Animal Handling in Call of Cthulhu

Earlier this year I ran the single-player scenario Love You to Death, one of two in the excellent sourcebook Does Love Forgive? During that scenario my player’s investigator acquired a pet dog, a German Shepherd called Highball. I thought this photo on the left, a Google search, was a good match for him until my player pointed out that this dog looked more like a Malinois.

Which shows how much I know!

If I’d looked a little further I would have found an actual photo of Highball. Poor chap. In my universe he’s now living happily with Betty in Old Town, Chicago with regular walks in the local park.

Highball is effectively Betty’s sidekick, an NPC, but we’ve developed a simple set of house rules to determine how successfully he carries out one task or another using the Animal Handling skill. That’s what this blog post is all about.

Highball has already proven himself useful: sniffing out clues in the Paper Chase, surviving a drive-by shooting from Capone’s goons, and a close encounter with you-know-who in the Corbitt House. He has some very useful skills, such as Listen and Scent Something Interesting and a most impressive Bite.

My player said she was interested in a campaign, so I Pulped her investigator to aid survivability, boosting hit points, characteristics and skills, adding a couple of talents. She picked the Animal Companion talent, of course (p.26, Pulp Cthulhu rulebook). Her initial skill level of 25% has led to her double-act with Highball being somewhat hit and miss, even with a bonus die.

So how do we roll?

Combat

Betty has to spend a round asking Highball to attack a target, then make an Animal Handling roll. If this is a success, he will attack in the same round, on his DEX, and he’ll keep doing so in subsequent rounds until Betty makes another roll to ask him to stop or attack another target.

If this is a failure he might stand there just looking at her, or bark incessantly, or perhaps just keep doing whatever he was doing, depending on the situation. In any round where Betty isn’t asking Highball to do something she can act as normal, such as using a weapon to attempt her own attack.

Listen

I ask Betty’s player to make a Listen roll for her own investigator and another for Highball. This a nice double-catch if she misses her roll without imbalancing the game. Sometimes I ask for another Animal Handling roll for her to figure out what he’s heard.

Social

Highball has big teeth. I wouldn’t mess with him! If Betty wants him to act tough, I ask for an Animal Handling roll and, if successful, Highball will growl or bark, then I either give a bonus die to a subsequent Intimidate roll from Betty or I just give her an Intimidate success. Betty’s primary social skill is Charm, so this balances out quite well.

Sniffing

Highball is great for presenting clues in a scenario. This generally involves a Scent Something Interesting roll followed by him whining or pawing at the floor. In the last scenario he found a fortune cookie with a clue under a bookshelf and the body of a dead gang-member under a bed in a flophouse… although I think everyone could smell that as it had been there for a couple of days (CON rolls please). 

Stats

We use statistics for Highball as given in Love You to Death (p.22), though these are pretty close to a generic dog in the Keeper Rulebook (p.337). The only change I made was to Pulp his hit points; I’m also applying Pulp wound rules to him, to avoid him getting wiped out in combat.

Investigator/Animal Combos

Given the Animal Companion talent in Pulp Cthulhu, I think it would be interesting to run all manner of investigators with different pets…

  • Fortune-teller with a snake: this screams Dreamer archetype, Occultist occupation to me (p.17 & 31, Pulp Cthulhu rulebook)
  • Native American with an eagle: Outsider or Steadfast archetype, Tribe Member occupation (p.20, 22 & 33, Pulp Cthulhu rulebook), Spot Hidden skill from the air?
  • Former Confederate Lieutenant befriended by a wolf: this might suit Down Darker Trails instead of a Pulp setting, if you’ve spotted the obvious film reference
  • Street-kid with a rat: Adventurer or Sidekick archetype, Drifter or Hobo occupation (p.15f, 21, 28 & 30, Pulp Cthulhu rulebook), would also work nicely in a Gaslight setting, useful for stealing things, perhaps?
  • Rancher and horse: there’s a Cowboy/girl occupation in the Investigator’s Handbook you could use (p.74f) and you could give the bonus die to Ride rolls as well as Animal Handling

The stats for these animals are all available in the Keeper Rulebook (p.336ff), but there is one glaring omission… Where are the monkey stats? I mean, we’ve all seen Indiana Jones, right? Surely any investigator in Call of Cthulhu could work a Capuchin monkey into their backstory. 

And please remember, when you are roleplaying your Animal Handling rolls, positive reinforcement is much nicer and more effective than punishment-based training. Your investigator should always have a pocket full of dog snacks. Click-treat and enjoy!

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