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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Call of Cthulhu II (Part the First)

So it is at long last that Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, is a reality. The venerable and inaugural roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror receives not only a new edition, but also an update and an upgrade—and proper updates and upgrades in either case. For this is not a mere case of intermittent creep between reprints or makeovers of the current rules with relatively minor changes in the rules, an issue that has beset previous editions of Call of Cthulhu. Rather Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is a full rewrite and design of the game, the mechanics, and how the game is played, arguably something that it has not been given in some two decades—if not longer. In the process, the designers have sought to address some fundamental issues that have arisen in over thirty years of game play, to make the game more accessible, and more attractive to an audience for the twenty-first century. The result is a relatively radical redesign whose differences—despite it fundamentally being compatible with previous editions of the game—have proved to be slightly contentious given the game’s thirty year history and whilst they may not necessarily be to the taste of every player or Keeper, they do make sense.

Published by Chaosium, Inc. after a very successful Kickstarter campaign, the very first thing that you notice about Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is that rules have been split into two books—the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook – A Core Game Book for Players and the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. Now the latter contains almost everything in the former—and of course, much, much more, but the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook gives the player all of the information he needs to create characters and then play without being exposed to the secrets in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. It is the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook – A Core Game Book for Players that is being reviewed here.

The very next thing you notice about either book is that they are in full colour—a first for Chaosium, Inc. Gone is the layout of the Call of Cthulhu 20th Anniversary Edition that looked decent with some colour, but was fussy and intrusive when done in black and white. The use of colour is not extensive, but the double spread pieces at the head of each chapter add a certain class and atmosphere, as does the use of luggage tickets to hold sidebar text. The next notable change is that of the book’s choice of fiction—‘The Dunwich Horror’ rather than the eponymous ‘The Call of Cthulhu’—a more atmospheric choice that pulls the focus of the game to Lovecraft’s New England, suggesting that the horror of Call of Cthulhu can be more local and more of an investigation… Another shift in emphasis is that Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is primarily written for the 1920s—its original and Classic Age—and the Modern Day. This does not mean that the rules presented in the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook and the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook cannot be used to run games in the other official periods for Call of Cthulhu, such as Cthulhu: Dark Ages, Cthulhu by Gaslight, Cthulhu Invictus, and The Dreamlands; indeed, far from it. Rather that the focus is those two periods and the others are for the moment covered by the supplement, Cthulhu Through the Ages.

It is important to note what is not in the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook – A Core Game Book for Players. There is no explanation of the rules, of the new mechanics, of Sanity, or of the Cthulhu Mythos. What there is instead is a complete guide to the creation of player characters or investigators in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, plus advice on playing the game and playing in general. This is supported by historical background material on the 1920s as well as everything needed to equip the investigators. The actual rules and mechanics for running the game as well as explanations of the Mythos and scenarios are given in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook.

Beyond the physical changes to the books and their presentation, the greatest changes to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition are understandably to the rules. The best way to illustrate those changes is to start with a player character or investigator. Our sample investigator is Henry Brinded, a character that I have used to illustrate the character creation process in previous reviews and who will appear in the forthcoming Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. Brinded is a Yale Classics graduate who as an officer cadet at university was commissioned in the United States Army and sent to France. There he served in the field artillery. Unfortunately, this left him with partial deafness and a fear of loud noises. After the war he tried to continue with his studies, attempting a Masters Degree, but the stress forced him give up the course. Since then he has been the proprietor of Brinded’s Books, an antiquarian bookshop.

Henry Brinded,
age 44, Antiquarian

STR 40 SIZ 85 CON 45 DEX 70
APP 75 INT 80 POW 65 EDU 91
SAN 58 Luck 75 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 7 HP 12

Brawl 35% (17/7), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Rifle/Shotgun 35% (17/8), damage 2D6/1D6/1D3 (Ithaca Hammerless Field 20G 2.75” calibre shotgun)
Handgun 30% (15/7), damage 1d10+2 (Colt New Service (M1909) .45 LC calibre revolver)
Dodge 35% (17/7)
Skills: Appraise 45%, Archaeology 26%, Art/Craft (Book Restoration) 49%, Art/Craft (Painting) 26%, Artillery 40%, Climb 30%, Credit Rating 45%, Firearms (Handguns) 30%, Firearms (Rifle/Shotgun) 35%, First Aid 50%, History 55%, Library Use 50%, Navigate 20%, Occult 20%, Persuade 40%, Pilot (Boat) 26%, Psychology 31%, Spot Hidden 45%, Stealth 25%,  Swim 40%, Track 20%.
Languages: Ancient Greek 41%, English (Own) 91%, Latin 51%.

