Cthulhu Live (1st Ed.)
I demolish words for a living. I hen-peck at documents, scouring them for inconsistency, spelling errors, and lifeless, flabby text. I am a reviewer with an evil temper and a chip on my shoulders- examine my review of Shades of Nightfall from Silver Shadows Publishing for evidence of this. However, after I've scorned, belittled, and expounded upon every tiny point and detail, the most important question for a roleplaying game remains this: How badly does the book make me, the reader, want to cancel my appointments and actually play the game?
My first actual game purchase was the 5th Edition Call of Cthulhu sourcebook during the early months of 1993. Although I had no gaming experience whatsoever and no hope of finding anyone to play with, the game ate my brain. I scribbled out a good fifteen characters in the first two days I had it. When I snatched a copy of Cthulhu Live off the shelf four years later and gnashed my teeth at the store patrons around me, drooling with glee, I immediately wondered whether it would trigger the same feeling within me. Would I be able to go to sleep that night without dreaming of Shoggoths and Sanity Checks?
Of course not. Cthulhu Live is one of the most lovingly detailed live-action sourcebooks I have ever seen, and a worthy complement to the legendary tabletop game. A new edition has just come out, and I hope to get to it within the next several weeks, but I thought an examination of the older edition might be worthwhile as a precursor to a valid appraisal of the new one.
Let's slide our tentacles along the highlights, shall we?
IS SUCH A THING POSSIBLE?
Experienced readers will no doubt note that Call of Cthulhu is a game of dreadful places, dark nights, and ungodly creatures, all heavily dependent on the unlimited budget of the human imagination for their power. Can such a game survive the transition to a live-action setting? I offer a definite "yes"- the creators of this game have singled out the aspects of CoC which are best-suited for live-action play (clue-hunting, complex mysteries, and player paranoia) while making a serious effort to present the more difficult elements (monsters, anyone?) as feasibly as possible. I have a few qualms with the use of monsters in Cthulhu Live (such as constructing thirty-foot tall creature props and bringing them out so investigators can die, die die ...) but that's more an issue of my personal taste than anything else.
The setting, but of course, is Lovecraft's cosmic dystopia, where the hopes and aspirations of the human race are a tiny, fragile spark of light that stands in the path of eternal malice and darkness. The players ("investigators") are ordinary people forced to endure the unendurable, struggling to preserve their health and sanity in the face of horrors both cosmic and intimate. Cthulhu Live preserves this atmosphere. This is not a game where super-powered characters get to kick alien butt week after week. In Cthulhu Live, the greatest victory is to simply be alive, with blood on your hands and fear in your heart, at the end of the night.
Cthulhu Live's layout is clear and precise, packing its pages with information and wasting very little space. The chapter structure and index are both very clear and helpful. As an added treat, the sidebars are graced with dozens of photographs of people playing live-action Call of Cthulhu games (based on a different system, as discussed in the very back of the book). These images of elaborate costumes, unusual locations, and beautiful props are worthwhile as an inspiration to coordinators and gamekeepers, as well as an enticement for would-be players.
Some human-sized monsters are graced with photos of actual costumes, but most of the bestiary is filled with high-quality black ink pieces directly out of the tabletop CoC sourcebook. A rare few are paired with cutaway cartoons indicating how they might be made into large puppets. These are a bit cute, but not really distracting.
Some information presented in the sections detailing combat could have been more clearly given in small tables, but that's a minor style point, hardly worth fretting about in light of the book's overall layout quality.
Cthulhu Live uses a very basic system distilled from the tabletop rules. There is no randomizer- an occult tome with a "difficulty rating" of 15 cannot be read accurately by someone with an Education score of 14 or less. Much is left to the gamekeeper's discretion, which simplifies play and ensures that gamekeeper attention will be drawn to unusual events. Intelligence and Charisma are not quantified as statistics- players are left to rely on their own wits and their own social abilities. Also, Gamekeepers are encouraged not to banter about statistics in front of players, thus preserving the mystery and illusion of gameplay.
Combat and other physical altercations have the potential to get out of hand quickly and take investigators down for the count, just as in the tabletop game. The players are constantly reminded that they are playing flesh-and-blood humans rather than over-the-top cinematic stereotypes, which makes violence more dramatic and frightening when it occurs.
Some gamers might not be pleased with a simplistic system requiring gamekeeper judgement at regular intervals, but I find the system well in keeping with Cthulhu Live's attitude of careful preparation and attention to detail.
Cthulhu Live really shines as a live-action resource, and could easily be modified to run murder mysteries or other non-supernatural events. The creators provide copious notes on mood, theme, setting, atmosphere, and technical tricks such as lighting and fog. The lengthy section on monsters is intercut with exhaustive advice on building unusual creatures and using them effectively. The attitude brought across by the writers of the text is one of experience and maturity- these ideas and guidelines seem to have been shaped over dozens of sessions of actual play. Lastly, two introductory scenarios are provided to get the ball rolling for would-be gamekeepers. I really couldn't ask for much more.
THE FINAL ANALYSIS
Cthulhu Live does just about everything right. It whets the reader's appetite for play, converts a familiar tabletop system without losing its character, preserves the Call of Cthulhu spirit, illustrates itself with photographs of actual players, and provides a wealth of background information and practical advice. It even provides a few sample forms for gamekeeper use, such as asylum "commitment" papers and a certificate of death. Just as soon as it struck me that I was having a great deal of fun reading it, I realized that the creators must have had an equal amount of fun putting it together. It shows.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)