What is Call of Cthulhu?
Dark Cosmic Horror Brought to the Table
For the un-initiated, Call of Cthulhu is a Role Play Game created by Chaosium Inc. that takes place in a variety of settings fighting monsters/aliens based on the mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft. It is considered cosmic horror, where your fears and sanity comes into play. Many forms of this came has come and gone, currently I am running the 7th edition of the game.
Many forms of the game setting exist as world with the roaring 20's and 30's in the main frame. There is Pulp Cthulhu, Western style Cthulhu such as "Down Darker Trails, " gaslight Cthulhu that takes place in Victorian England and "Cthulhu Now" that takes place in our modern Era. These are just a sampling of the dozens of Cthulhu settings that are available for play from Chaosium and other publishers. Some classic games you may have heard of include "Horror on the Orient Express" and "Masks of Nyarlathotep.
The first game was published in 1981, and now we reach through decades of games to the seventh edition that came out in 2014. The Eldritch monsters continue to go bump in the night, playing with the lives of investigators at the table with many mysteries to explore.
Important Things to Note:
Unlike Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu takes place in a darker version of our world and there is not the same fantasy or hero feeling that you get from other table top games. I personally like the darkness and realism that comes with Cthulhu. You play an investigator to travel to strange places to solve mysteries and hunt monsters. Some of the people and things you discover will mess with your character's sanity and push their beliefs about the world that surrounds them. Your guide is the "Keeper of Arcane Lore" or Keeper who runs the scenarios for the investigators.
One of my favorite things about Cthulhu is the 1920's and 1930's setting; sometimes you don't have to play a good guy. I love the traditional historian and academic occupations that your investigator can be; sometimes it is oh so satisfying being a hacker, flapper or someone from the mob.
Maybe your investigators are involved in academic research taking place in remote areas, or maybe there is a murder mystery to solve or some insane cultists to take down. Did someone deceased come back to life? Or is gang activity increasing and you are being called to rise to the moment to take them down. These are just a small taste of scenarios to quench your Cthulhu cravings.
Call of Cthulhu is a very Role-Play heavy game with many verbal exchanges made between the investigators and the keeper. Theater of the mind is important, though maps and minis could be used in certain situations. I personally have only used theater of the mind but I know there are mini's of the Cthulhu Mythos available.
Lastly, it is important to realize that Call of Cthulhu is not like Pathfinder of D&D. Your characters do not have a lot of hit points. These investigators are more human and they have a level of sanity that needs to be cared for in the game. I personally love knowing that my investigator may not live past this scenario, or depending on what is being run, my investigator could go completely insane and earn a spot in a mental institution by the end.
How to Play?
Call of Cthulhu uses dice to determine whether your investigators are able to complete an action or skill check. This system uses mostly percentile dice to complete the necessary rolls. The first thing is building or choosing an investigator. There are a lot of pre-made investigators when it comes to Call of Cthulhu, many of the scenarios come with pre made characters to choose from in the back. I personally love making my own and choosing the skills and jobs I think will best suit the situation we're going to face.
After you have your investigator the game system takes a little bit to learn, but after a few runs is easy to understand. A lot of your rolls is based on levels of success using the percentile dice. Call of Cthulhu uses percentile dice to see if your investigator is able to complete a task. Most times your investigator needs to roll a number equal or less than your skill value (for example my librarian has a Library use of 60, I need to roll 60 or lower on my dice to have success). When the roll result needs to be equal or less than your skill level its called a regular success. There is also hard success (the half your skill level) or extreme success (a roll equal to or less than one-fifth of the skill level) which your Keeper may ask for if the task you are trying to do is difficult, done during dangerous times or you are doing something that only a professional should be able to do.
In the game there are two important things that can help make an unsuccessful roll into a success. This is your "Push" and your "Luck." If you can justify your investigator's actions or intentions you can choose to "Push" a failed skill roll. This means you can completely re-roll your skill check but if you fail a second time the consequences are usually deadly to your health or sanity. Before a Push roll is made the keeper can give hints of what might happen to let the investigator know that it may not be worth the risk to take a second roll. You can only Push a skill check once per failed roll, but there is no limits to how many Pushes you do in game. The more you Push, the more likely your character is going to get injured or come out dead.
Another hand of fate is with the Luck rolls. Each investigator starts the game with a certain amount of Luck on their character sheets. A Luck roll is used to see if the universe is in your favor. These can be used when events could have numerous factors. Does a player want to jump into a car to escape? - Luck roll to see if the keys are in the car, Are the investigators failing their skill checks to find a hidden object?- Luck roll to see if the universe lets them find it on dumb luck.
Sanity is the last key thing about playing Call of Cthulhu. Any time the players come across something horrific, or something from the Mythos a sanity check needs to be made. If a player fails their sanity roll, the Keeper can take control (making your character scream, act in a mania or hurt another player based on if you are holding a weapon). Bouts of madness and temporary insanity is a juicy part of Call of Cthulhu and can be a lot of fun to implement.
How to "Win"
There are a lot of ways to approach this, since many table top role playing games don't necessarily have a definite way to "win." I consider it a win if your investigators work cooperatively together to reach one or a series of end goals. Each end goal could be based by the specific scenario run by the Keeper, such as stopping a cultist ritual or defeating a monster. Another way could be if you consider your end goal is to make it through a serious of 5 scenarios with the same investigator. Maybe you are trying to have your investigator try to contribute as much as they can, or you as a player are trying to play enough scenarios that you can fill your Mythos log like you are playing Pokémon and want to catch them all. My personal end goal is for my investigator not ending up in a sanitarium by the end of the game.
Overall the main thing to keep in mind is you have gathered with your friends to have fun while exploring the horror and insanity that comes with Lovecraftian mythos. If you have fun, that is the main goal of all table top gaming.
Interested in Trying?
Sometimes its important to play test something before investing a lot of time and money into a new Table Top Gaming hobby. Chaosium Inc. has done a great job at providing these opportunities on their website at: https://www.chaosium.com/cthulhu-adventures/. There you can try their solo adventure "Alone Against the Flames" (also available in the Cthulhu Starter Set) and a few demo scenarios such as "Dead Boarder," "What's in the Cellar" or "Camp Sunny."
Chaosium has also generously provided a free copy of the "Call of Cthulhu Quick-Start Rules" at https://www.chaosium.com/cthulhu-quickstart/ for starting your path down into madness.
If you are just starting out I would recommend the Starter Box as a first stop in the Cthulhu games. You can read my review here.