The Long-Term Call of Cthulhu Game

Call of Cthulhu has a well-deserved reputation as a deadly game. The “monsters” in the game often cannot be killed and in a fair gunfight, investigators are extremely vulnerable. Add to this the magic that investigators can learn also contributing to their mental decline and you clearly have a game that is not for the faint of heart.

However, sometimes I read people’s accounts of their Call of Cthulhu games and it sounds like the investigators die or go insane within the first five minutes of the game. (A small exaggeration I’ll admit).

Over the past several years Call of Cthulhu has been the main game I’ve played. While it’s been far from safe, with its fair share of deaths and characters retiring before they go insane, I’ve found it is absolutely possible to have a long-term game with some characters lasting for years. Note that nothing is ever guaranteed – I’ve also seen long-term characters go insane or get hit by an unlucky shot. I think that’s absolutely appropriate for the genre. Chaosium also clearly expects groups to have long-term campaigns, having released a number of multi-part campaigns such as the famous Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign.

Note that for purposes of this conversation, I’m referring to a game using the classic rules, The pulp rules definitely makes for a more action-packed games with characters who can survive far more dangerous situations—which is the intent of these rules. However, even with the classic rules, a long-term campaign is possible.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a long-term campaign is having some sort of organization for the characters to be a part of—it can be informal, it can be one the investigators found themselves. The advantage to an organization is it provides a way for easy replacement characters who already have a connection to the campaign. Such a campaign can even survive a total party kill (or insanity), with the new characters assembling to see what became of their predecessors.

Another thing to note is cautious characters have a better chance of enduring than careless ones. This is true in any RPG (except perhaps for over-the-top RPGs emulating an action movie), but in  Call of Cthulhu the margin for error is very narrow.

What makes for a cautious character? Probably the biggest differentiator is prep work. Hitting the libraries and newspapers to investigate a haunted house or missing person. The classic adventure The Haunted House, found in most editions of the game (and is in the 7th edition’s Starter Set), is a great example of a scenario where going in with no prep work can make for a very deadly experience while taking the time to do research can prepare the characters for the dangers that lie ahead. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly makes failure less certain.

A cautious character does not fight fair. If a gun battle is necessary, such characters will shoot first and, if possible, shoot from behind. The combat rules are deadly enough that a single shot has the possibility of taking down a character – and if characters constantly get into gun battles, their luck will run out. Even cautious characters may see their luck run out sooner or later but at least they are not tempting fate.

Long-term Call of Cthulhu campaigns have the same advantages as other campaigns – the setting becomes more detailed, with a network of meaningful locations, characters, and events. Investigators begin to develop reputations that can precede them. There can be disadvantages to such experiences as well – while it is unlikely any investigator will be able to say they’ve “seen it all”, over time it will become more difficult to portray a character horrified and shocked at the uncaring universe they encounter in their adventures. That can be a sign a fresh-start may be needed—perhaps a campaign finale followed by a new setting or some new characters, with the previous characters fulfilling the roles of mentors or legendary predecessors.

There are twists of time and space, of vision and reality, which only a dreamer can divine; and from what I know of Carter I think he has merely found a way to traverse these mazes. Whether or not he will ever come back, I cannot say. He wanted the lands of dream he had lost, and yearned for the days of his childhood. Then he found a key, and I somehow believe he was able to use it to strange advantage.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

~ Daniel Stack

Follow Daniel on Twitter at @DStack1776
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