Backstory
Personal Description: Tall and thin, just shy of infirm, bespectacled and inquisitive.
Treasured Possessions: Latin-English Primer;
Traits: Introspective but curious, softly spoken, but firm in manner
Phobias: Ligyrophobia – Fear of loud noises.
Notes: Immune to sanity losses resulting from viewing a corpse or gross injury.

The changes to the investigator begin with the attributes—they are expressed as percentiles. They are still rolled using six-sided dice during the creation process, but they are multiplied to get a percentile figure. What this means is that they can be rolled as percentiles, just as skills are. Yet look closer at the some of those skills—the combat skills—and they have a set of numbers after them in parentheses. These are half, or the Hard value, of a skill, and the fifth, or the Extreme value, of a skill, and in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition every attribute and every skill has these values. So for example, Brinded’s INT can be expressed as ‘INT 80 (40/16) and his Appraise as ‘Appraise 45% (22/09)’. They represent the qualitative successes that a player could roll, a roll under Hard value of the skill being better than just under the skill itself. Not only does this measure how well an investigator does on the roll, it can measure how well an investigator does against an opponent or a difficulty. All of this is explained in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook, but notably it replaces the venerable Resistance Table that has been part of Call of Cthulhu and other Basic Roleplaying RPGs for decades, subsuming it into the game’s core mechanic and making it easier to use during actual play. On the downside it does make for a fussier character sheet with all those numbers…

At its most basic then, if both attributes and skills are being treated as percentiles, it means that Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is still fundamentally compatible with previous editions of the game. Converting between the two is a matter of simple arithmetic. This will of course, become more apparent in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook, but it should be noted that the Investigator Handbook does conclude with the article, ‘Converting from Previous Editions of Call of Cthulhu’.

An investigator in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition has two additional stats. POW or Power still exists and an investigator’s starting Sanity is still derived from it, but his Luck is not. Instead, an investigator has a Luck attribute against which all Luck rolls are made. This addresses a common complaint that the POW has always been too influential a factor on an investigator during the game, that too much is derived from it. Further, an option in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook enables Luck to be spent as a resource to modify rolls. Whilst Luck is a wholly new attribute, Build is a wholly new derived  factor, used in fighting maneuvres and also to give a sense of scale. Again, this is fully explained in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook.

The Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook includes some one hundred Occupations. Primarily they are divided between Classic Occupations of the 1920s—Alienist, Explorer, Gun Moll, et cetera—and those of the Modern era—Computer Programmer/Technician/Hacker and Deprogrammer, but many are marked as being Lovecraftian, that is important to Lovecraft’s fiction, including Antiquarian, Author, Dilettante, and so on. There are some odder choices, including Animal Trainer, Prostitute, and Zookeeper for example, but the range given is solid, providing plenty of choice and inspiration. Although an Occupation provides the basis for an investigator’s skills, they are not necessarily derived from his Education attribute. For example, the Gun Moll’s points for her Occupation skills are derived from both her Education and her Appearance attributes. Although the Education attribute covers both formal education and life experience, it makes sense because not every investigator will be highly educated and not every Occupation is based upon a person’s education. Further, it de-emphasises the influence of the Education attribute upon an investigator, again another complaint about previous versions of the game.

There are of course, changes to the game’s skills. The number of skills from one edition of Call of Cthulhu to the next has always fluctuated and Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is no different. For the most part the skills are tidied up. Appraise, Animal Handling, Read Lips, and Survival are added as new skills, the latter requiring a specialisation, as does the new Lore skill which covers non-standard areas of knowledge like Dream Lore or UFO Lore. Old interpersonal skills such as Debate, Bargain, and Oratory are subsumed under the Persuade skill, whilst Charm and Intimidate are added alongside the venerable Fast Talk. Fist/Punch, Grapple, Kick, and so on are now covered by the Fighting (Brawl) skill, but more specific definitions are required for skills above 50%. Other melee skills are treated as individual specialisations of the Fighting skill as most guns are for the Firearms skills, although notably, the use of shotguns and rifles are treated as the one Firearms (Rifle/Shotgun) skill. Similarly, all of the old Art and Craft skills are specialisations of the Art/Craft skill and all of the science skills—Biology, Chemistry, Cryptography, Forensics, Physics, and so on—are specialisations of the Science skill.

