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Call of Cthulhu (d20)
Reviewed by Shane Ivey, © 2003

Format: Game
By:   Monte Cook and John Tynes
Genre:   Horror
Released:   March 2002
Review Date:   July 03, 2003
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

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?"

18th-Level Professors

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 on.

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 left.

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 game.

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 Green.

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.

Shane Ivey is editor and producer of RevolutionSF.

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