We’ve been playing Call of Cthulhu almost exclusively for the past two years, using 7th Edition, the latest edition of the rules originally penned in 1980 by Sandy Petersen. I think we’re familiar enough with the rules to critique them, and I wonder what you find as your personal favorites. You’ve played many role-playing games; what do you like about CoC7?
I really enjoy bringing new people into roleplaying games, so the best part about Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, and the BRP engine in general, is the simplicity of the basic, D100 rule mechanic. It’s just so easy to explain to newcomers, either to the system or roleplaying more generally. Role this number, get under the number over here, and you’ve succeeded. I mean, that sentence encapsulates 90% of the rules already. Along with this, I really appreciate how the character sheet is so transparent to new players and can function as a real game aid. Occasionally a new player will say, “Oh, I don’t have that skill.” Well, I reply, you can always try to roll under the base percentage, right there on your character sheet. This makes everyone feel empowered, and less confused (I think) than trying to pick up more complex D20 systems.
I wholeheartedly agree. It’s a simple system and I’m glad the core mechanic hasn’t changed. I also like the types of successes – regular, hard, extreme – and comparing those successes against others during opposed rolls. I think the first time I saw this was in Robin Laws’ HeroQuest, in which one player’s roll and level of success was compared against another player’s (or the GM’s) roll to determine the margin of victory, or who won and how well they won. This works very well in the latest edition.
Combat, for example, is pretty simple. If I succeed and the Deep One fails a Fighting (Brawl) roll, for example, I hit it and do damage. If we both succeed, the tie goes to the attacker. If he succeeds and I roll a Hard Success, I win. It’s really easy, quick, and appropriately lethal.
I agree that combat is easy to understand, but I wouldn’t say that it’s “quick.” This is actually one of my main complaints with BRP, that whenever a game falls to combat it seems to take forever to make it around the table. This is something that a lot of other systems struggle with, also (i.e., D&D). I think that these days I much prefer a more narrative style of combat, the kind some indie RPGs have explored.
I’m not saying that BRP combat rules can’t be fun, or that they don’t create drama. For me, they just slow down gameplay too much.
I can’t argue with that, really, and there can be a fair bit of “I swing and I miss,” with the combat rules. But boy, it is delicious when a Dark Young connects with an investigator and I get to roll 4D6 damage. I like how frail the investigators are, but then again investigators in CoC have always been frail and that’s nothing new with the recent edition.
What is new is the Bonus and Penalty die mechanic, and I like it a lot. Essentially, in any situation in which the investigator has an advantage, the player can roll two tens-dice and pick the better result. Conversely, a disadvantage imposes a Penalty die, and the player takes the worst result of the two rolled tens-dice. This is much easier than calculating if a certain advantage adds a +2 or a +5 bonus, or whatever other mechanical advantage depending on the rule system, and let’s me be freer in awarding them. I also like that players can ask for bonus dice after particular situations. “I’m assisting her lockpicking attempt by keeping the rest of the group quiet. Does that give her a Bonus die?” Sure!
I really like the Bonus and Penalty die rules, also. They mirror one of my favorite mechanics from Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, advantage. Some parallel evolution at work there, would be my guess, judging from how long they worked on 7th Edition.
But let me ask you a question: have you ever actually used the Chase rules?
Once. A small group of investigators chased someone through the village streets of Arkham and I used the chase rules to see if they caught him. It was while playing “The Condemned,” a very good scenario by Keith Herber in H. P. Lovecraft’s Arkham. I felt that it really broke the narrative figuring out how many “spaces” the investigators were behind the fleeing culprit, and it seemed more like a board game than an RPG, the players making DEX rolls to advance 1 or 2 spaces closer to the man running away. I’d rather that a certain number of successful DEX rolls meant they caught him, rather than the back and forth of opposed DEX rolls to determine if they were close enough to grab him.
The only rule I can think of that is more complicated than the chase rules are the rules for automatic fire. Have you used those?
Absolutely not, haha. I’ll do everything in my power to speed up combat, so using something as arcane as the automatic fire rules (stacking Penalty dice? yuck) is anathema to my GM instincts. Of course, if I ever had a player who had acquired a Tommy gun and was using it in combat, I would use the automatic fire rules. They’re written up as-is for a reason.
I think that a valuable home-rule to skirt the issue might just be a skill in automatic fire, something like Firearms (Automatic). This would still penalize players for using it, (the point behind a Penalty die) simply because they have limited skill points to throw around. So a character might be very good or trained in using an SMG or an Uzi, but less skilled at using, say, a Lee-Enfield, which would still remain governed by the Firearms (Rifle) skill.
Let’s talk about the Know roll for a minute. Formerly called an Idea roll, it’s a roll that a player can make to figure out what to do next, often suggested by the Keeper after she notices the blank look of her players looking back at her. I like the notion that the players can roll to figure out what to do next, but I feel that as a Keeper, my job is to provide enough clues, thin as they may be, for the game to continue without needing such a heavy-handed tool. If the players don’t have any idea what to do next, (any!) then I’ve steered them into a dead end. I’ve seen this used appropriately to help guide players in specific scenes. During a crime scene investigation, in which all of the players were playing cops, the Keeper suggested a Know roll when the players forgot to check the bodies for identification. But I’m not as keen on the default use, to help lost players regain their footing. I like that there is a failsafe, but think it should be used only as a last resort.
I also don’t like the name. In conversation, “Know” and “No” are pronounced the same, and nothing confuses new players then asking them to make a No roll. “What?”
I don’t really have an issue with the Know roll, (one can always just call it an Intelligence roll) and while I agree that I feel a little underwhelmed when someone “solves” a mystery by means of it, it remains a valuable tool in the Keeper’s arsenal, something you can save yourself with when things go off the rails, or your players miss that necessary Spot Hidden.
So let’s end on a positive note. You said at the outset that we’ve been playing Call of Cthulhu almost exclusively for the past two years. Why is that? Why do we keep returning to it, and why have we dedicated so much of our free time to writing for it?
The simple answer is because it’s awesome. Because it’s a lot of fun to sit down with a bunch of friends (or strangers) and play a one-shot Call of Cthulhu scenario and scare the crap out of them. Call of Cthulhu’s strength isn’t only one-shots. As you know, longer campaigns are excellent, and we’re both having quite a bit of fun playing through Horror on the Orient Express. I like the 7th Edition because the system stays out of the way of the narrative.The majority of the time, it offers an easy, flexible mechanic that is both intuitive and enjoyable. We didn’t talk about the optional rule to spend Luck to make (or fail) skill rolls, and I really like that rule. It gives the players a metagame tool to help their investigators survive into the third act of the drama, at which point they will probably be ripped asunder. There are many, many well-written scenarios for the game, so it’s easy to pick a good one and run it for friends, and with a minimal amount of work any older scenario can be quickly updated to 7th Edition. I should probably mention that I’ll be reviewing Petersen’s Abominations next week, Chaosium’s newest supplement containing five one-shot scenarios written by Sandy Petersen and finished by line editor Mike Mason.
The mechanics for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition are so good overall that I was disappointed they weren’t used for Chaosium’s re-launched RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. But that conversation belongs in another post, so I’ll leave the closing words to my colleague.
When it comes down to it, Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition has been our game of choice for the past two years for a reason: it’s really fun to play. Yes, the mechanics are simple, and no, I don’t think they’re perfect, but none of the criticisms we’ve leveled are a reason to not play the game, and all of them are easy enough to work around in play, should you choose to do so. When it comes down to it, the BRP engine remains an effective storytelling tool, and if you haven’t tried out 7th Edition yet, you should absolutely give yourself the chance.
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