Call of Cthulhu
Reviewed by Nicholas HM Caldwell
Call of Cthulhu is the definitive classic game of horror role-playing, set in the worlds of HP Lovecraft. The latest version of the game (Edition 5.5) was published in mid-1998, and updates the game system with a sleek 288-page volume. My memories of an earlier incarnation of Call of Cthulhu (CoC) suggest that production values have improved very significantly over the years.
The new edition opens with the original Cthulhu Mythos short story, "The Call of Cthulhu", by the master himself. This immediately sets the mood of the game and prepares both players and keepers (referees) for the traditional style and challenges of an atmospheric CoC campaign.
The next seventy or so pages are devoted to the "Game System". The nature of role-playing within the Cthulhu Mythos (the body of horror literature spawned by Lovecraft and expanded upon by others before and after his death) is introduced and the expectations of both players and keepers are introduced. You can tell that CoC is a game of ancient vintage by the "fossilized" section on dice rolling!
The original game was designed to support campaigns set in the 1920s and the 1930s, the era of most of Lovecraft's stories. Later supplements extended the game backward into the 1890s and forwards into the 1990s. CoC 5.5 supports all three eras. Just remember to use the correct character sheet for the chosen period!
The mechanics of character creation are simple. Eight characteristics (STRength, CONstitution, POWer, DEXterity, APPearance, SIZe, INTelligence, and EDUcation) are rolled, and the critical SANity score generated as a multiplier of POWer. Other factors such as hit points and magic points are derived from the primary characteristics. Next an occupation (e.g. author, dilettante, private investigator, professor, etc.) must be chosen. This isn't a character class or a profession in the traditional fantasy sense. Instead, the occupation allows access to a set of skills and the player can choose how to allot education points among these skills. There is also a pool of additional points to be spent on hobby skills to further personalize a character. Game mechanics for skill resolution are equally simple being d100 rolls where success is achieved by rolling under the skill number. As characters use their skills, opportunities will occur to increase the skill percentages and garner experience. The deadliness of firearms and the scarcity of hit points means that combat should be a last resort in this game - however if the bullets start flying, combat resolution is an easy affair. Magic is also briefly described in this section but casting spells is really a matter for cultists and monsters - investigators who wish to remain sane will avoid spells.
The second section of CoC 5.5 is the "Reference" section. This is intended to be dipped into by the keeper as required, rather than read in one sitting. The "true" history of the Earth is revealed in all its mind-twisting horror. In this edition, there are no cosmic deities of good to battle the universal evil of the Great Old Ones. Mankind is truly defenseless against the higher realities.
The new Mental Disorders subsection provides valuable and concrete information on a host of insanity types and how to role-play them. This part of CoC is substantially improved from previous editions. Similarly, the "Keeper's Lore" subsection yields a number of helpful insights on how to run a CoC game. I wish that my old CoC keeper had read this section when we played so many years ago. Our games would not have degenerated into firefights with such alarming frequency.
The "indescribable" horrors are detailed in a huge bestiary of Mythos monsters, races and deities. A sampler of normal animals and traditional terrors (vampires, werewolves, etc.) is also included. Each entry has an evocative illustration. Armed with this, and a grimoire of over two hundred spells, the average keeper should have no difficulties in challenging and befuddling players for years.
The best role-playing games provide a sample scenario in their core rulebook so that potential gamers can try the game with a minimum of effort. CoC 5.5 provides the reader with four scenarios. Each one is excellent and includes background, maps, and player aids. Three of them are suitably generic and could be used in any era, the last ("Dead Man Stomp") is really suited to the 1920s. These adventures are sterling examples of how scenarios should be written.
The final section of the book is entitled "Utilities". This supplies such necessities as era-specific equipment tables, a brief introduction to "Lovecraft Country" (the fictional area of New England which is the setting for many Mythos tales), an annotated bibliography, and timelines covering disasters, high weirdness and events of the twentieth century. A certain gleam came into my eyes as I perused the timelines ... my players had best beware!
Call of Cthulhu remains unchallenged as the foremost game for horror role-playing. If you don't already own an earlier edition, then The Stars Are Right for you to seriously consider investing in the new edition of this splendid game.
Editor's Note: Call of Cthulhu is published by Chaosium Inc.. Their contact details are as follows:
950-A 56th Street
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