My Secret Cthulhu Confession

edited July 2014 in Story Games
It being October, I figured it was finally time to air a long hidden Horror-ible confession.

*Ahem*
I do not like the game Call of Cthulhu.
In fact, I'll go so far as to say I find it deeply flawed in many aspects, and I'm mystified at the popularity it has. But its one of the grand old institutions of the hobby, so I don't often find that position something I can bring up without fearing ostracization. I swear, this isn't entirely an outsiders opinion. I've played CoC a handful of times, even took a hand at running an adventure. And all my actual-play experience just reinforces my criticisms.

*A significant portion of the concrete rules of the game, and the statistics of both PC's and NPC's are about combat, but combat isn't just the least important aspect of the game, its actively discouraged.

*The discouragement of combat is not actually explicitly mentioned in the corebook. Weapon stats are. So are monster stats. its casually easy for a referee to see shotgun stats on one page, and how many hit points a ghoul has on another, and assume the game is about investigators applying the former to the latter.

EDIT: So can the players. When I ran the game, one of the players, entirely new to CoC, put all his skill points into gun skills. Not because he had munchkin tendencies, but ... why wouldn't he? There wasn't anything indicating that wasn't how the game was played.

*The other mechanical stats of the characters outside of combat are just as meaningless. There's a group of "Find Clues" skills, which get cycled through serially every clue-based encounter until at least one character gets a success that lets them get the clue token. There some physical stats that don't matter, because most of the antagonists of the game either ridiculously overpower them or have special abiliities that circumvent them. Then there are miscellaneous skills that seem to exist mainly to get players to say things like "hey, I have horsemanship, I go find a horse to ride ... on this steamship."

*My impression is CoC gets its good reputation because its consistently attracted high-energy story-minded GM's. People who blow through the system's paltry mechanics to dazzle the players by telling the story they were going to tell anyway. Actual experience with GM's and writers of the game has not dispelled this impression.

*This is the pattern of every single CoC adventure I've been in: I'm handed a pre-gen of modest ability and indifferent knowledge of the supernatural. For the first third of the adventure, I and the other characters get to poke around as we choose, regularly handed clues by the GM we were mandated to find anyway. This is justified by rolling dice, though there does not always appear to be causality. In the second third, we are informed bad shit is moving around us and our direction becomes constrained. Defensive tactics will be formulated, which will prove meaningless, and there might be a fight with mooks, which won't actually change anything. In the final third, the GM quickly takes ever more narrative control, extolling what horrible things are happening around you while you just stare at them helplessly. Depending on how we acted in the earlier parts of the session, we are informed of the different ways are characters are doomed. I assume clues found in the first part are shown to have some kind of relavence by the end, but by that point I'm usually too bored to notice.

*This is also the explicit pattern of every pre-written scenario I've read.

*I'm actually okay with the Sanity mechanics in theory, but in practice they encourage farcical player behavior. Competing for who achieves the coolest madness symptom. Debating who has enough remaining SAN points to open the ominous door. Maneuvering for what are, essentially, "Cure Light Madness" buffs.

*Probably the biggest issue: I find investigation and mystery scenarios in a role-playing context inherently boring and problematic. Its a established narrative structure, so anyone with even the slightest genre awareness knows how things will play out already. Unleashing a team of typical ingenious players on such a scenario, who are willing to try any and everything to solve the mystery as directly as possible, pushes the GM to rely on fiat to preserve the mystery until they're ready yo end it. Its a set-up that breeds adversarial GM'ing.
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Comments

  • Of course, you have just described every shit game of Call of Cthulhu I've ever played. But I've had plenty of very good experiences too. But that's OK. We don't hate you for it. Now just read this old book and you'll feel a whole lot better. Yes, you will. Read the book. READ THE BOOK!

    There now, isn't that better.
  • Oh, I agree with this experience of CoC. I'm a huge fan of the literary corpus, however, and I enjoy the literary qualities of CoC gaming material, so I often wish that I had the mental constitution for playing the game. It is, however, exactly as you say: CoC is a game for prima donna GMs who don't mind carrying the whole weight of the circus on their own shoulders. I find it a clever observation that the game's reputation and success as a cultural phenomenon is largely explained by the best of the GMs being attracted by what it is.

    Dread is in fact the perfect rules set for playing CoC, I think. Unlike BRP, Dread is designed to function in exactly the way that CoC has to work in practice. It has the auteur GM, and it's motivated by that same "I've got this cool story that I want to share with my players, I'm going to scare them shitless" creative agenda that CoC features. Maybe I should try to just take some of the more interesting CoC adventures, run them through the Dread scenario prep wringer, and see how that'd work.
  • Like what you like, it is no big deal.
  • Haha.

    I have issues with CoC, and I love it too. I think this is why old school D&D clones remain popular - sometimes a little quirkiness goes a long way.

    With that said, I would not be opposed to some serious changes in the system. Character creation and some of its random-esque formulas for derived attributes and stuff is just a little wonky. Percentile stuff is fine, but it could be way simplified. I think you could go with archetypes instead of character creation totally, since the genre is really about a specific kind of character most of the time.

    And I'm with you on combat too - it has that heartbreaker aspect to it. We need to know how much damage per feet you take from falling, or the game is missing something important!

    A new edition is coming out, but I wish they would take a bolder approach and really shake it up a bit and lose some of that baggage.
  • CoC is Basic D&D set in the 1920s with a mystery to be explored replacing a dungeon to be explored.

    And that is why it is fucking awesome.
  • I think there are some off base things in OP's analysis (though of course the game is not for everyone).

    It's a myth that combat is discouraged in Call of Cthulhu, the game. The community surrounding it has developed this myth that "combat doesn't work" but even a quick glance at the monsters in the corebook show that combat does indeed work on plenty of the monsters and all of the mooks. Dynamite and shotguns in sufficient quantity will also handle a huge number of problems in most of the modules.

