Every now and again I’ll be reviewing a role playing game from the viewpoint of Convention suitability. This is the first, the granddaddy of Con gaming, Call of Cthulhu.
This game should be rubbish. It’s got nothing going or it at all really. The system is barely functional, the background is too scholarly, and the PCs are pretty much useless in any conflict. Also, it’s expected that you die, or go mad if you’re lucky, in most games. Except, except, except…
The game has been around for more than 25 years. It’s fans are legion and actually give gaming zealotry a good name. Entire conventions are built around it. It’s spawned an industry that has tentacles in the mainstream. It’s launched magazines and websites devoted to it. It’s also become, in my opinion, the quintessential Convention offering. How on earth did that happen?
Strangely, for a review, I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the rules or the setting, because if you don’t know them by now, well, what have you been doing with yourself all this time? The rules are essentially BRP (Basic Role Playing), which means they could be described as a pretty simple gaming toolkit. Functional. On paper, those rules really shouldn’t work, and many have tried to update or straight out rewrite them. For modern examples, see Trail of Cthulhu or CthulhuTech. Even CoC itself is on it’s sixth edition, not that you’d really notice once you get past the cover. It’s one of those games that’s all the better for it’s wonkiness. It’s a bit like AD&D, absolutely full of holes, needs lots of patching, or handwaving, by GMs, and is played in a slightly different way at every game. Maybe its because of these idiosyncrasies that the game has proved so durable. Certainly, you can learn to play it in less than 2 minutes, a boon to any Con GM (a role called the Keeper of Arcane Lore in CoC, Keeper for short). It’s also a cinch to modify, adding in skills is as simple as just writing them down and giving them a number from 1 to 100, the higher the better. Situational rules are well covered by Spot rules in the game, but frankly you can wing it with bonuses and penalties on the fly. It even has a resistance table that covers, well, I can’t imagine a conflict it can’t resolve with a single roll. So, there are good rules in CoC, even if many Keepers never really touch them. As an example of that take a look at character generation, for many experienced Con Keepers, a section read once, a long time ago, and then largely discarded in favour of customised pregens.
Balance is a notion utterly alien to CoC, from chargen right through to the combat rules. When you get to the antagonists, balance has been torn up and thrown in the bin. You see, one of the main points of the game is to lose. The universe is a place that cares not a jot for you or your humanity or your petty concerns. It doesn’t even care enough to actively hate you, it just considers you the way you consider the bacteria on your teeth, beneath your notice. That’s if you’re lucky. Actually, in many CoC scenarios, you have been noticed, or made yourselves such. In which case the creatures of the Cthulhu Mythos have the means to swat you like a fly, assuming you don’t turn into a dribbling madman for just looking at them. Essentially, it’s game over whenever the Keeper feels like it. The players know this too, and they lap it up and keep coming back for more.
All these things come together in an imperfect storm of Con gaming gold.
Rules that you’re best off not looking at too closely
a setting where the less you know the better
an inevitable end point
an unwritten social contract of genre acceptance
a one shot game that cannot fail.
Con Keepers over the years have bent the game into barely recognisable shapes (how Lovecraftian). I’ve seen Roman Cthulhu, wild west, deep space, Elizabethan, stone age, you name it it’s been Cthulhu’ed. Even it’s default setting of the 1920’s has had games set in every concievable corner of the globe. Maybe it’s this near infinite malleabilty that appeals so much to the gamer?
Or maybe it’s the cosmic horror? I can’t say I’ve ever been scared in a CoC game. Unsettled, yes, nervous and excited, plenty of times, but never truly frightened. Maybe you don’t have to be scared in a horror game, and that’s what CoC is billed as after all. Perhaps it’s that unknowable, cosmic, uncaring universe element that people keep coming back to, more than simple shadows and gore that so many other games provide. It’s not like you can’t have fun in a CoC game, you can and you will. I’ve heard more laughter at CoC tables than I have at any number of other games, and still, the game is all about the atmosphere. Watch the way that when a CoC Con game enters it’s last hour the players all tend to perk up a little bit. That’s because they are all angling to find the best way to die or go mad before the game ends. The sheer joy on their faces when they describe their character eating the end of a shotgun or being carried off to another dimension by a Hound of Tindalos or being buried alive in a watery cavern full of Deep Ones. These are the moments CoC gamers live for. The time when they can say, ‘let me tell you about how I went mad…’ and their fellow CoC fan nods, ‘niiiiice’.
Call of Cthulhu is now almost the default Con game. There will always be a sign up sheet for a CoC game at every Con. At some Cons it will be nothing but. What’s more you can guarantee that not one of them will be the same, and that they will always generate some of the best post game stories.