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Author Topic: System suggestions for Call of Cthulhu?  (Read 15963 times)
Eero Tuovinen
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« on: November 11, 2007, 01:59:33 AM »

I'm going to play a one-shot of "Call of Cthulhu", or at least something similar, come Tuesday. Our usual Acts of Evil group couldn't get together, so we're playing something else as a change of pace. We agreed that I'd be working up something horror-related, simulationistic perhaps, and preferably scary in an immersiony sense. Ghost story stuff, in other words. The inspiration here is directly Call of Cthulhu; I've been reading and comparing the fourth and sixth editions for an article I'm writing, and it came to me that the teens around here have not played that game practically at all. Then I figured that we really should play the Haunted House, the old and famous CoC scenario about an old sorcerer.

Now, the one hitch here is that I don't particularly like the idea of using the BRP system of CoC to do this one-shot. I haven't played with the system for years, so my feel for it is off, and I don't like the things that system does for a horror game: the large matrix of percentaged skills, the idiosyncratic behavior of abilities vs. skills, and all the extra rules for combat, buying stuff and so on; all that makes BRP, but it's not something I'd want to mess with for a one-shot that's not even supposed to be high-points-of-contact and gamist, which are what you get pretty easily with BRP around here. I can well imagine that the first hour of play would be spent in figuring out how well the investigators can swim, which is completely useless information for the scenario. I won't even go into the horrid reward cycles (or the lack thereof) I'm seeing in the BRP system.

My second idea was to use Dead of Night; it's a splatter horror game, but it's designed to run in one session and the rules system is not as annoying. I'm not sure, though, whether I should hack in some sanity rules to get more of a CoC feel into the game. The recommended method of play for DoN seems to be semi-open towards the players; the
players participate in creating the Tension point rules and such, so I don't know how the game would work for a mystery investigation scenario like Haunted House. I guess that sanity could be hacked by making it one more aspect of the Survival points. Just give the monsters and whatever a special ability to cause some mental score checks for Survival loss just for viewing the monster/book/whatever. Similarly characters could get Survival points back for triumphing over the horrors, just like CoC.

One solution to my dilemma would be to discard the CoC trappings and just create a pure Dead of Night scenario; I've been intending to run the game at some point using a Japanese style "scary woman with hair" as the monster. It would be nice to use the Haunted House, though; we used to play a lot of CoC during the '90s, and that particular scenario is a fond memory and our first game of CoC at the time. I GMed it then, too, with two players, and everybody was tense and scared (in the good way) long before the characters found Corbit in his vault. Might be that I'm just trying to revisit the past here. Especially sad when the rest of our CoC play was, for the most part, hampered by the systemical faults of BRP, group agenda and faulty GMing skills. Reading the new edition of the game now, I'm impressed by the background work and game ideas in there. Would be nice to see if I could run a CoC game that was actually tense and suspenseful, even if I didn't use the BRP rules.

So: if anybody has ideas for the system to use for the Haunted House, I'm all ears. I'd even settle for a scholarly analysis of BRP from the viewpoint of why it is, actually, a good system for a horrorful investigation game. Or if anybody who has played DoN before wants to give me simple pointers for how the game should be ran to make it feel like CoC, all the better.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #1 on: November 11, 2007, 03:54:01 AM »

Actually, another stray thought about this: the way characters are inserted into situation in Call of Cthulhu is screwed, I need to figure out some reasonable replacement technique for doing it. I just now remembered what a bother the investigator role put upon player characters in that game is: the game assumes that all characters are some kind of occult investigators working together and wondrously motivated to solve hazardous occult mysteries. While it is possible to play this set-up, it's always felt strained to me, and wont to leave players with little rooting in the fictional situation. As I remember it, you can still have immediate visceral horror in the game that way, but the larger context stays horribly vague when your character really is going into danger just because that's the adventure, not because there is any real in-fiction reason to do so. Adding professional veneer to it (a government organization that hires professional spook-hunters, say) works even worse, because then the frail sanities, ignorance of the occult and half-competent skill-set-ups of the characters make even less sense.

