September 28th, 2011


Review: Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu (6th ed, Chaosium Inc, 2005)

This was a present from my friend Asmodai who couldn't believe I didn't have a copy.  I've played it a several times, with one reporter character somehow surviving several encounters.  What set me down this path was finding a battered Lovecraft anthology idling in my FLGS's book rack going for a not a lot, followed by seeing the anniversary Necronomicon edition in the shops and drooling.  Asmodai got me that too.  Curiously, I mentioned that while staying with my sister and I got a surprise present from her boyfriend of an Edgar Allen Poe anthology (see my hospital diary passim).  So I have been steeped in this strange horror style which is almost all description and very little action (and only slightly more dialogue).

What I find fascinating about CoC is that it, rather than Lovecraft, inspired other games (such as the Mythos and Cthulhu card games), and indeed the sketch linked to below. The original writers really created something memorable.

After retelling the original Call of Cthulhu, there are about 66 pages on characters, ~40 on background material, ~20 for storytellers then 100 pages of reference material.  There is a 30 page sample adventure at the end, as well as a genuinely useful map of Lovecraft country (which doesn't exist in the source books).


This is what people are drawn to with CoC, a world where unnameable, unimaginable things lurk beneath the waves, in the stars or just down someone's basement via non-euclidian passageways.  It may be the best game on "demon" summoning ever since most of them would destroy the planet, let alone the hapless humans trying to summon or bind them, and the idea of actually -fighting- the demons is laughable.

The curious thing about CoC is that although it is ostensibly a game based on HP Lovecraft, it is in fact based on the Cthulhu Mythos, effectively a literary discussion between a handful of writers and then more after that but which wasn't formalised until after Lovecraft's death.  The original stories (1917 onwards) were not connected but the book relates how correspondence between authors led to a gradual merging of concepts.


I generally dislike flat percentile systems.  I like to have a bell curve, and competent people to know they should be able to do something.  However, I have always made an exception for CoC because there is something about the horror genre that benefits from this genuine question about whether you will succeed at that critical roll.  It's like flipping a coin to see whether you will save the world or not.  Similarly, the randomness of character generation, with a little room for rerolls and swapping, works well enough.  A full point-buying system would just seem too clinical for a horror game.

The nice quirk, which I've never really seen anywhere else, is to have realistic base values for skills.  Anyone really can fire a gun.  The choice of skills on the whole also works, downplaying combat skills and including public status in the Credit Rating skill.  This is also reflected in the non-practical (art!) skills which not only flesh out the character but give a social status to the character.  Generally, like everything else, they just seem to work for Cthulhu.

Finally, the Sanity mechanic for which it is renowned.  Pretty much anything you are likely to come across in a Cthulhu adventure is likely to push you towards insanity and it is this that keeps the game balanced - you cannot just learn spells and dispel whatever foul creature has been summoned since you would just go crazy yourself.  Moreover, adventures can become a race against insanity as the site of increasingly horrific nightmares peels it away.

The heroes

Normal but curious people who stumble across something not right and are forced, on way or another, to investigate.   So they are called Investigators, even if they are just random flappers or librarians.  For the most part, brains is called for not brawn - but clever people often notice the Wrong thing more often and go mad quicker.  I suspect this is another reason for its success.  Successful investigators often are good at Library Use and know other languages (in order to read Mythos tomes).

For the most part, Cthulhu is set in the 1920s, but it allows you to set stories anywhere from 1890s to the present day.

The villains

While the Elder/Outer Gods are the gribbly bad guys (not least , the iconic Cthulhu himself), practically the foes faced are the cultists who worship and/or summon the creatures from the stars.  You can't stop Cthulhu once he has been summoned, so the investigators main task is to identify the cultists (or spellcaster etc), work out what they are doing and stop it before it's irreversable and the Earth is destroyed.  For fun, they may have already summoned a whole feast of servitors and other aliens ready to suck out your brains, plenty of  whom are not sensible to get in a fight with.  The official list of gribblies is all in the reference material.

The look

Like the stories themselves, most of the line images are of normal-seeming scenes (admitedly, often in places of mystic significance) with something in the backgorund that can't be seen easily.  The monster reference section does a good job of drawing the indescribable.  It generally maintains the 1920s look.

The good

The system is highly suited to the horror genre, and the writers have done a good job of  explaining the Mythos in a brief but clear way (better than just reading Lovecrafts's works).

The bad

Despite the games popularity, the core book more closely resembles the World of Darkness core book or D&D's Monster Manual  - it's dry and gets the job done.  Of a 300 page boo, there is little more than 50 pages of discussion.  Some of the reference material -  the timelines and the map for instance  - is readable for plot idea but generally half the book isn't "readable" as such.  It's there to help you flesh out the story you have already written.

Which gets me to my real issue -  the book isn't very good at helping you write stories.  It basically says that a Cthulhu story is about investigating the plot then stopping it, which a) would become very repetive and b) doesn't inspire great stories.  It  gives you the framework but leaves inspiration for dressing it to other books.  For that matter, it largely seems to push pre-written adventures which still isn't great for inspiring your own great story-writing.

The ugly

I generally find this book fairly black and white.

