ON THE TABLE: Going Off the Rails with Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

Friday , 16, June 2017 23 Comments

So I’m several sessions into an ongoing Call of Cthulhu campaign. I’m aggravated because the last session it became clear that we effectively had no autonomy. I burned through all my luck points to do something awesome, but this isn’t a “go do awesome things” game. It’s more of a “pretend to investigate stuff while the Keeper steadily pushes the predetermined plot along” game.

Now… I must be weird or something because nobody else seems to care about this. My suspicion is that for most people most of the time, this is simply what role-playing games are. But to me, this is pretending to play an rpg. System doesn’t matter. Player choice doesn’t even matter. And as to how much of the rules we actually use… all this time we’ve been playing, we’ve been forgetting the rules for “pushing” failed skill rolls. This is the part of the game where the stakes go up, foreshadowing occurs, and everything gets more like a Lovecraft story. But no, in practice we treat the skill system as if it were GURPS or Palladium. Oops.

Now, at the end of the last session we recovered Luck points and the Keeper gave the other players a chance to pick up a new skill. I opted out and instead said I was focusing on my career as a bootlegger. This session I came in asking if we could revisit that. I explained that I wanted to go further North. My character’s from Alabama… but he keeps finding reasons to go North. My backstory is that I’m looking for this guy named Leroy Brown that had ripped me off. But I’m thinking… me up here in Vermont hanging with a bunch of Cthulhu investigators…? It doesn’t make sense, really.

No, there’s something else. I’ve got this vision in my head of my character trudging through the snow. And there’s this cave or something… and inside… I dunno…. There’s like this LOST CITY in there. I don’t know why I keep thinking about this. But this place…. It’s like I’m drawn to it somehow.

At this point I back off and say I’m not trying to tell him how to run his game, I’m just thinking out loud here. But the Keeper was like, “ah no… I can totally use this stuff.” We played out the business side of the game and I set up a bootlegging run between a hillbilly named Cleetus up in Canada and a crime boss named Nadine in Vermont. On the run while my headlights were out, I see on the road what looked like Leroy Brown. But I brush it off. The chance of him being here like that? It’s too much of a coincidence. Besides, I got business… I even have some goon riding shotgun to keep an eye on me. And a fight in the dark like this… it could easily go sideways.

Back in town I ask the professor type player what he thinks. Why is my character so obsessed with this cave that may or may not even be up in Canada? Well obviously it’s either a memory from a past life or else a vision of the future. The guy goes off on the history of the Vikings, these settlements that mysteriously disappeared, Harry Houdini’s interest in the occult. He finds some information on this in his library… but you know, there’s probably somebody at Miskatonic University that knows more about this.

We turn back to the Keeper and I ask if we could go there and find out more about this.  He’s nodding his head. “Oh yeah, you can do that.” But then the other player is like, “hold on… can I go meta for a moment here?” And I’m thinking, man… this was just starting to get interesting, but I didn’t say anything.

The guy is suddenly real concerned that this is going to mess up what the Keeper had planned. Us putting stuff in the game…? It’s making him improvise too much maybe. Also, we have this other player coming back the next session. There’s a bunch of canned adventure modules set at Miskatonic University. Maybe we should plan to play one of those… and then the Keeper can hook back into whatever he actually had planned for the campaign.

Something like that.

Now there was more subtext and interplay here than I’ve described. And the Keeper did say that he liked this sort of collaborative storytelling– his words, there. But we have a player here that actively does not want the play to go off the rails. I didn’t really even know what to say.

Evidently… the scariest thing that can happen in a Call of Cthulhu game is that players might at some point make a meaningful choice that departs from the script!

  • Brian Renninger says:

    A couple thoughts here. A lot of CoC is very much a railroad and providing the GM hooks to riff off of is fairly uncommmon. But, I think it great you are trying. It could lead to awesomeness.

    On the failing to remember the push mechanics, are the other players more familiar with the earlier editions? Because they didn’t have the push mechanic.

    So, if the players are old time CoC players they could well be set in their ways.

    • Jeffro says:

      Nah, I don’t think they are old school. The Keeper uses a bunch of Creepy Pasta… maybe some kind of flash fiction or something to beef up his game…? He has a non-Lovecraftian premise that would make for a continuing TV show like X-files or something.

      I love how my character turned into an A. Merritt type hero just on the basis of another guy at the table being familiar with early 20th century spiritualism and so forth.

      I believe the Keeper has set up my character to be some sort of demonic entity. That’s really going to complicate my settling down with a mysterious elf woman in the end game!

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Well, if the GM doesn’t run with the lob you’ve pitched him, he’s a fool. Characters with inexplicable cthonic yearnings are a perfectly Lovecraftian trope.

    • Jeffro says:

      There’s the other Lovercraftian trope. The Keeper throws me his lobs… but then I explain to him how it’s all just some coincidence. There could be an actual Deep One banging around in a closet and I will explain that it’s just the house settling.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    Also, if he’s uncomfortable improvising. In the old scenario supplement The Asylum and Other Tales, there is a scenario called Black Devil Mountain that could be easily adapted to your suggestions. Not sure how you might work such a suggestion in.

  • Robert R. says:

    No, there’s something else. I’ve got this vision in my head of my character trudging through the snow. And there’s this cave or something… and inside… I dunno…. There’s like this LOST CITY in there. I don’t know why I keep thinking about this. But this place…. It’s like I’m drawn to it somehow.

    Are you sure it’s your character that’s headed for an encounter with the Old Ones?

  • NARoberts says:

    I feel like I’ve heard the idea expressed that the “illusion of choice” systems of Videogame RPGs might be retroactively informing the type of experience that tabletop games are played for. Can’t remember where I hear this though.


