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The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far...
—H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Okay, now roll SAN.
One of the most famous Tabletop Games of all time, Call of Cthulhu combines the adventurism and teamwork of Dungeons and Dragons with the Lovecraftian Fiction setting of the Cthulhu Mythos. Your adventurers, or rather investigators, are dropped into scenarios right out of a Lovecraft story, and must keep their wits about them; the goal of every C.O.C. campaign is not so much to defeat the Enemy, but to survive Its horrendous onslaught while following the mystery out to its bitter — and usually grim — end.
Notable for introducing Sanity as a character stat — your characters actually risk having their minds blown apart, partially or completely (and sometimes even literally), by the events they encounter. As a result, the term "SAN check" has drifted out of the Cthulhu following and become a generally recognized metaphor among gaming circles. As characters learn more lore about the Cthulhu Mythos, their maximum Sanity shrinks — giving players the choice of having characters who are ignorant or crazy.
Do not confuse with the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which is also based on the Cthulhu Mythos (specifically, on the "Raid On Innsmouth" campaign module of the RPG), a Collectible Card Game of the same name loosely based on (and licensed by) Chaosium's aforementioned RPG, a movie done in the black-and-white style of the 1920s about Cthulhu, the Youtube series Calls For Cthulhu, or the original H.P. Lovecraft short story they are all named after.
- All Webbed Up: What happens to you if you mess with Atlach-Nacha or Leng Spiders.
- Apothecary Alligator: In the campaign The Fungi from Yuggoth, adventure "The Thing in the Well", Dr. Cornwallis has a stuffed alligator hanging by wires from the ceiling of his alchemical laboratory.
- Bedlam House: Creepy insane asylums are a recurring setting. Heck, it's even possible to visit (or more likely be locked up in) the original Arkham Asylum.
- Big Creepy-Crawlies: Leng Spiders, Insects from Shaggai, and others. This is no game for the entomophobic.
- Bizarre Alien Biology: Intelligent flying fungoids, semi-vegetable tentacled elder things, and more.
- Blessed with Suck. One old issue of Wizard Magazine stated that Call of Cthulhu is the only game in which the player with the fastest speed lives the longest, and the only game in which no one wants the magic item. It doesn't help the original game was a ticking countdown from sanity to insanity: your character will go insane. It's just a matter of how fast.
- Not entirely true. Your character might not go insane. They have a good chance of dying before they hit that point. Needless to say, ending a Call of Cthulhu game with a living and sane character is unlikely at best.
- Blue and Orange Morality: Even the most superficially benevolent races in the game have utterly inscrutable or bizarre motives.
- Body Horror: Mostly for non-player characters, but PCs aren't safe either.
- Brain In a Jar: A possible fate for characters who get on the wrong side of the Mi-Go.
- Note this does not mean you've pissed them off. Then they just kill you. They stuff your brain in a jar if they like you.
- Unfortunately, the Mi-Go are just not all that good at emulating human senses (which, given they are sentient fungus-things, makes sense). One supplement posits that the use of speech software, high quality cameras, microphones, and a lot of lucky rolls would allow a brain in a jar to have a lot closer to human abilities.
- Broke Your Arm Punching Out Cthulhu: See below.
- Canon Welding: The Malleus Monstrorum sourcebook. Not only mentioning every major Mythos entity, the book also throws in The Thing, The Martians of The War of the Worlds, and The Wicker Man and several of Stephen King's characters are Nyralathoep's avatars.
- Catgirl: Bast, the Egyptian goddess of Cats. She shows up to exact vengeance if someone hurts a cat.
- Cats Are Magic: A staple of Lovecraftian fiction in his "Dreamlands" works, naturally replicated here and with the inclusion of the goddess Bast as an Elder God.
- Cigar Fuse-Lighting: In the supplement Terror from the Stars, section "Field Manual of the Theron Marks Society". Theron Marks himself is stated to always have a lit cigar in his mouth during adventures in order to light sticks of dynamite.
- Cosmic Horror Story: Call of Cthulhu at its core.