    Also, I think your characterization of module play as being focused on a single path through the scenario is off. If you read Call of Cthulhu modules, most of the time (outside the initial setup) there is no mandated clue trail. (This is a GUMSHOE trait, where it's integrated more effectively into the structure of the game.) Most of the time there are different locations/people who can give you different clues. When you're done you might feel "oh I bet that was the only way through the adventure" but I've virtually never run a Call of Cthulhu module without having some handouts still behind the screen when we reach the conclusion. We actually did a firm quantitative analysis of over 100 Call of Cthulhu modules and determined that while railroading is significant enough over the history of the game to say it's an issue, it's not the predominant style of modules. The discussion thread. The results thread. If you don't want to click/read, about 20% of published Call of Cthulhu scenarios had identifiable railroading in them - significant but not overwhelming.

    Now some things the OP is dead-on target about:

    "Staring at bad things you can do nothing about" is absolutely the core literary experience of Lovecraft "protagonists" (we must use this word in its broadest possible meaning because most Lovecraft protagonists are really nothing of the sort). So yes, absolutely, you ought not play a Lovecraftian horror game unless you want this experience to some degree. (The Dreamlands scenarios are even worse this way since the source material is basically a travelogue.)

    Similarly, if you don't like investigation/mystery in RPGs, don't play this game. (You're 100 percent wrong about them being inherently flawed though - you just don't like them.)

  • CoC is Basic D&D set in the 1920s with a mystery to be explored replacing a dungeon to be explored.
    Actually ... I'd love that game, provided it included all the ready-to-go GM resources that Basic D&D has (and CoC hasn't) applied to building a monster-hunting mystery. Lots of random tables that you throw dice for, giving you results of what kind of monster(s) are the Big Bad, what kind of minions, some NPC's with motives, location and some artifacts and complecating conditions. Throw dice and get "Vampire, enslaved to ... sorcerer, working out of an abandonned ... theater, employing a ... [urban, outlaw] drug gang, to find victims for the vampire to strengthen it, ultimate goal is to ... defeat rival."

    Do it up from an OSR approach, less as a atmospheric mystery, more a creepy monster hunt, so less Cthulhu, more Supernatural and Buffy. Damn, I want that now. I may even want to write it.


  • Similarly, if you don't like investigation/mystery in RPGs, don't play this game. (You're 100 percent wrong about them being inherently flawed though - you just don't like them.)
    pfft. I'm at least 15% right. Let me clarify my position. I recognize that my dislike for mystery-based games is a personal bias, but I also think CoC has the particualr objective problem of setting up players with old-fashioned sandbox-conceived characters (not too different from the direction characters would be conceived from in old D&D and Runequest) but then pushing the GM to engage in freeform narrative building. Basically, the system tells players "here's resources with which to explore and change the world objectively" while telling the GM "the world is subjective to your story needs."

  • edited October 2013
    Wait, didn't you say you were handed pre-gens on a regular basis?

    There's a bunch of stuff you already dislike that's core to CoC.

    Fine and good. I hate PostApoc pretty much everything*. AW, no matter how lovely of a system, will never be enjoyable to me.

    Also, I stand by my statement about BD&D and CoC, with no qualifications necessary.

    *Hot War seems to be the sole exception to this, perhaps because of just how bleak and horrible it is.

    Edited to add: In fairness E.T.Smith, you are far from the only player who has mentioned how little love you have for CoC.

    It's up there with D&D ( all versions) and VtM and every hippyinddie game ever for the amount of vitriol it inspires.


  • *My impression is CoC gets its good reputation because its consistently attracted high-energy story-minded GM's. People who blow through the system's paltry mechanics to dazzle the players by telling the story they were going to tell anyway. Actual experience with GM's and writers of the game has not dispelled this impression.




    EXACTLY!

    It is the high quality of the GMs rather than the rules that make CoC fun. What I noticed about the game is that the sanity rules and the spot hidden skill are the fun parts, combat never works.

    I played CoC in 1981. And the reason why I liked it so much was 1) it was not D+D, 2) But it enough like D+D that I knew how to play it, 3) it was horror - the first horror game, and 4) the idea of using skills rather than leveling up was new and alternative then (even if largely irrelevant to play). It was after all a Runequest game stuck on a horror setting.

    Why it has remained popular is a good question. I tend to think that it being first accounts for most of it. Then come the GMs working around it to make it work. And lastly, Lovecraft's stories that rightly are wrongly are linked to the game.

    I don't think reading the rules would make you like the game better. The fun doesn't come from the same source as fantasy. The fun comes from going insane but still saving the world in your last dying gasp.

    For my own entertainment I've been working on Cthulhu World, my AW horror hack. I'm focusing on the fun parts, the slow death by a thousand pin pricks. Combat is down played but coming up with a plan to save the world is there for the last act. Where people can screw their roll and pull a win by an act of noble self sacrifice.

    If you'd be interested in cutting apart the rules to help me find out what doesn't work, I'd love it.

    Chris Engle
  • I don't think there's much on your sheet about changing the world, objectively or otherwise. I agree, if it did, it would be a big mistake, because thematically that goes against the source of all Lovecraftian suspense/horror.
  • edited October 2013
    *This is also the explicit pattern of every pre-written scenario I've read.
    Which ones?
  • edited October 2013
    n
  • Some issues are a matter of taste, but there is also difference of experience. The Call of Cthulhu games I've played in and run don't sound like even the objective side matches up with E.T. Smith's descriptions. As others have said - there are some GMs and some published modules that enforce predefined linear plots, but there are also many that are otherwise. For example, physical stats and combat have generally made a difference in games that I played. There were often clues that we missed (by bad luck or choices), but also choices we made to change the later confrontation.

