GURPS, Call of Cthulhu, and Pidgin Roleplaying

Friday , 9, June 2017 9 Comments

I felt betrayed when I sat down to read the Keeper’s Guide for Call of Cthulhu seventh edition earlier this year. Granted, I bought first edition GURPS Horror way back when I didn’t know anything about anything. And hey… at the time I was really only going to use it for the monsters and the psionics system. But I really did feel that there was just no way that GURPS could have given me what Call of Cthulhu promised.

In the first place, GURPS never says anywhere that you need to go read at least six Lovecraft stories before you even think about running a horror game. Secondly, there are rules in there that would never be included in a GURPS product. They’re not only never would have occurred to me, but they’re engineered in subtle ways to produce a type of gameplay that recapitulates the source material. Yes, I could steal those things and incorporate them into a GURPS campaign. But GURPS by itself would never instruct me in that sort of thing because it lies outside of the scope of what it really specializes in.

Now… that’s all feelings. Or “theory” if you prefer. Let me tell you about reality.

I go sit down to play someone else’s Call of Cthulhu game… and it doesn’t even use ten percent of the rules. You make a character, sure. You make a lot of skill checks during play. You get into the combat system occasionally. But what is the campaign about, really? It’s sort of a monster-of-the-week X-files type thing, but set in the twenties. The Keeper doesn’t seem inclined to really kill player characters. The players don’t drive play, they mostly just bop along to some kind of climatic horror moment. A powerful time lord type patron holds everything together so that we can have modular units of adventure– improvised short stories whose outlines are plotted in advance. There’s basically no significant player autonomy and you can’t lose. It’s like being dropped into a text adventure where you can’t do anything except gradually move the plot forward to its inevitable conclusion.

The thing about that sort of play? It largely turns the rule book into a prop. It obviates the discipline of roleplaying game design. If this is what you think roleplaying is, then you will play pretty much any rpg the same way regardless of its rules. And anytime people on the internet are discussing rpg history and rpg design, you will butt into their conversations and inform them that “system doesn’t matter” and “it’s the game master that makes a great campaign.”

Those people are legion. But here’s the thing: even if they were right, they can’t do me any good. They might have the happiest players on the planet, sure. But they aren’t giving me anything that can help me get a better playing experience for the people that sit down at my table. Of course, the moment they express something that is reproducible, they void their own argument. No wonder they’re so unhelpful!

The problem with that style of play is that system really doesn’t matter. And I wanted to say that that’s the sort of rpg majority for whom GURPS is the best fit for, but it really isn’t. Heck, those people could run original D&D or Tunnels & Trolls and it wouldn’t make a difference. In fact, those earlier rules sets might even be a better fit because they’d never be tempted to waste time constructing powers or creatures according to the GURPS rules system with rules that don’t actually do anything for them anyway. Honestly, all they really need is to just make stuff up for the purposes of creating the illusion of an rpg!

But yeah, GURPS does have an implied setting. It’s called “more realism for less effort than any other game ever thought to try for.” The combat system is where this really comes to the fore. For martial arts and firearms especially, there’s all kinds of stuff baked in that gives me outcomes that are far better than anything I would ever think to serve up on my own. And even better… the system rewards players that want take the time to develop their own tactics, moves, and combinations. Yes, I can’t handwave all of this in a rules-light system if realistic combat is not my thing.

The point is, system does matter. And I’m not dependent on falling in with that one great game master in a thousand. GURPS itself brings something to the table– and if it’s the sort of thing you want, then you won’t want to settle for any of the countless half baked systems out there that don’t even try to address what matters within the GURPS scene. At the same time, GURPS does expect you to know what you want. It won’t tell you what books to read and it won’t run you through the boot camp of “stripped down basic set plus introductory module” that games for more casual audiences tend to provide.

Yes, I’m still upset about GURPS Horror. And I’m still curious as to what would happen to a campaign that allowed the Call of Cthulhu rules to actually bring something to the table. But the way people tend to approach these things, I’m unlikely to find out just what that is unless I take the time to make it happen myself. Given that most pre-packaged scenarios are not engineered to help with this, you pretty much have to be a game designer to pull this off. This was true back in the eighties– and it’s still true today!

9 Comments
  • Blume says:

    The rpg player in my family is my little brother. I don’t think he has played 7th edition but he has played multiple games of call of cthulhu and all his after action reports end with the whole party dead or mad. The best result I heard so far was 2 people went mad and the other 2 dynamited the cave with them and dagon still in it. So yes if the party lives to play again you are probably playing call of cthulhu wrong. I mean one mad or half mad survivor is plausible but not the whole party.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    It depends on what type of play you want. Mr. Blume, if your brother is playing sessions where the pcs face off against DAGON, then yeah, everybody gonna wind up dead or starkers, but every adventure doesn’t have to be like that.

    I’ll bet that one reason why CoC tells people to read so many HPL stories before play is to give them a sense of scale. Dagon is only a mid-level threat when Great Cthulhu himself is in the picture, but should likely be the Big Bad of a year long string of play sessions with most characters.

    It all depends on what level of Threat you/your players want. Pulp up your CoC campaign with ghouls, cannibals, Deep Ones and Pathan tribesmen (rather than the Old Ones themselves), and it can last for years.

    • Blume says:

      Did any lovecraft story last more than a week? Besides they were playing shadow over innismouth. The two crazy pcs went crazy in the town just looking for clues.

      • Jeffro says:

        The world would be a better place if the default setting was to Merritt this game up rather than go the full Derleth.

        • John E. Boyle says:

          Roger that. My old CoC campaign was influenced by REH and Talbot Mundy, with a touch of Seabury Quinn. That was because my players wanted guns, guns and more guns.

          If they had been interested in something more mystical/magical, then it would have been more Merritt flavored. Each campaign is going to be different.

  • Freddo says:

    Our group recently tried CoC, but the campaign died after 5-ish sessions due to lack of player agency (not helped by an inexperienced GM). I’m tempted to summarize CoC as: walk into an unsettling environment, stumble across/gather a few clues and face unspeakable horror that outclasses the PCs. Might be fun if the players can get into the “oh the angst” mindset.

    Pulping it up sounds like a great idea to me, but would you still be playing CoC? But sign me up for an Indiana Jones style campaign with manly man hunting for treasure/artifacts in forsaken deserts/deep jungle/forgotten pirate coves while perhaps encountering a bit more than they bargained for.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I picked up CoC the week it came out; I have the 1st edition box right in front of me, and underneath the title it says: “Fantasy Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft”

    There is nothing in the rules that says that every session/campaign has to be a run through of a HPL story that ends with a run-in with a Great Old One or a mid-level titan like Dagon. There are any number of HPL stories that have nothing to do with the Mythos and which are incredibly unsettling.

    Read: Pickman’s Model, The Rats in the Walls or The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Any one of them could be used as the core of a 4-6 session series (or more depending on where you want to go.) and I don’t believe they mention Cthulhu or his buddies at all.

    “would you still be playing CoC?”

    Sure. There are CoC supplements set in Ancient Rome, Dark Age Europe, Victorian England and Nazi Germany (to name a few); what they all have in common are the CoC rules (Sanity + Guns + RQ) and exploration of the unknown (and the dangers therein).

    “But it’s a board game with rpg elements.”

    I don’t understand that sentence, Mr. Blume. I think we have different definitions of what a RPG is.

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