- Cool Uncle: In The Fungi from Yuggoth adventure "Mountains of the Moon", an NPC named Victor recognizes one Player Character. He was an old friend of the PC's father, and the PC remembers him as "Uncle Victor", a warm, good-hearted man (even though Mom didn't seem to like him).
- Cults: Usually worship one or more Eldritch Abomination; NOT nice people.
- Despair Event Horizon: What often happens when characters are exposed to too much of the Mythos.
- Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Although, this happens very, very rarely, since meeting the aforementioned eldritch abominations usually ends badly.
- "Each round 1D3 investigators are scooped up in Cthulhu's flabby claws to die hideously."
- Deadly Hug: In Masks of Nyarlathotep, the Cthulhu Mythos leader M'Weru likes to embrace her victim and cast the Hands of Colubra spell. When the spell changes her hands into the heads of poisonous snakes, she uses them to bite her victim and poison them.
- Deal with the Devil: The spell Unspeakable Oath. By devoting yourself to the power Hastur, he grants you a wish or boon. However, you begin to lose charisma at a graduated rate. When your charisma score is 0, or when Hastur wills it, you become his slavering thrall
- Departure Means Death: Spectral Hunters must stay within 1 mile of the doll that was used in their creation.
- Dream Land: The Dreamlands are one of the possible settings of the game.
- Eldritch Abomination: Entire bestiaries of 'em.
- Emotion Suppression: In the adventure "The Asylum" from the supplement The Asylum and Other Tales, one of the drugs Doctor Freygan has developed is called Mood Flattener. It temporarily suppresses all emotion in the recipient, whether positive or negative.
- Explosive Leash: The Sons of Terror's cranial bombs in The Fungi from Yuggoth.
- Exposition of Immortality: Various campaigns and scenarios hinge on the uncovering of the Mythos and its dabblers alien natures. Key example of this trope in use occurs in the Cthulhu 1990s campaign Utati Asfet: The Eye Of Wicked Sight. The Big Bad, Labib, is actually an immortal from the time of the Pharoahs. Examination of artifacts and documents in his sanctum during the latters stages of the campaign can lead to this conclusion being made by the players.
- Eyes Do Not Belong There: Shoggoths in the main rules and proto-shoggoths in the supplement The Asylum and Other Tales.
- The Face: The Field Manual of the Theron Marks Society (in the supplement Terror from the Stars) recommended having one of the PCs be a Communication Specialist - a charismatic character who is a good talker. They would have a high Appearance and high percentages in the skills Bargain, Credit Rating, Fast Talk and Persuade.
- Failure Is the Only Option. Going insane isn't a matter of "if", it's a matter of "when" and "how soon".
- The Fair Folk: See Human Aliens.
- Fictional Color: The eponymous Colors out of Space reappear as a Mythos race.
- A Form You Are Comfortable With: Nyarlathotep, alone among the Outer Gods, cares enough to manifest in an appearance that won't drive human beings insane. Ultimately subverted, as this is just a subtler way for him to spread madness and destruction.
- Nodens and Hypnos also exhibit this trope, albeit for very different reasons.
- Go Mad From the Revelation: Trope Namer (the phrase is taken from the same paragraph quoted above). When the characters realize just what is going on, their Sanity often snaps. As they learn more about how the world really works (the "Cthulhu mythos" stat), their maximum Sanity permanently drops by an equal amount. Thus, someone with a perfect Mythos score, having learned everything there is to know about the universe, would have no Sanity at all.
- Well, while a perfect Mythos score is enough to leave you with zero Sanity, it does not mean you know all there is to know (that would still be kinda tempting). Just imagine trying to fill a glass of water (your mindful of sanity) with a truckload of sand. Horrifying, mind-shattering sand...
- Government Agency of Fiction: Delta Green in the U.S. and PISCES in Britain.
- The Greys: Featured in Delta Green. They're actually artificial life forms created by the Mi-go as part of their experiments on humanity.
- Grim Up North: Some campaigns take the PCs to the Arctic.