    The mechanics are far from ideal, in my opinion, but they are a common language that may work better than other options. My group tried Trail of Cthulhu, for example, but decided we liked CoC better.
  • I love these threads from the 2003-2004 era of the Forge which also examine problems with Call of Cthulhu:

    - Drifting to R'lyeh
    - Cthulhu's Clues (which I feel has been supplanted by the analysis of modules JD linked to, above)
    - Hot Lead and Hipocrisy (which proposes that the underlying philosophy in a game of CoC is "Shoot first and shoot often")
  • I love these threads from the 2003-2004 era of the Forge which also examine problems with Call of Cthulhu:

    - Drifting to R'lyeh
    - Cthulhu's Clues (which I feel has been supplanted by the analysis of modules JD linked to, above)
    - Hot Lead and Hipocrisy (which proposes that the underlying philosophy in a game of CoC is "Shoot first and shoot often")
    Thanks for these links, Steve. "Drifting to R'lyeh" is a favorite; definitely worth re-reading.
  • It's not a myth that combat doesn't work in Call of Cthulhu, it's generally true, with a few exceptions, that combat doesn't work. But that doesn't stop players liking combat. No bigger group of gun bunnies will you encounter than you're average CoC group. There have been several weapon supplements with pages and pages of gun data with damage, jamming percentage, rate of fire and basic chance, the holy quadrivium of CoC stats. There's much quibling over whether a gun does 2d6 or 2d6+1 damage.

    The latest rules (7ed), back pedal on the range of combat skills, explain how clue finding works (basically GUMSHOE) and introduces a lot more player narrative control. This has caused ructions amongst the grognards who view this as the actual apocalypse and are probably reaching for their SPAS-12s as we speak.
  • Is 'just play Cthulhu Dark' the wrong advice here?

    CoC exists the way it does because it came out in 1981. It was 'accidentally' 1920's, the original idea was that it would be current, but the marketing feeling was it needed to live alongside the books. It used BRP because that's what Chaosium had and the writer had no interest in creating a system. The fact that every edition needed backward compatibility has kept it where it is and the fact that the vast majority of gamers have played it at some point is why it is still popular, as a hobby we are great at modifying what we don't like, living with what's left and then arguing what was written was perfect if anyone suggests otherwise.

    It's fine to not like it. If we all liked the same things we wouldn't need supermarkets.
  • edited October 2013
    Thanks for these links, Steve. "Drifting to R'lyeh" is a favorite; definitely worth re-reading.
    Agreed - it was interesting to re-read, I thought. From Drifting to R'lyeh:
    If we accept the premise that all gaming modes are equally valid so long as they provide enjoyable play then this analysis provides excellent clues as to why the game in fact is so disliked.

    Why everybody hates it
    It must be extensively drifted to accomodate other GNS priorities, thus it is very easy to be a bad CoC keeper.
    It is uniquely poorly suited to the traditional continuing campaign
    It runs down violent solutions but the scenarios are mostly unresolveable without them

    Why narrativists hate it:
    It crossdresses as a narrativist game but is really solidly simulationist
    .No player authoring, period
    Lethality discourages player identification with character and the game has
    no rules to ameliorate this

    Why gamists hate it.
    No min-maxing
    Radically unbalanced
    No increase in character effectiveness
    Confused issues regarding character effectiveness ,generally
    No meaningful reward mechanic


    Why Simulationists hate it
    Skill rolls look important but really aren't
    Supports only Narrow simulationist priorities well (situation and color) and
    then punishes you for exploring them (sanity loss).

    So we see why CoC in practice is so unpopular. It really does have something for everyone to hate.
    My response at the time (Reply #5) was the following, which I still think is on-target.
    This assumes that Call of Cthulhu is unpopular, which I think is wildly inaccurate. You report it as having only 1% market share. Yet according to the 1999 WotC survey, 8% of the players surveyed played it monthly. Can you cite where you got your 1% figure? Incidentally, this makes it the #8 of all TRPGs in that survey. Further, the Gaming Report Top 10 survey found it #1 among Gothic/Horror RPGs, beating out even Vampire: The Masquerade. It has been continuously in print by the same publisher for over 20 years, with a vast and high-quality line of adventures and supplements.

    By any objective measure, I would say Call of Cthulhu is a success, and people like it. If your theories tell you that CoC is broken and unpopular compared to other RPGs, then I would suspect that your theories are flawed rather than the game.

    That said, I certainly have no objection to your designing an alternate Lovecraft-based RPG done in the way which you would enjoy more.
  • edited October 2013
    Is 'just play Cthulhu Dark' the wrong advice here?

    CoC exists the way it does because it came out in 1981. It was 'accidentally' 1920's, the original idea was that it would be current, but the marketing feeling was it needed to live alongside the books. It used BRP because that's what Chaosium had and the writer had no interest in creating a system. The fact that every edition needed backward compatibility has kept it where it is and the fact that the vast majority of gamers have played it at some point is why it is still popular, as a hobby we are great at modifying what we don't like, living with what's left and then arguing what was written was perfect if anyone suggests otherwise.

    It's fine to not like it. If we all liked the same things we wouldn't need supermarkets.
    If ET doesn't like CoC, I seriously doubt he'd ( she'd?) like Cthulhu Dark.

    In many ways, CD is essentialist CoC, asking the question "Why take 15 steps to achieve result A (CoC) when we could take 2 steps (CD)?"

    [That's especially obvious in chargen comparing the two. In CoC you may spend quite a bit of time agonizing over exactly how to spread around your skill points to create a Biologist, wondering exactly which of those skills is going to be important to the adventure. CD just says: Write down a sentence describing your character. If Biologist is an important part of the concept make sure it's in there. When it's time to make a roll, we can all probably make a reasonable guess about whether that should give you a die, a bonus di, or we can reasonably simply let you skip the roll altogether.]

