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Call of Cthulhu – Basic Rules Impressions

Back in the 1920s, Howard Phillips Lovecraft invented a mythos that took the world by storm. Originally a pulp author, HP Lovecraft invented a series of horror stories all collected together by an interconnected universe, that have since become very well known. That mythology has persevered to this day, and is lovingly referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos.

I have to admit, I’ve gone a little HP Lovecraft mad. Arkham Horror, as reviewed a few days ago, has become a new obsession of mine. Being a fan of role playing games, I decided to hunt out and get the starter set for Call of Cthulhu, the world renowned tabletop RPG set in the Lovecraft universe.

Released in 1981, Call of Cthulhu has been around for a very long time. Published by Chaosium, Call of Cthulhu is now in its seventh edition, and uses a modified version of a system of game mechanics called the D100 system.

Now, here at Start Your Meeples we have been role playing gamers for as long as we can remember, most notably Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Dungeons and Dragons 5E, and Space Opera. My ol’ Dad has played Call of Cthulhu once, back in his University days, and simply knows it as “that game where you go mad a lot”. So, with that in mind, we’ve decided to give the RPG a go.

Today, I have spent the day reading through the Call of Cthulhu basic rules to understand the game. These are only the rules in the Starter Set, but they do give a rough approximation of the mechanics behind the game. Having read them, I thought I would give a few first impressions from someone who mainly plays D&D as their RPG of choice.

The Basic Starter Set Contents

Call of Cthulhu – First Impressions

Now, this is a little bit of a strange one, as I haven’t actually played the game yet. Instead, these are the first impressions having read through the basic elements in the Starter Set. That being said, there are a few things that stand out.

Firstly, before we begin, let me just start by saying how awesome the Starter Set is. It comes with three books – one being a solo scenario for the “Keeper of Arcane Lore” to play to get the feel for the game. The second is a brief run down of the core rules, exploring them within 23 pages. The third and final book is a book containing five different scenarios. As well as that there is one set of polyhedronic dice, an additional D10 (0-90, not 0-9), and a whole host of character sheets/hand-outs. These include letters, maps, and all kinds of other goodies. Amazingly, the first impression is that Call of Cthulhu is a mystery based game (later emphasised by the fact the adventurers are called “investigators”), similar weirdly to Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective in many ways, rather than a hack-and-slash RPG.

Now, having read the rules, there are a few things that stand out – some seem a little clunkier than we are used to, and some seem remarkably smooth. Here’s a few highlights.

Character Creation

When you enter the world of Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport you leave behind the standard 9 races and 12 classes of Dungeons and Dragons 5E. Instead, in the world of the base set of Call of Cthulhu all players are humans. As well as that, they can be more or less any profession you want them to be. This is because it is not so much who you are in Call of Cthulhu that matters, but rather what you can do.

The character creation shares a few common statistics as with games like D&D. Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Intelligence are still on the list – even if they now do slightly different things. As well as that, there are Power, Appearance, Size, and Education. These use a concept that was rife in games like the early Space Opera and Rolemaster, in which your character’s physical attributes determine their hit points. Strength and Size, for instance, determine the damage modifier your character gets. Size and Constitution determine their health.

When you think about it, this kind of makes sense. When all the player characters are human(ish), and you can be any occupation you want, having physical attributes determine what that human is makes sense.

To create a character of whatever class (or whatever occupation) you want, you then choose from a list of skills, picking 8 skills that seem appropriate to your profession. For instance, using one of the examples in the book – the Author may take Art (Literature), History, Library Use, Natural World, Other Language, Psychology, and another random skill. A Doctor of Medicine may take First Aid, Other Language (Latin), Medicine, Psychology, Science (Biology), Science (Pharmacy), and two other skills that are either academic or personal specialities.

The list literally goes on and on and on, and these appear to work in a similar way to proficiencies in D&D – only far more fallible. There is a 20% chance of succeeding on a skill you haven’t taken. The biggest question is whether you want to risk it.

Then there is the Half and Fifth Characteristic Values.

Characteristics and tests in Call of Cthulhu work on a percentage dice system. To make tests easier or harder, you simply modify the percentage needed to pass the test. Unlike with D&D however, which uses a Challenge Rating system in the power of the DM, the Keeper simply chooses one of three levels with tests in Call of Cthulhu. Those are normal, hard, and extreme.

Okay, now this is where it gets mathy. Hard tests are done at 1/2 the pass rate of standard tests, with Extreme being at 1/5 (rounded down) – and this means each skill has three numbers.

In many ways, this is more complex than other role playing games. You need to work out the skills when creating your character, and that strikes me as quite a barrier to entry. If, for instance, your First Aid skill is at 70%, then your Hard rating would be 35%, and your Extreme rating would be at 14%. Once that is worked out, however, everything is in front of you. You never need to recalculate it ever again.

