Inside Pulse 12

Tabletop Review: Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition: Core Rulebook

Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition: Core Rulebook/Keeper’s Rulebook
Publisher: Chaosium
Cost: $27.95
Page Count: 448
Release Date: 11/28/2014 (Digital)/TBD (Physical)
Get it Here: Chaosium.com

So it’s time to finally review the 448 page Core Rulebook for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. In this review I’ll be referring to it as the Core Rulebook, the Keeper’s Guide and the Keeper’s Rulebook as all three names have been bandied about since the original Kickstarter for this newest edition of one of the oldest tabletop RPGs ever made. We’ve already covered the Keeper’s Screen and the Investigator’s Handbook so it’s time to move on to the big tome that every 7e player will need. Remember, The Investigator’s Handbook is primarily for expanded character creation and roleplaying, so if you only ever plan to play characters in a CoC game, you can get by with just that. If you want to run a Call of Cthulhu game or really know the rules inside and out, the Core Rulebook is what you want to pick up. There are character creations rules within this one, but there aren’t as many options nor are they as detailed. That’s not a bad thing. The character creation rules in the Core Rulebook are as in-depth as what you’ll find in previous editions; it’s just the Investigator’s Handbook really expands things and gives you more than the usual occupations, skills and options.

Finally, I should point out that much of 7e is the same as it was in previous editions. A lot of the text is lifted from previous editions, but nowhere as much as say, from Fifth to Sixth Edition. Some parts make sense to be a direct lift from previous editions, but as you’ll see in this review, a lot of what’s here is rewritten and reworked. Some things from previous editions like the adventures have been replaced with completely new ones. Others, like The Call of Cthulhu story, which was reprinted in its entirety in Sixth Edition has been completely excised. There’s no fiction to be had in the 7e Core Rulebook. So on and so forth. Now let’s take a look at what awaits you when you decide to delve into the seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu.

Chapter One is “Introduction” and it is somewhat similar to the Introduction you’ll find in the Investigator’s Handbook. Some of the material in both books are a direct cut and paste job, like the “Winners & Losers” section, but much of it is completely different from one book to the next. You have two very different Overviews, Examples of Play and more. You might experience SOME Déjà vu from reading these chapters concurrently, but I was overjoyed and impressed that Chaosium made sure both books offered something different. That’s a sign of hard work and quality.

Chapter Two is, “H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos.” This chapter gives you a look at the man behind the Mythos. Sure there are other writers like Derelth, Bloch, Chambers and others who gave us pieces of the Cthulhu Mythos, but Lovecraft is the one who gave us the Necronomicon, Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep and many others, so he tends to get top billing, even if you might prefer a different Mythos author to him. This section talks about him mainly as a writer and correspondent, as well as authors he influences during his life and after his death, so it doesn’t dwell too much on things like his racism and xenophobia – which is fine with me. Unfortunately racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of prejudicial thinking were a lot more common in Lovecraft’s time. So while it’s disappointing to know this about the man, it’s at least explainable as “a product of his time” in the same way we can accept that George Washington and other founding fathers kept slaves, even if it is a concept we find loathsome in 2014. This chapter also gives us a detailed look at the Cthulhu Mythos as it stands in the game including a sidebar about what Sandy Petersen combined from the various authors whose creatures and characters appear in the game. It also showcases was Sandy purposely left out like the elemental and “Good vs. Evil” crap that Derelth put in. The end result is the version of the Mythos nearly everyone knows and uses today – even if they have never played Call of Cthulhu or readone of its many supplements. Now that’s influence – perhaps even more so that the author’s individual works that make up the Mythos.

