Tynes and Cook talk about d20 Call of Cthulhu

Nearly a year ago, Wizards of the Coast announced its plans to publish a d20 version of Call of Cthulhu, the cult classic game of eldritch horror put out by Chaosium, with game designers John Tynes and Monte Cook behind the wheel. With the release of the game scheduled for early next year, Shoggoth.net decided to hit the designers up for an interview.Unless you just ignore the people behind the products you buy, you’ve likely heard of John and Monte. For those who live under a rock, here’s a little recap of who these gents are.

Monte Cook the co-designer of the wildly popular Dungeons and Dragons, 3rd Edition. He started work for TSR back in its pre-Wizards days in 1994 after a few years working on classic RPGs such as Rolemaster and Champions. All around, he’s an intensely prolific writer, both of roleplaying game material and fiction.

John Tynes is a former WotC employee and is the man behind Pagan Publishing, which is responsible for the highly popular Delta Green sourcebooks for Call of Cthulhu as well as the Call of Cthulhu periodical, The Unspeakable Oath. He’s also the co-creator of Unknown Armies, and has also written his fair share of roleplaying game material, screenplays and essays, as well as the novel Delta Green: The Rules of Engagement.

Here’s what they had to say.

Shoggoth.net: Is this the first project the two of you have worked on together? What was it like working with each other?

John Tynes: Monte and I had met once or twice before, but we hadn’t worked together. The process went fine, and really it wasn’t very collaborative—we met once to hash out the arrangement, then the Pagan Publishing staff went off and wrote our stuff and Monte and his guys wrote theirs. Because we divided up the book pretty cleanly—with WotC doing the rules chapters and Pagan doing the non-rules chapters—there wasn’t a lot of back-and-forth. Monte had the hard job of putting it all together afterwards!

Monte Cook: What he said, on both counts. It wasn’t actually very collaborative, although I know that I used a lot of the ideas that we discussed in our initial meeting in my parts of the book. And it WAS a hard job pulling it all together afterwards. Having just worked on a major collaborative work (D&D 3E), I must say that I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to work together more closely. Not only would that have been rewarding, but it would have made the end a lot simpler.

SN: What prompted the merging of the d20 system with Call of Cthulhu?

JT: Monte can explain WotC’s reasoning. I thought it was a good idea for the most obvious reason: it was a chance to put Cthulhu in front of a new audience. I think that over the years Chaosium’s rulebooks have become more geared towards existing fans, and they needed an opportunity to produce an introductory product for people who haven’t looked at the game before.

MC: From WotC’s point of view, it’s sort of a way to take d20 out for a spin and see what it can do. CoC is dramatically different from D&D in a lot of ways—more different, I’d argue, than Star Wars in many respects. Basically, it gives validity to the d20 system to see it handle something so different from its source.

From my personal viewpoint, like John said, this is a way to get a lot of people
who wouldn’t look at CoC or don’t want to deal with learning a new system to
give it a try. As a huge CoC fan, I think that’s a great goal.

SN: Will d20 Call of Cthulhu have a specific chronological setting, like the 1920s, or will it be geared to handle at least the three main settings that people are familiar with?

JT: It’s set in the present day. However, the settings chapter provides suggestions and plot hooks for playing campaigns at any point in the last century.

MC: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s “set” in present day. Present day might
be a default, but the rulesy chapters assume pretty much anytime in the 20th
century. The equipment chapter provides prices and selections from different
time periods, for example. The skill chapter provides rules for computer use
(but you can easily ignore them).

SN: d20 and Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying System are two fairly different beasts. Will this be a simple adaptation of Call of Cthulhu to d20 or an entirely new creation?

MC: If those are my two choices, I’ll say an entirely new creation. But really, I’d argue that the two games are really all that different. When you look at all the various RPGs out there, two of them that have a basic set of ability scores ranging from (around 3 to 18), hit points, skills that get better over time, weapons that are basically expressed as damage dice… these are pretty similar games. The hit point damage systems both start from the same basic assumption (a club or club-like object inflicts 1d6 points of damage). Rules for falling damage are identical. It was not hard to mesh portions of the system. Where they were dissimilar, like with skills, we made it work with d20. Where there were similarities, like with Sanity, we didn’t adopt d20—we adopted CoC. In other places, there are compromises—levels but no character classes, for example. We adopted d20 feats, because they actually fit CoC just fine.

SN: So far the two big d20 titles from Wizards of the Coast, Star Wars and D&D 3E, both have a larger-than-life or heroic feel to them, while Call of Cthulhu is often viewed as the complete opposite. Do you feel the d20 format will significantly alter the overall feel of the game?

MC: No. There’s nothing heroic or larger-than-life about d20 Call of Cthulhu, just as in regular CoC. Although it’s a level based game, all that means is that your character can get better at his skills and whatnot over time—and that was true in the original as well. Characters don’t gain fabulous monk powers just for being 10th level, and they don’t wield +3 flaming swords of wounding. d20 CoC characters never get so powerful that monsters stop being a threat. That would mean that it stopped being a horror game.

SN: Cynics out there have accused d20 of being a fad, and many die hard fans of Call of Cthulhu are horrified by the thought of a Call of Cthulhu book being produced by the people behind d20. Do you have any commentaries on the work that will allay the concerns of the fans?

JT: One problem with Call of Cthulhu is that it doesn’t sell very well. It’s a tough game to make a living with, as I’m sure Chaosium can attest. Not a lot of people play the game. If there were more players and more sales, there would be more CoC books. So if nothing else, fans of the game should at least embrace the notion that the game may find enough of an audience to keep Chaosium (and Pagan) from starving half the year. And using d20 to reach out to that audience is a good way of doing it.

