Originally Published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/12/15/tabletop-review-call-of-cthulhu-seven-edition-investigators-handbook/
Usually I’m a bit quicker with reviewing Call of Cthulhu releases as they come out. Case in point, the Seventh Edition Keeper’s Screen and adventures. However, both the Investigator’s Handbook and the Keeper’s Guide (AKA the core 7e rulebook) had some typos and errata that needed to be fixed. So I decided to hold off on my review of the games while the forum-goers at Yog-Sothoth volunteered their editing skills to Chaosium for free. That way my review wouldn’t have a section devoted to paragraphs of negativity in that regards – especially since PDFS are editable the same way video games are patchable these days. Now, if my leatherette copies of the books have that many typos… those reviews will be a bit more scathing in regards to proofreading. Plus I’ve written seventeen other reviews since 7e COC came out, so it’s not as if I haven’t providing you with worthwhile content, right? Now let’s talk about the book.
The Investigator’s Handbook is not a complete Call of Cthulhu rulebook. It is, as the title suggests, devoted purely to the subject of Investigators. For those new to Call of Cthulhu (and shame on you for that), an Investigator is your Player Character. So in many ways, think of the Investigator’s Handbook as the equivalent of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, with the Core Rulebook acting as a combined Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide. Don’t worry though, unlike that other venerable role playing game, Call of Cthulhu still has character creation rules in the core rulebook. The Investigator’s Handbook is simply a much more in-depth look at creating and playing characters in this new edition of Call of Cthulhu. For longtime Call of Cthulhu veterans, think of the book as a Seventh Edition version of the classic 1920’s Investigator’s Handbook from the 1990s that many of us have used religiously since its release (perhaps through Byhakee). Either way, the Investigator’s Handbook is not necessary to play a game of Call of Cthulhu where the Core Rulebook IS, so if you don’t have a lot of disposable income to spend, go with that book (which we’ll review later in the week) rather than this one. That said, the Investigator’s Handbook is extremely well done, gives you more options in terms of occupation and advice on character building that you wouldn’t have otherwise. If you’re a big Call of Cthulhu player or a Keeper who wants to give their friends a look at the CoC rules without revealing monster stats or the adventures in the back that they will be playing next week, the Investigator’s Handbook is definitely worth its price tag – especially digitally.
Chapter One in the Investigator’s Handbook is “Introduction.” This is the usual, “How to play a role-playing game” section, along with an overview of what one can expect from Call of Cthulhu. The chapter also gives an example of play, which highlights some of the changes that come with this new edition. Now, many of the changes between Sixth and Seventh Edition CoC are superficial and have little to no impact on how you already play the game. We’ll only cover the character creation bits later in this review as they pop up. Other rule changes will have to wait for the Core Rulebook review, since that is where they are covered. Anyway, “Introduction” is short and reminds newcomers of things they will need to play the game, like dice, character sheets and an imagination. If you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG before, you can easily skip this chapter and not feel like you have missed anything. It’s well written though, so it won’t hurt for you veterans to skim it over.
Chapter Two is “The Dunwich Horror.” This is literally just a reprinting of Lovecraft’s famous short story. For newcomers, it’s an introduction to Lovecraft’s writing style as well as the tropes and creatures one might run across in a typical Call of Cthulhu adventure. In previous editions of Call of Cthulhu, the Core Rulebook reprinted The Call of Cthulhu, which made sense because both share the same name, and it’s probably Lovecraft’s best known work as well as featuring his best known creation. In 7e CoC, we don’t have any story in the Core Rulebook, and The Dunwich Horror in the Investigator’s Handbook. Like much of Seventh Edition, this change feels like change merely for the sake of change. A fresh coat of paint or optical illusion making 7e feel different from previous editions, when in fact it’s 95-99% the same game as it was when it was first spawned decades ago. At the same time, when you step back and look at the changes from the point of view of bringing in newcomers to the game, replacing The Call of Cthulhu with The Dunwich Horror makes a lot of sense. Although The Call of Cthulhu made sense on one level, The Dunwich Horror feels more like a what a Call of Cthulhu ADVENTURE novelization would be read like. It fits the game better mood and theme-wise, and also lets newcomers understand what most adventures will feel like, in addition to what Investigators are in for. So the change is neither bad nor good – it’s simply a change that makes sense on some levels and not at all on others. It just depends on your PoV. This is true of ANY Edition for ANY game that comes out, hence why we have the phrase, “Edition Wars.” So I’m okay with this change, but I do wish the Core Rulebook had kept The Call of Cthulhu to compliment it. It would allowed both stories to be found by newcomers and would have kept everyone happy. However, this is 2014, and it’s not like you can’t find everything Lovecraft has ever written on some public domain website anyway.
