[Games Anatomy] Leave Your Message At The Scream Of Primal Terror
Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu is a funny old bear. It purports to be a new way to experience H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, so heavily indebted to the old neophobe’s fiction that it opens with a welcome reprint of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ – a story in which several disconnected adventure narratives with nasty endings are woven together by a young man who proceeds to do sod-all with them. A marvellous evocation of the weird, to be sure, but also a kind of destinationless ramble. Things just happen, or rather things happened in the past, and the narratives of these events are collected and reflected on and a conclusion is drawn; namely that well enough should be left alone as the truth is just too big and scary and the conspiracy of Cthulhu’s cult too large. As premises go, there’s something lacking there – a sense of resolution.
The Lovecraft tale it’s more closely indebted to, really, is the rather more pro-active ‘The Dunwich Horror’, in which a primordial nasty emerges, is discovered, and rebuked through the deployment of arcane lore drawn from the pages of an ancient tome of forbidden knowledge. I suppose that would have made a dodgy title for an RPG though.
To be honest, Lovecraft’s fiction itself makes something of a dodgy premise for an RPG; too many of his protagonists are inclined to faint and blunder their way through narratives which ultimately end in their death, madness, or – in my personal favourite case, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, discovering their secret Deep One heritage and going down into the ocean to be with their people. Call of Cthulhu owes more to those writers who came after Lovecraft, uniting his disparate works into a cohesive Mythos – even the term is not Lovecraft’s own – and positing that there exist powers equivalent to the likes of Cthulhu that are capable of repelling them, and a series of correspondences between alchemy and the various supermundane entities inhabiting or interested in Earth, and… a whole lot of what I could cruelly dismiss as ‘typical over-explicated nerd stuff’ which misses out on any of the horror-at-the-unexplained-and-inexplicable business – the sensation that Lovecraft set out to evoke.
All of which may make it sound like I hate Call of Cthulhu. I do not. I kind of like it, in spite of its somewhat muddled objectives and inspirations. Mostly, I like it because it has this reputation, a reputation set by statements like this one:
each round d3 investigators are scooped up in Cthulhu’s flabby claws to die hideously.
The thing about Call of Cthulhu is that, despite its premise of trying to thwart the Great Old Ones, their minions, and the machinations thereof, the general expectation is that bad things will happen. Call of Cthulhu adventures are, by general custom and expectation, precisely-orchestrated follow-the-trail mysteries, where pretty much any diversion from the trail leads to the manifestation of eldritch horrors and doom falling on some scale or another. Even if you’re into giving people a fair chance and engineering something other than a series of plot rails for your players to run down, the concept of ‘cosmic horror gaming’ kind of implies at least the prospect of a dark fate. Basically, it’s the only game I run where people actually expect their characters to die or go mad.
Which is nice.
Anyway. One of my favourite things about Call of Cthulhu is the handy little two-page spreads covering the core aspects of the game. The Character Creation one blocks out a six-stage process in simple steps, corresponding to areas on the character sheet. MORE GAMES NEED TO DO THIS. It starts with statistics – Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Appearance, Power (which is used for casting and resisting spells and stuff like that), Size, Intelligence, and Education (kind of important in a game where you’ll spend a lot of time discovering things). None of these, however, are half as interesting as Sanity.
Sanity works sort of like hit points in d20 games, only it tracks losses of mental rather than physical fortitude. Sanity points are lost whenever something psychologically taxing occurs – treading in a corpse in the dark might lose one’s character d3 points, while witnessing the manifestation of Great Cthulhu knocks off a mighty d100. Furthermore, Sanity ties into another statistic, one that begins at zero and accelerates every time the Horrible Truth About Reality is encountered – Cthulhu Mythos.
As Cthulhu Mythos increases, through encountering entities or reading tomes or conversing with one’s fellow scholars of the uncanny, it can be used to discern the right way to maintain or restore the structure of reality, banishing nasties and dispelling dark sorceries – but every point of Cthulhu Mythos ticks off an available point of Sanity to recover. The more you know, the crazier you go, and there comes a point where your character’s mental reserves will start to be eaten away.
Characters also have a damage bonus, tied to Strength and Size, which is added on to all their melee attacks; they have the orthodox hit points, derived from Constitution and Size; and finally, another thing that I really really like about this game, they have the Idea, Luck and Know rolls. These are percentile stats, derived from Intelligence, Power and Education respectively, and they can be tested whenever a player experiences a brain-fart related to decision-making, being in the right place at the right time, or knowing some piece of mildly obscure know-whats.
I like these because they’re really handy for kicking play into motion when it stalls because nobody has any idea what to do next; they’re handy as quick resolutions for whether a character’s trodden in the carcass or not, whether they actually have a book of matches about their person, or whether they get their fingers caught in the holster in a moment of crisis; and they’re handy as ways to drop out a little bit of exposition or to work around bits of real-world knowledge that may be lacking at the table.
Alongside all these stats, there are skills – yeah, RPG design’s kind of predictable like this, I’m afraid – which are all percentile, which you need to roll under to have your character succeed at stuff, and which are available to your character depending on their occupation. These are sort of stripped-down character classes, which only really govern the skill sets that are available, and they’re based heavily on the source literature. The typical party might comprise a private detective with a weird case to solve, a posh tart with deviant intellectual tendencies, a junior librarian who’s nicked the keys to the Forbidden Lore wing, and an antique dealer who’s come into some really peculiar statuary.
More than any other game, Call of Cthulhu depends heavily on party composition – not so much because “we need a healer” but more because “everyone needs some reason to give two shits about what’s happening here”. Every Call of Cthulhu character needs some vested interest in unravelling secrets and pursuing leads – and a few points in the Library Use skill. Trust me on this.