Game: Call of Cthulhu
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Series: Call of Cthulhu: d20
Review Dated: 28th, April 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 39
Average Score: 5.57
Given that the Wheel of Time roleplaying game was doomed to success, the conversion of Call of Cthulhu was the first real threatening test to the d20 project. Love it or hate it Call of Cthulhu: d20 is here to stay. It’s a book of two halves; a first half which presents a slick d20 conversion but struggles slightly to define a playable Cthulhu atmosphere and a second half which bothers less about dice and dots and successfully brews a stronger Cthulhu flavour.
It works. The book gives you the means and the inspiration to play in the CoC setting and to give the new d20 system for it a go.
The first thing you’ll notice about this arcane tome is that it looks cool and scary. Dangerous books are key in the Mythos stories and this is a wonderful touch. You’ll find 320 full colour pages between the hard covers. Compared to the Dungeons and Dragons rules, Call of Cthulhu is three books in one. You’ve got the players’ handbook, the gamemaster’s guide and the monster manual all bundled together. The overall feeling the book leaves you with is that of a pulp Cthulhu game where the characters are heroes but fated to meet their match sooner or later, but probably later.
Monte Cook tells us about the Cthulhu Mythos and atmosphere. He’s probably right to do so; I have a feeling that very many Cthulhu players have never read H.P. Lovecraft. It is a pessimistic interpretation of the Mythos but perhaps it is offered up that way to better stress the differences between the Cthulhu atmosphere and of heroic fantasy. The concept of the roleplaying game is also introduced here, in case you’re new to it all. I’m not sure Cthulhu is the best choice for a newbie but the standard intro-foo is there for completeness.
You create your character by working out whether he’s going to be stronger than he is fast and then, when you’re nearly finished, think up a name and some background. If you accept that bias in character creation then the system here is nice and clean. You have the standard attributes of the d20 system and you have nice charts to compare relative values against (an average person is smarter than a snake but not as smart a Star-spawn). Character levels are in but character classes are out. Instead of classes you’re allowed to pick from more generic templates; criminals, artists, soldiers or reporters for example. You also then pick either an offence or defence option for your character; the defensive choice gives you two better saves (picked from either fortitude, reflex or will) and a not so good attack bonus or you pick the offence style and only benefit from one strong save but enjoy a stronger base attack bonus. I don’t quite see the “Ah! You’re in trouble now Mr Nightgaunt, I’m an offensive character!” but there might be annoying cultists or book stealing rivals that need dealing with and the optional pulp-flavour modifier gives the GM access to easy mechanics for boosting your Armour Class and making the game more combat orientated. These character templates effect which skills are your core skills and influence the amount of cash you have at hand but don’t impact your sanity or your ability to cast spells.
The skills in Cthulhu are very similar to the D’n’D style. You have core skills, max ranks, trained and untrained and you get more points to spend as you increase in level. There are new skills added and old skills taken away but whether you’re playing a game set in the 1930s or the 1990s the base set remains unchanged. I think the chapter is explained and set out better than in the combined D’n’DPlayers and DM’s guide as it’s all together and succinctly explained. When a skill needs plenty of information or extra rules, in the case of Drive for example, then space is found for that.
Feats are an easy mechanic but an awkward flavour. Is a character with a feat (let alone a couple and then one every three levels) special? How does that fit with the idea that your characters are but dust compared to those that rule the cosmos? You could argue that a character feat means you’re different from the average Joe on the street but then doesn’t that throw up an obstacle to the Cthulhu gaming style when you are just supposed to be an average Joe on the street? It’s the character feats that gives the strongest feeling that d20 Cthulhu is D’n’D Cthulhu. Blind-Fighting, Cleaving and Power Attacks all seem out of place. On the other hand, the entirely new sub-section of Psychic Feats makes very much more sense and allow you to use that sort of thing in your game without resorting to the expensive Psionics Handbook.
If this chapter had landed on its face then d20 Cthulhu would have been a non-starter. Fortunately for us the Sanity chapter in this Shub-Niggurath blessed book works wonderfully well. You have an easy to calculate starting sanity, a maximum possible sanity that crawls down and down the more you fool around with demonwrought magicks and hellspawned theories and a current sanity. Insanity raises her head if you loose too many sanity points in one go, too much over too short a time or just begin to run out. There are different sorts of insanity to; the temporarily phased madness that you’ll snap out of once you’ve run home and hidden under the bed for an hour, the longer lasting insanity that requires trained help to lift you out of and then ever lasting, all hope is gone, a new character is applicable, terminal insanity that seems to be the fate of many would-be heroes. There are easy and quick tables for all these effects. There are lists of interesting quirks and insanities to inflict or be inflicted by and the long list of phobias (always strangely popular in RPGs for some morbid reason) is there. Odontophobia – fear of teeth, maniaphobia – fear of going insane (oh the irony!) and phonophobia – the fear of noise, including your own voice, to name just a few. There is also a lovely range of disorders to suffer from. Along with all this there is plenty of text on various forms of treatments and their effectiveness, for both the 1930s and the modern era. Recovery from insanity could be as a memorable part of a Cthulhu game as the downward slide into depths of madness was.