Chapter Three is “Creating Investigators.” As I already covered the changes to character creation in-depth in the Investigator’s Handbook review on Monday, I’m not going to repeat myself or waste your time here. Needless to say there are a few changes though. Stats are now in percentile form to uniformly match up with Skills. Luck is now like Sanity Point sin that it is a sliding scale. We have a new stat in Build (which is terrible) and Movement is now determined by your STR and/or DEX vs SIZ stats. Skill Points are no longer determined sheerly by EDU, but by the Stats most appropriate for your character’s chosen occupation. Other than that, it’s the same old Character Creation scheme we’ve had for decades. The description of how characters are made is easy to follow and well laid out, meaning newcomers should be able to create their first Investigator in no time after reading this section. You even get a 7e version of Harvey Walters to see how characters are made if you are still unsure. The chapter ends with some random tables and a small list of sample Occupations (sixteen compared to the hundred-plus in the Investigator’s Handbook. There is an entire chapter devoted to that aspect of character creation in the Investigator’s Handbook, so if that is of interest to you, considering picking that book up as well. So the Character Creation rules are the same in both books, they are excellently done and the game is still mostly compatible with Basic Role Playing if you are used to mixing and matching handbooks or adventures from Chaosium’s other venerable system.

Chapter Four is “Skills.” This chapter is very similar to the fifth chapter of the Investigator’s Handbook. Much of the text is line for line, but there are a few differences. The Core Rulebook adds a paragraph about opposing skills and difficulty levels upfront. All of the skills are the same in both books and again, it’s nearly line for line except that the Core Rulebook adds an extra section under each skill (where applicable) about the opposing rolls option. If you are wondering why this is in the Core Rulebook, it’s because it’s mechanics oriented and more for the Keeper than the player. This chapter gives you a good definition of each skill, how to use them and what happens when you attempt a Push (new rule to this edition of CoC) and fail if you take that risk.

Chapter Five is “Game System” and it’s here where you will probably spend the bulk of your time, reading about mechanics, when to roll dice and when to just let the roleplaying take center stage. Because Call of Cthulhu is not meant to be a combat oriented game (though there are dungeon crawl like adventures out there for it.) much of the game is talking, investigating and exploring rather than taking a chainsaw to a shoggoth…although Chainsaw is a new core skill in 7e so feel free to try it out if you encounter one!

The beginning of this chapter really talks about how to roll dice, why to roll dice and especially goes into detail regarding Pushing. This makes sense as Pushing is a brand new canon concept to 7e (although many of us were doing it as a house rule beforehand) so it makes sense that it is placed right at the beginning, so both newcomers and veterans of a previous edition can get a good hard look at what this concept is all about. Essentially “Pushing” lets you re-roll a failed roll in exchange for a consequence if you fail. Pretty cut and dry.

The rest of Chapter Five talks about various rolls, including Know and Idea which are now missing from the 7e Character Sheet and thus will be mostly forgotten about – especially by people who begin playing CoC with Seventh Edition. Credit Rating, Money, critical successes, tragic fumbles and various other things that you roll for are covered in this chapter. It’s a bit dry, but what mechanics section isn’t?

Chapter Six is “Combat.” This is the meat of when you are trying to shoot a cultist, cut off the head of a Ghoul or ugh…shoot Dagon with a rocket launcher. This chapter shows you how combat flows, order of attack, doing damage, various ways you can attack, and the godsend that is armor. There are a LOT of examples of combat in this chapter so you get a narrative look as well as an explanatory one. This should be really helpful to newcomers. “Combat” also covers how to heal from damage as well as ways a character can die. The chapter closes out with a damage chart and also a list of poisons. Although combat is infrequent in Call of Cthulhu compared to say, Pathfinder or Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Keepers and players alike will spend a lot of time in this section as they learn the fine arts of whether it’s better to throw a grenade at a Nightgaunt, or to try and hit it with a speeding dune buggy.

Chapter Seven is “Chases” and this is the first time the subject has ever been covered in such detail. We’ve seen various sets of rules for chases by third parts and if first party supplements alike, but never in the history of CoC has it merited its own chapter. In retrospect, this is pretty odd because often times you are running like hell from something that is trying to catch you and either eat or disembowel you. In spite of how poorly I feel the base MOV stat has been handled in 7e, I really like the chase rules. Thank god CON rolls play a big part on foot based chases. You have some basic rolling to establish a chase scene or if the one trying to escape gets away before a real pursuit can be undertaken. Then, if a chase is established, it follows a similar manner of dice rolling akin to a combat round. The higher your move, the more actions you will get to take during a chase. Of course, besides running, shooting tackling and speeding up, characters and NPCs alike have to look out for various hazards and barriers. After all, even if you’re a lot faster than the person you are fleeing from, if they know the location better than you do, they still might have an advantage…such as knowing that you are about to run into a brick wall or a sharp curve is just ahead in the road you are both driving on.