One skill that has changed is Credit Rating. Now it is really no longer a skill, but a measure of an investigator’s financial status—and to an extent, his social status. Although it can still be rolled during play and like other skills in Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, can be ‘pushed’—see below—it cannot be given a ‘tick’ during play and therefore cannot be improved through an Experience Check. Rather it represents a financial resource from which various factors are derived and which can go up or down according to an investigator’s actions during a scenario. So successfully thwarting a cult might earn an investigator an increase in his Credit Rating, but being sent to an asylum might decrease it. This will be down to the Keeper. Every Occupation includes a Credit Rating range on which Occupation points need to be spent.

Part of creating an investigator also involves creating a Backstory, including Personal Description, Ideology/Beliefs, Significant People, Meaningful Locations, Treasured Possessions, and Traits. To each of these a player attaches a short pithy and meaningful statement, each statement further defining the investigator and serving as a roleplaying hook. During play an investigator can draw upon them to help recover Sanity points, but as much as they support an investigator’s Sanity, they can be corrupted when he loses Sanity. Of course, they also round an investigator out, serving to make him more than numbers.

Lastly, a number of optional rules give alternative means of creating investigators as well as some Experience Packages that grant an investigator extra skills at the cost of some lost Sanity  points. Obviously they include a War Experience Package to reflect time served in the Great War—Henry Brinded has this package—or more recent conflicts in the Modern Age. Other packages include medical and criminal experience and there is even a package to reflect experience with the Mythos! As useful as these are, it is disappointing that no package is included to reflect the experience of women on the Home Front during the Great War.

Although the rules themselves are not detailed in the Investigator Handbook, but two important changes are discussed, both to do with skill rolls and both draw upon more recent developments in the roleplaying hobby. The first of these is that upon a successful skill roll, a player, having already agreed upon the possible outcome of a successful skill roll with the Keeper, earns the right to narrate the outcome. Not in every situation, but it does mean that in some situations in the game that the Keeper is no longer the gatekeeper and that the players have greater agency.

The second change to skill rolls in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, is designed to address the problem of failure. In previous editions of the game, when a player failed a roll, there was no way around the problem and this could be an issue when the investigator was trying to find an important clue, such that the Keeper would have to find a way around this roadblock in order for the game to progress. Now the exact mechanics are not discussed in the Investigator Handbook, but the concept is—a player can Push a roll. What this means is that if a player fails a roll, then he can roll again. He needs to explain what his investigator is doing differently to earn the right to Push a roll and he also needs to negotiate with the Keeper what the consequences of failure are.
For example, Frank Gilroy is a lawyer working for Dan O’Bannion, Arkham’s most notorious gangster. Sent to investigate a farm that has been supplying O’Bannion with illegal hooch, Frank and his team find themselves under attack. Frank decides that he needs to get into cover as quickly as possible and the nearest cover is the farmhouse. The main entrance is locked and so Frank tries to break it down using his Strength of 55% and fails!
Frank’s player decides to Push the roll, explaining that Frank will charge the locked door. He and the Keeper negotiate the terms of possible failure—a pair of dogs will hear Frank banging on the door, causing them to charge out of the surrounding cornfield and attack. Unfortunately Frank’s player fails the roll and the two big hounds bound into the yard, slavering to get a piece of the lawyer!
Combat rolls cannot be Pushed in this fashion, but like the right to narrate the outcome of successful skill rolls, this is another storytelling mechanic. Most obviously it is a means to get around the problem of failed rolls, but it has another effect—it makes the play of the game less black and white, giving a greater flexibility in the outcome of skill rolls and so moving Call of Cthulhu towards a slightly pulpier feel. Examples of Pushed rolls and the consequences of their failure are given for every other skill in the skills list.

