RPG Review: Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"

"In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming."

One of my more enduring campaigns of late has been a Call of Cthulhu game. In a nutshell, Call of Cthulhu is a roleplaying game based on the works of the American horror author H.P. Lovecraft. Along with Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft can be considered the founders of American horror literature. It is difficult to imagine a Stephen King without an H.P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft described the premise behind his works rather well in a letter that accompanied his submission of his short story "Call of Cthulhu":




Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form-and the local human passions and conditions and standards-are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unspairing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown-the shadow-haunted Outside-we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.
As one can tell, Lovecraft told tales of humanity facing an uncaring cosmos. There are vast forces in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft. It would not do to call them evil, suffice to say that they are to humanity as we are to gnats.

In the Call of Cthulhu RPG our heroes take on the role of investigators dealing with these unknowable horrors. The game itself is something of a living fossil, for though it is in its 6th edition it has not changed very much since its inception - the latest version of the game is certainly thicker than the original 1st edition boxed set, but this is a result of new material being added. You could take a 1st edition Call of Cthulhu adventure and run it with 6th edition characters and rules without any need for conversion. 

The Call of Cthulhu game tends to assume that the investigators will be set in one of three eras - the "classic" era (the 1920s and early 30s, during which Lovecraft was active), modern times, and the "gaslight" era of the 1890s. Major expansions have been released to support the middle ages (Cthulhu Dark Ages) and Imperial Rome (Cthulhu Invictus). 

As is my tendency, I will give an opinion-laden overview of what one gets with the game followed by some closing thoughts.

Overview

The 6th edition version I have is a thick paperback book. It is pretty durable, having survived being tossed into numerous bags an being passed around the table.

The PDF version is less impressive. While certainly serviceable, it is very bare-bones. There is no outline or table of contents, making for a difficult task of navigation.

"The Call of Cthulhu" Short Story

The book opens with a reproduction of Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" short story, dealing with the operations of the Cthulhu cult and those who have faced it. This has been in all versions of the game since the 5.5. version of 1998. I think its inclusion is a good idea, it answers very well the common RPG question "what do I do". 

Game System

The next section of the book deals with the main rules of Call of Cthulhu including items such as character generation, skills, combat.

In a nutshell, Call of Cthulhu uses a version of what is called the Basic Roleplaying System, frequently abbreviated as BRP. BRP first appeared as part of the first version of RuneQuest, originally published by Chaosium. It has since been published by Avalon Hill and Mongoose Publishing and a new version is forthcoming by The Design Mechanism. Variants of BRP found their way into games like Elfquest, Ringworld, Stormbringer, Pendragon, and lots of other games.

Most versions of BRP use a set of attributes which typically range from 3-18. In Call of Cthulhu they are Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Power, Dexterity, Appearance, and Education. Size and Intelligence are generated with 2d6+6, Education with 3d6+3, and all others with 3d6. There are several derived stats including:
  • Sanity - starts as Power x 5 but can go down as a character faces various horrors. It is something of a joke in the Call of Cthulhu community that even if you survive long-term your character will probably go insane.
  • Hit Points - an average of Size and Constitution. They never increase as you "level up". Most characters are a well-placed gunshot away from death at all times. This does intend to encourage caution.

Your character starts with a default value in a variety of skills. Skills are ranked from 0 to 99 and represents your chance to succeed at a task using those skills. There isn't much given in the way of contested actions and various difficulty levels, though the newest incarnation of the BRP rules (not required to play Call of Cthulhu) has some guidelines and most Cthulhu GMs (or "Keepers" as they are called) develop their own rules. The default values vary somewhat depending on the era of play being used.

After generating attributes one then selects an occupation. You get 10 x Intelligence to improve any skill and 20 x Education to improve a subset of skills dependent on your occupation. Clearly based on this not all characters are created equally. That said, min-maxing is a fairly pointless exercise in my experience of running Cthulhu games. More important than a well-skilled character is an intelligent player, or even better, group of players. The foes in Cthulhu are such that a character with 99% in handgun is still one bite doing 10d10 damage away from death. Unlike D&D there is no concept of "levels". Most of the game is built around your skills. You improve your skills primarily by using them. During an adventure you check off skills that you successfully used - with the Keeper's approval - they have to be important uses of the skill not. After the adventure ends you make a skill test for each skill but instead of wanting to succeed you want to fail. If you fail your skill goes up. In other words, as you improve in a skill it becomes harder to improve it.

There are rules for combat and skill use - they are pretty general. Cthulhu assumes a game that has a Keeper who is comfortable making rulings during play. I don't want to give the impression that its totally free-form, but it is far less detailed than games like D&D 3.x and 4e games. One weakness in the game, in my opinion, is some vagueness in rules such as dodging, parrying, etc.


