I remember reading about the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game way back in an old issue of Dragon magazine when they reviewed the first edition. I remember thinking, "Come on...who's going to play a game based on Lovecraft?" Well, nearly 25 years later, this game is still going strong and now on it its 6th edition. This game truly is unlike any other role-playing game, not only in style but in the players and GM's thought processes.
The book opens with a history of the Cthulhu Mythos including the stories and writers who crafted them. Characters are generated much the same with most role-playing games with die rolls for Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence Constitution, etc, along with probably the game's most important stat, Sanity. More on Sanity later...Next you choose your characters occupation which in turn starts the character off with certain skill based on that selection. You then have points to add to these skills as you see fit. The game doesn't have levels in the traditional sense. Advancement is in the form of increased skills which can improve a players skill in things such as investigation, weapons, medical, magic use, and many more.
Combat is fought in rounds with the player or NPC with the highest dexterity moving first and so on. But Call of Cthulhu is not a game about combat. In fact as pointed out early and often, charging in with weapons as the ready often leads to the certain death of the PCs. This will be the most difficult transition for gamers of D&D. In this game, you're not superheroes...you're every day Joes confronting things that can rend you limb from limb without breaking a sweat. And that may be the best thing that will happen to you! Far worse than death may be the loss of your sanity. Throughout the game players will encounter information and creatures that are simply too much for our their minds to deal with and they will need to make a sanity check to see if they lose sanity points and how much. Dropping to low in SAN can result in temporary or even permanent insanity as you are reduced to a gibbering fool ready for a padded room. The book contains a comprehensive section detailing various types of mental disorders and their affects upon players. Luckily there are ways of increasing your sanity points such as by defeating these entities or by raising skills above 90%.
The use of Mythos magic comes with a price and should be used sparingly. Using magic, reading and studying forbidden tomes of dark lore can all lower one's sanity points and yet magic is vital as it's often the only way to dispel the other-worldly creatures you will encounter. The book does a great job of listing these various books including such tomes as The Necronomicon, The Book of Eibon, and The King in Yellow, and how long it takes to study and comprehend them, and the loss of sanity you may suffer.
The rules offer characters the chance to play in three different eras of time: The 1890's the 1920's/30's and present day, but it's quite evident that the 20's/30's are the preferred era since this is when Lovecraft and many of his contemporaries like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, wrote their stories. This may be a bit limited in terms of technology but it really is the best fit to get into the true spirit of the game. Playing in the era makes characters think more than if they played in the modern era with internet access and computers. They'll find out while private eyes were referred to as "gumshoes"!
A detailed reference sections gives descriptions and statistics of the various elder Gods and Great Old Ones, such as Cthulhu himself, as well as the less servitor and independent races, including the Serpent People of Howard's Valusia and the Hounds of Tindalos, created by Frank Belknap Long. The rules also contain a history of the Necronomicon, Lovecraft's legendary tome of forbidden lore. And for those perhaps not familiar with Mr. Lovecraft, there is a short but comprehensive bio of Lovecraft.
Call of Cthulhu is almost an anti-roleplaying game as it deconstructs many of the conventions of role-playing. It isn't about hacking and slashing and trucking off the Dragon's gold and personal advancement. Truly players have to work as a team in this game to not only solve the situations they will face, but to survive. The game also requires much more work and thought by the GM, referred to as the Keeper. Again, you're just not drawing a dungeon on a piece of graph paper and populating it with monsters who have no reason for being there, and sending the players on their way. A good GM can make or break a role-playing adventure, and that goes doubly for this game. Thankfully the editors have also provided for scenarios within the book to get players going and to give the Keeper some influence on designing their own adventures.
In the first scenario called "The Haunting", the players are called to investigate strange goings-on in the Old Corbitt house. The next adventure, "Edge of Darkness" has the players called to the hospital bedside of a dying man who tells them he and some other students conjured up an evil spirit in an old farmhouse forty years ago. The entity is confined to the house until the last of the men is dead...and this old man is the last and near death's door. In "The Madman" the players investigate strange noises and lights in Jenning, Vermont where a reporter has disappeared. The last scenario, "Dead Men Stomp" is a 30's jazz era adventure about a cursed trumpet and what exactly the curse brings when the horn is blown.
