Wednesday, February 15, 2023

JD's Pro Tips For 7e Call of Cthulhu

 Pulling another post out of a dark forest I was in and putting it here for easy sharing.  How to play 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu.  

Final Fantasy 6 screenshot
Pictured: Call of Cthulhu,
7th Edition, (1993), colorized

I think it's vital to note that 7e is the first actual new edition of Call of Cthulhu - an edition that firmly updates the system and changes its approach to many topics. Some of my tips will seem extremely basic and obvious to people who have played this game for multiple editions. Others are new to 7e, fitting into those mechanical approaches that are new. 

The Skill List

Indie RPGs often have no real skill list, or a short one, or a "focused" one. From this perspective, Call of Cthulhu's massive, sprawling skill list is simply a design flaw. But this overlooks the advancement system of the game.  My tip is to use every corner of that full list. Ask for Botany checks and when they fail, just bluntly withhold the information. Don't give them part of the information or "enough to keep things moving", just don't give it to them if they fail.  They'll be mad and frustrated and then at the end of the session when they get better at Botany they'll be happy. And who knows, maybe they'll get Lucky and succeed!  

You can go ahead and give basic information without a roll but don't give into the temptation to blunt the outcome of a failed roll. That's the actual price for advancement in Call of Cthulhu.

The Bout of Madness

Call of Cthulhu has always connected its Sanity mechanics to a big list of real-world mental illnesses and dysfunctions.  This is one of the worst things about those mechanics. That's not how mental illness works; it's one of Lovecraft's more insidious bigotries to imagine that it is. But in 7e Chaosium cracks open the door a little bit to another view of what a loss of Sanity is or might be and the opportunity should not be missed. 

The Bout of Madness occurs when a particular threshhold of Sanity loss is reached. What happens is - very simply, the GM gets to turn to the back of the character sheet, which has a lot of helpful spaces for family members, backgrounds, treasured items and other mundane but evocative things, and change or add something.  There are other options but, and here is the tip in big letters so you don't miss it:

During the Bout of Madness, you should never, ever, ever, ever write anything internal to the psychology of the character. You should always, always always, write something external to the character.

The best thing I ever put on a character's sheet during a Bout of Madness was: "My brother lives in Prague and I call him on the phone when I need advice or support." And I played the brother absolutely straight - exactly what was written there.  Is this a real brother? Is this someone who existed before but now, shaken, you must lean more heavily on? Is this character just picking up a phone and staring blankly into space? Is there something else on the other end of the phone line? Every player in the room is going crazy to know and you never have to say.  

The Keeper is always the players' lens into the fictional world. The Bout of Madness mechanic is the game itself firing a flare into the air and saying "hey can you really trust the Keeper?" in a safe and contained and consensual way. It's honestly extremely fucking great and it's so wild that Chaosium just want to connect it to the copy-and-paste of mental illnesses still. Don't do this.  The players will do it themselves when you write "The slimes from Aldebaran can be repelled by salt" in there and they'll rush into the hardware store waving shotguns and demanding all the salt.

I added a "Meaningful Location": "A church that isn't abandoned" and it was this big, crumbling structure in the city center, tended to by a kindly old bearded priest "awaiting orders to return", presumably from the Vatican, and when the characters asked about it and poked into it, I just had city officials and others say "Oh, I thought that place was abandoned" or not be sure exactly what street it was on, etc. It was the players who acted unhinged about it. I didn't write "obsessed with creepy church" on their paper. I just wrote "a church" on there at the right time.

One time I added "Red Poems by Seymour Martin" to the "Arcane Tomes" section of someone's sheet during a Bout of Madness. And yea, Martin was an occultist modernist poet and a real Lovecraftian-style artist-madman so maybe there is something of use in this book but how did you get it? 

A Bout of Madness is your permission, as the Keeper, to just reach into the reality of the world and directly show the player characters that it's all just a cardboard bunch of props on a stage and an earthquake just knocked them awry.

Note that you should be encouraging them to add things to those sections themselves as well as they develop contacts, introduce family members, etc.  Then you change one thing about them or add one squamous adjective during a Bout of Madness it just their perception that's changed? Or is this person different? Were they always this way? Are they really this way now? The Keeper is the one that tells you whatever they want, so the answers to all these questions are always the same.  

Note that this method only works when you address Call of Cthulhu in campaign mode, which I believe is its natural state. After all, it is adventures in the world of H.P. Lovecraft, not a Lovecraft story game.

Losing The Game

Remember that you can lose a game of Call of Cthulhu. You can't put the clues together, you don't discover the right lore, you get to a wall and you can't get over it. Making this clear is vital. It's actually kinda hard not to accomplish something in a Call of Cthulhu investigation, so a partial success is almost always possible.  

But sometimes you just can't hit the rolls and the GM says "you read in the newspaper of a dreadful fire and your mind recoils from a wild realization, a feeling that this was only the surface..." and you move on to the next thing. Usually the destruction of the world isn't on the table in Call of Cthulhu adventures for just this reason, but you should feel absolutely free to melt down villages into liquescent goo and quarantine cities if that's what the consequences require.

(As tough as this sounds, if you're playing scenarios that have been published after, say, the mid-1990s, the state of the art is pretty forgiving in terms of at least getting you to the final confrontation without too much trouble, but don't shy away from the loss!)

Similarly, don't worry too much if the players they kill the monster or the cultist or whatever quickly or "early" or something. Remember, you are potraying not a story, but the world of Lovecraft.  Just by taking any kind of action, the player characters are already a long way beyond most Lovecraft "protagonists", who often could be replaced with a movie camera and a tape recorder to just watch what happens around them.  So don't worry too much if they do something that throws off what you imagine is the pacing of a story. It's fine, just go on to the next consequence.

And, importantly, despite what Call of Cthulhu players brag to each other about, Call of Cthulhu monsters are not invincible. Read the rules for shotguns and explosives because the player characters WILL go for them. Who wouldn't, after the lessons of WW1?

Call of Cthulhu 7e's a really really good game, and a clear upgrade from previous editions.