Chapter Three is “Creating Investigators.” Here is where you get the character creation rules. I have to admit, back when I read through (and had to review) the Quick Start Rules for CoC 7e, I was really worried. The character creation rules in that were abominable and merely made cookie cutter generic characters. They were terrible the same way the rules for making D&D characters in the RPGA were horrible. Both were an odd change to set specific stats instead of die rolling. Making this change for CoC 7e was especially troubling, as previous editions of the game included the normal rules for character generation. Couple the fact that The Haunting took up twice the page count as it used to because of the mechanics change (it would later just be that the team did a terrible job converting and explaining the new mechanics rather than any real significant problem with the changes to the rules set) and CoC 7e made a disastrous first impression on me. Thankfully, as this chapter shows, the final version of character creation is nearly the same it has always been. What little changes have been made are more a different way of writing down the same data/dice rolls.
So what has changed? Well character creation is still pretty much the same. You’re rolling 3d6 or 2d6+6 for your stats. However, now you’re multiplying the end result by 5, giving you a number of 90 or less. So why make this change? Well, skills in Call of Cthulhu have always been percentile based, so this is a cosmetic change so that you don’t have, say a 14 in Strength but a 67% in Quantum Physics. Instead you’d now have a 70% in Strength. It’s a small visual change that makes the character sheet look uniform. That’s it. It’s not a big deal. Well, it’s a big deal if you’re a veteran and your mind is still reading things the old way, causing you to crap your pants seeing a monster than now has 250 Strength Stat instead of 50. Newcomers and casual Call of Cthulhu fans will adapt to the changes a lot easier because they aren’t conditioned after 10-30 years of see CoC stats written in the same old fashion. It’s a paradigm shift, as veteran CoC’ers will have to break their conditioned way of reading stat blocks, but the new version works exactly the same as previous editions did. It’s just now, instead of being told “Make a CONx5 Roll,” you just make a CON roll. The change is neither good nor bad. It’s a visual change, not a mechanical one; I can’t stress that enough.
Some other, smaller changes are that the character sheet now lists half and fifth roll values for Hard and Extreme rolls respectively. In the past, a Keeper could make you roll a stat or skill at an arbitrarily reduced value, because the challenge was greater. So that Dodge roll you normally make at 75% could be reduced to 55%, 38% or whatever. Now, the character sheet has you put these values in right away and names specific types of rolls where they would be used. What this does is make the game run smoother during an adventure. You don’t have to do fiddling basic math to determine a roll value, as it’s already on your character sheet. However, it does only give Keeper’s two options. So all those x3, x4 or whatever rolls are essentially gone. Of course, they don’t have to be in your own homebrew game, but again, we see a rules change that is neither outright good or bad, but a little of both.
There are some bigger changes, like your Luck stat. In previous editions it was your POW score x5 and was a permanent stat. Now Luck is determined by 2d6+6 multiplied by 5 and is a shifting stat, similar to Sanity Points. Idea and Know stats (and thus their rolls) are also completely removed from the character sheets and so out of sight, out of mind. They still somewhat exist (you’ll see them referenced in Chapter Eight) but they might as well not. I’m a little less happy about this, because Idea rolls were always a way for a Player to see if the Keeper could throw them a bone where they were completely stumped. Luck as a sliding scale trait is perhaps the biggest change to CoC 7e, and like many of the changes, I see the pros and cons. On one hand, there was no need for the change. Luck worked well as it was and there was no need to change it. On the other hand, as a shifting scale stat, you can now spend Luck to help other rolls at the cost of having a lower Luck stat down the road. After all, eventually luck does run out… even for Gladstone Gander.
The other two notable changes include the addition of a Build Stat and how MOV (movement) is calculated. Now these two stats are perhaps the weakest changes in the game. Build because no one was clamoring for it. It’s an unnecessary and rather poorly thought out stat and I’ve yet to talk to anyone that is actually using it or liking it. It almost certainly won’t survive to 8th Edition. Essentially the idea is that Build gives you more of a damage bonus because as the book says, “Larger and stronger creatures…do more physical damage then their smaller brethren,” which is a hugely erroneous statement that anyone with a smattering of anatomy, biology or fighting background can tell you is incorrect. This is why middleweights in UFC/PRIDE/Etc are considered to be better fighters and have stronger attacks than Heavyweights. This is what is essentially the “Vince McMahon” fallacy in that big guys somehow do more damage than a smaller counterpart. It’s a shame to see Call of Cthulhu add this in. Sure a rhino hurts worse than a mouse, but that was something already calculated in attacks and that’s also a huge size distance. Build is just an outright terrible idea and I’m kind of surprised the idea made it past playtesting.
