Call of Cthulhu d20
Call of Cthulhu d20 Capsule Review by Buzz on 25/04/02
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
WotC produces their version of the definitive horror RPG. The results? An amazing game that stands on its own.
Product: Call of Cthulhu d20
Author: Monte Cook and John Tynes
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Page count: 320
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Buzz on 25/04/02
Genre tags: Modern day Historical Horror
Call of Cthulhu, written by Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd edition co-designer Monte Cook and Pagan Publishing's John Tynes, of Delta Green fame, is the latest role-playing game from Wizards of the Coast (WotC). For the uninitiated, Call of Cthulhu is based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, a writer of "weird tales" in the 1920's and 1930's. His work, and that of contemporaries and successors who have taken up writing in the "Mythos cycle," revolves around the idea that the universe is ruled by malign and uncaring entities, known collectively as the "Cthulhu Mythos," to whom humanity is much like ants are to us. At the best, we are mere servitors of their ultimate and unfathomable aims; at worst, we are their cattle. In the Call of Cthulhu game, players take the role of "investigators"; essentially normal people caught up in the extraordinary events caused by the Mythos and its servants. They cannot hope to defeat the "Outer Gods" or "Great Old Ones," but they can attempt to thwart them for a brief time... assuming they don't die or go insane (or both!) first. A bleak perspective, but fodder for great roleplaying.
This version of the Call of Cthulhu game is an application of WotC's d20 system to the original Call of Cthulhu RPG created by Chaosium, Inc., a game based on Chaosium's venerable Basic Role-Playing (BRP) system. This version does not replace the Chaosium version. Chaosium will continue to support both versions, releasing products with both BRP and d20 stats.
This has been a point of contention for some. Many BRP fans feel that their beloved game has no need for another system, and others simply hate to see d20 applied to anything (even D&D). I am going to try and avoid presenting this review in terms of whether Cthulhu d20 is "better". Instead, I want to simply explain why I think this is a great game that stands on its own. Towards the end, I'll offer some opinions on the BRP vs. d20 issue.
I've been a gamer since 1980. I have owned two different editions of Cthulhu BRP, 2nd edition and the paperback 5th edition, and have played it quite a bit. I have also owned a number of other BRP-based Chaosium games, including Runequest, Superworld, Ringworld, and Stormbringer. While I wouldn't consider myself an "expert" Cthulhu BRP player, I'm fairly experienced with the system.
On the other hand, I am, admittedly, a rabid d20 fan, and would consider myself an "expert" with that system. Whether you think this good or ill, I'm just telling you up front.
This biggest question on the minds of a lot of classic Call of Cthulhu fans is simply, why come out with a d20 version of the game? This interview at shoggoth.net with Tynes and Cook can perhaps shed some light.
JT: Monte can explain WotC's reasoning. I thought it was a good idea for the most obvious reason: it was a chance to put Cthulhu in front of a new audience. I think that over the years Chaosium's rulebooks have become more geared towards existing fans, and they needed an opportunity to produce an introductory product for people who haven't looked at the game before.
Interestingly, despite Cook saying that Cthulhu BRP is "dramatically different", he has also stated that, in reality, the two systems are quite similar.
Really, it wasn't hard. To be honest, the systems aren't ALL that different, not as far as the whole spectrum of game mechanics goes. Characters in both have hit points, essentially ability scores of 3 to 18, skills, and so on.
The two systems also make some similar assumptions about damage (they start with the assumption that a club does 1d6, then extrapolate) and feature a flat-roll resolution system.
In essence, it seems like creating Cthulhu d20 was both a great creative opportunity and a way to expand the d20 system in new directions, thus adding to its value. And all while drawing attention to Chaosium's product line.
This is simply a gorgeous book. If WotC know how to do anything, it's pull out all the stops and produce core rulebooks that set new standards for the industry. It's printed on a heavy-stock paper with a muted gloss and strongly bound in a matte-finish hardcover binding. Short of being run over with a truck, this book is going to last.
The cover is a photo-reproduction of a sculpture by Ann Koi and Jason Soles; it's designed to give the look of a tome bound in rotted, wrinkled skin. Bloody green tentacles (and what's Cthulhu without tentacles?) poke from the corners of the book, and a fanged face, eyes reflecting the depths of space, pushes its way out from the center. In some ways I almost prefer the haunting blue-hued painting that adorns the current Cthulhu BRP hardback, but this cover is still a thing of menacing beauty. At the least, there's no way the two books can be confused for each other.
