Great RPG Systems: Call of Cthulhu

Due to a crippling combination of laziness and WordPress deciding to eat my first draft (choke on it, you buggy bastard!), I am scaling back my ambitions. Actually, let me go check on exactly what I promised to do last week. One moment.

Ah, very vague! Excellent. So, today I’m going to limit myself to talking of just one of the Role-Playing Game systems that, in my own damned opinion, does a great job of enhancing the experience of its source material.

Call of Cthulhu (original BRP system)

Call of Cthulhu debuted just a handful of years after D&D first started the whole notion of pen and paper tabletop roleplay, but oh what a different beast it was to the hack and slash dungeon crawls preceding it.

Call of Cthulhu is based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft (and other authors who expanded on his fiction) concerning the Cthulhu Mythos, a dark concept of a cosmos at best indifferent to mankind, and at worst malevolently dedicated to our enslavement or extinction. Often cited as a birthplace (if not the birthplace) of post-gothic horror, the Cthulhu Mythos removed any sense of God from the equation, unless you consider “God” as indistinguishable from a towering, tentacular alien horror that exists in so many dimensions beyond your comprehension that your mind will bleed out your ears just looking at It. Lovecraft’s stories usually centered on cerebral, studious types living in the modern world of 1920s and 1930s America (modern for HPL, since this was when he was writing) that are drawn into a horrifying web of discovery as they realize witches, mutants and monsters really do exist just beneath the veneer of our skeptical, scientific civilization. In fact, science itself is suspect, as the “magic” displayed by the Great Old Ones and their minions is said to be nothing more than a form of geometry and engineering we humans cannot hope to understand, any more than a Neanderthal could comprehend a jet engine. Well, unless we cast off the burdens of humanity and sanity and join them in the horror of Understanding.

Oh, did I mention mankind in the Cthulhu Mythos is confirmed as doomed, to be eventually replaced by intelligent roaches? Who in their right minds would try to make a role-playing game out of this?

Game designing geniuses, that’s who.

The ironic thing is that the system Call of Cthulhu runs on is, at its base, the same concept as GURPS or D20. The publisher of the game, Chaosium, designed their Basic Role-Playing (BRP) rules for use with all of the RPGs under their banner, from Superheroes, to Fantasy, to Science Fiction. Oh, sure, like with any of these setups, there were tweaks for each meant to flavor the generic base… but 30 years later Call of Cthulhu is still active, while I think you’d be hard pressed to find a Superworld campaign.

The subject of tweaking a generic base to mold a genre is something that could be a blog of its own, and in fact I have a relatively obscure game in mind that could serve as a good demonstration… but that’s for later. Anyhow, the point is that I really believe a large part of why Call of Cthulhu remains so popular, with a ruleset largely unchanged from 1981, is because BRP is a very bleak system at its core. There are no levels. All advancement is skill-based, and tied to usage of those particular skills during the game. Even then, there’s a chance you might not increase the skill, especially if you’re already very good at it. Your basic attributes (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) will almost never change in the course of play, except perhaps in a negative sense. Also, although BRP does have ‘Hit Points’, they will never increase, and if they drop to zero, your character dies. No disabling, no ‘on the verge’ or ‘bleeding out’. Dead.

The average character in Call of Cthulhu will have about 12 hit points. A shotgun blast at close range does 4d6 damage, which averages out to about 14 hit points gone. Do the math. It doesn’t matter how long your character has been adventuring, if some farmer finds you trespassing and levels Ol’ Bessie in your direction, you’d best put your damn hands up and start explaining yourself. If you ever got pinkie-flicked by Mighty Cthulhu, he did something like 22d6 damage, where the maximum human hit point potential was 18. Some of the other stats for Great Old One profiles didn’t even bother with this shit and just said “If it hits you, you die horribly. By the way, it hits 100% of the time.” This is not D&D where characters are eventually romping their way through the 9 planes of Hell on the way to beat down Sata… sorry, Asmodeus.

In addition, Call of Cthulhu added some of its own unique bits to BRP, such as a Sanity rating. When you encountered beasties from beyond time and space, you couldn’t just blithely start blasting away at them. No, first you had to make sure your character’s fragile little human mind didn’t snap at the sight. Sometimes your sanity could go up if you successfully defeated a Mythos threat (temporary, ultimately futile victory is still a victory, especially for short-sighted humans), but mostly it went down, especially if you really started trying to understand what you were fighting. CoC had a Cthulhu Mythos skill which didn’t increase like others, but could be gained by subjecting yourself to certain dark tomes of forbidden knowledge and such. It could help out immensely in certain cases because, for instance, you might remember where to look for the right banishing ritual to some entity based on the marks of the body of its last victim (thus hopefully preventing you and your associates from becoming the next victims). The drawback was, not only did this usually cost you sanity points in the short term, but your Cthulhu Mythos rating directly affected the maximum sanity rating your character would ever be able to achieve. BRP rolls were all based on straight percentiles, or a scale of 1-100. If you rolled under the score needed, you succeeded. Theoretically, if you were lucky and successful you could get up to a Sanity rating of 99. That still didn’t make you immune, since you could still roll a 100, and there were events and monsters that called for mandatory Sanity loss regardless of succeeding on your roll, but you were better off than your friend with the 40 rating in Cthulhu Mythos, which meant his Sanity rating was capped off forever at a maximum of 59%. As you approached perfect Understanding, you lost yourself to madness.

