Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Relics of GenCon (I)-- CALL OF CTHULHU 7th edition

So, it's been a long time since I made it to GenCon (not since it left Milwaukee in 2002*), but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy hearing from friends returning therefrom about what New Thing had folks there at the con excited. In addition to the good news that Kobold Press won the Ennie for their Worldbuilding Guide (congr. all around), this year there was much ado about Wizards' release of a massive (288-page) preview of their forthcoming DandD FIFTH EDITION (more about this one in its own post). And, more low-key, this GenCon also saw the release of the QuickStart rules for CALL OF CTHULHU 7th edition. And now, thanks to Anne and Sig (hi Anne. hi Sig. Thanks!), I have a copy of my very own.

CALL OF CTHULHU is famous as one of the best game designs ever, ranking right up there with ADandD first edition (the classic against which all other roleplaying games are judged) and PENDRAGON. Indeed, so influential has Sandy Petersen's CALL OF CTHULHU been that it's led to a renaissance in Lovecraft himself, who was a pretty marginal figure back in 1980/81 when Petersen was putting together these rules: now he's ranked as the most influential American horror writer of the twenties and thirties, maybe even of the first half of the twentieth century.

What made C.o.C. so outstanding is that its rules evoke a style of play that mirrors what occurs in a typical Lovecraft story; you're rewarded for acting like a Lovecraftian character and punished when you behave in non-Lovecraftian ways. Characters encountering eldritch horrors who advance to engage in combat, tommyguns blazing, are likely to die horribly and, what is worse, futilely, while those who scream and run when they see a shoggoth are likelier to live long enough to figure out a way of defeating, avoiding, or driving off the thing.

Better yet, C.o.C. is self-limiting. The longer you play a character in ADandD the more powerful that character becomes, until he or she finally drifts off into the realm of legendary hero (or villain) like unto a demigod. By contrast, in C.o.C. the more you know about what's going on, the less able you are to deal with it. Encounters with Cthulhoid monsters, learning about the Mythos, reading old Tomes, gaining the ability to cast useful spells: all erode Sanity, so that characters who are powerful are inevitably also fragile, until they either go mad or are forced into a twitchy retirement to husband those last few SAN points.

For a game that's been around (and continuously in print, and played) for thirty years, C.o.C. has changed remarkably little. It's also famous for backwards compatibility. While they have made some changes to rules over the years (adjusting the skills list a bit, making injuries slightly less lethal), you can still play the first-ever published C.o.C. adventure (and still the best), SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH, as is, without any but minor adjustments. Whereas 4th edition ADandD is recognizable as a descendent of 1st edition but clearly not the same game, in the sense that the majority of target numbers, spell effects, monster stats, et al have changed; running a 4th edition scenario with 1st edition rules wd produce chaos.

So, why a 7th edition? Basically because every five to ten years Chaosium brings out a new edition so their loyal fans will buy the core rules again; it's a way to keep the company going, and most of the game's diehard fans end up buying the game again to show their support. This time around, though, they're actually changing the rules a good deal. Why? Well, while there have long been third-party scenarios for C.o.C. released by other rpg publishers (a tradition dating back at least to Theatre of the Mind/TOME in the mid-eighties), recently several new Cthulhu games that don't use the Chaosium C.o.C. rulesystem have gotten a lot of attention (e.g., Pelgrane Press's TRAIL OF CTHULHU). And Chaosium's response seems to be to see if they can make their game a lot more like everybody else's and hope that this doesn't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs -- not in great profusion, but reliably, and for decades.

So, the changes: C.o.C. character stats are v. obviously derived directly from the six classic DandD ability scores: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma; C.o.C. renames the last of these Appearance and replaces Wisdom with POW (Power: originally 'Willpower' in early editions of the game). To this they add Size and Education. Hit points are not rolled randomly (as in right-minded versions of DandD) but derived from averaging Size and Con. In addition, there are four derived stats important in gameplay: KNOW (=Edu x5), IDEA (=Int x5), LUCK (=Pow x5), and SANity (which starts as Pow x5 but fluctuates throughout the game). Characters also get Skill points to assign to skills like Occult, Library Use, and Spot Hidden, as appropriate to their chosen profession.