You’ll also discover how to loose sanity here. It may be a d20 game but it’s a d100 check against your sanity maximum to see whether your precious sanity points crumble away. Some things are so shocking that even with a pass on that dice roll you’ll still loose some san points – just not as many as you would have had if you’d failed.
As with the skills section I found the combat rules in Cthulhu to be easier on the head than the spread of rules in D’n’D. Awkward things like the Attack of Opportunity have been renamed an Opportunity Attack and made into an optional rule (although the tentacle rule is very similar). This chapter begins with an example combat, the heroes versus some ghouls and then gets into explaining the mechanics and although this may sound backwards it works very well.
As hinted at before, you’ll find yourself with an Armour Class again. An armour class that represents how hard it is to land a real hit on you. I thought this might go. There was a chance that armour might absorb damage. The combination of modern weapons and less armour (less combat) makes the armour class mechanic more awkward to use as a measurement of palpable hits. Er. Um. The cultist fires his gun but the bullet grazes past you… again. The Spider of Leng gets its fangs caught in your tweed jacket.
Combat shouldn’t be nearly as common or as important in Cthulhu as it is in fantasy adventures and so you can shrug off some of the awkwardness, especially since it means you’re left with a fairly fast paced and clean system to deal with. On the other side of that coin the fight mechanics are introduced rather early on in the book then, before all the advice on how to run your game. Many people will be pleased to see that sufficient attention is given to guns and other modern combat props and other people, like myself, will be pleased to see the inclusion of other damaging threats such as extreme weather (for all those artic or desert games) as well as starvation and suffocation rules. In addition, everything from the weapons through to the adventure gear is presented with both 1930s and 2000 prices.
This is a useful section in the book, one that covers more than just attempts to cast dangerous and gory spells. Here you’ll find the concept of arcane tomes and texts introduced. The GM is given advice on how to go through the important process of having the characters investigate and study tomes that come into their possession; what might go right and what might go wrong. There are pages of sample books! It is a huzzah for everyone who got bored flicking through the various charts of riles and shotguns. You’ll get a brief history of the book, whether different translations or copies exist and then the Cthulhu Mythos bonus and Sanity Point penalty each one represents. A detailed book will boost your Mythos knowledge further but at greater cost to your sanity than a poorly translated copy will. You’ll loose different amounts of sanity for just a quick skim through the book than you’ll loose if you have the time to sit down, study and understand it fully.
Spells work nicely. Pretty much anyone can have a go at acting out a spell from books or from strange inscriptions that they just happen to come across. Spells always drain your sanity, spells are always “wrong” to the human mind and in most cases leech away at your ability scores too. Spell casting with more than one person can help spread the drain of the ability cost but not the sanity. It’s a spell list system. The spells may or may not require verbal, somatic, material or focus elements but don’t suffer from the same “spell slot” idea that currently dominates the cheese fantasy side of the d20 system. Your caster level, your character level, simply represents how well you can cast the spell.
The spells are suitably in-theme as well. Eyes of the Zombie, for example, enables the caster to see through the eyes of his zombie while he controls it but it involves the removal of his own eyes, placing them safely in an alchemical bath and replacing them with the zombie’s own eyes. In this way the spells are more appropriate to the atmosphere than the more common character feats are. There are plenty of spells too.
There’s a paradox in the Cthulhu games that the genre is all about the creatures and yet, at the same time, about rarely coming into contact with them. The creatures that form this chapter are taken from more than just Lovecraft’s own stories but from authors who also wrote in the Mythos style. There’s actually a nice range of threats and horrors in here – different Challenge Ratings and different types of creatures too – undead, demons, aliens and the weird. Creatures like ghosts or even cultists are treated with the experience you’d expect of the authors, they’re presented as templates. There are stats for animals too; just so that GM can scare the players with a huge creature thundering through the trees towards the paranoid players only then to have the elephant emerge into the clearing. I would have appreciated more illustrations though and I missed the shadow charts that showed the various sizes of the horrors compared to an average human.
The Cthulhu Mythos
There’s no clear mythology. That’s made crystal clear in the early paragraphs here, Lovecraft re-used some names and creatures but he wrote individual stories rather than trying to build up a watertight underlying cosmos in the background. After that clearing of the air this chapter then goes on to offer up a very good explanation of the grand scheme of things, of the Outer Gods and the False Gods. There’s even space to briefly discuss the elementalism of the Great Old Ones.
