Call of Cthulhu: Thoughts on the Classic Horror RPG

Call of Cthulhu image of Cthulhu rising from the sea and men escaping

He may seem scary, but remember he was knocked unconscious by a fishing boat.

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories of otherworldly horrors have inspired everyone from authors, musicians, movie makers, and of course game makers. Call of Cthulhu is the classic horror RPG set in the Lovecraftian universe that lets players revel in the otherworldly, bleak horrors that threaten humanity. As someone who has always had a fascination for Lovecraft’s works of horror I’ve always been a bit let down that I never got the chance to play the game. That all changed a year or so ago when a group formed and I was able to play it a couple of times. Here are my impressions.

Call of Cthulhu is a survival horror game, so basically the goal is to survive as long as you can. And that may not be very long. While death is prevalent in other games like D&D, it’s not as expected. It sometimes happens, despite the availability of healing powers, gobs of hit points, and cool armor that lesson the amount of death you’ll see in the game. In Call of Cthulhu a single gunshot can kill or character. And often the otherworldly creatures are impervious to most forms of weapons humans have at their disposal, so there’s really no hope of killing them before they kill you.

It’s interesting to note that one of my most favorite RPGs, Ghostbusters, is the complete opposite of this game in terms of character survival and ability to defeat otherworldly creatures. Otherwise it’s basically the same game with tons more humor (and ghosts).

Call of Cthulhu creature attacking a man who is trying to hold the door shut on it.

This guy needs a gun… to blow his own brains out.

Not only do you have a a limited amount of health in Call of Cthulhu, but you also have a limited amount of sanity. Pretty much any encounter with the Cthulhu mythos (basically any supernatural creature or object in the game) will make your character slightly less sane. And seeing one of these creatures first hand has a decent chance of losing most if not all of your sanity, depending on the creature. There’s two ways to basically lose your character!

The fun factor in Call of Cthulhu is in the exploration and uncovering of these great mysteries. It’s like a private eye game, except instead of finding a standard murderer at the end you find that some cultist is controlling a monster or trying to call one to our plane of existence to murder us all. I don’t know if I could ever play a straight up Sam Spade RPG, but I love the detective parts of this game.

Creating a character in Call of Cthulhu is super fun, because you can make these goofballs with all sorts of problems. The “heroes” in Lovecraft’s works are usually outsiders of some sort, so it really works to make someone who isn’t the idealized person you’d find in a game like D&D. Currently I play a weirdo named Clarence P. Fogbottom III who comes from a long line of New England aristocrats, is a hypochondriac, and never embarks on an adventure without a big bottle of Dr. Cheswick’s Sexual Vitality Pills and his flasks or rum and gin. If Fogbottom gets killed, I’m all ready to roll with Joe Springfield, the most handsome hobo west of the Mississippi.

Call of Cthulhu RPG character stat sheet

So many numbers to fill in. I’m getting excited thinking about it.

Stats creation is a little less fun for non-numbers people. In the version that I play you usually find yourself dumping most of your points into maybe 3 or 4 of them. There’s no other game I can think of where “Library Use” is important. And had I known it at the time, I’d have skipped “poetry” for Fogbottom and put more into running and dodging related skills.

Call of Cthulhu statue replica

You lose 1D6 sanity for seeing this. Sorry, thems the breaks.

Now here’s where I may get a little controversial… I like Call of Cthulhu, but at a fundamental level the game is based on the fact that the things in Lovecraft’s universe are so powerful and out of our range of comprehension that they can’t really be defeated. Or if they can it’s extremely difficult. That’s great and all, but when you’re basing a game world on this you’re left with a game where your main option if you want to live is to run away.

I usually play games with the hope that my hero can make it through alive or that the creatures and enemies he faces can be defeated. If he dies so be it, but at least he had a very good chance of succeeding. Call of Cthulhu is dripping with hopelessness, which certainly has its moments, but it doesn’t exactly make for a super fun game if you think of it in the sense that a lot of enjoyment from “games” is that the player thinks they can win, despite incredible odds stacked against them. In Call of Cthulhu there’s not much hope, if any, that you can win the game.

There’s always the valid option of running away in Call of Cthulhu, which is strange in a gaming sense. I’ve almost never encountered a game of D&D where I thought it would be best to run away, even when confronting something like a dragon, because I have faith that my group will be able to over come it. We have the tools (weapons, spells, ect.) to do so and faith in the DM. Only a terrible DM would throw something completely overpowered in the path of the players without a means for them to escape and confront the thing when they’re ready for it. Likewise, foolish players might find themselves stuck against something they can’t face, but it’s their mistakes that led them to that point. In Call of Cthulhu you’re faced at the start with the prospect that: A. Many of the creatures are unkillable or unstoppable with weapons available to most mortals. B. The things you confront can make you go insane. C. You might miss some vital clue by not rolling a good “Library Use” or “Spot Hidden. In fact the game can get so mired down by making sure that you’ve covered every angle of the investigation that it can become really boring.

The other problem I’ve found while playing Call of Cthulhu is you really need to give the players motivation for what they’re doing. In D&D it’s simple: you’re adventures looking for riches or wanting to end evil. In Ghostbusters, it boils down to it being your job. In Call of Cthulhu it’s a little more nebulous. All of the characters involved must at least have something going on in their background or some personal connection to the adventure or they would do what most sensible people would do and quit at the first sign of danger.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Call of Cthulhu. It’s good for scares and some great stories, but I don’t think I can find myself playing it as a regular thing. It’s a sometimes game, but as such it makes a fun experience in between bouts of lighter fare. A lot of it boils down to the person running the game. Our “Keeper” is fairly easy going and will help us out occasionally. I could see a strict rule enforcer totally sucking any enjoyment out of the game.

For a Super Amazing Recap from Call of Cthulhu, stay tuned!

Do you have any great Call of Cthulhu gaming experiences? Share them in the comments! I can include them in an upcoming post!

  • Fisty

    I always felt you’d have to get an extremely talented GM to really do this game any justice.

  • Our GM is solid. He’s Italian so his only flaw is sometimes his accent gets in the way. He was doing a Spanish accent that was so dead on in some of the stuff in our last adventure that I had to make him repeat stuff. Also all his books are in Italian so I can’t cheat and look at them to find out spoilers!