In the new rules, they've abandoned the 3d6 ability scores for character stats and replaced them with a percentile system. For the quickstarter, there are no random rolls: you just assign one of the following among the eight stats: 40%, 50%, 50%, 50%, 60%, 60%, 70%, 80%. Mechanically this is the equivalent of having 8, 10, 10, 10, 12, 12, 14, and 16 as your stats, but the new system works through catagories of successes, so once you've assigned each number you also have to divide it twice so you wind up with three numbers: your score, half your score, and one-fifth your score (e.g., POW 80/40/16). That's because you used to roll percentile dice and, if you rolled under your target number, so succeeded. But if you rolled very low, you got a critical success (this mainly applied to combat, where you did extra damage). Now there are four levels of result: failure (you roll over the target number), "a regular success" (you roll under your skill total but above the half-way mark), "a hard success" (you roll under half your skill total but above the one-fifth mark), and "an extreme success" (you roll in the bottom one-fifth; similar to what used to be called an impale). If two characters are directly opposing each other (say, one's trying to push a door open and the other trying to hold it shut), both roll and compare levels of success: a regular success beats failure; a hard success beats a regular success, and an extraordinary success beats a hard success. Whoever has the highest base score wins in the case of a tie. Replacing a straightforward success/failure die roll with a failure/three categories of success roll seems to me a good way to introduce a lot of annoying complications; we'll see how it plays out in actual gameplay.

Both the KNOW roll and the IDEA roll seem to have gone away, replaced by simple 'Edu' and 'Int' rolls (now that those are percentages anyway).  They've also added bonus and penalty dice (copped apparently from the forthcoming edition of ADandD) -- another complication -- and added a rule for 'Pushing', allowing you to retry a roll but at an added risk (e.g., trying to break a locked door down, then 'pushing' to try again but hurting yourself if you fail the second time).  The Sanity rules, one of the most iconic features of the game, still work the same way but now have a different resolution: if a character fails a Sanity check, the Keeper (DM) gets to control his or her next action. If the character goes temporarily insane, the Keeper assigns him or her a phobia or mania OR changes some fact about the character's backstory. An insane character is also prone to hallucinations, which can be fought off with a successful "Reality Check" (clever name, that). The combat rules have been made less lethal and more complicated -- for example, in addition to possibly having a damage bonus (for characters who are large and strong, as in the traditional rules) characters and creatures now have a separate stat called "build" which works like size categories in ADandD 3rd edition grappling rules (alas). Injuries now fall into categories: Minor (flesh wound), Moderate (wound), Severe (that'll leave a scar), Deadly (could kill you), Terminal (will probably kill you), and Splat (very, very dead).

I know it's probably only a feature of the QuickStart's having been hastily put together, but it is mildly amusing that they give four examples of favorite Occupations (Professor, Journalist, Occultist, and Archeologist), and then provide eight sample occupations don't include two of those four (Occultist and Archeologist). The player picks a profession then assigns the following skill levels in those eight skills that go with that profession, plus the ninth score on Credit Rating: 70%, 60% x2, 50% x3, 40% x3. This approach puts more emphasis on Credit Rating, something that in previous editions the Keeper and players could either make much of or ignore outright, depending on their druthers. With the new regular/hard/extreme categories you'll need to generate the half-value and one-fifth value for each skill as well.

The rest of the QuickStarter is devoted to an introductory scenario, and here in a nice nod to tradition they've included an updated version of THE HAUNTING, which I think has appeared in the rulebook for every C.o.C. edition starting w. the v. first. I'm looking forward to running this one soon to see how the new rules work out in practice.

So, on the whole a lot of changes, very little of which looks like a good idea in the abstract. The ruling spirit seems to be change for the sake of change, as if Coke decided brown was an old-fashioned color for a cola and bright green wd be more up-to-date. The categories of success and grapple/build rules look to be problematic, while the new when-you-go-insane rules look promising (I particularly like the 'Reality Check'). Maybe in the full version of these rules they'll even bring back 'Insane insights', a rather fun idea that fell by the wayside after about the third edition. 'Pushing' might be an interesting tool for players and keepers alike, while the bonus dice/penalty dice is just an abomination.

On the whole, more of a departure from the traditional game than any of the previous editions. There's more change in the rules system between the current edition and this one than changes in all the previous editions put together. We'll see how the full edition comes out, but here's hoping they back off on some of these changes before they become official. If no, I suspect a lot of us will pick up VIIth edition, read it, and then continue playing 'classic' CALL OF CTHULHU.

--John R.

*My GenCon attendance was v. much location-based: I never made it to any before they moved to Milwaukee, then attended every GenCon from 1986 through 2002, except for 1992 (which I missed because I was in England, as had been the case with the first Milw. GenCon in 1985), then I've missed all the ones since they moved further east outside familiar territory.

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