The Occult Skill in Call of Cthulhu – Useless or Utility?

The Lovecraftian world contains many dark secrets and mysteries, and the Occult skill tempts many Call of Cthulhu players hoping to unlock knowledge through this skill. According to the 7th edition rulebook:

A knowledgeable Investigator can recognize occult paraphernalia, words, and concepts, as well as folk traditions, which may encompass supernatural beings, such as werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and demons. In addition, a skilled occultist will be familiar with secret knowledge originating from ancient civilizations, including Egypt, Sumer, as well as those centered in Asia and Africa. They will also be able to identify occult traditions and texts from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. 

Irina, our eager occultist

Such an Investigator expects to bring a wealth of insight to mysteries involving cultists, eldritch tomes, and mysterious artifacts. Consequently, many a player creates an occultist or parapsychologist with fantastic expectations; however, once the game gets underway, they find themselves woefully underwhelmed by their capabilities. In our current MoN campaign, Irina entered the fray as an eager librarian with extensive occult knowledge. At our table, we aim to make this an enjoyable experience for the player while maintaining an obscure and compelling Mythos veil. 

In this discussion, we consider various options for the Occult skill and how it may be used in a Call of Cthulhu game. We intend for this exploration to reach both Keepers and players and help set expectations for their games to maximize enjoyment and Investigator value. 

Session Zero offers the best opportunity to start this conversation. We provide our players with general definitions of occult versus Cthulhu Mythos. In our games, the Occult skill provides the means to evaluate human-related practices and knowledge, such as cults, iconography, rituals, and folklore. On the other hand, Cthulhu Mythos provides information regarding the various Lovecraftian gods and monsters, as well as an understanding of the true and terrifying nature of the uncaring universe. 

In short, the occult is human-centric, whereas Mythos is alien, eldritch, and beyond comprehension. If you perceive the Occult skill as useless in your campaign, scenario, or style of play, let your players know from the outset. If you intend to allow an overlap of Occult and Mythos, offer some examples and context, perhaps using some of the suggestions below. At our table, we work with our players to give them the most interesting experience coinciding with their goals but establish limits true to the system and setting. 

Vampires manage to find space in Call of Cthulhu campaigns. Image by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo.

As stated in the rulebook, the occult certainly includes the weird, such as werewolves, vampires, and ghosts, but these potential threats fundamentally rely on a human-centered view of the world. The occult attempts to explain and practice magic, but the Mythos provides the true source of the power. Areas of occult and Mythos overlap occur in Call of Cthulhu, such as ghouls or the King in Yellow, but occultists possess incomplete understanding. We allow blending of Occult and Mythos expertise, particularly when dealing with the human aspects.

For example, cultists do not necessarily understand the true nature of their practices and deities. In fact, very few cultists actually possess a high Cthulhu Mythos score, as they only scratch the surface of understanding before surrendering their minds to the incipient corruption. At our table, we regard cult practices and rituals as humans overlaying aesthetic and dark religious elements on the Mythos. As such, a knowledgeable occultist identifies basic practices and iconography. Without Cthulhu Mythos, they fail to identify the deity but recognize general elements of worship, sacrifices, and rituals. With Hard or Extreme Occult successes, our Investigators discern ritual types like summoning, bindings, or wards. Interpreting subtle signs they correctly identify a murder as a ritual killing. In addition, we allow Occult rolls to facilitate infiltration efforts when Investigators attempt to disguise themselves amidst cultists. After a successful Occult roll, Investigators receive a bonus die in avoiding detection. Conversely, a fumble or failed push imposes a penalty die in these circumstances. 

Aleister Crowley, con-man or cultist?

In Call of Cthulhu, the use of magic endangers the practitioner and exposes them to cosmic malignancy. In our adventures, Irina attempted to use her occult knowledge to evaluate the presence of a spell. We allowed this and despite her success, she failed to detect any magic. Still, an air of uncertainty lingered among the Investigators. At the same location, she attempted to use her Occult skill to divine the presence of any other “magic.” Again, we allowed this, and following her success, we called for a Luck roll to determine the actual effectiveness of her divination and led her to the basement to uncover a hidden tome. If she had whiffed the Luck roll, she would have failed forward by discovering another non-magical clue or encountering a disruptive NPC. 

The use of the Occult skill to perform magic or rituals offers Keepers and Investigators several options depending on your working conception of magic. In a campaign only pairing effective magic with Mythos consider non-Mythos magic as a bastardization or incomplete understanding of magic. Depending on the circumstances, a ritual attempted with occult magic could have no effect, accidental consequences, or initiate a complete disaster depending on the degree of success/failure or a Luck roll. In Pulp campaigns, you can allow the Occult skill to function as a supplement to the Medium skill and psychic powers. 

Occults rituals may obscure hidden Mythos origins. Image by abode of chaos.

We have encountered Investigators attempting to use the Occult skills defensively to set up wards. As above, we let the roll and/or Luck dictate the level of success. In some circumstances, Investigators have haphazardly gained some resistance to minor Mythos threats, but never complete immunity. A successful roll could even deter a superstitious cultist or another occult practitioner. 

John Dee got his hands on this ancient Mythos tome.

While tomes contain Mythos knowledge, we permit investigators to use their skill to recall the occult significance of the item. It makes sense that an occultist knows of the Necronomicon or Book of Dzyan, and may recall historical details, but lacks the detailed Mythos knowledge without study. We occasionally use successful Occult rolls to direct our investigators to the most useful tome when they recover more than one. In addition, we add non-Mythos occult tomes to our campaigns to satisfy the interests of the occultists and allow them to increase their skill through study. 

Some Keepers wish to avoid mingling Mythos and the occult entirely. In these cases, consider striking the Occult skill from your Call of Cthulhu game to circumvent any confusion. In these games, investigators rely on History, Anthropology, and other scientific and academic skills to interrogate strange discoveries. At the risk of heresy, the right group might abandon the Mythos entirely to undertake a completely occult-centric campaign with demons, ghosts, vampires, were-beasts, and ritual magicians. Finally, you may wish to categorize your encounters into Occult or Mythos with varying degrees of utility for each skill. 

When using the Occult skill at your Call of Cthulhu table, a collaboration between players and Keepers helps guarantee shared expectations and optimizes enjoyment, particularly during a lengthy campaign. We believe this skill offers an interesting way to potentially advance the story, hint at the Mythos mysteries, and engage certain players without breaking the game or building an impenetrable wall to the darker, eldritch truths.  

Seize the discussion at your table and tackle the Occult skill demon.