One of the advantages of a game line which has lasted as long as Call of Cthulhu and has maintained an excellent level of backward compatibility (7th Edition may offer the largest change, but even then you can fit conversion guidelines onto one side of a business card) is that there is an enormous amount of source material to draw on, official or otherwise, with exciting new additions to your portfolio of tricks offered up in numerous adventures or supplements.
This is also handy for Chaosium as a publisher, because it puts them in a position to sell you convenience. All they need to do is draw together a bunch of different monsters or spells together from the massive pile of adventures they were introduced in and put them between two covers, and they produce a tool that’s both handy for those with massive Call of Cthulhu collections and who don’t want to go combing them for that one spell from one scenario they vaguely half-remember, and provides a whole bunch of material which would otherwise be inaccessible for those who don’t have the money, time, or inclination to acquire all the sources these collections draw on in the first place.
The new management clearly understand this, because one of their first major supplements for 7th Edition (aside from the various Kickstarter stretch goals) is a big book of spells – so now’s a good time to take a look at that, plus the monster book whose approach it draws on.
Compiled by Scott David Aniolowski and released in 2006, this is the latest monster book for the game, and the largest as well. Although it is written for 6th edition (and will therefore be entirely usable with editions prior to that), converting the stats to 7th is as easy as simply multiplying all the attributes by 5, so it remains a handy resource.
One thing the book does accomplish is highlighting where, over the years, Call of Cthulhu writers have tended focus areas, both exposing areas of the Mythos that have languished unloved and those which have perhaps been rehashed a bit too often. (Pro tip, folks: unless you have a really compelling reason to make the big bad in an adventure yet another mask of Nyarlathotep, don’t do it, because that particular creative crutch has been leaned on just a little too often.)
Those who prefer a less tangible, stat-based interpretation of the Old Ones might point to the Malleus as a symbol of everything that is wrong with Call of Cthulhu, and there are some entries which I think are rather redundant or stretching – for instance, that green flame the narrator sees towards the end of Lovecraft’s The Festival is written up as a creature, when I am far from convinced it was actually meant to be one.
However, the nice thing about the various entries here is that, as has always been the case with Call, the monsters are never reduced to just a stat block and some combat tactics. Each has its associated lore, which can both inspire investigations and help ensure that use of the creature in question is thematically appropriate. Those who do not want to use the stats do not have to, but for those who do the book is extremely useful.
Part of the reason that the green flame thing doesn’t bug me as much as it might is that whilst I don’t find that interpretation of the story compelling, I can totally see how others might find it inspirational. And the fact is that your typical Cthulhu campaign is sufficiently low-combat that chances are you will never use more than a fraction of the book in any particular campaign. Here its sheer excess works in its favour; if you want a set of deities monsters linked by a particular theme or bit of lore, you can probably lash a fairly deep bench together out of the candidates here, and if you want to preserve the surprise by using unfamiliar entities with unexpected behaviours rather than the same old ghouls and Deep Ones you can absolutely do that.
The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic
The Grand Grimoire essentially takes the same approach for spells that the Malleus Monstrorum did for monsters. Released for 7th Edition and helmed by Mike Mason, line editor of that edition (with help from Matthew Sanderson), it gathers together over 500 spells from Call of Cthulhu scenarios and supplements over the years. Some editing has taken place for rules consistency, and to make spells tied to very scenario-specific circumstances and requirements more applicable outside of the context of the original scenario; other spells were left out entirely in the event that they simply couldn’t be usefully divorced from their original context.
Mason and Sanderson also take the chance to go into a little more detail about magic in Call of Cthulhu. Rather than defaulting to adding additional layers of complexity to the magic system, they instead give little extra things you can implement or not here and there, as well as guidance on designing your own spells. For instance, there’s notes on how you can make magic a bit more common at the hands of Dreamlands residents, who are used to a more mutable and fantastical world, as well as pointers on how to use astronomical and astrological concepts to add a “are the stars right?” angle to spellcasting. There’s also suggestions for what to do if a spell is intrinsically flawed, and for “deeper magic” – additional capabilities of spells available to those who have immersed themselves in the Mythos deeply enough that magic makes more sense to them than ordinary life these days.
The primary utility I see for this supplement is, once again, for adventure design – thankfully, Call of Cthulhu isn’t one of those games where the spell descriptions are a shopping list for the players, and unless you are running an extremely non-standard campaign a spell will only come out if you as the Keeper decide you want to deploy that spell. As with the Malleus, this is a handy book to flip through to get the seed of a scenario idea, but on top of that it’s also a handy resource for cooking up both the repertoire of NPC wizards and the contents of your own invented Mythos tomes.
It’s the sort of supplement which will be useful for more or less any era of Call of Cthulhu, and the sort of supplement which, thanks to their control of the IP, Chaosium is by far the best placed to produce. It’s a shame that previous Chaosium regimes didn’t hit on the idea earlier, and a blessing that the new regime has gone for it. References to the Malleus in there suggest that they may look to making a 7th Edition version of it before too long; personally, I think it can’t come too soon.