23 December 2014

Trying Out Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition


While I’ve had the Quick-Start rules for the seventh edition of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game since August 2013, I only recently got around to giving them a try.  (The full rules are now available in PDF, by the way.  I have them – indeed, I received the “backers’ proofs” a couple of months ago – but have not yet had a chance to delve deeply into them.)

Last Halloween I ran the introductory scenario “The Haunting” for my friend Mark and our better halves.  Mark is an experienced role-player, and has been a member of many of my groups over the years (including my last Call of Cthulhu campaign).  Our spouses, on the other hand, are not role-players (my spouse had played only one RPG before; Mark’s spouse not at all).  Nonetheless, they were happy to try the game out, especially given that it was Halloween and the setting, 1920s Boston, intrigued them.  I was interested to see how easily they would grasp the essentials of the game.  Call of Cthulhu always has been a pretty straightforward game, rules-wise at least, and I was curious if this still was the case.

Character creation was simple and straightforward.  The Quick-Start rules give players a set of eight percentage scores (40, 50, 50, 50, 60, 60, 70, 80) to assign to their characters’ primary characteristics (Strength, Constitution, Power, Dexterity, Appearance, Size, Intelligence, and Education).  The secondary characteristic Luck is determined by rolling 3d6 and multiplying the result by five.  The new secondary characteristic, ‘Build’, is determined by adding the character’s Size and Strength scores together (as are the character’s Hit Points).  Sanity and Magic Points remain determined by Power. 

The players then assign nine percentage scores (70, 60, 60, 50, 50, 50, 40, 40, 40) to their eight ‘occupation’ skills and their credit rating skill.  These scores replace the ‘base values’ (which are listed on the character sheets; the ‘base values’ are the characters’ skill levels sans any training) for the relevant skills.  Four ‘personal interest’ skills then are selected; these are non-occupation skills, and players add 20 percentage points to the base values (thus these values, unlike those of the characters’ occupation skills, can vary depending upon the skills in question). 

There are three things that I noticed right away as changes from earlier editions: (1) Power is no longer quite as important as it used to be (though it is still very important), since it does not determine a character’s Luck score now; (2) Education uses the same scale as the other attributes; and (3) Education is no longer quite as important as it used to be, since characters are simply given a set number of skill points.  (I should note that this is not the case in the full rules, where Education continues to determine characters’ starting skill points, though many occupations now depend upon other attributes as well.)  Consequently, while Power and Education remain very important, they are no longer quite as decisive as they were in earlier editions of Call of Cthulhu.

One more obvious change: characteristics employ a percentage range, rather than the traditional range (3-18 or 8-18, depending upon the characteristic) of earlier editions.  For the new players this actually was an improvement, as they found the percentage scores intuitive and meaningful.  For older players, the character sheets include beside each of the characteristics values at one-half and one-fifth of the percentage scores.  The one-fifth scores correspond to the old scale, so players more familiar with earlier editions can refer to those when thinking about their characters.

After about twenty minutes we had three characters ready to go:

  • Bertrand Smyth, a cautious British Lecturer (38 years old) on Ancient Greece from London, visiting Harvard at the time of the game (Str 50, Con 60, Siz 50, Dex 50, App 40, Int 80, Pow 60, Edu 80).
  • Max Brewster, a hard-boiled Private Investigator from Lowell MA (45 years old) (Str 50, Con 60, Siz 40, Dex 80, App 50, Int 60, Pow 70, Edu 50).
  • Helen Tilton, a charming Canadian photojournalist who sometimes freelances for the Boston Globe (33 years old) (Str 60, Con 60, Siz 40, Dex 50, App 70, Int 50, Pow 50, Edu 80).
 The adventure itself proceeded quite well.  After an hour or so of easing the neophytes into the activity of ‘role-playing’ (I really hammed things up whilst playing some of the non-player characters in order to get them into the spirit of the game), and making a few necessary skill rolls here and there, everyone quickly got the hang of things, and henceforth drove the story forward with their own decisions and actions.  In this respect, at least, 7th edition Call of Cthulhu remains a great game with which to introduce new players. 

The characters did a fair amount of preliminary research (looking things up in the library, visiting the Boston Globe archives, and so forth).  This helped the new players understand how to interact with non-player characters, and how skill rolls worked.  Eventually they visited the ‘haunted’ house.  Sanity points were lost, Mark’s character got thrown out of a second story window by an angry bed frame, a rusty animated dagger later attacked Mark’s character (for an academic he certainly was keen on being assaulted!), and so forth. 

