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Drifting to R'lyeh:Facing the Problems with Call of Cthulhu

Started by b_bankhead, October 24, 2003, 08:24:07 PM

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Drifting to R'lyeh: An Autopsy on Call of Cthulu


Call of Cthulhu is one of the simplest rules systems around. The Cthulhu Mythos is popular among the members of the gaming subculture.  And the published scenario rank IMHO as some the best ever designed for any rpg ever.
One of the first difficulties in gaming CoC is overcoming the resistance to play. CoC has a baleful reputation among rpg gamers.  According to WOTC marketing surveys only about 1% of gamers play CoC. The game has the well know rep of being an excercise in futility and unsurvivable (although when I have played the death rate is no higher than that of low level D&D campaigns!). I have had gamers actually CRINGE at the mere MENTION of CoC.  So I have learned when bringing the game up to segue IMMEDIATELY  to my discussion of how I have drifted the rules.

Why is this?  And how has the game survived (albeit barely) in spite of all this?

The Great Sucking Sound is Your Game Being Pulled Toward Illusionism

   There are a number of reasons why the Keeper is drawn toward illusionism.  These reasons have to do with the fundamental mismatches between CoC rules and the structure of the typical  game.
The 'onionskin' structure of the classic CoC scenario is mediated by skill rolls.  Penetrating to the deeper levels of the onion requires making skill rolls to acquire the information to do so. The problem is, what happens when Lady Luck is on the rag and your players can't roll their way out of a paper sack?  What is the keeper going to do?  The sensible keeper will of course maintain a matrix structure to the gathering of information so if your Archeologist can't make his rolls, then the con artist might get the information with his Fast Talk, but what if your whole group is having a bad dice day?

   You will be faced with the same problem as all other similarly structured scenarios will.  You will be sitting across the table from players who are milling around ,accomplishing nothing and getting more bored and frustrated by the minute.....

     The keeper then has to make a choice, if he is particularly rigid he will simply sit there and let them stew...I've seen this happen and it can kill the campaign,much less the game......

Or you will intervene with some game world eventuality which will essentially drop the needed info into their laps.   But the problem is that if you do this, what were the skill rolls for?  Whats worse some players will figure this out, and then just sit on their hands and try to wait the keeper out and avoid the whole messy business of wandering about the game world gathering the info themselves, and why should they ?

   This creates an interesting paradox.  Although CoC as a game has a supposed bias against combat, in practice they are the only skills that really matter, in the sense of having real consequences.   Miss a comabat roll and you can lose your character!  But as I have shown missing the other skill rolles doesn't necessarily have  any real consequences in the play of the game.

Player effectiveness
The issue of player effectiveness in CoC is confused. In  CoC the basic character stats don't change   Hit points in CoC do not inflate like they do in D&D. Sanity is notoriously ablative in CoC. The only real form of sytemic player effectiveness that increases are skill rolls.  And as i just pointed out skill rolls don't really matter...
Another bug in the issue of player effectiveness is the Cthulhu Mythos skill.
You would think that this would be a very important skill except that since it sets a cap on sanity, it actually reduces player effectiveness.  Since skill rolls themselves are irrelevant the mythos skill is of actually less value than any other skills! Plus to get it you almost always have to contract sanity loss.  While it may help tell you what you are up against, it increases the chance you will go nuts when you actually encounter it...

    Since mythos knowledge is of little real value, and almost all use of magic entails loss of effectiveness (sanity) the only good way to deal with the problem is load up the shotguns! Once again the 'anti combat' game shows that it really rewards Ramboism (and it's a myth that guns don't do you any good, lesser servitor and independent races come apart under gunfire just about as well as human cultists and constitute the bulk of the mythos encounters.....).  The real hidden truth about Call of Cthulhu is that bigger guns are the only real road to increased character effectiveness.

GNS of Cthulhu

Gamist- It is very difficult to play CoC in a gamist fashion.  The game has essentially no reward system at all, , virtually no real way of accumulating player effectiveness, in fact the overewhelming tendency is for player effectiveness to be reduced .  ' Game Balance', certainly doesn't exist, at least not without extrememly carefull drift by the Keeper. The very idea of metagame min-maxing is a bad joke (other than 'load up on library use and spot hidden).  Many of the published scenarios although well written are wildly imbalanced from any gamist perspective and often must be extensively drifted for a player to have any chance of resolving the situation with their skin intact or indeed often at all.  (Masks of Nyarlathotep for example).

