Hacking Call of Cthuhu for Win and avoiding Fail

edited November 2012 in Story Games
Okay, everybody plays CoC for different reasons. For me, it's an adventure game with horror themes set in the interwar years with close-to-normal-people ranges of ability for the characters.

It's also a game a lot of folks really love, and a distinct number of other folks have tried to play, only for it to end in deep frustration.

Here are some things that I've done that may help that second group of people.

1) Make sure you and your players know what you're getting into ahead of time.
I started playing in the early/mid 1980s with folks who'd mostly played D&D or other TSR adventure games. Today, folks have other backgrounds in games. Try to explain this thing in reference to what they already know.

2) Decide how long you intend to play the characters.
There's a very different and worthwhile approach to making characters for a one-shot versus a short campaign vs an open-ended campaign.
For a one-shot, you may just plain want to use pre-gens. Fictional ties to the adventure aside, build them with high level, relevent skill sets, small in number, using the chargen rules as guidelines or ignoring them entirely.

It's an old game. For any non-combat skills, give them much higher score, since they'll tend to be rolled less frequently. That Punch or Pistol score can be half or less of their skill in Chemistry, since they might roll that combat score 3-5 times in quick order in an action scene, where that Chemistry skill might only be used a couple of time during the entire adventure.

Modify this approach the closer to book chargen rules the closer you get to wanting to play a more traditional open-ended campaign.

For faster play, consider lumping some skills together, especially research skills. Or even go a little pulpy: Have a character type figure out first, have the players allowed to buy a group of skills up to 40% as a whole bundle, then have them spend on individual skills beyond that.

Know where you want things capped. Buying skills to 40-60% should be easy. After that, it should become much harder/expensive, and vastly harder after 80%.

3) Treat non-combat skills as Saving Throws or Quality Check rolls, and decide for your purposes what constitutes a professional level.
IIRC, it used to say that 40% in a skill constitutes a professioal level. Treat that as a a minimum. For those familiar with Trail of Cthulhu, that would be like saying the character simply has the skill.

As Quality Checks. If you have the skill and there is a relevent clue, you get it. Any roll against the skill is basically a secondary quality check. Did you get extra info, did you do it quickly, did you do it without drawing attention to yourself, did you do it without wasting somekind of resource? If mulltiple characters have the skill, rolls can be used to determine which gets the clue, if your players like that sort of thing.

As a Saving Throw: Only when things are truly FUBAR should players be required to roll, and then DO NOT modify the skill. I don't care what the book says. Only on a truly remarkable failure should anything directly dangerous come of a failure even then. Everything else is tough complications.

4) Again, depending on how you play, giev players an idea of what you're going for.

Me? I'm a softie at the beginnning of an adventure and more hardcore towards the end. That's really how I think of normal CoC. Communicate your approach. Also point out that CoC really isn't a period-sandbox for the most part. When you agree to play a CoC game, by implication, your characters are involved in hunting down this mystery until they've resolved the threat, been destroyed one way or another, or basically admitted defeat and retreated completely away and given up. Those are pretty much the core options for PCs.

Alrighty, y'all gimme yers!

Comments

  • edited November 2012
    I would probably just go with #3, and divide the skills into steps like:
    40% - get a basic clue
    60% - get a basic clue and something extra
    80% - get a clue filled with information

    I would let the players know about these steps as well. The thing is that it doesn't really matter how many clues the players get - it should all be about what you do with them (clue-based challenge).

    I could roll, but a failed roll would still give the clue. It would just give some consequence to the action. I would use because to describe what happens to the characters. A monster could be revealed, a human could see them, a curse could take effect, a trap could be triggered, or whatever the situation demands. It could be just as simple as something breaks if it's in the beginning of the scenario or if I don't need any form of suspense, or it could be The Thing That Shouldn't Be Revealed that wants to eat their faces if I feel the scenario is at it's end.

    ---

    I would try to avoid combat, having the players to rely on social skills instead. I mean, you don't bring out your gun and shoot the security guard when he discovers your break and entry in the old museum. One thought I got while writing this, is to treat combat skills like other skills, giving out clues on how to defeat or flee from the opponent (i.e. the monster). Any failed rolls would render consequences. No damage rolls needed, but you need to fulfill some aspects (turn off the light, jump out from the window) to survive the combat.
  • I'd considered something similar with combat skills as well, given the overall style of play. I just happened to have played with enough folks that really do have a core ideas about RPGs derived from their early D&D play that I doubt I'd be able to make that part fly.
  • edited November 2012
    Yeah, it was just a quick thought. I would have no idea how to go through with it. Probably by experimenting with how to present a game system, where you "plant" ways of thinking into the players. It could be as blunt as telling the players that monsters can't be killed with physical force (because dynamite is usually a part of CoC), and that the players need to find clues on how to survive a fight, either by defeating or by fleeing. I mean, a combat could as easily be turned into a chase where the characters has to find their way out of that old museum.

