Call of Cthulhu, final edition

I went in on the Call of Cthulhu 2E kickstarter and they finally got the box to me.

What's in the Box, What's in the Box?

It is tightly packed.

The dice they include are kinda crap, sub-Chessex dark sparkly things, but that's expected. Instead get some good dice, GameScience or precision metal dice, OK?

The world map is fantastic, very thick paper, map of Arkham on the back. There's an all-new Keeper's Screen, which seems entirely useful, tho it's 3 landscape pages, not 3 portrait like my usual Wall of Fear and Ignorance. A new size comparison sheet, 4 pages across now, everything from Mi-Go to "Mighty Cthulhu". 4 old-style character sheets, hardly enough for the casualty rate you're really gonna have.

Main book (96 pp) and 1920s Sourcebook (36 pp) are stapled up like the originals. Treat gently, but it'll lay flat. Gene Day cover & interior art looks great, not the usual low-rez scans printed out badly. It looks as good or better than it did 40 years ago.

I suppose now I should've got the Deluxe box, I have those extra 5 supplements in some form but not in these nice reprints.

Over the days to come I'll read the books in detail again, and get to run it sometime, but I'm so happy just to have the right edition.

Cthulhu and Me

I've been playing & running this game since the early '80s, discovered H.P. Lovecraft almost simultaneously with the game. Over time, I came to appreciate Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and earlier writers, far more than the mid-century ripoffs and wannabes like August Derleth and Lin Carter, and only tolerate some later wannabes like Brian Lumley (and certainly Mike Mignola uses a lot of Mythos in Hellboy, but it's a very different thing). There are good later Mythos writers, but few and far between. Obviously Lovecraft's personal beliefs were pretty offensive early on, and while he got less awful later on (post-New York), he'd be an asshole in modern terms… but he wasn't modern, he's dead, and the books are the books.

There's a new 2-volume collection, The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, by Leslie Klinger. I highly recommend these. I don't have an equally good CAS or REH recommendation right now, but maybe in time.

Call of Cthulhu, for all that it has some flaws, does a remarkably good job of simulating the horror stories of a depressed New England lunatic who sees monsters in everything, and the monsters do not care that we exist.

So that's the good part.

CoC then and much more so now, has a lot of Derlethian nonsense in it, waving Elder Signs around like crosses at Dracula, Greek/Persian "elemental" magic and demons and gods interested in Humans, all that bullshit. There's been some attempts to remove that, and Chaosium has stolidly ignored them and added more crap. The last edition of CoC I liked at all was 5.5, and 7.0 is very different in some annoying ways. It's gone from a small game to a big game, bloated up like late-model Elvis. I just wanted that original, fairly svelte game back.

There's other issues. Sandy Petersen, game designer and devoted Lovecraft fan, shares some of Lovecraft's pre-New York personal beliefs, and adds all new bigotries of his own. So I'm ill-inclined to give him money for anything; this was almost a ransom. Now the thing I want is in my hands, I can wash my hands of him forever. The new Chaosium's lawyers and delusional "open (but not really) license" BRP, I want to stay as far away from as possible.

Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying "System Reference Document"

4 months or more since announcement; for old Chaosium that would have been super fast, for "Moon Design sans Greg Stafford now doing business as the walking corpse of Chaosium" we don't know, they haven't shipped anything on a schedule before.

So, it's 23 pages, with 2 pages of license and an artless cover page. And no interior art except two colors of the conformance logo, which must be plastered on your book. The license isn't too different from the D20 SRD, except the massive list of "prohibited content".

The book is moderately useful mechanically, it's a quickstart version of BRP. They've eliminated characteristic/skill bonuses, and very few skills use characteristic bases. One of the nicer features of most D100 variants is either a skill category bonus from characteristics (say +1% to all Manipulation skills per CHA over 12), or direct characteristic base (Influence starts at CHAx2); in BRP SRD, Persuade starts at 15% whether you're a hideous slime beast or George Clooney.

