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Author Topic: Hot Lead and Hypocrisy: a rant on guns in Call of Cthulhu  (Read 18502 times)
b_bankhead
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« on: March 10, 2004, 05:28:55 PM »

Note: This article is an extension of the threads, Drifting to R'lyeh and Cthulhu's clues.  It will be best understood by reading those posts

   One of the most nagging anomalies of Call of Cthulhu has been a certain hypocrisy about violence.  Hyposcrisy ? you may ask. Well yes, isn't it hypocrisy filling the Cthulhu Now supplements with lovingly rendered sketches of automatic weapons and then verbally spanking your hands for wanting to use them.  Isn't it hypocrisy to create a game where the only real form of accumulable effectivenss is your gun and then insulting you for noticing it.
Thats right.  That's the real Dark Secret of Call of Cthulhu: You are only as good as your gun. And getting a bigger one (and learning to shoot it) is generally the only way to really get better.

Yet the game promotes the idea of looking down on those who notice this. On long thread "Dealing with Rambo wannabees" on the
Yog-Sothoth.com site embodies this attitude. The bring up a lot of house rules mods designed specifically to castrate firearms. But then they are enamored of the ultraviolent 'Masks of Nyarlathotep' a scenario whose opening scene consists of encountering a group of cultists crouched over the mutilated corpse of an old friend. Perhaps they'll drop dead if you critically hit your Fast Talk roll and trick them into having heart attacks, yeah that's it....

   HP Lovecraft wasn't shy about putting guns in the hands of his heros. In 'Whisperer in Darkness' an entire colony of Mi-go is held off by an arsenal of firearms and guard dogs that Randy Weaver would have envied. In The Shunned House' in addittion to a bathtubs worth of concentrated acid they also pack a 'military flamethrower' and a Crookes tube, a real honest to Ghostbusters ,20's era particle accelerator.  

   I rather doubt the Federal Agents that raided Innsmouth were throwing noodles at the time, the cops that waded into the cultists in 'Call of Cthulhu, Certainly weren't.

Even the more intellectual Richard Upton Pickman, and Herber West weren't too good to pack heat when they needed to...why should anybody else playing the game?

   Let's take a typical situation from Cthululand.  A small colony of Deep Ones has slithered up into the cities sewer system , they are ensconced in some catacomb under an abandoned building and gathered  a cult about itself.  They are sacrificing ,street people, orphans, what have you to the foul creature.  The cult is growing,gaining, in magical power, and temporal influence. They have the potential, if things go on, to turn the place into another Innsmouth.

   Okay lets say the players have found all this out, whether they made their skill rolls or you just dropped a book in their laps which lays everything out in block letters.  (If they can't do the former you will probably end up doing the later,or it's equivalent.)

   Like any self-respecting group of Investigators, they want to put a stop to this.

   So, what exactly ARE they supposed to do about it?

   There are really only so many options.  The typical Cthulhu mythos cult makes Al-Quaida look like a model of probity and good fellowship, so you can be sure reasoning with them isn't going to make much headway.  In the aformentioned 'Shadow over Innsmouth' the narrator simply sicced the Feds on them.  An acceptable solution in a short story but damn de-protaganising in an rpg (besides in Cthulhu scenarios the authorities will almost certainly ignore or laugh off such a warning).

   So what's left?  Magic?  As the CoC rulebook states quite clearly: "An investigator rarely becomes an adept mage as the necessary knowledge and experience leads to madness first".
Indeed!   Reading mythos books costs SAN.  Casting mythos spells costs SAN. Getting close enough to a mythos monster to use a spell (can) costs SAN.  Using mythos magic items, costs SAN.  And since the whiff factor for magic (at least for Investigators)  is even worse than for mundane skills, all this throwing away of the hard to regenerate mental hit points known as SAN is likely to be futile anyway.

   So magic is unlikely to be useful given the way the CoC rules work. The Authorities wil be unhelpful.  Negotiation is likely to be worse than useless. The only real option is a violent one.