MOV has similar, but far more minor, issues. It’s determined by whether DEX or STR is greater than your SIZ rating. If both stats are less than SIZ, MOV = 7. If one stat is higher or equal to SIZ, MOV = 8. If both are higher, MOV = 9. Again, this is an interesting addition to the game but poorly thought out and not even close to grounded in how MOV should be calculated. Strength and Size aren’t the ultimate factors in speed and distance. This probably should have been DEX and CON. DEX for agility and reaction time and CON for endurance and keeping a speed maintained. This is better thought out than build by far, but the stats and determination are definitely off here. Again, something that shouldn’t have made it past playtesting but it did and is unfortunately canon in the form it takes. Alas.
So we’ve seen the two negative changes to character creation, but there are also some obvious positives as well. EDU can’t go into the twenties and thus give you a 100% or higher Know roll now. That was always a bit. I also love that Skill Points are just based on your EDU stat know. It always seemed off that a PC would be penalized for playing a Hobo and thus get dramatically less skill points simply because of his EDU rating. He could have picked up skills like hide, spot hidden and track with the same percentages a Scientist might have chemistry and geology. Now your skill points are based on a stat appropriate to your chosen occupation, which is AWESOME and a long time coming. I also love the renewed emphasis on Credit Rating in the game. Over the years, the importance of this skill outside of Cthulhu by Gaslight has dwindled dramatically to where I rarely see it called for in adventures or by Keepers. That will definitely changes with 7e, which is really nice. Another new change are a few optional packages for experienced investigators. You get some extra skill points in exchange for a few subtractions in other areas. For example the Police package can net you 60 extra skill points in exchange for a loss of 1d10 sanity and some scar, injury or phobia being attached to the character. Very cool.
So yes, there are some changes I think are terrible, some I absolutely love and most aren’t really changed to me, but are instead of different way of writing up a character sheet. Most people will probably feel the same way, although what they like/hate will probably be different. Again, this is going to happen with any game getting a new edition. Overall though, I’m pretty pleased with 7e and think it’s a good update of the system, even if the system didn’t necessarily need one.
Aside from all this, the chapter gives you the re-creation of Harvey Walters in 7e form, some random tables to help you make a character background and a strong emphasis on creating a rich back story for your Investigator, who admittedly might be eaten by Deep Ones on his or her first adventure. The chapter also includes alternate ways of character creation including the loathsome Quick Start version they threw at us but several other methods that feel like they were pulled from AD&D 2e, which is not bad (I love 2e!), but they are almost in the same exact order those alt character creation methods were listed…so that was odd.
Chapter Four is “Occupations” and this is simply a very long list of well, character occupations. If you’re new to CoC, think of your Occupation as a class. Instead of being a Fighter or Decker, you’re a Criminologist, cowboy or librarian. There are over 100 Occupations in this book and if you still can’t find one you want, work with the Keeper to make your own. Want to be a Ninja – it’s not in the book, but you can easily make that Occupation! Some occupations are also listed with tags like “Classic” or “Lovecraftian” to help people choose if they want a more “authentic” character, but obviously these are optional. If you really want to be a circus clown in 1890s London, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be! Each Occupation gets a paragraph or two of description and then a list of how their skill points are generated, Credit Rating range and a list of skills for the job. A member of the Clergy gets EDUx4 skill points while Diver gets EDUx2 + Dexx2 skill points. Some jobs even has sub-sets with different skill sets. A Driver can be a Taxi Driver or a Chauffeur in addition to just plain old Driver. Fantastic. I love all these options and this chapter alone is worth purchasing the Investigator’s Handbook for. Oh if only 7e was compatible with my beloved Byhakee program.
Chapter Five is Skills and similar to the previous chapter except than it focuses on well…skills. That should be obvious. Here you get a list of all the skills in the game (although you can always make some more if needed), what the percentage essentially means and an explanation of how to push a skill. Pushing is a new concept where if you fail your roll, you get a second chance if you want. However if you fail this second roll too, something bad happens. In truth, this isn’t a new aspect of the game but rather something a lot of people house ruled in and it’s simply become canon with 7e. Like with any addition of CoC, some skills from the previous version are gone entirely, some are combined and some new skills are added. This is what it is. It’s simply a fact of CoC edition changes and I can’t imagine anyone will be surprised or outraged by what is here. Chapter Four is simply an in-depth look at each skill to help newcomers understand what exactly each skill lets them do. It’s very well done and even longtime players will enjoy flipping through this chapter.