    More subtle ways needs experimenting. One minor step is to remove any kind of hit points (including sanity points), because they can give the assumptions that it's just another D&D game and should be played as such. Some may think this would remove a part of the suspense in the game, but you can as easily create that somewhere else in the system. Like "Do you really want to roll and perhaps face the consequences of that roll?". Don't Rest Your Head does this exceptionally and Dread is built around the same idea.
  • In many ways, Cthulhu Dark is my preferred cthulhu at its essence system of choice. In this thread, I'm more looking for approaches/methods that actually can be applied to CoC specifically without radically altering the core mechanics of that specific game.
  • I would probably just go with #3, and divide the skills into steps like:
    40% - get a basic clue
    60% - get a basic clue and something extra
    80% - get a clue filled with information
    I'd do this too!

    Lots of old-style Keepers do this anyway: you just rolled really well, so here's something extra; you just missed that roll, so you don't get what you wanted, but you get a hint.

  • I like the idea of handling a skill roll more-or-less like an "acting under fire" roll in Apocalypse World: you have the skill, sure--meaning you know how to do this thing--but the percentage reflects how well you're able to stay professional under dire circumstances.
  • I find it odd how some people talk about clues. RPGs have *always* had automatic clues - these are things that players get from basic description and searching of the scene. For a good adventure, those automatic clues should be sufficient to lead the PCs into trouble with a slim chance of getting through it. Skill rolls can be required for additional clues to improve their chances, give them more time, etc.

    (Side Note: The Gumshoe system adds in options for clues that are automatic only if you have the right skill or spend points on that skill. I didn't find that these made a big difference, because we could still miss some of these clues by not having the right skill on hand or missing the points. This might let us be tactical in our investigate skill point spending, except I found that it was impossible to be tactical because I had no basis for deciding whether to spend or not.)

    My two cents on how I would run Call of Cthulhu again:

    1) Definitely give players more points for skills than standard, to give a wider range of skills. (This applies to combat as well as non-combat - because it's weird having huge shotgun skill but no rifle skill at all.) If I were to run it again, I would give a big pool of points with a maximum of +30 in each skill, and then a small pool to be spent wherever.

    2) In the last campaign I GMed, I got a lot of mileage from messing with the identity of the PCs. Each of them found something horrific about themselves, which reflected the common Lovecraft theme of distrust in one's ancestry and identity (i.e. the Innsmouth look, etc.).

    3) I think hit points and death are fine, but I would take some time to emphasize the reality and aftermath of death for the other PCs rather than just reaching for a new character sheet.
  • edited November 2012
    (Side Note: The Gumshoe system adds in options for clues that are automatic only if you have the right skill or spend points on that skill. I didn't find that these made a big difference, because we could still miss some of these clues by not having the right skill on hand or missing the points.
    But it does say in the book that the GM should create clues from whatever skills the players has chosen. The game even got a special sheet for that.
    1) Definitely give players more points for skills than standard, to give a wider range of skills.
    Perhaps assign a number of skills points to certain areas of expertise, like in Vampire? Areas like communication skills, combat skills and such.

    [edit] Perhaps even have static formulas, like Education×20 points to spend on academic skills, Education×10 points to spend on communication et c.
  • edited November 2012
    Also...
    1) Definitely give players more points for skills than standard, to give a wider range of skills. (This applies to combat as well as non-combat - because it's weird having huge shotgun skill but no rifle skill at all.) If I were to run it again, I would give a big pool of points with a maximum of +30 in each skill, and then a small pool to be spent wherever.
    I wouldn't do this, exactly; achieving your desired result is probably better accomplished (as you just about say in your parenthetical) by shrinking and deduping the skill list. Anything that makes setup take longer isn't doing this game any favors, in my experience.