There is a lengthy section of rules for using Sanity. Exposure to various horrors, eldritch and mundane, can wear away an investigator's Sanity. For the most part exposure to such sanity-blasting horrors causes the character to make a Sanity-check. Failure causes the Sanity to go down by an amount, success means no loss, or, in the event, of worse horrors, a smaller amount. Making use of magic in Cthulhu usually incurs a cost in Sanity that cannot be avoided. The more you increase your Cthulhu Mythos skill the lower your maximum Sanity becomes. 

Losing a certain amount of Sanity at once causes a character to go temporarily insane. Larger losses result in extended insanity. A Sanity of zero removes the character from play as he becomes a slave to the forces beings of the Cthulhu Mythos. Lower Sanity also makes later checks less likely to succeed as Sanity rolls are made based on your current score.

The Sanity rules, while not something out of a psychiatry textbook, avoid turning insanity into something laughable. I'm pleased that the rules for Sanity are treated maturely - as a person who has dealt with mental health issues in his family, it is not something I take as humorous.

Sanity can be regained, though it tends to be far easier to lose than regain.


The Game System section closes with a section on magic. It does not include sample spells (those come later) but rather it discusses how one learns magic. Magic is learned from studying tomes of the Cthulhu Mythos. These books are difficult to decipher, typically written by madmen, often  in dead languages. It can take months to complete the reading of such a tome. 

Casting magic requires the expenditure of Magic Points. Magic Points start equal to a characters Power and regenerate over the course of a day. They also usually require the expenditure of Sanity points. Some truly powerful spells require the permanent expenditure of Power. There are ways to gain Power but this is a difficult undertaking and one that is not guaranteed to succeed, usually by testing one's Power against other beings.


Reference

The next section in the book is its lengthy Reference section. It includes items such as:
  • A discussion of the Cthulhu Mythos
  • A discussion of the Necronomicon, one of the key books of the Mythos
  • A biography of H.P. Lovecraft
  • A list of mental disorders
  • Guidance for Keepers 
  • Creatures of the Mythos - something of a "monster manual" for Cthulhu
  • Deities of the Mythos - stats of Mythos deities. The stats aren't really needed - most could read "eats 1d4 investigators per round". However the description of the deities is useful as it gives guidelines for the followers of the deities.

Scenarios

Finally there are several scenarios. This is extremely useful - I've gotten a lot of mileage out of the sample scenarios included in the game. They tend to assume a game set in the 1920s, though they can be moved to other eras with some adjustment.


Overall Impression

Though I've had Call of Cthulhu for years and played off and on I've gotten a lot of play over the past two years or so. While the game has a reputation for a horrific body count my games have tended to involve some very cautious investigators who have managed to survive, albeit scarred and somewhat mentally damaged. For the most part my games have involved dealing with human cults and minor servitors of the Mythos - no battles with Cthulhu.

As I mentioned in my Overview, the rules themselves are pretty light. The engineer in me who loves to tinker keeps on thinking I shouldn't enjoy the rules as written but every time I play a game of Cthulhu I find the rules serve their purpose perfectly - they fade away when not needed and work well when they are required. One key, and I think this is true of many games, is knowing when not to use the rules. If a character is searching for a secret note right where the note is, of course they find it.

Pelgrane Press has released their own Cthulhu game, Trail of Cthulhu, using their Gumshoe system, a rules engine very focused on investigative games. It is designed to solve the problem of making sure the game is not derailed by a single failed roll. It's something I'm curious to try out. I've had hints of that problem in my own Call of Cthulhu games but never to the extent that it blocked progress. However one should be aware that many older Call of Cthulhu scenarios, available via Chaosium or RPGNow, while mostly excellent, sometimes have points in the adventure that are totally dependent on a single clue or a single decision. With that caveat, it is a very nice feature of the game that there are a lot of premade scenarios available, both from Chaosium and several licencees.

My own experiences have primarily been in the classic era. I'd be very curious to try running a more fantasy-oriented Cthulhu game, set in a setting like Clark Ashton Smith's Averoigne cycle.  

All in all I've found Call of Cthulhu to be an enjoyable game. It's core book is a nicely complete game though there are a ton of supplements out there. If you're not playing Cthulhu it still has some value - if you're playing another BRP game and want to add some cosmic horrors, the beasties here slide in rather nicely. It also makes a nice inspiration work if you are running games in other systems, though I'd argue in such a case you might be better off just reading the works of Lovecraft and others of his circle.

It is refreshing to see a game whose editions represent minor iterative changes. In my experience BRP is a system that does what it needs to do and fades into the background when you don't need it. It is well-suited to gaming in the universe H.P. Lovecraft and his heirs created.

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