  • I do not like the game Call of Cthulhu.
    In fact, I'll go so far as to say I find it deeply flawed in many aspects, and I'm mystified at the popularity it has.
    I know where you're coming from. In some ways, I feel the same, although I'm more positive about it.

    It's a very old game. It's very mechanical and stats-heavy, with a focus on combat (because, in those days, RPGs were close to wargames). Most of the things you're saying, I think, are simply because it's a very old game.

    Despite all that, I still think we should give it credit for Sanity mechanics. They're really good. In their day, they were very innovative.
    *My impression is CoC gets its good reputation because its consistently attracted high-energy story-minded GM's.
    There's some truth in that. I think that playing Cthulhu is much more about the GM and the scenario than the mechanics. You could play a Cthulhu game without the CoC mechanics.

    (In our terms, I think the "system" is more about the GM than the written rules.)
    *This is the pattern of every single CoC adventure I've been in: I'm handed a pre-gen of modest ability and indifferent knowledge of the supernatural. For the first third of the adventure, I and the other characters get to poke around as we choose, regularly handed clues by the GM we were mandated to find anyway. This is justified by rolling dice, though there does not always appear to be causality. In the second third, we are informed bad shit is moving around us and our direction becomes constrained. Defensive tactics will be formulated, which will prove meaningless, and there might be a fight with mooks, which won't actually change anything. In the final third, the GM quickly takes ever more narrative control, extolling what horrible things are happening around you while you just stare at them helplessly. Depending on how we acted in the earlier parts of the session, we are informed of the different ways are characters are doomed. I assume clues found in the first part are shown to have some kind of relavence by the end, but by that point I'm usually too bored to notice.
    That sounds really shit. I'd really like to run a Cthulhu game for you: they can be much better than that.
  • edited October 2013
    In many ways, CD is essentialist CoC, asking the question "Why take 15 steps to achieve result A (CoC) when we could take 2 steps (CD)?"
    Oh, I really hope not, and I don't think so.

    I think the die mechanics of Cthulhu Dark are more focussed than those of Call of Cthulhu. The way the Insanity die works is important; the rules about rolling 6s are especially important. And there's no combat, which is really important.

    But perhaps that's another conversation for another thread.
  • Okay, well that's why I like CD and what I see in it.

    Hate to disagree with the designer on these sorts of points though. That's a bit embarrassing.
  • edited October 2013
    Investigative plots are my very favorite thing in RPGs, both as a player and a GM. They don't have to mean railroading.

    But I think it's a fair cop that a bunch of published CoC scenarios are weak at having meaningful investigation. I've read too many featuring "muddle around for a while until you manage to scrape up the time and place to go for your bossfight."

    I think Robin Laws' design choice for the Gumshoe system (underlying Trail of Cthulhu et al) is fundamentally correct: we want randomness in situations in which both success and failure are interesting. Failing to get information is not interesting, so don't make it the subject of a dice roll. If a character has a relevant skill that could yield the info and uses it, the character gets it. The challenge is interpreting the clues, not finding them. Gumshoe as a whole still hasn't clicked with me, but that principle will govern any investigative scenario I run.

    JD, would you consider publishing more of the raw data so we could see which scenarios were considered to have (or not have) which problems by how many people? [edit: oh, never mind -- I see the relevant raw data is just what's in the original thread!]
  • I just think it's funny that ET on one hand talks about the game becoming popular because of high energy story-minded GMs on one hand, then describes every game he's ever been in as being essentially the exact opposite.

    I'm looking at this thread and seeing issues of buy-in (ETSmith just ain't interested in buying what CoC is selling) paired with some actual play that confirms he's not interested in buying what the game is selling.

    I mean, I get that there was some vague interest. It reminds me of how I felt about D&D 4e: Enough stuff that sounded fun with lots of people singing its praises. Then I played it. Turned out to be about as far from what I was interested in as I could possibly imagine, and the stuff I did think would be fun turned out to be awful in application ( for me).
  • ET, your description sounds pretty fair to me.

    In my experience (and I've heard others say this as well), CoC games tend to be some of the best games because they attract the best GMs and often the most fun, interesting players as well. The best roleplayers flock to those games at conventions, in particular, instead of singing up for the D&D-battlemat-dungeon-crawl. So the energy is often very high, and a great time can be had.

    There's a sense of the inevitable (the Lovecraftian story has a very predictable shape to it), and everyone plays up to it as much as possible. You get to be theatrical and cool and describe crazy scary stuff and act out a character going mad. People who do this well have an awesome time: it's intense celebratory roleplaying of a type of story everyone involved loves. The rules are generally ignored, and no one minds a railroaded story because we all signed up to enjoy that kind of story to begin with - in Forge terms, it's highly theatrical Participationist play focused on celebrating a very specific kind of Colour.

    I've never played in a CoC game which is run "by the book" (as opposed to trying to replicate Lovecraft's stories0, with investigators putting lots of points into Gun skills and then using dynamite to blow up Cthulhoid terrors. It sounds fun in principle, but, for my tastes, would require an entirely different ruleset.

    I think I would best enjoy CoC using the Cthulhu Dark rules or Dread, as Eero suggests.

  • There's definitely a bend for those folks who enjoy CoC to treat it as an experience that they are happily and gladly signing on for when they play an adventure.

    Worth keeping in mind: CoC as a game is a bit like D&D as a game. They start with source material as inspiration, but over time they really become their own thing as it relates to gameplay traditions. So yes, CoC adventures tend to have certain shape to them.