    Unlike my previous suggestion, this is one I've tested extensively, with great results. That GURPSy-RIFTSy skill list is a fossil from the sim-by-default era. Fewer skills, fewer points: faster setup, more time for extracosmic horrors and/or shooting cultists. A big win, all around.
  • My CoC games have started using the Unknown Armies system. Skill lists are personalized instead of the massive fiddly system Chaosium gave us, like a professional burglar has Breaking & Entering, but the teenager has Sneaking Out Past Curfew. I also ripped out Fear and Noble stimuli for all the characters, letting them trigger to flip any roll for the scene, at the cost of 1 Sanity per roll (stress and all that). Thinking about porting in the Hardened/Failed notches as well, but at that point we might as well just play UA.
  • Bonus of the new skill system: applying the skill penumbra concept. Professional Photographer encompasses Photography, camera repair, and contacts. Saves skill points.
  • Perhaps assign a number of skills points to certain areas of expertise, like in Vampire? Areas like communication skills, combat skills and such.

    [edit] Perhaps even have static formulas, like Education×20 points to spend on academic skills, Education×10 points to spend on communication et c.
    I think 1e actually worked similar to what you suggest in your edit, if i remember correctly, but was considered over complicated and dropped.

    Scrape:
    Not sure what the penumbra concept is that you're talking about. Sounds a bit like the old WEG Star Wars set up, which would be pretty damn great actually.

  • mmmm.... My tricks tend to be pretty specific to the home group. Not sure how useful they are outside that.
  • I wouldn't do this, exactly; achieving your desired result is probably better accomplished (as you just about say in your parenthetical) by shrinking and deduping the skill list. Anything that makes setup take longer isn't doing this game any favors, in my experience.

    Unlike my previous suggestion, this is one I've tested extensively, with great results. That GURPSy-RIFTSy skill list is a fossil from the sim-by-default era. Fewer skills, fewer points: faster setup, more time for extracosmic horrors and/or shooting cultists. A big win, all around.
    Good point. Both the number of skills and the high granularity definitely slow down character creation. My thinking was just that the extra points are more of a minimal change than rewriting the skill list - i.e. if you want to run something with minimal changes, it's easier to add the extra points, because all the rules, modules, character sheets, etc. refer to the existing skill lists.

    In any case, it seems like the topic is more about running CoC than how to modify it.
  • I'll take any suggestions, but yes, John is right: i'm mostly looking for techniques that stay pretty close to the core original rules.

    Lisa, go ahead and post them, especially if you think they help with some commonly encountered rough spot, or even a rare one that your people ran across that could trip someone else up.
  • Unknown Armies definitely deals with skills and skill checks better.

    I've been lucky enough to play one shots with CoC's designers at various times and they tend to gen characters in a very Fate skills pyramid style. Assign two at 75% three at 50% three at 30% and go. No spending skill points. Identify what you want to be best at doing. Make that happen. Play the game.
  • edited November 2012
    That's a good approach too. I might even extend that to clusters of skills.

    The chargen does really show a whole lot of age in it, especially where skill point distribution is used. Of course, i also play an old edition, so that may have something to do with it.

    Out of curiosity, what do you folks tell new CoC players when you're describing it in terms of expected playstyle? I usually give an overview of the setting, even if it gives away some of the overall setting mystery, and then describe how it compares and contrasts with ye olde D&D ( since most people I know have some familiarity with that).
  • I tell them that it is a game about normal people investigating horrific misteries. They will risk life and sanity, and there is a real chance of losing them. Also, I tell them that the game strives for grittiness rather than cinematics. That usually covers it.
  • My tricks:

    0. Talk to your players.
    1. Write a "Last week on..." This keeps the information fresh for all of you.
    2. I've had folks run PCs with eidetic memory. I love it -- it justifies why all of the clues are remembered in perfect detail. But, even if you don't have that justification, let them have it. The genre depends on this. Okay, maybe you want the "roll to remember Dreamlands adventure" roll (though I don't encourage that), but that should be the rare exception.
    3. Tailor things to your group. Plant NPCs in earlier adventures. Try to avoid "And you are investigators" if that's not the actual premise. Um... I think I explain some of that here http://www.labcats.org/cthulhupunk/index.php/"Common_Courtesy":_Heavy_Analysis_Version:_Adapting_Scenarios -- but bear in mind that I'm also using a different system (modified Over the Edge) with PCs more powerful than CoC PCs.
    4. Choice of scenario is important. I tried to figure out how to run Beyond the Mountains of Madness for Josh and Beth playing their PCs from that game, and decided that it just wasn't workable. I eventually ran it straight (and not as well as I'd have liked, but well enough given one of my constraints was that a couple of players were gone from NYC after the summer).
    5. Read the scenario a lot. "Signs Writ in Scarlet" from Sacraments of Evil is very good, but there's a lot of information to keep track of. I read it, I take notes, I rewrite my notes, I reread... A lot of the note taking is the action of writing getting stuff into my brain, but well organized notes are really, really useful.
    6. So, Gumshoe did not start "don't make the plot screech to a halt if the PCs blow the Find Clue roll". (Gumshoe did something much more important -- it focused on how to write scenarios with the premise that the PCs will find all of the clues.) Good GMs figured that one out long ago, even if some scenario and rpg authors did not. What do the PCs absolutely need, if you're running a mystery? Make sure there are several ways to get it. No, that does not make a bad scenario good. Yes, you can still want to shake the author and say "What were you thinking?" But, don't let that stop you from making the scenario playable for your group if you want to run it.
    7. You'll note I said "if you're running a mystery". CoC does mysteries, but sometimes, mysteries unfold around the PCs rather than need to be solved. Know the difference. Sometimes, there's a not-a-mystery. Know what you have.
    8. Make sure you're on the same page as the players. Are they good with no-wins? Are they good with their PCs never knowing what's going on? How scary are they willing to have things? What are their squick points? If this is a home group, learn what you can about their lines and veils, and fucking respect them. For myself, I'm good with a certain amount of dark, and generally delighted if there's a theoretical win condition, even if there's no way our group would have found it. This is usually true of a convention run. One shot or campaign? Design conditions are different.
    9. Read the scenarios with that in mind. When I started running, I kind of blipped over how rapey Masks of Nyarlathotep is. And, that's an element that can be easily removed. The major NPCs don't have a rape background; it's just color -- cultists have ceremonies where they kill people and ceremonies where they and Unspeakable Things do unspeakable things. That latter isn't in any way essential to the plot.
    10. Look for break points, as in, "This scenario will break right here, when the players do (or don't do) X" and figure out what you're going to do about this. If you're spending a lot of time figuring out how to force the PCs into a narrow course of action, you probably have the wrong scenario. Find a better one -- or tweak like heck.
    11. Call of Cthulhu scenarios sometimes have the opposite problem: Sometimes, there is so much freedom of action that the players need to read the GM's mind -- or worse, the mind of the scenario author. Masks has one vital thing that relies on this. Know when you've got one and change it so that the PCs don't flounder -- unless you have a group that likes that kind of frustration.
    12. The play you reward will be repeated and the play you punish won't. Be careful about killing off all the NPCs that PCs get close to. If you want PCs to show mercy, make sure this doesn't bite them in the ass more than very, very rarely -- and never at first. If you make it clear that there's a deadline, don't be surprised if the players insist on cramming everything they can get away with into a game day. Sometimes, that's too bad -- yes, there's a deadline, but the PC does need to sleep. Yes, your PC wants to get armed to the teeth, but you're just not going to be able to bring that arsenal into the socialite's private party. But, be aware that you're telling the player "I am forcing you to play the game suboptimally." I like to think I'm pure story gamer, but I can go as gamist as anyone.
    13. Know the scenario. Know your players. Talk to your players.
    14. Talk to your players. Communication is vital.
    15. Play in other people's CoC games. Spending time on the players' side of the table helps your gming.
    16. Talk to your players. Listen to them.

    Hopefully, this is coherent. I just spent some time not focusing too obsessively on the election by watching Night of the Comet.

    Oh, a great movie to look at for spotting missed SAN rolls and cool ways of doing plot exposition is Lair of the White Worm. Totally different from the book (which I recommend you skip).
  • Last week, I ran Trail of Cthulhu scenario The Dying of St. Margaret's with Cthulhu Dark. It's a scenario designed for combat to never be relevant, so they worked great together. Cthulhu Dark makes some interesting choices to hyperfocus on investigative scenarios: skill checks essentially always succeed, with results varying from "yes, but" to "yes, and", so you always get the clue you needed; lest that sound too forgiving, the only combat rule is "if you fight, you die" (but you can run or hide), and the sanity rules make it pretty likely some characters will go insane.

