By far the toughest part of Call of Cthulhu is how few skillpoints it gives you. When every skill uses a percentile and you only get a couple-hundred points to allocate, it’s really difficult to excel at more than a few checks. This naturally leads to the most obviously-useful skills (Spot Hidden, Library Use, Firearms, Stealth) seeing massive use across the playerbase.
But today I wanted to talk about some rarer skills that I’ve nonetheless found worth investing in. Many times they can save you skillpoints in other areas, or unlock niche-but-effective playstyles. You certainly can’t pick them all, but at least consider one or two of:
1. Arts & Crafts (Acting)
One of the toughest parts of skill allocation in CoC is choosing which social skills you want to be good at. No character has enough points to spec into Persuade, Fast Talk, Charm, and Intimidate. But everyone forgets that Arts & Crafts has an “Acting” subskill. Social checks are all about appealing to emotions, and actors excel in believably changing their personality and delivery to convince any audience. This means I can often use it in pretty much any situation. Personally, I think Acting is the 2nd-most versatile social check behind Persuade.
I’ve mentioned this in several older articles, but I still think Throw is the most versatile combat style in the CoC system. Molotovs, Dynamite, and throwing knives excel in drastically different situations while remaining concealable and powerful. The skill also has a ton of noncombat uses, such as breaking windows or tossing things to faraway teammates. When imprisoned or disarmed, no other ranged build can grab random objects off the ground and be instantly ready to throw down.
3. Science (Chemistry)
Chemistry is the most expensive skill on this list, but the perks are more than worth it. The handbook mentions you can create simple explosives, poisons, and acids, each of which has a ton of uses in investigating. Poison blades, taint drinks, burn through walls, disintegrate evidence, create loud distractions… Plus, outside combat or infiltration, it also allows you to study any mysterious substances your party discovers along their adventure.
4. Animal Handling
A trained falcon or dog can bring a ton of value to a party. They can recon areas, track suspects, keep watch, or notice incoming dangers. It’s essentially a bonus party member who’s immune to sanity loss. With the right NPC, having a pet can also help you with social checks. The main downside is that you have to be careful not to get them killed through foolish choices. I’d recommend not sending them into combat if you want to keep them alive!
5. Mechanical Repair
At first glance, this skill sounds like simply fixing broken machinery. But the handbook also mentions you can use it to construct simple devices, perform carpentry work, or even pick common locks. This means the skill’s only as limited as your imagination. Construct traps, reinforce holdout areas, soup-up vehicles, MacGyver contraptions, disable enemy equipment… whatever your team needs at the moment, take a second to consider whether you can solve the problem with some improvisational tinkering.
Bonus #6: Fighting (Bow)
This one ranks below the others only because bows are so hard to conceal. Every campaign I’ve tried to play a bowman, I found myself constantly stuck in situations where I couldn’t walk around with my weapon of choice. But concealment aside, it’s a fun combat style with a ton of unique benefits. Bows are silent, arrows can be poisoned, and ammo can be crafted in the wild. It’s also one of the few ranged weapons that add your Damage Bonus from Size and Strength. You’ll probably need to choose a career like Athlete, Tribe Member, or Big Game Hunter to justify it, but in the right campaign this can be a fun and atypical Call of Cthulhu build.
To wrap up the article, I also wanted to discuss some honorable mentions. These aren’t skills per se, but ways to get more value out of the points you spend:
A. Dumping Spot Hidden
Hear me out. I know Spot Hidden is obviously very useful, but it’s one of the few skills that comes with a massive drawback for succeeding. Namely, that you’ll often notice bad things that lead to rolling sanity checks. Playing an unobservant character can help you avoid a lot of unneeded sanity loss and free up points for other skills. It’s also frequently a check where only one teammate needs to succeed. When investigating things man was not meant to see, I prefer to dump this and let my teammates spot things for me.
B. Non-English Language (Own)
If you plan on grabbing a second language, don’t put points into it. Instead, take it as your native language and put a mere 30 points into English, the minimum required to be literate. English checks are incredibly rare, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Since your native language doesn’t require skillpoints, it’s far more useful going towards something that your GM might actually request a check for.
C. Expensive Profession Skills, Cheap Personal Interest Skills
The most important skill proficiencies in the game are the bonus unspecified ones that come with many professions. It’s often tough to decide which of your extracurricular skills to pick for these. My personal philosophy is to always choose the most-expensive skill I plan on taking (especially the ones that start at 5% or 1%).
My logic is that the game gives you a ton of profession points, but only a few skills to allocate them into. For me personally, I usually finish filling out the ones I care about and then, unsure what to do with my extra profession points, burn the remainder on some skill I wasn’t that interested in anyway. In contrast, Personal Interest points can go anywhere. You’ll never have enough of them and they’re therefore far more valuable. So if your profession comes with these extra specialties, choose any desired skills with the lowest starting pointcosts so you can fill them with profession points instead of personal interest. Save your Personal Interest points for the cheaper stuff (like First Aid at 30%) so you can afford more of them and have a more versatile build.
D. Science (Mathematics) at 10%
I just wanted to point out that you get this for free. It’s the only subskill with a higher base stat than its core skill (Science at 1%), so it’s worth writing down on your character sheet. It’s completely useless and I’ve never seen it come into play, but you shouldn’t just leave a free 10% skill boost on the table. Maybe you can substitute it for an untrained Accounting check or something.
(The Investigator’s Handbook does mention that Mathematics can substitute for Cryptography at an increased level of difficulty. So you’re still pretty screwed, but a Hard 10% is five times as likely to successfully decode a cypher as a Regular 1%, so there’s that.)
There’s no “Religion” skill in the game. The skill roster literally doesn’t cover it, in any way, so the only option I’ve found is to substitute Education. This is why I recommend keeping it in mind, as it’s a free specialty you don’t have to (and, indeed, cannot) put points into. Investigations often lead to places like churches, or involve ancient religions, and being able to use your Education on those checks can be useful. I also enjoy using religious knowledge as a social skill to get an NPC to trust me, especially civilians suspicious of eldritch things happening around the area. Sounding like a man of faith can be useful when dealing with infernal or demonic situations.
And that’s it! Even outside the ones detailed on this list, I also encourage you to think critically about every skill and consider alternate uses for them. If you really want to be good at, say, Climb, but can’t justify the point cost, consider alternate/rarer situations that you could apply your proficiency towards. (In that case, perhaps scaling buildings to find an alternate way in, or gaining a bonus die on hiding attempts by abusing humans’ natural tendency to not look up.) Call of Cthulhu is a bit more flexible than most systems because it’s so stingy with skillpoints. Your Keeper knows you’re having to make a little go a long way, so keep an open mind!