    Ignoring rules vs. Playing by the book

    I dunno, this is a tricky subject. The more I look at early RPGs especially in the time when they break out of the wargamer ghetto and into the hands of non-wargamers, the more I look at them as helpful tool kits and less as proper games or proper rules.

    Truthfully, I'm pretty okay with that, viewed from that particular lens. I've said before that I started with CYOA books as a kid, and viewed RPGs as a better sort of CYOA game-conversation-story-play pretend hybrid monstrosity. I still look at those early games and suspect that, well spoken aloud or not, a whole lot of people treated them that way as well. Also, lots of people probably still do treat them that way.

    CoC play, from what I can tell from experience, very much tends to fit with that mindset. Yes, there's a story. There are different paths to take, and a few possible variants of ending to it. Along the way, what mechanics that exist are almost entirely optional in their usage but that is also in keeping with how they are intended to be used. There are a few things always rolled for, a few things we roll for mostly to detail things out and we want a little bit of randomness and fun in there, and the dice throws add some tension.

    Insider/Fan gripes about CoC
    There are things I don't like about CoC.

    The skill lists are overly long and overly specific, and in older editions there isn't good guidance on what skill levels should be to represent competence. Academic character types actually tend to suffer a bit more than action-hero types during chargen because of the peculiarities of trying to suss out which skills will become important.,

    There's a weird inverse relationship between how important a skill is ( and therefore how high it should be) and how often it's likely to get rolled for. If you get into combat, a pistol skill of 25-30% is perfectly adequate. After all, you'll likely be rolling that repeatedly. Hitting someone 1 in four times you fire under combat circumstances in the real world makes you a fricking deadly killer.
    OTOH, you really might want to take Pilot at as high a number as the GM lets you get away with. It rarely comes up, but when it does, you want to pass that damn test with very few failures ( that whole unscheduled air/ground interface thing being a bit tricky).

    CoC just doesn't tend to work well with the endless, open-ended campaign ideal laid down with D&D, nor does the whole Zero to Hero competency progression.
    Completely personal opinion of course. In some regards, CoC is (in the old editions I've played) a little too close to D&D, although some of that is mostly player expectation. Even more than old D&D, it's not a forgiving game when you go toe to toe with the baddies, and no you aren't playing to get rich, and no your starting character is not going to end up vastly more powerful in the greater scheme of things. OTOH, your character probably does start a bit weaker than they really should be rated because of those things I mentioned in the last two points.

    Can you play campaigns in CoC? Sure you could, but it tends to work even better with short bursts of adventure- one shots and short arcs. Played like a pulp detective agency or some key character that always seems to wind up in weird spots ( and pals), with adventures treated as the next appearing magazine short-story ( The Case of the ...) and it seems to work okay. Long, open-ended, sand-boxy? Not so much IMO.

    The D&Dism of the unconnected character doesn't work all that well either.
    If characters can't be connected to the plot, they should at least be connected to one another. Almost every CoC adventure I've ever seen goes into weird detail on how to get characters involved. As a one-shot ( a great format for CoC), they'd almost always be better with connected-to-plot pregens. It's just that the concept is incredibly foreign to role-players generally.
  • But somehow, despite all the gripes, Call of Cthulhu is one of the most popular games around so it's probably doing something right. I think you'll get more mileage on that than focussing on things that don't seem to be an issue with most of the players.
  • edited October 2013
    I get interested in these discussions. A lot of people love Call of Cthulhu; to the point that there seems to end up being a bit of an impasse whenever people criticize it. Conversely, a lot of criticism of CoC tends to get pretty impassioned, maybe because there is so much love out there that people end up going really over the top when they do say anything critical about it.

    Call of Cthulhu is tremendously popular. A lot of people (me included) love the setting, and for a long, long time CoC was the only real anti-DnD. The cool kid in the leather jacket who read Kerouac and saw himself as the antihero. That is no small factor in its appeal.

    I guess I'm a bit of an anomaly--I started on Moldvay DnD but didn't play my first CoC game until three years ago. I really like the Mythos, and I like the atmosphere of the game. But I'm not particularly invested in the mechanics of CoC, or the heritage of the Chaosium line.

    From my perspective, there are many sensible criticisms you can make about Call of Cthulhu. I find BRP to be a pretty clunky system, actually. First, the rulebook really is arguing for a game that doesn't exist--its own combat mechanisms tend to make the proper strategy for anything below greater Servitors "shoot first, shoot often, and don't let it talk." Humans of course fare even worse, especially if you use all the spot rules (I think most people forget that there's an unconsciousness roll you need to make when you take enough damage.)

    Second, there are a lot of skills, they aren't all that well delineated, and the implication of the rules is that all the skills are "success vs. failure" checks. I mean, I'm not surprised that a 1st Gen system has lousy stakes-setting mechanisms; but it creates fail points that require clever GMing to get around. CoC has been accused of strongly fostering illusionism, and it certainly looks like that could be a consequence of the rules; whether or not it is in play I think depends on the group and the Keeper.

    Finally, and this is just my own taste, the system is really simulationist in a way that isn't my own particular style of play.

    All that said, a lot of people still love the system. Our own Lisa Padol has told me that for her, the BRP rules get out of her way. I myself wonder to what degree this is a result of experience and tradition; like, I could run Traveller in multiple genres, and feel like the rules got out of my way, but that's because I've internalized them to a large degree. There's still plenty of clunkiness in most implementations of Traveller. (That said, the core system is pretty sleek--but then so is BRP's basic, "roll d%" system.)

    I thought about all of this when I decided to run my Masks campaign. My original plan was to run it using Call of Cthulhu--in fact, I ran a preliminary one-shot (which introduced Jackson Elias) under CoC. But as I looked at the rules, I decided that I wanted to use a different system. For one thing, I wanted to keep the PCs around long enough that I could develop storylines around them--after all, it's long-form play, so you need some continuity. The language system was a mess. And there is the issue of the infamous "fail a check, lose the adventure" fail points in CoC.