The players seemed genuinely scared by the things happening in the house, and decided to retreat before solving the mystery.  They did some additional research, and the session ended with them coming up with a plan to return to the house and put an end to the evil that apparently had taken it over.  All of the players seemed keen to complete the adventure, and continue the game at some point in the future.

For the purposes of introducing people to role-playing games, then, the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu Quick-Start rules did the trick! 

While the 7th edition rules do not strike me as significantly superior to those of the earlier editions, they do not seem inferior either.  Most of the changes are minor, and some – such as the end of the ‘Resistance Table’, the severing of Luck from Power, and the changes to Education to bring it into line with the other characteristics – seem helpful.  Thus it probably is slightly better than earlier editions for the purposes of introducing new players to role-playing games, or at least the Quick-Start version is, as everything uses percentages now.  

As for some of the more ‘fiddly’ new mechanics in 7th edition, three are discussed in the Quick-Start Rules: ‘fighting manoeuvres’, ‘bonus’ and ‘penalty’ dice, and ‘pushing’ rolls.

Fighting manoeuvres refer simply to attempts to do things in combat other than simply damaging one’s foes.  Examples include: (1) disarming one’s opponent; (2) knocking one’s opponent to the floor; and (3) grabbing and holding one’s opponent.  The character attempting such a manoeuvre makes a fighting (brawl) skill roll, which can be opposed by the target’s dodge or fight skill.  These rolls can be modified by the combatants’ ‘build’ scores (determined, recall, by their size and strength characteristics); these modifications involve the application of bonus or penalty dice, discussed below.  The mechanics are simple and straightforward, as they involve simply a comparison of the opponents’ degrees of success, with the opponent with the higher skill score winning in cases of ties.  

The new system of employing ‘bonus’ or ‘penalty’ dice, to be used to reflect either advantageous or disadvantageous circumstances, is pretty straightforward.  Essentially, when a character enjoys some sort of significant ‘benefit’ in attempting a task, she gains a bonus die, which means that when rolling for a percentage, the player rolls two ‘tens’ dice and takes the better one.  So, for instance, a player might roll an 8, 3, and 4; assuming that the ‘4’ is on the die designated as the ‘ones’, then the player may decide whether her final result is an 84 or a 34, whichever is most advantageous).  Penalty dice work in the opposite way (players take the worse of the two ‘tens’).  During our session this came up only a couple of times, and seemed straightforward enough.   

The other new mechanic is ‘pushing’ rolls.  Very roughly, if the Keeper (game master) judges it feasible, a player may opt to have their character try a task again after a failed roll, on the condition that a second failure might be even more costly than the first.  While I made the option of pushing a roll available a couple of times during the adventure, all of the players were too risk-adverse to try it.  The mechanic seems easily ignorable for those groups who dislike it, though I think it can be a reasonable option in some circumstances and will continue to make it available to my players in our next session.

In short, based upon my use of the Quick-Start rules and my (at this time) very brief perusal of the full rules, my impression is that the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu is very much still the grand old game many of us have loved for years.  The changes are not especially deep, and in play the system is quick, unobtrusive, and largely feels like the earlier editions.  Some aspects are more streamlined – I, for one, will not miss the disappearance of the old Resistance Table – while many of the new mechanics can be used or ignored as the players wish.  (Of course, since I am relying on the Quick-Start rules here, there may be complications in the full rules that make the game run less smoothly or are otherwise problematic.  But if the Quick-Start rules operate without a hitch, how hard can it be to ignore any annoying or unnecessary additions in the full rules?)

Based upon my experience with the Quick Start rules, I look forward to reading properly the full version of the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu.  And, more importantly, I look forward to completing “The Haunting” and starting a new adventure!

[Rating: 8/10] 

3 comments:

  1. Thanks to Karen ("Max Brewster") for the picture!

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  2. I remain skeptical about 7e.
    No one change bothers me all that much... though I still like Luck linked to POW. 'Push' rolls were something we were doing already.
    More of what bothers me is the tone the authors take in places... pushing a more 'storygame' approach. My understanding is that they pulled back a bit from some of their more extreme ideas but that agenda still shows and has me thinking I'd rather not endorse it with cash.
    Still, it's a nice looking book... so maybe I'll just wait and buy it used.

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  3. I haven't had a chance to play yet, but I mostly like what I've seen so far. I also will not weep to see the resistance table go, the new task resolution system is much more intuitive. Pushing rolls seem something you could ignore, or as knobgobbler pointed out, something that folks were already doing. However, I think that most game authors have to come from the direction that this could potentially be someone's first RPG, so a little little hand-holding is to be expected. We can't assume everyone is a veteran.

    I'm STILL trying to figure out where the authors got the idea that Mi-Go could generate fields of darkness.

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.