Dice Rolling in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

Wednesday , 8, March 2017 5 Comments

There was a time when I didn’t know what sword & sorcery was. I sort of assumed that if it was old or pulpy that it had to be lame. And yet… cruising through the game blog scene when D&D blogging was going through an explosion of growth…? I could tell that there was something different about people that had read the non-Tolkienesque pulp fantasy. They knew something I didn’t. They were cool in a way I couldn’t comprehend. There was something metal about them. They had something that was missing from all those Forgotten Realms novels at the local big box book store and coffee shop. They really did.

I got this same sort of feeling from the Call of Cthulu game over the years. Not having read anything by H. P. Lovecraft, I couldn’t really grasp what they were all on about. But they were clearly smitten with something… and my battered first edition copy of GURPS Horror which I bought only for the psionics rules really didn’t convey all that much about what was going on with this! But there’s something more to this game than a grounding in some of the best science fiction stories ever penned. There is some gaming wisdom codified in the rules that also set this crowd apart from the run of the mill role-player.


The player should be clear about what they want to achieve by stating a goal before rolling any dice. If the goal isn’t acceptable, the Keeper should help the player to rephrase it. The goal should define the player’s objective clearly and concisely.

This right here addresses the absolute biggest problem to come out of gaming ever since TSR crumbled into the sea.

It never fails. I’ll be at a convention running a tabletop role-playing game. The players will have gotten themselves into a completely bizarre situation that no one could have imagined much less predicted. The stakes will be high. Something completely stupid from the opening phases of the game will suddenly be absolutely critical to what is transpiring, often something that was ad-libbed or that has nothing really to do with the actual scenario. Somebody at the table will have done something silly or stupid or funny or goofy… and a Rube Goldberg style chain of events will have been set into motion. The dice will add fuel to the fire: some wandering monster or random event will have added one last element to this stew of weirdness… something that causes it all to snap into focus. And everyone at the table will have momentarily forgotten about their cell phones or whatever else is on the convention schedule. They have to know what happens next! And not even the game master knows where all of this is leading!!!

This more than anything else is what tabletop role-playing is all about.

And into this situation there is always someone waiting in the wings ready to ruin everything. His name is Poindexter. He has wandered into some real role-playing only by accident. The total noobs that have never even played before are actually equipped to have a better time than him. Poindexter? He resists everything that’s happening every step of the way. And it’s worse than that, really. Everything about what is happening registers to him as a rules problem and he says so constantly. Everything that happens is evidence of the fact that the game design is broken. It’s bizarre, really.

But in spite of him, everyone at the table will be completely immersed in the action anyway. Their imaginations will be thoroughly engaged in a way that movies and video games never achieve for them. They will be on the edge of their seats, thrilled by every development. And in that instant, Poindexter will suddenly announce, “I’m rolling against my Goober skill to Foo the Bar. I made it by four!”

You’ll think I’m exaggerating when I say this, but… this really does ruin everything. And I bet you guys like Sandy Peterson know why:

Poindexter has with one sentence shifted the focus away from the action and towards the rule mechanics. He has appropriated powers reserved for the Game Master in order make a ruling that some number on his character sheet is even relevant to what is happening. He even assumes he is in position to set a difficulty level!

The truth is, Poindexter would be far better served if he just described what it is he wanted to do and then let the Game Master adjudicate it however he thinks is best. In the first place, the Game Master will know things that pertain to the situation that he cannot yet divulge. Secondly… the Game Master may not even require a roll for the action. If Poindexter fails due to the dice, he will have brought it all on himself!!

And Poindexter can’t wrap his head around these facts for the life of him. You can’t change him! He knows what role-playing is better than anybody. He is the biggest RPG fan on his block. He plays more than anybody else at the convention. And it’s sad, really. He’s been sold something that is called a role-playing game that is not in fact a role-playing game. And it’s destroyed his capacity to ever experience role-playing.

It’s really is tragic. If only someone had gotten him a copy of Call of Cthulhu before he went down this dark and miserable path…!

  • Blume says:

    We killed a bear once and I asked to skin and cook it. Got a nat 20. We spent the rest of the night talking about and eagerly anticipating our bear skin stuff.

  • Gaiseric says:

    This right there is exactly why I say that I’m not old skool, but I am old-fashioned. I dislike many of the mechanics of some of the older games, but I love the tone and approach of most of the games that precede AD&D.

    Sadly, the AD&D paradigm is the one that prevailed in the long run, until the OSR started. But then, the OSR was so focused on the actual old RULES that they forgot to focus on the old-fashioned play style, which doesn’t have to be with old rules at all.

    But really, what I’ve found matter far more than any other variable is who is at your table. I can play the worst game with great players and have a great time. I can play the best game with big mismatches in terms of expectations at the table and be miserale. I used to play 3e as if it were B/X in terms of how we ran it and scratched my head at people complaining about drowning in rules. What about the expression “tools, not rules?” And for that matter why does it even need to be said at all? Isn’t it self-evident.

    Evidently not. But as much as I love tinkering with systems, or even kitbashing them into something unrecognizable, in order to get this or that effect that I want at the table, in reality, it’s a much less powerful variable than who you’re playing with. The real secret to great gaming is to avoid allowing Poindexters to join your group in the first place.

    • deuce says:

      “But really, what I’ve found matter far more than any other variable is who is at your table.”

      That was always my experience. I eventually ended up only recruiting from friends or “cool acquaintances”. It’s amazing how many freaks with weird hangups and power gamers are out there. I found that it was better to have a friend with minimal gaming experience — or even little genre knowledge — join a session than some “experienced” player who was just there to “fly, throw some spells and kick some ass”. That became an in-group meme, BTW. People that are there to simply “win” are the biggest losers.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I’ve been buying Sandy Petersen’s games for 36 years, and never regretted a single dollar.

    The man knows games and he knows what I like. Thanks, Sandy.

  • Brian T Renninger says:

    Call of Cthulhu is where I always part ways wirh OSR. I Guess I’m actual old school rather than “renaissance”. Which is to say I’m getting old. The OSR, really being a creation of WOTC opening up rights to their games is always overfocussed on the D&D approach to the neglection of other old school games. For all the admonisions against railroading, some of the most fun replaying I’ve had was playing early Chaosium COC very railroady modules. The thing was, they presented one way it could go but, the GM had to know (and be able to) improvise when that plot went sideways not force the players into the presented plot. A GM knew to do this by reading S. Peterson’s advice which was always on target.

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