One question oft raised when it comes to playing Call of Cthulhu is, “If the Mythos is so dangerous—both physically and mentally—why does my character continue to investigate it?”. Traditionally the response has always been “...because no one else will” and “...because only he can stand against humanity.”. That of course still applies, but Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition suggests reasons beyond this in the form of ‘Investigator Organisations’. Although they provide no benefit in terms of the rules, these do provide motivations and means of support—physically, mentally, and in some cases, financially. Members of an organisation might have shared experiences, interests, ties of blood, and so on, that drive them to investigate the unknown. They are also a ready supply of NPCs for the Keeper and of replacement investigators for the players. Several example organisations are given including the Wrath’s Circus of Wonders, the Strange but True! Newspaper, and Ratched’s Children—the latter a group of former psychiatric patients affiliated by their exposure to the Mythos. They accompanied by a set of ready-to-play investigators (or NPCs), each affiliated with one of the nine sample organisations. One organisation, the Miskatonic University-based The Society for the Exploration of the Unexplained is given a fuller set of seven investigators and is particularly notable for being the only organization to be given female investigators as examples.

Befittingly for a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the Investigator Handbook provides advice on how to investigate—searching for clues, conducting research, talking to people, and so on. It discusses team composition, tactical aspects—in general, both spells and dynamite are a bad thing, what equipment to take, and long term planning—if the investigators last that long. Older players of Call of Cthulhu may recall ‘The Field Manual of the Theron Marks Society’, the supplement of useful advice that appeared in the anthology, Terror from the Stars. The chapter of advice in the Investigator Handbook feels similar, yet is nevertheless useful, introducing new players to basics of ‘investigative horror’. Its corollary is a chapter on broader advice on roleplaying and then various game mechanics. Both are useful sections, designed to highlight the differences between Call of Cthulhu and the other RPGs that the players may have experienced. Still it seems odd that the two chapters are kept separated from each other.

Rounding out the Investigator Handbook is a chapter of reference material. This includes a timeline of events from 1890 to 2012, travel distances and speeds, a goods and services price list for anything and everything from five yards of gauze bandages and a single semester’s college tuition to twenty-five glass marbles and an elephant gun. The last section of the volume includes extensive tables listing melee weapons, firearms, and explosives. Of these tables, it seems odd not include all of the signature weapons actually described earlier and to include the Molotov Cocktail under the 1920s when it did not exist until the 1930s*. Again, it seems odd that this chapter has been kept separate from an earlier chapter, in this case, the one devoted to the 1920s.

*Admittedly, this is a personal bugbear of mine.

Now as good as all of this sounds, the Investigator Handbook is not quite perfect. The problem is with the rules—or rather the lack of them. It should be made clear that the Investigator Handbook is not intended as a rulebook nor stand in for the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook, but nevertheless it does discuss numerous aspects of the rules. In each and every case, this discussion is helpful and supportive, but only if the reader knows the rules already. Without this knowledge, this discussion feels obtuse because there is nothing specific in the book for the reader to refer to, for although certain rules are detailed—Pushed rolls, combined rolls, regular and hard rolls, and so on—they are placed deep within the text of the book and thus not easy to find or refer to. The solution is then either to refer to the Quickstart Rules, ideally because that is where the reader will have begun playing Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition or the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook because that is where a full explanation of the rules can be found and ideally the Keeper will have a copy. Arguably though, the reader and player should not need to refer to either to get a simple explanation of the rules, especially when those rules are being discussed in the book to hand. The ideal solution would have been to include a simple reference for the rules, preferably no more than a page in length, that a player could refer to during play or during his read through of this book. This would not be a case of creating a second rulebook—since all of the rules are in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook—but rather making the Investigator Handbook a better, more complete, and useful work.

In essence, the Investigator Handbook brings together the contents of two previously published books—1920's Investigator's Companion, Vol. 1 and 1920's Investigator's Companion, Vol. 2, collectively published as The 1920's Investigator's Companion—and combines it with the means to create much more detailed, more rounded investigators. Informed by some thirty years of play and certainly a decade of advances in roleplaying game design, there is no denying that the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook is an excellent introduction to Lovecraftian investigative horror, one that is informative when it comes to both the setting and the investigative process, but arguably, without a short rules reference, it is not quite 100% complete.