Now, you can tell me that not all Call of Cthulhu games are like that. You can tell me that your group loves to play that way. I guess that happens, sure. And I guess that’s okay. To each his own and all that. Speaking for myself, I find this state of affairs to be far more horrifying than any of the terrors that this style of play is supposedly going to bring to life at the tabletop. (Honestly, I don’t see why this type of game would have a Players Handbook– it doesn’t really need players in order to function!)
I just wish there were someone with a lot of experience with both the literary antecedents and the game system that could give me solid advice on how to do something else with these rules than this un-interactive mess. Fortunately they exist. And they put loads of great advice into this chapter.
First off check this out:
Most players, as they become more familiar with the game and confident in their investigators, will want to diverge from the linear scenario. Rather than follow the obvious clues laid out for them by the Keeper, they will want to follow up a different clue or even come up with a line of enquiry entirely of their own devising. Suddenly the adventure is sidetracked and the Keeper may be tempted to contrive something to get the story back on its intended track rather than go where the players are heading. If the players are compelled back to the Keeper’s prepared plot, they will come to feel that their contribution is of little value and that they are simply following a preordained story rather than creating their own. (page 217)
Now if we could only get scenario designers to create adventures that are intended to be played this way we might actually get somewhere! You might think I’m being overly harsh here, but the rules actually point out that this is the case:
Many scenarios are conceived and written as an interesting story, with the investigators added on afterwards. (page 189)
Okay, that sounds horrible. You know, I see so much talk in the rpg scene about how to put the spotlight on each player individually. I see next to nothing encouraging game masters to simply hand the reins over to the players and give them the freedom to simply… play.
One thing that makes bad Call of Cthulhu gaming worse than bad sessions with other role-playing games is that the game is simply not designed so that the characters can behave like typical D&D characters. This is something that people that insist on running a sort of “pidgin” Call of Cthulhu are going to miss:
The majority of roleplaying games are based upon acquisition of skills and stuff, whereas Call of Cthulhu is a game of attrition. Be mindful when pacing or planning sessions that the effect of the horror genre on characters is different from that of a standard fantasy adventure game. In the latter the characters may be fighters and wizards exploring dungeons accruing experience, wealth, and power as they do so. They may risk life and limb with every fight, but they soon recover and grow more effective as the game progresses. Contrast this with characters in a horror story, who rarely increase in effectiveness and for whom each challenge chips away at their physical and mental resources, with injuries taking considerable time to heal. (page 198)
Call of Cthulhu is different. Sometimes surprisingly so. The game does not simply encourage Keepers to force players to describe their actions before they translate the player’s intent into some sort of die roll. It is also set up to have the players describe the outcome of these rolls:
Encourage the players to describe the way in which their goals are achieved when they win the roll. Think of it as shining a spotlight on the player and placing a microphone under his or her nose. Don’t be unnecessarily restrictive when it comes to what you allow a player to narrate. (page 196)
(There’s that spotlight terminology again. Seriously, who is responsible for this?!)
Most role-players expect to contribute to a game via their character concept and back story. Some role-players will appeal to the referee to alter the game reality on the fly. But almost all of them will turn to him after rolling the dice in order to find out what happens.
Another thing that is completely different is that players will only be asked to make perception rolls when there is some kind of clue present. And when these rolls fail, the players are supposed to know that they have missed something. They will know that they will find something important if they make the risk of pushing the roll. The Keeper that figures out how to keep the scenario on the rails in spite of the player actions will miss out on all the bad stuff that happens when players go out of their way to tempt fate in these sorts of situations. And the players will miss out on all the dread and foreshadowing that comes from his intimations of how things can go sideways.
But that’s not even the biggest thing that typical game masters are going to have to adapt to. Dungeon Masters coming from old school D&D where the early levels tend to be death-filled meat-grinders will have to have it drilled into their heads that Call of Cthulhu Keepers don’t really get to kill player characters. No… they have to do something much worse.
This is hard for me really. The best horror I have ever run at the table has been when the player characters died one by one. Heck, players tend not to get serious until they’ve been put on notice by having one of them lose a character that has twenty hours of play sunk into him. Imagining how Call of Cthulhu could even work as a horror game without that is difficult to wrap my head around.
But again, you have to drop the notion that Investigations are anything like fantasy adventurers. If the players are going to worked up to the point where they plot a murder some sort of cultist, the will lose sanity points. If they encounter actual monsters, they will lose more. If they fail their swimming roll and end up drowning, they will probably wash up on some strange foreign shore and stagger back to civilization. But they’ll become a notch more disheveled and a little bit crazier. The pushed skill rolls that fail will not bring an investigation to a halt– the outcome can still be a “success” that results in damage and harrowing suspense that pushes the players one step closer to the edge. And hit-points dropping to zero? That results in unconsciousness, not death for player characters. But if they weren’t already losing sanity points in the action, they should be then!
If you want to pick up a pile of Call of Cthulhu adventure scenarios and then run them one after another with the same set of player characters, I guess you could do that. But you would not be playing the game that is described in this book– the one where the outcome of a pushed roll results in delusions and fits of madness when a player character has descended into insanity.
No account that I have heard of what the Call of Cthulhu game is like is anything like that. People that play it don’t want a game that allows you to recreate Lovecraft’s brand of storytelling at the tabletop. They want the Arkham Horror board game… where the players win every time and where they foil a new Mythos entity every week.
That’s not Call of Cthulhu!