In all the hubbub about Dungeons and Dragons, some of you might have missed that another venerable roleplaying game spawned a new edition this year. Call of Cthulhu (CoC) 7th Edition is upon us, ready to make our sanity drop like a stone. At time of this writing, only the PDFs are available for sale, but hopefully a print run will soon follow.
CoC’s previous editions have sometimes looked a bit samey. You had to go over 6th edition with a fine-toothed comb to see where it was different from 5th. That is not the case this time. The 7th Edition brings with it a myriad of changes to unhinge your mind and make you question the nature of reality. While many are positive additions to the game, each seems to come with a bizarre drawback. Not sure what I mean? Well…
Redundant Skills Have Been (Mostly) Eliminated
One issue with previous CoC editions was skill overlap. In some cases you needed to buy two skills for one task. Hide and Sneak were both required if you wanted get anywhere undetected. In others, multiple skills did exactly the same thing. To this day, no one knows exactly where the Electrical Repair skill ends and the Electronics skill begins. Then there was the silly stuff, like a character with maximum ranks in S.C.U.B.A but no ranks in Swim.
A quick glance at the 7th Edition character sheet tells you that some of these problems have been solved. Hide and Sneak have been combined into Stealth, thank the Old Ones. Electronics is gone, as is S.C.U.B.A. Investigators no longer have to invest in Punch and Kick as separate skills, which was silly beyond the ability of humankind to understand.
This is without question a good thing, but a few flies are in the ointment. For one thing, some of the redundant skills are still there, just hidden. S.C.U.B.A. has been replaced by Diver, which is in the book but not on the character sheet, as is Electronics. They’re both labeled as “uncommon” skills, ones that won’t come up much. That’s fine, but it’s still a trap for any unsuspecting player who opens the book and thinks one of those skills sounds cool.
While Punch and Kick have been combined into Brawl, each type of firearm still requires its own skill. That means you can have a character who is a champion marksman with a rifle but barely knows which end of a revolver to hold. This is especially strange because other skills are allowed to be extremely broad in their application. Medicine covers everything from anesthesiology to open heart surgery. The Science and Language skills have a similar problem. Picking a specific language or scientific category is a real crapshoot, as you just have to hope that the GM is planning to make Punjabi or Astrophysics useful.
While 7th Edition got rid of some skills, it added others that don’t seem very useful. Charm is a new skill that’s somewhere between the existing Fast Talk and Persuade. It’s not clear when you would use Charm, as the examples given could easily apply to one of its older cousins. Appraise is another strange addition. It’s hard to imagine the CoC game where knowing the monetary value of an object is so important it needs its own skill.
Character Creation Is Better but More Complicated
Without a doubt, 7th Edition addresses many issues that have plagued Call of Cthulhu’s character creation process for years. Education is less of a god-stat, you can no longer power game your skills by being older, and Appearance actually has rules attached to it!*
There’s now a dedicated section for generating your character’s background and connections, which tie into the Sanity rules. It’s not perfect, as it leaves many characters with a random assortment of back story entries that may or may not ever come up. But it’s a damned sight better than what we had before.*
Players now have total control over how wealthy their characters are through the Credit Rating skill. In previous editions, wealth was the result of a random roll, which put major restrictions on character concepts. At the same time, the Credit Rating skill used to be effectively useless, as it didn’t measure a character’s money but rather their ability to get a loan. Now, players who want to be wealthy can put points into that skill, and they’re good to go. The downside is that characters can become incredibly rich if they choose, up to the level of billionaires. It unbalances the game if every PC can hire their own private army.
Having more control over the character creation process seems to be a major goal of 7th Edition, because many alternatives for generating stats are less random than the traditional “make one roll and deal with it” method. There’s even a point buy option, where players can dictate exactly what their character’s stats will be.
Unfortunately, granting players more control of character creation comes with serious drawbacks. Even in 7th Edition, some stats are clearly better than others. It’s very tempting to just maximize Intelligence, Education, and Power, while leaving the other stats to rot. PCs will end up looking exactly the same, except for the poor newbie who didn’t know that Strength is useless in a game about dealing with all-powerful eldritch creatures.