Thinking of the context of the Haunted House, there's this landlord who wants to get rid of the haunting. The adventure itself suggests several possible hooks, starting with the ol' "you're related to the landlord and want to help him" and going through the usual permutations. The thing is that this doesn't actually resolve the relationship between the player characters: having all characters come in with different motivations and angles is a sure-fire way to draw attention to inter-character relationships, which is not at all what CoC is about. And having all characters start with the same exact background is not much better: if all the characters are doing it for the money, then how come they are working together? If they're all relatives of the landlord, what kind of sense does it make for the landlord to ask his whole clan to help him all at once? It all feels stilted and artificial.

The way we played this in the '90s, and I guess how others have played it, is to just not think about why the characters do what they do. I don't know if I'm satisfied by that, though. Perhaps the only nigh-reasonable solution is to have the characters be a "Scooby gang" of young idiot friends who are too curious for their own good. Good for one session's laughs, perhaps, but it wouldn't work for a campaign.

Hmm... clearly I need to do some game design here... the ulterior psychological assumption of the CoC set-up is that the player characters, when encountered by horrors beyond space and time, are gripped by an immediate need to set things right and be heroic for the sake of their way of life. A campaign context is created by assuming that the same characters, when they overcome their first case, will continue to keep their eyes open and, ultimately, start their own organization of occult trouble-shooting to preserve their fellow men from the intelligent fungi and other hazards of the cosmos. Considering this, perhaps the most sensible way of starting the scenario is to outright declare that all the characters are already scarred by the supernatural and therefore convinced that they need to stop the monsters, even if they know not what they are. Perhaps each character could have an initiation scene like they do in Dogs in the Vineyard... some horrible encounter with the occult, something that caused the character to believe in the supernatural and willing to endanger himself for curiosity and protection of the innocents.
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Filip Luszczyk
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« Reply #2 on: November 11, 2007, 05:47:50 AM »

As far as Lovecraft is concerned, my game of choice is Jared A. Sorensens Unspeakable, a freebie two-page mod for InSpectres. I even posted an Actual Play report some months ago.

This might or might not be the game you need. Some notes:

* The game itself has this semi-serious feel. If you're going for a deadly serious Lovecraftian horror, rather than a loathsome game of non-euclidean encounters with blasphemous beings that just can't be described, I believe it would still support it well. However, the whole group would have to actively strive to make it serious. Not that it's that much different from standard CoC, though.

* I have no idea how well it would work with a pre-established module.

* Playing the game, we've been tweaking it a bit. We added more player choice to Sanity rolls, as in the AP. Also, despite the author's clarifications somewhere on the Forge, we've been gathering Job Dice as per normal InSpectres rules, as we came to the conclusion that otherwise the resolution loses its purpose and the pacing is screwed. For a module, perhaps separate Job Dice could be collected for each major aspect of the scenario, depending on which one is explored in a given scene.

* Confessional as letters and diaries is just to brilliant to be true.

Regarding the starting context, why not simply give the players some introduction to the situation and ask each of them how the character got involved, individually? Since it's supposed to be a one shot, I don't suppose you actually need a classic CoC-style party of investigators. Possibly, you could lay out the hooks provided by the scenario, asking that players differentiate their starting points. Keep in mind I don't know the module, though.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #3 on: November 11, 2007, 06:27:29 AM »

I did consider UnSpeakable, but I don't want a whit of player-authoring nor zany humour in this exercise, really. I would much rather revisit my past as a GM with solid backstory, with players having wide leeway in character action but no appreciable input into the backstory. Lots of immersive horror, too. InSpectres is ultimately the No Myth game, so it'd be pointless to mix it with my particular goals here. Also, on a more concrete level, I don't find the Cyclopean Strength and other perks for eroding sanity to fit very well in the CoC paradigm.