The interior artwork, all in full color, is also spectacular. The chapter frontispieces are truly breathtaking, while the in-chapter artwork ranges from good to exceptional. Oddly enough, the only art I didn't care for were the few pieces done by Wayne Reynolds. Normally, he's one of my favorite D&D artists, but his work here seems a bit out of place; it's just not "horrific" enough. Still, that's mainly nitpicking. Love ya, Wayne!
It should be mentioned, for those who have care to worry about this sort of thing, that the illustrations are often quite disturbing (e.g., Y'Golonac on p.304). Young children are probably better off not seeing some of this stuff. Just FYI.
The layout of the book is quite crisp, and peppered with appropriate quotes from the writing of Lovercraft and other Mythos writers at the beginning of each chapter and elsewhere when appropriate. The book uses an unusual angled gutter, i.e., the space between the columns runs at an angle across the page. Some people have said that this makes the book hard to read, but I didn't really have any problems. I think it helps to add to the general feeling of "wrongness" that ideally should surround anything Mythos-related. Also, the edges of the pages are essentially color-coded with splotchy borders, which make it easier to quickly flip to a given chapter of the book.
My only quibble in this area is that the font used for the main text is very thin and light. While this adds to the book's eldritch look, it can be a little hard to read with less than ideal lighting, at least for me.
Overall, I give Cthulhu d20 a 5 for style.
The book is 320 pages, including a two-page index, one-page character sheet, and two-page table of contents. Roughly half is core rule content, inclusive of spell listings and equipment. A further 50 pages are devoted to the creatures of the Mythos, and 80 pages to information on the Mythos itself, gamemastering, and two sample adventures. The final 30 pages contain an appendix on incorporating Cthulhu elements into a D&D campaign, a guide for converting BRP stats to d20 stats, a very thorough recommended reading list, and some sample characters.
The majority of the d20 system mechanics remain intact, so rather than present a complete summary of the rules, I'm going to focus on what the designers chose to add or change.
Characters, or "investigators," have the standard d20 abilities (Strength, Dexterity, etc.), hit points (always d6 hit dice), as well as levels and their dependent benefits (ability increases, new feats, etc.).
However, Cthulhu d20 is devoid of classes. Instead, players choose either a Defense Option or Offense Option for their characters. These options provide Base Attack Bonus and Base Save Bonus progressions used when advancing levels. The save progressions are assigned to the three save categories (Fortitude, Will, and Reflex) as the player sees fit, and then retained throughout the lifetime of the character. For example, a Defense Option character starts out with a BAB of 0, two "good" saves at 2, and one "bad" save at 0. An Offense Option character will begin with a BAB of 1 and two "bad" saves and one "good" save. As you might guess, the BAB of the Offense Option progresses faster than that of the Defense Option. This provides a nice bit of flexibility without pigeonholing the character into a specific "class." And no, one cannot "multiclass" between the two options, at least not in the rules as written.
Additionally, characters do not start out being proficient in any weapons. Weapon Proficiency feats must be taken to use any weapon effectively. An optional rule is presented to allow Offense Option characters one free Weapon Proficiency at 1st level, however.
The second addition to chargen is the "profession template." This is, essentially, a job title and a list of skills. Much like the concept of class and cross-class skills in D&D, skills included in a character's template are considered "core" skills; others are non-core. Like D&D, the former cost one skill point per rank, the latter two per rank. The templates provided are typical ones for the Cthulhu genre, such as dilettantes, professors, archaeologists, reporters, and so on. Templates can also be easily created by choosing a title and listing 12 skills considered "core" for that profession. Lastly, profession templates influence a character's starting money; doctors, for example, start with more money than soldiers.
BRP fans wondering about the d20 equivalent of Cthulhu BRP's EDU stat should know that it simply doesn't exist in Cthulhu d20. A character's education is considered part of their background, and is up to the player. Whether they want to explain skills as being acquired through a university or through the school of hard knocks, it's their decision.
Speaking of skills, all characters in Cthulhu d20 receive 8 skill points per level, plus their Int bonus. As in D&D, this amount is quadrupled at 1st level. The skill system is unchanged, though a few additions have been made, both to reflect the modern setting of the game and to incorporate concepts specific to the Cthulhu genre.
Computer Use, Drive, Operate Heavy Machinery, Pilot (essentially a Drive skill for everything that's not an automobile), and Repair comprise the "tech" skills, and are fairly self-explanatory. Pick Pockets is replaced by Sleight of Hand, though the functionality is essentially the same.
