Streamlining Cthulhu

No, I’m not talking about chopping off the big lad’s wings and tentacles to reduce that inopportune wind resistance and tendency to walk or stumble that he has going on. I’m talking about the RPG that bears his name.

The idea of running some Call of Cthulhu has been batted around of late (mostly by me, admittedly, as I’m looking at running some decidedly short-term RPG shenanigans during a week’s holiday, and it’s usually CoC that I reach for when it’s important that the game has a defined and definite end).

Now, I like Chaosium’s game, but…

… I’ve only really run it when I was going through my diceless phase and not wanting anyone’s inability to pass a Library Use check to forestall part of the game, but hadn’t yet learned that the way you avoid doing that is not putting essential information behind Library Use checkpoints in the first place. The way I’d do it now is to have The Information, see what the players do in ref: finding things out, and then seed appropriate bits of information down the pathways that they follow, rather than having some integral information sealed away behind 40% chances and some 60% chances which the players are more likely to go for leading to precisely sod all. It’s a bit quantum ogre, maybe, but I don’t think it’s as bad as that – I haven’t decided that a particular thing is going to happen no matter what no matter where, I’ve let the players decide where they’re going to look and then I’ve made sure there’s something of potential use there once they figure out how it fits in with other somethings, and I’ve probably attached consequences to knowing that information which are assigned depending on how the information was accessed. It’s saying ‘yes, but’. Which is goodrightfun. I think.

Anyway, all this is a sideways observation. What I’m interested in today is the mechanics. As I was saying, I quite like Chaosium’s game but there are aspects of it that don’t entirely appeal to me. There’s the character generation, with its multiply this by that and divide these amongst those and its general fiddlinesswhich is frankly a pain in the arse for someone who’s ultimately a fairly generic figure you may only play once. There’s the “roll low for this and high for that” thing, which isn’t terribly hard to grasp but always feels slightly awkward in practice, unless a system is extremely elegant and consistent, with the whole “you want to roll high for attacks and low for tests” thing applied across the board. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s the issue – that CoC as written is a ‘roll low for attacks’ system and that runs counter to my instincts. There’s also the percentiles. I must confess that I don’t entirely see the value in rolling stats on 3d6 and then using a chart to convert them into percentile die rolls, especially percentile die rolls that go up in increments of 5 and therefore could be done more simply and elegantly with a d20. If you want an opposed roll, there has to be an easier way to do it than this.

And there is. It’s d20, which I have a welter of other issues with, but it is at its heart a consistent and elegant system that’s obfuscated from the word ‘go’ by the style in which it is written. Rolling high is always good, having high numbers is always good. But it’s also… d20. So it has that plethora of things I don’t like about that system; saving throw and attack bonuses as discrete things when we have perfectly serviceable stat modifiers to show how good characters are at doing stuff, skills for characters that could be subbed in for by skills as players or are needlessly granular outgrowths of stat rolls, so many hard rules for things that should be rulings, et hoc genus omne.

But we can fix that. Yes, we can fix that. We can strip this bastard down until it’s as light and airy as Swords and Wizardry or something like that, something that’s written for people who not only don’t need all those rules but don’t want to paw through them all on the off chance that there’s something in there which they DO need. Perhaps ironically, the DM’s screen for d20 Cthulhu does most of that work for us, bar some tinkering with the spell system and maybe sticking something useful over some of the skill tables.

I’ll get back to you on this one.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

16 thoughts on “Streamlining Cthulhu”

  1. You need to Cthulhu up OpenQuest, just as CoC is Lovecrafted RuneQuest. That won’t get around the percentile things, it just will make everything quite a bit simpler.

    OpenQuest (and Renaissance, it’s slightly more complex offspring) is available, for free, as a series of Word files – the Developer’s Kit.

      1. Well, I didn’t mean that YOU *need* to do that ;-)

        …despite what I wrote…

        I meant the simplification of RuneQuest as OpenQuest offers a model for streamlining other BRP games. It is not much of a plan if you don’t like the BRP system, even if simplified, though.

        1. See, I’d be willing to accept that I NEED to do something, provided you tell me why. :p

          I don’t know if I don’t like it, it’s just there are things in it that seem counter-intuitive to me… but that may be due to a point of principle, i.e. “I like high numbers to be a consistently Good Thing” rather than any sense of actual, y’know, logic.

