Call of Cthulhu D2002
Though nearly a year after its release, I felt obligated to quantify my thoughts on the D20 version of the Call of Cthulhu game and draft this analysis. Though we've seen a lot of commentary on the pros and cons of CoC by WotC, some of the ground I cite here hasn't been covered in previous articles.
The title of this review - Call of Cthulhu D2002 - reflects what I believe this product to be about: a modernization of a long-loved game setting. The differences between the classic Chaosium product and the WoTC D20 version illustrate contemporary tastes and changed desires within the gaming community (whether or not us old timers wish to admit it - the face of the hobby *has* changed). The release of this product also signifies an attempt of the world's largest game conglomerate to draw this new audience (largely unfamiliar with notions of horror and frailty in a fantasy setting) - into one of the hobby's oldest and best loved settings. In addition to a stand alone game, it is clear that part of the intent of this book was to "officiate" the use of Lovecraft's mythos in D+D. Nearly 20 years after their banishment from Deities and Demigods, the Elder horrors can return to haunt the lands of Elves and Hobb- er... Halflings.
Cthulhu and Me, A confession.
CoC is the one game - a full 20 years after purchasing one of the first versions - that I am still fanatical about. Thus I reacted with appropriate shrieks of horror and insanity upon hearing that WoTC was producing a D20 version. I had visions of an whole $30.00 supplement on "ElderThing Dragonkin" and "Orc Niggurath Sorceror" prestige classes. When I saw Tynes' name attached to the core book (memories of Delta Green) and realized that Chaosium would still be issuing source material - my fears were somewhat alleviated. I checked out this book initially at a nearby Barnes and Noble. One $4.00 coffee later (1/10th the price of the book...so I guess RPGing still isn't *that* expensive of an hobby) and my initial thoughts were favorable. I've since taken advantage of Amazon's valuable deal on the core book and the keeper's kit and have reviewed my own copy.
Spiffy cover. Nice artwork. Good to see some of the very dark, full color renderings. There is a bit of cartoonism creeping in (one of my issues with much of the 3E D+D work) but not so much that it turns me off.
This product is expertly produced and well written. The thematic approach taken is well illustrated on the credits page: Based upon Call of Cthulhu by Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis, Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. With *inspired* being the key phrase.
The Chaosium version is about roleplaying IN the worlds of HP Lovecraft - with that focus on the verbatim setting, nearly identical characters and parallel plot situations. The D20 CoC game isn't meant to replicate either the fiction or the Chaosium classic. Just like D+D 3E wasn't meant to replicate TSR AD+D (thank God(s).
Out with the Elder?
After 20 years of satisfaction with the same basic rules why would I even look at this system? The reason (aside from liking to learn new things): D20 system is far more dynamic and flexible. Target numbers are simply the best way to for characters and the GM to have more control/impact over the game environment. The dicing becomes a transparent medium with which to create drama in which the characters are the stars (lucky or otherwise). Most players I currently deal with find the idea of percentile scores and fixed, chart based target numbers very restricting. It makes character individualities and base traits less important. And I see no reason to enforce that through use of a dated - though very efficient - system.
The provided flavor text constantly emphasizes Lovecraft's influence (he is quoted on nearly all the pages) and the frailty of the characters compared to fantasy/action counterparts. And that the game shouldn't be about duking it out with monsters. A noble attempt to immediately nix delusions of slugging it out with a shoggoth. But there is no way getting around an investigator with 75 hit points being able to survive multiple shotgun blasts or the attack of 5 guard dogs. The fatal wound threshold adds some additional threat but a tough character will still hold on longer than what seems logical in a game which emphasizes constant threat. Most Mythos monsters will still mop the floor with the average 10th level character. But one freak indigent with a baseball bat should be a real threat. The feats aren't particularly disruptive - many are non combative or only add a slight "edge". But neither are they necessary. They can easily be overlooked or adjusted as play style dictates. Psychic feats seem out of place at first, but I've had several players ask about having some slight mental or mediumistic power in the past. So this actually works with the mindset of most people I play with.