Narrativist- More than any other aspect, Call of Cthulhu strives to be narrativist. Over and over the rhetoric of the game stresses plot and story over consideration in other issues.  The rules do seem well designed to create a particular tone of helplessness and inevitability, and toward that end support a particular theme.  (Unfortunately the same thing could be said of a 'Dilbert' rpg...... ) The narrative structure of the game is in fact highly stereotyped, essentially a detectvie story with specialized elements of color and setting.  Yet  there are no rules for the players as co-authors not even as threadbare a device as 'fortune points'. The universe of Lovecraft is distinctly amoral so moral issues don't seem to make much difference in the play of the game. Put simply the antagonists in the typical CoC game are either completely inhuman or partake of so much inhumanity that few players feel much of a problem with 'dropping the hammer' on them.   The actual rules in Coc are prototypically simulationist in content.

Simulationism- CoC is a consumate sumulationist game.  The rules are well designed to produce an outcome not unlike that of the (stereotyped) Lovecraft story. And great care is given to the quantification of the game world.  But Coc is deceptive with regards to how well it deals with many aspects of Exploration.

Exploration of Color-  This is arguably the biggest factor drawing people into playing the game.  There are few people going 'Call of Cthulhu? hyuk hyuk thats a funny name, lets play this and see what it's about'!  Overwhelmingly people get into playing the game because they have read some Lovecraft and like the color elements he created.  The problem with EoS in CoC is that virtually everything you encounter, the lowliest deep one, the weakest spell, the most trivial historical tract, in some cases just the NOISE of something wierd in the attic ,all cause damaging sanity loss!  So the more of the color you encounter the more your effectiveness is damaged.  As one character in KODT exclaimed 'I've played a lot of K'chooloo and one thing I know is BURN THE BOOKS'.  This is pretty good advice for the game but a bitter pill to swallow for someone looking forward to EoCo.......

Exploration of Setting-At first glance CoC looks like it's dominated by exploration of setting (history and location). But in fact call of Cthulhu can and has been played in a wide range of settings.  What makes a game 'Lovecraftian' isn't really the setting but the color elements, the gods,the manuscripts, the spells, all of these are readily transportable to a wide range of settings.  In essence setting really doesn't matter much in Call of Cthulhu.
Exploration of Situation- Call of Cthulhu is consumately a game of EoSi.  After all the players arent' called investigators for nothing.  Something is going on somewhere and something has to be done about it, is the invitable model for a scenario.

Exploration of Character- CoC does offer opportunities for EoC but very little real support for it in the game.  CoC was one of the first gmaes to support a high level of character customization by allow free choice withing a well developed skill system, and the choice of player skill naturally implied a background which most players relish elaborating on.
   The problem develops when this model comes up against the overwhelming concentration on situation.  Put simply the game is almost never really 'about' the characters, and virtually any characters will fit so long as their nature makes sense within the  situation (ie: if it's an archeological dig, you need archeologists , but any archeologist will do)  Usually the well thought out player backgrounds are simply ignored. Sometimes ham fisted approaches to bolting elements of the situation on the character's background are made but this isn't really exploration of character as the same elements can often be bolted onto virtually any character in the game.
   Some player find a certain enjoyable type of EoC in playing out the insanities that long time characters almost invetably develop, as well they might as it's the only aspect of character that has a mechanism in the rule other than skills, If only they didn't diminish player effectiveness......
   Of course the biggest discouragement to EoC is the game's lethality. Because of this people start to avoid becoming attatched, become more distant, and less interested in actually exploring the character, this tendency gets worse the longer most people play the game (and the more characters they have lost). Since character identification is one of the most important pleasures in rpgs (and one thing that makes them unique among games) this is a telling disadvantage in Call of Cthulhu.

Exploration of system-  This is a particularly trivial aspect of CoC because put simply  there is so little system to explore!  Besides customizing your character in his choice of skills, there is really little else for the player to do with the system.

In short CoC falls into the category of  'Simulationist play in which elements of situation and color are preferentially explored'.  Indeed situation and color are so central that quite enjoyable 'Lovecraftian' board games and card games have been created! And virtually any narrativist structure can be made 'Lovecraftian by the injection of the righ color elements.  This is, for example,the only thing needed to make a game of 'My Life with Master' or 'Inspectres' Lovecraftian .

