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:

Author
Doctor
Historian / AntiquarianJournalist
Lawyer
Parapsychologist
Dilettante
Professor
Private Eye

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

Anarchist
Professional Athlete
Farmer
Gangster
Hobo
Policeman
Missionary
Politician
Soldier

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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