In addition to these adventures, Chaosium offers a wide selection of additional sourcebooks and scenario books. I suspect many keepers will use these until they get several games sessions under their belt in order to feel confident in developing their own adventures. Call of Cthulhu isn't for everyone. It's squarely aimed at a more cerebral and mature gamer who has become bored with the standard dungeon trawling. If this sounds like you then you can do no better that this chilling and wholly refreshing role-playing game experience.
Reviewed by Tim Janson
on April 29, 2010
I recently purchased the sixth (and newest) edition of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu rules. From what I understand, the game has remained remarkably consistent over the past 25+ years, such that the differences between the first and the sixth editions are relatively minor. I've only ran one session of Cthulhu, but I had a really good time and I would like to run more. Here's a chapter-by-chapter review of the book for those of you thinking about giving it a try.
CHAPTER 1: H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu short story, reprinted in full.
I haven't actually read this particular one yet, as I'm getting ready to read S.T. Joshi's annotated collection of Lovecraft stories. Still, I think it's a great idea to include an original Lovecraft story to give fans a feel for the type of mood and pace they're likely to encounter. Lovecraft stories fall into the weird horror genre, which is a genre most people aren't familiar with and one that is quite different than what most people today think of as horror stories (Saw, slasher flicks, zombie apocalypse movies, etc.). You can definitely tell standard horror stories using Call of Cthulhu rules, but it may be a short and lethal session.
CHAPTER 2: INTRODUCTION
A nice overview of the game and how it differs from most other RPGs. I especially like the "Expectations & Play" section, which is divided into 1) Accumulate Information; 2) At the Scene (of the crime); 3) Make a plan; 4) Use your head; and 5) Avoid gunfights. In other words, Cthulhu is designed as a game of role-playing and investigation, where combat--especially combat involving firearms--is likely to be quite deadly. Unlike D&D or many other games, the system doesn't assume that the director ("Keeper") will throw weak opponents at the players early until they "level up" and can face stronger and stronger monsters. Characters never gain more hit points, do more damage, or otherwise become tangibly better at combat over the course of many sessions (except for *very* slowly getting more accurate at using their main weapon). This chapter also has a nice two-page spread defining terms and a good list of resources for the game.
CHAPTER 3: ABOUT INVESTIGATORS
This is the character creation chapter. All characters have eight randomly rolled characteristics. The normal method for character creation is to roll, in order and without switching the numbers around, 3d6 for the character's Strength, Constitution, Power (willpower), Dexterity, and Appearance; 2d6+6 for the character's Size and Intelligence; and 3d6+3 for the character's Education. Because this is a totally random process, players should either pick their character's occupation after rolling base ability scores or be willing to play a character with an occupation that is counter-intuitive to their ability scores (a scientist with a low Intelligence but a high Education may have earned several degrees through charm, family connections, and a good dose of cheating!).
There are also several characteristics derived from the randomly rolled ones. Starting Sanity is Power x 5, Damage Bonus (to melee combat) is determined on a table after adding Strength and Size together, Hit Points is the average of Constitution and Size, Occupation skill points is Education x 20, while Personal Interest skill points are Intelligence x 10. One of the characteristics that I found quite useful in the game is Luck (Power x 5): want to know which investigator a monster attacks? Roll Luck. Want to know which investigator is closet to the exit, steps on the creaky step, or looks the most like a cultist they want to impersonate? Roll Luck. Quite handy, and something I wish other games would adopt.
Each character is expected to pick an Occupation. The Occupations aren't the same thing as Classes in D&D--they're simply a list of six or eight Skills that the character is expected to be good at. Characters have to spend their Occupation skill points on Skills listed under their Occupation, but can then spend any Personal Interest skill points on any skill they desire (each skill starts with a small base chance even if no points are spent). In practice, this means that there isn't necessarily anything that, say, a Lawyer can do that a Drifter cannot--they're simply likely to be better at different Skills. [in my game, I use the 1920s Investigator's Handbook, which adds to the flavour of the occupations and gives each one a special bonus or ability that the other occupations lack].