         CoC's hypocrisy about violence enter into the equation unfortunately.  CoC wants to be this cultured,thinking man's game, the rpg equivaltent of Frasier Crane, the opposite of the continuous mindless miniatures combat of D&D.  But  by and large it's in practice impossible to resolve most scenarios without violence of some kind.  As the rules clain, "Investigator's aren't fighting machines. The single extraordinary thing about most investigator's is what they come to know."   But as I pointed out in 'Drifting to R'lyeh' what you know really doesn't matter because if the Keeper doesn't want his game to die out in a welter of whiffed skill rolles in the Miskatonic U. reading room he'll tell you what you need to know anyway.

   But need to know to do what?

   Again how are you going the get that star spawn? Burning down the house merely means they set up shop elsewhere. This has the same problem as the various other 'nuke the site from orbit' options.  Explosives are often reccomended, however they have the same problems as throwing a molotov in the window, you don't really know what happened. (This ignores the fact that explosives can be as dangerous as any monster if you dont know what you're doing, it's interesting to note that CoC doesn not and has never had a Demolitions skill!) Was the threat neutralized? You won't find out until later and if it didn't work, the cult will be forewarned that somebody has got their number, and they'll be even more careful in the future (we are constantly told Cthulhu cultists are raving maniacs.  Unlike most raving maniacs seem unusually crafty.....). The problem with 'nuke the site from orbit is that you CAN'T be sure.  In CoC you can't be sure unless you watch it die, and sometimes not even then......

   So usually violence is the only choice you have.  And guns are good at violence.  Thats why the armies of the world dropped arrows and swords in favor of guns.  They are easily and cheaply acquired, (at least in the USA), eminently portable ,concealable, and can strike at a distance.  (Hundreds of yards, at least in theory...).  The kinds of places most CoC action scenes occur are places where the characters are within the point blank rule for firearms which DOUBLES your hit probability. (haunted houses,caves,sewers ,crypts ,catacombs ,etc...).

Stand and Deliver!:Riding shotgun on the mythos

Hell yes Call of Cthulhu is hypocritical about guns. The 'Theron Marks' article in the Cthulhu Companion (?) is virtually a pean to the shotgun. And well it might, shotguns are the best weapon in the book.  At the typical combat ranges their punch is enourmous .14 points for a median 12-guage hit. Shotguns are regulated at a far lower level than automatic weapons,when firing pellets they have no ballistic signature,they can be easily loaded with all kinds of imaginative ammunitions (I've use everthing in my games from rock salt to gigantic glaser rounds that do 8(d6+2) to soft targets), and furthermore they give your characters an excuse to slink around in cool looking,shotgun hiding, black dusters  in the middle of the night.

   One non-argument, is the 'the horrors of the mythos are invulverable to paltry human weapons" routine. I can only think those who belive this haven't looked at the monster stats in CoC very carefully. Sure Cthulhu and the major league 'big bads' are pretty much bulletproof,but most of the lesser servitor and independent races (the overwhelming majority of what will be encountered in any reasonable campaign) come apart pretty well under gunfire. To demostrate this I have compiled a list the number of median damage hits with a shotgun to kill a median hit point creature of the given type. Included are any modifier for armor and other types of damage resistance.

         
         median # hits
Byakhee          2   
Deep Ones         1
Dark Young of                   
Shub-Niggurath      5
Dimension Shamblers   2
Elder Things
Fire Vampires         *I
Formless Spawn of
Tsathoggua         *I
Ghasts         2
Ghouls         2      
Gnoph-Keh         6
Great Race of
Yith            6
Gugs            8
Hunting Horrors      6
Leng Spiders      4
Mi-Go            3
Moon Beasts         5
Nightgaunts         2
Sand Dwellers      
Serpent Men         1   
Shantaks         7

While a few of the critters on this chart are pretty stiff, most of these are also pretty hard to find, Gugs are almost all in the Dreamlands, You normally have to go back before the dinosaurs to encounter the great race, and knoph-keh are only found in the most godforsaken arctic wastelands.
Only a few are actually gun-proof, most of those that are are vulnerable to incediary attacks.
Fire Vampires are a real problem, but if you happen to be near a garden hose......