Speak Other Language replaces D&D's Speak Language. As in Cthulhu BRP, the skill must be purchased separately for each non-native language that the player wishes the character to know. A skill check is made when the character attempts to speak or comprehend the chosen language.
The Research skill is added to reflect the amount of time investigators tend to spend hunting through libraries and the local hall of records, and Psychoanalysis to reflect the amount of time they tend to spend babbling incoherently in mental hospitals. Psychic Focus is used in conjunction with Psychic Feats, which I'll discuss in a bit. Lastly, there is, of course, a Cthulhu Mythos skill. Like Cthulhu BRP, this skill cannot be acquired with skill points, and ranks in the skill lower the character's maximum possible Sanity score (which I'll also get to in a bit).
No d20 game would be complete without feats, of course. Many of the standard d20 feats are present, such as Dodge or Toughness, and, as with skills, some new feats have been added to reflect the setting and genre.
First off, we have some gun-related feats, namely Drive-By Attack, Multishot, and Rolling Shot. Drive-By Attack improves the character's ability to fight from a moving vehicle, Multishot their ability with automatic weapons, and Rolling Shot lets the character attack while dodging.
Next we have a collection of what D&D players might term "regional feats" or "background feats," i.e., feats that flesh out the character's quirks, generally by improving their aptitude with specific skills. The feats are: Acrobatic, Animal Affinity, Athletic, Cautious, Gearhead, Martial Artist, Nimble, Persuasive, Sharp-Eyed, Stealthy, Trustworthy, and Wealth. Most of these feats provide a 2 bonus to two related skills, such as Handle Animal and Ride for the Animal Affinity feat. Martial Artist is essentially equivalent to Improved Unarmed Strike (i.e., you do real damage with your fists instead of subdual), and Wealth increases your available cash.
The Skill Focus feat has been re-written for Cthulhu d20 as Skill Emphasis, now giving a 3 bonus to a chosen skill instead of the previous 2. Monte Cook has mentioned that he wished he'd done this in the original D&D re-write, so it looks like he's used Cthulhu d20 to sneak it in the back door. D&D players should nab this immediately, if they haven't already house-ruled it.
Lastly, we are introduced to psychic feats. These are paranormal abilities appropriate to the horror genre in general, and are entirely optional. Each feat allows the character to perform a particular special ability, provided they make a successful Psychic Focus check (told you I'd get to it). Some abilities also expend Sanity points (almost there) and cause temporary ability damage. A few of the feats presented include Sensitive (which is a prerequisite for gaining any other psychic feats), Telepathy, Psychometry, and Dowsing. Assuming a GM allows these abilities in their game, they won't have to worry about investigators pulling any "Jedi mind tricks" out of their hindquarters. The psychic abilities are generally very mild, as is appropriate for the genre, and often have dire consequences. As we will see with the treatment of magic in Cthulhu d20, the paranormal is not something characters mess with lightly in this game.
Sanity (finally!) uses rules lifted essentially verbatim from the original Cthulhu BRP game. A character starts the game with Wis x 5 Sanity points. When the character is exposed to creatures of the Mythos or other horrifying experiences, the player rolls d100. If the result is greater than the character's current Sanity, the character suffers Sanity point loss and possible insanity. If the roll is under, the Sanity loss is reduced or eliminated. A character that reaches 0 or less Sanity goes permanently insane, and effectively becomes an NPC. The Sanity chapter also discusses some basics of psychotherapy and a rundown of treatments available during the various eras of play. This is really a hallmark of the Cthulhu genre and is a blast to read, sort of a Psychology 101 for gamers.
Admittedly, the transplanted Sanity mechanic does go against some basic assumptions d20 makes, i.e., a player always rolls a d20 to accomplish a task, with higher rolls being better. The Sanity mechanic is, of course, in the style of BRP, as it assumes the opposite: that low rolls are always good. Nonetheless, the mechanic works perfectly, a simple case of not fixing what ain't broken.
Combat, inclusive of the rules dealing with the environment at large, in Cthulhu d20 is probably the area least modified from what D&D players are used to. At most, the rules have been simplified a bit and are more clearly explained, quite a boon to d20 players at all stymied by the D&D Players Handbook. Among the simplifications is the relegation of Attacks of Opportunity to a purely optional rule, as well as a streamlined version of the combat action types. There are free actions, move actions (which include things like standing up from prone), attack actions, and full attack actions, and that's it. Not wholly different, but a little easier to deal with. Variant rules are also presented which give investigators a "defense bonus" to AC as they increase in level, something we've seen in other d20 games like Star Wars and Wheel of Time. The rule exists for those who wish to run a more "heroic" or "pulp-style" campaign.
