Today I want to talk a little bit about the greatest roleplaying game on the market. It’s a game that has seen very few changes since its inception 30 years ago, because it was pretty much perfect right out of the gate. It’s a game that has inspired countless roleplaying and board games with its take on HP Lovecraft’s horror fiction. It’s Call of Cthulhu.
And I’ll also be taking a look at a new Call of Cthulhu sourcebook. I’ll be looking at it from a pretty unique perspective.
I’m living inside it.
CALL OF CTHULHU
Have you ever played an RPG? I mean a pen and paper RPG, not one on your PC or your bed. Walk into any good gaming shop and you’ll see racks full of RPG books. So many different universes of adventure that your head might well spin off its fat stalk. There’s D&D, which has evolved over time (or devolved, some might say) into a sleek hack and slash battle-heavy fantasy game. There’s Pathfinder, which has taken the deep system of D&D 3.5 and made it more accessible and clean. There’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which has become this spectacular, exciting storytelling toyset. There’s Shadowrun, a cyberpunkish game that now feels strangely dated, as all things cyberpunk do these days. There’s Vampire: The Masquerade, which is dark and angsty and very geeky. There’s Mutants and Masterminds, allowing you to do some great superheroing. There’s the HERO system, alowing you to do ANYTHING. There’s the beautiful, beautiful, glorious Savage Worlds system, that lets you have fun with bennies. There’s plenty more.
And then there are the supplements and sourcebooks. Loads of them. Everywhere. Monster Manuals. Villain Archives. Map Books. Atlases. Rulebooks for car chases. Books for wizards and warriors and werewolves and witches and Water Margin style samurai.
And then there is Call of Cthulhu.
It has always been the case that you can pick up the Call of Cthulhu RPG book and know that you have everything you need to go adventuring in Lovecraft’s world. It is a complete thing. A perfect, complete thing. When you start D&D, you are led down a nasty, winding little route I like to call “The Path of Purchasing”. You need the Starter Set. Then you need the Rules Compendium. Then you need the GM Kit. Then you need some Player Books to create characters. And on it goes. Call of Cthulhu is different. It gives you everything you need, and leaves all its supplements as optional things. It knows you’ll want them anyway. CoC doesn’t need to do a crude hard sell – it’s the most confident, assured RPG on the shelves.
So what’s so great about Call of Cthulhu? Two things, really. One of them is thanks to HP Lovecraft. And the other is thanks to Sandy Petersen.
1. THE SETTING – Until the day I die, I will argue that there is no greater setting for RPGing than Lovecraft’s dark, fatalistic universe. The Call of Cthulhu RPG is built on Lovecraft’s observation that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” CoC adventures are usually set in the 1920s, and feature characters who are real people. When a game asks its players to play real people, you get real roleplay. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re the best roleplayer in the world, you will struggle to convince that you are a 9-foot tall lizardman with an axe. You can, however, convince that you are a university professor, or a trumpet player from Chicago, or a journalist for a small-town newspaper. CoC gives people a chance to properly immerse themselves in a character, because the characters are never more than a step or two removed from the players themselves. Lovecraft’s stories are about how normal people deal with the impossible and the unknowable. Every character reaction can be mined from a player’s actual psyche. The world of CoC is our own, slightly skewed. Indeed, 90% of a CoC adventure will be almost indistinguishable from our own world. Beautiful normalcy, an investigation into strange events and rumours, and then a sudden jump into a terrible and incomprehensible impossibility. And this is all Lovecraft’s stuff. That’s his thing. Our world, shot through with something newly learned, and impossible to deal with.
2. THE SYSTEM – Simplicity. I feel like I’ve said this a hundred times – the best games present themselves in simple terms. And here is CoC, explained. Characteristics are multiplied by 5, then you make percentile rolls. So, you have a Dexterity of 10 – roll 50 or under and you succeed. That’s it. With percentile rolls, you understand the chance of success or failure at a glance. Skills work in the same way. Percentile rolls. Of course, there’s more to the system than that – but percentile rolls are the foundation for the whole thing. And it just works. Easy to explain, quick, and perfect for the setting. The other key winning element of the CoC system is SANITY. Death is not your enemy in Call of Cthulhu – the slow unhinging of your mind is the player’s greatest challenge. In a sense, the better your character does in CoC, the more he learns about the dark truth of the universe, the closer he gets to being locked away forever in an Arkham asylum. Watching these points being whittled away is truly unnerving – players often feel that they want to go no further. That’s exactly what you want from characters in a Lovecraft story.
Oh, but there’s something else. The writing.
Call of Cthulhu’s main rulebook contains one of the greatest one-shot scenarios in RPG history. It’s called “The Haunting”, or “The Haunted House”.
The scenario serves as a wonderful introduction to what an RPG is, and is the perfect introduction to Lovecraft’s world in game form. It’s a simple haunted house tale, with some investigation and a nasty final encounter. Of course, there might be no final encounter, because The Haunting also presents the players with the freedom of roleplay that CoC is married to. It is also a tricky little scenario that leaves many players scratching their heads and wandering the rooms in search of an answer.
The Haunting is a prime example of the great writing and design on display throughout Call of Cthulhu, and throughout most of its supplements and additional sourcebooks. Why is the standard so high? I think it might be because those people who are interested in writing for a Lovecraft roleplaying game are interested in writing itself. There is a pride in the writing of these works, a pride that encourages the richness of feel that this line is known for.
Which brings me to what I’m reading right now. One of the greatest RPG supplements I’ve ever read. Shadows Over Scotland.
SHADOWS OVER SCOTLAND
Shadows Over Scotland, by Stuart Boon, is a supplement that gives you everything you might need to run Call of Cthulhu adventures in 1920s Scotland. A big hardback 288-page monster full of history and information and adventures.