I should warn you that “Chases” is an extremely long chapter full of examples and a lot of mechanical nitty-gritty. It’s exceptionally well done though as a lot of fun to read, especially since as I have mentioned, this is the first time a core rulebook has really gone this far in-depth with the concept in CoC. One could easily make the case that the chapter goes on a little TOO long and repeats itself a bit, but it really is one of the highlights of 7e, so read it all anyway.

Chapter Eight is “Sanity.” Within this chapter you’ll learn about Sanity Points, how you gain and/or lose them and what happens when your points dip a little too low. Temporary, indefinite and permanent insanity are all covered in this chapter, as well as how these mental concepts play out in-game. This is all fairly standard stuff for the veteran CoC player, but the chapter is helpful beyond words for newcomers. There are all sorts of charts, discussions of different types of insanity and examples of how Insanities are tools for roleplaying rather than punishment for unlucky die rolls. Sanity is a very important point of CoC, so this chapter will become all too familiar to you as you play the game.

Chapter Nine, “Spells” is fairly cut and dry. You get an explanation of spells that can be found and learned within Call of Cthulhu along with their effects and how to cast them. Oddly enough neither the spells themselves nor the books that contain them are covered here. They are in later chapters though, so this results is an odd flow of the book. Switching the order of some chapters would have made things more cohesive, but it is what it is. “Spells” ends up being a very short chapter focusing on the POW and Magic Points stats and little else.

“Playing the Game” is Chapter Ten, which seems like an odd name for a chapter after everything else we’ve already covered. After all, we know how to play the game at this point more or less, right? Well yes. So perhaps this chapter is poorly named. In fact, this chapter is devoted towards helping new Keepers learn the ropes, find players and keep everyone having fun. Maybe this should have been titled more along those lines. Anyway, within Chapter Ten concepts like mood theme and unsavory aspects of history are covered. Information on tailoring adventures to the group of adventurers assembled is here as well. Much of the chapter focuses on creating and playing NPCs to ensure all your supporting cast doesn’t look, sound and act alike. I suppose if you were in Innsmouth this would be okay to a certain extent, but fledging Keepers (or DMs or Storytellers) tend to have this problem, so it’s good to see a section about helping NPCs come to life here in Chapter Ten.

The advice on playing the game is extremely well done here. There’s an entire essay devoted to paying attention to each character’s back story and why you should do this. There is commentary on how dice is secondary to the players and the story they are playing (Tertiary?) How to pace the game, how to deal with disruptive players and what happens when the adventure all go off rails are covered in their own distinct sections. Again, veterans Keepers know all this, but Core Rulebooks like this are written for newcomers or less experienced players, so it is wonderful to have advice and commentary like this provided for them. Besides, we could all use a refresher from time to time, don’t you think? The importance of the Idea roll gets a few pages in Chapter Ten, which is odd since it’s removed from one’s character sheet. How to use handouts properly, when to make perception based rolls (Instead of making Investigators use Spot Hidden or Psychology for EVERYTHING) are also discussed with some depth. Most importantly though, “Playing the Game” covers how to handle, present and portray Mythos creatures. I mean, we can’t think like a Mi-Go or understand the motivations of a Hunting Horror so how can we roleplay one? Advice is given here for just such concepts. You’ll also see piece3s on how to scare players, making Cthulhu Mythos gains/rolls feel ominous and creepy, and when is a good time to end a session/adventure/campaign. The chapter then ends with seven full pages on how to create your own adventures as well as using published scenarios. The ideas presented here are extremely trope-ridden and create the kind of adventures many of us roll our eyes at, but you have to start somewhere. Remember those “OMG, NPC is a Deep One Hybrid” or “The Shaggai are doing evil stuff!” were new and exciting to all of us at one point rather than “That’s guys eyes are bulbous. SHOOT HIM! SHOOT HIM DEAD!”

