Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: Call of Cthulhu

I was about to do Unknown Armies, but how can I do that when I haven't even hit Call of Cthulhu yet?  Yeesh.

After I encountered World of Darkness, I'm pretty sure Call of Cthulhu was the second roleplaying game I encountered.  I hardly knew enough to know how old school it was, but there were several things I liked about it.

First, it was my introduction to H. P. Lovecraft.  If you're reading this and have somehow avoided H. P. Lovecraft, you should read one of his stories ("Call of Cthulhu" is included with the game of the same name).  Being in the public domain, most of his works are online, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding them.  Local libraries also tend to have collections of his work.

Second, it was deadly.  If you get hit more than once, you're probably unconscious or dead.  Assuming your opponent is mortal.  If your opponent is some atrocious alien thing, you probably only have to get hit once.  Fighting is not your friend in Call of Cthulhu.

Third, weird things are scary.  Say what you will, but when the zombie apocalypse comes, you're not going to cock your shotgun and unload both barrels into the head of the thing that used to be your sister.  You're going to weep, and blubber, and possibly lose bowel and bladder control.  The supernatural is frightening, and even if you can accept it, you're still not comfortable with it.

Fourth, it's one of the simplest game systems I've seen.  Your skills are expressed as percentages.  Roll a d100 under that percentage.  Easy.  Stats and the resistance table are a little trickier, but ultimately, everything is expressed as a percentage.

If you've read Lovecraft, there really isn't much to say about Call of Cthulhu; like Lovecraft's stories (and the stories of his imitators), you are normal people who discover that this world hides a secret, awful one.  Once you have seen the truth, however, you are frequently cursed to keep investigating.  Unfortunately, the world only gets more awful, because the ultimate secret is that the carefully cultivated human world is the oddity, not the "supernatural" world (the alien science of the Cthulhu Mythos isn't actually supernatural).  The universe is probably not actively malevolent, but it certainly doesn't care about you; humanity is a cosmic accident, one that will eventually suffer extinction just as many species before.

Of course, roleplaying being what it is, Call of Cthulhu is frequently a little action-oriented (Lovecraft's original sources hardly used as much dynamite as Cthulhu characters), and a little pulp (many games take place in the 1920s).  Even so, Call of Cthulhu rewards scholarship and investigation more often than combat.

But in every case, the fun of Call of Cthulhu comes less from the thrill of accomplishment, and more from making the most of the downward slide into death or madness.

1 comment:

  1. Say what you will, but when the zombie apocalypse comes, you're not going to cock your shotgun and unload both barrels into the head of the thing that used to be your sister.
    There's this scene in The Walking Dead I loved where a man tries and tries to shoot the zombie that used to be his wife and just can't do it. A good Cthulhu game can bring you all this and more.
    What I like best is the slow slide into paranoia, if the character survives long enough. Nothing is to be trusted.

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