As a Glaswegian who has lived all my days in Scotland, I picked up this book with low expectations. I don’t know why. I knew I had to have it, because how often does an RPG supplement feature locations that are five minutes away from where you live? And I knew that the hit-rate of Call of Cthulhu-related supplements was pretty high. But I still had low expectations. I knew that this thing would probably make me laugh, and make me sneer, and that I could probably make some fun of it on this very page.
Here’s why my expectations were low – I think I wanted it to fail. Because in truth, the first thing that popped into my head when I saw it listed was “I should have written that.”
Thank heavens I didn’t, because Stuart Boon smashed it.
I couldn’t possibly have done it better. The book is meticulously researched, and heaving with content. To my shame, I found myself having to Google for stuff mentioned in the almost 5-page Mythos Timeline of Scotland to see if they actually happened or were part of the fiction. The first thing that struck me, like a fist in the face, upon reading this book was that I KNOW NEXT TO NOTHING ABOUT SCOTTISH HISTORY. Clueless. Utterly clueless. Here I was, learning things about my own country from an RPG supplement written by a man who was born in Canada.
(It might be of interest for you to hear that when I was at school, there was barely any Scottish history taught to Scottish children. Plenty of English history, but barely anything of our own past. And surprisingly next to nothing about the Highland Clearances! Fancy that! Things might have changed these days, but I doubt it. I doubt it.)
The book starts with a history of Scotland, and then moves into some detail on specific places, starting with the Scottish Lowlands. My home city Glasgow is in there, and it was a thrill to read about the ghouls living under the Necropolis – ten minutes from my house. Oh, and there’s a Thing In The Clyde too. And did you know that there are Deep Ones threatening the Kingdom of Fife? (Insert your own Fife nightclub joke here).
Then it’s on to the Highlands and Islands, and the realisation that hey, Scotland is actually an amazing location for Lovecraft-related shenanigans. Aberdeen, Fort William, Stornoway, they’re all here – with scary wullies like Salty Bob and the Blue Men of the Minch cutting about like the bad yins they are. Scottish myth and legend is given a coating of Lovecraftian goo, with my favourite being the treatment of Sawney Bean – he’s now a suave, handsome cannibal cult leader with a direct line to an avatar of Shub-Niggurath. There are lots of clever little spins like this throughout the book, making you smile as you sit on the toilet.
One of my favourite bits of the book is ‘The Lingo: The Talk of 1920s Scotland.’ Seeing words like Manky and Mingin’ and Wheesht in an RPG supplement is just – well, it’s beautiful. Hilarious and beautiful. Now I know how Klingons feel when they play the Star Trek RPG! It’s yet another section of the book that makes you go “Man, this Scotland place is one rich setting! It’s like Dark Sun up in this motherfucker!”
Adventures? Did someone just say the word “adventures”? There are six adventures in the book, and while I haven’t played them yet, I have read each one from front to back. The standard is mad high. The first scenario in particular, ‘Death And Horror Incorporated’, really resonated with me, with its exploration into the mausoleums of Glasgow’s Northern Necropolis. It resonated because I’ve done this – I’ve cracked open those crypts.
As a young man, I would sneak through the gated doors of these mausoleums, and inside you would find sleeping bags and blankets. Homeless people would shelter in the old crypts and mausoleums, and you would see their belongings all around. I remember finding a pile of letters in one crypt, tied with a little ribbon. Letters that obviously mattered a lot to the person sleeping in the crypt. I remember desperately wanting to read them, but persuading myself not to. A person who had been forced by circumstance to sleep in an ancient crypt had probably suffered enough without having a teenager invade their privacy.
Another scenario finds the investigators popping over to Mallaig, another place from my youth, investigating disappearances on a forbidden isle. Yet another takes place in Aberdeen, where my brother lives, and good luck to any Keeper trying to get a handle on those Aberdeen NPC accents. The scenarios come with plenty of handouts to keep the Investigators busy, and have the traditional CoC lean towards investigation over combat. Everything you expect from CoC, in terms of quality, is here. But the setting, the Scottish theming, freshens the game. I’d wager that some people buying this book might never want their investigators to leave Scotland. It’s glorious.
I would make this RPG supplement compulsory reading in Scotland’s schools. Stuart Boon has seen the beauty and mystery of Scotland, and has captured it all within these pages. He’s saying “Hey, isn’t it cool how five minutes from a city there’s mist-covered hills?” And we’re saying “Hold on, he’s right! This place is amazing!” And then he’s saying “There’s probably something ancient and evil in that water.” And we’re all like “You’re probably right. Wha’s like us? Let’s have a drink!” This is a fantastic book – it’s in with a chance of being my gaming release of 2011. Take it from a Scottish guy – there’s nothing missing here. There are no Scottish stones left unturned. (In fact, I’m wrong. What I’d love to see is a modern Scotland spin on the book. Something with a Delta Green feel, set in modern Scotland. Maybe if this sells well enough, we might see that!)
If there are any Scottish readers of this column out there – buy this. It’s that simple. In fact, it’s unpatriotic not to buy it. It’s a love letter to Scotland, stamped with an Elder Sign. This is OUR Lovecraft gaming book. Any people out there who have never played an RPG – buy Call of Cthulhu. It is the greatest. A classic. And probably the easiest of them all to play, and the least expensive to buy.
Of course, you don’t need to do what I’ve done. I have about four copies of the main rulebook. And recently I bought this too:
It’s the 30th Anniversary edition. A beautiful leatherette thing printed on art paper. I love this book THAT much.
Next week, back to board games.
See you then!