The 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu was introduced after a Kickstarter campaign that raised over 500.000 dollars. The new edition has many changes to the system. Some are good, others not so much and a there are a few that are, simply put, bad.
Ever since I first read the short story Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft I’ve been a fan of his stories. Despite his obvious racism, xenophobia and bigotry the stories themselves contain a setting that is absolutely astonishing. The Great Old Ones that sleep beneath the waves, the Elder things and the Pharos of Anarctica, the forlorn history of Earth before the coming of man and of course the Dreamlands.
A few years after I started roleplaying, the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game by Chaosium was introduced to me and I instantly fell in love with the game. For over 20 years I’ve played this game, through numerous homemade modules and published campaigns. My 5th edition rulebook has seen more action than any other rulebook I own. It’s down to its last hit points.
Needless to say I was pretty excited to receive the 7th edition of the game. Especially with the knowledge that Sandy Peterson and Greg Safford were at the helm along with the great team at Moon Design Publication. I couldn’t help but think that the stars must be aligned right, but were they?
Kickstarter success and management failure
There are many articles online about the rise and fall of Chaosium as a Kickstarter. The company kickstarted the mother of all railroad modules, Horror on the Orient Express. They blew through stretch goals, with over $200.000 pledged by fans to the project. When the company introduced the 7th edition the fans backed it for over $500.000!
Through bad management and awful business decisions Chaosium however failed to deliver the new edition on time. After repeatedly failing to deliver the new edition it was obvious that the developer was struggling. A change was needed and therefore Greg Safford, Chaosium‘s founder, returned to the company. He brought Sandy Peterson with him. With only a few thousand dollars left in the accounts they, along with the team at Moon Design Publication, managed to get the 7th edition released which was more or less paid by themselves.
The unfathomable cosmic horror
Lovecraft’s setting is one of middle aged and white upper-middle class men. It’s a setting where scholars and artists experience how much better off the world is with them holding the reins. The stories are therefore slow and the narrative is multi-layered, i.e. stories within stories (think about how Francis Wayland Thurston learns about Inspector Legrasse’s investigation of the cult in the swamps of New Orleans or Gustaf Johansen’s story) and the main protagonists rarely experience the horrors personally.
In Call of Cthulhu rpg however the investigators are usually in Legrasse’s or William Dyer’s role. They investigate the ancient and alien horrors and sometimes have to confront these strange entities.
The Cthulhu mythos is filled with strange, alien and, most of all, horrifying creatures. Some are amongst us, other reach out to us via dreams or through telepathic means while yet others are as gods that dance hysterically around Azathoth, the deamon sultan.
But wait, there’s more! You might also have to deal with insane cultists like the men of the Order of the Silver Twilight. Or secretive magic-users that can easily take over your body and leave you lying on the doorstep of your best friend’s house. Damn you, Asenath Waite! You could also pay a visit to Ulthar, that lies beyond the river Skai in the Dreamlands, where no man is allowed to kill cats.
To cut it short, Lovecraft‘s stories er set in a 1920’s world where the investigators slowly discover that there’s so much more to the world than they think. And as they learn more and slowly drift away from the placid island of ignorance and piece together their dissociated knowledge, they will see. But where they’re going, they don’t need eyes to see…
The new edition
Call of Cthulhu has for years been a percentile skill-based system, using a roll-under method. Every character has nine attributes and three derivative attributes. Most of these are familiar to roleplayers (strength, dexterity etc.) but some are not, like Sanity, which represents… well, the characters‘ stability of mind. Sanity is also a bit like your character‘s mental hit points. Horrors of the world can make you lose sanity points and once you’ve lost them all, your mind is completely shattered and you’ve gone insane.
The new edition introduced many changes to the game. Some of which I quite like. Now every number is shown in percentiles, no more rolling for Con x3 or something like that. Every skill and attribute has the base number, half base number and a base number shown on the character sheet. You roll against the base number for ordinary rolls, against half base number when the task is difficult and, finally, against a number when the task is nigh impossible. This makes the system more transparent and the game master‘s task a whole lot easier.
Combat has also been streamlined and is faster than before. Call of Cthulhu has never been a been about fighting or shooting your way through a whole module. (Ok, to be fair they need to in the module Savage Lands in the Secrets of Kenya sourcebook). Bluntly put, combat has never been one of Call of Cthulhu‘s strong suits.
There are a few changes that I’m not thrilled about. First of all, though many seem to like the idea of pushing rolls (if you fail a skill check, you can decide to push it, which means you get a new roll), there is something about that change in the 7th edition that I don’t like. Perhaps I’m just an old fart, not ready to change my gaming. The same goes for the new bonus/penalty die system, which I find rather D&D‘ish (a bit like advantage and disadvantage). Finally, the whole chase chapter is shit! There, I said it, it’s shit! Just throw it out. The rules for chases are confusing, ill-developed and poorly written.
Edit: One thing that was pointed out to me on Facebook and is probably the biggest change of all. Playing Call of Cthulhu rpg now ‘requires’ that you buy two books, instead of one before. The fact that the core rulebook is now called Keeper rulebook, makes it easy to understand that you need to own not only that book to play, but also the Investigator Handbook. This is presentation is a new one and one can’t help but wonder why.
Feel and look
The new books look really nice and are more or less easy to browse through. The artwork is beautiful and on the whole the design has the right Lovecraftian atmosphere.
The same can’t be said about the text. It’s desperately missing a firm editor. It becomes evident as you read through the books that many different authors wrote the text in the book and some of the text is more or less taken verbatim from older publications.
Unfortunately it’s also clear that the writers didn’t seem to have a specific audience in mind. In one chapter the text is obviously written for 21st century gamers, while in the next one it’s aimed at old dogs like myself. This means that the text is neither hot nor cold, so to speak.
The fact that parts of the book are aimed to please younger gamers, with a pulp-like approach to Lovecraft‘s setting, is something that I don’t like. We have games like Pulp Cthulhu or Delta Green, if you fancy that kind of Cthulhu gaming.
The new edition has many good qualities and there are some changes that I will incorporate into my games. The books are visually well designed and have superb artwork. I feel however that there are many changes that aren’t good and some even flat-out bad.
As a game for new Call of Cthulhu players this is probably a good edition, especially if they are used to action-packed gaming. If you are a veteran investigator, who has been beyond the Mountains of Madness, found the Masks of Nyarlatothep and collected all the parts of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, then I suppose you’ll be just as satisfied with playing 5th or 6th edition.