I Played Call of Cthulu and You Won't Believe What Happened
Call of Cthulhu is a game with a reputation. It's a game that my husband was excited to pick up at PaxUnplugged when he saw it at the Chaosium booth, and given how nice everyone at the booth had been it was an expenditure that I couldn't say no to. It had been one of the first RPGs that Loren ever played and his excitement over the game was infectious.
I'll be honest here. Since my early days playing on AmberMUSH in the late 90s, the Cthulhu mythos had intrigued me. The Lovecraft writing style, however, is something I don't enjoy. Outside of a single time playing a Cthulhu board game, I'd never ventured into this world. Loren decided to run a game when our friend from Australia came to visit over Christmas.
And where better to run a creepy, eldritch horror game? Why, the cabin we had rented in the middle of the woods... where no one would hear us scream!
What is This?
Call of Cthulhu is a roleplaying game based on H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. The players take the part of Investigators, people who have some reason to investigate macabre goings on in the world. They track down cultists and solve mysteries in order to keep the bad guys from awakening ancient old gods from the outer planes. These ancient ones are manifestations of madness and chaos, and the powers they wield, and the powers they give their cultist followers, bend the nature of reality and sanity.
Many of the settings you'll see the game played in are reminiscent of the old noir detective novels. You'll get gritty play, some globe-trotting, and an overall low magic setting. After all, the magic involved in the world can break your mind and break your reality. It's not something you seek out most of the time, save to stop it.
Call of Cthulhu is a percentile-based game, so using a pair of D10s, you attempt to roll a number lower than your skill value. I was more than a little inebriated when trying to create my character and I didn't maximize my skills quite as much as I should have. I try very hard not to twink out a character when creating them, preferring someone more rounded, but I'll say now: this is a game where you should give at least some thought to min-maxing your character.
There were only two of us playing, with Loren fulfilling the part of the Keeper (The DM/GM/ST in this system), so each of us made two characters each. Both of us decided we'd make one fighty bit and one mental or social bit, and together we should be able to tackle most challenges.
I rolled up Emrys, a reskin of a Hunter character I had played in a World of Darkness game. Older gent, very British, and very much the guy you turn to in order to do your research... but not your fighting. To go with Emrys, I also made Oliver Chambers. Oliver was an American, former air force officer, in search of his missing brother Robert (get the connection to the world?).
For Emrys I did a full creation, and for Oliver I went with the game's Quickstart option. You can take a look at the sheets and see the difference this makes. Not only was Oliver quicker to generate, but he also came out with a more concentrated set of skills. And there are a LOT of skills to be found in this game.
We used an editable PDF that did the derived stats for us, so mostly it was picking numbers for attributes and skills and then letting everything else work out. Even with this shortcut, it took us both a while to create our characters. This may have had something to do with the beer and hot tub involved, but overall I think the character creation process for the game was longer than I would have liked. It's one of the few downsides to the system.
You can see both sheets here, if you're curious what I had to play with.
Since this was intended as a one-shot to try out the system, Loren ran one of the adventures that was in the Keeper's book. Our story was set in the early 1930s in a small town in Vermont. Our group was assembled via a corporate that investigated odd stuff throughout the world, and we decided Emrys worked for them full time while the others had done jobs off and on for some extra cash or, in the case of our rich Aristocrat Elsie, just for funsies. We spent some time discussing how they knew each other, what they had done with one another before, and a few idiosyncratic twists for the characters.
I won't go into detail about what the adventure entailed, as this could spoil it for you if you try it on your own. I will say that the book provided plenty of maps, enough NPCs, and more than enough data to get the adventure going and keep it on track. There were decisions to be made, options available, and forks in the adventure depending on how we made them. The path wasn't linear, and that's something I enjoy.
I will also say, we immediately regretted that most of our characters were really, really shitty with listen and notice checks.
It didn't take long before our team of four decided to split into groups of two in order to accomplish our objective. The two fighty types went off and got themselves captured. The two upper-crusters took a casual stroll through the grounds and blew up a truckload of dynamite before having some tea and pulling off a rescue of their captured compatriots. It was a riot.
By now, you have to be chomping at the bit to know what the surprise is, right? I mean, surely that's not just a clickbait headline to lure you into reading this blog post!
Call of Cthulhu is a game known for its high chance of insanity and death. The advice that Loren gave us when we started playing is essential: if you're fighting, you've already lost. I could tell this was going to be the case from early on. Even with what seemed to be a pretty hefty physical build, Oliver couldn't take many hits before he'd just be dead. Guns hurt, mmmkay?
We made a lot of sanity rolls over the game and Oliver lost something like 30 points worth of his sanity based on the weird, not-normal shit he saw throughout the two or three days they were in Vermont. Both of my characters took several injuries and one hit took nearly half of Emrys's health.
The hilight of the game, though, was Oliver and Jasper sat around between buildings taunting a cultist that was afraid of light. It was something like this:
Yes, we sat around and told the cultists they had fucked up now. And even when they retaliated by desiccating my character's leg, he refused to let them out of the literal spotlight. Cooler heads prevailed, though, and they were able to escape.
The surprising twist was that, other than losing a limb? All of us made it out alive.
Loren's mortals campaign in our Chronicles of Darkness game is about to wrap up its first chapter, and we've decided we'll move to Call of Cthulhu for a while after that. We're prepping a medieval world rather than the standard 1920-1930s era earth. In short, despite the clunkiness of the character creation, it's very much a game I want to play.
One of my favorite aspects of the game is its lack of XP. You don't get XP for sessions, for kills, for anything. Instead, if you successfully make a skill check, then you can mark it down and try to roll an advancement later. This leads to a more organic character growth as you increase skills you're actually using. Most common skills also have a base chance of success. Sure, it's not high, but it's at least a chance. So you have the ability to grow into things you didn't start with.
I'm definitely looking forward to a regular Call of Cthulhu game. Want to check out some play for yourself? The fine folks at Encounter Roleplay have an upcoming game!
Have you played? Leave some comments and let me know what you thought.