Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition (Part 1) [Review]

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. (Much different than D&D, for example, where someone playing the new 4th edition and someone playing 2nd edition would hardly be able to have a conversation!) 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.


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.


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.


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.

Whew, this is going to be a long review! Tune in next time for (In)Sanity (yes, I made one of the PCs suck on the teat of a giant rat, so sue me!), Magic (no Fireball or Magic Missiles here!), and a discussion of whether some of Lovecraft's creations might just be a little too weird for a weird horror game . . .

1 comment:

The Wife said...

That rat thing was gross...but to be fair, that character was really, really determined to destroy it (basically by himself), so he took his chances....he did come pretty close to killing it....