Friday, March 13, 2009

In Praise of Call of Cthulhu

I've talked at length about my long love affair with Call of Cthulhu before. I don't intend to plow that particular field again in this post. Instead, I wanted to talk not about the greatness of Call of Cthulhu as a roleplaying game, but about its greatness as a product.

Take a look at the image of the cover to the right. You can see that it's the game's sixth edition. If you follow the link to my original post, you can see the cover of the first edition box. Look carefully at each and you'll see a couple of interesting things. First, there's the logo. The one that appears on the 2004 6th edition is nearly identical to the one that appears on the 1981 1st edition. That may seem like a small thing, but it's not, for reasons I'll explain momentarily. Take a look too at the credits on the cover. Both editions credit Sandy Peterson and Lynn Willis as the primary authors. On one level, that might not seem that unusual, except that Sandy Peterson hasn't worked at Chaosium since the late 80s and, unless someone can correct me on this, hasn't actually been involved in the development of the Call of Cthulhu RPG in close to 20 years. Yet Chaosium still credits him as the game's author. Why?

Here's the reason: it's essentially the same in 2009 and as it was in 1981, when I first bought the thing. Yes, there have been some changes: APP replaced CHA (a change I still dislike), the introduction of Magic Points, slight changes to the skill lists, etc. Most of those changes happened a long time ago (2nd edition?) and, in any event, are so minor as to be insignificant in play. I can still use my 1st printing of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth with my 20th anniversary edition of the rules with ease. The various editions of the game are mostly just reprintings that incorporate errata and minor rules fixes rather than complete overhauls of the system. The only reasons to buy a new edition of Call of Cthulhu is if your old copy is falling apart from use, you want to get a copy for a newcomer to the game, or you feel you ought to support Chaosium's efforts. But there's never any sense that one must buy a new edition and, if one did, you'd quickly realize how mistaken you were in thinking this, for, as I said, the changes between editions are quite minor.

Having the same logo for nearly 30 years emphasizes the continuity between the editions, just as crediting its original authors does. That's an amazingly commendable thing on many levels. I'm hard pressed to think of a roleplaying game that's been as stable and consistent as Call of Cthulhu over as long a period of time. Can you imagine if other RPGs had followed the same path? I can already hear the objection that Chaosium is far from a model business. If their approach is so good, why aren't they a bigger and more successful company?

To that there are many answers, but, ultimately, I think any gaming company that's managed to be in business for over 30 years despite its many mistakes is definitely a "successful" one. No, they're not a subsidiary of a multibillion dollar megacorporation, but so what? I can still go into a game store and find a copy of Call of Cthulhu to purchase, take it home, and play it with my friends, some of whom own copies from two decades ago. We'll be able to play together with no problem. From my idiosyncratic perspective, I count that an amazing success, one that almost no other game in the history of the hobby can match.

33 comments:

  1. It's also worth pointing out that Chaosium is probably publishing more material more frequently right now than they have done for a long while, thanks to their embrace of the "monograph" format. (It took them a while to come around to selling the monographs in .PDF format, but better late than never). What non-monograph products they do put out these days tend to be those products which really deserve the red-carpet treatment, such as their generic version of Basic Roleplaying (an elegant solution to the loss of the Runequest and Stormbringer lines, as well as a fantastic toolkit for any BRP-based game and a great guide to adapting the system for your own purposes) and their consistently interesting CoC fiction line.

    Actually, there's another way that Chaosium have done good - through their CoC fiction line they've kept in print many of the great mythos stories written by HPL's followers (and even resurrected some classic out-of-print collections, like The Disciples of Cthulhu). Can you imagine how things would have gone if, instead of putting out Dragonlance tie-in novels, TSR had concentrated on producing reprints of classic sword-and-sorcery tales?

    In other words, what if Paizo's Planet Stories line had been cooked up by Gygax and the Blumes back in the 1970s?

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  2. Well said. I have never heard the words "edition wars" and "Call of Cthulhu" in the same sentence. Imagine that.

    And, yes, their existence today is a success. I would go so far as to say that there are some parallels to be drawn between their slow-and-steady approach and their 30+ year lifespan, and the problems that some in this industry and other industries are facing today.

    Growth through change and change through growth and the very concept of growth, Growth, GROWTH! are a big part of the issues that are confounding much of the world today, IMO.