Execution - 6
Ideas - 6

Cthulhu Britannica (Cubicle 7, 2009)

While I am reviewing the core book it seems sensible to write about some of the published adventures.  I actually didn't meant to buy any - I bought this book due to a link to one of the contributors so didn't read the blurb properly - but I did so I'll review it.  The fun thing was that I read CoC parallel to Dr Who so when I read this I kept envisaging running the stories for the latter.  Most of them would be really fun Dr Who adventures and could easily be ported to that system.

Cthulhu Britannica is a British spin on Cthulhu horror, with five stories. The British cultures are distinctly different to those typically portrayed by Lovecraft and Poe, and indeed most roleplaying games, so from that point of view well-written stories that convey that feel fill a hole in the marketplace;  indeed I notice that Cthulhu Britannica has become a series.

The look

I have to mention the cover because, without dissing the rest of the boo, it's the best thing about it.  It cracks me up every time I see it (and you do see it because it gets repeated on every splash page in the book).  Every character has a little "portrait" in the style of the time (I particularly like the photomanipulation, but they are all good).  Sadly, the portrait approach, complete with border, lacks the energy of, say, White Wolf art - it feels restrained in some way - which lessens its impact on the reader.  But that could just be me.

The good

I think the writers all managed to capture the mood of the times and, in the historical stories, the Britishness (or rather, Englishness) of the location and people.  While originality in horror is hard to gauge, several of the stories have sufficiently unexpected twists.  More importantly, they should have widespread appeal across playgroups of all types.

I also need to comment that the writers do focus on the personalities of the antagonists, a nice contrast after the lack in Dr Who.

The bad

The main problem I found is that all the stories required the storyteller to prepare something not covered by the scenario - each, except the last, left some story element unexplained.  For instance, Darkness Descending gives clues without indicating how players might be pointed at them; and Wrong Turn describes a change but doesn't actually explain the difference after the change, despite there being a paragraph on just that.  It's a non-description.  The only preparation I found needed in the final story is minor and explicit and is the scenario that seems to hold together best.

I know there will be storytellers out there who shrug and just say that it's not difficult.  I have a different view, that a book of stories should either aim to give storyteller a slew of story/antagonist skeletons (as per Dr Who and the Night Horrors series) or it should be usable virtually straight out of the box.  After all, if you wanted to wing it why would you bother with fully prewritten scenarios?  Still, the gaps are mostly not critical, just irritating.

The ugly

I think I spotted a flaw with this format:  because the stories are spread over five different time zones, there is not much space to devote to setting the environment.  It is conveyed through descriptions of the antagonists which does a good-enough job, but not much more than that.  Similarly, because you can't reuse the same characters, a sixth of the book is spent giving you pregenerated characters.  It just seems a waste.

And just a note to the proofreader:  could do better :p

Execution 8 - I almost dropped it to 7, but it does mostly do the job well.
Ideas 4 - It's not an ideas book and not all lend themselves to ongoing chronicles.

And some good news

Last week was horrible.  Friday I was completely exhausted again after only three days work.  Saturday morning I didn't even know if I would make it to Firefly that afternoon and at Firefly I told people how bad I was which I almost never do.  I was pretty much in despair and couldn't see how I could keep going.

But then at the end of Firefly, I was happy.  I came home and had my first good night's sleep for a week.  That's when it hit me that actually I wasn't that bad, but work was literally killing me.  So Monday I went in and made an ultimatum:  I stop doing front line work or you risk me having to quit/go long term sick.  Luckily I have a great boss and indeed great team who understood completely.  Sure, there's some head scratching and some necessary conversations with Personnel (sorry, HR) but it should work out.

And after working on documentation on Monday, I felt better.  Still exhausted, but not as exhausted as I was before.

Then I went into hospital for my post IV checkup and found that my lung function was pretty much the same as it was at the end of the IVs - FEV1 2.47 (59%), FVC 5.38 (106%).  Based on my tiredness, I assumed it would be closer to, if not below, 2 so I was happy. It also confirmed my thinking. 

I had a great discussion with a somewhat sleep-deprived doctor (he was on call the night before).  We talked about juggling Chinese and Western medicine, I inflicted mental scarring on the word 'heat' for him;  he's clearly had bad experiences with patients using Chinese herbs before and it will be hard for me to alleviate his fears on that.  More usefully we talked about potential asthmatic tendancies and dealing with them; also about the muscles that can cut off infected sections of the lung.  I didn't get the full picture, but they don't open of their own accord but rely on springy tissue to reopen them - which can get stuck.  But inhalers can reopen them.

After going round in circles a bit, we concluded we mostly agreed with each other.  Neither thought IVs were appropriate, but that more oral Cipro would be sensible to help get me out of the CF spiral (or, rather, helix).
  • Take my Seretide inhaler twice a day
  • Get a modern peak flow meter and take a series of readings during the day to monitor how my breathing changes comparatively during the day (esp morning, night and during work); this is effectively monitoring asthmatic changes.
In addition I will:
  • Drop my fluclox.  There's no sign that it does anything, and it's not an anti-inflammatory (in theory).
  • Change my calcichew slightly.
I've already started to feel better after work, but I am still recovering from my past exhaustion.  I think changing my work patterns made a big difference but I am still in the shadow of dooooom and need to watch my step.  Which I didn't really do today.  Still my own worst enemy then *sigh*