Cthulhu Dark

edited March 2011 in Directed Promotion
Good morning, Story Games.

Here is Cthulhu Dark, my rules-light Lovecraftian game. (It gets its name because it's essentially Cthulhu Light, but you can't call a Cthulhu game that, so it's Dark.)

I've been playing this for a while and it works remarkably well. The rules are fun and incredibly minimal: they fit on one sheet of paper. You don't need a character sheet to play, so you can start playing after two minutes of prep. And, despite the simplicity, there are some interesting rules twists: look at the Suppressing Knowledge rule for an example.

At the moment, it's designed for running prewritten Cthulhu scenarios. In time, I'd like it to work for improvised and perhaps GMless games. There'll be some equivalent of Apocalypse World's Fronts, which lets you advance the horror bit by bit.

Also, here is a really important thing. One of the main reasons for writing Cthulhu Dark was that people wanted to buy my scenarios without buying a rules book. So, I wrote Cthulhu Dark, to let me publish them as standalone products.

You can do the same. I know various people on Story Games write Cthulhu scenarios: if you want to publish them, without being dependent on an external system, you are very, very welcome to use Cthulhu Dark. Put simply, you include Cthulhu Dark at the back of a scenario, free of charge, and publish it as a standalone thing. Here are some more details.

Comments

  • Graham,

    This is super cool. I love the idea of system-agnostic adventure writing and this will make it so easy and add genuine value. Plus it is a really solid system that hits all the Lovecraftian high points.
  • Love the pamphlet layout.
  • This is very slick.

    The only thing I don't fully understand is the re-rolling rules. Is the idea that you can always have a reroll (and just one, right?), as long as there is a chance it triggers an increase in Insanity? Is this intended to interact with the fiction in any way, or is it just a simple resource-management thing: you can reroll whenever you like, but at the risk of increasing your Insanity score?
  • Ash, the layout is by Brennen Reece. It's lovely. He did it without asking: one day, I checked my email and my little game had been beautifully laid out. He is basically the Layout Fairy.

    Jason, I would love people to use it for scenario writing. It'll make my day/month/year.
  • Holy *#@!.

    So simple. So f-ing simple. And brilliant. Graham, I would have paid money for these.

    Slick layout. Smart writing. An obvious understanding of the lore. Damn I love DIY. No need to pad your writing to make your penny a word.

    I would love to tinker with that adventure generating format.

    I hate you and your talent, he said jealously.
  • Paul,

    Interestingly, that's a question we asked after playing last night.

    Official answer: No. Rerolls work like they do in Lacuna: you reroll, it doesn't interact with the narrative, but you risk coming closer to Bad Stuff Happening.

    Alternative answer, which I will test next week: Yes. When you roll and fail, you fail in the story. You can try again if you push yourself (i.e. roll the Insanity Die).

    They are elegant in different ways. The first is mechanically elegant, quick and doesn't fuck with the narrative. The second is elegant because it answers the perennial question: "Can I just try again?". Go ahead, knock yourself out.

    The question of whether you only get one reroll? That's deliberately unspecified. It works either way, I think.
  • edited March 2011
    Hey Graham, in some prewritten Cthulhu scenarios investigators run into things that are so mind blowing they automatically lose some sanity even if they make their roll. Do you mirror this in your Cthulhu Dark games?

    Anybody have the maths to tell me how many Insanity rolls it takes on average to reach 5 Insanity? Or better yet, how long before it's likely that 1 out 4 or 5 players reaches 5? This could be very useful for planning/pacing adventures...

    I plan on using CD to run a Cthuhu Rising scenario (Fragmented Sanity). There's lots of potential fighting with non-mythos agents (and monsters) involved, so I'll be using the optional Harm rules. Knowing the above will help there too.

    Thanks!
  • edited March 2011
    Hey Graham, in some prewritten Cthulhu scenarios investigators run into things that are so mind blowing they automatically lose some sanity even if they make their roll. Do you mirror this in your Cthulhu Dark games?
    Basically, no.

    Here's the thing. In Lovecraft, there's no concept of some things being more scary than other things. For example, there's no concept of Cthulhu being more scary than a Colour.

    Every Mythos creature is fucking terrifying. If you're up against a Colour, it will drive you mad, just as Cthulhu will drive you mad, just as the Deep Ones will drive you mad.