Character creation is very easy and quick, taking maybe 30 minutes. Once random characteristics are rolled, derived characteristics are figured out, and skill points are spent, all the player has to do is purchase equipment. I've always found this part of the system a bit wonky, as characters start out with a lot of money. A modern day character, for example, starts out with a yearly income of anywhere from $ 15,000 to $ 500,000, plus assets equal to 5 times that amount. As most players and GMs don't want to go through the hassle of actually purchasing a house, furniture, clothing, a vehicle, etc., it would be better just to assume away these background things using Keeper discretion and then allot to the player a much smaller amount of "fun money" to spend on weapons, investigating gear, and travel to exotic places during the course of the game.
CHAPTER 4: RULES AND SKILLS
This is the core of the book for those interested in mechanics.
Movement is treated in the most abstract way. Humans have a Move of "8", but what unit of distance per time that "8" represents in any given context is up to the Keeper. Basically, it serves only as a unit of comparison to tell whether a tiger (allotted a Move of 10) is gaining on the Human or losing in the footrace. Obviously, with such an abstract system, Call of Cthulhu is not really designed for tactical miniatures combat (though I'm sure it would be possible to use them if you really wanted to). Unlike more modern systems, Cthulhu doesn't allocate a certain number of "actions" or distinguish between different types according to how many you can do in a round (like d20 does with "Standard", "Move", and "Free", for example). The rules tell you that you can attack once a round or dodge once a round, and that's about it unless dealing with special cases like rapid-shot guns or a variant dodge rule.
For Skills, you always roll a d100 and want to roll below your character's rating in that Skill. The only real type of "experience" point system is that, at the Keeper's discretion, if you use the Skill to accomplish something significant or learn something important, you can place a checkmark next to that skill. After the adventure, you can roll to see if that skill improves by 1d10 percentiles (it's not guaranteed, and the higher your percentage in a skill, the less likely it is to improve). The system has a nice array of knowledge skills (Accounting, Chemistry, Occult, etc.); investigation skills (Spot Hidden, Listen, etc.); social skills (Persuade, Fast Talk, Credit Rating); and combat skills. This last category is divided into several different types, each requiring a separate investment of points to improve: Fist/Punch, Kick, Grapple, Dodge, Rifle, Shotgun, Handgun, etc.
As written, there's no limit to the points a character can put into a skill: in theory, you could have a Librarian start out with 99% in Occult or a Soldier start out with 99% in Rifle. It would require quite an investment in the character's Occupation or Personal Interest points, but I think setting a starting cap (say, 75%) would be a better way to allow for a starting character to fail and slowly improve over time.
One of the aspects of this system that I really like and that sets the Chaosium version apart from other systems is the Cthulhu Mythos Skill. The only way for this Skill to improve is to suffer insanity from encountering the unspeakable horrors of the Mythos. Every point a character gains in Cthulhu Mythos is a permanent reduction in the character's Maximum Sanity, so as a character learns more and more about what he is up against, he is less and less capable of resisting it. It's a clever and quite evocative way of incorporating Lovecraft's themes in the mechanics of the RPG.
I also really like that the game makes it clear that it's perfectly acceptable to come up with new Skills and slot them in anytime there looks to be a void in the list provided. Some NPCs in the back of the book, for example, have points spent in "Hold Liquor", "Lack Mercy", and "Take Credit for Everything". Things like this add character to characters, and should be encouraged.
Another interesting thing is the game's use of a Resistance Table to handle opposed characteristic (ability score) checks. The Table works for both characters opposing each other as well as other things not covered by the Skill system, such as breaking down doors, resisting poison, successfully using magic, etc. It works by matching the characteristic score of the Active character against the characteristic score of the Passive character (or object) and expressing in a percentage how likely it is for the Active character to succeed. The reason I like this is because it gives real significance to a character's ability in a particular area, while still leaving room for randomness (in contrast, for example, the d20 system of opposed ability score checks emphasizes the randomness of the d20 roll because the likely difference between someone with an average ability score's +0 modifier and someone with a pretty good ability score's +3 modifier is less likely to make the difference).
