Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 25 September 2011

Curse of Chaosium II

It has been a while since there has been a Keeper’s Screen for Call of Cthulhu. Well, now there is, and it has two problems. First, it is French. Second, it is from Chaosium, Inc..
Now it should be made clear that this is anything other than a case of Francophobia. I neither possess nor can I profess any bias against the French. Not so, Chaosium. I do possess and I profess a bias against Chaosium. Perhaps then, I suffer from a case of “Chaosiumophobia”? All of which requires an explanation, and at that, I promise that you will get one. Just not quite yet.
The Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen is based on a screen originally published by Éditions Sans Detour, the French publisher of Call of Cthulhu or rather, l’Appel de Cthulhu. It comes as a three-panel affair in landscape format on thick, glossy hardcover stock, the type of card stock used for book covers of most RPG hardbacks that is now industry standard. The front of the screen shows a muted colour panoramic photograph from the archives of Miskatonic University that depicts three investigators surveying a strange site. It is a nicely done illustration, but somewhat lacking in atmosphere. It seems unfair to do so, but it does draw comparison with the Keeper’s Screen for Trail of Cthulhu, the front illustration of which is dark, atmospheric, and evokes a sense of dread.
The reverse of the Keeper’s Screen, or rather, inside it, is done in black, white, and grey. Running across the top of the Screen is an “Indefinite Insanity Gauge” which indicates exactly how much Sanity needs to be lost in an hour for an investigator to go indefinitely insane. The left hand panel gives charts for “Skills And Base Chances,” “Quick NPC Statistics,” “Sample Sanity Losses,” “Sample Phobias,” and “States of Sanity.” The centre panel gives “Prevailing Rules In All Situations,” “Characteristics And Attributes,” “Damage Bonuses,” the “Resistance Table,” and “Physical Injuries.” The right hand panel gives “Qualification Levels,” “The Order of Attack,” “Quick Weapons, Ranges And Modifiers,” “Combat Summary,” “Grapple Results,” “Skill Roll Results,” “States of Injury,” “Selected Weapons Notes” (which encompasses improvised, hand-to-hand, and natural weaponry as well as firearms, explosives, and armour), “Healing,” and “Attack Modifiers For Cover.” In many cases, the various tables and charts come with page references to the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook.
At first glance, it would appear that the Keeper’s Screen has everything that the Keeper needs to run a game and that all of the various tables and charts are very useful. At second glance, the page references in nearly all cases are very broad, referring to whole sections of the rulebook, rather than the specific pages from where the rules are taken for this Screen. For example, the “Physical Injuries” chart refers to pages 51 to 65 of the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook when in fact, the actual Spot Rules from which they come is on page 57. Another oddity occurs with the “Quick Weapons, Ranges And Modifiers” which handily gives the range modifiers for the various weapon types against creatures of varying Sizes indicated by silhouettes. Alongside the silhouette of a man, the chart uses those of a cat, a dog, an elephant, and a horse. Which begs the question, how many times are the investigators going to be shooting against creatures as ordinary as this, as opposed to Ghouls, Mi-go, Shoggoths, and so on? Alright, so the use of ordinary creatures is a handy reference to gauge the size of a foe in game terms, but not exactly relevant in the game itself.
Besides this, while the “Grapple Results” chart is useful, the Keeper is still required to refer to the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook – page 68 for the actual skill of Grapple – in order to actually find out how the skill works. It would have helped if there had at least been a reference to that page, but either way, the omission actually negates the point of the Screen – to make the game easier to run.
Beyond a glance, and perhaps with a successful Spot Hidden roll or two, it becomes apparent that the Keeper’s Screen hides some inconsistencies. So on the left hand panel, the “States of Sanity” lists effects from the loss of Sanity that are not described in the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook, namely social effects that decrease an investigator’s Credit Rating skill. On the right hand panel, the “Qualification Levels” for skills at 25% (Amateur), 50% (Professional), 75% (Expert), and 90% (Master) make sense, but are not found in the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook, though something similar is found in the Keeper’s Companion. Similarly, “The Order of Attack” chart states that firearms that can be fired three times in a round can be fired that third time in order of the combatants’ DEX, whereas in the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook, it is based on half of the Combatants’ DEX. Then the “Selected Weapons Notes” suggests that for natural weapons such as fists, kicks, and headbutts, possess a “knockback” effect. Nowhere in Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition is this ever discussed…
Accompanying the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen is a large poster done by the artists Christian Grussi and El Théo that explores the possible relationships between the various deities, entities, and minions of the Cthulhu Mythos. It is done as a kind of chart, complete with annotations in Gothic script and various anatomical sketches. The question that the poster raises is, “What’s it for?” Is it an in-game artefact, meant to be found by the investigators? Or just a free poster to be hung on the purchaser’s wall? If the former, then it hints at too much knowledge. If the latter, how many purchasers will actually hang it on their wall? The likelihood is that this poster is destined to get lost in a purchaser’s gaming collection, a creased or scuffed frippery, because it is not something that the Keeper needs to take to his game. Ideally, the Keeper should have had something that could have been useful for his Call of Cthulhu game, and if the poster is a bonus, then that exactly is what it is and absolutely no more and no less.
The design and content of the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen begs two questions, both asking what exactly it is. Given its suggested rules changes, is it intended as a preview of the proposed Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition? Or rather is it simply a translation of the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen published by Éditions Sans Detour? As much as many devotees of Call of Cthulhu – including this one – would wish the former question to be true, for the latest version of the game from Éditions Sans Detour is not only beautiful, but actually progressive in terms of its rules in comparison with Chaosium’s conservatism, it is very unlikely to be so.
Which leaves the purchaser of the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen to wonder why Chaosium did nothing more for what is a major aid for its game than the literal translation of the French l’Appel de Cthulhu Keeper’s Screen? In doing that nothing more, it shows both a lack of attention to detail and a lack of understanding of the latest version of the rules that it has been publishing for thirty years.
As an aside, if Chaosium can simply translate l’Appel de Cthulhu Keeper’s Screen, is there any reason why it simply could not just translate and publish the latest version of l’Appel de Cthulhu and in doing so, give Call of Cthulhu not only the update and rewrite it needs, but also make it a more appealing product? That in truth, would have been a better celebration of the game than the Call of Cthulhu Thirtieth Anniversary Edition which was just not that special…

