Have you ever wanted to hunt the things that go bump in the night while bickering with your allies like an old, polyamorous group that isn’t allowed to get married because it’s 1920 and no one there hangs with that whilst simultaneously on the verge of losing your sanity? Then friends, have I got a game for you.
Like with all tabletop games, Call of Chthulu is made by the people with whom you’re playing, but if you have a good group of people, you’re going to have a great time. I say this as someone who doesn’t care for any subgenre that falls under the umbrella of horror. Whether psychological or slash ‘em up, I’m just not there for it. But Call of Chthulu? I’m here for it.
I’ll be straight with you: character creation is a little weird in 5e. Have they cleaned it up since? I have no idea (but I definitely want to find out). It feels a bit clunky and too detailed at first brush, but once you get through it, you end up with a surprisingly fleshed out character.
Character creation is probably my favorite part of gaming in general, so I’m always interested in the mechanics involved, and I always hate when dice threaten to take that out of my hands. No matter the game, I try to come to the sheet with an idea in mind, and this time was no different. I was going to play a frumpy, put-upon librarian whose only real interest in the occult came in the form of Mary Shelley. Instead, as I started to roll my 3d6 stats, as I rolled for education and for wealth, I ended up not with a frumpy librarian but a professor of Law and History with a penchant for rifles and a house in the Hamptons (it’s actually three houses, one each in Newport, Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard, but that’s neither here nor there). The dice decreed this, and I found myself oddly excited for my pint-sized (you roll for size, and the good professor is a whopping 5, my friend) academic.
All your skills are listed with a number in parenthesis after them, like so: Library Use (25). You add that parenthetical to your allocation of skill points, but the book wasn’t very clear about it. The same is true with the base weapons score. I spent way too long being confused about that—much like how one calculates passive perception in D&D 5e. The information might actually be there in both cases, but the literature is incredibly obtuse about it.
By the way? If you find yourself looking at your sheet going “Wow, surely I don’t need an 80 in this skill,” and thinking about changing it? Don’t. Don’t give into the voice in your head that thinks a 70 is just as good. It is not, and you will regret that life choice.
I say this because I think I rolled a grand total of three successes all night, but oh, boy, were those failures absolutely amazing. Dame K was our (long-suffering) “Keeper” for the night (because we can’t just call the person running the game the Game Master), and she rolled out a prefabbed adventure for us that we almost entirely took off the rails by nearly getting arrested.
After doing some preliminary investigation at the library, public records, and the Boston Globe, our four-man band (the good professor Blair Marlyn Johnston, Dr. Lucien Benedict, esq., acrobat cum social elite Grayson Richards, and Lorna “I’ve Seen Things, I’m from Georgia” D’Amour) annoyed the desk officer at the local precinct so badly, he called the Chief of Police to deal with us. We failed every single Fast Talk and Persuasion roll we made and only didn’t end up in jail because Grayson, the party’s responsible adult, removed everyone from the station before we could be arrested.
In fact, the rolling mechanic so common to Call of Chthulu meant we failed almost everything we did. While there’s obviously hilarity and a good time to be had in failure, it’s not so great when you’re running a premade adventure. The nice thing about a system like D&D’s is that you only truly fail on a 1 and you only truly succeed on a nat 20. Everything else is about degrees. No, you’re not going to get much if you roll a skill check under a 10, but that’s not blanket failure. In Call of Chthulu, it’s either success or failure; there are no shades to it. If you need to roll less than a 60 and you roll a 61, you fail.
That gets frustrating—but it certainly helps that we have a good group who roll face first out of windows and to our near deaths while laughing when we fail repeatedly.
So while Call of Chthulu isn’t a genre I prefer or even like on most days, I enjoyed the game quite a lot. It’s a bit like leftovers for me: if there’s nothing else around, I’ll take it out of the fridge, warm it up, and play it, but it wouldn’t be what I’d pick up if a chocolate cake of a game was around. But like I said: a good group is half of what makes the game, and so even if the genre isn’t my cup of tea, the adventure we started was solid and enjoyable, the mechanics were more amusing than truly irritating, and I would definitely spend four hours of my life on this again.