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First GMing of Call of Cthulhu

I ran the playtest for a Call of Cthulhu scenario I’m planning on running at Gateway 2012 in September. I don’t want to go into detail on the scenario, since I haven’t publicly run it yet, but I would like to discuss my impressions on the system and my experience with running what I consider a successful suspense game (which I’ve never pulled off before).

Impression of Call of Cthulhu and BRP

Character Generation

Character generation is quick, old-school random, and over in 30 minutes. But there are some weird idiosyncrasies in it that I think should be addressed.

Characteristics have almost no bearing on skills. Maybe it’s my GURPS background, but skills on Call of Cthulhu are not affected by any attribute, and that strikes me as strange. . The only bearing any attribute has is EDU and INT determining the number of skill points to spend.

Characteristics in general don’t have much bearing on the game. If you have good players, they will role play a low INT or DEX, but attributes — apart from some calculated stats — have little bearing on the game, except for the possibility of an opposed roll.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not that familiar with it, but the sanity system in CoC didn’t seem very organic to me. Temporary insanity can occur if you lose more that 5 sanity points from a single event, and indefinite insanity happens if a PC loses 1/5th of his sanity in one game hour. That reliance on meta-information felt kind of clunky. Additionally temporary insanity consists of two rolls (a Sanity roll and and Idea roll to understand the significance of the horror you’ve seen).  I understand what they’re trying to accomplish, but I wonder if there’s a more elegant way to bring it than two rolls — one you must succeed on and one you must fail on. Sanity Mechanic


Rightly so, combat was so infrequent and overwhelming when it did occur, that I don’t think I can fairly critique the system. Initiative is intuitive and reflects the power of firearms (when your’e not dealing with cosmic horrors, that is) .

I wouldn’t mind playing a non-cosmic-horror game in BRP to see how the combat system stands up in a fair fight.

Impression on Running a Horror Game

Way back in the dark ages, I played Call of Cthulhu once. I was young. The group certainly didn’t get the point of a horror game, so it turned out about as you would expect. Lots of guns. Lots of shooting.

This time it was different. I’m older. I’ve corresponded with several listeners about horror and we’ve discussed it on the show some as well. I approached this game is a much different way that I would have 20 or 30 years ago.

My Character Wouldn’t Do That!

An interesting thing happened at about hour 4. One of the players suggested the party drop the investigation and take the next train out of town. Additionally, another PC wanted to drop the investigation and take an NPC with him..There was some reluctance by the other players as their characters had good motivation to stick with the investigation.

And That’s Okay!

Since it was a play test, the two players suspended their characters’ motivations. We hadn’t yet explored either the combat system or the sanity mechanic yet, after all.

I did let them know that I think “cutting and running” is a perfectly acceptable end to the scenario — and possibly ANY CoC scenario. The film Jaws was much more frightening BEFORE you saw the shark, after all.

The party knew there was some horror somewhere. They’d uncovered some clues that gave them brief glimpses into that horror. If they chose to leave town before finding it, no description I could conjure would be as vivid as their own imaginations.

I personally think having them say, “fuck it! I’m not going in that haunted house! I going back to Boston!” is as much

a sign of a successful horror game as any other reaction.

Player Feedback

There were a couple common notes from the players after the session.

The first was character motivation. Since the scenario starts bad and gradually gets worse, some of the players began having crises of motivation. “Why exactly would my character stick around?”

For a campaign, I don’t think that would be a big deal. If one person refuses to go in the haunted house — and it turns out that’s the sole survivor from the session — at least you’ve got a cool seed PC from which you can rebuild the party.

Though in a one-shot campaign, this might be unsatisfying for many players.

The other bit of feedback was more descriptions. While the adventure was mostly finished with regards to plot points, overall arc, etc. It wasn’t completely fleshed out, and this did show in the descriptions in the play test.  I’ll definitely put more thought into that when Gateway rolls around.

