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Finding the Fun: Call of Cthulhu (7th Edition)

In the welsh dresser we keep in our living room there’s a small collection of board games; mostly they stay there because I am unforgivably crap at board games. I like to call it the Dresser of Shame.

I love RPGs, and video games (when I can find the time to play them), I even love card and quiz games – try me at Linkee or Trivial Pursuit, I am a force to be reckoned with – but when it comes to anything that has a board and stuff on it – Trivial Pursuit has a board, but it’s quiz-based, so it doesn’t count for the purposes of this rant – at any moment I’m on the brink of erupting into a barbarian rage, two bad moves from throwing the board – meeples and all – in the bin and storming off in a huff.

In cooperative games the other players inevitably have to carry me or spell out exactly what I need to do, and god forbid I play a competitive board game. As for Monopoly, I’ve played it maybe five or six times in my life and hated every nanosecond of it, it’s not welcome in Casa Draper and never will be.

All of this anger toward board games stems from a personal flaw. Simply put, I can’t strategise on the fly to save my life. It’s a massive blind spot, one that I’ve managed to overcome in RPGs and video games, but that somehow eludes me when there’s stuff on a board.

You might ask if there was a point to the confession. Well listen up children, and I’ll tell you whilst we find the fun in Call of Cthulhu: 7th Edition.

CoC7th

Okay, so what does this have to do with Call of Cthulhu, and more importantly, what is Call of Cthulhu?

A couple of years ago, I snuck off from a wedding fair to my FLGS to buy a game – Patriot Games are a really great bunch of folks and very helpful, if you live in the South Yorkshire/Derbyshire area, give them a visit – hoping that maybe I’d finally be able to shuck my board game-induced rage-curse and actually enjoy a board game for once. I left with Arkham Horror, and after a faltering start, managed to get a few enjoyable games out of it – my wife decided our tactics, thus alleviating me from having to form a long-term strategy – before it got packed away to the Dresser of Shame.

We’ve played it very infrequently since, and by the time we decided to spend a cold December evening with board games and hot chocolate, it had gathered about nine months’ worth of dust. It didn’t go well. After half an hour my Investigator had been sent to the Asylum more times than I could count, and was left with no items, cash, or hope. Regardless, it was the last straw, and after some terse words it was agreed that Arkham Horror should go back in the Dresser of Shame until such time as I learned how to play the bloody game properly.

It’d be unfair to blame my failure on the game. Arkham Horror is intended to be difficult and unforgiving, and you’re intended to think and play the long game, not to go running from location to location in the vain hope that the game will take mercy on you and throw you a bone. SPOILER: It won’t.

Arkham Horror shares both the setting and certain expectations with the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and from the outset, you know that it won’t be easy and there’s every chance it’ll frustrate the hell out of you. If you’re the kind of person who likes kick-in-the-door action and powering through combat with little planning or preparation, the game will punish you for it.

Seriously Jay, what is Call of Cthulhu?

Call of Cthulhu, created by Sandy Peterson, was first published by Chaosium in 1981 using the Basic Role-Playing mechanics originally made for RuneQuest. Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition was written by Paul Fricker and Mike Mason, and released in 2014 by Chaosium following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

The Call of Cthulhu RPG places the players in the role of investigators during the Roaring Twenties (though options are available for modern games) within H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. They encounter strange and terrifying phenomena as things go from bad to worse and drag them closer to insanity as they experience more of the Mythos. Investigators rely on their wits more than combat skill or advanced weaponry, though they may find spells and secret knowledge that will aid them, at the cost of their sanity.

The investigators are pitted against almost-insurmountable odds in the vain hope that they might survive, success is not guaranteed by any means, and you sure as hell better not expect the dice to be kind. The game builds on the underlying tension of cosmic horror with the Sanity attribute, which is drained from investigators as they experience horrors from a reality hostile to their own.

