Friday, October 31, 2008

A Game for Grown-Ups

In honor of Halloween, I've decided to take a brief break from talking about Dungeons & Dragons to discuss another great love of mine, Call of Cthulhu. Along with D&D and Traveller, CoC is part of my Holy Trinity of Roleplaying Games -- the three RPGs I've played the most over the last three decades and the ones that speak most powerfully to my imagination.

There are a lot of reasons why I love this game. You'd probably think one of them was my appreciation of H.P. Lovecraft's writings and you'd be right -- to a point. One of the oddities of my literary education is that, despite having read Howard and been at least vaguely acquainted with Clask Ashton Smith, I never read a word of HPL until after I purchased and began playing CoC. Now, it's true that I knew lots of people, mostly older guys, who kept telling me I ought to read Lovecraft and that it'd appeal to me, but I wasn't really all that knowledgeable about when I bought this game in 1981. Once I began to play, though, I soon became a Lovecraft fanatic, reading all his stories I could lay my hands on, but it was CoC that was my first introduction to the Mythos.

A lot of people -- my wife, for example, can't quite wrap their heads around why I have such a thing for Lovecraft. Grandpa Theobald and I have probably about as diametrically opposed worldviews as you can imagine. Indeed, besides our shared appreciation for the past, I'm not sure there's much he and I would have agreed upon. Perhaps because of this, I find the bleakness of Lovecraft's imaginary creation truly horrific. Were the universe as he describes it reality, I have little doubt that I'd be driven to depths of despair the likes of which I've never experienced (and never hope to). I find Lovecraft's stark, uncaring universe a source of profound terror for me. It affects me in a way that more "traditional" types of horror simply doesn't, because they operate according to a logic that isn't all that dissimilar to my own, whereas the Old Gent has conjured up something that is completely alien to me and how I conceive of the universe.

I'm on the fence as to whether CoC qualifies as an "old school game." I think it certainly has a lot of old school qualities to it, at least mechanically. The Sanity system, for example, is very old school in my opinion, because it takes part of your character's inner life -- his psychological well-being -- and puts it in a box outside of your control. I don't find skill system to be old school in general, because they have a tendency to dominate play by spawning sub-systems and rules that remove the role of the referee in adjudicating the results of skill rolls. The early editions of CoC didn't do this, with skill descriptions being vague and left to referee interpretation (for the most part). I can live with such skill systems, particularly in games, like this one, where there's no class structure.

But what I really like about Call of Cthulhu is the way that it turns the old school ubiquity of death into the stuff of high drama. Old school games are renowened -- or infamous -- for the ease with which characters can die, often due to purely random occurrences. CoC is very much in that vein; the mortality rate among investigators is quite high in any CoC campaign worth its salt. What sets this game apart from others is that investigators are essentially martyrs. They know -- or at least their players -- know the score: odds are they will die, probably horribly and without fanfare, possibly because they decided to use the tools of the enemy against him, in the process destroying their minds and maybe even their bodies. Yet they do it anyway -- just to give Mankind one more day before the stars become right.

Lovecraft's imaginary worldview isn't necessarily predestinarian; there's a chance humanity might somehow survive in an uncaring universe. After all, the Great Old Ones don't hate human beings or have it in for us. Mostly, we're beneath their notice and so it's likely that, should we get in their way, they'd think no more about squashing us than we would about squashing ants. What investigators do is delay the time when we ever have to test this theory. They may never stop the likely extermination of humanity, but they hold off that reckoning for a little while longer, even though they must sacrifice themselves to do so. That's pretty damned heroic in my book, particularly because they have no idea if what they do matters in the final analysis. There are no guarantees in Call of Cthulhu, just probabilities and slim ones at that.

It's for this reason that Ken Hite, for example, has called CoC the only adult roleplaying game ever made, because it presumes that your characters aren't venal, self-interested rogues interested in lining their pockets and increasing their fame. Instead, they're men and women who labor, almost certainly unknown, to fight against the Dark that threatens to consume us all, in the full knowledge that they may not only fail but lose all that they value in the process of their fight. That's some heavy stuff right there and it's why I still love Call of Cthulhu despite its flaws.

What flaws, you ask? First and foremost, I think CoC is one of the birthplaces of the "adventure path" concept. Now, I happen to think this format generally works very well in this game, given its themes and structure, but many gamers have drawn the wrong conclusions from the way Chaosium has supported Call of Cthulhu. The other big flaw in the game is the way it's adopted a very Derlethian approach to the Mythos. Indeed, the very concept of "the Cthulhu Mythos" isn't Lovecraftian at all. The systematization and categorization of the various alien beings and entities -- the emergence of a Lovecraftian Canon, if you will -- is a mistake and one that reduces Lovecraft's ideas and concepts into mere stats and trivia. Like D&D, the power of CoC lies not in some Canon but in a Methodology and approach that both underlies and transcends that Canon. I think Call of Cthulhu would in fact be a more fun and interetsing game if it took a more explicitly toolbox approach to the Mythos, focusing on the themes that gird the whole rather than the specific implementations of those themes.

