Review: Call of Cthulhu (d20) from Wizards of the Coast

Call of Cthulhu is one of those games that I always wanted to play or GM, but it never seemed like the right time. Either it was out of print, or just going out of print, or about to be revamped for a new version… Well, a single copy of d20 CoC was in Pandemonium yesterday. I picked it up with some trepidation…

This version of Call of Cthulhu is the latest d20 role-playing game rulebook from Wizards of the Coast.

Reading through it, the advantages of a universal system became apparent to me—knowing D&D 3E, I could skim-read through most of the first section and just note the differences.

The design and layout is up to the high standards of D&D 3E, though the artwork is more subdued and the ruled lines are lost. The end result is effortlessly readable. Perhaps it’s my imagination or the effect of prior familiarity, but the combat rules seem to be more clearly set out than in the PHB.

The book organization is clear and logical. Character creation, skills and feats are followed by a chapter on sanity, the major change to game mechanics from those of D&D. An interesting touch is that the list of feats include some psychic feats resembling psionics. The stronger psychic feats have an associated sanity cost, of course. Notes explain how the treatment and understanding of mental illness has varied through the last century, which is a nice touch.

An interesting aspect of d20 Call of Cthulhu is that it doesn’t use character classes. Or rather, there are some character classes in the rules, but they’re just archetypes you can use to start off your character if you want. You absolutely don’t have to have a character class. This should shut up the people who have whined that they can’t use d20 because character classes are a stupid idea…

The equipment section begins with generic firearms rules, then presents optional detail that will probably delight most firearms fetishists—including a dispassionate description of US firearms laws as they have developed over the last hundred years. The weapon tables are comprehensive—those who don’t feel the need for fifteen specific named varieties of shotgun can skip right on to the chapter on magic.

Unlike the wizards and sorcerors of D&D, the hapless investigators of Call of Cthulhu are foolish dabblers in arcane rituals they do not fully understand. Successful spell use is usually associated with temporary stat drain or sanity loss as the strange energies course through their bodies. More powerful spells may lead to permanent stat or sanity loss.

The creatures section presents a few classics of the horror genre, as well as a few Lovecraftian horrors, cultists, and aliens. A later Deities section serves up the False Gods and Elder Gods.

That leaves the setting, of course. One thing I find interesting is that d20 Call of Cthulhu, like d20 D&D, is still somewhat generic. This new CoC has information covering the late 19th Century to the present day, and is adaptable to any kind of setting that involves secrets, conspiracies, hidden dangers, and the paranormal or supernatural. You could easily use d20 CoC to run a campaign based on “The X-Files”, “UFO”, “Dr Who”, maybe even “Buckaroo Banzai”. The book takes a whirlwind tour through the 20th Century, suggesting historical periods and how they might fit with specific horror genres and subgenres; references are made to appropriate movies.

If you like your Cthulhu pure, you’ll probably want to wait until Chaosium produce the inevitable sequence of supplements, which will apparently stick quite closely to the authentic Lovecraft feel. Personally, I’m more intrigued by the idea of a campaign with the feel of “pi” (one of the cited movies).

The book is rounded out with some crossover and conversion material. A list of suggested sanity effects allows you to throw D&D monster manual horrors at your Investigators, and there are suggestions on adding a touch of paranoid Lovecraftian horror to your D&D games. (Gee, like I don’t already do that.) Oh yeah, there’s also a quick conversion guide for those who have Chaosium CoC material they want to move to d20, and a reading list for those who don’t already have lots of twisted ideas for tormenting players.

The only major thing the book seems to lack is a pronounciation guide. Perhaps that’s a safety feature?

In summary: An excellent addition to the d20 game stable. The quality and presentation are excellent, and at first read the accuracy seems good. The system is flexible, and the rulebook provides everything you need—no D&D rulebooks required. By far the best d20 book I’ve seen since the D&D core rules.