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  3. Another excellent post. Call of Cthulhu is a superb game by a fantastic company. In addition to the retro-clones I only run BRP, mostly fantasy, with a heavy Call of Cthulhu influence.

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  4. I love Call of Cthulhu. I have only been a player once but have introduced several people to the game as the Keeper.

    The only thing I dislike about it is that adventures are bloody hard to create. The investigative quest is a chore to design compared to the traditional FRP adventure.

    But then again the corpus of adventures fo this game, both in print and online is so vast you could run it for years without ever having to make your own.

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  5. I haven't ran it for years, but hope to again.

    I started with the original, and later 5th edition was sort of my "AD&D" (a big book with lots of stuff I might never use).

    In the couple of campaigns I ran during the 90's I didn't have much trouble coming up with plots and hooks. I had it set in 20's Los Angeles, and I got all kinds of inspiration for Pacific coastal stuff. Lots of weird old Hollywood hooks as well. I had pages of ideas and plot stimulators that I never even got around to using.

    WV: nergativ. The opposite of Persative?

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  6. I just posted a piece on my blog about Pendragon that makes almost the same observation. Its no accident they're both Chaosium games.

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  7. I still proudly use my 5th edition rulesbook my parents got me as a welcome back from an overseas tour in the Navy gift to this day.

    Was 22 bucks and still looks and plays good. I should know as I am rereading the mechanics section as to run a game next week. (I gave the option of it or old school Traveller. They chose CoC.)

    Because its the same rules every few years or months I tend to pick up more stuff for the game that interests me. Or is just there.

    CoC has the most literate and educated base of gamers I have ever seen, plus they are devoted without being fanboy types like you see with 4e D&D. Fan writings and projects tend to be of the highest quality. Bookazines like Unspeakable Oath and Worlds of Cthulhu are must have productions for any Keeper, filled with brilliant ideas for play. (A CoC game where everyone are CATS? Genius!)

    Their new way of doing smaller releases is inspired too. A shame their shipping costs are so high. They currently have a 30% off sale, yet shipping pretty much kills any savings. I've been wanting BRP to go along with Runequest 3rd as extra supplements for the game.

    Still might do it for some of the monographs though.

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  8. The only thing I dislike about it is that adventures are bloody hard to create. The investigative quest is a chore to design compared to the traditional FRP adventure.

    I've often had my best luck with "investigative quest" adventures (both in CoC and in other games) by generating just a shell of a mystery with characters, maguffins, locations and a basic idea of what I think is going on and who I think the "culprits" are.

    Then I start running the adventure and listen to what the players say amongst themselves. They will often generate far more macguffins, red herrings, and suspects than I would have ever thought to include and make the whole thing far more complex than I ever could have if I carefully came up with everything beforehand. I've had incidental characters I came up with on the fly like taxi drivers and bookstore owners end up integral to the plot, and characters I thought would be major red herrings for the players end up discarded as suspects very quickly.

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  9. You speak truth Jer! I did this in an investigative game in New World of Darkness. Had about a page of notes. The game went on for 3-4 sessions and by the end it didn't turn out much like my outline, but I literally had an entire setting locale filled with NPCs and future plot hooks I could have built an entire campaign around had we kept going.

    Plus I was gonna add in some Delta Green too. It would have RAAAAWKED.

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  10. Also brilliant: everything is in one book. That book has got bigger and more detailed over the years, but the rules still only make up about twenty pages. The rest is all good solid stuff to help you run the game. When I see friends lugging their pile of "core" rulebooks around, I am thankful that I am a Call of Cthulhu GM.

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  11. Actually, there's another way that Chaosium have done good - through their CoC fiction line they've kept in print many of the great mythos stories written by HPL's followers (and even resurrected some classic out-of-print collections, like The Disciples of Cthulhu). Can you imagine how things would have gone if, instead of putting out Dragonlance tie-in novels, TSR had concentrated on producing reprints of classic sword-and-sorcery tales?

    Now there's an alternate universe I'd like to have lived in :)

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  12. Its no accident they're both Chaosium games.

    No, I don't think it's an accident at all. Chaosium is one of my favorite companies, probably because they're one of the last remaining members of the old guard that are both still around and still holding true to the hobbyist mindset of the Golden Age.

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  13. CoC has the most literate and educated base of gamers I have ever seen

    Hardly a surprise, given that CoC is one of the most literate games out there today.