There's a bunch of professions ranging from Cowboy to Warrior, with no theme or note about culture and era, none of which have magic. Equipment is mentioned, but there's no shopping lists for any period; very generic lists of weapons and armor ("Sword, Broad", "Pistol", "Pistol, Laser", etc; I thought I was terse!) are later given with no costs, and the armor uses the same craptastic fixed-defense mechanic as later-era Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest, rather than the die rolls that made Stormbringer, etc. combat dangerous.

BRP-SRD still has 4 almost totally disconnected task systems: Characteristic rolls, which are score x 5%, pass/fail; Skill Rolls with Critical, Special, Success, Fail, Fumble levels of success (Critical/Special used to be Impale/Critical? Or the other way around?); Skill vs Skill where levels of success are compared; and Resistance Rolls on a big table where characteristics are compared to get a % roll, which boils down to (Attack-Defense+10)x5%, pass/fail. Modern D100 games have simplified that down to just skill rolls and four levels of success, with specific resistance/characteristic test skills.

The classic skill-roll experience system is here, but it barely addresses over-100 skills, and has the classic "golf bag of weapons" flaw: No limit on how many skills can be improved, so everyone is encouraged to try every skill until they succeed once, then never do it again that session. Legend's Improvement Points mechanic somewhat fixes that, and certainly has much more serious over-100 skill rules, as well as paid training, time training, and improving characteristics. This is barely, minimally adequate to play a few sessions in, a campaign will be severely hamstrung.

Combat is minimalistic, with 2 pages of spot rules, heavily whitespace-padded. You don't technically need many rules to run D100 combat, you can make your own spot rules for most things. But there's no off-hand or dual-wield weapon use, for instance, and I like to fight Florentine or with a cloak in any medieval game. Everyone will have their own set of needs and the much longer section from most D100 games standardizes them.

There is no magic system at all, and they've forbidden use of any of the standard BRP systems of the last 45 years. OK, making a new magic system isn't that hard, but if you want it to be like Stormbringer, or Mythic Earth, or Magic World/Big Green Book BRP, you can't. You can't just pick this SRD up and have a usable game for any genre except mundane reality.

There's one animal stat block, and they've forbidden use of essentially any monster ever written because they forbid use of:

All trademarks, registered trademarks, proper names (characters, deities, place names, etc.), plots, story elements, locations, characters, artwork, or trade dress from any of the following: any releases from the product lines of Call of Cthulhu, Dragon Lords of Melniboné, ElfQuest, Elric!, Hawkmoon, HeroQuest, Hero Wars, King Arthur Pendragon, Magic World, Nephilim, Prince Valiant, Ringworld, RuneQuest, 7th Sea, Stormbringer, Superworld, Thieves’ World, Worlds of Wonder, and any related sublines; the world and mythology of Glorantha; all works related to the Cthulhu Mythos, including those that are otherwise public domain; and all works related to Le Morte d’Arthur.

Well, that leaves… subtract nothin' from nothin', uh, nothin'. You could publish a game of normal people, possibly medieval peasants to 19th C, who never encounter any monsters except a Bear. They can't go insane, because that's owned by Call of Cthulhu. They can't fight demons or elementals, because those are owned by Stormbringer. They can't be knights errant because that steps on Pendragon and Prince Valiant. I'm not actually sure "Humans" are allowed by this license. Possibly change them to Care Bears Koala Friends to be safe from "DBA Chaosium"'s vampiric lawyers.

★☆☆☆☆ Too little, a decade too late. Not worth the cover price of "free".

OpenCthulhu (see my comments ), Legend, OpenQuest, Mythras, Delta Green, and other D100-systems are much more open, and provide much more material to start working from.

Open Cthulhu

And Chaosium's reaction to the threat to their cash cow:

"That is correct. We are releasing a BRP Open Game License and a BRP SRD. The SRD is a core BRP rules document that people are authorized to create derivative works from, including rules expansions, etc. But certain things are going to be off limits - you can't use the BRP rules to create your own game using the Cthulhu Mythos. Or your own version of Pendragon. Etc."
Jeff at Chaosium

So, a little context. After H.P. Lovecraft's death, his friend and executor Professor Robert H. Barlow was cut out of control of the publishing estate by con man and hack writer August Derleth, who founded Arkham House to exploit Lovecraft's work. In the '70s, Sandy Petersen wrote RuneQuest for Greg Stafford's Glorantha setting, and founded Chaosium. In the early '80s, Sandy got a license from Arkham House (upstaging TSR which had a… looser arrangement… and had to remove Lovecraftiana from their books) and wrote Call of Cthulhu. And while everyone loves classic CoC, it never lent itself well to fan publishing or 3rd-party publishing because you had to deal with Chaosium for a license.