    So simplify, simplify, and keep Insanity to a single mechanic.
    Anybody have the maths to tell me how many Insanity rolls it takes on average to reach 5 Insanity? Or better yet, how long before it's likely that 1 out 4 or 5 players reaches 5? This could be very useful for planning/pacing adventures...
    Ten is the magic number. Put ten things, in your scenarios, to shock the Investigators. On average, with a group of five-ish investigators, that will send one mad.

    Or here is an alternative way to calculate it. When the Investigators roll 6s when investigating, they will glimpse beyond human knowledge. This will probably give them Insanity rolls.

    So, actually, put about six specific things in your scenarios to shock the Investigators. Also have a rag-bag of horrors that they will glimpse while investigating. (For example, if you have Innsmouth jewellery in your scenario, they might glimpse the grotesque creatures depicted in it.)

    (Also, I think you mean 6 Insanity. You go mad when you reach 6. What you'll find is that, at the end, almost everyone is on 5 Insanity, one step away from madness.)
    I plan on using CD to run a Cthuhu Rising scenario (Fragmented Sanity). There's lots of potential fighting with non-mythos agents (and monsters) involved, so I'll be using the optional Harm rules. Knowing the above will help there too.
    Oooh, Harm. I think Harm will work fine, but I haven't tried it.
  • edited March 2011
    Thanks! 9-10 was what I guessed as I was writing my question. I said 5 Insanity, because it's easy to figure at that point everyone has a 1/6 chance of going starkers on their next Insanity roll... That's when things get interesting, or folks look for ways to suppress knowledge to lower their Insanity.

    Harm - I'll let you know how it goes, but I'm not sure how soon that will be. :(
  • edited March 2011
    So here you go. Number of rolls down the side. Across the top, the percentage of Investigators who will be at each level of Insanity (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6) for that number of rolls.

    0 100%
    1 17% 83% 0% 0% 0% 0%
    2 3% 42% 56% 0% 0% 0%
    3 0% 16% 56% 28% 0% 0%
    4 0% 6% 39% 46% 9% 0%
    5 0% 2% 23% 50% 23% 2%
    6 0% 1% 13% 45% 36% 5%
    7 0% 0% 7% 36% 45% 11%
    8 0% 0% 4% 28% 50% 19%
    9 0% 0% 2% 20% 51% 27%
    10 0% 0% 1% 14% 49% 36%

    So, after eight rolls, 4% of Investigators are on 3 Insanity, 28% are on 4 Insanity, 50% are on 5 Insanity and 19% are on 6.

    What that means in practice is: after eight rolls, half the Investigators are one step away from madness and one has gone insane.
  • Awsome! Thanks again!
  • Excellent! Though I think the numbering on the last page of the 3rd document (scenarios) is off (there are two 3's and no 5)

    Rob H.
  • Hmmm, neat. A variant I might be inclined to try is making everyone's current Insanity score a secret kept by the GM. I mean, we all know we're perfectly sane, right?
  • Or each player knows everyone else's score but not their own...

    I'm sane! It's you who are all crazy!
  • Graham,

    I was wondering if you could address something for me that has always boggled me about this style of play. So this style of play used to be my MAIN style of play back when I ran a whole lot of Chill. In Chill you had this gradation of success. All the published scenarios had this break down of what information you would learn at each level of success. Often these were as fancy as fairly elaborate hand outs. On a basic success you get the birth certificate. On a medium success you get the birth certificate and the land deed. On an extra-ordinary success you get the birth certificate AND the land deed AND the newspaper article.

    I see that idea in Trail of Cthulhu with the whole "having the skill gets you the basic and necessary information and spending points gets you more." And now I see that here with whole 1 gets you basic and necessary information and higher values get you more. So that's three different games that all raise this basic question:

    Why as the GM am I generating all this excess creative work that the players might never actually see?

    The ONLY context I can imagine that, that is at ALL creative or socially fulfilling is if you actually go and publish your adventure and that it gets played multiple times, across multiple groups such that each group experiences a slightly different distribution of your content.

    Without that publishing context why would I do this to myself in my home game? Why would I write fake articles and newspaper clippings and documents that the players might never actually see because we're only going to play the thing once?

    Jesse
  • If it always boggled you, why did you play Chill a whole lot? I think maybe it only started boggling you later. Maybe before it boggled you that prep work was pretty fun.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarIf it always boggled you, why did you play Chill a whole lot? I think maybe it only started boggling you later. Maybe before it boggled you that prep work was pretty fun.
    No, it boggled me back then. Here was my general pattern.

    For the *first* adventure I'd put in the work. This inevitably led to me staying up into until like 4am the night before the session frantically writing up newspaper articles and psychic dream sequences and land deeds and birth certificates and letters. Then during play the players wouldn't see like 50% of it.

