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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 19 of 21 Next

18. Call of Cthulhu

Published by Chaosium, Inc.

Type: Two-or-more player Lovecraftian horror role-playing game

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis

Luck factor: Low to moderate

Description: A role-playing game. The players take the parts of investigators of the unknown, a curiosity which frequently brings them into contact with the terrible forces of the Cthulhu Mythos: alien gods and beings who care nothing for humanity. Not quite as lethal as Paranoia, but still quite deadly.

Play Summary

This is the second of two full role-playing games on this list.

H.P. Lovecraft was a horror writer who write in the 1920s and '30s. A staunch atheist, he had a profound sense of the meaninglessness and pettiness of human life compared to the unimaginable vastness of the universe, a philosophy that ceaselessly leaked into in his writing.

Lovecraft had many friends, and between them they created one of the most popular "shared universes" in literature, the Cthulhu Mythos, a pantheon of horrible alien gods with incredible power. The Cthulhu Mythos has grown so vast that a full role-playing system was created using it as a basis: Call of Cthulhu.

While the game dates back to the ascendance of Dungeons & Dragons, and bears some similarities (most notably the importance of attribute scores, here called characteristics), there are some important differences between the games.

For one thing, there is no experience system; the best players can advance in is the increase of skill points. For another thing, many monsters are not intended to be defeatable at all. It is a cliché in computer RP gaming, especially in JRPGs: the whole game you try to stop the villainous sorcerer-type from awakening his ancient god-thing to rule the earth, but at the end he always succeeds and you have to beat the god thing with a good old fashioned beatdown.

The similarity to the Cthulhu Mythos is too great to be accidental, but make no mistake, this would not happen in Call of Cthulhu. The titular entity, Great Cthulhu himself, is able to devour up to three human beings before him automatically per round, and that's just the appetizer. There is no way to slay Cthulhu either; he just reforms a half-hour later, at full strength.

Stats for these monsters are present in the book mostly so the GM can precisely lay out the doom to failing players, for if you encounter Cthulhu, or Yog-Sothoth, or (God help you) Azathoth, the best you can hope for is escape. The d20 system adaptation of the game doesn't even present stats for them, rightly concluding that their appearance on the stage will be merely the beginning of an elaborate "game over" scene. To win out in Call of Cthulhu, you stop the cult before they awaken the Great Old One.

Unlike most role-playing games, Call of Cthulhu characters often become less powerful over time. It is the opposite of an empowerment fantasy, and in fact the whole point of the Cthulhu Mythos is that humans, no matter how much magical power they acquire, are like insects before the gods.

Players have a sanity characteristic, abbreviated SAN, that goes up when successfully completing adventures or defeating monsters, but mostly goes down. Losing even relatively small amounts of sanity drives a character temporarily insane, which can be situationally fatal; losing all sanity makes one permanently insane and out of the game.

One of the most important skills in the game is named after the Cthulhu Mythos itself. Representing knowledge of the unimaginable alien nature of the true universe, increases in the Cthulhu Mythos skill lower maximum sanity. Many of the most important rolls in the game, when it comes down to it, are Cthulhu Mythos rolls, but the players with the best chance of succeeding at them are the ones least suited to the sanity-blasting sights of the investigating life.

Additionally, many types of magic require the sacrifice of POW, a permanent characteristic, to use. This makes the game one in which characters do not rocket off into godhood over the course of adventures; instead, they tend to have limited lifespans, thus paradoxically making this game of supernatural horror one of the best RPG analogues for real life.

What can we draw from this game?

In play, the most interesting thing about Call of Cthulhu isn't fighting extra-cosmic monsters and holding on to your sanity, although that certainly is entertaining. But the fights tend to be lethal and the sanity losses, to a great degree, unavoidable.

The main avenue for player involvement lies in the process of investigation. Many scenarios begin with what might be called an investigation phase, where, given a job by a client or some other goal to accomplish, the players must go and learn all they can about it before facing the danger ahead.

Going in without being properly informed is usually a sure route to death; discovering even the nature of the threat takes a lot of digging and piecing together of disparate facts to uncover. Investigators are known to haunt City Hall, police stations, newspaper morgues, and above all libraries, seeking to gain whatever slight insight they can into the nature of the horror before them; the game is famous (or infamous) for the utility of its Library Use skill, an essential aid to research.

Other useful skills are Credit Rating (respectability being of great aid in gaining the trust of others), Psychology (for seeing through deceptions and discerning the motives of that strange goatee'd man who may be a sorcerer) and Spot Hidden (because at the end of the day, you still have to go down into the dungeon-like crypt and find the secret passage).

In addition to providing the needed information, and sometimes magic, needed to defeat the foe, atmospherically the game works wonderfully, as the mundane world of the 1920s slowly begins to drop hints of impossible horrors, like when it turns out that a house has been owned by a family for 400 years... always by a descendant with the same name... who always seems to be about 40 years old... none of whom anyone can find a death certificate for...

Article Start Previous Page 19 of 21 Next

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