I don't want to delve too deeply into combat because it's ordinarily not a major part of the game, but it has a couple of wrinkles which set it apart from other systems. When attacking, a character's chance of hitting is based purely on their skill with the weapon; this chance doesn't increase or decrease whether they're fighting a rat or Great Cthulhu himself. On the other hand, a character can forego all attacks in a round to Dodge, and if they succeed on this Dodge check they avoid damage from an attack, whether their attacker is a scrawny punk or an expert marksman. It's a very different way of handling things than most systems, and is probably more unrealistic in that it doesn't take comparisons into account. The basics of the damage system will be familiar to anyone who has ever played D&D, and there's a laundry list of "Spot Rules" for things like fighting in darkness, drowning, critical hits, etc. On the whole, I'd say that combat isn't as articulated and clear as it is in some systems--there's a little more ambiguity and Keeper discretion required.
CHAPTER 5: SANITY AND INSANITY
Sanity is one of the most important concepts in Call of Cthulhu, as characters are just as likely to go insane from seeing unspeakable horrors as they are to actually be killed by them. Each character has a set number of starting Sanity points, and when faced with a terrifying or grotesque encounter the character has to roll a d100 lower than their current Sanity points. Failure (and sometimes even success!) means the character loses a certain number of Sanity points. If the character loses 5 or more from a single encounter, he has to roll against an Idea (Intelligence x 5) check--in this case, failure on the roll is a good thing, as it represents the fact that the character was able to rationalize away what he saw without grappling with its full horror; whereas, success is bad because it means the character understands the true depth of what he's seen and thus will be driven temporarily insane. [I actually forgot this last part during my one-shot--mea culpa!] The other way to go temporarily insane is to lose 20% of current Sanity points in one game hour.
The game provides a small random table to roll on for the particular type of insanity the character suffers, but the book strongly suggests (and I agree) that it's better for the Keeper to choose a form of insanity that fits the character and the circumstances he or she is encountering. If a character is driven temporarily insane by encountering a gigantic winged apparition, it makes more sense to give him or her a phobia of birds than to give him compulsive hand washing.
The chapter has quite a thorough discussion of various mental health disorders and their treatments, nicely divided between "classic era" (1920s and 1930s) and modern-day.
As a character's Sanity points dwindle, he or she becomes more and more unreliable in the field and should eventually be retired in favor of another investigator. There are a few ways to increase Sanity points: small awards by the Keeper after the end of a successful adventure; psychotherapy (very slow, taking months of game time); and by increasing a skill to 90% or above (not sure the rationale for this one--why is the "discipline and self-esteem" gained by becoming a really good Fast Talker going to increase my Sanity?).
CHAPTER 6: MAGIC
Access to magic is very much handled by Keeper discretion. No characters start out with spells or with the right to learn spells through experience, and it's quite possible the Keeper may decide not to make magic available to PCs at all. But if the Keeper does, magic has to be learned through reading Mythos Tomes--books that contain vital secrets of the universe but that are also likely to drive men mad (and increase the Cthulhu Mythos Skill). There's some really nice description of various books to make these more than D&D-style "Spell Scrolls." The one odd thing I found is that the books, as listed, take several weeks or even a year of steady reading in order to gain the knowledge contained within them--this simply doesn't fit many gaming styles, where characters are moving at a relatively quick pace in order to deal with urgent matters.
Spellcasting itself is almost guaranteed to drain Sanity points, and success usually depends on the number of Magic Points (equal to POW) that a character has. Here again, there's a nice degree of description and ritual involved, so that casting a spell is an involved, important thing that fits within the atmosphere of the game--no energy blasts at the drop of a dime.
CHAPTER 7: THE CTHULHU MYTHOS
This short chapter provides an overview and timeline to the various deities and beings talked about in Lovecraft's work. I found it hard to make much sense of, but Keepers who have delved deeply into the Mythos may find it a helpful summary. Although I like that this single book has everything needed to play the game, information of this sort would be better if only the Keeper had access to it.
