Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Keeper Rulebook Chapter 10: Playing the Game

Wednesday , 5, July 2017 8 Comments

You don’t need very much in the way of rules in order to play Call of Cthulhu as it is often executed.

  • You don’t need a combat system because the monsters are unbeatable.
  • You don’t need a magic system because spells are used by non-player characters to serve whatever purpose the plot requires.
  • You don’t need a skill system because whatever clues are required to move the plot forward will come out one way or another regardless of what the players do.
  • You don’t need any rules for an ongoing campaign because every dies or goes crazy in the end anyway.

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!

8 Comments
  • Brian Renninger says:

    I can’t speak for 7th edition having never read it. But, I’ve had numerous characters die from HP loss. A least up to 6th edition 2 or less HP was unconscious and zero or less meant dead. If characters don’t die at and just go unconscious at zero that’s a huge change.

    But, the way scenarios are written has always bugged me as very linear. In particular the very common situation were a failed skill roll can bring the whole thing to a dead stop. Pushed skill rolls (which is new to 7th edition) are I guess one solution to this but, a better one would be to change the way scenarios are written or to change how skills are used. In practice, playing the game, there was always a backup approach — the idea roll! So, fail a spot hidden, then get a “saving throw” of an idea roll. Oh, you have the idea to look for things taped to the bottom of the desk drawer. Ultimately, I’d just ask players to describe what they were doing and if what they described found the needed clue, I just give it to them. If they just think of what is needed then a skill roll, if that fails then an idea roll. But, players really want to make rolls because it gives them that checkbox to improve their skill which is the only thing in the game like XP and leveling in D&D. It’s the only mechanic available to character to improve so, they tend to want to jump straight to skill rolls. It’s a little lame.

    Traveller, with very little opportunity to improve a characters stats and a short skill list drives a more organic play style.

    • Background Deep One says:

      I played a lot of Cthulhu long ago and I basically agree. Running satisfying “investigations” is still an unsolved problem in RPG systems. Skill rolls are unsatisfying in particular, as you show. The system as described seems inspired by Robin Laws’ Gumshoe. I haven’t tried it myself.

      The part about railroading the players through the GMs story sounds like a lame idea, as always. No need to go that way.

  • Daddy Warpig says:

    Most people don’t RP for strict genre emulation. They want to have fun, kick ass, and earn rewards (XP, money, toys, etc.). (Hence why most Vampire: the Masquerade campaigns turn into Gothic Supers instead.)

    Horror roleplaying is a nice change of pace, and is great for short mini-campaigns (if players willingly buy into it beforehand), but most people prefer D&D-style adventuring, and stick to it even in the face of rules and GM’s telling them to do it differently.

  • Background Deep One says:

    We played tons of Cthulhu in a largish group, with the idea that characters were worn down over time and either retired or met a hopefully spectacular demise (devoured by ghouls while pursued through catacombs; hypnotized and leeringly walking through gate to other world; pulled into Antarctic chasm by tentacles; dragged into the sky screaming and disappearing, etc). The retirees could sometimes provide knowledge or cast an occasional spell. Or ended up in sanatoriums after a spell too many, then mysteriously disappearing. Then turning up as a crazed enemy.

    Also, characters advancing in power wasn’t all that important since most enemies were much too powerful anyway. In retrospect, I’m not sure the Basic Roleplaying system was very suitable for the genre and starting characters out as reasonably competent was fine (since their arc was short). Much of the important action was roleplaying, really.

  • Bigby's Typing Hands says:

    To offer an idea:
    One short-lived D&D campaign, long ago, was based upon the theme of a dying setting. The foretold Apocalypse.

    As such, the campaign was ruled by the in-game calendar. Events were going to happen, performed by various NPCs and groups, whether the PCs got involved or not. The PCs were aware of the prophecies and could help or hinder The End as they chose.

    I think maybe a Lovecraft-inspired campaign could profit from the same impersonal mechanic fairly easily if it’s in the right hands. There could easily be several cults doing things simultaneously and the Keeper would only need to consult a calendar to see where each were in their preparations, with the players stumbling upon them or not as it may be.

    But, I’m not privy to how CoC is canonically run from that side of the table. I am, unfortunately, familiar enough with railroading.

    • Background Deep One says:

      Cool setting, the idea adapts easily to Lovecraft when “the stars are right!”. Give the investigators a home base and make them discover the secret of the calendar early on so they can be proactive.

      I’ve never implemented it, because we usually ran single campaigns, but you could keep track of a ‘Chaos Value’ for the setting; foiling cultists lowers it and failing raises it. Low chaos means the fell entities mostly slumber, while high chaos leads to more open eeriness. If the Chaos Value goes too high, surprise your players by no longer following the calendar. The end is nigh.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I think that many people are locked into a mindset that requires a fight against Great Old Ones or a run through of a published scenario, rather than playing in a CoC CAMPAIGN. Every edition of CoC since 1981 has the same words on the cover: “Roleplaying in the WORLDS of H.P. Lovecraft.”

    Do you want more fantasy in your horror? Go with Merritt as Jeffro recommends or even Lord Dunsany, who was a huge influence on Lovecraft. Or would you rather more flashing swords and blazing guns? Then season your campaign with some Robert E. Howard or Talbot Mundy. A campaign also offers more ways for a Keeper to offer rewards to the characters. Instead of just possibly improving skills whose boxes have been checked, the GM can offer prizes that improve POW, Luck, Sanity and Hit Points, not to mention spells, influence and money to buy guns, ammo and more guns.

    CoC 7th ed. is more forgiving regarding damage than previous versions, no doubt a response to complaints that PCs died too quickly. However, recovering from major wounds requires time and die rolls in an implied campaign setting (hospitals and medical professionals).

    Call of Cthulhu doesn’t have to be all Derlethian tropes and railroaded scenarios, but if that is how you choose to play it, don’t blame the rules if you don’t get the fun you’re looking for.

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