I could well see using UnSpeakable for a similar excercise in the future, though, if this CoC nostalgy wave continues through the winter. Playing Acts of Evil has gotten me into a mindset where all kinds of cthulhoid roleplaying is starting to seem rather alluring. I could even imagine playing BRP, quirks and all, if we were doing a long-term campaign where I could use all the nuances of the system. (Would still have to switch the roll-based hint-allocation with something else.)

As for the starting context, the reason I don't think that separate hooks work well is that it tends to focus play into intra-character relationships and maneuvering. If one character is involved because he's a private eye who is being paid to investigate the house, while another one is a Christian neighbour too curious for his own health, then what we get is a lot of scenes that repeat similar information from different viewpoints, lots of maneuvering about who knows what and lots of dialogue when characters try to figure out whether they can trust each other or not. After all, the difference in character motivations and viewpoints is rather dramatic in that kind of a situation. That's one kind of story, but I'd much rather focus on the characters encountering the horror. They don't have to all work together as a commando team to achieve this, but there does need to be reason for each character to participate naturally, without us spending half of the session roleplaying the relationship of a character to his mother who's afraid of the haunted house, or something like that.

The above is based on my earlier experience with this kind of thing, mind. The immersive/procedural style of play we want for CoC-style horror to emerge also means that players start careening on all kinds of tangents if their characters have internal tensions that need resolving. Ideally, to tell the truth, the character is not real in a CoC game as I understand it. It shouldn't interfere with the experiencing of the mystery and the horror, and it definitely shouldn't have any complex hook-based motivations that might inspire the character to get out of the story in the middle. From that viewpoint it'd seem natural to make all characters just a part of some occult detective agency, but then we loose the "normal humans against the occult" wibe that's also part of CoC's charm. I never was very particular to the Delta Green idea of pitting military experts against the occult monstrosities. Doesn't seem very scary, that.
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contracycle
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« Reply #4 on: November 11, 2007, 06:33:26 AM »

I like to ask players to construct non-reciprocal links with the other characters, so that they are all linked in a causal chain.  then you only need to affect on link on the chain to set them all in motion.  The connections establish why this person is willing to help that person, and why they would be asked to be help, so there is some niche negotiation here.  Maybe you only need one occult investigator, who has a go-to guy for magical analysis and the like, and that is your next PC.  Once this is in place you can then invoke those links to actually produce play content, so you could start play with the investigator alone and then do an encounter for which he needs his magician contacts help, play out that request and bring the characters in in sequence through the course of the first session.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #5 on: November 11, 2007, 06:55:39 AM »

Something like that works to defuse the intra-character tensions in a campaign, Gareth. Thing is, it doesn't work so well in the one-shot context I'm preparing for Tuesday.

I guess that my best shot is to not have the group think about it too much. Just presume together that the characters are both committed to resolving the mystery of the haunted house, while being horribly unprepared to face the dark powers within, all the while being also reasonably trustful and harmonious towards each other. Perhaps something develops through the process of play to fill in the holes in those presumptions if we just leave the background unexplained.

Anyway, that's incidental. Any ideas about the system? I guess I could try running a GM-led freeform game in this case as well, although it's more natural for me to tinker together a simple system for the purpose before Tuesday. I have a pretty good idea of the genre and things I want the game to have, I'm just now realizing that there really isn't many games that already do this stuff very well. BRP feels horribly outdated, while Dead of Night is a little bit off, it being all about movie shock horror. Tricky.
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Darcy Burgess
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« Reply #6 on: November 11, 2007, 07:20:48 AM »

Hi Eero,

Man, if it weren't for your "...not a whit of player-authoring..." caveat, the Anti-Pool would be great.

In fact, it still would be great if you could find something to replace MoVs in the system.

Maybe rolls accumulate like in Lacuna (some sort of tension analog for BPM), and instead of a MoV, players can elect to scale the tension back down (either a fixed or variable amount).