CHAPTER 8: THE NECRONOMICON
The Necronomicon is H.P. Lovecraft's most famous invention, next to Cthulhu itself. The legendary tome is the most potent source of information about the Mythos, but also the most likely to drive its readers stark raving mad. I like that the text gives descriptions of a few different versions of the book, again helping enrich the game's atmosphere.
CHAPTER 9: HOWARD PHILLIPS LOVECRAFT
A short bio of Lovecraft; none of this is necessary to play the game, but it's a respectful way to acknowledge the author of the game's source material.
CHAPTER 10: DE RERUM SUPERNATURA ("THE NATURE OF THINGS SUPERNATURAL")
An odd chapter, which is basically a summary of how various Mythos-related beings and tomes are translated in other languages: Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and more. This one's only going to be appreciated by Keepers really into authentic treatment of linguistic history.
CHAPTER 11: MENTAL DISORDERS
This is a non-mechanics oriented discussion of a variety of mental disorders. Some of this repeats information found in the chapter on Sanity & Insanity, and I have no idea why the two chapters weren't combined.
CHAPTER 12: KEEPER'S LORE
This is an invaluable chapter, with plenty of advice to Keepers new and old. There's a list of Maxims, with points like "Charts for random encounters, wandering monsters, and similar things are the bane of Call of Cthulhu" and "Since guns kill in Call of Cthulhu, resist tendencies to turn the game into gunfights." A nice sidebar talks about how to build a scenario for the game, and how to link the scenarios together into a campaign. Advice is provided on using law enforcement, asylums, and building atmosphere. There's a two-page spread of alternate rules (Hypnosis as a Skill, a variant Dodge option, speeding up research into tomes and spells, etc.). The only part of this chapter I didn't find useful (though I'm sure others will) is on tournament play.
CHAPTER 13: CREATURES OF THE MYTHOS
This chapter is almost thirty pages of monster descriptions and statistics, and there's quite a range of things drawn from the Mythos like Mi-Go and Byakhee. I quite liked the quotations derived from Lovecraft's or other author's writings about the monsters involved. I think a Keeper would have to be quite subtle and thoughtful in how these Mythos monsters are introduced, so that they retain their aura of weirdness and mystery and don't come across like something from the D&D Monster Manual.
CHAPTER 14: ALIEN TECHNOLOGY
This chapter is just a few pages long, and is a good example of where I'm not sure if the "weird" fits well with the "horror". Here you have things like brain-transferral, earthquake machines, time-travel, lightning guns, etc. This incorporates a science-fiction element into a game that is (primarily) occult and supernatural-oriented, and the mixture may not work for all groups without seeming silly.
CHAPTER 15: DEITIES OF THE MYTHOS
There's a lot of these, everything from Cthulhu itself to more obscure, lesser deities from the works of writers other than Lovecraft. Many of these deities are just so cosmically (comically?)powerful it seems almost absurd to have statistics for them (Nyarlathotep, for example, does 10d6+10d6 damage with a claw attack; one of the investigators in my game has--and always will have--a maximum of 7 hit points). The description of the deities' various cults is probably more helpful in actual game play.
CHAPTER 16: BEASTS & MONSTERS
This chapter covers normal animals (rats, bats, bears) and non-Mythos monsters, such as vampires, zombies, wraiths, etc. This latter category could be useful to Keepers who want to play a supernatural game that doesn't have strong ties to the weird-horror elements of the Mythos. As an aside, I really like some of the little touches the designers put into the game: Black Rhinos, for example, have a 70% Skill in "Be Annoyed."
CHAPTER 17: PERSONALITIES
This short section has full statistics and brief bios of some major characters from Lovecraft's stories, such as the famous Dr. Armitage of Miskatonic University, Herbert West of Re-Animator, and Wizard Whately from The Dunwich Horror. Milage here may vary, depending on whether or not the Keeper plans to have his investigators relive or follow up on events from Lovecraft's writing.
