RogerBW's Blog

Automatic Fire in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition 18 May 2021

Call of Cthulhu has a spotty history with automatic fire; it's one of the few rules that changed quite a lot between editions before the complete rewrite that was 7th. I don't think 7th has improved matters.

Now I'm not afraid of a bit of complexity if it's explained well. Sometimes it isn't; automatic fire in GURPS 4th edition confused a lot of people, and an explanation of it was one of the first things I wrote for the blog. So let's break this down. If you want to follow along, I'm using the Core Rulebook (Revised), pp. 114-116. (If you know the GURPS rules these will look remarkably familiar in places, and then suddenly very different.)

So the first thing you need to do is choose whether you're using "full auto", "burst fire" or "semi-auto". The last of these doesn't use this procedure; it just has the standard effect of firing multiple shots with a handgun, which adds a single penalty die to each shot after the first. "Burst fire" is a short, controlled burst, while full auto is continuous fire, and the weapon stat will tell you what the weapon can do.

OK, so you're doing actual automatic fire. Pick your targets, all of whom need to be in about a 60° cone. Traversing from one target to another will waste one bullet per metre, so you need to take that into account in the number of bullets you're firing in the calculations below.

Full-automatic: choose how many bullets you're firing, up to the number remaining in the weapon. Divide these into "volleys" of at least 3 bullets, the size being at most the tens digit of your relevant skill (SMG/MG). Fewer bigger volleys are more likely to hit and do more damage. Allocate each volley to a target.

Burst fire: as above but the volley size is a fixed number determined by the weapon, typically two or three.

[ So let's say you're firing a MAC-11 ("1(3) or full auto") with 32 rounds in the magazine, and you have SMG skill 50. You have a line of cultists, each a metre from the next. You can choose volleys of 3, 4 or 5. You choose 4. You can allocate a volley of 4 at the first cultist, lose 1 bullet for the traverse, a volley of 4 into the second, 1 for the traverse, and so on, until you run out of targets or rounds in the magazine. ]

You have now assigned a bunch of volleys each to its target, and you roll to hit for each of them separately. The first roll is a standard attack; second has one penalty die; third has two penalty dice; fourth has two penalty dice and +1 difficulty level (e.g. if you needed a Normal success to hit you now need a Hard success). Fifth has two penalty dice and +2 difficulty levels, and so on.

For each of these attacks, a plain success means that half the shots in the volley hit (rounded down, minimum one); roll damage for each of them. An Extreme success (if you didn't already need an Extreme to hit in the first place) means that half (rounded down, minimum one) will hit and impale, and the rest will just hit normally.

This has inspired me to construct a test for rules: what aspect of gaming does the rule serve?

  • Is it gamist? Yeah, a bit, but it doesn't give you interesting choices to make. You should always fire the largest even-number-sized volleys you can, and as few separate volleys as you can get away with.

  • Is it narrativist? No, because the output you want in story terms takes the form "one or two of them fall down" or "none of them falls down", and this is a highly involved way of getting there.

  • Is it simulationist? No, because volleys don't represent anything you'd do in the real world. This is just about OK for handheld automatic weapons but really has nothing to say about bracing, bipods/tripods, suppressive fire, different levels of recoil for different sorts of weapons…

I think that this rule falls between too many stools and ends up satisfying nobody.

Tags: ranting rpgs

See also:
Rapid Fire and Shotguns in GURPS 4th edition


  1. Posted by Shimmin at 04:47pm on 18 May 2021

    That seems a fair summary. Which of those three aims would you tend to plump for, and what would you do about getting there?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 05:03pm on 18 May 2021

    For my own personal preference, and I'm not saying anyone else should work this way, gamism should disappear completely: the choice of what to do should depend on some combination of what's dramatically appropriate (narrativism) and what's physically possible (simulationism), not on knowledge of how a particular game mechanism works. (This is what I mean when I say a game system "gets out of the way" – the player can say "I attack ferociously, don't care if I get hurt" without needing to know that All-Out Attack is one of the rules options.)

    I've run Lovecraftian games under GURPS, CoC pre-7th and 7th + Pulp Cthulhu, and The Cthulhu Hack – and soon I plan to add Modern AGE to that list. I rather suspect that "the way Roger runs games" provides more individual flavour than the details of the system, because in all those games I've said to myself something along the lines of "never mind looking up what the rules say should happen in this situation, this particular outcome just makes sense".

    "Makes sense" is a weasel term, though, because that could either mean "this is how that particular thing happens in the real world" or "this is what feels satisfying at this point in our progress through the narrative". Twenty years ago I was much more simulationist in outlook, but these days I see the GM's task as being mostly one of collaboration with the players such that they come out feeling they have just barely succeeded – or failed, but if they've failed it's been because of their own bad choices not because the situation was unwinnable.

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