Game Review: Call of Catthulhu

Sorry for the hiccup between posts guys. 'Tis that point in the year wherein I take arms against the workish Elder Hydra and said battle absconds with most of my free time. It's been a bumpy go of things so far but, hopefully, there'll be some stabilization next week at some point, after which I'll be free of such struggles until 2014!

So adorable you may go insane
In the meantime, since we're on the subject of protracted conflicts with unholy beasts, I wanted to bring an innovative new RPG to your attention. Just looking at the cover art for Call of Catthulhu is likely to conjure the thought of: Cats and Lovecraft? Of course! As you can imagine, the game tries to blend these two great loves of Nerdkind into a cohesive roleplaying experience. The result is that odd hybrid of weirdness and whimsy that many of us seem to adore.

The Earth is threatened by all manner of unspeakable horrors from dimensions we are incapable of even detecting, nonetheless comprehending. A mere glimpse of the countenance of one of these extrastellar beings would render even the most stalwart human into a gibbering mass of semi-vegetative flesh. Fortunately, those impressionable two-legged mammals have the help of their ancient guardians: Felis catus. Turns out the ancient Egyptians were on to something when they revered domestic cats as sacred for, as Call of Catthulhu has us believe, these diminutive animals are one of the planet's few lines of defense against the occasional encounter with a malicious Elder god. The game centers around the notion of taking up the persona of one of these heroic felines and banding with your furry brethren against the arcane powers.

Players can select from one of five distinct roles: the rough-and-tumble Scapper, the prim Pussyfoot, the dexterous Catcrobat, the pragmatic Twofootologist, and the haunted Tiger Dreamer. The roles chosen translate directly into options that will be available to PCs when they attempt to resolve a conflict or navigate a challenge in the adventure laid out for them by their Cat Herder (the GM). If a certain skill is available to the group because a given role is being played, then the PC possessing said ability may make a case that he or she would be the appropriate kitty for the job at hand. In-game obstacles that would require this sort of case-building are resolved by rolling one or more six-sided dice. Rolling a 1 or 2 spells failure, any other result is an instant success. The sole complexity of the game's core mechanic lies in determining how many 6-siders players will roll. However, it should be noted that simplicity here does not automatically infer that the game is easy, as it is no mean feat to navigate the world beset by horrors while being only a foot tall (apx. 30cm) and lacking opposable thumbs. Players must work together to overcome these physiological limits and influence their surroundings to address the challenges handed down by the Cat Herder.

With minimal rules and a maximum capacity of five players, Call of Catthulhu is the kind of streamlined roleplaying experience that most people will enjoy, but is ideally suited for a few distinct types of gamers. Those individuals who relish the role-playing portion of RPGs will likely enjoy the unique challenge of playing a character that is not only non-humanoid, but also wholly mundane. The heroes of this tale are run-of-the-mill cats, which can be a refreshing change of pace from the standard retinue of rogues, clerics, rangers, and fighters. That's not to say that those gamers who prefer such timeless classes will be disappointed by Call of Catthulhu, but if you're one who lives for a dungeon crawl, constant combat, or highly nuanced rules then you may be better served by another system.

Call of Catthulhu is both highly flexible in terms of the types of adventures that can be undertaken as well as light on the accessories required to play. All players need are a pool of 4-5 six-sided dice, a copy of the rules (themselves a scant 28 pages cover-to-cover), some writing utensils, and their imaginations. An innate love of cats certainly helps, but the system can be easily modified to allow PCs to make non-feline characters. Ostensibly, an appreciation for Lovecraft also adds a level of enjoyment to the experience.

The majority of the second half of the rulebook is filled with easy-to-follow examples and foundations on which to build multi-faceted stories. The combination of high portability and facility with which the rules can be learned makes the title a viable party game if your friends are open to the idea, since  adventures can be run in a single sitting. The lack of detailed correspondence charts and 300-page rulebooks also make Call of Catthulhu a perfect way to introduce newcomers to the world of RPGs. 

Creator Joel Sparks clearly crafted Call of Catthulhu with love for the subject matter; just reading through the rulebook is a pleasure in itself. While parallels to RPGs that touch on each half of the core game, namely CAT and Call of Cthulhu, are certainly evident, Call of Catthulhu nestles itself snugly between the two systems. It is quite a bit broader and grittier than the former while not being quite so dark and despairing as the latter, which appears to be precisely Sparks' intent. 

It's a unique and very interesting concept that dares to go beyond the confines of what has become standard to roleplaying games. Furthermore, it lends itself easily to influences from other games if the players or Cat Herder are at a loss for ideas. I toyed with integrating story lines and adversaries from titles like Arkham Horror and Elder Sign by taking narrative/creature cards and modifying them to make new adventures for Call of Catthulhu. Of course, there's always inspiration to be drawn from Lovecraft himself (because, at less than $3 USD for the digital omnibus, there are few excuses not to own his complete works).

Call of Catthulhu is available via Faster Monkey Games (only $4 USD for the pdf download!) and keep an eye out later this month for the Kickstarter of the Deluxe Edition of the game! 

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