First Impressions

I bought the Keeper Rulebook and the Investigator Handbook with the expectation that I’d need both in order to teach the game and make the pre-gens for my players. You don’t. If you’re starting out, I’d just get the Keeper Rulebook and let your group share the character creation section, the Investigator Handbook doesn’t really provide any new information essential to the game. You’re just wasting money. 7th Edition is a streamlined update to the existing rules rather than a brand-new ruleset, so whilst it’s easier for new players to grasp, returning players won’t see a lot of innovation for their hard-earned cash, so that’s worth bearing in mind, too.

I enjoyed seeing a couple of scenarios included in the Keepers Handbook, creating adventures for unfamiliar systems can be daunting and I don’t want to have to spend money on adventures for a system I may not continue playing. The first scenario, Amidst the Ancient Trees, includes references to rules and good Keeper practices, making it a good start for an unexperienced group. Overall the book production was decent. I think it could have been laid out and indexed a little better, character generation took a painfully long time to work out because so many rules were written in the wrong place or somewhere they’d be overlooked, like a massive wall of text. But then again, it’s certainly not awful by any stretch of the imagination, and if I wasn’t coming at it from the perspective of a newcomer, the layout might not have been an issue at all.

So, is it fun?

I’ve umm’ed and ahh’ed about this for a week or so, trying to work out how to phrase this correctly, I’m a pretty positive person and I’d hate to put down something that some people find fun, but here goes. Call of Cthulhu is a well-constructed game, and whilst I think it has some good points and I can see the fun in the system, I personally didn’t find it enjoyable to play for a portion of the time. My players weren’t so impressed either, except for the rare moments when they could chalk up a scene as a win. This is isn’t to say that it’s a bad game, it does have some great aspects but it just wasn’t for me or my players. However, this article isn’t called “Why Jay didn’t like it?”. No-one would read that. Let’s find the fun in Call of Cthulhu.

What’s important to remember with Call of Cthulhu and cosmic horror fiction in general is that, like all good horror, it depends on tension and suspense to evoke emotions from the audience, in this case the players. The mythology of the setting (and the antagonists implied from the use of the Cthulhu Mythos) obviously suits that goal perfectly, but most importantly, the mechanics do too, perhaps even more so than the setting.

The tools that you possess to endure the inevitable horror that is to come are finite. Luck, Sanity and Health will deplete, perhaps quickly, perhaps slowly. Inevitably though, one, two or all three will deplete and your character will be left insane or dead. That’s the tension, you know the fatal blow could happen at any time (coincidentally @Fiddleback and @Vladepsyker spoke about tension and suspense in potelbat a few weeks ago) the suspense is the uncertainty of whether or not it will happen before you can succeed.

I really like the percentile-based skill system and the way it progresses. As a DM/Keeper, it’s so much easier to tell a player they need to make a regular difficulty check with a skill than to have to decide on an arbitrary DC for them to roll against, adding in modifiers and circumstance bonuses. It also ties in quite nicely to the two mechanics that can influence skills, the Luck attribute and the push mechanic.

Luck is both a skill to roll against in certain circumstances and a finite resource that can be spent to alter another roll, increasing the chance in the future that your luck will fail you in exchange for a short-term gain. There is also a mechanic to “push” non-combat rolls, attempting a reroll with the proviso that if the roll fails, a more severe consequence will occur, such as pushing a Drive Auto to gain ground in a high speed chase after a bit of a wobble, only to fail and wrap yourself around a lamppost. Once again, the mechanics have been designed to encourage this increase in tension, building up the drama around every roll the players make.

Skills-wise, we’re pretty good. It’s easy to see what the designers’ intentions were, and whilst some of the skills seem like dead weight (Accounting?!), the system does work – until it gets to combat. I come from a combat-focussed RPG background where the understanding is that combat will occur and – unless the PCs have been stupid – it will probably be a suitably appropriate challenge. No such assumptions are made here, with the system treating combat as a last resort and devoting almost as much book space to running away (well, chases in general). This isn’t bad in and of itself. In fact, it suits the tone of the game that you can’t just give Cthulhu the finger and fill him full of buckshot.