But really, the sky isn’t falling. CoC d20 is a fine game, one written to introduce a new generation of players to the game. It has more than enough good stuff in it to be worth buying for existing fans, as well. It’s going to be a big gorgeous full-color hardcover with plenty of meat inside.

MC: Well, the great thing is, diehard fans of CoC don’t have to make any hard choices here. They can ignore this book (although there’s some interesting stuff in there even for long-time fans of the game). If d20 is a fad, the worst that can happen to Call of Cthulhu is… absolutely nothing. More realistically, however, thousands of new players are going to be introduced to the game.

SN: There has been talk of some interesting rules that will be present in d20 Call of Cthulhu, among them the fact that there will not be character classes, or at least if there is then all characters belong to the same one. Doesn’t this run contrary to the core d20 structure?

MC: Nah. d20 structure doesn’t demand classes. It doesn’t even “demand” levels, although it comes close. You’re right, though. Like I said before, there are no classes. There’s a single advancement track that is customizable so you can fit it to taste (to distinguish that your character is a doctor and mine is a private investigator and some other guy is a geologist).

SN: What other rules goodies can you reveal?

MC: If you like the CoC Sanity system, you’ll like the d20 CoC Sanity system.

As for new stuff, though, there’s a neat little subsystem for determining how long it takes to read a Mythos tome or figure out some weird mi-go artifact. It’s neat because there are creepy little things built into the system, so while you’re reading the forbidden book, you start to have terrible nightmares or see things moving out of the corner of your eye.

There are also some psychic feats (no, not for mind-blasting people) but for making your character into a “sensitive.” In CoC, that can be as much a bane as a boon.

SN: This is more of a question for John, but: How well do you feel the game will mesh with Power Kill? (Sorry, I couldn’t think of an equally obscure question for Monte.)

JT: I never intended or expected anyone to actually use POWER KILL. It’s a satire, a modest proposal. I’d certainly never use it in a game—I expect that if implemented in play it would be annoying and repetitive, not to mention didactic. But as a short satirical essay, I hope it’s at least a mild kick to the head.

SN: What has been the most interesting aspect of working on d20 Call of Cthulhu?

JT: For me, it was attempting to redefine what the Cthulhu Mythos really is. People have gotten so hung up on the Mythos being some kind of coherent mythology with neat slots for all the gods and monsters, and that’s totally wrong. Lovecraft’s creations were plot devices, elements he created ad hoc to fit the needs of a particular story. As the Keeper, you should likewise feel free to make up or change whatever you want in order to make the scenario at hand work. The dogma that’s grown up around Lovecraft’s work is tiresome and ultimately I think it hobbles both the game and the more recent fiction by other writers. The goal of the game, as with Lovecraft’s stories, should be to instill a sense of fear derived from cosmic horror. Whatever you need to put into the scenario to make that happen should be 100% okay, and to heck with the retrofitted mythology.

MC: Since I worked mostly on the rules, for me it was the aspect of what amounted to taking a lawnmower and turning it into a snowmobile. Or more appropriately, taking the parts from both a lawnmower and a snowmobile and making a motorcycle. I had the basics of an engine (two engines, really) and I just had to put them together and make it all work—and work in the way I wanted it to. It was a real danger that we could have made something that worked just fine but didn’t feel Lovecraftian. I think we succeeded in avoiding that pitfall, though.

SN: What has been the hardest aspect of working on it?

JT: I wrote a chapter on adventure creation that was a challenge. Scenario design is something we’ve taken very seriously at Pagan over the years, and we’ve tried a lot of things to advance that craft. Trying to distill that down into a short chapter for novice players was difficult, but very rewarding. I still feel like I only covered the basics, but that’s something at least.

MC: To be honest, it was the end of the process that we mentioned earlier. d20 CoC is the work of about eight different authors, some of whom have never spoken and most of whom have never actually met. I guess it was my job to be the guy with the single vision, but at the end we really had at least four different visions coming through. One thing I did to make it all work was to create a “D&D appendix.” This is where everything that really felt more like D&D ended up. So, in the meat of the book, Cthulhu is this terrible, unknowable thing that comes to you from his dreams into yours and it’s very cool and surreal and rules-lite. In the D&D appendix, he’s got such-and-such armor class and has such-and-such special abilities.

What this means is that if you just want to play d20 CoC, you can do so with the pure Lovecraftian experience. If you want to stick deep ones and Hastur into your D&D campaign, or if you want to create a synthesis of the two and create an over-the-top, heroic, modern horror game (John Woo meets Cthulhu), you can do that too.

SN: What part of this project did you dislike but will look upon fondly in the future?

JT: Dealing with firearms was a lot of work, and I’m still not sure if our rules suggestions worked out or not. The d20 combat round is twice as long as the CoC combat round is, and that introduced some complexity into what was nominally the non-rules Equipment chapter that was written by Pagan staffers Adam Scott Glancy and John H. Crowe III. We took a shot at it, so to speak, and hopefully Monte found a solution that will bring d20 rules into the twentieth century milieu.

MC: It seems to work in playtests. Guns are really, really deadly in this game, so the truism in CoC that once guns are being fired it’s a sign that you did something wrong is still a truism here.

But to answer your question, creating the Lovecraftian Great Old Ones and Elder Gods so that they work in D&D terms was my least favorite part. It was a real pain, actually. But I think we’ll look back on it with fondness, particularly when someone tells me about the fun they’re having the evil priests in their D&D game worshipping Nyarlathotep…

SN: How early in 2002 do you think you’ll actually have d20 Call of Cthulhu out on the shelves? Or is it too early to say?

MC: February, I think. March at the latest.

For more information about the upcoming d20 Call of Cthulhu, be sure to check the Wizards of the Coast Web site for updates on this new game.

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