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  14. Also brilliant: everything is in one book. That book has got bigger and more detailed over the years, but the rules still only make up about twenty pages.

    Makes you wonder why CoC is pretty much the only RPG available today about which you can say this.

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  15. Call of Cthulhu is almost always on-going for our group. I favour my 3rd Edition UK hardcover, but the current Gm got that fancy anniversary edition they did right about 6th (show-off!) and we've got a few other editions around going back to 2nd.

    Consistency unlike any other game, that's what Call of Cthulhu has got. It's a solid game, and barely changed. As was mentioned, you never hear of edition wars, nor even arguments over the minor differences between editions.

    Not to say the game is flawless. It does adhere to its own Chaosium-canon, which isn't always the best. But when that's the only real complaint you can definitely point an accusing finger at I think it says something very good about the line in general.

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  16. The UK 3rd edition hardcover is a work of beauty. I wish I had a copy.

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  17. Very nice. Great case study.

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  18. The 3rd Edition I have now was snapped up from e-bay for next too nothing, damned lucky find since I never expected to see another one.

    Had a look at it after I made the post last night, yeah lovely, and packed with 1920's material they have since dropped.

    Most amusing was the number of occupations available for players to pick from, about eight! All academic, with the most combat capable being a P.I... That amused me.

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  19. Chaosium has its share of feuds and infighting but because they were a much smaller company than TSR there was less to fight over... You want a bigger share of the pie...ok here you go.

    Although, I think the fight over editions in D&D is paralleled in the Quality Wars in COC. There were a few supplements like Bermuda Triangle or Secrets of New York that were simply attrocious. However, each time Chaosium has the good fortune to have enough money in the kitty and pull back and do a rethink to get back on track.

    However, now, they have gone the quasi-OGL with the release of Basic BRP, and I wonder if more will be drawn into the game through the licences. As some of the licences harkon back to a golden era of COC but others will fall flat. This sort of spreading of the game can work well (as it did for Traveller) or fail miserably (as it did for d20). Incidently, success here should be measured in terms of the overall reputation of the brand. d20 may have financially very successful but it certainly killed much of the branding of D&D.

    Another reason for the lack of wars, is that COC tend to be more mature than the average gamer. There are not the crybabies who mourn a loss of a favorite character, COC always carried mature themes

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  20. Hey James---

    Just curious: have you checked out the various third-party COC publishers like Pagan Publishing, Triad, and TOME, and if so, what are your thoughts on their products vs. Chaosium's?

    I happen to like all three, but some folks have commented in the past that Pagan's material (in particular) isn't to their tastes.

    Allan.

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  21. Since the late 80's I traveled to the San Francisco area regularly for Ren Faires and the folk music scene I was part of. I always wanted to visit Chaosium whenver I hit Oakland, but my pals up there weren't gamers, and I was worried they would call me a geek.

    Mind you, these were Ren Faire Morris dancers I was worried about. Man, I was so in the closet about gaming in my non-gaming scenes...

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  22. I really don't care which edition a player brings to the table, although we might have to slash HP if it's First.

    However, when I offered that as an argument against the need for radical revisions of D&D, a much more devoted CoCer arose to point out that there were critical differences.

    They seemed all "game canon," though, and I figured it was only proper that players should know even less of that than their Keeper.

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  23. Another reason for the lack of wars, is that COC tend to be more mature than the average gamer. There are not the crybabies who mourn a loss of a favorite character, COC always carried mature themes

    I agree that CoC players tend to have much less "possessive" attitudes toward their characters than do latter day D&D players. I'm not sure that explains why the game, as a product, has been so consistently good and thoroughly backward compatible through six editions and 28 years.

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  24. Just curious: have you checked out the various third-party COC publishers like Pagan Publishing, Triad, and TOME, and if so, what are your thoughts on their products vs. Chaosium's?

    I have zero experience with Triad or TOME, but I'm (generally) a big fan of Pagan Publishing. Their stuff has flaws (notably a weird gun fetishism) but it's also very good at re-imagining Mythos elements in ways that are very unnerving and, in my opinion, true to the Lovecraftian mindset.

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  25. They seemed all "game canon," though, and I figured it was only proper that players should know even less of that than their Keeper.

    Player since the first edition that I am, even I don't know all the game canon of CoC, or indeed much of it at all. From my perspective, each CoC campaign, even with the same Keeper and players, is distinct, with little or no cross-over with what came before or what will come after. On that model, game canon means nothing to me and I regularly change aspects of the Mythos to suit the kind of campaign I want to run.

