Thoughts about Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition (Quickstart version) and the scenario Dead Light

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Summary: Have had a chance to play the Quickstart rules for the upcoming 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu, via the scenario Dead Light. I write up some thoughts on the system and the story. Generally like them both, but will hold off until more of the system is out, but the story is excellent as long as you are the kind of Keeper who can fill in some blanks and react to the character actions (and the player needs).

BLOT: (14 Jul 2014 - 04:51:01 PM)

Thoughts about Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition (Quickstart version) and the scenario Dead Light

I have been looking for (a) an opportunity to play with my nephews—Zach and Jonathan—and (b) an opportunity to try out the Seventh edition Call of Cthulhu, and decided a somewhat impromptu session of the latter involving the former might be a good idea. Jonathan, back in the day, has played a few RPGs with me, while Zach has mostly had a single session of Fiasco. My wife, Sarah, and coworker John were also invited, both of which have experience with RPGs. Sarah has played a few campaigns with me as GM, and John has had a bit of experience with Sixth edition Call of Cthulhu. Both of them were also there when I tried out tremulus, so they made a natural "playtest" addition.

I backed the ambitious Call of Cthulhu Seventh edition Kickstarter, which has, as Kickstarted projects do, gone a bit overlong in the production department. Rather than wait through the next few months for the final product to hit, I felt the quickstart rules would suffice. As part of backing the project, I got access to the quickstart rules—which is available for free through their website, mind—and a PDF copy of Dead Light—which you can get for $5.47. Dead Light is primed to be played with the Seventh edition rules, but has conversion notes if you want to play with Sixth. Make note, though, that the adventure is perfectly playable with the quickstart elements as long as the Keeper/GM is fine with fudging a few of the finer details.

I will write up a short bit first about the quickstart version of the rules, and then a short bit about the scenario itself.

The Quickstart Seventh

I won't really go into the history of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, but will compare and contrast some elements. If you have no experience with it, I hope this is not too confusing to you.

Unlike Sixth (I'll start referring to them in this manner), where stats were generated and retained as largely the-sum-of-three-dee-six, Seventh addresses stats purely as percentile chances [this also means that rather than roll against stats on a d20 and/or multiplying them by 5 and then rolling them on a d%, you roll them entirely on a d%]. In the quickstart, you are given a set of values—Fudge-style—to assign to the eight core stats (aka, "Characteristics"). You are also given a set of assigned values to spend on Skills. This means that character creation in the quickstart version of Seventh is only about a 10-15 minute affair..

Another update to Sixth is the way that difficulty is handled. Rather than adding or subtracting a certain amount of points from rolls, you have two different ways to show increased/decreased difficulty. The primary way is by taking the one-half and one-fifth value of the stat in question [the character sheet has room for this] and rolling against that instead. Say you have an Intelligence of 50. Your one-half is 25 and your one-fifth is 10. For hard rolls, you use the one-half stat. For extreme rolls, you use the one-fifth stat. Extreme rolls are not easy to make. You also have a system for bonus and penalty dice [which I did not use]. These are more-so for opposed rolls to give an advantage to one side or the other. A bonus or penalty dice is an extra tens-place die rolled in a d% check. If it is a bonus, you keep the highest of the two tens-place dice. If it is a penalty, you keep the lowest. Since d% is the most fickle of all random rolls, this adds to the fickleness, and can do a bit to add to the random nature of the game. I can see it having its place, though. Normally, in comparing stats-to-rolls, you see if a roll is a normal/hard/extreme/critical (basically, a roll of 1/100) success.

For the most part, that is the main flesh you get from the quickstart. There is a luck roll, which is a way to see if the-stars-are-right for the player characters. However, on the sheet is displayed as a sliding scale while in the quickstart it is a static statistic. Presumably you will be either to spend your luck to influence other rolls or checks against luck will "burn it up" in a way similar to Sanity rolls [which, by the way, remain mostly the same]. There are stuff like credit ratings, movement ratings, and a few other things mentioned but not exactly delved into. They were not exactly needed in Dead Light, but you will either have to fall back on Sixth or fill in some reasonable gaps if you want to add them to that scenario or try out another. The same is true of stuff like magic and insanity, touched upon by only briefly in the quickstart. You have a basic equipment list, some weapon stats in brief, and then some rules on taking damage and recovering. I somewhat avoided holding tight to the Sanity rules, but I was fairly accurate on everything else.

My thoughts on the system as it stands is that it is an amazingly simple system that is straightforward, easy-to-grasp, and a natural evolution of the concepts from the previous editions. It could potentially be a bit repetitive, but this is an issue that all such stable systems face. The loss of stuff like the Resistance Table and the inclusion of degrees-of-success helps to flavor up the game while decreasing the "consult the table" feel that it had held onto.

