Friday, June 6, 2014

Five or So Questions with Joel Sparks on Call of Catthulhu

Check out Call of Catthulhu at and Book 1 available here.

Tell me a little about Call of Catthulhu. What excites you about it?

I never play RPGs any more. That's a big deal for me, because I've been in this hobby for ages. Yet when it comes time to crack open a big thick book, fill out a lot of fiddly bits and math on a character sheet, and spend several hours arguing about rules with my closest friends, somehow I can't muster the energy. With "Call of Catthulhu," I set out to make a game that honestly appeals to the most lazy, fun-loving, commitment-averse part of my mind. To my cat brain, if you will. It takes about five minutes to make a “catventurer,” and it doesn’t use any numbers, because cats don’t do math. You just describe your cat according to a few guidelines, and then you get to fight the secret plots of Lovecraftian Chaos cults led by other animals. The Cat Herder sets up a series of Challenges, and the players meet them by acting like cats. Everything depends on player cleverness and a bit of luck. You never know what will happen, and a session wraps up in a just a couple of hours. That’s the game I get excited to play.

How do Challenges work in Call of Catthulhu?

Very simply! Most of the time, cats can do what they like without any rolling. They’re cats: They jump up on things or dodge out of sight or walk on a fence, no problem. But bouncing dice is fun too, so we have special Cat Dice. Each one has four Happy Cat faces and two Sad Cats; you could use regular six-siders instead. When the Cat Herder wants to randomize a little, she calls for a roll of two Cat Dice. They can only come up three ways: Two Sad Cats, two Happy Cats, or one of each, and the odds are weighted toward the positive outcomes. The Herder declares results based on the dice roll and play moves on. She could also declare a Difficult Challenge, which requires both dice to come up Happy Cats to succeed. The game offers a few optional wrinkles, like what happens on Snake Eyes, but that’s basically it. Oh, and each cat has a Treat or two; you can trade in one of those to try again if you don’t like the roll. In the Boxed Set we provide little wooden fish tokens for the Treats.

Tell me a little about the ashcan model you used at Gen Con, and the subsequent Kickstarter. What experience did you have with those?

First of all, I would warn anyone against going from game designer to game manufacturer in a few short months without a lot of good help. I had experience in publishing before, yet I had no idea how complicated the logistics would get! But I learned a ton and my next Kickstarter will run a lot more smoothly.

The ashcan was a way to kind of test the waters. I had this crazy idea about ordinary cats in a world of cosmic conspiracies, where all the animals except humans understood that civilization was the cats’ idea and that it’s incredibly fragile and vulnerable to disruption. I wanted to combine that with my ideas about game design, finding a new sweet spot between purely narrative storytelling games and the logistical farragoes of the big-book systems. But would anyone else want to play it? So in about a month I wrote the first version of “Call of Catthulhu” and had a real short run printed up for Gencon 2013. I knew that I’d want to do a lot more with it if people were interested, so I sold the 24-pager for five bucks and collected email addresses. Well, the thing took off, totally out of my control. I was running the con around getting photocopies just to be able to hand people something. For the next printing, I put the Kickstarter address in the back of the book. I took those to a couple of local conventions around DC and then to Spiel Essen in Germany, the world’s biggest game convention. I was fortunate to get some press and video interviews there and collected a lot of names. Still, the response to the Kickstarter staggered me, with far more backers than I had anticipated. Since then it’s been non-stop, ordering game pieces from all over the world, getting custom sketches and painted minis done, staying in touch with hundreds of backers, and trying to find time to actually write the game!

What kind of cats can you play in Call of Catthulhu? How did you make sure there was enough variety to keep people interested?

This is trickier than it sounds, because cats shouldn’t be all the same, yet I did not want to create a whole mess of character classes or skill trees or spell lists. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but people who want to play a game that complex have plenty of choices already. And not everyone wants to. So I came up with a different solution. First off, everything about your cat is descriptive. It’s all words; it’s against the rules to even use any numbers on the character sheet. But the description isn’t totally freeform. That would make game mastering either purely arbitrary or else impossible. Instead, the book walks you through a few choices. You pick one of five archetypal Roles for the cat, like the Scrapper or the Two-Footologist. You decide whether the cat is a Mixed Breed or a Purebred—doesn’t matter what breed—and then whether her background is Feral, Housecat, or Show Cat. Cross those five Roles with the two types of breed and the three backgrounds, and you get 30 different Stories to use as the jumping-off place for describing the cat’s life so far. Start there, customize the details, and add as much physical description as desired, and you’ve got a unique cat, described in just a few sentences, ready to play.

The complementary part is the simple mechanic called Right Cat for the Job. Whenever a Challenge comes along, the player can use anything in the cat’s background and description to claim that she’s got what it takes to handle this particular task. If the Cat Herder agrees, then the cat gets better results on the Challenge roll, including counting one of the dice as an automatic success. The RCFTJ can also attempt Dire Challenges, the really scary stuff that a less appropriate cat just shouldn’t even try.

What's up next for Call of Catthulhu and you?

I’m still in the middle of it! I’ve got the two new books to bring to Origins, and the super-fancy Boxed Set with Cat Dice and mini figures and lots of bonus bits, and some special Rewards still shipping to some very patient Kickstarter folks. It’s been crazy. But there’s definitely more in the works. One of our great stretch goals was to get a bunch of the best indie RPG authors to write their own take on a setting for Catthulhu, and those will be compiled into a third volume called “Whirls of Catthulhu.” You should be able to get your paws on that, and maybe some other secret stuff, no later than Gencon 2014, which brings the whole game full circle. Quite a year.

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