“Tomes of Eldritch Lore” is Chapter Eleven and, as mentioned earlier, it probably should have been next to Chapter Ten instead of having “Playing the Game” in between the two. It really breaks the flow of what are two very similar subjects. As you can surmise from the title, this is where you’ll find all the famous Mythos grimoires from various stories you have read. The Necronomicon. The Book of Dyzan. The King in Yellow. De Vermiis Mysteriis. All of these and more are in this chapter along with the mechanics that go with them. The chapter also has a nice little summary table at the end of it.

Chapter Twelve is “Grimoire” which is an odd name considering it doesn’t house the list of Mythos books, but is instead the giant list of spells for the game. Well, they already used “Spells” for Chapter Nine (whoops) but the name works since in previous editions this chapter was divided into two: the “Greater Grimoire” and “Lesser Grimoire.” Anyway yes, this is a list of all the spells in the game along with mechanics, information on how to cast them, casting time, materials needed, spell range and how to do the occasional opposing roll piece. What’s really nice is the chapter devotes space to showing how you can create your own spells by altering ones already in the book. They gives examples of various Create Zombie spells in this manner. Everything here is very nicely done.

Our next chapter is “Artifacts and Alien Devices” and it is another list based chapter. Here it’s all the weird crap you can find when you deal with otherworldly alien life forms. Items are listed alphabetically along with descriptions of what they are and who can wield them. It’s a short chapter, only seven pages long, but it gets the job done.

Chapter Fourteen is “Monsters, Beasts, and Alien Gods.” This is essentially the Monster Manual for the Core Rulebook. Be it Outer God, Great Old One, Elder Thing, or mundane life form like a bear or cat, you’ll find it here. Besides the stats for all the potential antagonists characters will encounter, there are some interesting pieces in this chapter. The Build stat REALLLY falls apart with monsters as we see in the section where the writers really try to make it work. Unfortunately the table and explanation feels desperate and a justification for a stat that can’t be universally used. Instead Build becomes relative rather than universal depending on if you are talking mundane life form, monster or inanimate object. Note this becomes the only stat in any edition of Call of Cthulhu that wasn’t universal making is a drag rather than any sort of boon. Again, terrible idea to have it in the first place, doubly so with how it is implemented. It’s the only real eye sore in this edition.

A nice touch however was removing the weird classifications from the game. Things like Lesser Servitor, Greater Servitor and other hamfisted tags for certain races and/or monsters are now gone. This was a good move and something that probably needed to be done a few editions ago. The labels of Outer Gods, Elder Gods and Great Old Ones are also done away with too. For those that miss all these classifications, the chapter ends with a description of these old classifications listed under optional rules. So Chaosium played it safe and made sure to be inclusive, which was a smart move. That way people that want/need those titles for their own homebrew world still have them.

Chapter Fifteen is “Scenarios.” Like with all versions of Call of Cthulhu‘s Core Rulebook we get a few free adventures to try out with the new system. This means newcomers (both Keepers and Investigators) get a little more bang for their buck than you would with the Core Rulebooks of other systems. Unfortunately we only get two adventures with 7e rather than the four you would have found in the last two previous editions. Even more unfortunate is the fact that these two adventures are nowhere as good in terms of quality or ease of use for new Keepers to run. While veterans will be happy to have two brand new adventures contained in their Core Rulebook, they won’t find this as entertaining or memorable as the ones they are used to finding at the tail end of CoC. Newcomers too will find these a little less structured, a lot longer (each will take several sessions to play out) and harder to run. So it appears whoever chose the adventures for this chapter was focusing on the core audience rather than welcoming newcomers, which was a big mistake to me. After all, the rest of the Core Rulebook is about welcoming newcomers to our beloved RPG – why should this chapter be any different? At least both adventures make token attempts to help out newcomers with the occasional sidebar, but really I would not choose either of these adventures for someone’s first CoC game and I wouldn’t choose to play one of these adventures at all. OUCH.