    Personally, I think that criticism is overstated. Good adventure design will get around it. Justin Alexander's three-clue rule works admirably for this sort of thing; and Masks itself does a darn good job of making sure the info will get to the players. But the potential exists inside the system for that kind of thing to happen.

    In the end, I went with Trail of Cthulhu; I find I internalize the Gumshoe rules much better than CoC, and I can have my Mythos and a better system (for my tastes) too. But I have and would play Call of Cthulhu.
  • edited October 2013
    I love the hell out of CoC and although I've grumbled about the rules previously, I will play devil's advocate and say some nice things about the system. Just 'cause I want to see them said. Some of this is a little tongue-in-cheek but I'm trying to look through the lens of history a little, here. Also I'm not mentioning the Sanity mechanic 'cause everyone seems to agree that it's fun. Anywayyyyy..

    1. Skill progression is handled well. It's organic and natural: you improve the skills you use regularly.
    2. The BRP rules accentuate the "uncaring universe" angle. You want to outrun the eldritch horror in your jeep? Well the rules don't care about how bad you want it or what kind of story karma you've earned. The rules care how well you can drive. It's an uncaring world out there.
    3. Okay, so it's goofy as shit that they statted out the Elder Gods. Maybe we don't need stats for them. But... maybe we do? Again, it's impartial. If the Keeper says "no way, he's too tough to die" then maybe you feel cheated by fiat. But when the book says he's got a million hit points and eats 1d4 investigators per round... well shit, I guess we should've stopped the ritual before he got here.
    4. BRP was designed to be compatible between games, right? So combat is gonna be somewhat effective. But the rulebook talks big game about the PCs not solving their problems with violence. It goes on and on about better and more literary methods of success. That, in itself, is part of the rules text. It's telling you how the game should be played, which is a noble goal, right? Everybody houserules stuff anyway, at least here there's someguidance for your houserules: discourage violence.
    5. Yeah, okay, a good number of modules are railroady as hell. I got nothin' here.

    There, I tried!

    For reals, though, everyone knows the game is clunky as hell but I have had countless hours of fun with it. There's something compelling in there, for sure.
  • The rulebook is absolutely NOT down on violence as a method of solving problems.

    It does say you should take into account the "approximation of real world 1920s" setting and stuff like cops and civilians, but it straight up does NOT say "don't solve your problems with violence".

    That is something the community has generated (out of nothing I guess) over the centuries that Call of Cthulhu has existed.
  • The best system to use for CoC is A Penny For My Thoughts. For serious.
  • edited October 2013
    That is something the community has generated (out of nothing I guess) over the centuries that Call of Cthulhu has existed.
    They're certainly not generating it from the actual stories; Lovecraft wrote plenty of 'em where shotguns, explosives, torpedoes, and other human weapons were shown to be quite effective against the horrifying unknown. (In an immediate sense, anyway -- there's always a "The END?" stinger appended to it where you get to wonder if the threat is truly gone, or just gone from this one place. But for a CoC game, "gone from this one place" is a pretty good result.)

    Really, I'm not sure why the gaming community is so fixated on the archetypal Lovecraft protagonist being a weedy academic shuddering in an insane asylum, fleeing from any hint of direct action and occupying himself by mailing letters off to other weedy academics: that barely works in a short story, in an actual gaming session it's flat-out terrible. Admitting that violence can actually work against monsters doesn't mean the game suddenly becomes hacky-slashy Sorcery and Shoggoths with no middle ground.
  • edited October 2013
    I dislike the CoC skill system, but hey, they did give us Sanity!

    The best CoC play reports I've heard have been all about atmosphere and a cool GM horror reveal, and not at all about what any player character did. Just like Lovecraft stories!

    Here's what my ideal CoC character sheet would look like:

    Put on your acting shoes and
    portray compulsion, madness and horror

    Sanity: [#]
    This will guide your portrayal

    [A billion stats in case it happens to come up who's the best driver or how good you are at wielding a trowel.]
  • edited October 2013
    "H.P. Loveraft’s work is all based on the idea that knowing a terrible truth is enough to terrify you so much to make you go mad. Knowledge of things beyond us are the true horror, the creatures and cults are merely the embodiment of that horror. That is what the game has managed to subtly capture.
    —PopMatters regarding "Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth"

    Perhaps this is where CoC falls short of the mark. The "terrible truth" is represented by a number (shuddering unnameable -1D4 Sanity!). I'm no expert on CoC but I had a few of the books 'cuz I love me some Mythos.

    But that's part of the problem; I know all the unknowable stuff (at least, as much stuff as has been revealed through stories and articles). A statted-out Hound of Tindalos is just a bad dog to be swatted on the nose with a rolled up Elder Sign. I know why Deep Ones are abducting women from the quaint sea-side town. And I can recognize the Innsmouth-look from a mile away. Brain in a canister? We're looking for Mi-go. They're approaching the status of Hammer Horror monsters (Dracula, Wolf-man, etc). It's like I've memorized the Monster Manual before I ever played D&D. Robs the game of some of the mystery.

    As for violence, the quote above is quite appropriate. The creatures and cultists are just the symptoms, not the disease. Shotguns are no more the cure than rituals or spells. The fight against the Great Old Ones is a war of attrition and we WILL lose eventually; all we can do is delay the inevitable. If I recall correctly, in a million years or so the Earth will be ruled by intelligent insects. Yes, Cthulhu was defeated by ramming a ship into him, but "that is not dead which can eternal lie". Devil's Reef was dynamited but that's not the end of the Deep Ones; hell, probably not even the end of that particular colony. Grampa Danforth always told me: " Don't bring a shotgun to a shoggoth fight; you'll lose every time".

