I know what you're saying. Call of what?
Well, okay, I know there are a lot of gamers here, and gamers largely know
all about Call
of Cthulhu; but somewhere there's a stranger reading this review who doesn't
know Shantaks from Shinola, and that stranger needs my help. If you know the
story, bear with me. Sing along if you like; if you've read this spiel once
you've probably read it a hundred times.
Call of Cthulhu began as a horror roleplaying game in 1981. Well, it actually
began as "THE Call of Cthulhu," a classic short story by 1930s horror author
H.P. Lovecraft. The short story is about a man who uncovers hints of an ancient
cult to an earthbound but cosmically old and horrific alien god named "Cthulhu,"
and finds that there may be more to the god than superstition. The game is about
investigators who dig up similar hints for themselves and come face-to-tentacle
with Cthulhoid cults and monsters. In its 20+ year history it has been hailed
as a roleplaying classic, by far the most enduring horror game in an industry
always choked with sword-swinging, spell-slinging, Tolkien-riffing fantasy.
The original Call of Cthulhu was (and is) published by Oakland-based Chaosium,
Inc. They signed a license for Wizards of the Coast to publish this version,
using a modified version of the "D20" rules made famous by the biggest, sword-slingingest
fantasy game of all, Dungeons and Dragons.
If you don't know, "D20" games have been all the rage over the past couple
of years, since Wizards released an "open license" agreement allowing other
publishers to use the D&D rules for their own games; those publishers largely
hope that the popularity of D&D and awareness of the D&D rules will make their
own games easier to sell. Hence, D20 Call of Cthulhu.
And here's your big question, now that the "Cthul-who?" business is out of
the way: "So they're doing atmospheric Lovecraftian horror with D&D rules. How
does it PLAY?"
Well, it doesn't play too badly. There were wide fears that characters would
never have much to fear in the hero-oriented D&D rules, but D&D veteran
Monte Cook toned things down to make life harder on CoC investigators than it
usually is on D&D adventurers.
Character creation is nicely flexible. You still have character levels to describe
accomplishment and expertise in broad strokes, but you don't have classes, the
D&D character-defining archetypes like "Fighter," "Wizard," "Rogue," and so
Before CoC D20 came out there was wide fear of players running 18th-level Professors
and 12th-level Navy SEALs; you can get those big levels, but they don't feel
quite the same as in D&D. Part of the difference is in how hit points are handled.
Hit points, if you've been living under a rock for the past decade, are a measure
of your character's physical health. As D&D characters advance in level, they
get more hit dice, which are rolled to gain more hit points. In CoC D20 you
still gain hit points with each level, but they don't always work quite right;
some weapons do a good deal of damage, and if you take too much damage from
one attack you might die right there, no matter how many hit points you have
Skill use has always been crucial to Call of Cthulhu -- where D&D characters
are priming fireball spells and counting gold pieces, CoC investigators are
deciphering ancient Sanskrit scrolls and trying to bluff their way past museum
curators and warehouse foremen. Skills in classic CoC are defined by a percentile
rating, 1 to 100: If your character has a skill rated at 80, you have an 80%
chance to do something difficult with it. Nice and simple. In D20, you roll
a 20-sided die (also known as a "D20," natch), add modifiers from your character's
stats (strength, intelligence, whatever), add a bonus for your skill rank, which
is determined by your experience level, and compare that to a Difficulty Class
to see if you succeed. While the system isn't hard once you get the hang of
it, there's a good bit of bookkeeping and page-flipping involved, and that slows
down play -- and slowing down play is the one thing you CAN'T do in a suspense-driven
The bookkeeping and page-flipping are only amplified in combat. There are charts,
charts, and more charts. Bonuses and penalties to attack, to defense, to damage,
to this, to that. It's based on D&D, and D&D is geared toward number-crunching,
rules-heavy action scenes, not fast and shocking sequences of horrific violence.
Cook did a terrific job with the rules conversion, and the lethality level is
jacked up significantly from standard D&D, but it still doesn't play
like you want the scenes to feel, if you see what I mean.
Myth and Mythos
Whatever Call of Cthulhu D20's faults in game play, however, they are more
than made up for by the book's treatment of the Cthulhu Mythos -- the setting
and mythology invented by Lovecraft and expanded over the decades by his literary
followers. This is Tynes's territory, and he shines in it. It comes as no surprise
that the book also features contributions from (among others) John Crowe, Dennis
Detwiller, and Adam Scott Glancy, veterans of Tynes's Call of Cthulhu-oriented
game company, Pagan Publishing. Founded in 1990 to publish independent licensed
supplements for Call of Cthulhu, Pagan is credited with some of the best CoC
books to date -- maybe even some of the best game books ever published.
(Fair warning here: I'm biased as can be. I've known Tynes for ten years, I
run the official Delta
Green Web site for Glancy, and Detwiller is my business and creative partner
at Arc Dream Publishing.
But if you don't trust my objectivity on this, ask around. Pagan's reputation
in the field is sterling.)
Call of Cthulhu D20 takes the ad hoc collection of monsters and gods that have
been jumbled together over the years under the loose "Cthulhu Mythos"
monniker and makes them more sensible than any game has yet achieved. It squarely
addresses the fact that there is no "right" vision of the Mythos,
no true "canon," because the Mythos is a continually growing pastiche
of pastiches. The game's presentation of the Mythos gods defines their essential
characteristics from the fiction and the long-running game, while leaving open
questions about different ways they can be interpreted. And the "standard"
Mythos cosmology is redefined in a way that's fresh, intriguing, and altogether
intuitive. It's the sort of stuff that old hands can read thinking, "Well,
yeah -- of course that's how it is," only to realize that nobody has ever
actually said it before.
Then there are countless campaign suggestions, and an exhaustive timeline of
the Mythos-ridden world from the Victorian era of Lovecraft's much-admired Poe
to the 1920s of Lovecraft's protagonists to the modern day of Pagan's own Delta
And there's a terrific guide to running Call of Cthulhu -- that is,
capturing the unease, suspense, atmosphere, and creeping awe and awfulness that
have always been unique to CoC.
All this stuff is gold even if you never intend to pick up a 20-sided die,
let alone use the D20 rules. It's just gold.
And this is a beautiful book. I mean that in the most immediate, visceral sense.
Looking at Wizards of the Coast's Call of Cthulhu, a thick hardcover with full-color
glossy pages loaded with terrific art in a variety of complementary styles,
is a joy. Once you crack the covers you need to get used to the strangely slanting
columns, meant to evoke some of the disorientation and dread that the game is
all about; but that only adds to the experience. Wizards of the Coast does game
book design better than anyone in the industry; it's no surprise that this is
page for page the best-looking book ever to come out for Call of Cthulhu.
A lot of Cthulhu fans wonder if they need to pick up CoC D20, since they already
have Chaosium's CoC, probably in multiple editions. If that's you: Yes. You
do need to pick it up. Find it at your game store or book store, bid high for
it on e-Bay, do whatever you need to do.
The same goes for gamers who've never tried Call of Cthulhu and wonder what
the big deal is. Get this book. Read it. Feel that sense of something not quite
right -- that occasional tingle along your spine -- that sudden thought that
"Oooh, that would freak the HELL out of my buddies. . . ." That's
what it's all about. That's what CoC D20 delivers.