance to shoot not only first but multiple times in a combat round.

All that aside, this game features a really nice listing of weapons. This is a system that could have gotten away with a listing such as ‘small revolver, big revolver, pistol, shotgun, rifle…’ but instead it lists enough diversity to pepper the world and flesh it out, even if most of the people will be carrying a .32 cal revolver. Even better each weapon is given a malfunction percentage, a range of percentiles near the top where the gun will fail to work if rolled. I really love the weapon listing and am wondering how well CoC would handle a modern day crime thriller.

This is why the sanity system is truly a beautiful thing. Rather than an option to make the horror work, I feel the sanity acts as a horror themed life bar. Your time in CoC should be spent researching, investigating, and going into dark places armed with naught but a torch and possibly an old notebook. The situations you encounter and you preparedness for them are what affect sanity. On a kinder level, of sorts, this means your hero never has to really ‘die’ they just go crazy and get to spend their life in a safe place. This is why I think other games fail on the sanity mechanism: they view it as a necessary gimmick, but it’s really a replacement for a feature not needed.

Characters will go insane during the game however. Part of advancing in CoC is the discovery of ancient tomes and the reading thereof. The horrors in their volumes always dictates a sanity check, so while the hero gets stronger he balances it by walking close to insanity. The other method of advancement is pretty cool as well. If, during a game, the player succeeds at a skill in a sufficient way  (breaking down a door while being chased is good, fast talking your way into a bakery to get a free donut is not) the Keeper (CoC for DM) will ask him to mark the skill. At the end of an adventure the player gets to roll on any skill he has checked, if he fails (i.e. rolls higher than his skill level) that skill goes up. So the players learn by doing, and learn easier at lower levels.

Simple, but effective. This is a line I feel captures the game as a whole. And it should, with three decades of writing and research behind this thing it is nearly as honed as it can be. I own version 5.5, beyond that is 5.6 and 6. From my understanding I am missing little and at this point they simply correct typos, recheck rules, and continue to cram more and more stuff into the book. This ‘stuff’ is pretty awesome in its own right.

The rule book contains the entire short story “Call of Cthulhu” and a nicely sized bestiary. There is also a  huge write up on insanity and a sizable spell selection. Even better as the line has progressed there have been certain supplements that have been included into the rulebook. Two such supplements are “Cthulhu by gaslight” and “Cthulhu NOW” both of which give information on how to play a game in either 1890 or 1990, as opposed to the traditional 1920. I really enjoy that they resisted the urge to update the supplements and instead put them in the core rule book.

“Call of Cthulhu” is one of the legendary games, a long standing king in this hobby of ours. I wish I had not taken so long to obtain a copy but now that I have I find it to be a robust system easily ran and picked up. The fact that the rules are streamlined and simple and that two-thirds of the book is dedicated towards helping you capture the mood is a great value for the cash. And with thirty years of publishing the amount of supplements, both fan and pro is plentiful. A fantastic game and well worth the price.



One thought on “RPG Review: Call of Cthulhu

  1. Conceptually, I always have trouble imagining an investigation-based game. For D20 stuffs (d20 modern, arcana evolved, etc) I always look at classes with non-combat focuses with bewilderment, but mostly it’s just how to start with an outcome and work backwards to create the scenes players should run through.

    That said, Call of Cthulhu has quite a pedigree and I’m happy to see it standing up to your standards. Most of the stories I hear are either about how heinously people died in the game, or how much someone managed to shirk the setting and ignore the horror and succeed anyway.

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