You’re just over 200 pages into the book at this point and by now you could easily run a game, instead, though, the real work involved in creating a carefully crafted Cthulhu story begins. The elements of the Mythos considers the important facets, the cults, the books, the dreams and alien places and talks about how to build them into your story.
Running a Cthulhu game is different from a fantasy or sci-fi game. You can’t throw things at your players and say “Here! Fight this!” There’s load of advice on different styles of presenting the game – now referred to as a story (which means you can’t win it) – and on different tricks that can be used to build up the atmosphere. You can browse over various types of fear; the unknown, shock, horror and consider with the authors what sort of thing works best to bring these out (in the right levels) in your game.
I really liked some of the text on the diverse ways to deal with technology in the Cthulhu world. The idea that a dimensional shambler incidentally erases information off hard disks as it moves by or that laser-targeting scopes can report that the altar is both 50 and 100 feet from you just appealed to me.
There is also help for GMs on how to hand out XP and how much XP to hand out. What I would have also liked was some sort of comparison between character level and professional competence. Is a level one policeman a rookie, a level five cop a pro and a tenth level cop the next Dirty Harry? What happens if somehow someone manages to take their policeman to level twelve?
Here we’re introduced to the differences between linear and non-linear styles. It may sound all to basic for anyone involved enough to read product reviews on the web first but it just goes further to ease any unfortunate newbie into a successful Cthulhu game – and perhaps one or two people who are at a loss once they’re out of the dungeon and the passageway doesn’t offer two convenient choices of Left or Right for them. There is advice on how to design a major scene and why it’s important to do so. There is also text on the impacts on the story when your heroes (victims) are able to prove something, when they have to deal with the consequences of their actions and own motivations. Even for someone with plenty of gaming experience, it’s a valuable chapter.
Lovecraft wrote his stories for the late 1800s and early 1900s. Call of Cthulhu, the roleplaying game, lets you take this up to present day. Given that not everyone is a history buff this chapter quickly explains the important world themes and events of the hundred years in between. This means you can run your Indiana Jones pulp Cthulhu game in the right decade and not miss the Nazi menace.
In addition to the historic setting for your game there are a whole host of sub-genre to weave into your Cthulhu genre game. For instance, are your players going to be private eyes, academics, cultists or spies?
These two choices are then considered together in a series of small paragraphs. If you want suggestions on how the political tension between countries differs in the 50s to the 90s for your spy based game then you’ll find it here. You’ll also see the differences in being a college professor in the 20s to the 90s.
Adventures 1 and 2
There are two sample adventures near the back of the book. It’s common enough to find one but I think the addition of a second was a good choice as I suspect many people may very well struggle to get to grips with the different style of play to a Cthulhu adventure. They’re both pretty good samples to and, if nothing else, illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of the various GMing styles of techniques discussed in the previous chapters.
Appendix: Lovecraftian D’n’D Campaigns
You knew this would be here. If you fancy aiming for the most of two worlds then you’ll find what you need here to attempt the feat. In addition to a quick discussion on dark fantasy there are more practical aids such as a long list of which spells from CoC would work best if imported into D’n’D, sanity on the adventure hardened hero and even which monsters might inflict what sort of mental damage.
The Deities and Great Old One conversion will be infamous. It’s not really worth debating whether the Greater God Azathoth really should have 2,666 hit points or whether it’s just a joke in numbers. It’s quite hard to see really what you’d do with Cthulhu’s treasure rating… but I suppose there are those weird and wacko players out there who’ll pick up their copy of Deities and Demigods and see who’d win a wrestling match between Cthulhu and Gruumsh. The list of entities and beings so unspeakably alien that they are impossible to understand or even consider without risk to one’s own sanity but have strangely been successfully converted to vanilla d20 is rather long.
A shorter but perhaps more useful section for those of us with old CoC stuff covers a conversion system. If you have one of the old Games Workshop, Pagan Publishing or Chaosium supplements then you can attempt to convert that to the d20 system.
The d20 CoC is a different feel from the previous RPG but that doesn’t make it any worse. If you’re a fan of the d20 system and perhaps more importantly, if you’re a fan of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories, then I think you’ll enjoy the book. You’ll not need to buy any additional books to enjoy a fully-fledged game and that’s always a bonus. The d20 system has been changed, as promised, only as much as is required to help express with the Cthulhu atmosphere and with only a few points of debate (character feats, for example) succeeds in that goal. As was said at the start of this review, Cthulhu d20 is here to stay but only time will tell as to whether it rides as high as the Forgotten Realms or even D’n’D horror classic Ravenloft.
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