It’s been a tough old time for horror role-playing stalwart Call of Cthulhu – publisher Chaosium ran into difficulties with its Kickstarter campaign for the seventh edition of the game and was forced into a huge change in management and approach. For a while, the chances of the new game actually appearing seemed slimmer than trying to summon Cthulhu himself.
But save your despair for the tabletop, because the new edition is finally here. At the recent UK Games Expo, I was lucky enough to grab an interview with the game’s co-author Mike Mason, as well as grab a copy for review.
Brian: Hi Mike! How’s the show?
Mike Mason: Oh, great, thanks. It’s been a busy but very successful show for us.
You don’t seem to have much left to sell, and it’s only Saturday!
It’s a couple hours from the end of the day on Saturday and we’ve sold all of our Call of Cthulhu limited edition slip cases, all of our rulebooks, and we’re nearly out of the Investigator Handbooks. We’ve got a few other books left over but it’s been selling like hot cakes and going very well.
Is that because of the level of anticipation for the new edition?
Yeah, it’s been a little bit of an up and down journey to get here but now the books are here and they’re in backers’ hands, they’re going out to pre-orders and we’re able to get them to retail and sell them at this show. The response has been fantastic.
So, for those people who aren’t familiar with Call of Cthulhu, what is it?
Call of Cthulhu is a game of mystery, investigation, and horror. It’s based on the early twentieth century writings of pulp author Howard Phillips Lovecraft, including immense alien gods who see mankind as insignificant but we, as mankind, try to stand against the oncoming darkness and try to make a difference. It’s all about heroics and investigation, as well as the inevitable doom and nihilism of the uncaring universe. It’s a lot of fun and if you like mystery games or horror games it’ll be right up your street.
Call Of Cthulhu 7th Ed. co-authors Paul Fricker (left) and Mike Mason (right) at the UK Games Expo. Picture courtesy of the Chaosium Blog.
Call of Cthulhu always seems like the antithesis of your typical Dungeons and Dragons-style game, where you start weak and you get more and more powerful, because the more knowledge you gain and the more you know about what’s really going on in the universe, the weaker you get.
That’s right. In Call of Cthulhu you play normal people, so you could play a private eye or a police officer, a librarian or a secretary, an office worker, all with skills that can improve as you go through the game. However, you also weaken as you learn more about the realities of the uncaring universe. You have sanity points that you can lose, you can go insane, and you quite often die. So yes, you don’t grow into superheroes like in some fantasy games, you play normal people and unfortunately the touch of the Cthulhu Mythos on them inevitably corrodes and corrupts and destroys. So a lot of people have a lot of fun dying very exciting deaths or going mad in Call of Cthulhu when the horrors of the Mythos hit them. But equally, a few brave souls can maybe get through and save the day.
Would you agree that Call of Cthulhu has a reputation as the premier horror role-playing game?
Certainly! It’s been going around thirty years, it has a massive fanbase, there’s a lot of love for the game. And while there’s a lot of people where it’s the number one game they play the most, equally for a lot of people who might play a fantasy game or another genre as their main campaign game it’s the game they play between campaigns as a really great filler game. It’s great for one-shots but it also has some epic, years-spanning campaigns, so it can be bent to meet a lot of tastes, which helps to make it a real fan favourite.
H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos seems to be gaining popularity every year – are you finding this growth is drawing more people to the game?
Certainly, the new edition is bringing a lot of new players and it’s also rekindling a lot of love from people who may have played the game in the past, ten or twenty or thirty years ago, and have come back to the game and rekindled that passion. There are new people or younger people just coming into role play as well. So yeah, there’s this general kind of upswell in popular culture of Cthulhu so that can’t hurt, and anything that helps to spread the tentacles of Cthulhu around the world is always good.
So, what’s changed and what’s new in the new edition?