Chaosium has for 40 years asserted that they own Lovecraft, works, body, and soul. Well, with copyright expiration and his work being clearly in the public domain now, nobody really cares what Chaosium or Arkham House think about that anymore. It certainly doesn't help that the "7th Edition" Call of Cthulhu is incompatible with the 1st-6th Editions, so there's those of us with 40 years of playing this game, and the "official" game which nobody plays.

Mongoose Publishing had a license for RuneQuest in the 2000s, and then released a clean-room OGL book Legend, which is an excellent RuneQuest-minus-Glorantha system, cheap, and unambiguously clear of Chaosium's ownership.

There's a couple of other Lovecraftian RPGs:

  • De Profundis: Epistolary solo or play-by-mail… I'm not sure it's an RPG, so much as a psychedelic drug in paper form. Highly recommended.
  • Trail of Cthulhu: Very rules-light investigation game, but I find the GUMSHOE games dull and predictable, too obviously railroaded by the GM.

Open Cthulhu: Because Cthulhu Wants to be Free

The current PDF is a pre-layout beta, no art, so I can only evaluate the rules.

Mechanically, it's CoC 6E, more or less, classic stats. Combat's streamlined quite a bit from the case-point mess of 6E, and you are directly instructed to inflict SAN rolls for committing violence, murder, and such, as well as the supernatural.

The implied setting is the 1920s-30s, but there's a decent chapter on customizing the setting, including a fairly extensive treatment of the Dreamlands, and rules for entering, leaving, and manipulating the Dreamlands! The Mythos tomes are limited to 5 translations of the Necronomicon, the Book of Dyzan, and The King in Yellow; most others have licensing entanglements.

Unlike Chaosium's "I shoot Cthulhu with a rocket launcher!" stats, Open Cthulhu doesn't give the Great Old Ones normal stats or limit their abilities; the Keeper is the author of the story and can do as they please. I like these guidelines:

  • Hint rather than show outright
  • Mythos Powers shouldn’t be “boss monsters”
  • Focus attention on human worshippers
  • Mental contact is dangerous; physical contact is virtually guaranteed deadly
  • Powers are never consistent; never predictable

Other monsters are almost entirely those from Lovecraft, not Derleth and such. The "Byakhee" are here called "Winged Servants" because Lovecraft didn't name them in "The Festival". The rather ludicrous presence of Mummies, Werewolves, Vampires, and such that would've made good old H.P. sigh with disdain is carried along from Chaosium's kitchen-sink approach; and yet they don't have Frankenstein's Monster, one of the few that H.P. liked! Stats are given for many of his characters, presumably prior to the events of their stories.

A compact but useful library of Mythos spells and artifacts adapted from the books finishes up.

I wouldn't classify this as more than halfway done; OpenCthulhu calls it 1.0a, which only makes sense if they're thinking it'll be done at 6.0. There's one skill for all "special gear" by which they mean photocopiers, computers, DNA sequencers, rockets, and any other tech which isn't a car or firearm; fine for 1920, incredibly stupid for modern games. There's no equipment lists, and while you can find online scans of Sears catalogs from the 1920s-1980s, things get more difficult after that. The weapons and armor system is greatly inadequate for modern games, and I hate low-fixed-value armor like CoC has used in most versions; the RuneQuest/Stormbringer-style random-roll armor is better. The bestiary could use work. Magic spells outside of just the Mythos aren't addressed, and for many games those are important.

But what is here, is a better Call of Cthulhu (almost but not yet a better universal Basic Role-Playing) than Chaosium has, and it's under the OGL so you can make your own, and write materials for it without arguing with anyone. I'm thinking I'll write up some adventures, maybe go back and re-adapt "Nightmare Eve" and my "Shotguns & Strip Malls" games into Open Cthulhu.