Thursday, December 04, 2008

Deep Ones & Dynamite

Every once in a while some of my favorite people on the internets complain about all the people ruining the Call of Cthulhu scene. It's been a while since I ran CoC, but it will always have a special place in my heart. One of my earliest successful (at least by some standards) campaigns was a CoC outing that ended when Gopher's big game hunter used the Mi-Go freeze ray on Tsathogghua's warpdrive, which brought down the whole engine room of the toad-gog's spaceship. Dave's professor escaped, but I think he drowned in a river shortly thereafter. Anyway, what my online pals (and others) claim is that CoC fandom is infested with a bunch of people who think that Call of Cthulhu should be run light on combat and heavy on all that crap that "ROLE players not ROLL players" seem to love.

Now I will readily admit that in some ways I am a provincial yokel. Nearly every game table I've ever sat down at has been in central Illinois. So I don't expect that my experiences with RPG fandom are going to line up with those in Prussia or Uruguay. But I think it is somewhat interesting to note that having run more CoC con games than I can readily remember, I don't once recall encountering someone who bristled at the way I run Call of Cthulhu. And how do I run it? With automatic gunfire and explosions. Flipping through my 3rd edition Keeper's Book, I am reminded how many monsters can be killed with tommy guns and/or dynamite. And I generally allowed my players such equipment, though the smarter players opted for shotguns if their PC wasn't a gunbunny.

My normal con experience would go something like this:

1) I hand out some character sheets.
2) The players celebrate "My mobbed up hit man has a tommy gun and a switchblade and the skills to use them? Sweet!" or "My professor knows three spells and one of them is actually useful! Yippee!"
3) We spend an hour or two carefully investigating the lurking menace followed by a similar amount of time blasting the holy hell out of cultists, Deep Ones, ghouls, werewolves, Tully's monsters, mummies, little old ladies, IRS officials, zombies, etc.
4) Cthulhu, Azathoth, or Dracula shows up and everybody dies.
5) Players go home happy.

In short, Call of Cthulhu ain't deep and it ain't rocket science. The fact that I can run it successfully when lots of other games elude me pretty much proves that point. The only thing baffling me is that out there one can apparently find people who play CoC for the nuance and subtlety. Personally, I find CoC about as nuanced and subtle as rolled up back issue of Power Man & Iron Fist whacking you in the nose.


  1. The links you posted don't go to the complaints, but I was curious if they had a problem with Trail of Cthulhu. If so... the note on "Why This Game Exists" from the introduction might be helpful...


    Why This Game Exists

    This game exists in order to adapt the greatest RPG of all time, Call of Cthulhu, to a different rules set, the GUMSHOE engine. Why on Earth would we do a thing like that? First of all, part of what makes Call of Cthulhu so great is its theme, taken from the cosmic despair of the greatest horror writer of the 20th century, HP Lovecraft. We kept that. Second, part of what makes Call of Cthulhu so great is its deliberate decision to make characters increasingly vulnerable to the horrors they face, to give their bravery real meaning and force real mechanical
    consequences in the game. We kept that, too. So what did we change? Let me change the subject.

    The greatest playwright ever is William Shakespeare. His greatest play isKing Lear. Why would Akira Kurosawa make that play into a movie? And why would he set that movie, Ran, in samurai-era Japan instead of quasi-ancient Britain? Because more people want to – or can — see a movie than
    a play, and because transferring the story to Japan makes its themes paradoxically clearer than leaving them in the “familiar” world Shakespeare wrote. Did Ran improve on King Lear, or make it obsolete? Don’t be ridiculous. Did it do something worth doing by changing King Lear? Absolutely.

  2. Anonymous10:31 AM

    Put me down in the explosions and tommy guns camp.

  3. CoC fandom is infested with a bunch of people who think that Call of Cthulhu should be run light on combat and heavy on all that crap that "ROLE players not ROLL players" seem to love.

    The important point is that CoC does not have to be combat heavy or action oriented. Does that automatically mean the alternative is 'crap'? No.

    I don't think it's fair to dump CoC players who prefer tackling challenges through problem solving, critical thinking and logic rather than guns blazing in with the story-mode, role-playing White Wolf fans. They are certainly not one in the same. Even D&D games often encourage players to parley or avoid melee unless there is an immediate reward involved.

    If the point is that CoC is becoming infested with story-mode gamers, I agree with your friends, but not because of combat. When CoC was still new, there was the exact opposite reaction, that CoC was infested with D&D players who just wanted to kill everything (which also happened to be the same opinion held by Traveller players back then).

    Hell, play the games the way you like to. What's wrong with blowing things up? Tommy-guns are on the equipment list for a reason. You can bet I'll be unleashing a hail of bullets if I get cornered by some nameless, formless, forgotten mass of tentacles...that IS role-playing as far as I'm concerned.

  4. Maybe you need to find friends who complain less about small issues.

    CoC is rather flexible in play style. You can do one shots and campaigns, violent or investigation. Most games I've played or run have been similar to yours - initial investigation with short bouts of violence, leading up to near apocalyptic level violence. But I can see some groups being attracted to the investigative side as is isn't covered at all in other games. Like many games, the variety of playstyles can result in people findign them selvees in a group with a play style undesirable to them; that's a group problem, not a game problem.

    There are two factors that push CoC from a a straight shootemup like many other games (Almost no game has to be a shootemup, but many more naturally fall in that direction).