Chapter Six is “Investigator Organizations,” which begins a trend for this latter half of the book. The trend being well written and entertaining fluff CoC fans will enjoy reading but is in no way necessarily to play the game. Some might regard these sections are superfluous, but I think they provide an excellent service, especially for newer CoC games. Take this chapter for example. It gives examples of how to create a unified team of investigators instead of having each player make their own and watch the Keeper squirm as they try to create a sensible cohesive narrative that brings say, a bus driver, diplomat from Ghana and a member of the KKK together for they adventure they have decided to run. You get an overview of how to create a group concept as some interesting examples ranging from some war buddies to a circus. Fun! There are also some pre-generated character examples for each of the groups described here in case a Keeper wants to use one.
Chapter Seven is “Life as an Investigator.” This is an especially useful section for people new to RPGs as it talks about the usual process a character or party goes through to solve an investigative adventure like those normally found in CoC. You get ways to gather information, how to create plans and also how to enact them without being horribly murdered by cultists or eaten by Yig. Things like that. It’s a very fun chapter that once again, contains information most veterans of the game know instinctively, but it’s so well written, you’ll have run reading it. That can easily be said about a lot of this book and god knows I’ve repeated those statements in this review several times but remember, Core Rulebooks are written with new players or those that have been out of the loop.
Chapter Eight is “The Roaring Twenties.” This is a quick historical overview of the main time period Call of Cthulhu is played in. It’s very detailed and covers a myriad of different aspects of the time period from social issues to technology. It’s fantastic. If you’re wondering what is accurate equipment for the time period, what kinds of cars or guns you can have or how much a paper cost in 1923, you’ll find it here. The chapter is mostly fantastic but there are some notable problems with the biographies. For example, the piece on Lindbergh gets a lot wrong and leaves out the fact he was a pro Nazi-sympathizer and went from being one of America’s greatest heroes to pretty hated by the people of the time period. I mean, is it too on the nose to make a joke about this version of CoC being written by Brits that somehow aren’t Bill Bryson fans? Anyway, if I were you, I’d go with the far more accurate One Summer: America, 1927 for accurate information about not just the people listed in the biographies in this section, but also for a look at the 1920s atmosphere as a whole. It’s a great book and again, far more accurate if you’re looking for personalities of the era. Still, Chapter Eight is still excellent as a whole and you’ll get a lot of use out of it.
Chapter Nine is “Advice For Players.” This is simple a bunch of essays to promote better gaming amongst a group. How to handle disagreements with Keepers and other players, the difference between character and player knowledge and so on. There are also some fun reminders like, “Don’t rely on guns.” and that Idea/Know rolls still exist in some nebulous fashion. Perhaps the most important part of the chapter revolves around sanity and how to roleplay that slow (or god forbid quick) descent into madness that comes hand in hand with the Cthulhu Mythos. Too many gamers have the terrible “Malkavian” way of roleplaying crazy, which is to say they just do stupid random crap and call it “insanity.” The essays on sanity in this chapter are a must read even for veterans because this is a common problem even amongst those of us that have been playing CoC for decades.
Call of Cthulhu? You’ll find them here. Want six pages of weapon stats? Here you go! It also contains the same set of conversion information that Chaosium has been putting into 7e adventures that have been released prior to these core rulebooks coming out. After that you get the maps that also come with the Keeper’s ScreenInvestigator’s Handbook. Hope you stayed with me through the whole thing.
Or have we? We’ve covered all the content but there are two other points I want to make about the book. The first is that the entire Investigator’s Handbook is in FULL COLOR. This is a rarity for Chaosium and the book looks fantastic because of it. The art in the Investigator’s Handbook is some of the best I’ve seen in an English release of CoC. The book just oozes style in addition to being jam packed with high quality substance. I mean, just look at the art samples from the book that I plucked out to show in this review! I’m really happy with the overall product and am all the more excited to finally get my hands on the physical release.
Is the Investigator’s Handbook perfect? Oh my no. It’s a new edition and there will always be issues someone has when there is a change like this. There are a few bad ideas in 7e, but also some great ones. Most of the changes are minor or just cosmetic though, so there should be far less pushback or forum battles over the change from 6e to 7e than you see when games like Shadowrun, Dungeons & Dragons and the like have their extreme makeover ever few years. If you’re new to CoC, I say start with the Investigator’s Handbook. It’s a great read as well as an excellent primer on how to make and play an Investigator. It’s only twenty-some dollars for the PDF and you’re getting nearly three hundred pages of quality content for that amount. I can’t say 7e is going to replace 5e as my favorite version of Call of Cthulhu, but this is an excellent version of the game and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where the game goes from here. Ia Ia!