This grizzled veteran of the RPG industry should need no introduction for longtime gamers, most of whom know at least one rabid Call of Cthulhu fanatic who will vaunt to its greatness at length to anyone who will give them an ear. But for the uninitiated, we present this review.
Call of Cthulhu takes its name from a story by cult author H. P. Lovecraft, whose fictional cosmos of weird horror is the basis for the game. Players take the part of Investigators who, typically, discover evidence of supernatural horrors threatening mankind and must seek out the occult knowledge to banish or destroy them. In the process, they face the prospect of being killed or -the signature theme of CoC- driven insane by the horrors of the Mythos (some fun, eh?).
The game mechanics are those of Chaosium's future RPG system (as used in such games as Runequest, Elric!, and Nephilism), which I've always found serviceable and unobtrusive, if not elegant. Character generation takes little time and uses a combination of random die rolls and play choice, splitting the difference between AD&D and GURPS (reviews elsewhere on this page).
The game mechanics haven't changed significantly in 10+ years, but the current edition has nevertheless benefited from years of refinement and research, and this shows in the book's presentation. Despite its hefty size (250 pages) and miniscule type, CoC is one of the user-friendliest games around. The character generation and core rules (about 50 pages) are edge-marked for easy reference and supplemented with helpful sidebars.
For the GM (or "Keeper of Arcane Lore" as they have it) the best material from years of supplements have been compiled in this book. It contains the essential information needed for setting campaigns in the 1890's, 1920's, or 1990's (the "standard" CoC periods), as well as Lovecraft's parallel gothic fantasy universe, the Dreamlands. Useful for GMs of any modern-era game are the historical timelines from 1890 to 1992 and the brief history of forensic pathology. Finally, the Lovecraft aficionado will appreciate the 2-page bio of the troubled writer.
Although Call of Cthulhu has changed significantly over the years, it has more significantly not changed - a testament to its staying power and quality. It remains one of the most well-researched, well-supported, and now well-organized games on the market - a classic in its field.
Highs - Easy to learn, well-organized, supported by a mile-high stack of supplementary material with an admirable good stuff-to-crap ratio.
Lows - Elements like random character generation and the multi-sided dice used for damage resolution (and not much else) seem archaic and clunky by current standards.
Final Call - If you're indifferent to Lovecraft, it's still a damn good game. If you like Lovecraft, I'd be surprised if you didn't already have a copy (owners of previous editions should check this one out - the improved organization and clarity may be worth the money).
Call of Cthulhu, 5th edition, Chaosium 1992.
List price: $21.95