I’m not sure why they went with completely new adventures (which has both good and bad points to it), but I suspect it was because how disastrous the attempt to translate The Haunting from 6e to 7e went with the Seventh Edition Quick Start Rules. If you missed it, The Haunting in previous editions was eight pages long. In 7e it ballooned up to SIXTEEN. Twice as many pages, most of which fumbled around the new mechanics and really drawing out what was a simple classic adventure into a mechanics heavy rollfest that would be more at home with a game published by Palladium. Rather than risk taking four adventures tinged heavily with nostalgia and having their translations make 7e look weak, we got two all new adventures. So say good-bye to Edge of Darkness, The Haunting, The Madman and Dead-Man Stomp and say hello to Amidst the Ancient Trees and Crimson Letters. Something else worth noting before we actually get into these adventures is that the four adventures found in the last few editions of Call of Cthulhu took up only twenty-five pages between them. The two in 7e? They run FORTY! So less adventures but a much higher page count which means these are long, sprawling extremely word and sometimes dull to read affairs. Again, that means they will take longer to read, longer to plan out, and will certainly take more than a single session to play through. All of these are red flags for adventures geared for a brand new gamer. So a forewarning that “Scenarios” is perhaps the weakest and most disappointing part of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, especially if you are new to the game.

Amidst the Ancient Trees is a really rambly, uninteresting adventure. It’s also extremely generic. At first I was really happy to see it feature Glakki as it is one of my favorites that doesn’t get a lot of love. The last time I remember him being featured was in one of Cubicle 7’s Cthulhu Britannica collections. Unfortunately the adventure was pretty painful. Like the terrible conversion of The Haunting, the adventure took twenty pages to say what could have been said in far less. It was also PAINFULLY generic to the point where I felt like I had read this adventure two or three times before. I honestly went through my CoC collection, both physical and digital, looking for this piece. I didn’t find it but I DID find a few adventures that were very similar. So yes, this is a very trope heavy, paint by numbers, generic adventure. On one hand, that’s actually a good choice for a starter adventure because they aren’t tropes to newcomers and they should be easy to run. Unfortunately, Amidst the Ancient Trees is as dull as it is long and generic. It also loses its newcomer appeal by having a very strict timeline the Keeper has to follow, which gives a person running their first CoC game a bit of undue pressue to make sure things are going along and occurring at the right time in the right place. Adventures with a strict timeline require a lot more work and note taking and if this is someone’s first CoC adventure to run, that can be a bit intimidating. For veterans (most of you reading this), it won’t be a problem. We’re used to this type of timeline occurring, especially with some CoC pieces but an adventure in the Core Rulebook should be a lot more open ended and forgiving with time than this. It also doesn’t help that the adventure isn’t interesting at all. In the end, Amidst the Ancient Trees is more likely to leave new players with a bad impression of what Call of Cthulhu adventures are like instead of making them clamor for more.

So what is the adventure about? Well you have Glakki trying to recover a meteor shard intermixed with a kidnapping of a wealthy man (and head of the Vermont water board)’s daughter. The Investigators are initially brought on to find the daughter and get mixed up with the machinations of Glakki’s undead servants. Most of the adventure is simply walking around the Vermont woods with little to nothing happening. There is little investigating, character development, or occurrences. This is the adventure equivalent of stock footage. A Keeper can just speed things up to the actual events that matter but it will be painfully obvious to even rookie players that the Keeper is trying to salvage a bad adventure. Really the adventure is little more than extremely padded bullet points in the guise of a full-fledged scenario, which is disappointing enough on its own. When combined with the fact this thing runs roughly twenty pages, it’s just a horrible train wreck that we usually don’t see from a first party CoC release. This is just a terrible choice all-around for first CoC adventure with the only saving grace being that lethality is extremely low in this scenario. Of course, it hardly matters because the adventure tries to foist personality and motivations onto Investigators rather than letting players develop their own. The piece comes off wanting to be run with pre-generated characters but being too lazy to fully make their own. So instead after the new players create their characters the Keeper has to say, “No, here’s your motivation and personality.” There is really nothing good to say about this adventure and it’s one of the worst Chaosium has published in years. To have this in the Core Rulebook is a minor disaster.