Penultimately, Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen is a “curate’s egg,” an object that is in parts good and in parts bad, but as a combined result is entirely spoilt. Physically the Keeper’s Screen is sturdy and it has many charts on its reverse that will be useful when running the game, but enough of them are substantially different to the rules currently and easily available – unless you read French, that is – to make its use problematic to say the least. The simple is this: in publishing a product for its game line that is not compatible with said game line, but rather compatible for another game line in another language, Chaosium, Inc. got it wrong.
Lastly, I should address two issues raised at the top of this review. First is my possible Francophobia. Having already denied either possessing or professing this, I would go further and express Francophilia when it comes to the latest edition of l’Appel de Cthulhu from Éditions Sans Detour. I would like to see that translated into English and published in colour. Then there is the matter of my “Chaosiumophobia,” of which I leave you the reader to diagnose. I will though, leave you with a definition:
cha•os•ium•o•pho•bi•a [kay-ozy-um-o-foh-bee-uh]
an abnormal fear of a publisher shooting itself in the foot by not paying enough attention to detail to a long running and popular application of its intellectual property


  1. For my part I love the front artwork of this keeper screen. I appreciate the focus on the classic era and the vintage feel of the muted colors. But I agree that the Trail of Cthulhu screen is similar and more atmospheric.

    That said, I appreciate the rest of review and I agree with all the points it raise.

  2. alas, poor yorick

    ye're spot on

  3. Indeed, an excellent review.
    I had my doubts before getting this screen but still did since it was 11$ during Father's Day sale and I can actually read french.
    It is actually a very bad product in a sense and a correct one in another.

  4. An overall excellent review.
    With regard to the size-silhouettes, I think the use of mundane animals is sound; it is more useful to refer to a mythos entity as being about the size of a horse or elephant rather than Star Vampire or Great Race size.

  5. Your comments pretty much echo my own made in my Amazon Review of the screen. I was also [mode=UNDERSTATEMENT]disappointed[/mode] that the "limited" 30th anniversary edition (mine numbered 1428 of some undisclosed maximum so that is an essentially worthless indicator of rarity) couldn't have been used to launch 7th edition, or maybe the translated Sans Detour edition you rightfully ask about. What a waste of a golden opportunity to expand the collector's library AND widen the potential appeal of the expensive new rulebook.

    And *why* couldn't the hardback limited edition Masks of Nyarlathotep have been bound in the same way the 30th anniversary edition was, or such a binding be offered in addition to that used? To have been able to at least pair the reprints on the bookshelf would have been worth a few extra dollars on the cost of Masks.

    Sorry. I'm feeling grumpy today it seems. But you are spot on concerning the screen. Like a mythos tome it is beautiful and essentially useless in game terms.

    I have been toying with the idea of publishing my own panels for it, a set for every edition in print, properly keyed to the pages in the rulebook.

    I'd be deep sixing just about all the right hand panel and about 25% of the daft stuff on the rest of the screen (skill starting %, characteristic definitions) so I could add in useful rarely encountered stuff like *getting a grapple on*. I too found that omission bewildering.