RPG Editions: The Curious Case of Call of Cthulhu

Successful Roleplaying games – and wargames, come to that – are rarely static. I mean, when you buy a rulebook, that’s a static item, but the wider range that grows around such a book forms a distinct ecosystem, introducing new features, options, rules, stories and other ideas for players and game masters to explore and exploit. This is a good thing. Certainly, I’ve demonstrated that I enjoy collecting these items.

Eventually, a game gets to the point where either the rules need an update or the publisher wants to revitalise the line to generate new sales. When we get to this point, a new edition is released. We’ve seen it in many of the popular lines. Dungeons & Dragons is a good example of this, and I will return to this later. There are plenty others, including Traveller, Paranoia, Shadowrun, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Vampire: the Masquerade and all of the World of Darkness games… There are so many examples, but I’ve stuck to my own knowledge and experience.

Now, Dungeons & Dragons is an interesting example. I’m not giving a history lesson here, so I’m going to focus on the Editions released by Wizards of the Coast. Third edition (and 3.5) was a successful and sprawling system. When it was discontinued and replaced with 4th edition, this represented a very drastic change in rules. 4E was a very, very different game to 3E and although you could definitely use your 3E books for inspiration, they were simply not compatible ruleswise.

The same was true a few years later when 4E gave way to 5E. Completely different systems. For most, 5E also represented a better system, but that’s immaterial here. Of course, everyone knows what edition D&D is on because so many third party supplement books won’t or can’t say “D&D”, but instead have an income on their cover denoting it as a “5E” compatible product. Editions matter.

Then there’s Call of Cthulhu. First published by Chaosium in 1981 and now in its 7th edition, Call of Cthulhu, based on the imaginatively named Basic Roleplaying System, is a pretty venerable game. What’s quite different about Call of Cthulhu as compared to other games is that, even in its most recent incarnation, it’s still fundamentally the same game. Consider that for a second. It’s the same game. That’s probably why there’s not really an OSR (old school renaissance) movement for Call of Cthulhu like there is around D&D and similar games. It’s why there aren’t really “edition wars” as there are in Shadowrun. It’s why, unlike Paranoia, early edition supplements are still fully usable in the latest edition.

This 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu still feels like the first edition, just with a few improvements thrown in over time. On the other hand, 5E Dungeons & Dragons feels nothing like the original boxed games from the 70s and 80s. Oh, sure, it has heroes, dungeons, monsters. The thing is, old school D&D is about the sorts of traps that brought a grin to Gygax’s bearded mug 5E is about hauling loot across a map whilst trying to get past monsters via rule interpretations. Blackmoor and The Great Kingdom are not happy worlds with flamboyant, swashbuckling heroes. 5E is all about that. It can be played differently, but that’s the tone that the book sets.

In terms of actual changes, 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu is the most divergent edition yet, introducing a number of new or adapted elements whilst actually changing very little. Does that make sense? They’re not big changes, but they’re the biggest that we’ve seen for this particular game. These include:

  • Characteristics changes form 3D6 (or 2D6+6) to percentile system (smaller change than you’d think)
  • Other minor characteristic adjustments, including hit points and movement rate
  • A new system introduced to adjust difficulty
  • Combat feels tighter with dodge being properly explained, and the introduction of ‘major wounds’
  • Use of luck points to adjust and ‘push’ rolls
  • scaled movement rates introduced
  • A streamlining of available skills
  • Increase in skill points – this has been steadily creeping up over several editions

It’s not much, is it? Fundamentally, it’s still the same game. To use your supplements from previous editions you might just need to adjusts some stats, but this mostly just involves multiplying by 5. I mean, we all know that the five times table is one of the easier ones, don’t we? There’s some other wee bits (EDU, damage bonuses, hit points, etc) and pieces, but whilst a new GM (Keeper in Call of Cthulhu’s parlance) might have minimal prep, I expect that once one has a bit of experience in running games this sort of conversion could be done on the fly.

Chaosium has put out this handy conversion guide, just to make things as easy as possible. It is reassuringly short, which again reflects the minimal work that actually needs done:

So, yeah, I can’t claim to be especially knowledgeable about Call of Cthulhu. I’ve been aware of it for some time, of course, but I’ve only recently picked up the books and started thinking about running the game. In my reading, I’ve picked up a mix of old and new supplements, which highlighted to me the compatibility between editions.

The books that Chaosium is putting out for 7th edition are just beautiful. Production values for days, son! That said, I’ve also picked up other supplements, including Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and Tatters of the King, both for the previous edition. Now, these are black and white paperbacks which don’t hold a candle to the new books in terms of just sheer production quality, but the writing is just as good and the campaigns seem really great.

I love the idea that you can dip into 40 years of content in a way that is damn near just ‘pick up and play’. It’s pretty cool, innit?

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