First launched in 1981, Call of Cthulhu (CoC) is one of the most successful franchises in role-playing games, second only to Dungeons & Dragons in its enduring influence, so I make no apologies for reviewing its latest iteration here. Actually, I don’t need to, because Chaosium Inc., while committing to publishing its future rulebooks in hard cover, is also offering free e-book versions to purchasers of the hard copy, in just about every major format including .PRC. So Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition is definitely a digital proposition as well. Also, the game has been instrumental in boosting and broadening the revival of interest in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, so it has had a literary impact too.

This 7th edition of the game has its genesis in a Kickstarter campaign launched in May 2013, which secured $561,836 against its $40,000 target, for “a new edition of the Call of Cthulhu rules incorporating new options, an improved flow of combat, new scenarios, and a cleaner page layout with box and page decoration evocative of the primary period of play in the 1920s.” The underlying premise for this was that CoC had been through six editions since 1981, but no major revision of its play system to incorporate all the lessons learned over the decades, and obviously the gaming community voted on that issue with its dollars.

There’s been controversy since over how playable the new edition is, but after a few tryouts, I’ve found it works well enough. The main issue users seem to have is the huge volume of material and exhaustive coverage of every conceivable issue, all rather daunting for the novice gamesmaster (or Keeper of Arcane Lore in CoC parlance). The new Keeper Rulebook runs to 449 pages. That said, any newbie can get familiar with CoC and the whole gaming system with the free PDF Call of Cthulhu Quickstart rules, which include most of what’s needed to get you going. That also helps with sticker shock on the price tag for the full version, which runs to $54.95 for the hardcover edition and $129.99 for the slipcased set of the whole shebang, which also includes the Hardcover Investigator Handbook and the Keeper Screen Pack. Can’t accuse Chaosium of not giving future fans an easy point of entry.

For CoC veterans, the most visible changes to the system include the rejigging of player characteristics on a 10-100 scale, rather than a 3-18 yardstick, which coordinates more logically with CoC‘s well-established percentage system for most skills and successes. The well-worn CoC Resistance Table has also dropped out, replaced by a simpler comparison of relative successes when someone, or some Thing, tries to do something to someone, or some Thing, else. Then there’s a simplified summary brawling skill, which combines punches, headbutts and kicks into one easier gouging session, and a codified system for pushing your luck – meaning that any time a player fails some roll at a critical plot point, they can try again, but with definite justifications and consequences. Also, CoC‘s signature Sanity system, which gives the game its inimitable flavour of an inexorable slide into madness, has been retooled so that players aren’t in danger of going crazy from too much dangerous reading before they even encounter a manifestation of the Outer Awfulness.

There are lots of other tweaks, nips and tucks to the gaming system, all of which have attracted controversy and complaints from veteran players. That said, most experienced CoC Keepers will have their own house rules and variations on the rulebook already, and the new Keeper Rulebook includes full backwards compatibility guidelines for updating earlier scenarios and campaigns. And complaints about the sheer volume of material seem way beside the point when Chaosium has pushed everything including the kitchen sink into a single volume produced to a superlatively high quality, with wonderful layout design and gorgeous, evocative illustrations. I’ll save a review of the Investigator Handbook, which includes most detail on the perennially popular 1920s Jazz Age CoC setting, for later. The Keeper Rulebook is quite enough to be going on with – enough for a lifetime’s worth of happy gaming, indeed. Iä! Iä!