The lesson of this chart isn't that the horrors of the mythos are invulnerable to wankety ,wank ,wank , the lesson is 'Shoot early and often'.

There is another lesson too.  Call of Cthulhu talks and talks about the uselessness of violence, but creates a game where it's almost inevitable.  The lesson of this is simply don't necessarily believe what the designers of a game tell, you , they can be amazingly obtuse about the type of play their rules actually support.

I will end by paraphrasing the immortal words of John Dillinger 'You will get farther with an Orate roll and a gun ,than you will with just an Orate roll".....
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Valamir
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« Reply #1 on: March 10, 2004, 06:22:40 PM »

Preach it brother.
Call of Cthulhu survives as a game because people did Cthulhu and cultists and the Mythos.  The actual game mechanics, IMO, are unqualifiedly horrible.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #2 on: March 10, 2004, 08:59:54 PM »

Hmm, I wonder what Cthulhu's system design goals should actually be, in relation to genre material?

As stated, that genre material includes shooting cultists and the lesser puncths of Cthulhu.

Yet to add in a combat section is like that standard Mike rant, about sticking in combat sections even if your books about the best photographers in the world. And how crud that is.

I wonder if one goal might be that survival is basically formulated through current knowledge + gun skill + how big a barrel you got, all added to one roll and that's it (basically a conflict resolution rather than task resolution). What I mean by current knowledge is what stuff you've learnt from the adventure helps you avoid walking to close to the creatures grasp, which is pretty damn important, perhaps more so than having a big gun (crank your currennt knowledge modifier really high).

Sound legit?
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Philosopher Gamer
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Andrew Norris
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« Reply #3 on: March 10, 2004, 09:24:53 PM »

I suppose this could be taken as an example of how Call of Cthulhu is incoherent, yes? It seems the desired mode for most groups playing it is Sim / Exploration of Setting or Color ("What would it be like to be inside a Lovecraft story?") but in fact the game rewards play that's either more Gamist ("look, it only takes one shotgun blast on average to kill a Serpent Man") or Sim in more of a "What if Cthulhu related events happened in the real world" (in which case the right answer really is to either go in with heavy automatic weapons, call the feds, or just turn around and pretend you didn't see anything.)

It's an interesting thought, because there are a number of games that focus on simulation of a cinematic reality, but not many that try to simulate a literary one. CoC is one of those games that knows what it wants to do, but tries to do it in a way similar to other games published around when it came out, and it doesn't really gel.
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Ian Charvill
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« Reply #4 on: March 11, 2004, 12:39:19 AM »

I think there's always been two strands of Cthulhu play - 'pulp cthulhu' and 'adventures in social history'.  From what I've seen of it, D20 Cthulhu drifted towards the former.

The "Theron Mark's Survival Manual" was bundled in with a couple of adventures and was full of advice about shotguns - I think twin sawn-offs is recommended at one point - explosives and flame throwers.  The adventures themselves were fairly pulpy.  I remember something about Aztec temples in South America, crocodile attacks and the like.

They were a lot of fun.

(Historically, I always found that the big problem with going in guns blazing all the time was that - as a strategy - it ignores the ablative effect of Sanity)
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Ian Charvill
Itse
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« Reply #5 on: March 11, 2004, 05:25:43 AM »

Noon:

Quote

Hmm, I wonder what Cthulhu's system design goals should actually be, in relation to genre material?

As stated, that genre material includes shooting cultists and the lesser puncths of Cthulhu.

Yet to add in a combat section is like that standard Mike rant, about sticking in combat sections even if your books about the best photographers in the world. And how crud that is.


I would say they have taken the easy way out. "We don't know how to design a combat system which would fit with the themes of the game, what to do? Tell them there shouldn't be one." Not that great. What CoC would need is a seriously thought out mechanic that would help flesh out the almost inevitable final violent confrontation with detail and atmosphere fitting to the genre. Actually, I don't even think it would be that hard.

