Dan's Top 19 RPGs - #1 - Call of Cthulhu
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"
At long last we come to the end of our long journey. Far longer than I'd have anticipated, with quite a bit of upheaval in life slowing down my blogging. I made an initial list when I began posting this Top 19 - and as I posted and had chances to reflect, some games made slight moves. Call of Cthulhu never budged from its perch at the top.
Call of Cthulhu is a game of cosmic horror. The investigators face creatures from beyond their comprehension. Cultists who worship terrifying gods.
Call of Cthulhu is one of the most heroic games I've played or run. Yes, it is notorious for characters meeting horrible fates. I've found that a game with investigators, little better than regular people, standing against the darkness, struggling to hold it back for just one more day, one of the most heroic things I can imagine. They won't be recognized with parades. It reminds me of a quote from Babylon 5's "In the Beginning":
No greater sacrifice has ever been asked of a people but I ask you now, to step forward one last time, one last battle to hold the line against the night.
Call of Cthulhu has been around for decades. And while the 7th edition represented a major refinement of the rules, you can still pick up something from the early editions and use it with the newest, with no additional prep required for conversion.
The game system doesn't seem all that special when you read it. It's fairly basic - the early editions have ability scores that typically range from 3-18 (i.e. roll 3d6) and skills that are percentile-based. The 7th edition moves the ability scores to percentile-based as well, but it remains the same bell curve - it's essentially a (3d6) x 5 roll. Characters have a modest number of hit points - most characters are one unlucky blow away from death. The system has a simple counter for sanity as well, with a system to track the descent into a madness, with bouts of madness as characters decline. Characters can learn magic, magic which can serve to save them from great danger, but also likely to drive them insane.
What I can say about the system is it plays fantastically. It just works. It is just fun to play.
The production values of the 7th edition products are fantastic - all color, as opposed to the black and white (often with color plates) of older editions. The default era for the game is in the 1920s and the supplements for the game do a great job capturing that period. Other supplements take place in the modern day, the Victorian era, the Old West, and lots of one-offs. There are a ton of adventures available.
Successful Call of Cthulhu investigators are cautious. They gather clues, do research at libraries and avoid fights whenever possible. If it isn't possible, they try to get every unfair advantage they can.
I introduced my 13 year old daughter to Call of Cthulhu and she loves it. We're taking a break and playing Blades in the Dark for a bit, but we will return to it - she's suggested she wants to have a second character ready for when her first goes insane or is eaten by a horrible monster. She definitely gets it.