Forty years may be the blink of an eye to a Great Old One but for the tabletop games industry it’s the sign of an institution. Call of Cthulhu arrived on the scene in 1981 introducing games to the terrifying world of H.P. Lovecraft and has since become synonymous with horror gaming. The RPG has star-spawned books, tabletop games, video games and media of its own.This game arguably introduced as many people to the Cthulhu Mythos as Lovecraft’s original writings, so a fancy edition would not be amiss. Chaosium sent me a copy of the 40th Anniversary Edition and I took it as an opportunity to evaluate how I felt about the 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu.
The appeal for me in Call of Cthulhu is the simplicity in system and setting. It’s easy to explain percentiles to unfamiliar players. The core system remains intact with a few changes and additions inspired by more recent Cthulhu games. Characteristics are turned into percentiles for easier use without the need for resistance tables. Skills are also set up for half and quarter values right away to give Keepers easy reference for modifiers involving more difficult rolls. Players now are encouraged to flesh out their characters inspired by tables about their beliefs, relationships and other elements in the world. These give characters a reason to delve into the Mythos while also offering the Keeper some connective tissue to thread together a campaign as well as targets for consequences of failed SAN rolls.
One of the big changes for this edition is the ability to push most rolls. On a non-combat skill roll, a player can choose to pick up the dice and roll again, but if they fail again, the Keeper is expected to give them the worst possible outcome as if they fumbled the roll. This adds an excellent source of tension as players decide whether it’s worth the risk to just fail normally and try something else, or go double or nothing with the potential for harm to come your way if the dice are unkind.
Another optional rule I liked was the ability to spend Luck. In earlier editions, Luck was involved in those cases where the Keeper wanted to roll something but didn;t have the slightest clue what. With pushing rolls now a place where bad luck lives in the narrative, the statistic can be used to bump dice rolls under a number for a success. It takes the edge off of those rolls that miss by a few points and creates a dramatic moment when a player burns a whole bunch to make a crucial shot or a discovery. This option is a perfect fit for pulpier adventures like Masks of Nyarlathotep without necessarily going full Pulp Cthulhu.
A few systems take a setup up in complexity, like combat and chases. It seems shocking that a game which prizes living to fight another day like Call of Cthulhu has taken so long to put detailed chase rules in the corebook.They took a little getting used to, but once I figured them out, I enjoyed having a little more detail as players outran a Byakhee in their motor vehicle.
Combat sees the addition of bonus and penalty dice. These work in a similar nature to advantage and disadvantage dice where you roll three dice and assemble a percentile based on the best or worst pair as the narrative needs. Honestly, I rarely used these dice, instead choosing to use the full/half/quarter skill totals instead to adjust difficulty in combat. I enjoy Call of Cthulhu for its simplicity and sometimes different versions of the game come together in my head. Bonus and penalty dice felt inessential to me and they weren’t missed by anyone at the table.
The Keeper’s Handbook includes alternate rules from a variety of editions of the game to let the Keeper adjust the experience. The Call of Cthulhu engine is a robust enough engine that it's pretty easy to attach rules and pare them down with the central system working fine. With a game that’s gone through so many printings, it’s nice to offer folks who are either new to the game or returning a chance to customize their table. I’m sure some Keepers would balk at the idea of letting players spend Luck to succeed but that mechanic was severely missed in our Delta Green game later in the year.
This deluxe edition has three major features. The cover continues the fine tradition of deluxe Call of Cthulhu books to look like cursed tomes. I like this sinister look much more than the original red leatherette slipcase pair of Keeper's Handbook and Investigator's Handbook and I hope Chaosium does a similar update to the latter of those two books. The book includes a foreword made up of essays from various Chaosium illuminaries about their experiences with the game. I think it makes a better introduction to why this game is cool than dryly dropping in the titular short story. This book also includes the classic scenario “The Haunting” featuring the Corbitt house. While it’s not my favorite starting adventure (“Dead Man Stomp” is part of the excellent starter box for 7th edition), I understand why they would include it in an edition celebrating the line.
7th Edition Call of Cthulhu offers new fans a chance to see why this game has been around for 40 years. It also offers old fans plenty of tools to tweak the game until it feels right for them. For fans who want a deluxe experience, this 40th Anniversary Edition lets your lose your sanity in style.