I have posted about why Call of Cthulhu is my favourite role-playing game before but Charles’ project over at Dyvers has given me the opportunity to go into a bit more detail about why it is so ace and why everyone should give it a try.
I think that novelty was a big part of the game’s success in winning us over. Even then the game stood out as different and unknown. We’d been raised on Fighting Fantasy and Games Workshop and Knightmare so we knew about orcs and dragons and death traps and dungeons, everyone had seen Star Wars, and enough of us had seen enough dodgy 90’s anime to work out how cyberpunk was supposed to feel, but Call of Cthulhu was new. It was about normal people facing the supernatural, but not the vampires and werewolves of classic horror, but strange unknowable things from beyond the stars that owed more to science fiction than the Gothic tradition.
It is a game with quite a different feel to almost anything else. Player-characters in Call of Cthulhu are not superheroes or barbarian kings or powerful wizards -- although the latter is a possible but probably unwanted character development -- but ordinary people. You do sometimes get the odd soldier or police officer but for the most part Call of Cthulhu characters are historians, doctors, priests, or librarians. Their skills are based on knowledge and observation rather than shooting or stabbing, and indeed shooting or stabbing is often the worst thing to do in the game, unless it’s shooting or stabbing another member of the party because they’ve gone insane and are coming at your character with a rusty claw hammer, their knuckles bloody, their eyes wild, and their lips flecked with foamy spittle.
With this emphasis on more cerebral skills the tone and pace of the game is different to others. The obstacles in the game are not for the most part physical -- although there are plenty of opportunities for climbing walls, picking locks, and, perhaps most of all, hiding -- but mental and social. It’s a game of investigation, of talking to the right people, of looking in the right places, and of knowing the right facts, and the payoff to all this -- the game’s equivalent of the treasure room or boss fight -- is the revelation of why uncle Oswald disappeared, or why farmer Dougal’s cattle are unwell, and so on, and that revelation is often one that is inimical to the player-characters.
There is something of a contradiction inherent in the game; it’s all about investigation, but it could be argued that the player-characters are often better off being unsuccessful in their investigations. I think this tension -- although it emulates the source material well -- is what gives Call of Cthulhu a reputation as a game in which it’s expected for characters to die or go mad, and I have seen that conception mutate into an assumption that the game is best played in a sort of humorous Paranoia way, with everyone trying to kill the player-characters off in the most gruesome way possible. I’m not some boring purist who thinks that such an approach damages the game’s stature and that it should only be approached in a serious and literary manner; it’s a valid way of playing, I’ve played it this way, and it’s great fun, but it’s not the only way to play.
That’s not to say that it’s not dark. It’s the only role-playing game in which I’ve felt fear; my friend Paul wrote an adventure about a witch and towards the end as she advanced down a tunnel towards our characters, scraping a knife along the stone wall and hissing, with our rifle and shotgun blasts bouncing off her withered flesh, I must admit that I started to feel real panic. Paul’s description of what the witch did to our characters with that knife stayed with us for weeks after and made us shudder every time we remembered it. Although maybe that was just Paul. He’s an archaeologist now; I like to think his career choice was inspired by Call of Cthulhu.
It’s also the only game in which I’ve caused fear at the table. I still have fond memories of the players of my second and current group looking at me in shock and dread when I announced that they were being assaulted not by a tentacled horror from beyond the stars but a deranged human being with a fire axe. I’m sure it’s possible to scare players in any game but I have only ever seen it happen in Call of Cthulhu. Perhaps it’s because player-characters are so fragile; a Call of Cthulhu investigator doesn’t get stronger like a Dungeons & Dragons character does -- unless it’s the d20 version from 2001 but we don’t talk about that -- so that first level feel, that sense that any wrong step could spell the end for the character, never goes away. Games like RuneQuest or Stormbringer, though they share the same basic ruleset as Call of Cthulhu, allow characters to rise in power and strength; even Traveller, a game with no advancement mechanism as such, gives characters opportunities to gather power through accumulation of money, technology, and influence.
In Call of Cthulhu, money, technology, and influence are of little use against eldritch forces, and increasing one’s Photography skill from 67% to 72% will be of no use when a strange dog-human hybrid thing is chewing off the top of Professor Woodman’s skull. Investigators can arm themselves with mystical weapons and arcane spells, but all have significant drawbacks, and those drawbacks create interesting decision points in the game; casting Bulwark Against the Denizens of the Outer Dark may save your life, but if it fries your brain and leaves you insane, is it worth the cost?
I say yes, because if nothing else, it’s fun. It probably makes me a horrible person but one of the most fun aspects of the game for me is the collection of mental and physical injuries and disorders the player-characters pick up over the course of a campaign; if Father Bowden’s encounter with deep ones in a previous investigation has left him with a phobia of large bodies of water and the next adventure is set on the shores of a Norwegian lake, then that’s a recipe for a great evening of gaming. What Call of Cthulhu characters lack in +1 swords, gold pieces, and strongholds, they make up for with missing limbs and phobias; I know I sort of dismissed the suicidal mode of play above but even in more serious games there’s some pride to be had in a long list of ailments on one’s character sheet.
The 1890’s and 1990’s -- or the modern day -- have been supported as core settings in most editions, but the only real differences in the game’s rules are that each era presents a different set of player-character skills and a different equipment list; this makes adaptation to any location or era a simple matter of doing a few minutes of research. There are few role-playing systems that are so flexible and easy to adapt.
At the time of writing I have just finished running a game in which my players are agents of the Special Operations Executive running about in Vichy France, but I have in the past run a campaign in which they’ve been supernatural investigators in modern Britain, as well as a sprawling pan-European campaign set in the classic 1920’s era. I have played in countless games, but one recent favourite has been Cthulhu Invictus, because who doesn’t want to play a Roman centurion battling the minions of the Mythos? Perhaps one day I’ll finish putting together my notes on a swinging 60’s superspies version of the game; I’m thinking it may be called The Shadow Over Portmeirion.
That campaign idea has been bubbling along since about 2002 but I will come back to it because I keep coming back to Call of Cthulhu, twenty years after I was introduced to it. No other game has held my interest and attention like Call of Cthulhu; in comparison I haven’t played Shadowrun in fifteen years, sorry Tim. The game is part of me now; I can run it almost without looking at the rules, and when I write adventures for other games, they always seem to be Call of Cthulhu investigations in disguise. It’s my favourite role-playing game by far, and I hope I’ve been able to convey at least some of what thrills and excites me about it, even two decades after my first investigator walked through the front door of that haunted house in Boston.
At some point soon this paragraph right here, the one you're reading right now, will disappear and in its place will be a list of links to other blogs that have taken part in the project. Look out for it!