In short, I think Call of Cthulhu is really keen, even if I do think plush Cthulhu toys are the Devil's own handicrafts.

29 comments:

  1. I've said it before, but I fully blame the writings of H.P. for my ultimate decision to become an archivist and special collections librarian. I'm a little disappointed with the lack of eldritch tomes that I was assured I'd be translating and thereby foiling the plots of the Great Old One in my day-to-day job, but one can always hope.

    Like you, I discovered Lovecraft through CoC and it wasn't until much later that I was able to get my hands on collections of his work. Even my first taste of his writings was mostly through his ghost-writing and collaborations, rather than pure H.P. It's taken me quite a long time to get up to speed with his stuff, but I finally am familiar enough to appreciate the depth of his work. Unfortunately, there's always going to be the conflict between the dislike of the artist, but the enjoyment of his work for me. I can live with that though.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "I find Lovecraft's stark, uncaring universe a source of profound terror for me"

    Raised as an atheist myself, believing in a bleak uncaring universe, I never found Lovecraft's vision scary at all. In fact I had trouble understanding how it could be considered horrific. The Great Old Ones aren't like demons or serial killers who _want_ to hurt us - they just *are*. Cthulu is no more scary than a meteor or tidal wave; an uncaring impersonal force. It's personal human evil I find scary and horrible.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I find Lovecraft to be a poor writer and his "named" supernatural creatures are overused in nerd pop culture to the point of being downright obnoxious.

    Still, he hit on something with cosmic, impersonal, "reality ain't what it used to be" horror. That's a big accomplishment in my book.

    ReplyDelete
  4. If a plush Cthulhu is the Devil's own handicraft, Old Scratch is one fine and whimsical craftsman.

    I guess plush Godzilla is bad too, even given the powerful and bleak message of the original film.

    I don't get the anger frankly.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for writing this. I find that a lot of what you say mirrors my experience of CoC, and I have a few things to say about what you've said here. But it will have to wait; I'm halfway through my traditional movie marathon and am just taking a break to check the interwebs!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Just a quick note though. I see that the subtitle on the edition above (is that 2nd?) says that it's a game of "Fantasy Roleplaying" rather than the "Horror Roleplaying" of 5th (my preferred edition) onwards. "The Worlds of HP Lovecraft" is then dropped with 5.5e. I don't know if there's any significance in the changes, but I've never noticed it before!

    ReplyDelete
  7. We were playing Shadowrun at the time; myself and a friend had played a lot of Fighting Fantasy, mainly due to its availability, published by an imprint of Penguin books and sold in every bookshop in the country. We were dimly aware of FF's origins and inspirations, and I recall that I at least had encountered D&D at some point previously. We ended up with Shadowrun because the guy running it cannily told us it was like D&D with machine guns, which to a fourteen year old sounds like the best thing ever.

    At some point, an older fellow from a couple of years higher at school joined us, and he introduced us to a whole host of other games. Cyberpunk, Star Wars, even a homebrew Dark Conspiracy campaign inspired by that new FBI/aliens TV show. He also ran this strange horror game for us, with a scenario involving a haunted house... It was an instant hit, and we were hooked. We got him to run a whole host of other scenarios, and I think every one of us (apart from the Shadowrun guy) ran CoC at some point. Eventually, he moved on, that age gap meaning that he went off to university, and I took over as our group's main Keeper.

    I remember him telling us that the game was based on some writer whose name ranga a bell with me. I hadn't read any of Lovecraft's work by that point, but my mother had a massive collection of cheap horror paperbacks, including a slim HPL volume called, I think, The Tomb and Other Stories. I recall that the cover was a cheap and lurid image of a skull with a snake emerging from one eyesocket, and it definitely had "The Lurking Fear" in it, as for weeks afterward, I kept asking our Keeper if the NPCs had distinctive blue/brown eyes! Eventually I got hold of more of HPL's stories, but I recall finding them heavy going.

    In the intervening years, I stpped roleplaying altogether, although CoC has tempted me back on more than one occasion. During that time, I've come to realise the huge influence HPL had as his name and ideas cropped up in other parts of my life, and I've learned more about the man, not all of which I've liked. I recently bought and read a new collection of some of his more famous stories, and I can see now that he wasn't a brilliant writer, and that some of the difficulty I had with the stories was due to bad writing. That said, some of them are well-written (I'd definitely count "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" as one of these), and the ideas always came through even the most clunky of prose. I've learned to distinguish and appreciate HPL's strengths as a writer as I've got older.

    About six months ago I came back to roleplaying, and in a week or so I'm going to be running CoC again for the first time in about fifteen years (there was a one shot at university, but it was a blip). It's given me a chance to look at the game from a more experienced and mature perspective, particularly since I've got one player who has been trying to convince me of its flaws and to run Trail of Cthulhu instead. I find that even though it's been so long, the system needs very little relearning; I put a lot of that down to the basic simplicity of the mechanics, which despite the split between percentiles and D&D style 3d6 attributes, are actually very intuitive.

