Classic Review #4: Call of Cthulhu

boxed set (Games Workshop edition, UK market)
by Sandy Petersen
1981, 1986 The Chaosium

Many horror stories don't end well for their heroes. Many Call of Cthulhu games also don't end well for their heroes. The heroes die, turn into monstrosities, or most often they just go completely and utterly insane because of what they have seen. In that respect the Call is a successful attempt to turn horror into role playing.

But for many players it also makes the game less attractive. Because an insane hero is much harder to play, if the game master allows you to play an insane hero at all. In the original setup writer Sandy Petersen seems to assume people can't or won't play madmen, so they'll just have to make up a new hero. Of course it does not have to be that way. If players and game master do their best, a party of heroes who are complete nutcases may provide some terrific (pardon the pun) adventures.

If you can live with this rather inherent fault in the game concept, or work around it, Call of Cthulhu is a gem among role playing games. It is set in the roaring 1920's of the H.P. Lovecraft horror stories, and one of these stories is also where the name of the game comes from. Lovecraft wrote stylish, typical prose, full of horror and less with plot, but with an atmosphere that is hard to match. The horrors in his stories probably came straight out of the writer's nightmares, teetering on the brink of insanity as he was himself. Things from outer space, tentacles under the sea, dead which are not dead, terrors that flap their many wings and tails in the night.

Most Lovecraft stories are set in New England, so that is where the game also takes place. And in far off archaeological dig sites in Egypt, the Andes and Antarctica. A source book provides ample ideas and feel for the period between the wars. But in my experience a few good history books are also indispensable. Or maybe I just love to give my players a history lesson or two, too. Later game supplements also provide background for heroes from the United Kingdom, and games set in more recent years.

The rules are based on the innovative and realistic Runequest rules, but slightly simpler and with some different details. Heroes actually have professions, which guide the type of skills they may have. One may learn how to use all sorts of firearms, although it is not often that you will use them in the game. Because it's a game of brain, and less of brawn. Insane brain maybe, but brain nonetheless. Insanity is indeed also a central concept. Or rather: sanity. This is a hit point like value which goes down steadily as the heroes encounter the horrible, incredible truth. A truth which is... monstrous and inhuman, usually. The less sanity you have, the more likely you are to go “gaga”. But also, the more you may know about those unspeakable, unknowable truths.

Call of Chthulhu has quite a few good scenarios to play, and many horror stories adapt easily to a home made game. If you have nightmares like I do, these will also provide lots of inspiration. Did I say too much? The hardest part of game mastering is really to hit the right tone of the era. Because it's a real historic time with historic places it feels as if you can fail your exam. How long does one drive from New York to New Hampshire? How common is a driver's license? Do you need one? Who was the president then? Was there prohibition already? How about phones, newspapers, hair dryers, washing machines, national flights – were there any? It's not fantasy where you can make anything up. Or maybe you can. It just doesn't feel that way to me.

And campaigns do not last much longer than the sanity of most of the heroes. That's where I've seen the game break down in practice. Starting up insane heroes who want to be normal is just not too easy. Cthulhu keeps on calling though, and time and again I still play this game – even if we now tweaked the rules to my own system. Nearly twentyfive years now. That's a feat.

(rules are logical, elegant, flexible and quite realistic. They are in fact better or at least easier than their Runequest equivalent)
(The game is provided with large amounts of background, period source book and adventures. And it's easy to pull out history books and horror stories to adapt to your own games.)
(especially if horror is your genre, the game is easy to play and master, the only thing is that you have to dig that this is a game where the heroes are bound to lose. They either save the world and go insane, or they die.)
(horror set in the real 1920's, in the style of H.P. Lovecraft, human heroes but supernatural horrors as enemies, skill based with professions, percentile based combat and tasks, separate roll for damage, magic hard to learn but accessible to the debilitating and insane)


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