    So, I'd sit there feeling like an exhausted idiot and for most future sessions I'd just write the basic clues and hand those out no matter the outcome. I still felt like an idiot for not being able to play the game "correctly" but at least I wasn't exhausted. I liked the clue chain setup but could never understand why the game advocated generating so much content you wouldn't need. I always assumed there was some hidden play culture I wasn't keyed into for which there was something else going on here I didn't understand or know about.

    Jesse
  • I just make my players do all that crap.

    "Wow, you rolled really well! You find a whole newspaper article about the guy. So... what does it say?"
  • Posted By: RogerI just make my players do all that crap.
    Sure. But that's still not the procedure as written.

    I'm asking about the social/cultural/creative value of using the procedure the way all these texts tell you to.

    Jesse
  • edited March 2011
    Posted By: Jesse
    I see that idea in Trail of Cthulhu with the whole "having the skill gets you the basic and necessary information and spending points gets you more." And now I see that here with whole 1 gets you basic and necessary information and higher values get you more. ...

    Why as the GM am I generating all this excess creative work that the players might never actually see?
    It's a fair question. There isn't an official answer, because Cthulhu Dark lets you work out those levels of information for yourself. But here is how I do it (and it is the method outlined in Dark Tales). This will be rather long.

    First, decide what the Investigators will discover if they roll a 4. For example, the Investigators are questioning a brothel keeper about a regular visitor to the brothel. You decide that, if they are successful, they will get this clue:

    The gentleman was well-dressed and wore a yellow scarf. He visited a different girl every night. Afterwards, he got a cab back to St Giles Church.

    Now, if the Investigators roll a 5, they discover everything humanly possible. So you need to make more stuff up!

    The gentleman was well-dressed and wore a diamond tie-pin and a yellow scarf. He visited a different girl every night. It reminds you, strangely, of a tale of a man called Yellowscarf Jack. He had a dark reputation and people in the East End were terrified of him. But that folktale was from Georgian times: there is no possibility he could still be alive. According to the folktales, he regularly prayed at St Giles Church.

    All this stuff is easy to invent, by the way. Riff on a few familiar legends and add in some historical fluff. You could do it easily: your legends would be different, but they'd be as good.

    If the Investigators roll a 6, they glimpse beyond human knowledge. So make weird stuff up! This is even easier, actually: throw around some supernatural references.

    The gentleman was well-dressed and wore a diamond tie-pin and a yellow scarf. He visited a different girl every night. After he met them, the girls seemed changed, as though a part of their soul had drained away. Most oddly of all, every one of them bore a child afterwards, even Emily, who was 45 and whom the doctor said could never bear children. He prayed, they said, at St Giles Church.

    The lovely thing is: as you make stuff up, you blurt out wonderfully horrific things. For example, that thing about all the girls getting pregnant? I invented that on Wednesday, during our game, while I was making stuff up. That thing about Georgian times? Same thing. Invented on the spur of the moment.

    Now, that's not an official guide on How To Play. That's just how I play. But it illustrates the creative value: those extra levels of success force you to add richness and depth.
  • Graham,

    And you write those out before play, correct?

    Don't you find yourself bursting to share the higher levels of success information when the players only roll that 4?

    Jesse
  • No, no. You make them up in play. It's really easy.

    I mean, do it how you want. Roger's method, above, sounds good.

    But the interesting thing is that the levels of success add layers of richness to the information. Richness that, sometimes, you didn't realise was there.
  • Oh, okay, I see how you're working it.

    Thanks.

    Jesse
  • Also, and it probably goes without saying, but Play Unsafe has lots of good advice about how to pull that off well.
  • I like this. A lot. I've been dying for a free, ultra-light system to write Cthulhu for and this seems to do everything I need. My schedule is quite bleak, but I'll let you know if I get to test this.

    Have you run your own ToC scenarios with this, Graham?
  • Ville, yes! At a recent convention, I ran all my Trail adventures with Cthulhu Dark. It worked beautifully.

    My favourite was The Dying Of St Margaret's. When it's run with Cthulhu Dark, it becomes a creepy ghost story. We played it in two hours and it was satisfying.
  • Two hours?! Damn. But what in the mechanics makes it more of a ghost story than when played with Trail? I found that Trail is pretty damn lig...dark already.
  • edited March 2011
    It's just that Cthulhu Dark is much lighter mechanically. So it feels like you're sitting round, casually, telling ghost stories.