    1) gritty lethality. Like most games where one lucky shot can end it, characters tend to be cautious.

    2) The end game baddies are clearly intended to be nearly invincible. Combat with standard tactics isn't going to work. To survive, characters need to totally avoid the location of the entity's arrival, have a very clever plan, or act to prevent the arrival in the first place.

    Shooting Cthulhu isn't an option. Shooting all the cultists is an option.

  5. This is the first thing I've ever read that actually made me want to play Call of Cthulu.

  6. Oh, another must-read bit from Trail...

    Relevant, too!


    Purist or Pulp or Both?

    The game Trail of Cthulhu is intended to tell stories of uncovering the occult horror mysteries of the Cthulhu Mythos. Traditionally, such games fall into one of two camps.

    One is the Purist idiom or mode, which takes a subset of HP Lovecraft’s later and starker works (The Colour Out of Space, At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Out of Time, The Whisperer in Darkness) as its model. It intends to recreate a game of philosophical horror, in which the act of uncovering the truth dooms both active seeker and unfortunate bystander alike.

    The second is the Pulp idiom or mode, which aims rather for the “desperate action” feel of Robert E Howard’s Cthulhu Mythos stories (The Thing on the Roof, The Fire of Asshurbanipal, Skull-Face). It intends to focus on the struggle (especially the physical struggle) against the Mythos, doomed or noble as the case may be. It also privileges character survival somewhat more than does the Purist idiom.

    HP Lovecraft, of course, wrote in both idioms: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Dunwich Horror, and The Shunned House all feature more-or-less resolute monster-hunting Investigators thwarting cosmic evil in Howardian fashion. (Robert E Howard also wrote at least one fine Purist Mythos tale, The Black Stone.) Many of Lovecraft’s finest tales, such as The Call of Cthulhu (which features both neurasthenic scholars uncovering the truth and police raids on vile cults) and The Shadow Over Innsmouth (which features both a desperate chase through a ruined town and a narrative of psychological corruption) draw from both modes for their power. While it is not our job to tell you how to run your game (actually, it is, but we’ll get to that in a later chapter), it seems to us that treating Cthulhoid horrors the way HP Lovecraft does would be a good idea.

    However, for those who wish to emphasize one or another idiom, we have indicated those rules and game elements most suited for the Purist mode with the following symbol...

    and those most suited for the Pulp mode with this one...

    The Keeper may rule that some rules and elements are simply not allowed in her games in order to inculcate a specific flavor of horror, which is after all the entire point. An index of Pulp and Purist rules can be found on p 243.

  7. Hi! I'm a Stupid-Pretentious gamer who runs Cthulhu with depth, nuance, and a French Chef who tends to dynamite mansions that might be haunted. I think your friends are just looking to stir shit up. I suspect you might be looking to stir shit up.

    As someone who knows you can run bloody Amber and Nobilis as mad dungeon crawls with lots of shooting people in the face, and knows equally as well that you can run the most pretentious "ROLE PLAYING NOT ROLL PLAYING" wankfest with systems like Toon and HoL (HOL FOR GOD'S SAKE), I find it disingenuous that you and your friends are succumbing to "One True Wayism" with Call of Cthulhu. I think YOU know those same things, and I'm wondering if you wrote this post to get the vocal CoC diehards to come out of the wood work and fight you in mortal kombat.

    If so, well-played sir. If not, prepare for a Raiden-style beatdown. Rar!

  8. Shooting Cthulhu isn't an option. Shooting all the cultists is an option.

    CoC isn't a Story Game. It's about revelation. How the players make that crucial discovery, and what they do after is completely up to them, whether it involves clever diplomacy, library research, or blowing stuff up.

    In my experience, it's usually a bit of all three.

  9. Anonymous2:14 PM

    "I don't think it's fair to dump CoC players who prefer tackling challenges through problem solving, critical thinking and logic rather than guns blazing in with the story-mode, role-playing White Wolf fans."

    Guns blazing and logic, problem solving, and critical thinking are not mutually exclusive. Depending on how you play it a combat heavy game can require more critical thinking than a combat light one.

  10. Hell yeah.
    My Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign is generally considered (by my players, anyway) to be my most successful long-term campaign, and it was full of two fisted action, rockem' sockem' robots, inbred yokel cultists, and the whole deal positively oozed with Mythos brain matter.
    The investigators even rubbed shoulders with members of the Justice Society of America. No one batted an eyelash and everyone had the time of our rpg lives.
    So I'm pretty sure I was doing it right, even if the squares say otherwise...

  11. Personally, I think that anyone who thinks that Call of Ctuhlhu should only be played with deadly serious earnestness needs to read some of Lovecraft's earlier stories. Sure, he may have taken himself pretty seriously, but, come on, some of them remind me more of The Scary Door than anything else.

  12. Does that automatically mean the alternative is 'crap'? No.

    I probably should have used "stuff" there. As worded it could be read harsher than intended.

  13. Anyone who doesn't run Amber as a shoot-em-up needs to be reminded the Post Brothers and Bugtown are just down the road.

    I'm in the carbolic of acid camp, myself.

  14. Re post: WTF?

    Re Sham: Amen.

    Re Ed: My CoC runs incorporate elements of exactly neither of those modes.

    Re cappadocious: Yeah. Hmmmm.

    Re wulfgar: Indeed.