In honor of Halloween, I've decided to take a brief break from talking about Dungeons & Dragons to discuss another great love of mine, Call of Cthulhu. Along with D&D and Traveller, CoC is part of my Holy Trinity of Roleplaying Games -- the three RPGs I've played the most over the last three decades and the ones that speak most powerfully to my imagination.
There are a lot of reasons why I love this game. You'd probably think one of them was my appreciation of H.P. Lovecraft's writings and you'd be right -- to a point. One of the oddities of my literary education is that, despite having read Howard and been at least vaguely acquainted with Clask Ashton Smith, I never read a word of HPL until after I purchased and began playing CoC. Now, it's true that I knew lots of people, mostly older guys, who kept telling me I ought to read Lovecraft and that it'd appeal to me, but I wasn't really all that knowledgeable about when I bought this game in 1981. Once I began to play, though, I soon became a Lovecraft fanatic, reading all his stories I could lay my hands on, but it was CoC that was my first introduction to the Mythos.
A lot of people -- my wife, for example, can't quite wrap their heads around why I have such a thing for Lovecraft. Grandpa Theobald and I have probably about as diametrically opposed worldviews as you can imagine. Indeed, besides our shared appreciation for the past, I'm not sure there's much he and I would have agreed upon. Perhaps because of this, I find the bleakness of Lovecraft's imaginary creation truly horrific. Were the universe as he describes it reality, I have little doubt that I'd be driven to depths of despair the likes of which I've never experienced (and never hope to). I find Lovecraft's stark, uncaring universe a source of profound terror for me. It affects me in a way that more "traditional" types of horror simply doesn't, because they operate according to a logic that isn't all that dissimilar to my own, whereas the Old Gent has conjured up something that is completely alien to me and how I conceive of the universe.
I'm on the fence as to whether CoC qualifies as an "old school game." I think it certainly has a lot of old school qualities to it, at least mechanically. The Sanity system, for example, is very old school in my opinion, because it takes part of your character's inner life -- his psychological well-being -- and puts it in a box outside of your control. I don't find skill system to be old school in general, because they have a tendency to dominate play by spawning sub-systems and rules that remove the role of the referee in adjudicating the results of skill rolls. The early editions of CoC didn't do this, with skill descriptions being vague and left to referee interpretation (for the most part). I can live with such skill systems, particularly in games, like this one, where there's no class structure.
But what I really like about Call of Cthulhu is the way that it turns the old school ubiquity of death into the stuff of high drama. Old school games are renowened -- or infamous -- for the ease with which characters can die, often due to purely random occurrences. CoC is very much in that vein; the mortality rate among investigators is quite high in any CoC campaign worth its salt. What sets this game apart from others is that investigators are essentially martyrs. They know -- or at least their players -- know the score: odds are they will die, probably horribly and without fanfare, possibly because they decided to use the tools of the enemy against him, in the process destroying their minds and maybe even their bodies. Yet they do it anyway -- just to give Mankind one more day before the stars become right.
Lovecraft's imaginary worldview isn't necessarily predestinarian; there's a chance humanity might somehow survive in an uncaring universe. After all, the Great Old Ones don't hate human beings or have it in for us. Mostly, we're beneath their notice and so it's likely that, should we get in their way, they'd think no more about squashing us than we would about squashing ants. What investigators do is delay the time when we ever have to test this theory. They may never stop the likely extermination of humanity, but they hold off that reckoning for a little while longer, even though they must sacrifice themselves to do so. That's pretty damned heroic in my book, particularly because they have no idea if what they do matters in the final analysis. There are no guarantees in Call of Cthulhu, just probabilities and slim ones at that.
It's for this reason that Ken Hite, for example, has called CoC the only adult roleplaying game ever made, because it presumes that your characters aren't venal, self-interested rogues interested in lining their pockets and increasing their fame. Instead, they're men and women who labor, almost certainly unknown, to fight against the Dark that threatens to consume us all, in the full knowledge that they may not only fail but lose all that they value in the process of their fight. That's some heavy stuff right there and it's why I still love Call of Cthulhu despite its flaws.
What flaws, you ask? First and foremost, I think CoC is one of the birthplaces of the "adventure path" concept. Now, I happen to think this format generally works very well in this game, given its themes and structure, but many gamers have drawn the wrong conclusions from the way Chaosium has supported Call of Cthulhu. The other big flaw in the game is the way it's adopted a very Derlethian approach to the Mythos. Indeed, the very concept of "the Cthulhu Mythos" isn't Lovecraftian at all. The systematization and categorization of the various alien beings and entities -- the emergence of a Lovecraftian Canon, if you will -- is a mistake and one that reduces Lovecraft's ideas and concepts into mere stats and trivia. Like D&D, the power of CoC lies not in some Canon but in a Methodology and approach that both underlies and transcends that Canon. I think Call of Cthulhu would in fact be a more fun and interetsing game if it took a more explicitly toolbox approach to the Mythos, focusing on the themes that gird the whole rather than the specific implementations of those themes.
In short, I think Call of Cthulhu is really keen, even if I do think plush Cthulhu toys are the Devil's own handicrafts.