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The Douchey DM » Alternate Views, General Gaming » Call of Cthulhu Char Gen and Skills

Call of Cthulhu Char Gen and Skills

I’ve started going through the first step in seriously playing and or running a game. Last night, while my daughter was catching up on math homework, I rolled up a couple of Call of Cthulhu characters. 

I have played Call of Cthulhu before, but it was a very long time ago, and I remember almost nothing about it.

Yes, “rolled up” characters, as in, rolling dice for attributes. Even though I wasn’t making characters that I intend to play (some of the more interesting ones may be pre-gens for a con game, though), I still did it the honest way — roll all stats and either keep the character or throw it out.

There is a very good reason why I always start a new system by going through char gen — and I also encourage others to do so as well. It is your first real, practical application of the game mechanics.

Let me explain: as I’m assigning my EDUx20 points to the various skills in my profession, a very important question popped in my head: What is a reasonable chance of success?

Call of Cthulhu uses the Basic Role Playing rules set, which is based on percentile dice. I’ve not used percentile dice in a game, except for the occasional table result. I’m a 3d6 or less guy.

So I went back to my experience at a GURPS table: I consider skills to be low-competent at the 12-13 range; skilled at 14-15; expert at 16+ ; and legendary at 18 or higher.

So to convert to percentages, a low-competent skill should be around 75-80, skilled at 90-95, and expert … wait a minute … how many skills do I have to buy? Nine.

Nine skills. And I have 340 points to distribute between them. That’s about 37 points each if I divide them evenly. That’s a GURPS skill level of about 9. That kinda stinks.

(yes, I know I get to add the default to the points I put in, but it’s still low for most skills).

This brought some realizations:

  • Unless I’m a min-maxing munchkin (which I’m not), I can only really have one skill at what I consider a low-competent to skilled level
  • In Call of Cthulhu, I don’t get to make a bad ass. The rules are stacked against me. It’s little, barely competent antiquarian vs. a giant cosmic cephalopoidal horror and his vast conspiracy. I’m not supposed to win.

(everyone who plays CoC is rolling their eyes, saying “yeah, tell me something I don’t know)

But it also got me thinking about skill mechanics and how different system apply those numbers to real in-game situations.

Take Mongoose Traveller. In Traveller, you’re trying to beat an 8+ on 2d6 plus your skill level, possibly an attribute modifier and another modifier determined by how routine or difficult the skill test is.

All of this “other stuff” puts a skill level of  “1” into a different perspective, doesn’t it?

Take GURPS for another example. Much of the “crunch” is GURPS comes from the die roll modifiers, and there are hundreds of them. You may think my minimum competent skill level of 12 is a little high (since it gives me a 73% chance of success), and without the context of the game system, it does.

But imagine, it’s my sword skill, and I’m trying to hack some poor guys in the neck. that’s a -5 to my skill level. Now my effective skill level is 7 (17% chance of success) — AND my opponent gets a defense roll as well.

Now my Navy SEAL sniper with a Guns/Rifle skill of 21 doesn’t seem so min-maxie, does he?

There’s another — even more important — consideration when putting skills rules in context: when are skill rolls called for?

Back to Call of Cthulhu:

There is no need to roll dice to walk or run, to talk or see or hear, nor is there reason to roll dice for any ordinary use of a skill.

Attempting to perform ordinary actions or to use skills under dangerous conditions, under critical scrutiny, or in ways that demand concentration requires resolution with dice.

This gives us some context as to when skills are rolled and when they are not.  In fact, having such “only under stress” types of rules for skills are fairly common — as they should be.

All of this means the 37% skill level fits both in the context of the setting and in the context of when skill rolls are called-for.




Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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4 Responses to "Call of Cthulhu Char Gen and Skills"

  1. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    “In Call of Cthulhu, I don’t get to make a bad ass.”

    There is so much correctness in that statement. And I am very glad to see you just state it right out in the open. Too many people forget to adjust their characters to the type of game they are playing.

    Having played with a guy who did make a bad ass, it takes a lot out of the game. Having a guy who NEVER misses and ALWAYS does heavy damage takes the fear of combat, and a lot of the fun, out of the game.

    Great article. I would want to hear more on your thoughts as you progress in the game.

  2. SébNo Gravatar says:

    As you know very well it is your game and you can do what you want with it. If you find those skill points to be too low you could always go with EDUx30 or EDUx40, but I suspect you might want to play classic Call of Cthulhu the way it is presented, with all its tropes and trappings. In this case you might want to put your inner GURPS player (simulationist) to sleep.

    Call of Cthulhu being not an “adventure” game, I strongly believe that the odds of success and character optimization are not as important as failure and defeat.

    In a typical horror game, when I ask a player to roll his Driving (Automobile) skill to see if he can start his engine before the psychopath killer arrives, I don’t expect or want him to succeed right away. I want to create suspense. If he had 75% in Driving maybe I would even bother to ask for a roll. What is the point? But if he have 35% in his skill, suspense and emotions are created. If my player make the roll he will surely cheer in triumph, but if he don’t the killer can now crash through his window and try to grab him.

    Suspense is easily created when the odds at failure are greater than success.

    If you wanted a more accurate simulation you might as well play the whole thing in GURPS with sourcebook like GURPS Cthulhupunk (and its excellent Mythos/Sanity mechanics) or GURPS Horror, but this is not the same thing.

    I recommend you enjoy this game with all its fault and I urge you to fight our natural tendency to optimize the characters. Let your PC’S have some 13% skills as a acceptance of the genre and a springboard for exhilarating and timely success or definitive and crushing defeat.

  3. Andreas DavourNo Gravatar says:

    Great to see you spend some time With CoC, Stu! I love that game.

    I have been thinking like you about what makes a sensible chance of success for a character. Before I read Unknown Armies, I had a different view of CoC as well.

    In UA you are quite decent at a skill at 30%, and at 50% you are a professional.

    This is how it works. At minor check, when you have time and no risk, you automatically succeed if you have 15% or better. Think about that.

    If the world is falling to pieces around you, or someone is actually (think about it!) trying to kill you. You break out in a cold sweat because you are a regular joe. Then, someone really good at his job might get a fifty fifty chance.

    That made me see CoC in a new light.

    I have taken a few cues from Trail of Cthulhu as well, so that investigative skills rolling for clues that’s needed to get the story going, auto succeed at 30% or better. Everyone still rolls, but might gain extra information if they get a good result.

    Just some of my few cents, juggling percentages while the cephalopods are stomping around outside the door. Have fun with your Cthulhu game, Stu!

  4. Andrew HartNo Gravatar says:

    Call of Cthulhu (CoC) is definitely NOT a heroic game. Most other systems you are used to is about creating heroic characters that face unbelievable odds in order to succeed. CoC is about ordinary characters being created to face unbelievable odds in order to merely survive sane.

    Human failings are very much a part of your average CoC character. Hence, trying to figure out levels of professionalism via your skills is kind of pointless for this system. Failure is an accepted part of your character.

    A Doctor character may only have a Medicine skill of 45%, it just means that he isn’t a very good doctor, and may have to rely more heavily on his Library use skill. Or he has a pretty good Fast Talk or Persuade Skill go get himself out of problems. It also might mean that he is just an MD in a country town, not a City based Surgeon.

    I know some GMs tell their Players that when they are creating their characters, that no skill may be above a certain level, say 75%( not counting language skills). Or even that you can only have 1 skill at 80%, 2 at 60%, the rest below that. This is the realm of House rules.

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