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  26. The only thing I dislike about it is that adventures are bloody hard to create. The investigative quest is a chore to design compared to the traditional FRP adventure.

    The Three Clue Rule is how I deal with that problem. Once you get in the spirit of permissive clue-giving and robust clue design, the adventures pretty much write themselves.

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  27. I'm (generally) a big fan of Pagan Publishing. Their stuff has flaws (notably a weird gun fetishism)

    Wat do you mean? Gun Fondling is one of the best assets of the stuff PP has done so far. ;)

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  28. Gun Fondling is one of the best assets of the stuff PP has done so far. ;)

    I have nothing against gun fondling as such. It just seems a bit out of place in CoC is all.

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  29. I have nothing against gun fondling as such. It just seems a bit out of place in CoC is all.

    I strongly disagree. After the usual intro adventure CoC characters are fools if they don't try to get their hand on some form of protection.

    Ok, half the time it might be useless but what about the other 50% of the time?

    This issue has been done to death in CoC forums. All I can say is I wouldn't play in a CoC game where the keeper limits a character's acess to weaponry (beyond what is logical of course) just because he feels it is "out of place" with the setting.

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  30. All I can say is I wouldn't play in a CoC game where the keeper limits a character's acess to weaponry (beyond what is logical of course) just because he feels it is "out of place" with the setting.

    I don't think it's out of place exactly. In some adventures and campaigns, it makes perfect sense. In others, though, I think it can push CoC more toward a pulpy, Derlethian sensibility that doesn't appeal to me. Granted, CoC owes a hell of a lot to Derleth's pastiches (elder signs, anyone?), so it's purely a matter of taste.

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  31. >are fools if they don't try to get their hand on some form of protection<

    I think it is put best like "..fools if you do, fools if you don't."

    I had a hard time keeping them out of games, so I didn't try. I did tend to throw a lot of human dangers at players. One player in a campaing was an "Anastasia" type princess of a fictional country (think Freedonia from Marx Bros), and she had assassins and such after her all the time. She fended off attacks with her great fencing skills, while other characters blast away.

    That campaign ended with the Princess having led a rebellion, but she was captured and her evil, wizard uncle was about to sacrifice her on an alter to Cthulhu. As he was about to plunge the knife, the American boxer character (who had saved her at least once in past games) came in and blasted with his trusty elephant gun. He rolled 00 on his dice, and I had the princess' head get blown off. The uncle and his soldiers finished off the boxer.

    Oh, before the elephant gun shot I said "You know, she is right there. A bad shot could hit her."

    His reply "I gotta do it." He could have run up and punched the dude, but no, he was too damn used to shooting that gun at everything. The surviving characters skeedaddled.

    A campaign centered around this princess lasted over a year. It ended with one PC's crappy shot.

    So use guns all you want. Even if no monsters are present, you could be your own worst enemy. Your protector and savior blows your head off with a powerful rifle. It really had a horrible ending, without a demon or monster involved. I still get chills thinking about it.

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  32. Brunomac: that story is awesome and one of the reasons I think guns should be a part of the game. It is a horro game right? What could be more horrible than killing the one you are trying to save?

    However, you used the rules wrongly. On a 00 the a gun does for misfire, it jams. So the princess shuld be alive and well. :)

    Still it was your game and you where free to screw your players as you saw fit. If it had been me though I would have raised theissue that the princess head doesn't just get blown off just because I had rolled a 00 to satisfy your wicked desires. :)

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  33. Like my players often do in D&D, these ones agreed to have fumbles be epic fails, as long as I gave double damage or more for crits (I actually prefer not to do either personally).

    So if an innocent is near the line of fire, having them get hit on a cruddy was usually the option for me (if a barrel of explosives or something was nearby, I would for sure go for that!).

    I also had him roll damage, so she had a chance at getting only a couple points of damage. The player rolled max damage though (I forget how much that weapon did, but it was a lot), and the princess was already down about half HP from the previous sword fight with her evil uncle.

    This was my favorite COC campaign. I started it in Los Angeles (antique store in old Venice Beach was the HQ) and was planning to do more Hollywood stuff. But this player created the princess character, and it eventually grew into them all going to Europe to help her get the kingdom back - and thus I got to use that great Orient Express adventure book!).

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