Bonus and Penalty Dice

Okay, just a quick note on this, but it is worth pointing out – there is an ingenious way of attributing bonus and penalty dice in Call of Cthulhu. Bonuses and Penalties are at the Keeper’s digression, and they represent when things are going well for the investigators or going badly.

Bonuses and penalties are based on rolling an additional dice. When taking a tests in Call of Cthulhu you want your percentage chance or lower on the D100 system to pass a test. When getting a bonus or a penalty you roll an additional D10 (10s, not 1s), and either take the higher for a penalty or lower for a bonus.

Likewise, there is a Luck mechanic for when something environmental needs to go in the favour of the investigators. This relies on the Luck stat; however, in a group, it relies on the Luck stat of the least lucky player. It’s a really neat idea.

Sanity and Combat in Call of Cthulhu

What would anything HP Lovecraft be like if madness and Sanity didn’t play a major role?

Well, in Call of Cthulhu every player has a Sanity rating, and that Sanity can decrease during the game. This includes rules for bouts of madness, as well as delusions, phobias, and manias. There is an appropriate “Bouts of Madness” table, and what is amazing is the phobias are also at the Keeper’s discretion. Again, I find myself reminded of cards in Arkham Horror.

Combat, on the other hand, is remarkably simple. There is no quick healing mechanism, meaning most things that hurt can seriously hurt (including having lasting negative effects); however, the way combat is explained feels more like a dance than a series of rolls. This combat system, the one in Call of Cthulhu genuinely has me excited.

For instance, a round of combat lasts as long as it takes for everyone to do one thing. It’s that simple. You can dodge, you can run, you can take a swing, you can dive for cover (etc.). There are no superhuman sub-actions because you are human.

In hand-to-hand combat – both attacker and defender roll. The attacker needs a higher score to land a hit if attacking, or alternatively, if you want to dodge, a dodger needed a lower score to successfully dodge. Again, super simple. With guns, you can fire more than once in a round; however, you do get a penalty dice added to shots two and three.

Additional actions you can do, as your action in combat, include fighting manoeuvres like disarming, holding, or knocking an opponent to the floor.

Once you get past the mathy bit when creating a character, the rest of the game is incredibly simple.

A Game to Look Forward To

I think it goes without saying that I am very excited to give Call of Cthulhu a go. I’ve already told my old man that we are playing, as well as (just this minute) having texted one of my D&D players to see if he is interested. This should be a fantastic game.

Yes, Call of Cthulhu is different, and the character sheets look insane, but it should be a great system to play. I literally can’t wait. For now, we’ll leave this brief rundown there.

So, what do you think? Have you played Call of Cthulhu? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

12 Comments »

  1. I’ve got the Call Of Cthulhu book, which covers the rules and the background and timeline, but I’ve never played! I’ve got it mainly for a bit of background for steampunk and dieselpunk wargames settings. But from what I’ve read about playing it, you’ll go mad! if you do, can I have your all your Scythe games stuff so I don’t have to buy my own? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. Sounds like they updated some of the odder parts of the rules and the wonkiness of the way skills work. I played the original edition back in 1984-1987. Bouts of Madness sounds more playable than the permanent insanities you used to get. It’s great as an RPG, especially if people embrace the existential dread, lean into the craziness when it happens, play to the bleak universe while fighting it as hard as you can…and have a backup character ready to go. 🙂

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      • It’s definitely up to the GM. My first campaign had me on my second character by the end of the first session. I ran a short game – maybe 8 sessions – where maybe 2 people died. The longest one I ran in was my friend Allen’s modern day campaign originally set where we went to college. That one has the most awesome finish of any CoC that I’ve heard. Our characters there – mine was identical to the example so I was Harvey Walters IV – went insane fairly frequently or died with equal chances. Some actually returned after treatment – either dead or insane- as the campaign went on. I see it as a natural part of the _milieu_. HP Lovecraft’s vision is a cold and uncaring universe. I wouldn’t set a goal to kill people in CoC. The monsters tend to do that for you unless you’re running Delta Green. Don’t pull punches and let the players know that they should not get too attached and it will go well.

        I prefer D&D to CoC overall, however I think running the latter as an alternative to an ongoing D&D game or as a change of pace after finishing an extended D&D game is great. Reason being that characters tend to grow in D&D. At best in CoC you survive while gaining a better skill set. Though the stories afterwards are just as grand.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Really interesting – how fragile the characters are is my main worry with Call of Cthulhu. That being said, you have helped put my mind at rest Bill, so thanks for the considered response.

          Can’t wait to play the game now 😁

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  3. I played in a campaign for 10 years, a chaotic, rambling, crazy ride that spanned the globe. I love CoC. I think 7th ed is a fine edition, with plenty of tools to help create a wide spectrum of play experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

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