Level oriented advancement won't be a problem beyond the potential for very hit point heavy characters. This is easily remedied by simply using a d3 instead of d6 for hit point advancement - and of course in the best HPL based games - having most of the situations get worse through violence.
One thing that strikes me as a bit confusing is that there is no substantial or logical adjustment to the sanity rules. With all the emphasis of a D20 in the D20 system, the sanity loss remains exactly the same - percentile based. I still think this is the best simulation of eroding sanity in any RPG, so I'm not complaining - but it seems an odd thing to leave inorganic to the D20 system in the context of changing just about everything else. I also have personal interpretive issues with the use of skills to "first aid" a character going insane (or even characters slipping to -10 sanity instead of just losing the plot at 0). The section pertaining to insanity classification and treatments is well researched and thoroughly explained.
The handling of spells and tomes is fairly true to form. Though it is to some degree glossed over compared to the great importance this aspect plays in the original tales and the Chaosium game. It seems to have more of a Carpenter's Mouth of Madness vs. Dunwich Horror feel. Not bad (as some of my CoC games are closer to this anyhow) - just different. I would make it impossible to use most spells in a quick combat situation - requiring some ritual element. The designers assumed some obligation to make magic more accessible to attract the "D20 crowd". A "more Lovecraft" approach is easily corrected by any GM worth their salt. If they wish to make the forbidden books harsher to read and their associated magic/lore less easy to use - then go for it. Monte Cook won't have you arrested for changing his game.
The monsters are well presented, with some of the text coming right out of the original RPG. There are a few key creatures missing, which I can't imagine couldn't have been made room for. The "Mummy" template section particularly interesting - and have enjoyed some of the "variant" interpretations of the various "False Gods".
Tips and Tentacles
The recommendations for Keepers and players are useful - particularly if you are dealing with a D+D group who want to expand their horizons. Even as an experienced horror/fantasy GM, I found some of the tips helpful. I am disappointed that there is such an emphasis on modern role playing vs early 20th century. While I understand that this is a text meant to broaden the scope of roleplaying with the mythos, to carry the esteemed Call of Cthulhu title, it would have been nice to see as many details on the 1920's as tips on "How this is NOT D+D God Killer Expansion #37". There ARE two decades worth of Chaosium material on the subject; the statistical incompatibly with NPCs/Monsters from the Chaosium material should not be an issue with slight effort. Plus when all else fails an interested player or GM could go out and *gasp* - read a book.
I find that most people who shout down the D20 versions of various games have never played them, or even synthesized the rules. Many have somehow reconciled a stand against corporate superstructure by turning up their noses at the WoTC/Hasbro conglomerate while wolfing down as many Pizza Hut specials as their friends are willing to buy for them during their weekly gaming forays. The CoC D20 core rules are no exception. They are largely superior - mechanically - to the Chaosium counterpart if your emphasis is on fluidity and player enjoyment. If reliance on a percentile system to create a successful horror scenario is necessary - then you should probably look into a different hobby.
A few things still don't sit right with me in terms of "Lovecraftian" roleplaying but these can be easily overcome by any experienced GM. Playing in the tradition of Lovecraft's horror is about setting and atmosphere. Not which dice you roll. However most players I know have come to prefer dynamic, target based systems over static percentile based games. I see no issue with using a 'different' system if that makes them happy and allows you all to enjoy the story. The fact that I have used AD+D 1st ed as dark fantasy/Lovecraft is testament to the mutability of Great Cthulhu and the surrounding mythos. After reading the rules and supplementary text I am confident that any alterations won't adversely affect the ability of a good GM and players to enjoy Lovecraft's vision. Bad GMs and players will always pervert a game's intent and atmosphere with a predisposition towards superpowers and mega-damage. Does this game - through use of its level/feat/class based groundwork *promote* sessions in which Investigators attack cultist hide-outs A-Team style? No - bad players and worse Gamemasters promote that. Rules are static suggestions drawn from a page in a book.