What we’ve done, myself and my co-author Paul Fricker, is rewrite the book from the ground up to consolidate the information, make it more accessible and easier to understand. We’ve tweaked some of the rules and incorporated some of the new rules to streamline the game and make things more intuitive so they flow more easily. We’ve also strived to continue with the seventh edition being compatible with the vast range of supplements and scenarios that have been released over the years. But it’s now full-colour, it’s got gorgeous artwork throughout, and it’s very easy to get into. There’s lots more advice and examples of play as well, which helps understanding and helps consolidate the rules. All of that makes it a very accessible rules set. People can go to the Chaosium website and download the Call of Cthulhu Quickstart Rules for free as a pdf, which will give you all the basic rules and talks you through everything, and includes a scenario in there as well. It’s a really easy-to-get-into game so you can give it a go and if you like it, pick up the full rulebook and you can get into Call of Cthulhu role-play.
Is there any one aspect of the new edition that you’re most proud of?
Rules like the pushing rule, which means that when a character fails a skill roll when they try to attempt something, they can roll again but have to justify why they’re doing it, what extra risk they’re taking to achieve the goal they have in mind, and because they’re putting in more risk if they fail this additional roll, the consequences are that much more dire. That really helps to drive gameplay forward, it makes things that little bit more exciting, it increases the tension, and it’s a nice way of keeping the game moving forward. There’s lots of other little things like that, that streamline things and make it more exciting and as involving as we can.
What else have you got with you today?
Well, we’ve obviously got Call of Cthulhu seventh edition, we’ve got HeroQuest: Glorantha, which is the HeroQuest rules but using the Glorantha setting people may remember from RuneQuest, and we have some fiction. We’ve also been talking about the new edition of RuneQuest which we have coming out in the near future, which is very exciting. For people who are into fantasy role-play, it will certainly be a very interesting game, if they haven’t encountered RuneQuest before or the wonderful world of Glorantha it’s set in, its certainly something to keep your eye out for because it’s going to knock your socks off.
I was lucky enough to pick up one of the limited edition slip cases before they sold out at the Expo, which comes with the Keeper Rulebook, the Investigator Handbook, and the Keeper Screen. The new books are, in a word, stunning. Previous editions of Call of Cthulhu have felt a little flimsy and more than a little stuck in the past, with poor-quality art, black-and-white pages, and poor production quality throughout – my copy of sixth edition fell apart far too easily, and had to be sacrificed to the great god of recycling as a result. Those days are far behind us – the new books are sturdy full-colour hardbacks with some absolutely stunning art, including double-page chapter spreads that are to die for. Everything feels both durable and luxurious to the touch, and should survive anything your gaming sessions can throw at them.
The rules will be familiar to anyone who has played Call of Cthulhu before, and completely backwards compatible, but they have also been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. Player stats are now much easier to understand (all simplified to a percentile score) and the new luck system is a welcome addition in a game that requires keepers to regularly inflict terrible happenings on random players – now there can be no accusations of favouritism, because you can ask for a luck role to decide your victim. Contests, too, are much simpler than before, no longer requiring an archaic and counter-intuitive table but are instead decided by who can succeed by the largest margin – easy! A system of bonus and penalty dice to account for favourable or unfavourable circumstances is also quick and easy to understand and implement, and the push mechanic adds decisions and drama to every failed dice roll. Updating old scenarios and sourcebooks also looks fairly simple, with the rules for conversion only taking up six pages.
The Investigator’s Handbook is a further updating of the system, bringing Call of Cthulhu in line with the industry standard of keeping player and games master rulebooks separate. There is some duplication from the rulebook, but also a vastly expanded list of investigator occupations for those who want more options or don’t have time to create their own, as well as lots of advice and a wealth of 1920s background information. If you are planning on playing a lot of Call of Cthulhu and need more than one copy of the key rules at the table, or plan on playing predominantly in the 1920s, then it is a good addition to the game, but otherwise not an essential one. The same goes for the Keeper Screen – it is certainly useful to have at the table, the extra scenarios are well-written and engaging (as are the two examples in the Keeper Rulebook), and the artwork on the players’ side is impressive and will help set the scene, but it is far from a necessary purchase for those dipping their toes into the game’s horrific waters for the first time. For those trying the game, a single Keeper Rulebook will suffice.
Overall, Call of Cthulhu’s seventh edition does exactly what it sets out to do: it updates the existing game well enough to feel refreshed and modern, while losing none of its core appeal or backwards compatibility. The new books look and feel special, appealing to collectors and completists as well as gamers, and it seems that for now, the fickle strands of fate are smiling favourably upon Chaosium and Call of Cthulhu.