CHAPTER 18: A MYTHOS GRIMOIRE
Spells. A whole lot of them. Many are about summoning, binding, and dismissing various Mythos creatures and deities, but there are some really interesting ones that bring to mind adventure hooks just reading about them. The names of many of the spells are rather boring, and the Keeper is encouraged to add flavour to them. The descriptions are nice, however, as they work in non-uniform ways and many require unique rituals to cast. This is great because the last thing a Keeper wants is for occult practices to become standardized and uniform.
CHAPTER 19: THE HAUNTING (Spoilers: Don't read unless you're the Keeper)
The first of four scenarios presented in the book. This one is quite a classic for the game, having been included in every edition since the beginning, and reading the forums one sees it's the first exposure many players have had to Call of Cthulhu. Basically, the investigators are asked by a landlord to investigate a haunted house that has driven out all of its previous tenants. In a secret room of the house, they encounter an undead wizard. I wasn't very impressed with this scenario the first time I read it, as there's not a lot of interesting things to discover in the house and the climax seems too "on the nose"--destroying a lich (the only way to succeed in the scenario) just doesn't have the ring of original, grotesque strangeness I associate with the Mythos. Rereading it, I see better now how the investigation aspects of the scenario would be a nice introduction for new players--though most of the information they can discover is not particularly helpful in dealing what's inside the house.
CHAPTER 20: THE EDGE OF DARKNESS (Spoilers: Don't read unless you're the Keeper)
This looks like a *great* scenario, with a climax that is sure to be memorable and thrilling. The investigators are called to the bedside of a dying man, who tells them that he and some friends were once responsible for summoning a dark entity into an old cabin in the woods. The entity is still there, and now that the old man is dying, someone has to step in to banish the entity. This entity ("The Lurker in the Attic") is presented in quite chilling fashion, and can't be destroyed through mere gun- or swordplay (and burning down the house just sets it free!). The investigators, if they are to have any hope to succeed, have to cooperate on chanting a complex and difficult spell, while all the while the Lurker tries to disrupt the ceremony through attacks both physical (zombies) and emotional (illusions of the investigator's relatives in dire need). Very well done, with a great hook and a great story.
CHAPTER 21: THE MADMAN (Spoilers: Don't read unless you're the Keeper)
This is an interesting adventure, one that breaks from the "haunted house" mode of the previous two. It's also the one that most directly involves the Cthulhu Mythos, as the major adversaries in the game are Mi-Go who are trying to summon a deity named Ithaqua. Most of the action takes place in and around a forested mountain area, and I imagine the Keeper could have a lot of fun with the atmosphere the story calls for (forest fires, strange sounds, mists, etc.).
CHAPTER 22: DEAD MAN STOMP (Spoilers: Don't read unless you're the Keeper)
This is an urban adventure that heavily involves jazz-age (and mob) culture and social conditions in the 1920s. Black-White relations are a major subtext to the story, which at heart involves a jazz trumpet that has the unfortunate ability to resurrect the dead as zombies. It's a very interesting, original story and something I'd like to run because it takes advantage of real-world history. There are a few places that are quite railroady (assassins who "always get away"), however, and I'm not positive investigators have sufficient motivation to follow it all the way through.
CHAPTER 23: UTILITIES
This is a collection of a lot of various things to help out a novice Keeper. There's a map and key to Arkham; equipment lists for the 1890s, 1920s, and modern era; a list of historical and fictional events by year; eight quick-play investigators; and several monster- and character sheets.
The book is in black and white, with (in my opinion) some great, moody artwork--both full page drawings and several small pieces to help break up the text. It weighs in at 320 pages and (unlike a surprising number of RPGs) has an index.
Call of Cthulhu is a very interesting system. The rules are a bit esoteric and eccentric in places, but this actually works for a game that's all about weirdness. Characters are very vulnerable (physically and mentally), but this is a real necessity if the horror is to come through in gameplay. The main drawback I can imagine is that some players may not feel the joy of achievement gained in other campaigns where characters can be "levelled up" and grow significantly more powerful over time.