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Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu was a short story written by H.P Lovecraft and, along with many other stories he wrote, forms the back bone of what is known as the Cthulhu Mythos. Strange and evil entities plague peoples nightmares, secret cults worship gods from before time and any poor soul who finds out that these things are going on find their sanity leaving them. It is primarily designed to be set in the 1920s, the time most of Lovecrafts works where set, but could be set at any point in history, and indeed there are sourcebooks for a variety of eras from ancient Rome to the Victorian age. It’s a great concept for an RPG and one that fans have been enjoying for about 30years, even since Chaosium release the 1st edition of “Call of Cthulhu” back in 1981. So how does it stand up now in 2013?

Call of Cthulhu

Well the book kicks off with the actual short story of Call of Cthulhu, which is probably the best way for someone who is unfamiliar with the mythos to get into it, and is also a great way of getting the idea for how the game is going to play. It is about an investigator who stumbles upon a mystery and his curiosity takes him deeper and deeper and exposing him to more and more of the Eldritch horrors that exist in this world. He travels the world, following mysterious cults who worship ancient gods (Cthulhu), following up on police reports, going to libraries to conduct research; all the sorts of things your character will be doing in the game. In Call of Cthulhu, your character, or “investigator”, will start off as an ordinary person and, much like the characters in H.P Lovecraft’s stories, who gets catch up in a mystery that will eventually lead to them going insane or getting killed.

This is where Call of Cthulhu differs from most traditional RPGs in that your character isn’t going to end up as a 15 level wizard/barbarian, crackling with power and swinging a magic claymore around surrounded by treasure! No, your character is going to die or go insane by the end of their adventures, they may or may not make some money along the way, they may even improve their skills with a pistol. Hell, you could start off as a ordinary school teacher and end up as a deadly assassin, but it won’t make a difference, as you will eventually die or go insane! I have to admit, when I first heard this was how the game played, I wasn’t sure just how fun that would be, isn’t part of the fun of RPGs being a hero and saving the day? Or even if you’re playing and evil character, you still want them to “win”, don’t you?

The system Call of Cthulhu uses is a very simple one, known as the BRP system, or “Basic Role-Playing” system, one that any experienced role-players will be able to pick up in no time and new players will find a relatively easy way into the hobby. Despite this simplicity the book does take its time to explain everything to you as if for the first time, what attributes are, when to role dice, what the GM and players’ roles are. Like I say, experienced players may see these sections as unnecessary but they really help highlight the differences in play to other RPGs and worth reading whatever your level of experience.

So character creation and the rules out of the way, the books then goes on to detail how the rules for insanity work, both mechanically and more abstractly. Again, very well written and helps get the reader used to a mechanic that is not in most other games (and to be fair, any that do probably stole the idea from Call of Cthulhu, Dark Heresy I’m looking at you!). It also includes information on medical treatment of insanity for all the time periods the game is typically played, namely 1920’s (time at which Lovecraft wrote), 1890s and the present day (although give how long the game has been out, the first “present day” sourcebooks are now so old they have become historical settings

themselves!). Insanity is a big part of this game and gets great treatment here, if you were unsure of how it would work in a game before, by the end you will be itching to start tugging at the frayed edges of your players psyches!

Magic then gets a similar treatment, explainations or how it works in the world and mechanically, highlighting what sets it apart from your standard fire-ball flinging faire. Then you get an explaination of the Eldar gods, then a chapter on Lovecraft himself, a more detailed chapter on mental disorders, a chapter on the necronomicon, GM advice on running a mystery game.... at this point you realise that you are less than HALF WAY through the book!

This book is crammed full of stuff, getting your money’s worth isn’t in it, they could split this book into 2 or 3 seperate core books and nobody would complain. I paid less than £15 for the whole book but i would have paid that for the monster section alone, just page after page of animals both natural and supernatural, far more than I thought would be in there. For a game that isn’t supposed to be a hack n’slash affair it gives you a hell of a lot of things to kick and punch.

Then there are magic items, NPCs, ready-made characters, adventures, real-world information. I can’t stress enough just how amazed I was at the amount of information you get in this book, it is staggering. I have read a few of Lovecrafts stories but am no way an expert, and so despite having a general idea on what would be going on in this game, I was worried there would be a lot of work involved on my part in creating an adventure, I was wrong! This book gives you everything you need, EVERYTHING, to create a game, whether it is a one-shot or a campaign that will span several years. Even if you have never heard of Cthulhu before reading this, buy this book and it will tell you all you need to know.

So, the most important question, is a game where you character is going to die or go insane actually fun to play? Well, as with all games, it is a matter of opinion, but as someone who was a bit sceptical to start with, I can say I was 100% won over! There is a drama and tension that can so easily be lost when your character is covered head to toe in magic items, a desperate hope your character will survive when you know the odds are stacked against them. It is a matter of taste, and I can imagine some people may not like their characters being at a disadvantage, but if you and your players are up for giving it ago, then there is certainly a lot of fun to be had. It is also a lot of fun for the GM, or Keeper as they are known, and again, quite different to your usual game. You are presenting a mystery for your players, a series of clues for them to follow rather than encounters. Best advice I can give to first time keepers is to start with one of the adventures in the book, they are the best way of getting an idea of how to run a Call of Cthulhu game. I am not a big user of prewritten material for my games, but I would probably opt for published adventures when running Call of Cthulhu, just to ensure the clues weren’t too obvious or too obscure. Again, if you are planning to make up your own games, then there is more than enough info in the core book to keep you going for years.

This is one of those games that every gamer needs on their shelf, it is a classic and deservedly so. It does what a lot of games claim to do which is over an experience unlike your typical RPG, only this one actually delivers. After 30 years, this product has been refined and distilled to the point that the core rule book is all you need, so much so i really don’t know why you would buy any sourcebooks (other than to support this fine company).

A masterpiece, highly recommended 5/5.

5 Star Rating: Highly Recommended

Note: Check our Free Stuff for Call of Cthulhu Here!

Want to try another system?

World of Darkness Core Book Dark Heresy Witchcraft In Flames