It is a little bit of a disjunct between nearly everything being turned into percentile rolls except the damages to Sanity and Hit Points, with combat and Sanity losses still running the polyhedral gambit. Another potential issue is a need of clarification of when a Characteristic is used versus a Skill, in cases like a character trying to talk down an armed gunman:is that Persuasion (Skill) or is that Appearance (Characteristic) or the greater/lesser of the two or would you use something like a successful Appearance roll to give a bonus dice to a Persuasion one? In Sixth, I would have stuck with Skills. In Seventh, it feels like they want you to do more with Characteristics so I am not sure.

Dead Light

Since the quickstart rules are ostensibly a partial-product, while the scenario is a complete item, let's move on to Dead Light. I was quite impressed. The strength of the scenario is its sandbox nature. You have a dark and stormy night. You have a strange, otherworldly creature made of light that drifts through the forest and feeds on people. You have a cafe and a closed gas-station. An old house. Criminal schemes. Mostly innocent victims. Washed out driveways. Unlike a lot of Call of Cthulhu scenarios, where you have to work to hide an often fairly linear storyline, Dead Light is more akin to a package of tools and elements that respond to whatever the players want to do. You can play it survival horror style, with player characters holed up in the cafe/station/house having to carefully map out what they have to survive the whole night. You can play it action horror, with player characters having to fend off criminals while avoiding death at the hand of a terrible monster. You can play it American Gothic with rural intrigue adding to a tense situation. You can play it straight Lovecaft, with old magic out in the woods. You can even play it, as it were, sensibly, and have it simply be about everyday folk just finding a way to get out of town.

I was able to let things progress an hour or two of real world time before the horror of the situation hit, and then amp it up fast with the players and their characters having a good idea of the place. If you want, though, you can drop the hammer right off the bat and force them to make judgement calls without all the facts. Or you can work in a few notions like the characters going there specifically to meet someone and having a friend in the foxhole. What's fun is that you can use the NPCs as allies, or as cannon fodder to establish the horror, or have them be a fetter holding the player characters back, or even have a couple of them act as adversaries [what if the NPCs think that sacrificing the PCs will do some good?]. Lot's of good possibilities. If I did it again, I would drop the hammer right off. The scenario starts with players swerving around a woman in the road. I think next time I'll have it start with them probably hitting (and quite possibly killing) her. Let the death of a probable innocent flavor their actions from there on out.

The background is described well. The non-player characters are interesting enough (though I only focused on a couple of them and let the others be something like cannon fodder). The settings are fairly basic—just a few rooms, a few obvious clues in the middle of largely nondescript bits—but I found them to be a good number to play with. The one thing the Keeper will have to do is stay on his or her toes because it is such a sandbox style scenario that players could opt for something unusual (like driving all the way back to town to get help, right off). They might dally so long that they force your hand. They might try and ignore all sense of rules and obligations [something I've noticed in games like this, people will sometimes go a bit wobbly on the legality aspect, which can be something for Keepers to watch over]. If the characters do something like bolt into the woods early on, you might have to find a way to make two or three hours of rain soaked trees interesting.

It even offers up a few seeds to set up a next adventure. If I play with those characters again, I think I know how to do it. Something I wanted to set up but never got around to in my Victorian horror GURPS game. Should be fun.

As a general tip, the "sandbox that turns into fast-paced survival horror" aspect has potential to end up with players taking a bit to debate things in a way the characters do not have time to do. One thing I did, at a key junction, was to force everyone to write down what they wanted their character to do, without showing the other players, and then read them out. This brought about a more "instinctive" reaction at a key time. It worked out ok, they all went for the same path—though different characters had different reasons for doing it—, but it helped to shake up the "let's talk this out" attitude that was starting to build up.

Final Thoughts

I think I've said pretty much all I need to say. Just a few quick summations. I'm looking forward to Call of Cthulhu's Seventh edition. At first, I was going to buy it as something like a completionist element. Now that I've played it and now that I've seen how easy it will be tweak my Sixth (etc) edition stuff to play with it, I'm probably going to stick with it unless something in the full rules just rubs me really the wrong way. However, I'm not sure if the quickstart rules are for everyone, since they feel fairly complete if you know the older rules but I think they would potentially confuse if you were new the system. There are also a few odd choices. "The Haunting", the starter adventure standard for CoC, has been upgraded to Seventh edition, which is good, but it takes up more of the book than the rules themselves. There are no skill descriptions in the quickstart rules. No conversion guide [which is the biggest oversight]. Also, and a fair sacrifice considering the simplicity they are trying to maintain, there are some weird glitches with skill purchasing where skills that should be higher are kept lower by the allotment system. I'm kind of hoping that upon Seventh's release that they make a revised quickstart to get some of these elements back in a bit better. Still, I would definitely recommend picking it up (it's free!) and I would also recommend picking up Dead Light, which isn't free but a lot of fun to run.

Lovecraft Gaming


Written by Doug Bolden

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