The less you’ll wish you did!

If your Sanity ever hit 0, your character was considered permanently insane and you had to hand in your sheet to the gamemaster, just as if he or she had died. In this case, depending on circumstances and GM evil whim, your fate might be Worse Than Death(tm). Your character might even become an antagonist for the rest of the group, working with the Old Ones because now, in a single mind-blasting moment, he UNDERSTANDS.

Oh, and remember how I talked up how suddenly lethal CoC could be in a physical sense, particularly if you were somehow stupid enough or unlucky enough to encounter one of the big evils? Well, those same big evils could cause up to 100 points of Sanity loss in a single sighting. Sayonara.

All these factors have conspired against generations of role-players who approach Call of Cthulhu like a typical heroic game, and get their asses handed to them repeatedly because of it. The BRP system is unforgiving, and CoC combat is both very simple, and very lethal. In fact, players have to wrap their heads around the notion that sometimes, avoiding a fight entirely is the correct decision. Now I know I’ve already commented how low-level D&D can be just as randomly lethal, but D&D was, and is, still structured around the combat encounters. Call of Cthulhu adventures, on the other hand, reward players who take time to research and investigate before grabbing a pistol and checking out those tunnels in the sub-basement. It is, if I may say so, a thinking man’s game.

This is where the magic happens, because if you actually go and read those old H.P. Lovecraft stories, you will see protagonist after protagonist who only stand and fight in the last desperate circumstances. Where violence is not epic and heroic, but short, brutal, and deadly. Where people degenerate both physically and mentally in the face of the horrors they’ve been exposed to, and pore over those horrible, horrible books in an effort to somehow survive against even greater evil they can’t comprehend. Even though in some cases they do end up comprehending, and become lost to humanity as a result. As Lovecraft so famously put it:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

And sometimes, just sometimes, the bastards actually pull it off and survive the horror, even defeating it, and perhaps extending humanity’s shelf life a few more years. That’s the weird hat trick Call of Cthulhu pulls, mixing dusty academia with an attitude akin to that displayed by the Spartans at Thermopylae. We’re dead men walking, but we’re not going down without a fight, and even more than those Spartans we know the rightness of our cause. Lovecraft’s characters are moved into drastic action, risking life and sanity in an ultimately futile struggle, because by the end of their investigations they know that to not act is the most unthinkable thing of all. We will fight in the cosmic fucking shade.

All of this is assisted by that bleak, arcane, deadly gaming system that wasn’t originally designed for CoC at all, but turned out to be a match made in Hell. Even the character sheets for CoC look like they could be a page out of one of those mad tomes, with all the lists of skills… and yet once you tell someone it’s all percentages, they get it. Everyone knows percentages. There’s no tables to reference on every hit, no target numbers, no special abilities to remember. And with no assured skill progression or leveling, everything focuses back in on the shared story being created.

You might have guessed by now that I’m not big on the attempts they’ve made over the years to run Call of Cthulhu under other systems, the most famous example being the D20 version that came out circa 2003. While they mean well, and the testimony is that the D20 book is tweaked enough that it wasn’t just “Dungeons & Deep Ones”, the core issue is still that the D20 system is built around concepts of levels and progression that I don’t feel quite fit the Lovecraftian theme, and make you look beyond the current story instead of immersed within it. Also, combat becomes much more complicated to resolve, and thus much more prominent. The fact that the D20 version is now out of print while BRP CoC is still publishing is not necessarily evidence in my favor, since it was more of a licensing issue than anything, but the general consensus seven years later seems to bear out that while the D20 book has a great background section, BRP is still the best fit as a system.

Play Call of Cthulhu like you’re a superhero and you’ll be another statistic in the death pool that has led many to christen CoC as the deadliest RPG around. But if you’ve read and enjoyed the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and conceive and play your character along those lines, you’re going to have a very rewarding game experience. You might even survive with your sanity intact, which I can empirically state after having characters who lasted out two separate long-running campaigns under two different gamemasters.

Then again there was the first time I ever played, when I was 14 or so, and my character went to slap sense into a fellow character having a mental breakdown. Said character was holding a shotgun at the time and suffering paranoid delusions, and promptly blew my character’s leg off, killing me instantly. But y’know, again, that’s why you treat the guy holding Ol’ Bessie with respect. I think I ended up buying CoC anyhow, in part because of that eye-opening example that not all game systems are created equal.


About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense.
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5 Responses to Great RPG Systems: Call of Cthulhu

  1. Justin says:

    I write my original document in Word, then cut, paste and format. Keeps the thing from eating my work.

  2. Clint says:

    Well, yes. Here we see the perils of waiting until the last minute. On the plus side, given how wordy I ended up getting I suppose one at a time works out just fine.

  3. bluedrew says:

    Clearly, I don’t have the mindset for the CoC world, but I can certainly respect the simplicity and understandablility of the system. I wish I’d read this post before trying to single-handedly trying to vanquish a Haunter of the Dark.

  4. Clint says:

    Well now, there’s an interesting counterexample. Thinking back on that incident, Redlum actually did act much like a Lovecraftian protagonist, complete with the nasty fate they often suffered. Still, to be truly Lovecraftian you should have at least left us a cryptic note, or maybe a diary with the last entry being “I’m falling! Ahhh! My legs! My legs!” ;-)

  5. Horace says:

    I have a Superworld campaign but know of no one who plays Call of Cthulhu. How about that!

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