    • Jeffro says:

      The advent of the saved game is a major departure from tabletop games. The idea of an actual campaign in the sense that wargamers and roleplayers consider it is largely foreign. Syberia and Starcraft alike both follow the “string of pearls” design model. You are faced with an obstacle with a variety of solutions… but the idea of going off the rails in inconceivable. By the time computing advanced to the point where it could actually handle genuine campaigns… the overall chaos of things like FPS, RTS, and MMORPG games emerged and video games departed onto an entirely different path.

      On the tabletop side in the mid-eighties, string of pearls would have been pushed hard as an inherently more “mature” approach to role-playing– esp. compared to “hack and slash” dungeon crawls. But the semblance of “story” it enables comes at the expense of player autonomy.

      Children of the eighties would have a harder time developing sandboxing skills in this environment. If they looked to the adventure modules of their day, they would have as hard of a time imagining wide open rpg campaigns as children of the console age.

  • Cambias says:

    Call of Cthulhu, by its nature as a horror-story game, requires a certain amount of railroading: the investigators have to investigate, learn Shocking Truths, and ultimately discover the Big Horrifying Thing. That’s the experience the players have signed on for.

    Now, there are ways to let the players drive the train: give them multiple paths to lead to the Big Horrifying Thing, and let the Shocking Truths give them a chance of stopping, or at least surviving, the ending.

    But I think we need to start acknowledging that different games fit different game structures better. There is no One True Way.

    • Jeffro says:

      The implied campaign of the rules system is inconsistent with the type of roleplaying you describe here. I want to play the actual game, not the one that is imposed on it out of habit. I concede that 95% of people playing in the wilds do not want what I want and half of them wouldn’t know what to do with someone that did.

      • Cambias says:

        I’ve been playing CoC literally since it was first published, and I don’t see how the “actual game” differs from what I describe. Page 216 of the 7th Edition Keeper Rulebook spells it out almost exactly as I do above.

        Now, your account of how the Keeper in the game you played in was ignoring some of the new rules does suggest that he was missing some great opportunities.

        • Jeffro says:

          I am talking about the implied game of just chapter five by itself.

          There is a great deal of material there that is inconsistent with the stereotypical CoC session.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    So you have a player who wants CoC to play like a script being read?

    I don’t know where to start.

    Dice imply an element of chance?
    Role playing?

    Horror stories and railroading I get, but this player seems to want someone to read him a story.

    • Jeffro says:

      I don’t understand the need to stop play. The Keeper will make rulings about the game state. No player will affect it without going through his adjudication. The Keeper was not giving off any signals that he was frustrated or pushed out of his comfort zone. Finally, the other player was embellishing the new elements with his own spin.

      Why stop the game on behalf of a Keeper’s *potential* discomfort? I find this to be out of bounds just like I did when the Keeper told me my character did something that I didn’t actually want to do.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Potential discomfort?

    Makes me wonder if there isn’t some history between that player and the Keeper.

    Or someone else in the game. I believe you did say that this was the GM’s first CoC campaign? Maybe this is some kind of fallout from a previous campaign in another system.

    Just seems strange, in a way that has nothing to do with the game system.

    • Jeffro says:

      My read is that the Keeper has everything well in hand. Didn’t sense any history. This player sings the praises of the Keeper to passers by.

      Again, I can be off… but my impression is that this is the first time with this group that a player started playing instead of waiting to be led by the nose.

      The concept that he has of role-playing *requires* that the players have no significant choice or autonomy. The fact that everything was going off the rails is what made *him* uncomfortable because that just is not his concept of what the game is.

      Every game I have observed being run by people under thirty is done with no player autonomy. Certainly all the Pathfinder and 4e and 5e games at cons. The Firefly and Dr. Who games I sat in on at conventions were also that way.

      And here comes the objection: “but con games HAVE to be different from real rpg sessions.” No they don’t. Yes there are some differences in play depending on the time limit and the venue. But the assumptions these people have about how these games work are consistent between conventions and home games.

      • That boggles me. I’ve run Firefly games at cons. One scenario I’ve run five times with four different outcomes.

        I am, of course, well over 30.

      • John E. Boyle says:

        “Every game I have observed being run by people under thirty is done with no player autonomy”

        Ah. That tells me a lot. I’ve seen that type of sequential play before, and it always seems to be with groups <30.

        I wonder if part of this is that they just haven't read as much yet.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    I don’t get the idea that horror has to be a railroad. Sure, you can have your big bad but, the players don’t have to bite. They way to do it is to have enough going on that eventually they bite on something. Have several big bads. Offer several scenario hooks simultaneously. Let them choose what draws their attention the most. Or, do multiples threads at the same time. It’ll be sure to confuse them. But, when they realize there are multiple unrelated horrible things happening, it’s is even more of a real Lovecraftian revelation.

    • John E. Boyle says:


      I prefer open-ended campaigns myself. Multiple Big Bads, multiple scenario pathways, competing spheres of influence for the enemies (with player attempts to set one against another).

      One problem I’ve run into is that for a lot of people, horror is a violent mystery with one root cause or puzzle at the end, and there is only one way to get there, hence the railroad effect.

      It doesn’t have to be that way, but that is how many see horror and Call of Cthulhu: living out a short story rather than living in a campaign world.

  • Bigby's Typing Hands says:

    This is old school approach, though. The character quest. We used to have guys that wanted to found kingdoms, make an artifact, have the most glorious dwarven burial shrine, etc. Always made for a better campaign.

    I guess the railroad thing has a little to do with the difficulty of designing a good horror session? A lot of WFRP sessions were like that. They also tended towards the Big Boss at the end trope, too, now that I think back.

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