    Last night, I ran Dennis Detwiller's Mysteria Matris Oblitae from Pagan's Mortal Coils with the Nemesis one-roll engine game, but with the skill system variation from the Wild Talents version of Kerberos club, in which you can have "broad", "flexible", and "influential" skills. So the characters' skill lists only had about ten items each, because some of them were as encompassing as "natural sciences professor", "combat veteran", or "seminary dropout" like we were playing Risus or PDQ. In practice, I liked it a lot -- the characters were distinct; the character sheets were uncluttered; the characters were relatively easy to generate and were easy to play.
    6. So, Gumshoe did not start "don't make the plot screech to a halt if the PCs blow the Find Clue roll". (Gumshoe did something much more important -- it focused on how to write scenarios with the premise that the PCs will find all of the clues.) Good GMs figured that one out long ago, even if some scenario and rpg authors did not. What do the PCs absolutely need, if you're running a mystery? Make sure there are several ways to get it. No, that does not make a bad scenario good. Yes, you can still want to shake the author and say "What were you thinking?" But, don't let that stop you from making the scenario playable for your group if you want to run it.
    The other minor variation I made in Nemesis is that investigative rolls got a die promoted to a Master die, which in an ORE game means guaranteed success -- the roll becomes a measure of how well you succeeded.

    Now that I've been reading scenarios toward trying to figure out how to run them, I understand better Gumshoe's inspiration. I've been very frustrated by how some Call of Cthulhu scenarios, as written, lend themselves to the characters blundering around until some direct GM intervention is required to call for an Idea roll or have an NPC hand-deliver a clue, because the scenario depended on successful Spot Hidden or similar. Or, worse, that all of the possible early investigation is meaningless for anything but flavor, because the only thing that matters is "go to the spooky location you heard about at the beginning for your bossfight."

    Much as I like the Unknown Armies madness meters that Nemesis uses, I'm also attached to Trail's stability (with defined sources of stability) vs. sanity model. Trying to shoehorn that into Nemesis is my next bit of system-hackery.
  • At conventions, here's what I say:

    "Hi, I'm Jason! This evening we are going to play Call of Cthulhu. This is a classic roleplaying game that has existed for many years and I'm really excited to be here to run it for you. I take breaks every hour and I try to wrap up early so you have plenty of time to have fun at the con with your friends or in the dealer's room.

    This game is based on the groundbreaking horror of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote back in the 1920s. He described a world where mysterious knowledge from beyond man's understanding would drive people insane, as they realized the - literally - monstrous truth about the universe.

    Your characters are 'investigators', and you all have a motivation to dig into the mysteries of the game. Remember that motivation when you play!" (I give examples from the sheets here: "You are tasked with working these problems out by the Central Committee" "Your brother disappeared while looking into these matters", etc.)

    "My job as the GM is to describe the scene and say what happens when you take action. Your character sheet tells you approximately how likely you are to be able to succeed at an action when under pressure or when it is an unusual action. You don't have to roll for things like..." (Insert automatic skills here for appropriate setting: driving a car, using your smartphone, riding a horse, driving a cart)

    "There's a mystery in this game and you'll have a fair chance to solve it, but you might not! This is not a game where your success is guaranteed. It's possible that you might come to the end of the session and you fail to prevent terrible things from happening. Hopefully that's okay with everyone! I do make things as easy as possible in convention games because I know everyone likes to be upbeat and have a good time, but the role of chance and your own ingenuity in solving mysteries also plays a big part."

    Then I go into things like Sanity points and the system for a few minutes before starting.
  • I'm going to try running The Black Drop (Trail of Cthulhu) scenario this Saturday using a FATE hack. I broke the pre-gen characters out into Aspects + General Skills + Investigative Skills + Consequences, basing the skills fairly closely on the ToC skills. General skills have standard FATE values, while investigative skills have no values. The investigative skills used in the scenario are divided among the players when they arrive, so they will each have a guaranteed niche.

    I took most of the clues in the scenario and put them on cards, so it has the name of a person/place/thing + investigative skill + optional number on one side, and the clue on the other. Once the characters are aware of that person/place/thing, I'll put all related cards out. If a character has the investigative skill listed, they can pick up the clue and read it. The optional number is an additional fate point spend they would have to make to get the clue, in addition to having the investigative skill (used for the clues that require point spends in ToC). This provides a motivation to use compels, since who wants to leave clues lying around?

    Not *every* clue fits this model very well, particularly clues gained through interacting with a character, so I didn't put those on cards. But it's fun for knowledge skills and the like, to have a player intimate some particularly horrific details to the group in character.

    Action rules I'll handle in a more standard FATE way, although I got rid of stress tracks. Instead, characters just have four consequences. Free compels and tags on consequences hopefully simulates the sanity spiral of doom. We'll see how it goes in practice.
  • We are getting a bit away from the core concept of this thread ( although I do appreciate the enthusiasm displayed for all things Cthulhish).
Sign In or Register to comment.