Cheers,
Darcy
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contracycle
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« Reply #7 on: November 11, 2007, 07:42:31 AM »

Something like that works to defuse the intra-character tensions in a campaign, Gareth. Thing is, it doesn't work so well in the one-shot context I'm preparing for Tuesday.

I disagree.  What it does is pre-empt an negotiation of their relations; the working relationship is a given which everyone can work with, so it works right away.  But it changes in a campaign, as actions and interactions adjust opinions.  In think of it as specifically addressing those issues you mentioned, quickly.  It is meant as a startup substitute for negotiating this in play.

Quote
Anyway, that's incidental. Any ideas about the system? I guess I could try running a GM-led freeform game in this case as well, although it's more natural for me to tinker together a simple system for the purpose before Tuesday. I have a pretty good idea of the genre and things I want the game to have, I'm just now realizing that there really isn't many games that already do this stuff very well. BRP feels horribly outdated, while Dead of Night is a little bit off, it being all about movie shock horror. Tricky.

Actually freeform is what occurred to me, but I had a good experience that way.  I'm not sure that CoC isn't best done wholly freeform, seeing as it is almost entirely about mood created through narration.  I have difficulty in seeing what a system would be For in such a game, my own expedience with BRP seemed pretty much unrelated to what was going on.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #8 on: November 11, 2007, 08:02:36 AM »

The freeform question is interesting, and ties in to Darcy's suggestion. The way I see it, What I Want is sanity rules. I want to get to roll the dice on whether a character breaks when they see the horror, and also how much they are affected long-term. That's the real focus of the CoC rules and also something I want, simply because without a system for that, there is no "mind-shattering horror" in a roleplaying game. I'm not going to exactly shatter the minds of my players<Dead of Night offers, except that it's even weaker in the clue department than CoC, not being built to provide clues or any other kind of pacing outside horrorful crisis situations.
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Troels
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« Reply #9 on: November 11, 2007, 10:28:28 AM »

Hello Eero

A friend of mine has been fiddling a bit with updating CoC to get the cool stuff without being bothered with some of the not-so-ccol stuff. It's incomplete, and the link would be pretty useless unless you read danish, but he did come up with one really nice useable-as-is idea regarding the doling out of clues. In traditional CoC, it is a bit of a problem that the players have to succeed at that Spot Hidden or Library Use check, or the game stops dead in it's tracks.

Morten's idea is that you automatically succeed in getting the info that is required to keep the plot moving, if it is one of those really necessary bits, but if you don't succeed on your roll, it has other unfortunate consequences. So if you fail your roll, you discover the cultists' hideout, but a day after they sacrificed the virgin. Or, the secretly cultist librarian discovers what you're up to and sends madmen with long knives after you. Or whatever. The point is that you still want, badly, to succeed, but the plot doesn't grind to a halt if you don't. This will require some work from the keeper to come up with punishments for failure at those crucial rolls, but it need only be used for key stuff, not every little roll. If you want the players to "control" the pacing with investigation, you could use this as backup, in case they get stuck, but I think it might be worth it to use it up front.

Also, on Sanity, that most crucial mechanic. In some of the published stuff, you check Sanity for "ordinary" scary stuff, and it rather cheapens the cosmic horror. Sanity loss should be reserved for the stuff that wears down your world-view and exposes the horrid emptiness that lurks beneath the surface, not scary stinky dead sheep. Oh, and cheap and convenient magic is bad for the atmosphere. Using magic should cost sanity, and involve Forbidden Knowledge and stuff. Cure Light Wounds and the like are the bane of CoC, and a number of convenience spells have worked their way into the system. Cut them, or make them dark and costly.

My two cp,

Troels
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Paul T
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« Reply #10 on: November 11, 2007, 02:52:33 PM »

A couple of suggestions:

-Someone mentioned using The Pool (or Anti-Pool). I just wanted to add that, if you like that system, you can use it without any MoVs. I've done this before, and it's still a great system--you don't need them to use The Pool. The roll is about success or failure--the GM still holds narrational power.