The Key I

s Probably Player Selection

Many of us

have run unsuccessful horror games, and I think it comes as no shock that — apart from GM competency — player selection is the most important factor to successful horror. If the players aren’t buying in, it ain’t gonna happen.

I kept the group small (4 players) and picked people who would buy in to the tropes of cosmic horror. Of the four PCs only
Play It Again Samone came equipped with a gun, and that gun was only draw twice. Once it was fired into an empty dark room, and the second time — when faced with cosmic horror — it jammed.

I will definitely play (and I’d love to run) another game of cosmic horror. It was great fun to prep for and a lot of fun to run. Is it my new favorite genre? Probably not, but it’s definitely up there.

In the future, I would like to try the genre with other system. While I feel that CoC did a good job of conveying the feel of cosmic horror, I think others could as well

GURPS, being the gritty, simulationist system that it is, is well suited for cosmic horror. The fright check mechanic is already in place for depicting the confrontation of the incomprehensible, and PCs of a sufficiently low level would feel the level of vulnerability necessary for the genre.

I would also like to try out ealms of Cthulhu. It is Savage Worlds source book that includes many rules to make SW less cinematic. SW as written is completely inappropriate for cosmic horror, but take away the bennies and the PC’s status as Wild Cards, and the game could become sufficiently gritty to depict the genre.

And finally, I would like to try out Trail of Cthulhu, which uses Robin D. Laws’ GUMSHOE system. GUMSHOE is a system specifically designed for mystery games. It doesn’t rely on dice rolls to find clues. Possessing the appropriate skill is sufficient for uncovering a necessary clue.




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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5 Responses to "First GMing of Call of Cthulhu"

  1. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    – World of Darkness does horror well, as it should.
    – With a regular group, it’s easier to find ground that eliminates they “Why the hell would I go in there and die?” issue. My Cthulhu players have a group where everyone has experienced SOMETHING that makes them think things are not entirely right with the world. It drives them towards the evil/solving the mystery. For a con game, I’d just write them into the character backstory.
    – Trail of Cthulhu builds reasons for “Why the hell would I walk in there?” right into the rules and it works well.
    – Re: “Characteristics”. I agree. It’s one of the main reasons I want to run Cthulhu games using World of Darkness rules with the Cthulhu Sanity rules.
    – Re: Sanity Rules. The double roll never bothered me but I’d be open to a way to do it with one roll.

    The ongoing joke about Call of Cthulhu is that there really isn’t much difference between new and old versions. I’ve read 3 or 4 versions, and it’s not so much a joke as truth. Some people in the know say the 7th edition they are working on makes some pretty major changes, hopefully it will iron out some of the issues you mentioned.

  2. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    One more thing:

    “The Key Is Probably Player Selection”.

    100% accurate. You’ll have to do a write up after you run it at a con. Not knowing the players, in a noisy room where it can be hard as hell to maintain atmosphere…quite a challenge.

  3. StuNo Gravatar says:

    The CoC game at the con is the game I plan on running in my hotel room if the gaming room is to noisy.

  4. EdwardNo Gravatar says:

    Eventually they, the PCs, all go insane. I love that game.

  5. Andreas DavourNo Gravatar says:

    I agree that the SAN mechanic is slightly clunky. I’d like it to be a bit more integrated in the character, like in Unknown Armies, or at least less die rolls.

    When it comes to stats, I think the LUCK, KNOW and IDEA rolls is something of a nod to making the stats mean more. I have modified LUCK to be based on CHA/APP and justified it by pretty people having easier to get along socially, thus being “lucky”.

    When it comes to motivations, I have incorporated some ideas from Trail of Cthulhu. In that game, characters have a Drive. I have decided to pick that up, and when characters want to get the hell out I remind them of their Drive. If they still want to get out they get to do it, but take a small SAN penalty. In the same way they can head into danger, following their Drive, and then they are slightly immune from SAN loss. So far it has worked ok.

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