    We played on Sunday evening, when we were all tired. We sat about for two hours, drinking wine and playing this ghostly little scenario. It was a beautiful game.
  • It would be totally hot if you could use Harm like you use Insanity, for slightly more pulpy Cthulhu games, and roll it as a die when you're willing to bleed to do well.
  • Lenny, that's the idea exactly.
  • Posted By: Leonard BalseraIt would be totally hot if you could use Harm like you use Insanity, for slightly more pulpy Cthulhu games, and roll it as a die when you're willing to bleed to do well.
    That's how I plan to play it.
  • Delightfully, Cthulhu Dark features on Full Frontal Nerdity today.
  • Very cool, Graham!

    I see the comic also refers to Apocalypse World.
  • Jesse, another effect that such a level of preparation creates is that it means you as a GM begin to organize mysteries much more naturalistically because it helps you organize those levels of clues. For example, it really helps the clue-creation if you decide "the killer was Fast Eddie, who is not very strong physically, but got the drop on his victim, and stabbed him with that curvy cult dagger, and tried to hide the body fast, before hurrying back to the wedding reception", because that essentially creates the levels of clues for:

    * interrogating Eddie
    * forensically evaluating the victim
    * examining the dagger
    * looking at the crime scene
    * questioning wedding reception guests

    Without further work. Whereas if you go "huh, I bet they will question the reception guests" and try to work it out from there it's much harder and less rewarding.

    Basically, it is verisimilitude training, helping you make a living world that feels real, because an artificial one is WAY too much work.
  • Graham,

    one thing I am not entirely getting. The rules say that you can get the Insanity die when "you will risk your sanity to succeed". What could that mean, in fiction? (When you decide playing it not purely mechanically but as based in fiction.)

    Michal
  • Posted By: Bifione thing I am not entirely getting. The rules say that you can get the Insanity die when "you will risk your sanity to succeed". What could that mean, in fiction? (When you decide playing it not purely mechanically but as based in fiction.)
    Well. Partly, it's purely mechanical. I want to tempt you to roll that die.

    And then it's stuff like this:
    • If you're chasing someone in a car, you're willing to drive too fast and stress yourself out.
    • If you're lookiing at artwork, you're willing to look a little too close, if you'll get the answer you need.
    • If you're reading a book, you're willing, not just to read analytically, but to lose yourself in the book.
    • If you're trying to remember something, you're willing to explore dark corners of your memory.
    • If you're picking a lock, you're trying to feel or visualise the tumblers turning.
    Does that make sense? You're willing to push yourself, surrender to insight, lose yourself, go too far, not hold back, not be careful. Any of those are bad, bad things where the Mythos is concerned.
  • edited February 2012
    Thanks Graham, it does indeed make sense. I could conceptualise it for myself in the following way:

    Our culture is based on the idea of autonomous individual subjects. The human mind is encultured from the very childhood, trained to conduct techniques enacting the sense of the self, enacting the "proper" boundary between oneself and others. We're taught to make sense of the world with constructs of linearity of time and stable or objective reality, taught to perceive oneself as a unity of body, emotions and the mind bound by will, led to believe in control, autonormy and free will, The very language one needs to master to be able to learn about the world and oneself is already giving a certain picture of the world and the self, and this picture is not easy to break. As a culture we do whatever we can to forget that there is nothing like free will, that our nervous systems work like electrical conductors trying to resonate in tune with the frequency of the social group, that our reactions are pre-programmed, that we are like empty books, inscribed by the blind force of the collective being. Antisocial psychopaths, raving poets, monks, ascetics and cultists are among those who realise that this is an illusion, that their own selves are just figments, unstable constructs, and that human society with all its norms and values is just a blindly self-reproducing convention, below which there is nothing. As a result, some destroy themselves, some through "unlearning" cease to be what we would recognise as human, some turn their anger and frustration towards the society, either in their striving for power treating people like cattle or believing that destroying the whole of human society will get rid of an abomination and move the universe closer to perfection. (I haven't quite figured out yet what would Lovecraftian entities be in this vision, but bear with me.)

    In Cthulhu Dark, characters willing to risk their sanity are risking this encultured perception and enactment of stable and human-friendly reality. They are willing to lose themselves, to melt the boundaries of their egos, to deconstruct the very language giving the seemingness of order, to return to the flow of pure being, to give oneself to the interplay of cosmic forces, to unbecome. They go too far, they forget or dissolve themselves in the task. They go too deep, uncovering the essence of what it means to be human, and risk that it obliterates under their penetrating gaze. All of Graham's examples can be read in this light.
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