    As for the long standing love of CoC; I can hazard a guess. Lots of folks (myself included) love the Mythos. For a long time CoC was literally the only game in town. The Public Domain status of HPL's stories is in dispute but the Trademarks held by Chaosium are not. Did anybody else have the original Deities and Demigods with the Lovecraft and Moorecock material still in it? I wish I held on to that; along with the Leiber/Lankhmar entries, it was the best stuff in the book.

    I think maybe "DREAD of Cthulhu" might be the way to go.
  • <

    Really, I'm not sure why the gaming community is so fixated on the archetypal Lovecraft protagonist being a weedy academic shuddering in an insane asylum, fleeing from any hint of direct action and occupying himself by mailing letters off to other weedy academics: that barely works in a short story, in an actual gaming session it's flat-out terrible. Admitting that violence can actually work against monsters doesn't mean the game suddenly becomes hacky-slashy Sorcery and Shoggoths with no middle ground.
    I think it goes back to the appeal of CoC as the anti-D&D: you can't get farther away from the stereotypical fantasy hero (especially his--pronoun chosen deliberately--portrayal in D&D).

    I mean, when you think about it, Call of Cthulhu isn't more deadly than old-school D&D; what was different is that the convention was explicit from the start that the game would make no attempt to provide you with ways to get better, or to win. You might win the adventure, but you were supposed to lose the war.

    At least, that was the theory. Not sure if that's how it played out.

    I know I wrote a whole post running it down, but I definitely admire CoC for being one of the first games where the plot really did matter, and wasn't just a coolness token gathering expedition.

  • Here's what my ideal CoC character sheet would look like:

    Put on your acting shoes and
    portray compulsion, madness and horror

    Sanity: [#]
    This will guide your portrayal

    [A billion stats in case it happens to come up who's the best driver or how good you are at wielding a trowel.]
    That nails it for me! Nice.

    When I've played CoC, this is how it was working when at its best.
  • edited October 2013
    I'm at work without access to any quotes, but my 5th edition CoC rulebook definitely discourages trying to take a shotgun to the mythos. It's got a big "here's what a session looks like" section that's all about the stages of investigation and specifically says "no blazing guns." I swear it!

    Edit: thank god for PDFs. It's on page 29 of the SIXTH edition corebook, at least. A section titled "Avoid Gunfights," about four paragraphs long. Kinda confusing, though: "By all means, have lots of firearms. But do not rely on firearms" is a piece of advice, and some tips for Keepers to discourage their use. It's very wishy-washy.
  • Many of the mythos creatures take minimum damage from firearms and other impaling weapons. That's why dynamite is a CoC meme.
  • Anyway, I think my defense of the game still stands. Though mechanically combat may be effective (due to BRP's universal nature), the rulebook includes a lengthy "how to play" section that de-emphasizes violence and does a good job showing a prospective player what this game looks like at the table. It covers theme and mood, procedural advice on investigation, and overall is pretty well-rounded. I think that explains some of its popularity, at least. It really sells itself well.
  • I wonder if it's because inately it encompasses the 'treat your PC's like stolen cars' ethic of later games. You know it's all going to come to nought, so you can do what you want with your PC's up to that point. In a world where a 10th level elven archer was something that you'd mourn over losing having a procession of disposable investigators was a breath of fresh air.
  • edited October 2013
    I'm glad I started this discussion for at least one reason: it reminded me that Cthulhu Dark exists and I needed to give it another look. I'm pitching a session to some rpg-neophytes, using a scenario from an old issue of Challenge*. This should at least give me a better idea if its mainly the CoC system or the genre that I have difficulty with.

    *Challenge magazine was GDW's house organ from 1986 until the company closed, replacing The Journal of the Traveler's Aid Society. In its later years it expanded from covering just GDW products to other science-fiction games, as well as a few military and horror offerings, including CoC (basically matching the genres that GDW published in itself). I find them a good resource because Challenge's main focus was concise scenario outlines, 3000 words or less (two to four pages). Great for quick drop-ins or basic ideas to expand on. For CoC in prticular I prefer them over the Chaosium published stuff, where even a "short" scenario outline can ramble on for twenty pages. Specifically, I'll be using "Dance of Death" from issue 73, which includes some nice genre misdirection.
  • I am with ET.
    I played amazing CoC sessions in my time... but I also encountered all of the problems he lists, many times, even in the good sessions.
    Eventually I decided the effort to get a good time out of it wasn't worth it.

    But aside from personal taste, the one thing that today keeps me well away from CoC is the simple fact that (as usual with all Traditional rpgs) the game in itself means NOTHING.
    99% of the fun comes purely from the table-chemistry that may or may nor arise between you and the other players and the GM.
    The rules don't help a bit in this, and often get in the way.

    Sorry, but nowadays I know better.
    And besides, if I have to rely on a "Good GM" to have fun, I can get the same result with ANY traditional rpg... from D&D to Risus to GURPS to a stone taken from my backyard :P

    If I want to play "a Lovecraftian rpg" my choice would go to Cthulhu Dark ... but I would not advocate such a choice for ET.
    True, CD cuts down to ALL the things ET perceives as problems in CoC... except one... which is where I think KomradeBob sees CD as being "an essentialist CoC": the story structure.

    I've read the amazing book Stealing Cthulhu, and it offers a gazillion of great ways to redecorate and mix up the basic structure of an investigation... but in the end there is always a GM who has a "scenario" prepared behind the screen.
    And always the characters have to:
    - take the bait to start the scenario
    - find the first clues
    - be harassed in some way by some peril
    - find more clues
    - meet the end of the scenario

    Now, CD makes it incredibly easier for the GM to avoid the need to railroad, either by being much more clear about what is expected from the Players, by giving the GM a way to effectively use a very minimal and vague preparation, by throwing in the mix the occasional unexpected twist (scoring a 6 on investigative rolls), by freeing the Players from the chains of "rules performance" in order to incentivate creative thinking and immersive play, etc.

