ON THE TABLE: Back on the Rails with Call of Cthulhu

Wednesday , 28, June 2017 5 Comments

Okay, so the only game that has ever given me the feeling that I really could go anywhere or do anything right out of the box is classic Traveller. My three term scout can take his Type-S two hexes in any direction on the subsector map, opening up an incredible range of possibilities. He laughs at the pitiful merchants scrambling to make payments on their miserable free traders, hobbling along at a measly rate of Jump-1. Sad!

Anyway, with Call of Cthulhu, it’s back to the train station. Adventures can go any number of ways in space games and fantasy games. But Lovecraftian horror…? There’s kind of a script there. And yes, it does have its charm. But it gets really, really boring when you’ve walked through the formula for the third or fourth time.

To preserve my sanity, I jumped in with both feet when the Keeper asked us what all we were doing in a four month period between adventures. The other guys used it to get new skills and skill points. (Nobody can have fun if they don’t level up these days.) I, on the other hand, developed my character’s “professional” life by setting up a liquor running operation and meeting some of the shadowy underworld types in the area. While I was at it, I established that my character had a weird obsession with this mythical Lost City somewhere in the North.

Between sessions, I daydreamed about what I would be able to throw into the game next. Could I persuade the Keeper that there is an evil priestess, a femme fatale with an army of frog men in the underground…? What about a mysterious elf girl luring me into some kind of otherworldly conflict? Am I possessed by the spirit of some heroic figure out of legend? Or am I on the verge of being mind controlled by some sort of demonic entity?

All of that stuff is about as un-Lovecraftian as you can get. I had no idea if the other players would go for it. I sure as heck wasn’t going to “go meta” and beg them to “let” me have it my way. (So tacky!) No, I was going to take a moment to drop a new dream from my character into play… and then watch the reaction. Do the other people think it sounds fun? Does the Keeper rule that it is just a dream…? Does he choose to fold this in to whatever he is planning…? Do the other players spontaneously offer up embellishments of their own in response…?

The interplay is more fun than simply getting your way, after all.

Soon we’re in my character’s truck coming back from Miskatonic University in the rain. We didn’t find out anything about my Lost City just yet, so we are in this canned adventure. We stop off, meet the non-player characters, find out about the trouble, go investigate, find the clues, and then… watch one NPC after another die to some gruesome Cthulian entity.

Long story short, the people of the town was using this demon-thing to do away with their illegitimate children. A couple of would-be thieves had let it loose when they attempted to rob the man that kept it. We saw some clues to how it might be contained, but none of our player characters were Nikola Tesla types, so we just could not see how to “win.”

I was disgusted, though. I expect a certain amount of nihilism in a Lovecraft story. I mean… the reason that the horror is horrific is that reality is horrible and what you think is reality is just a front. But a whole town with not one sympathetic character? Why would I be motivated to play the role of some kind of here here? It didn’t make any sense to me. Heck, I wanted to burn the place down myself.

My character gave a Solomon Kane style speech to the surviving townspeople, something to the effect that this malevolent entity was a manifestation of divine retribution… and it simply is not my place to stand in its way. I ceremoniously shook the dust off my shoes and went to leave the adventure altogether.

Now the rain was terrible and the monster was still loose. The Keeper asked for a “hard” Driving role… which would take a 49 or less for me. My heart sank. I told the Keeper that now was the moment that I was going to fail the roll… then I was going to push it and fail that roll as well. Something terrible was going to happen! And it did. We flipped the truck and then had to use a range of “Mech.” and strength rolls to right it and get it out of a ditch.

But we made it home before getting eaten. And the Keeper dinged me 1d6 Sanity for failing to rescue the supposedly innocent damsel that maybe wasn’t in on the shenanigans.

Coming up on the space between adventures, I was looking out for my chance to develop my character or drop something else into the mix. But it was announced that the Keeper had a Lost City type adventure already planned for next time, so there would be no time for anything like that!

Doh! I was so looking forward to that space between scenarios where the players could have a little more freedom, but I guess it wasn’t mean to be….

5 Comments
  • Cambias says:

    This would normally be the place for an old CoC fan like me to chime in with the usual “but that’s not Lovecraft!” response to your daydreams about a femme fatale with frogmen or an otherworldly conflict.

    Except that those two concepts are PERFECTLY Lovecraftian. “The Thing on the Doorstep” has a femme fatale from a family of frogmen with an underground army of Shoggoths! Randolph Carter spends a whole novel in a fantasy otherworld and if HPL didn’t mention the elf girl it’s probably because he was too busy with Cats From Saturn and slavers from the Moon to notice.

    Now, in a horror scenario you can’t expect the girl to fall into your arms without trying to sink her fangs into your neck, but it’s entirely possible to crank up the color saturation on a Call of Cthulhu game.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      Agreed. I think those concepts fit into a Lovecraftian campaign just fine.

      I think maybe the GM’s inexperience is coming out here.

  • Random says:

    I really enjoyed how you inserted the dreaded ‘story-game’ elements via in-character revelations, rather than an OOC table debate.

    The modern rpg idea of giving players ‘Narrative Control’ of the adventure is still poison, though.

    • Jeffro says:

      Nothing I suggest impacts the campaign state unless it is ratified by the Keeper. To make that clear without being tedious, I frame everything as “I’m trying to explain ___, ___, and ___ which don’t quite add up. I’m thinking ___ accounts for everything. I feel like my character _____. What do you think is happening?”

      Something like that. Everybody adds something as if it’s obvious how the dots all connect. Then the Keeper applies it to his prep in whatever way seems fun to him. There’s no need to ever talk ABOUT the campaign. The campaign just kind of happens. Burden of making up a bunch of stuff is lightened for the Keeper. But he still maintains full authority.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    All these Call of Cthulhu posts has gotten me thinking about the old Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign of which I once owned the original boxed set. I just dug the 1996 complete version out of my boxes having nearly forgotten I already owned a copy. I was a hair trigger away from buying it unnecessarily again. Phew.

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