09 November 2009

Review: The Keeper's Companion, vol. 1 (Chaosium, 2000)

(This review originally appeared in slightly different form at RPG Geek.)

This book is the second of four "core" books released by Chaosium in the early 2000s, the others being The 1920s Investigator's Companion (1997), The Creature Companion (1998), and The Keeper's Companion vol. 2 (2002). Like the other three, this is not "core" in any meaningful sense of the word, and is certainly not a requirement to play the game -- all you need for that is the basic Call of Cthulhu

About a quarter of the book is taken, with slight modifications, updates, and corrections, from the original Keeper's Compendium (1996). The majority of the book was written by Keith Herber, with a list of supplemental authors that read like a who's-who list of Cthuloid luminaries (including Aniolowski, Petersen, and Ross).

This book does not has a unifying theme (other than "for Keepers") but is an anthology of material covering a diverse array of subjects. As such, the chapters skip around a fair amount, and also their utility will vary wildly from Keeper to Keeper. This is to be expected. Anthologies in general are not all things to all people and, in my experience, tend to be very hit and miss.

The Keeper's Companion:
A Core Book for Keepers, Vol. 1

The Vitals

Publisher: Chaosium, http://www.chaosium.com
ISBN: 1568821441
In print?: Yes, as of Nov-2009.
List price: $25.95
Pages: 208
Dimensions: 8.5"x11"
Format: Trade paperback, perfect-bound
Weight: 1 lb., 5.6 oz.

Overall Impressions

Art: Good. All black and white, mostly pen and ink. Chapter headings are by the much-missed Tom Sullivan. Each chapter has a sidebar piece that is repeated on every page. The pieces themselves are Good to Great, but highly problematic due to...

Layout: Poor. All of this low mark is due to the sidebar pieces that run down the outside margin of almost every page. They take up about 25% of the page. On short chapters this is not really noticable, but on long ones it is quite egregious. Once you've seen the same illustration for the 30th page in a row it not only loses all evocative power but starts to actively annoy.

Worse is the fact that, during the course of reading, one starts to suspect that the main choice behind the decision to replicate the sidebar pieces was driven primarily by the desire to pad the page count (and thus MSRP) without the expense of commissioning any additional art. The book is 208 pages; I estimate that the sidebar pieces take up approximately 50 pages worth of space.

Other than this, the layout is utilitarian and inoffensive. Not a masterpiece of graphic design, but it gets the job done.

Editing: Great! Another fine job by Lynn Willis and David Mitchell; there are no errors of any sort in the text that I spotted.

Index, Poor. There's actually no index. There is a fairly detailed table of contents that slightly makes up for it, but there really is no substitute for a good, topical index.

Company Support: Terrible. There are two photocopiable handouts (a character sheet and a "Cause of Death" form); neither are available for download on Chaosium's website.


Good Cthulhu Hunting, 4pp, Poor. Curiously, the book starts off with something deliberately aimed at Investigators and not Keepers -- it covers how to survive an investigation. I found most of this fairly straightforward, but if you're a killer GM who just can't figure out how to tone it down for your players, you might want to have them read this.

One of the suggestions is downright incorrect: "#6: Guns Are A Last Resort." This is a popular myth of CoC. While it depends largely on scenario design, a sad fact of many scenarios is that, as published, guns often work quite well as a first, last, and only result. Dynamite works even better. I would like it if #6 were more consistently true -- as is, it serves as an excellent argument for never running scenarios off-the-shelf. There should always be consequences for thoughtless violence.

Suggestions for Keepers, 11pp, Mediocre. I suppose every Keeper can stand to reevaluate his skills on occasion, so here's some standard advice you can pay for. If you're new to running CoC, this is not bad, but as experienced gamers know, Keepering is an art. You can't learn it from a book.

A Brief History of the Written Word, 2pp, Fair. Given the importance of books to CoC, it's nice to have some historical info. This is a little light and is mostly a timeline. It would be appreciated to have more detailed information on exactly what (e.g.) a typical privately-printed book in 1785 would look like. There's very little information on the terminology that bibliophiles use (saddle-stitch, clothbound, gilt, etc.). One nice touch is a discussion of book sizes; many people outside the trade do not know the difference between a quarto (your standard-sized RPG book) versus an octavo (your standard-sized hardback).

Occult Books, 19pp, Fair. This is a compendium of quite a few "real" occult books; e.g. books that actually exist outside of the game. Frazier's Golden Bough would probably be the best-known here; also included are the usual suspects like Crowley, Blavatsky, and so on. All these are given game stats; most provide a small increase to the Occult skill, no sanity loss, and no spells.

It includes an optional rule for Feverish Study that sounds fun (read faster but risk Sanity and Hit Points).

Languages and Scripts, 3pp, Fair. About half of this is a very brief overview of the major language families of the world and the writing systems used to record them. The remainder covers nonhuman scripts (but not languages) used by various Mythos races. A sample picture (~2"x~4") of each script is given, but I'm not sure how useful this is. Maybe someone with artistic talent could replicate characters that look similar? As is, a Keeper could use it to base descriptions on. Probably for the best, as pictures in real life never match up to the pictures players make for themselves in their heads.