Many of the monsters encountered in the game are powerful enough to kill the investigators in one round, and can’t be hurt to any noticeable degree by conventional means (In the scenario I ran for my playtest, one bright spark hit the big bad with a luxury car, and was the sole reason why two out of the four investigators survived, otherwise they’d all be dead). Unfortunately, many of the scenarios don’t acknowledge this and leave combat as an unavoidable roadblock, meaning that combat with something far above your weight class is almost inevitable, no matter how clever the investigators are.

RKahn_Corbitt_1_House

Case in point, we played the Crimson Letters scenario for our playtest, and aside from the difficulty in bridging the gap between the clues and what actually happened, the players were left with only limited options by the end of the scenario, leave the town (and essentially failing by the D&D standards of RPG success) before the Horror Bound In Ink could arise and kill everyone, or take it on and die in the attempt.

Interestingly, investigators don’t gain levels as they move through the campaign or scenario, so their durability and hit points never increase, though skills that see frequent use might do so. Healing is essentially non-existent, meaning that injured PCs either have to carry on whilst on the brink of death, retire (thus acknowledging the scenario has already beaten that character), or else take a lengthy recovery that inevitably eats into investigation time, and might result in events throughout the scenario proceeding without restriction under their very noses.

Players will almost inevitably try to continue on with diminished hit points, making for much more fragile PCs than any other RPG I’ve played before, with the implicit understanding that one or more investigators will probably die over the course of a scenario. Apparently it’s recommended that you bring a spare character with you for every game.

It’s worth pointing out here something about the source material for the Call of Cthulhu RPG that gave me pause in criticising it more heavily. There are few, if any, stories by H.P. Lovecraft that end well for any of the protagonists and – correct me if I’m wrong – none that end well for everyone, and yet we still find enjoyment in them, what’s to say we can’t find that same kind of enjoyment in an RPG where the engaging aspect is in the journey, the tension and the suspense rather than the outcome? In the titular Call of Cthulhu short story, we know the protagonist is dead before he even begins narrating, but it doesn’t stop us engaging with his experiences throughout the story.

Maybe that is the hurdle my players and I struggled to get past, perhaps D&D – particularly post-3rd edition D&D – has built up this expectation that the players always win, that there’s always the option of a clean getaway, that Spiderman can save MJ and the bus full of schoolchildren, and that Neo can and will save Morpheus. That’s all well and good for people who like stories with a happy ending, but what about people who like a story where there is no happy ending, just an ongoing struggle and rising tension that inevitably ends messily? What about people who want game that really challenges them and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they do succeed, despite all the odds being stacked against them? Maybe little moments like hitting Cthulhu in the face with a boat to delay the apocalypse are the rule rather than the exception?

Really, that’s what this game does so well. It doesn’t kiss your booboos and put you back in the saddle when you make a mistake. It punishes you so you don’t do something that stupid again. If you want to succeed in Call of Cthulhu, if you want to stop the madness and survive long enough to see victory, it’s going to make you work for it. The enjoyment my players and I did derive from Call of Cthulhu was the same kind of enjoyment that I got from Arkham Horror. It made us work for it. It was the satisfaction of knowing you did something well and had beaten the odds. A clean getaway is nearly impossible, your fellow investigators will probably die, or you might be driven insane beyond any form of recovery, or you might be forced to take the heroic (or even the non-heroic) sacrifice route in order to gain victory, but you can take satisfaction in a job well done.

If you enjoy tension and suspense, in beating the odds rather than just dialling in a victory, or you just enjoy cerebral games where you’re going to be relying on your wits to pull you through more often than a dice roll, then Call of Cthulhu might just be for you. Good luck, Investigator, you’ll need it.

You can buy the electronic version of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition here and join the G+ community for the RPG here. An Interesting potelbat episode – on tension and suspense – to consider when running the game can be found here, and you might also like to look into David Pickering’s Mansion of Madness (A Cthulhu Mythos game) review here.

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  1. Finding the Fun: Don’t Turn Your Back | The Mad Adventurers Society on Wednesday, September 16, 2015 at 5:10 am

    […] I reviewed Call of Cthulhu in January, I revealed my shameful secret, namely that I’m unforgivably crap at board games. In […]

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