-As for finding a good premise for the characters to be investigating the mystery together... how about greed? What if they all want something in the House? Perhaps there is an ancient book of secrets they're really hoping to get their hands on, or something else that's a powerful enough draw for them to brave horrors from the Beyond. They may be working together as a team (a la Mountain Witch), or maybe they're all there because they believe each other character has some skill or resource they will need (like a D&D adventuring party).

Cheers,


Paul

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Web_Weaver
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« Reply #11 on: November 11, 2007, 04:06:03 PM »

Hi Eero,

A slight aside, but 'actual play' relevant, a while back I ran a few sessions of CoC Delta Green for my group, who had been playing HeroQuest for some time, and despite them all being used to BRP from many years of playing CoC and Runequest a couple of the players found it very difficult to go back to narrowly defined skill lists, with little scope for overlaps and no way of augmenting skills with other relevant ones. One player also struggled with the apparent lower level of skills and higher failure rate for an otherwise highly competent character.

There has been some discussion over at the FateRPG Yahoo Group about using a hack of Fate 3 / SotC for Lovecraft games. As I understand it one of the core play test groups for FATE 3 (Burton Foundation) were playing a Cthulhu campaign.

This post in particular may be worth a read if you are interested, and the FATE 3 SRD contains everything else you would need to run that game.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #12 on: November 12, 2007, 02:27:14 AM »

Thank you all for seed ideas. I spent last night reading the 6th edition rulebook for CoC, and I have to agree with Troels about the utility magics. I think I'll have to skim through the 4th edition as well just out of curiosity, to see if the same stuff is there as well.

Web_Weaver's experience mirrors my own: BRP is a rather ugly and unrealistic system when you compare it to modern stuff. So I'd rather just avoid the headache of using it. FATE is not a bad interim solution (for anything, really), although it focuses on characters in a rather dramatic manner. For longer term I'd definitely want something else.

I'll spend tonight crunching together an amiable solution for tomorrow's session. I'll let you know here how it worked.
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Christoph Boeckle
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« Reply #13 on: November 12, 2007, 07:01:53 AM »

Hi Eero

I hope this doesn't come too late: I played a oneshot with a modified Pool variant (basically, the GM had to give bonus dice each time he introduced mythos contents, and vice-versa, players gave the GM mythos-credits when they used bonus-dice that they hadn't received from the GM, or something like that, I can look it up again if you want to know more. it was also tied to potential SAN loss).
So, there was quite a lot of player narration, but most of the content and scene framing was held by me, the GM.

I had prepared a rough story map before play, detailing three groups of NPCs all connected to the same mythos source in a different way (as it were: astronomers, fishermen and somebody I forget). Each player had to create a character with a strong link to at least one of those groups of NPCs. It was then my job to frame relevant scenes for the PCs, tying them together over time via the aforementioned NPC groups. A lot of arbitrary pacing and content decisions on my part, but the characters were firmly placed in the midst of the action and dragging the poor NPCs along. The modified dice mechanic allowed me to get a rough feel for mythos revelation progress, but it was still a bit light (I'd use some kind of formal scene-framing mechanic on top of that now, probably).
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Regards,
Christoph
Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #14 on: November 12, 2007, 08:14:31 AM »

That sounds interesting for the longer term investigation of the CoC topic, Christoph. I don't think it's right for my session tomorrow, though, as I'm trying to keep the mechanics and content undramatic (that is, not concerning character relationships or motivations). A lot of the Pool-derived tradition of design works counter to this by allowing players to make all kinds of dramatic statements that deduct from the backstory constraints of the GM.

I'm sorry I can't verbalize what I'm shooting for any better right now, perhaps I can describe what worked and what didn't when we actually play the session tomorrow.
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