- Guns Are Useless: Nothing you can lift is high caliber enough to even scratch Cthulhu. Even heavy artillery won't stop him for long. In comparison, Cthuga is a sentient ball of intense heat. Firing soon-to-be blobs of molten metal at him kinda tickles. However, they do a bang-up job on human cultists and low-level Mythos minions, though, so if you find a group planning to call forth either of the above, break out something high caliber.
- "So what happens if you nuke Cthulhu? He reforms ten minutes later, but now he's radioactive!"
- Half-Human Hybrid: The Deep Ones and the various half-human offspring of the Outer Gods.
- Hollywood Torches: Worlds of Cthulhu magazine #3, adventure "The Golden Scorpion".
- Hologram: The Yithian Communicator in The Fungi from Yuggoth.
- Human Aliens: The secretive inhabitants of the subterranean city of K'n-Yan are almost completely indistinguishable from humans. Keep in mind the "almost."
- Human Sacrifice: If you call a God, you'd best have one handy...
- Instant Death Radius: Yig's poison kills you instantly if you don't dodge and he hits bare skin. Dholes squash you flat if you don't dodge, regardless of defenses, and any surviving investigators get a roll to see if they find enough of you to bury. Cthulhu doesn't give you a chance to dodge. (Mind you, you're really not intended to go into combat with any of the above.)
- For obvious reasons, Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth both take this trope Up to Eleven. To clarify: The former, if not properly contained, can and will lay waste to entire planets; the latter has a nasty habit of vaporizing everything in a five-mile radius with freaking energy bolts.
- Just Before the End: Supplement Fearful Passages, adventure "Slow Boat".
- Killer Game Master: A necessity in a game where the dead PCs are the lucky ones.
- This does not appear to be the written intent of the game, however. At least the 5th and 6th edition core rulebooks actually encourage the Keeper to come up with alternatives to simply killing off Investigators, such as having monsters choose to target Non-Player Characters instead, having intelligent monsters avoid stupid direct confrontation, and finding alternative bizarre fates to characters dying outright. On the other hand, despite these recommendations, the fragility of the player characters and the game's attractiveness to a Killer Game Master are quite real, as is the tendency for protagonists in the material on which the game is based to meet unpleasant endings.
- Lethal Joke Character: "Who wants to hear the Tale of Old Man Henderson" "the character who 'won' Call of Cthulhu?"
- The Library of Babel: The Library of Celaeno in the adventure The Fungi From Yuggoth.
- Louis Cypher: Nyarlathotep is fond of this. In the At Your Door campaign, he appears as realtor Atley P. North and a saxophonist called 'the Royal Pant'.
- Lured Into a Trap: In "The Worm That Walks", in the Shadows of Yog-Sothoth campaign. Mr. Edwin sends the PCs out to investigate a haunted house, and they end up getting ambushed by a family of cannibals who knew they were coming (because Mr. Edwin told them).
- Mysterious Antarctica: Beyond the Mountains of Madness sends the player characters on an expedition to Antarctica.
- Neck Snap: Supplement Fearful Passages, adventure "Sleigh Ride". A giganteus does it to Professor Chance.
- No Sneak Attacks: Encouraged as protocol for the Keeper in the core rulebook. As the Investigators tend to be mere Puny Earthlings, devouring them in their sleep or when they otherwise can't fight back tends to be boring and anticlimactic. Individual pre-written adventure modules may play this straight or avert it, however.
- One-Winged Angel: Destroying any given one form taken by Nyarlathotep results in his manifesting in his horrifyingly monstrous default shape.
- Only Shop in Town: The lone store of Indian River in the adventure "Black Devil Mountain" from the supplement The Asylum and Other Tales. Becomes a plot point when NPC Albert Goddard is refused service there, and has to travel seven miles to get supplies in the town of Addison.
- Orient Express: Horror on the Orient Express is one of the biggest modules published for any roleplaying system.
- Pit Trap: Worlds of Cthulhu magazine #3, adventure "The Golden Scorpion".
- Pocket Protector: Jack "Brass" Brady's metal plate in the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign.