  2. There’s always Trial of Cthulhu which appears to be designed around the idea of throwing out completely any risk of failing a Library Use or Spot Hidden but it is perhaps aimed at a slightly different type of game, pure investigation which is really only one facet of what traditional CoC handles.

    Then there’s Cthulhu Dark for the lightest CoC RPG possible.

    1. I hadn’t heard of Cthulhu Dark; will keep an eye out for it.

      I’m not sure how much of this is my inevitable D&D heartbreaker waiting to emerge – the idea of producing a version of d20 that’s “how I remember and end up running it every time I try” does have a lot of appeal to it, and the Cthulhu one is close in many ways (I love that they resisted the urge for ‘level 10 Antiquarian’ and instead tied professions to skill sets, now if we could just change skills to ‘add your level to the die roll when attempting these tasks’ it’d be pretty good).

  3. When do you have to roll high in Call of Cthulhu? I can only think of character generation and damage, but I may be missing something.

    I must confess that the idea of simplifying CoC is baffling to me, as I find it so intuitive to play I can run it without the book, while d20 is far too crunchy for my tastes and the one time I ran that it was a disaster.

    1. Good for you, I suppose?

      I know Cthulhu of old and can run it competently, but the thing is that there are unnecessaries in it, like the Resistance Table, which seems to exist largely to turn stats into percentage rolls. It’s consistent, I suppose, but… why does it need to happen at all? It adds a stage to the resolution of an action that doesn’t need to be there. And that’s before we even open up the issue of maths-phobic players, of which I have plenty.

      d20 at its core manages to be consistent and astonishingly simple. I’m talking right down to the bone here, the actual base mechanic of ‘roll a d20, add a stat modifier, add a skill modifier, beat this target number, high things are always good’. That’s fine. I even quite like the feats in d20 Cthulhu because a lot of the gumminess that exists to make Fighters interesting at high levels but hold off the best stuff until they reach high levels (the prerequisite chains) was thrown out along with the class system. d20 is much more tolerable when it’s not trying to be D&D, maybe?

      That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to old-school it up; there’s still too much verbiage in those rules, too much evidence that Cook was being paid by the word and had a mad yen for accuracy and believed in rules, not rulings, for all manner of corner cases. Like I said, the idea is to strip it down to the same sort of level as Swords and Wizardry, where it’s basically character generation, rules mechanic, a few lists of choices, and everything else is a matter for dynamic rulings rather than “let me look that up”. d20 without all the insulation-from-bad-gamesmasters stuff.

      1. Most recent BRP-derived games have thrown out the Resistance Table, haven’t they? Instead they use opposed tests of resistance/athletics ‘skills’, meaning the task resolution system is the same across the game.

        I’d have thought that a maths-phobic player would have a better intuitive grasp of his character’s chance of success expressed in percentiles, than as a a target number with a bunch of modifiers.

        1. That’s a vast improvement on the Resistance Table if it’s the case.

          You… may have a point about the percentiles, now that I come to think about it. Eliminating the cross-referencing and the conversion is good, but introducing SUMS that need to be done for EVERYTHING? Perhaps I’ve goofed.

      2. I get the feeling that you thought I was criticising you. I wasn’t, I was just interested in what you found complex in a system I find so intuitive it’s almost invisible. No judgement was intended; if you just prefer d20 to d100 then that’s just fine.

        1. No judgement was perceived. I wanted an excuse to talk about the merits of d20 Cthulhu and to do some thinking out of the game and what I wanted to do with it, and you gave me that. We’re cool.

    1. Really? I’m intrigued. I like Savage Worlds, as a rule. That said… see the other comments about my secret D&D heartbreaker. I think it’s partly that urge to codify d20 as I know and understand it, for use elsewhere…

      1. Sounds like you are up for a project :-) Distilling D20 down to its base and building a Call of Cthulhu game from the parts that remain sounds like an interesting one.

        Realms is worth a look if you want a great streamlined Cthulhu game that’s ready to go. It’s very easily scalable depending on what type of game you want to run too (deadly, gritty, pulpy etc..)

        Good luck!

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