This would be the perfect place for any and all rules about fear, desperation, panic and in general uncontrolled and unrational behaviour in combat. Being unable to make clear decisions in the face of the monsters would pretty much be a given. Putting a lot of heavy artillery in the hands of scared amateurs would make them almost as dangerous to each other and innocent bystanders (like captives of the cult) than to the enemy. I would love see the players create the most carefully thought out plans, only to see all tactics be forgotten in the face of the enemy, creating potentially disastrous situations. "Where's my cover fire?! Where's my gOD DAMNED FUCKING COVER, FRANK WHERE ARE YOU!... Who's that? Oh shit Jim, GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE, IT'S GONNA... *sound of explosion* ...oh god..."

You get the picture.
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GreatWolf
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« Reply #6 on: March 11, 2004, 10:00:28 AM »

Maybe I'm just not highbrow enough (grin), but whenever I ran CoC, firearms were always involved.  And I'm talking about the "play-in-the-basement-with-the-lights-out" kind of CoC.  However, the characters that we ran were rarely combat beasts.  Gunplay with the monsters tended to feel rather desperate.  Certainly the monsters weren't invulnerable (even the shoggoth that I once threw at a group), but they were enough to induce fear and panic among both characters and players.  So the gunplay and violence tended to increase the fear and desperation, not work against it.

And I say this as a fan of the game.

Seth Ben-Ezra
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Seth Ben-Ezra
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John Kim
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« Reply #7 on: March 11, 2004, 04:26:16 PM »

To bankhead:  I'm not convinced this is hypocrisy.  If some author publishes a CoC adventure which rewards gun use, and some internet poster on yog-sothoth.com says "Only munchkins use guns" -- then this is a clash of views, not hypocrisy.   The latter presumably prefers more non-violent adventures than the ones published.  

My impression from the CoC published books themselves is that they encourage gun use to a certain extent, but also suggest putting limits on it.  As a rule of thumb, shotguns and dynamite are fine and indeed expected -- but tanks and mounted machineguns are to be discouraged (with possible exceptions in the case of Delta Green).  The "Theron Mark's Survival Manual" is a good illustration.  It is absolutely not the case that the game wants PCs to be unarmed scholars who succeed through being smart and reading.  Indeed, the game tries to make investigation as dangerous and peril-ridden as combat (i.e. "Don't read that book!!!").
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madelf
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« Reply #8 on: March 11, 2004, 08:41:53 PM »

Strangely, the rant that opened this thread has made me (for the very first time) consider that Call of Cthulu might be a really fun game to play.

While the "high brow tone" of the game always put me off in the past, the idea of grabbing my trench coat and 12guage pump to go kick some ancient evil ass gives it just the contrast needed to give it a greater appeal.

Personally I couldn't imagine enjoying a game where I go quietly insane researching old gods in a gloomy library.

But going stark raving bonkers with a 45 in each hand, guns blazing and lighting up the sanity blasting visage of an old one like a staccato strobe light... that would be much more cool.

If I were actually presented with such a situtation in real life, I'd like to think I know which way I'd go out. Definitely with a bang.
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Calvin W. Camp

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Gordon C. Landis
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« Reply #9 on: March 12, 2004, 01:25:28 PM »

Quote from: madelf
But going stark raving bonkers with a 45 in each hand, guns blazing and lighting up the sanity blasting visage of an old one like a staccato strobe light... that would be much more cool.

Isn't this the source of popularity for the Delta Green variant of CoC?  I confess, I've seen MUCH more Delta Green play than "real" 20's CoC . . .

Gordon
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madelf
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« Reply #10 on: March 12, 2004, 02:50:56 PM »

Quote from: Gordon C. Landis

Isn't this the source of popularity for the Delta Green variant of CoC?  I confess, I've seen MUCH more Delta Green play than "real" 20's CoC . . .
Gordon


Very likely, though I hadn't heard of Delta Green.
I may have to check it out now.
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Calvin W. Camp

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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #11 on: March 12, 2004, 03:04:52 PM »

Hello,

Madelf, I also recommend the game Dread, by Rafael Chandler, which for my money captures exactly what you describe in the most effective, playable, and visceral way I've ever seen.