The Horror out of Petersen: Why People hate Call of Cthulhu
   This is the point of the discussion when the pro-CoC person grumbles about how the game is for 'real' role players and that 'maturity' consists of blandly accepting the limitations I have outline.  This rhetoric is personally satisfying but worthless  for my purposes.
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.

Call of Cthulhu is popular in convention tournament play.  There ratio of people hosting Coc games at conventions is widely divergent from what sales figure dictate to be the actual popularity of the game.  This is because the games disadvantages are a lot less signifigant in one-shot scenarios.  

Indeed the question when discussing Call of Cthulhu is 'why has the game lasted so long"? There are several reasons, uniqueness (there have been hundreds of fantasy games but CoC has had few imitators) and the fact that it does cover the color elements quite well.  This makes it useful for extracting these elemenst for play in other games. This is the 'secret weapon' behind the viability of the GURPS line and to a lesser extent Palladium.  Those setting guides are so good even if you don't like the game they are worth buying.... Plus the better scenarios are enjoyable just as Cthulhu Mythos stories in their own right.

At this point my autopsy of Call of Cthulhu is concluded.  Now the next step, taking this cadaver and like Herbert West, sewing on the parts that will make it better.  

My first essay on this subject will be 'Cthulhu's Clues: New approaches to information in Lovecraftian scenarios'.
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Ron Edwards

Cheerleading noises! This is exactly the sort of thread I wish people would post more often.

My only quibble: the possible proviso that my anecdotal experience with Call of Cthulhu's popularity implies that it is indeed popular ... in terms of acknowledgment, appreciation, and short-term play. What it doesn't do especially well are "campaigns," and although I'm shy on the details, I'll speculate that WotC's survey was biased toward long-term, high-repeat-buy play. I'll also concede that raw numbers of people involved are perhaps low.

Since I claim that most role-playing experiences are short-term (two to ten sessions), counter to people's intentions or cultural expectations, that would make Call of Cthulhu more popular than the survey makes it sound. I also think that Situation/Color oriented Simulationist play can be extremely rewarding - again, speaking only personally, it's really the only subset of Sim play that I consistently enjoy.

The game certainly does seem to enter into the "screen" of each age group of role-players throughout the hobby's history. The late teens who join our campus club during their first year of college have always all heard of it.


Andrew Martin

Quote from: b_bankheadAt this point my autopsy of Call of Cthulhu is concluded.  Now the next step, taking this cadaver and like Herbert West, sewing on the parts that will make it better.

I totally agree with your essay and I eagerly look forward to your next post. My questions are: what is the goal of this "reanimated corpse"? :) Is the new game to play more like the books by Lovecraft?
Andrew Martin


What a great thread.  I'd love to see a series of these.  I'd add to the list of things to hate the extraordinarily high Whiff factor of the BRP system.  I'd concur that the only attribute on the character sheet in any CoC game I've ever played in that mattered was the caliber of the weapon you were armed with.  I also concur that the game works ok for Con play because you either go creepy horror movie (which needs to end at some point) or almost silly parody (at which point everyones laughing so who cares if the system is weak).


Very nicely done!

A few comments or quibbles:

I'll admit that the book's general GM suggestions and assumptions lead strongly to the situation you describe, in which investigative skills fail frequently and so the GM has to negate their value by letting things continue anyway.

However, there are simple ways around it.  For example, a trip to the library might automatically reveal the plot-necessary info (the old Jones Manor is haunted), but useful details can be obtained through successful skill checks (you might learn any of the following: the monster hates sunlight, the monster can be banished with a certain spell and the monster attacks with poison).  This is probably still illusionism at work, but at least it hasn't totally devalued skillss, and it paves the way for much more flexible styles.

I think CoC can be highly effective for Gamists with certain expectations (or lack of them).  The above example would fit beautifully in a Gamist-style scenario because characters are now better equipped to meet the final challenge.  

Anecdotally, I know of a long-term CoC group who played very Gamist.  The goal was simply to survive the Keeper's evil plot.  It was a given that mistakes would be punished harshly and that PCs would die frequently and horribly, often without warning (thanks to failed rolls earlier).  This group thought CoC was the best thing since Paranoia, which they also played regularly.  The challenge had little to do with in-game rewards: it was straight up "Can I outsmart or outluck the GM today?"  One player's great claim to fame was that one of his PCs survived for six sessions.  Another player had such a reputation for using PCs as human shields they always stuck him at the front of the group.