An Alternate Resistance Table, 1p, Terrible. If you dislike that stat differences of ten or more lead to automatic success/failure, then this might be useful. I've never had a problem with the official Resistance Table, let alone felt that what I really needed was a new one that used arctangents and dividing by pi. Worse, according to this new table, an average person (STR 10) has a 2% chance to lift an object weighing 104 tons (SIZ 104), which is just so silly that it's not even worth bothering with.

Forbidden Books, 40pp, Fair. A comprehensive compendium of all known Mythos tomes, expressed in game terms with excellent historical background by Keith Herber. Gives excellent advice on handling tomes, specifically noting ways in which every pre-printing press (and many post-) copy may be unique. Also provides brief biographical information of the various authors and translators.

As an example, it lists 13 major versions of the Necronomicon or notes on it, with the history of each and their differences outlined. Each copy has slightly different Sanity losses, Cthulhu Mythos skill increases, etc.

The practical import of this section is questionable. It's a good read, but how to use it in your game is not obvious. I can see a few possibilities: (1) if your players really like the history behind the tomes and enjoy the versimilitude brought by deep background knowledge, or (2) if you are designing a scenario and want to make sure your information is canonical. As I am good at improvising information just based on the data in the main book, and as I rarely design my own scenarios due to time constraints and lack of interest, I don't have much use for this.

Arcane Antiquities, 20pp, Mediocre. A compendium of artifacts and doohickies, from various Mythos stories and published scenarios. Most of them are specifically created for a specific story/scenario and are of limited use outside of it.

Secret Cults, 19pp, Fair. An overview of known cults, culled from Mythos fiction, gaming, and historical sources. Includes a section on the Golden Dawn.

Forensic Medicine, 29pp, Fair. This has a lot of detail on how bodies decompose, and how coroners and medical examiners work. Good info if you're writing a scenario based around this, or if you have a player who is running an Investigator of that type and wants to be accurate. In my experience, autopsies in CoC are most useful for how they differ from the standard, not how they conform to it. I've never had an issue with saying "The coroner reports that given the time and manner of death, the state of the body is normal except for..."

Law Enforcement Timeline, 1p, Mediocre. Covers 1635-1996. A curiousity, but not very useful in the game unless you're designing a scenario outside of the standard eras and want to know what's standard procedure for the police.

Circumstances of Death, By State, 2pp, Poor. All deaths in the various US states must be classified by one or more circumstances (suicide, poison, while in prison, etc.). Not all states use the same classifications, so this tells you which states use which ones as of 1992. Of supremely limited use; this has never come up for me in two decades of running CoC.

Alien Races, 15pp, Fair. Expanded information on Deep Ones, Mi-Go, Ghouls, Shan, Old Ones, Serpent People, and Voormis. Motivations, cultural practices, that kind of thing. Not bad.

Mysterious Places, 12pp, Fair. Information on many legendary places both "real" (e.g. Atlantis) and otherwise (e.g. Leng, R'lyeh, Y'ha-nthlei).

Skills Revisited, 27pp, Poor. All about skills in CoC's system. What a given percentage means (e.g. 50% is a master's degree) plus, for every skill in the game, examples of an Easy check (made at 2x skill level), an Average check (straight skill level), and a Hard check (at 1/2 skill level). Also details exactly what the skill means (what can you do with Accounting?).

Really, this is putting lipstick on a pig. I don't know of anyone who runs CoC who actually thinks that BRP is a slick, clever, elegant, or realistic system. At best it's serviceable, "gets out of the way of play," etc. This attempts to make the clunky skill system more realistic but is not worth the time and effort. Anyone who doesn't know what Anthropology is should probably be playing a different game.

Most skills in here already get a paragraph or two of description in the main book, so this is just more detail for its own sake. There are a few new and interesting skills (Folklore, Academic Standing) but as these aren't on any of the standard character sheets available for download, you probably won't use them unless you go out of your way to do so.

Books and Sanity Alternate Rules, 2pp, Mediocre. Like the skill revamp, unnecessary and overcomplicated. Anyone who has a serious problem with CoC's rules is advised to completely jettison the system in favor of something better, rather than jerry-rigging it piecemeal.

M.U. Alumnus Character Sheet, 1p, Fair. Has all the new skills from this book, for what it's worth.

Apparent Natural Death Form, 1p, Fair. Looks authentic but is only useful in a modern campaign due to referencing x-rays as standard autopsy procedure.


Fair. Solid but unnecessary. Almost everything in here can be found on Wikipedia. Most of this is culled from published sources, thus most CoC fans will already have it. If you really want it all in one place, or if you're getting into CoC late in the game, this might be useful. The padding with the illustrations is really egregious. As mentioned previously, by my estimation the page count could have been lowered by about 50 pages if all the sidebar art was left out. Thankfully Chaosium ditched this tactic in The Keeper's Companion, vol. 2.

Overall this is primarily useful to people who are very unfamiliar with the game and especially the Mythos, Keepers designing scenarios, and Keepers who really like the system but also enjoy tweaking it with optional rules. For everyone else, I recommend passing on this book.

Thanks for reading; as always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions for improvement are welcomed.


  1. I'm surprised no one has commented on your view of BRP. A lot of people swear by it for more than just CoC.

  2. I might be displaying my biases here; other than CoC I've used it a bit for Stormbringer and nothing else. It certainly gets the job done, no doubt. We'll see if Chaosium's efforts at supporting a generic fantasy BRP pays off for them.