A final oddity of 7th Edition’s character creation is how much math players are expected to do. They must multiply all their stats by five, then multiply some of them by two to get their skill points. Then there’s a bunch of division to find out the characters’ chances of succeeding at higher difficulty. It’s a lot of time and mental energy for players to expend, especially if you’re running a one-shot, something CoC has always excelled at.
Difficulty Levels Have Been Added, Sort Of
Ever since 1st Edition, the difficulty of a roll in CoC has been determined by the investigator’s skill, not the task they are attempting. Things can get weird fast as the success/failure rate does not match what’s happening at the table. A PC with 90% in Fast Talk can get away with the most outrageous lies, while someone with 25% in Throw will struggle to toss their friend a flashlight.
In answer, 7th Edition now includes difficulty levels for skill and stat rolls. These difficulty levels come in the form of Hard and Extreme, for which the player must roll against half or a fifth of their character’s skill, respectively. This at least gives GMs a tool for when PCs start trying to leverage their super high skills into actions they shouldn’t be able to perform. However, it’s a blunt instrument. Halving a character’s chances of success is a serious penalty, and taking it down even further just feels mean. There’s also no modification for an easier level of difficulty.
The bonus and penalty dice are more subtle. Simply put, GMs can now roll 1-2 d10s and add them to a PC’s role, either as a positive or a negative, based on their circumstances. If the character is shooting at a fleeing Deep One and it’s raining, that might be a penalty die instead of a Hard difficulty. Trying to throw a flashlight to a friend only a few feet away warrants a bonus die.
These options give GMs a lot more room to maneuver, but they’re still awkward to use. It’s easy to forget the extra dice, and the difficulty levels change the odds so much I’m hesitant to use them. While they help, they aren’t enough to dissuade PCs from going the traditional route of super specializing in whatever skills they think will be most useful.
There Are Guides for Investigating, Until You Actually Find a Monster
As I’ve said many times on this site, investigations and mysteries are hard. Not only does the GM have to do a lot of work, but often the PCs don’t know where to start. A lot of my early experiences with Call of Cthulhu consisted of staring blankly at my character sheet wondering what section of the local library “eldritch horrors” would be filed under.
7th Edition understands that difficulty and has a very helpful section in the Investigator’s Handbook on how to conduct an investigation in the 1920s. It gives tips on where to check records, how to approach witnesses, and what needs to be done at a crime scene. It’s an excellent guide for what to do, until you actually find out what’s going on. There’s no advice for how PCs should deal with the horror once its nature is known. There’s even an insinuation that investigators should take their evidence to the police. I guess they have a special task force for dealing with entities beyond time and space?
There’s a reason so many CoC games end in combat, even though it’s ostensibly a combat-light game. Combat is solid. It has clear rules and outcomes. When one side runs out of HP, it’s been defeated. Even though it’s incredibly deadly in Call of Cthulhu, many players still gravitate towards combat because it has a well defined end point. If you’re trying to solve a scenario without fighting, things are a lot more complicated. You and the GM have to agree that a plan will work, and then the GM has to make it feel like a permanent solution. That’s not as simple as it sounds when the rules give no support for it.
A game like CoC, which prides itself on being different from D&D and its combat-obsessed brethren, has no excuse not to have more developed rules for taking on mythos enemies. It’s unfortunate that after seven editions, no one on the design team seems to agree.
Chase Rules Finally Exist, but They’re Difficult to Use
The first Call of Cthulhu book I ever bought came with a humorous comic insert about how characters spend more of their time running away from monsters than fighting them. Fair enough, except there were almost no rules for running. There’s no Running skill, nor is it clear what stat you should use for it.
7th Edition to the rescue! This time we get full-fledged chase rules, which the system badly needed. They work for foot chases and vehicle chases both, so even better. Now GMs have a more mechanically impactful option than an opposed Stamina check when investigators want to flee for their lives. The game was also polite enough to add a Movement stat, so it’s easy to determine how fast you are.