However, this style of Gamist play doesn't appeal to a majority, so your criticisms of CoC in this regards are true for most people.

Number of Players
First off, 1% is still pretty impressive, especially given WotC's market size estimate in the same survey.  Heck, I'd kill for 0.1%.  I think CoC has a large following of people who use it for the occassional one-shots, whether at conventions or as a substitute game (such as when too few people show up to continue the usual campaign).  Whether these folks showed up in the survey or not, I'm not sure.
Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis

John Kim

Quote from: b_bankheadAn Autopsy on Call of Cthulu  
(...long theoretical analysis...)
So we see why CoC in practice is so unpopular. It really does have something for everyone to hate.  
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 an 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.
- John

GB Steve

I agree with John, CoC is one of the most popular and succesful roleplaying gams ever. It has run to 6 editions and hardly changed at all during that time.

The games that I've enjoyed the most are the ones where we've forgotten our dice and acted out the roles in a mixture of sim and narrativism, one eye on the premise of "what would you do faced with certain death" and one eye on making the characters work.

When I run CoC, I tend towards humorous games (Camberwick Green, CashCowSium) or pulp. My group like the action games so I give them action Cthulhu and combat roles don't really have that much effect, even in my d20 game. It's SAN rolls that count. For a view on SAN, I'll refer you to TUO # 14/15 and Steve Hatherley's article on why the mechanic is less than satisfactory, and why, given every knows what kind of game CoC is, that you don't really need it anymore.


I don't think we should get hung up on the empirical question of whether CoC is a popular game or not.

I think the original poster's analysis hits a lot of the limitaitons of the game on the head. If the game is an empirical success in spite of them that's important - especially, from a theoretical point of view, to understand why - but it seems like the GNS analysis itself was spot on, to the degree that I understand GNS so far anyway.

Let's not discuss the empirical popularity of the game - which I tend to agree with the last two posters is higher than the original poster suggested - but instead try to figure out why it works in spite of what appear to be massive theoretical limitations. (Limitations some of which one could have articulated, albeit not as clearly, without GNS terminology.)

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

My argument was and is that Call of Cthulhu is a very solid Simulationist-facilitating game design with incredibly high focus on Situation - to the point of being perhaps the high point in methods for creating Lovecraft pastiche.

I also think this is reflected in its astounding persistence in the role-playing landscape.

All of the above has been stated previously in my essays "GNS and other matters of role-playing theory" and "Simulationism: the right to dream."

Nothing about the theory or its application to Call of Cthulhu suggests that the game would be "unpopular."


M. J. Young

Disclaimer: I've never even been invited to play a CoC game, I don't recall seeing what's being the cover (and at the moment can't envision the cover), and have an interest in Lovecraft that is purely theoretical--nothing about his work strikes me as frightening.

However, I do see an answer that was missed in one point in the analysis:
Quote from: b_bankheadThe keeper then has to make a choice, if he is particularly rigid he will simply sit there and let them stew...I've seen this happen and it can kill the campaign,much less the game......

Or you will intervene with some game world eventuality which will essentially drop the needed info into their laps.   But the problem is that if you do this, what were the skill rolls for?  Whats worse some players will figure this out, and then just sit on their hands and try to wait the keeper out and avoid the whole messy business of wandering about the game world gathering the info themselves, and why should they ?
The answer is simple, really. The characters don't get information unless they make a real effort to get it. If they succeed, they get the information directly and clearly. If they fail, the referee provides the information they needed. However, if they never attempt to get the information at all, they don't get it. Thus they have to make the effort for play to proceed.

There's nothing wrong with the referee providing what the characters need after they have tried and failed to do so on their own. There is everything wrong with the players expecting to have what they need if they made no effort to get it.

Thus even failed skill checks are valuable, as they create the possibility that information will be required and define the nature of the information sought.

--M. J. Young

Ian Charvill

Three tangents

First of all I think that a commitment to Sim exploration of Colour may well include taking a perverse delight in watching your character go mad: you're revelling in genre elements.

Secondly there's no problem in mystery scenerios with failed rolls.  Have the characters discover the information second time round, but in disadvantageous situations.