    But it still fits the basic investigative structure ET seems to dislike.
    I like it, and I love how CD handles things like combat (that is present and very dangerous; it just is in no way more [nor less] convinient to use than other approaches) and facing creatures from the Mythos (you either run or hide or concoct an inderect plan to deal with the thing) and bringing madness into play, and dealing with it (hide the truth!!!).
    But it is still: the GM has a scenario with an expected start, development and end.

    I think ET could try to play the kind of investigative systems that do NOT rely on such a structure... I'm thinking of games that somehow generate the plot during active play.
    InSpecters (with GM) and Dreamwake (GM-less) come readily to mind.
    But also Dirty Secrets and possibly Geiger Counter.
  • I run my CD games straight off the cuff with elements created 30 seconds before the game starts and it's fine.

    I ask my players for an "element" each that they want in the game which can be a setting, an event or whatever, concoct a very basic idea in my head and then fill in the gaps/change my idea completely based on what the players do and say in play.
  • I am with ET.

    If I want to play "a Lovecraftian rpg" my choice would go to Cthulhu Dark ... but I would not advocate such a choice for ET.
    True, CD cuts down to ALL the things ET perceives as problems in CoC... except one... which is where I think KomradeBob sees CD as being "an essentialist CoC": the story structure.

    I've read the amazing book Stealing Cthulhu, and it offers a gazillion of great ways to redecorate and mix up the basic structure of an investigation... but in the end there is always a GM who has a "scenario" prepared behind the screen.
    And always the characters have to:
    - take the bait to start the scenario
    - find the first clues
    - be harassed in some way by some peril
    - find more clues
    - meet the end of the scenario

    Now, CD makes it incredibly easier for the GM to avoid the need to railroad, either by being much more clear about what is expected from the Players, by giving the GM a way to effectively use a very minimal and vague preparation, by throwing in the mix the occasional unexpected twist (scoring a 6 on investigative rolls), by freeing the Players from the chains of "rules performance" in order to incentivate creative thinking and immersive play, etc.

    But it still fits the basic investigative structure ET seems to dislike.
    That's part of what I was thinking. It does still go with the concept that Cthulhu adventures are structured a bit like a form of poem, and that the art is working within those structures.

    For me, that's fine. Good haiku is good haiku, and part of the point is to work within the restrictions of the haiku format and see what you can do with it. Also I like haiku. Other people seem to like it as well.

  • Well, it sounds like the best reason to play Call of Cthulhu for a number of folks in the thread is because there's a GM who is excited about the game and wants to play Call of Cthulhu.

    I'll admit I'm fond of the game as a source of inspiration and rules for longer campaigns, but these days if I'm running a convention game I switch to using FUDGE or Savage Worlds, depending on the type of game I'm running.

    There's just too much neat stuff out there for Call of Cthulhu - Masks of Nyarlhotep, Horror on the Orient Express, Pagan Publishing's complete output over the years, The Unspeakable Oath... and then stuff spawned off from it, like Trail of Cthulhu and Bookhounds of London.
  • Meh... each to their own. Some just can't get excited about horror games in general. Most horror games make you feel horror by giving you overwhelming odds against the player, but if the player is focused on "winning" the point of it is lost.

    Keepers are also to blame too. By loosing the balance of the horror they bore the players. Too much opposition to where no one can win will cause players to be disinterested because they already know the outcome and it ends with them dead. Too little opposition and it becomes action genre, too much and it becomes the keeper piling abuse on the characters for no reason at all.

    CoC is not about the ending, it is about the soul crushing descent and what it means for that character. The one flaw in the game is that it doesn't make the players use characters. The players involved are usually weird anti-social people that respond violently at the drop of a hat and make odiously bad decisions for no apparent reason. Kind of like the lady in a slasher film that goes into the basement alone, unarmed, and in the dark when she knows the killer is down there. Its more fun if you act like people act.

  • The problem with that in a one shot is that the normal people arc tends to be

    Stuff happens that may be normal - investigate
    Stuff happens that could be weird - investigate but justify as normal
    Stuff happens that is definitely weird - run around a bit and worry a lot try and find someone to tell you it's truly weird
    Big monster you were ignoring because you thought it didn't exist eats you - Om nom nom

    I'd suggest for CoC the only way to avoid this in a one shot is to put in at least one character who is aware of the mythos already and credible enough to be listened to early. Or just never pit normal people against anything of any size. I have lost count of the number of times, because I tend to play normal people as normal people, I've been through the above cycle, with all manner of GM's.
  • edited October 2013
    I ask my players for an "element" each that they want in the game which can be a setting, an event or whatever, concoct a very basic idea in my head and then fill in the gaps/change my idea completely based on what the players do and say in play.
    This is basically the Empire! rule, i.e. the gameworld building in Duty and Honour/Beat to Quarters whereby at the start of the game the GM asks the players what elements they'd like to see in it. Forex, in D&H players will typically say stuff like 'We want pirates, Frenchies, an old fort, a luscious aristo woman, a spy, etc. etc.', and the GM builds the scenario round those elements. For me, a Cthulhu version would include: a necronomicon/grimoire, a creepy librarian, an artefact of some sort, and my face being eaten by some 'orrible tentacled monster, oh and some 'orrible tentacled monster.
  • The question of exactly how much to metagame is an interesting one. If your investigators are too genre-savvy, then it's a procedural, but if they're too realistic, they just run away, as in Graham's example about the guy who drove off and away from the adventure with his Mom.

    Matt
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