The one major change to combat is the inclusion of rules for autofire weapons, which players of Star Wars have probably seen before. Essentially, all guns allow characters to make more than one attack in a round, the number of which depends on whether the gun is standard (single-action, i.e., manually-cocked), multifire (double-action, or self-cocking), or autofire (fully-automatic). Unfortunately, making the extra attacks imposes a to-hit penalty (ranging from -4 to -6) on all the attacks made. The Multishot feat can reduce these a bit, but for the average investigator (who probably is already at -4 for being non-proficient with the weapon), these are huge penalties. Honestly, this just doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I could understand if successive attacks were at a penalty, say to reflect recoil, but all of them? It defeats the whole purpose of using a fully automatic weapon. This rule is the only part of Cthulhu d20 that I consider a real clunker. An easier option is to simply increase the damage and critical threat range of autofire weapons to reflect that, yes, they are very, very deadly. That, or steal some better autofire rules from another d20 product.
The other change of note is that the massive damage threshold has been reduced to 10 points. If a single attack does 10 points or more to an investigator, they must make a Fort save or die instantly. I found this a very appropriate change that reflects the lethality of the setting and addresses the concerns some people have had about the inclusion of hit points that increase with level.
A fairly extensive chapter on equipment is given, the lion's share of which is spent on a lengthy discussion of firearms throughout the 20th century, stats for said firearms and for developing your own, and firearms law in the US. I found this fascinating; kudos to the researchers! If you're not interested in differentiating between a Glock Model 17 and a Colt Delta Elite, simplified gun rules are presented at the beginning of the chapter.
Following this we get four pages of lists of various types of common and uncommon gear, with prices given for both the 1920's and the year 2000. My only beef with this section is that the lists themselves don't seem to be in any kind of order. Some lists seem chronological, while others are random collections of subcategories. All of the information is good, I just wish they'd simply alphabetized the lists.
The magic chapter presents us with info on using occult tomes to gain Mythos skill ranks and to learn spells (at the risk of some Sanity points), as well as Mythos artifacts ("magic items," in Cthulhu-speak) from Carafes of Space-Mead to Yithian Temporal Communicators. This is great info, with lots of adventure seeds hidden within.
Spells are then presented, a mix of traditional Cthulhu BRP spells with some appropriate D&D spells thrown in. Spells in Cthulhu d20 share most of the characteristics of D&D spells, save for schools and levels. Instead, spells have a "cost" attribute. To cast a spell in Cthulhu d20, an investigator must sacrifice points of Sanity and often incur ability score damage (usually tempoary, but sometimes permanent); the more powerful the spell, the greater the sacrifice. For example, the powerful Call Deity spell incurs 20 points of Wis damage. To offset the toll of some of these more powerful spells, spells may be cast by multiple participants who share the damage between them. I really liked this idea; it's a very simple and effective way to handle what is essentially ritual magic. In all, I really enjoy the magic system. Like the psychic feats, magic wreaks havoc with the caster's mind and body, and is not used lightly, just as it should be.
No Cthulhu game would be complete without an assembly of Mythos creatures, and Cthulhu d20 gives us a hefty 50 pages worth. All of the traditional entities are here, save for the actual gods of the Mythos, each with a descriptive passage from an appropriate Mythos story and stats for Sanity losses incurred when characters encounter them. The artwork is beautiful, though part of me does miss the days when the Cthulhu BRP rules presented only silhouettes of the Mythos creatures. I mean, you'd go insane if you saw what they actually looked like, right? But that's just my nostalgia kicking in.
My one complaint with this chapter is that is seems to contain the most typos. The rest of the book looks virtually error-free, making this chapter stand out. Most of the typos are simply font-conversion glitches and comma splices, though I did spot an error with the CR of the Terrors from Beyond. They're listed as CR 1, which seems way too low for incorporeal creatures with damage resistance. I feel like a second digit is missing here.
It should also be noted that the use of the CR attribute in Cthulhu d20 is mostly included just to give GMs a general idea of a creature's lethality. The game does not use CR to determine XP awards; awards are generally story-based. The main reason for including them is for GMs who wish to use the creatures in a standard D&D game, a subject touched upon later in the book.
The remainder of the book is comprised of a general summary of the Mythos entities and concepts, guidelines for GM-ing a Call of Cthulhu game, a breakdown of possible settings and periods for a Cthulhu d20 campaign, sample adventures, and the aforementioned D&D appendix.