Then it went and made the chase rules near incomprehensible, presumably because it likes messing with us. There are a whole list of steps before you even get to the chase, and then you have to figure out who has more actions, who can move first, and a bunch of other stuff. In fact, on a casual reading it looks like catching someone is effectively impossible. The pursuer has to use their action to close with the runner, and then they have no action left to do anything, so the runner can then spend their action to continue moving. This may not be how the rules actually work, but it’s the best understanding I could reach after reading them twice. If they’re meant to work differently, then it’s a problem of understandability.
It’s also quite difficult to get into a chase. If the runner has a higher Movement than the pursuer, they get away no questions asked. If the pursuer has a ranged weapon, they’re much better off standing still and shooting.
All of these really complicated rules are built around a remarkably simple outcome. All the chase rules actually do is track how many units of distance there are between participants. The player has few tactical choices to make. The rules didn’t have to be so complicated, and very little benefit is reaped from them.
On the bright side, at least the chase rules exist now, and hopefully they can be improved. Or perhaps someone better at rules lawyering than me can figure out how they’re actually supposed to work and post it in the comments.
Players Have More Narrative Control, for Better or Worse
Many roleplaying systems have some way for players to influence die roles outside of their character’s normal abilities. In Legend of the Five Rings, this is void points. In Burning Wheel, it’s artha. Until now, CoC hasn’t had anything like this. A failed roll was a failed roll. But 7th Edition introduces a new rule called “Pushing.” When a character fails a roll, the player can choose to Push it. This means they get to roll again, but if they fail, something really bad happens!
Judging from online reactions and those of my own group, this feature is incredibly popular, and it’s not hard to see why. It gives players a new level of agency and control at the table. Now they can influence their own destiny rather than simply waiting for the GM to call for a roll.
There are some drawbacks, of course. This mechanic reduces the already slim chance that a high skill character will ever fail their roll. More profoundly, giving more control to players isn’t always a good thing in Call of Cthulhu. The cosmic horror CoC tries to emulate is built around a lack of control, after all. This is purely a judgement call, as some groups enjoy the feeling of disempowerment, and others do not.
What isn’t a judgement call is that failures should always have consequences, not just when PCs decide to push their luck. A standard failure in CoC simply means the character doesn’t succeed at their chosen task. That’s it. Nothing else happens, meaning the game either screeches to a halt or the GM comes up with some excuse to let the player make another roll. This is a design philosophy that games should really have grown out of by now. At least the Push mechanic gives the GM license to continue the story by having something unexpected happen, even if it is a bit wonky.
If Pushing isn’t enough for your group, there’s always the optional Luck spending mechanic. With this rule, characters can temporarily reduce their Luck stat to make up the difference between what they needed to succeed and what they rolled. This incredibly powerful ability could lead to investigators never failing a roll ever again. It also introduces a perverse incentive to treat characters like expendable items, because Luck replenishes extremely slowly once it’s depleted.
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition is a strange book because it feels like it was written by people with very different agendas. Some sections read like they were inspired by more modern systems, while others could have been copy-pasted from the game’s first edition. Several are a bizarre compromise. It’s easy to imagine some of the designers trying to incorporate modern advances in roleplaying design while one guy frowns and insists that everything must stay exactly as it is! Maybe that’s why the Push mechanic introduces meaningful consequences for failure but only if players decide to roll a second time.
For all the new stuff, this is still the same Call of Cthulhu we know and perhaps love. The Sanity system is still fun. Auto-fire is still way too powerful. Great Cthulhu still devours 1d3 investigators per round. The differences here are not near as stark as those between different editions of D&D.
If you liked CoC before, then 7th Edition is well worth checking out. It makes a number of modest improvements, and the book itself is beautiful.* If you thought CoC was a clunky game stuck in a 1980s design philosophy, this edition won’t change your mind, though it may cause your mind to crack just a little in the face of incomprehensible knowledge that humans were not meant to know.
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