Call of Cthulhu: Where We Went Wrong, Part 1

I’ve been holding back a good Call of Cthulhu rant for some time now.  Let’s get into it.

One of the changes in the new 7th edition rules is the removal of categories for Mythos monsters.  In older editions, each creature was accompanied by a short descriptor to indicate where it fit into the Mythos – Lesser Independent, Greater Independent, Lesser Servitor, or Greater Servitor.  That they have done so is not unexpected, as writers and players alike have wondered for years what purpose they were supposed to serve.

Nonetheless, I would assert that they did serve a purpose, and that it was integral to the structure of the game.

Earlier versions of the game include the following example for the Cthulhu Mythos skill:

Harvey Walters has worked his Cthulhu Mythos up to 15% and sees a smeared spot on the road, heavy with goo and slime.  He makes his Mythos roll and is told that whatever made the smear was at least a major monster.  Harvey goes in the other direction.

This example may reveal the fundamental intent behind both the monster categories:  to gauge the strength of the opposition.  Players could encounter signs of a Mythos creature, and, with a successful Cthulhu Mythos roll, get some idea of what they were in for.  They could then make a decision about whether they wanted to proceed, if backup was needed, or if they should simply give up and run away.  Further, this assessment could be done without giving away the mystery of exactly which creature they were encountering.

As it did so, it also confirmed the importance of the Cthulhu Mythos skill in the game.   Increasing it gave players an increased chance of avoiding danger, but it also decreased maximum Sanity, leading to a lesser chance of dealing with such encounters.  As such, the decision to read a tome brought with it difficult choices.

One of the key difficulties with this approach is that – to my memory – it rarely entered the scenarios themselves.  This led to two difficulties with the game.  The first was the confusion as to what exactly those categories were supposed to do, but this would prove minor.  The second was to unmoor the Cthulhu Mythos skill from any particular relevance in the setting.  Sure, it’s nice to know that Cthulhu or Glaaki is involved in a given situation, and that might contribute to the mood by giving a delicious frission to the players.  Nonetheless, little mechanical advantage exists for the skill, and the original rules indicate it was once otherwise.


Published in: on April 3, 2015 at 10:49 am  Comments (14)  

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  1. I’d go even farther – I think that after 30 years without anything like coherent direction or discipline in rules development and world building, the last thing CoC needed was a half-arsed facelift; it needed a ground-up rethink.

    I also think the the “Lesser Servitor Race” etc. labels served an importance purpose in defining some of the relationships in the game – one of the few substantial definitive aspects of CoC’s gameplay, which has been lost now.

    Still, looking forwards to Part II.

  2. I dunno – players should never know how safe they are, or think they understand what’s going on.

    • I’d disagree, for the most part – the exception is the jump scare. Horror literature, film, and games usually signal how safe characters are, and give them understanding of what’s going on, in a number of different ways. Whether this is one of them could be debated, I think.

  3. Hmmm… I hadn’t noticed that. I may end penciling in those categories – or I may end up creating some of my own (I’m becoming an increasing fan of “House Cthulhu” where the tomes and “big bads” are GM creations as a way to reduce and play off metagaming by experienced players or Cthulhu aficionados.

    I suppose that it begs the question – what do you use the Cthulhu Mythos skill for in the game?


    • Me, personally? I have no great ideas for it, aside from creating that frission I describe above. And if I can’t figure out what to do with it, I’m not sure how much hope others have.

      • Well, I have used the Cthulhu Mythos skill as essentially a form of Detect …Supernaturalishness. The idea being that as they gain in the skill it sensitizes them to the Supernatural, or allows them to start seeing all the incongruences in reality that a sane mind overlooks or passes over simply by virtue of being and trying to remain sane. Less a “Detect Evil” ability and more a hyperfocused Spot Hidden that can’t be turned off.

        When accompanied by the right descriptive language it seems to have caught the right flavor of existential horror and cosmic truth.


  4. It’s not something I’d use or want to use in the game. The categories really don’t mean anything to me. The Mythos has no recognisable structure, unless you want to get all Derlethian and I don’t. So I’d much rather nobody knew what they were facing or why.

    On a succesful Mythos roll, I’d give a player some details about the thing they are facing, but I’d hardly ever use the Lovecraftian name.

    • Points taken. I should add that I’m skeptical about how well this would have worked in practice. Still, moving from, “I don’t know what these categories do”, to “I don’t like what these categories do,” is a good step.

  5. Hi Dan!

    My feeling has always been that the Cthulhu Mythos skill creates a mechanic that is absolutely fundamental to Call of Cthulhu. It creates a sense of inevitable failure, of grinding, remorseless, progress towards insanity. 😀

    Knowledge is a terrible thing in Lovecraftian Horror, and there should be no positive benefit to offset knowledge of the Mythos. You really would be better off living in ignorance (fleeing from the light into the “peace and safety of a new dark age”).

    Mythos points are like radioactive fallout – you gradually accumulate them the longer you are exposed. There is no way to heal them (you cannot “unlearn” what you have seen in Call of Cthulhu), and the way you gradually accumulate Mythos means you will inevitably be driven insane and lose your character. You are playing an unwinnable game, in which you may be able to triumph in the short-term, but you (and the rest of humanity) will eventually succumb.

    In D&D, you become superhuman at higher levels. In Call of Cthulhu, you eventually collapse into insanity. That’s why the mechanic is so important thematically (I would even say it’s the most important mechanic in the game).

  6. I found the categories useful — for the long OOP Mythos CCG! I also would not tell a player who succeeded his Mythos roll what category the monster would be in — that never occurred to me. I would tell the player some other detail that would help the player solve the adventure. Details that are meant to scare the players are free. 😀

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