- Retcon: As of the the fifth edition, the game discards the entire Good vs Evil aspect Derleth tried to jam into the Cthulhu Mythos, returning to Lovecraft's original vision.
- Riddle Me This: The supplement Curse of the Chthonians, adventure "The City Without A Name". The investigators must calculate the five numbers of Cthulhu using the occult science of Gematria in order to enter, use and escape from a special chamber.
- Rock of Limitless Water: The supplement Terror Australis, adventure "City Beneath The Sands". The supernatural creature known as Power Boy can cause a spring to come out of a rock just by sticking his rangga (a ceremonial staff) into the rock.
- Really Freaking Huge Sandworm: Dholes. As mentioned above, anyone getting in their way is automatically squashed and killed, and the survivors get a roll to try and find enough remains to bury.
- Sanity Meter: The Trope Maker.
- Lots of things can cause sanity loss this in the game. Increasing Mythos does this, but so do things like killing someone or burning bodies. The game actually has an "Idea" stat, which is a measure of how good your character is at coming up with good ideas. A high idea score is a very bad thing.
- This is because when you lose too much sanity in one check, your character goes temporarily insane. You can save against that by failing an Idea roll, with a success meaning your character has understood the full implications of what he is seeing.
- Also, increasing your knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos can not only cost you sanity points during the learning process, but permanently lowers your maximum Sanity.
- Screw Destiny / Taking You with Me: Old Man Henderson, the guy who blew up Hastur.
- Sealed Evil in a Can: The status of a great many (if not most) of the Great Old Ones, including the titular Cthulhu.
- Self-Destruct Mechanism: Call of Cthulhu campaign The Fungi from Yuggoth.
- Shotguns Are Just Better: Also Short-Range Shotgun. Close up, they can deal about 4D6 worth of damage, enough to kill almost anything that isn't Immune to Bullets. Oh, and short range shotgun can be averted if you load them with rifle rounds.
- Sickening Crunch: A star vampire does this to Vetch's spine in The Fungi From Yuggoth adventure "Castle Black".
- Starfish Aliens - The Elder Things actually have starfish-shaped heads. Then there are the Mi-Go, the Great Race, Cthulhu, etc...
- Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: Most Great Old Ones (and a few species) are described thus, possibly overlapping with outright godhood.
- Sundial Waypoint: Used in the Terror from the Stars, for the adventure "The Temple of the Moon". In the temple there is a light shaft that allows moonlight to enter, and a pool with a map on the bottom. If the Tablet of the Moon is placed atop the light shaft at midnight under the light of the full moon, the moonlight will be refracted into a bright point of light on the map, showing the location of the main temple of Shub-Niggurath.
- Tap on the Head: The Asylum and Other Tales, adventure "The Asylum". Dr. Freygan's neck pinch. Also, typical of a "Knockout" attack.
- Tear Off Your Face: In Terror Australis, the Mimi are creatures from Australian Aboriginal Mythology. When angry at a human they may eat all the flesh from his face, leaving the victim alive but horrendously disfigured.
- These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: Disregard this warning at your own risk.
- Tome of Eldritch Lore: Characters may be given the opportunity to read the Necronomicon and other cursed books, at high cost to their Sanity.
- Torches and Pitchforks: Worlds of Cthulhu #3, adventure "Malevolence".
- Total Party Kill: A definite possibility in case of failure. Even when things don't go disastrously wrong, a high character attrition rate is to be expected.
- Trashcan Bonfire: In the supplement Fearful Passages adventure "The Iron Ghost".
- With Great Power Comes Great Insanity, for those who mess with magic.
- The Worm That Walks: The Trope Namer is a creature in the game.
- Wretched Hive: Dylath-Leen in the Dreamlands supplement.
- You Cannot Grasp the True Form: In their vanishingly rare moments of kindness, Outer Gods may manifest in forms not conducive to Sanity-blasting shock. Or, in the case of Nyarlathotep, it's just another way for them to mess with human minds.
- Alternatively: "Cthulhu eats 1d6 investigators per round. No save."