THANKFULLY Crimson Letters is a better affair. Unfortunately the adventure warns right away that it takes a lot more prep work than the usual CoC adventure and that, “While this could be used as an introduction to the Mythos for the investigators, it is perhaps better suited as part of the opening stages of a larger campaign, after the investigators have come together as a group and begun to earn a reputation in certain circles.” So this is NOT an adventure for new Keepers, players OR Characters. WHY IS THIS IN THE CORE RULEBOOK THEN?? Again, these adventures should be ones that are easy for newplayers to run and short enough for them to get a taste of the game without committing to several play sessions of something they might not enjoy. Crimson Letters is thus a TERRIBLE choice to include in the Core Rulebook as a first example of an adventure. The good news is that it is a fun adventure for long time CoC players and they will get a lot of use out of what is here. Unfortunately (there’s that word again), it means that people new to CoC are utterly screwed over in regards to the adventure selection in the Core Rulebook and thus will have to buy something else or create their own – neither of which are appealing options to someone new to a 448 page book. The current 7e adventures available from Chaosium like Cold Harvest, Ripples From Carcosa, Dead Light and Horror on the Orient Express are all pretty good adventures, but Dead Light, might be the only one that you’d want to give to an inexperienced or new Keeper to run. The adventures in the Keeper’s Screen might be decent options too, but honestly, there is nothing for 7e right now specifically tailors for quick and easy play or to introduce new gamers to the setting/system/brand. That’s a terrible mistake of Chaosium’s part. The scenarios in the Core Rulebook should have been those type of adventures – things like Edge of Darkness and The Haunting, but instead we have one adventure that is terrible and one that is quite good but certainly not for new players or Keepers. Ugh. Okay, I’ve ranted enough about what a massive oversight/horrible mistake this chapter was. Let’s just get on with an explanation of Crimson Letters since we’re already 5,000 words into this review.

Crimson Letters has a fantastic outside the box idea for a plot. Usually it’s a Mythos monster’s machinations or a madman/cult and some ancient tome that they have used that becomes the crux of the adventure. Here it is something slightly (very?) different. Here you have a set of old papers dating back to the 1690s. It is not the words or some evil spell written in the manuscript that triggers something horrible. Rather it is the very pages themselves (along with the diagrams they contain) that contain something – keep it from our plane of existence mind you, and several bad attempts to forge this collection of ancient, seemingly mundane documents, has bent the bars of this creature’s pulpish prison. The characters come in to investigate fraud and end up having to defend reality against a menace that might not even realize exists until it takes control of one or more of the team. Eep!

It’s worth noting nine pages of the adventures are devoted solely to NPC personalities and roleplaying hints for them. That’s insane in both a good and a bad way because while it gives a lot of details and really fleshes out the major characters for the Keeper, no adventure should have nearly half of its page count devoted to NPCs. That’s a little overkill and continues the tradition of 7e adventures being far more wordy than previous editions –sometimes to the point of rambling or anal retentiveness. That’s my only real complaint about the adventure as it’s otherwise well written, boasts a uinique monster and will keep players entertained for several sessions. There’s no real solution to the adventure either. You simply have three potentially fatal options for the team and it’s really a decision as to which is the least likely to cause a TPK. Again, great for veterans, terrible for newcomers. Still, I feel Crimson Letters is a good adventure and would have been much better off as part of a collection rather than one of the two Core Rulebook selections.

Our final chapter is “Appendices,” and it’s glossaries, tables, summaries of previous chapters and conversion charts from previous editions to 7e. After that it’s character sheets (1920s and Modern only – boo to no Victorian!), the maps we’ve seen in other 7e releases and a list of Kickstarter backers. That my friends, is your Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition Core Rulebook!

So all in all, 7e is much the same as previous editions. Most of the changes for this edition are cosmetic and they work nicely. My only real quibbles with this entire book are the ill thought out build stat and the terrible choice of adventures in this edition. Otherwise the book is fantastic on every level, with excellent artwork, well written essays and easy to grasp rules. Character Creation is slightly for the better thanks to the Skill Point changes and the shift to core stats being in percentile format may take a bit of getting used to for veterans, but it looks more cohesive once you get used to it. While 7e isn’t going to be my favorite version of Call of Cthulhu, it’s a damn good one, and something well worth picking up.

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