Call of Cthulhu: Where We Went Wrong, Part 2

Given that the first post on this topic was well-received, I thought I might try another.  Despite putting this in as Part 2, it actually goes back to the original publication of the rules, and it represents my own interpretation of how they were supposed to work.

To begin, I’d like to quote from Sandy Petersen’s description of the evolution of Call of Cthulhu:

Now, Chaosium didn’t fully respect Lovecraft, and wasn’t interested in his work as horror fiction, but it really liked the idea of making a period piece RPG. Lovecraft was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, which for him was modern day, but the folks at Chaosium decided that the Twenties vibe was cool, and it kept Chaosium interested during the editing process. It also meant Chaosium could put out period supplements, which it really liked! Chaosium wanted to write about what was going on in the cities, the social structure, that was what Chaosium found interesting. The horror wasn’t as important!

Of course, I wasn’t there to witness any of this, but if this is the case, it signifies a fundamental break in how the game rules were structured.  Let’s take a look under the hood.

If we look at the character creation chapter of early editions of Call of Cthulhu, the occupation list looks something like this:

Historian / AntiquarianJournalist
Private Eye

Nonetheless, if we go to the “Sourcebook for the 1920s,” we find the following list.

Professional Athlete

Take another look at that initial list.  What they hold in common is that they are all characters who are investigating the mysterious events in Lovecraft’s stories.  They are typically highly-educated, often have academic specialties, and usually have Read/Write Other Language or a similar skill on their list.  With such a group composition, it makes sense to have a large number of academic skills, to base those skills on Education, and to give base amounts for non-academic skills that make it somewhat possible, if generally unlikely, to succeed.  (After all, why start with a Physics of 0% and a Jump of 25%?)

So this group goes out to investigate, and what do they find, aside from blasphemous horror?  Tomes, written in a number of different languages.  Sandy Petersen once noted on the Yog-Sothoth forums (I can’t track down the exact quote, sorry) that tomes were built in as the game’s reward structure.  Given the skills of the group, it is likely that someone will be able to read these, thereby accumulating Cthulhu Mythos skill.  And, as I pointed out in my previous post, Cthulhu Mythos was intended to be helpful to determine the scope of the threat against the investigators, and as such had a clear and definite purpose.  Given the low amounts gained through insanity, reading tomes was the most clear method to accumulate this necessary ability.

Now, scroll up to that second list of occupations.  Although some of these do appear in HPL’s stories, they are rarely the investigators themselves.  The intent here is not to model a literary genre, but a time period.  If you are doing that, then providing ways to make characters of a broad swath of occupations in order to model those that were available at the time.  This has become the usual trend throughout Cthulhu, and the scenarios have been written to accommodate it.

Still, this explanation does answer a good number of questions that have come up over the years from players and designers alike:  “Why are my lounge singer’s capabilities to entertain tied to her formal education?”  “Further, why would my lounge singer work with a gangster, a sailor, and a professor?  That sounds like a bad sitcom premise.” “Why do we have all these academic/medical skills that no one has points in?”  “Should we combine some of these skills?”  “What are we supposed to do with this tome?  Nobody speaks the language.” (followed by) “Should we just burn it?”  “What’s with all of these different categories for monsters?”   “Everyone’s Cthulhu Mythos is so low.  Why even bother rolling it, or including it in a scenario?”

In making the above points, I am not trying to say Call of Cthulhu is not a vastly entertaining game.  Instead, many of the questions we have been asking for years about it are the result of a decision made early on in the design process:  to repurpose a game that simulated Lovecraftian investigation to one that simulated Twenties society.  That legacy is still with us today.

Published in: on April 4, 2015 at 3:12 pm  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting analysis, thanks! That does make a lot of sense.

  2. I just put my discontent down to the BRP and play Trail or tremulus or Cthulhu Dark instead. But I wouldn’t go as far as to pass up a game because of BRP.

  3. You raise an interesting point, but a counterpoint would be the intention of the game the group is actually playing. Having support for the world of whichever period you have chosen to play is fantastic. Horror can happen anywhere, to anyone. One might note that the Whately clan of The Dunwich Horror, while numbering sorcerers in their midst, are farmers. Learning and experience are not restricted to academia.

    Having occupations beyond the academics portrayed in Lovecraft and his circle’s fiction is of great use in building a believable world in which to contrast the unbelievable. Having information about the mundane details and requirements of the world of the characters allows play to deepen, and as time with the game grows, further empowers them to act. Having a focus on the game world is the sort of thing one would expect the publisher to have.

    The players, however… what game are they playing? Are they playing the game so that they are active and capable investigators likely to encounter the horrors of the mythos, and perhaps the sort to be able to oppose its mortal servitors for the long-haul, or are they unwitting victims who must respond as best they can when exposed to it, and hope to survive that singular encounter?

    I think it is also worth noting that Mr. Petersen is of the opinion that the game is ill-suited to campaign play, where the rewards of translation, interpretation, and rewards such as tomes pay off.

    Setting up a game is not unlike creating a character, in my experience. It can be done in isolation and with no guidance, or at the other extreme, it can be crafted down to each point. I can think of few games where there are no choices or combinations of choices which gel poorly with the group’s intentions for that game, or where the group cannot choose to play in such a way that they create their own genre, rather than what they think they might be playing.

    I understand what you are saying about why we have careers which are not suited to the ostensible theme of the game. What my question would be is ‘are groups choosing to try long-form play with support characters and victims?’ It may very well be that the longevity of the game for some is due to the breadth of options Chaosium’s design decisions created, while being no less a source of confusion for others.

    Your initial point in part one, that there have been a good number of years without a lot of dedicated guidance to ensuring that the published material actually made use of the intricacies of the system, I agree with, for much the same reasons you suggest. Too many new players have been left too long in the darkness with no real support. I am working my way toward a review of 7th edition of my own, and as I am wrestling with disappointment with the game for the first time ever, I am finding it hard to write the first words.

    I enjoyed reading yours, although I am not sure I can agree with everything you say in this part.

  4. Good point. I think, though, that any old-school RPG with enough supplements will add enough classes to create an incoherent illogical party. Paladins and thieves anyone? (: I have the 3rd edition CoC RPG, and one of the sourcebooks (anyone remember boxed sets? (: was specifically non-Cthulhu oriented (it even had pixie stats!). Still, this was the old-school days of Rolemaster and RuneQuest. I don’t remember if GURPs was around, but Chaosium introduced some settings in a day of almost nothing but generic fantasy RPGs, so a 1920’s game *would* be a big deal — and who knew that a science fiction / horror setting would *still* be popular forty-some years later?

  5. “Further, why would my lounge singer work with a gangster, a sailor, and a professor?”

    Not a bad sitcom, that’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!

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