Top 10 rpg list: Number 2 – Call of Cthulhu
I first learned of Call of Cthulhu from reading the gaming magazine White Dwarf, this was in the day when all sorts of games that weren’t developed by Games Workshop were given column inches.
I was intrigued by this game set in the 1920s that emphasised investigation over combat and knowledge was the ultimate weapon; the problem being the more your character knew the quicker you were to losing them to insanity.
The premise of the game is that it is set in the writings of one H.P Lovecraft; a pulp horror writer who wrote about dark things in the universe and that man was an inconsequential being, a mere ant in the scheme of things.
As luck would have it I bought this game for under £5 as Games Workshop had lost the licence to print it in the UK and were clearing out there unsold stock of the game. I got it, read it, re-read it and was a little puzzled to what the players were meant to do.
I gathered it was a horror game but this edition was the 3rd edition of the game and assumed you knew about Lovecraft’s creations and the Chtulhu Mythos. As of writing this article, the current edition of CoC is the 6th and comes with the short story The Call of Cthulhu so at least you are given some exposure to the mythos.
Undeterred I talked to some friends at the games club I used to attend and they recommended to me the three volume compilation of his stories and if you want to know more I heartily recommended them to you. Although I’d suggest you start with the second volume as these contain short stories and they’re easier to digest.
I learned many things reading these stories; most notably that Lovecraft was verbose and used a wide and varied dialogue in his books. I also found at that most of the stories have a single protagonist rather than a group of two or more people as in the standard gaming group. There was also some sort of unspeakable horror which would eventually cause the doom of the protagonist. In this context I hesitate to use the work hero as victim seems a little more appropriate; most of the victims go insane or are consumed by something or other.
It took a while but I digested all three volumes and one other collection of works I found at a book fair and still had no idea of what to do. So I bought some of the supplementary books I could find and managed to get a handle on what you’re meant to do.
In most fantasy games your adventuring party is in the pub and gets a plot hook to the adventure. While CoC does have pubs the default setting for my edition was the roaring 20s during prohibition so pubs are few and far between.
Most CoC adventures start with one or more player characters getting a communication of some sort from an old friend, workmate, professor, librarian or family member. You have known this person for a number of years, etc and are therefore trustworthy. After meeting them you discover their situation and agree to help them.
I’ve always found a start like that to be a little on the weak side and the players may feel like they have been railroaded into the task at hand. Some of the other scenarios have the PCs gainfully employed by an NPC, trying to get them to accept such a job can be almost as sanity eating as the mythos beasties you may encounter.
To try and correct this situation the last time I started a CoC campaign I used the World War One scenario No Man’s Land and had the characters members of the same unit. So when I came to run the adventure the players knew the person in question as they had served with him.
Unlike many games, your character is likely to succumb to the aforementioned sanity eating things that man was not meant to know. Call of Cthulhu provides you with two tracks; one for hit points and the other for your sanity, which erodes faster than hit points and is harder to recover. It is imperative that if you want to succeed a CoC adventure you must learn to fold your hand and run for the hills if it all goes *poof* in a strange ritual that contacts something from beyond.
Despite all these things I still enjoy playing the game; a strong emphasis on investigation and copious uses of the Library Use skill are always in order.
As I mentioned before the game has remained relatively unchanged between editions, some of the changes are for the best while removing the Linguistics skill I feel was short sighted. The smaller the group, the less resources you have to fight the mythos and while having individual languages may be realistic it means you have to spread a thin number of points over different languages.
Creating a new investigator for CoC is relatively easy and having access to the double page spread in the later rulebooks helps smooth things out. Having access to a character creation program is even better and can speed up the process considerably; plus some of them can produce spiffy looking character sheets.
The system boils down to rolling a handful of dice for the character, calculating secondary attributes, picking a profession, selecting skills, spending extra points on non-career skills, rolling for money and buying some possessions.
This is another area where the system works, skills are rated in percentages and trying to achieve something is as simple as getting under the listed percentage. Whether you are shooting a gun, casting a spell or trying to run away it uses the same core mechanic.
The other area where I think the game has problems is the tomes of the mythos; these ancient books contain vast amounts of forbidden knowledge and power at the cost of more sanity. The trouble is that these books takes weeks or months to study before you can comprehend the information; this is somewhat in keeping with the stories but doesn’t help if the adventure you are playing in requires a spell or ritual to complete it. The game designers came up with rules for skimming a book which for me was a kludge that didn’t sit right with me; three hours to learn the spell or ritual to defeat the unspeakable horror from beyond seemed a cop-out.
As I said before the default era is the 1920s and Chaosium have released other supplements detailing other eras; Cthulhu by Gaslight which is the 1890s and the modern era. The 6th edition rulebook details them at the cost of pages that used to contain background for the 1920s.
I shall look at the other eras for this game later on this month.