Best,
Ron
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Trevis Martin
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« Reply #12 on: March 12, 2004, 03:27:50 PM »

Just as a note, Dread seems to be currently unavailable.  According to the authors site  he has sold his entire print run.  The site makes no mention of an intention to print more books.

http://rafaelchandler.com

regards,

Trevis
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Ole
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« Reply #13 on: March 13, 2004, 11:18:47 AM »

Quote from: madelf

While the "high brow tone" of the game always put me off in the past, the idea of grabbing my trench coat and 12guage pump to go kick some ancient evil ass gives it just the contrast needed to give it a greater appeal.

Personally I couldn't imagine enjoying a game where I go quietly insane researching old gods in a gloomy library.


A typical CoC adventure:
Somebody related to the characters gets abducted/killed, or they stumble upon the outer layer of a conspiracy trying to summon an old god, (ending the world as we know it), either way the players get a handout.
The players read the handout and underlines the parts that needs to be investigated.
The characters investigates, unveiling new handouts, clues and red herrings.
If the players get stuck the keeper points them in the right direction.
Low level opposition must be disposed of by force.
High level opposition must be disposed of either by killing their would-be summoners, or by exploiting their fatal weakness.

So basically you spend hours reading handouts and piecing together information, blast the cultists to kingdom come, steal a musty old-book, spend 3 months reading it (hopefully staying sane), use the information in the book to save the world.

Hypocrisy about violence? You betcha. The introductory material and rules commonly emphasise that this is a game about investigation, and violence will get you nowhere.
The big problem is when players actually buy into this, and create investigators without combat-skills. I`ve yet to see an adventure where violence isnt a necessity at some crucial point.
Detailed knowledge of Hyperborean culture and the ritual needed to send The Big Bad Old God back to Ix will get you nowhere when the Pathetic Minion of The Big Bad Old God is gnawing on your leg.

Shotguns are the weapon of choice for a number of reasons, versatility, high damage, availability, concealable. All investigators need proficiency in  its use. They have one flaw, rate of fire, there are occasions when you need more lead in the air. Personally I prefer the Tommy-gun, but since it was first manufactured in 1929 it may not always be available. Not all keepers know this, some of those that do still allow it in their campaigns. In lieu of this baby there are several machine guns that fit the bill.
I`ve seen a summoning disrupted by strafing fire from a Sopwith Camel, now theres something to tell your grandchildren about :), but I doubt it was what the designers of the adventure had in mind...
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Ole Bergesen
komradebob
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« Reply #14 on: March 13, 2004, 11:41:26 AM »

Not to quibble, but I'm pretty sure the Tommygun went into production prior to 1929. If I recall corectly, it was designed to be marketed to the Allied governments for the anticipated 1919 campaigns, but the war ended before it went into production. Seem to recall that the tommygun in it's early form was used in both the Tan War and the Irish Civil War in the early '20s.  
 As for alternatives, I believe that France, Britain, and Germany all experimented with machine pistols/submachineguns, lightmachineguns and assault rifles for uses in the trenches. I'm pretty sure that the Browning automatic rifle (B.A.R) came out of those designs, as did the Lewisgun, two light, bipod equiped made by the americans and british respectively.
 IIRC, the tommygun, because it fired .45 pistol ammo, was classified as a pistol for legal purposes, and was available over the counter or by mail order in the U.S.(ie- unrestricted access to the public), leading to its popularity with criminal factions during the heyday of the bootlegger wars.
 Also remember that in the interwar years, the US had an incredibly laissez-faire attitude toward gun ownership. Critics of the current ease of gun ownership would blow a gasket if they suddenly found themselves in the 1920s. It would not be unbelievable that bookish, law abiding scholars would own some sort of handgun. OTOH, Miranda rights weren't in place at the time, and police had much broader powers, both on the books and in practice, to detain and abuse suspected criminals and malcontents of all stripes.
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Robert Earley-Clark

currently developing:The Village Game:Family storytelling with toys
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