Before “storygames” and “simulationist RPGs,” before “crunchy” and “fluff,” there was Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons & Dragons. D&D was all about facing down monsters, gaining wealth and power, and telling epic fantasy stories. CoC was all about avoiding monsters, staying alive and sane, and telling chilling horror stories. D&D had tons of rules and had roots in minature wargamming; CoC had a fairly-straightforward system and was based on literature (specifically, the short horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft). Both games are amongst the oldest and most monumental in the entire hobby. And now, both games just came out with new editions that stay very close to what made them popular, while at the same time moving forward into the modern age of tabletop roleplaying.
Let’s put the bottom line up front: the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu is the best edition of the game yet, and an immediate must-buy for fans of the prior editions. This is not one of those “reinvention” editions like 4th for D&D; this a “refinement” edition, more like 4th for GURPS. CoC streamlines, simplifies, and re-organizes itself to be more approachable and easier to play, all the while maintaining the core feel and mechanics of editions past.
So what’s changed? There are few profound changes, but some jump out right away. Finally gone is the dreaded resistance table, an antiquated idea that should have been removed two editions ago. Replacing it is a simple “player-facing” philosophy, so that the investigators are almost always using their skills, but the relative resistance of their target indicates what kind of success they need; either a standard, roll-under-your-percentage success, a “Hard” success of rolling under half that percentage, or an “Extreme” success rolling under one-fifth of that percentage. Adding more granularity are opposed rolls where the better success wins (with ties going to the higher skill rating), combo rolls that involve success across multiple skills, and “push” rolls that are essentially double-or-nothing bets; made immediately after a failed roll, a pushed roll will either grant you success, or failure will be extra-punishing. Like editions past, the standardized rolls are intuitive and simple, especially after a practice session or two, and the new modifications fit seamlessly into the game as a whole.
Though most of the changes are for the better, a few are more questionable. 7th edition has a “bonus/penalty die” mechanic where circumstances can give you additional tens digit dice to roll, and you take either the best one in the case of bonuses, or the worst one in the case of failures. This idea seems like “me too” game design, cribbing from the advantage/disadvantage system in the latest edition of D&D. Unlike that game, where a second d20 is an elegant and smart way to handle trivial modifiers, the additional tens digit dice can be much more confusing and clunky. Granted, it’s not as bad in practice as it sounds in theory, but still, this mechanic feels a lot more tacked-on than all the other refinements. I will say, however, the bonus/penalty die mechanic does have its uses, particularly in combat. Shooting multiple times? Penalty dice to your Shoot roll! Diving behind cover? Bonus dice to Dodge! The cultist you’re tackling is twice your size? Penalty dice to your brawl skill! Clunky as it may be, it is a simple way to add significant outside influences to an existing roll, without have to bog the game down with looking up specific rulings and applying modifiers.
Indeed; combat as a whole has received a much-welcomed streamlining. Gone is the condescending “If your investigators are fighting, you’re doing it wrong” attitude from previous editions; combat is now handled with much the same reverence it receives in other RPGs (don’t worry, though; CoC’s signature lethality and cruelly short fights are still very much alive, here). At the same time, however, combat in this edition of Call of Cthulhu is still straight-forward, simple and fast-paced. Anything that isn’t an attack or movement is a “manuever”, the rules of which normally come down to little more than the assignment of bonus or penalty dice and fictional positioning. This definitely wouldn’t fly in a game where tactical combat is expected and embraced, such as Dungeons & Dragons; but in Call of Cthulhu, these rules do a great job of keeping the action where it’s intended to be: on the story.
One kind of maneuver, however, isn’t hand-waved with extra ten-siders: chases. Call of Cthulhu devotes an entire chapter to a chase system, essentially a mini-game that covers relative differences in speed, presence of obstacles, multiple chasing parties, combat in mid-chase, and everything else one could possibly need. Now, the memorable chase from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” can be faithfully re-created in your own game. It speaks volumes to how different CoC is from its elfgame cousins when an entire chapter is devoted to running away from your foes!
Officially, Call of Cthulhu is now two corebooks: The Keeper’s Rulebook contains the core rules, and the Investigator’s Handbook has all the character creation options. However, the Keeper’s Guide also has a character creation chapter in it, albeit in a more condensed form than as presented in the Investigator’s Handbook. So in practice, only the Keeper’s book is actually needed for play; the Investigator’s Guide is more of a must-have supplement than a true “corebook.” While it is convenient to have two sets of character creation rules, it’s also mostly unnecessary. I would have rather seen that 100 or so pages gone toward some other Keeper stuff than regurgitating information that will be in the other book, especially if that other book is going to be considered a “core” book necessary for play.
Aside from that decision, however, the reorganizational touches across both corebooks is extremely well-done. The Insanity chapter now has new rules and techniques for making Sanity seem less like “mental hit points” and more like its own thing. Magic and Mythos tomes also received a bit of an overhaul, making those chapters more readable and interesting than they’ve been in the past. Much more care and attention has been placed on story details and bringing the game to life; a 7th edition CoC character sheet has no less than ten different categories for background details. Although CoC has always been focused on the fiction, the 7th edition takes extra steps to drive home the idea of role-playing games as collaborative fiction. The influence of today’s story-intensive RPGs like Fate Core or Dungeon World cannot be overstated when you look at an old stalwart like Call of Cthulhu and see how many more column inches have been devoted to theorycraft over mechanics.
As for the Investigator’s Handbook, it still has all the great advice its predecessors had, but now it also combines some of the “life in the 20’s” stuff previous Keeper’s Companion books had. The “Call of Cthulhu” short story that famously appears in each addition has been swapped out with “The Dunwich Horror,” a story that, although not as famous or iconic as “Call of Cthulhu,” is a little more RPG-like in its narrative.
Finally, both corebooks have received a much-welcomed layout and design overhaul, as well. Color pages, more art (complete with captions), and glorious bookmarks and hyperlinked cross-referenced goodness finally put the pdfs on the same level as many of today’s best RPGs. The two books combined weight is north of 600 pages, and virtually none of the column inches are wasted. That this edition of CoC has received such a great facelift makes it all the more disappointing that, as of this review, there is no projected arrival date for physical copies of the corebooks, and that the pdf’s are conventionally priced. That means both books will set you back almost 60 dollars. That’s too rich for many gamers’ blood when it comes to pdf-only.
Which is a shame, because Call of Cthulhu is a roleplaying game that, like its colleague Dungeons & Dragons, should be in the repertoire of every tabletop role-playing gamer. With such practiced and welcomed refinements across all fronts, only the crustiest of grognards could even attempt to launch a previous edition exodus. With its 7th edition, Call of Cthulhu further solidifies its position as one of the greatest role-playing games ever made.