What you need to know to start playing the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG
Certain games are not about growing in power and taking on ever more potent monsters for loot. Sometimes, a game is more about the experience, and the odds of your character surviving two sessions with all their faculties are remote — and that’s the point.
Call of Cthulhu, the long-running TTRPG by Chaosium, is a game much more about bringing that feeling of cosmic horror and creeping dread to life than it is about high epic adventure.
A TTRPG where fear is the point
Call of Cthulhu is what’s called a horror role playing game. Much as horror and fantasy fiction are cousins that focus on different aspects of the fantastic, so too with horror RPGs vs fantasy RPGs. But the real difference is more in how they approach things. An encounter with a monster in a horror RPG is a much more dreadful and terrifying thing because that’s the whole point of horror in the first place. Call of Cthulhu is entirely designed to give the fantastic and otherworldly aspects of its setting that kind of weight. It’s similar to the difference between a Lovecraft story and a Robert E. Howard story.
In a horror story — and in Call of Cthulhu — the fear is the point.
The default setting for the game is the world evoked by Lovecraft and his successors with the Cthulhu Mythos stories. It’s a world where fear is the oldest and strongest emotion, and the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown. In CoC, the unknown is unknown because knowing it could kill you, or worse, drive you mad.
The first edition of Call of Cthulhu came out in 1981, which means it’ll be forty next year. Since it’s a Chaosium RPG, it uses what is now called the Basic RP system, which is designed around seven core characteristics: Size, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Power, and Appearance.
It’s a percentile based system, which means it uses percentile dice (two 10 sided die) to resolve its rolls instead of a single d20 like Dungeons and Dragons. It’s based on the notion of rolling under a skill level — if you have a 66 in History, for example, a roll of 66 or lower on your percentile dice is a success. And with over 40 skills, you have plenty of opportunities to make those rolls. Here’s a sample Call of Cthulhu character sheet so you get the idea.
Basic RP is a pretty flexible system — it’s heavy on skills, and has been used in games ranging from swords and sorcery (RuneQuest and Stormbringer/Elric) to Superhero (Superworld) to occult weirdness (Nephilim) and in the case of Call of Cthulhu, it’s being used to bring to life loathsome abhorrent entities from beyond existence.
In a game. Bringing them to life in a game. It doesn’t actually do that. Relax.
You can bring Cthulhu into almost any world
There are multiple settings available for Call of Cthulhu. The original game has a default setting of the 1920’s, the era most of Lovecraft’s original stories were set in. But there’s also Cthulhu by Gaslight which lets you move the game to 1890’s London so you can have Jack the Ripper or Sherlock Holmes show up if you’d like, and further books and settings exist that allow for squamos bloated monstrosities from beyond the stars who look on all human life with the dispassion and alienation of a cosmic storm to show up in the year 1000 AD, Ancient Rome, the 23rd Century, and even “modern” times.
Of all these settings, the most supported are probably Delta Green which takes conspiracy theories and X-Files style paranoia and fuses it with the Mythos and the aforementioned Cthulhu by Gaslight. But there have been a ton of supplements and additions to Call of Cthulhu over the years (including licensed properties) so if you want to run a CoC game set in pretty much any historical era you could likely find rules for it.
Although the Basic RP system absolutely can be used for a fantasy RPG not entirely dissimilar from D&D — if that’s what you’re looking for, I recommend RuneQuest — with Call of Cthulhu you’re looking at a horror focused RPG that’s as much or more about investigating and discovery as it is fighting. Indeed, most of the time, if you try and fight the big monster without having done some work to discover how to fight it, you’re almost certain to die. Figuring out the way around a supernatural threat, especially one that might be so alien as to be practically impossible to comprehend, is a big part of Call of Cthulhu.
This leads into the Sanity mechanic, because while researching into ancient tomes and confronting blasphemous abominations is a key part of the game, it also tends to erode the old noodle.
Your sanity is a key resource
Sanity loss means you’re learning more about the Mythos and the creatures that creep and caper in the shadows, behind the pretense of sanity and normality that keeps the world running. The more you learn about the Cthulhu Mythos, the more your sanity is likely to decline.
Lose too much, and you go from an investigator trying to defend the world from that which cannot be known to someone more likely to summon such horrors… or you may just get eaten by one. It’s a big part of the game, as continued exposure to entities and monstrosities that just don’t make sense will eventually break even the most dedicated and brave.
So if you’re down for a RPG that’s more about working out what’s really happening and trying not to go mad than kicking in the door and attacking with your +2 Greatsword, give Call of Cthulhu a try. It’s one of the grandmothers of horror RPGs for a reason.
Chaosium has pretty much everything you’d need to get started on their site, so you only need to pick up the books of your choice and a few 10-sided dice and you’ll be good to go.
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