This is easily the best part of the book. Finally, we are presented with a context in which to view the previous chapters, and are given excellent guidelines for running the game with the appropriate "feel." An magnificent job is done presenting the Mythos as it is understood by mere humanity, the implication being that the Mythos is more than just a pantheon. It's a grand secret about which humanity has only the faintest understanding. Consequently, the GM is encouraged to use the Mythos as a tool, shaping its elements, when necessary, to tell tales of mind-blasting horror.
Of course, the book doesn't throw Lovecraft's essential concepts out the window, either. The Mythos chapter is filled with sections entitled "Lovecraft Speaks": quotes from stories, essays, and collected letters appropriate to the topic at hand. All of the elements of a Mythos tale, such as cults, occult tomes, magic, secrets, sinister clues, horrible families, and how to integrate them into a Cthulhu d20 campaign, are discussed.
In general, the GM advice given in Cthulhu d20 is some of the best I've read. The authors devote a great deal of space to conveying how a horror game is different from a "standard" (read: D&D) game, and how the GM can best utilize the tropes of the horror genre to create a truly unique and terrifying experience for their players. As the discussion progresses, the reader is shown a stage-by-stage development of the first sample adventure included in the book, as well as a brief synopsis of a sample campaign. A few paragraphs are even given over to dealing with meta-game issues, such as how to create the appropriate atmosphere in your play area. The section ends with two example scenarios, both set in the present day. Setting your games in the present day seems to be a general assumption made by Cthulhu d20, a change from Cthulhu BRP's focus on the 1920's. Nonetheless, an extensive chapter is devoted purely to possible settings, with wonderfully written synopses and adventure seeds for periods from the late 19th century onward.
The first scenario, "The Fall of Paradise," is quite good, and, much like William Miller's mom, it really freaked me out. I didn't sleep well that night, and for a horror RPG, no higher praise can be offered. Unlike a lot of games that provide sample adventures, these are not throwaways. I would definitely use them to introduce the game to my players.
Lastly, we have an appendix with guidelines for using Cthulhu concepts in a standard D&D game (and some mention of using D&D elements in a Cthulhu d20 game, i.e., appropriate spells and monsters). Info is given on incorporating concepts like Sanity points, the deities of the Mythos, and Mythos magic into a fantasy campaign. Also included are stats for the deities and Great Old Ones themselves. All in all, this is great stuff.
I give Cthulhu d20 a 5 for substance.
As to whether this version of Cthulhu is superior or inferior to the "classic" game, I really can't say. In general, I think that the d20 implementation in Cthulhu d20 does a better job of dotting its i's and crossing its t's, when compared to BRP as implemented in Cthulhu BRP. It feels somewhat more cohesive and polished (and, frankly, I think the skill system is a little more useful). That said, I don't think that the difference between the two editions is all that marked. The two versions of the game won't really "feel" all that different when played.
As another reviewer has suggested, the real point may be that neither system really adequately fits the Cthulhu genre. Both d20 and BRP have their roots in high fantasy, combat-oriented role-playing. A good Cthulhu game rarely ever makes much use of combat rules. Heck, the best games I've played rarely ever make use of dice. Something rules-light and story-oriented, like FUDGE perhaps, would probably be a better choice than either of these two systems.
Nonetheless, my final assessment of this game is that it's a damn good one. It doesn't really give Cthulhu BRP players any compelling reason to switch to d20, but I don't think that was its intent. I get the impression that Cthulhu d20 was written primarily to introduce D&D players to a wildly different genre of role-playing; much of the advice presented in the book specifically addresses how horror gaming is different from D&D and takes on a "leave your assumptions at the door" attitude.
Thankfully, the book also makes repeated mention of the existence of the Cthulhu BRP game, as well as the names of various companies that produce Cthulhu game material. More than a "takeover attempt," Cthulhu d20 serves to shine the light on a game that is deserving of a lot more attention.
So, yes, I really like this game. It presents the d20 rules in a clear manner. It provides a great introduction to both Lovecraft's work and the genre of horror gaming in general. It's a great resource for D&D players looking to add something unique (and horrific) to their games. I also think that it makes a great game for people new to the hobby (a comment also true for Cthulhu BRP). Seeing as Cthulhu d20 will have the same widespread distribution as WotC's D&D products, I hope that those people who would normally be turned off by the fantasy genre will instead feel comfortable giving this a try.