For example, the players fail their Library Use rolls and don't know to go looking at the Old Marley House.  But the Inhabitant of the House knows the investigators are on the trail and sends one of its minions to firebomb one of the character's houses and leave a warning to Stay Away From the Old Marley House.  The character's failed roll doesn't deprive them of the information - it puts them in a worse situation.  The cars gone, and Jimmy's got third degree burns all up his left arm is no one's definition of success but the game won't stall out.

Thirdly, CoC is popular with many prominent gaming figures - Hite and Tynes, frex - which means it will tend to punch above its weight in terms of visibility and influence.

These are, like I said, tangential.  Like most people, I have players in my circle of friends who baulk at the mention of CoC, and would be interested in seeing articles which make the game more widely aceptible.
Ian Charvill

Ron Edwards


I'm getting a little confused about the goals of the thread, and I'm beginning to think the whole "how many people like it" issue is something of a red herring.

What I'd prefer not to see: "Let's make Call of Cthulhu more GNS-generalized so more people will like it!" I consider this approach flawed in a variety of ways.

What I'd prefer to see: "Let's see if we can take Lovecraftiana and apply some game design ideas that facilitate different modes of play from the one that Call of Cthulhu does so well." That makes a lot of sense to me, and it's not a novel idea; several older Indie Game Design threads did just that. It also puts aside the uber-goal of increasing CoC's usage.


Walt Freitag

The gloomy assessment in the initial post of CoC's appeal to players with Simulationist preferences is, I believe, another instance of the deep fracture in the Sim domain between Exploration as "finding out pre-determined stuff about Situation, Setting, etc. through play" vs. Exploration as "participating in the creation of Situation, Setting, etc. through play." Those satisfied with the former will likely accept the limitations of scenario-based adventures, up to and including Illusionist presentational techniques. Those looking for the latter will likely chafe at those limitations.

To drift the game from one side of the Sim coin to the other, the fulcrum has to be the Sanity mechanism. I'd seriously consider reversing the associated causality altogether. Instead of the character experiencing something horrifying and loseing SAN, I'd trigger the SAN loss in some other way (e.g. occurring after a certain number of successes, with a random factor) at which point a participant must narrate a horrifying event to justify it.

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere


Walt you and I must be on the same wave length.  I had been pondering what would make CoC more enjoyable a game for me and I think a complete revamping of the SAN mechanic (as well as a less whiffy resolution system) would be what I'd want to see.

Consider:  loss of sanity should be an accepted, encouraged goal even one actively sought out by players seeking to recreate a mythos story.  Instead CoC uses it like a hammer to punish careless or aggressive play.  Its a kind of punishment that many CoC fans don't mind because they are interested in the color of it, but its still structured as a negative thing to be avoided.

SAN instead should be player empowering, not simply character depowering.  Taking a hit to SAN should involve an opportunity for player narration like The Horror Revealed from MLwM.  

Instead of a gain in Mythos triggering a loss of SAN...reverse it.  Allow players to cash in SAN to acquire Mythos.  How much more effective an investigation tool (from a game flow perspective) is that vs. "Make a research roll, you failed, you discovered nothing".  The player wants to read through a musty old tome to discover some way to reseal the even slavering creature thing before its completely freed...fine...that's what CoC is about.  How many SAN do you want to sacrifice?  Some minimum SAN to find an answer, with more SAN giving more information (like: reading far enough to get to the part where it warns you not to cross the streams...).

Combine the two and let the player have input into the ceremony and nastiness required to make it work.

That would be far more interesting to me then the usual CoC "get on the train and look at the scenery" adventure.

Walt Freitag

Ralph, yeah, I was thinking about The Horror Revealed mechanism in My Life With Master too (but I wasn't completely confident in the comparison because I don't own the game). However, it should also be quite possible for the GM to be the one to narrate the horrifying revelations. For a closer to traditional play structure, the GM could do so all the time. (At least, I left that possibility open by saying a "participant" does so.)

One thing this reversal of the SAN mechanism might take away, for some players at least, is the possibility of the SAN mechanism working toward another purpose: making the players afraid (or at least, building suspense). If SAN loss is something expected or even sought after, then it can't be something the players are afraid of (although, the amount of actual fear in the players engendered by the existing SAN mechanics is debatable anyhow).

- Walt
Wandering in the diasporosphere