    I also find CoC fascinating from a historical perspective, since the game today is more or less exactly the same as it was when it was released. There have been minor tweaks along the way, and the text has been substantially rewritten, but there are still whole chunks of text in there from the first edition. Compare that to D&D and Traveller, which have gone through huge changes during that same time; the closest CoC came to such a change was in the d20 boom and even then the original system was in concurrent production. I find it interesting that you can look at D&D 4e and see stuff that, in name at least, tracks back to the first edition, but with CoC you're essentially still looking at first edition. Now some see that as a flaw (indeed, the player I mention above dislikes the old-school/"naive" design), but I find it fascinating. It's like a time capsule, which is oddly appropriate given the game's setting.

    Regarding the game's role in "adventure path" design, I agree that it may have had a role in that, but it seems churlish to complain, not only because, as you say, the game works well in that context, but because things like "Masks of Nyarlathotep", which undoubtedly had some influence on advanture paths popping up elsewhere, are just bloody good adventures. I don't know if CoC could really support a more sandbox approach to play, like those early D&D modules; I suppose you could argue that something like "The Haunting" is a mini-sandbox, since it has no plot to speak of. It's an interesting experiment though, so I'll give some thought to it.

    (The "campaign" I'm working up is not driven by plot. Indeed, it's designed to be playable by a changing group of players, to accommodate the fact that we're all busier now than when we were teenagers, and can't promise to be at every session. The five or six episodes are linked by a single antagonist, but there will be different PCs, different locations, and different eras (I'm toying with Hyperborea). We'll see how it goes.)

    I think Chaosium's greatest error in producing adventures was in attaching the revelation of essential clues to die rolls, leading to an awful lot of wheel-spinning. The game has a reputation as a character-killer, but I've found that players complain more about not being able to find clues and getting stuck in an unmoving plot as a result. This is the big selling point of Trail..., although I've never run CoC like that, as it's no fun to GM those games, and indeed the (generally excellent) GMing advice in the rulebook suggests steering well clear of such design. And yet the game has a reputation as being broken, which I put down to too many Chaosium adventures making use of the one roll-one clue mechanic. Bah.

    Regarding the Derlethian slant to the game, I do agree to an extent, as really, there's no real good reason to give stats for Great Cthulhu, and regimenting the entities into ranks seems unnecessary. While some of these titles and ranks come from HPL, they were never systematised; he used "Old Ones" to mean "Great Old Ones" at some points, and the starfish alien thingies at others. All that said, since the 5th edition at least, there has been a disclaimer in the rulebook highlighting Derleth's "contribution" to the Mythos, and urging Keepers to ignore the systemisation if they want to. It's not the full-fledged rejection traditionalists might want, but nor does it embrace Derleth's approach.

    Anyway, I've rambled too long (it's my favourite rpg, can you tell), so I'll apologise and stop here. I will say, though, that for all my respect for HPL's creation, and the beautiful nihilistic horror inherent in it, I still think "Cthulhu for President" is funny, and I do own a plush Cthulhu. Sorry. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Absolutely spot-on analysis, James. And I, too, got into Lovecraft because of CoC.

    ReplyDelete
  9. My very impressionable 10-year-old imagination was absolutely BLOWN AWAY by the Cthulhu Mythos section in the AD&D Deities & Demigods Cyclopedia. I'd never heard of these entities before, and I'd never seen any illustrations so cool as Erol Otus's Mythos drawings.

    Ever since then, my imagination has been haunted by those evocative pages of DDG. It wasn't until about 18 years later that I bought the Arkham hardbacks of the complete fiction of Lovecraft, and read them in chronological order. How eerie is was to read those alone in my apartment at night.

    The CoC game never stuck a strong chord with me. I preferred a "D&Dized" Mythos.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Ah, Call of Cthulhu, my Favrit Game Evar.

    I'm another person who came to Lovecraft's writings via the RPG - starting out reading this confusing game with no treasure but lots of monsters and slowly moving on to playing it over and over again.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Very weirdly, I was reading a Lovecraft collection the other night and thinking just the same thing about the Derleth-esque rationalization of Mythos stuff in CoC and the general geek perception of the material.

    Lovecraft liked his tie-ins between those stories, but he wasn't consistent with even the terminology of the setting. It really is a natural setup for a toolbox approach.

    As to atheistic horror, I'm a atheist myself, but I find the stories eerie and unnerving because of the core rejection of an idea that I hold dearly - that humanity can understand the universe and survive its challenges...

    ReplyDelete
  12. "The systematization and categorization of the various alien beings and entities -- the emergence of a Lovecraftian Canon, if you will -- is a mistake and one that reduces Lovecraft's ideas and concepts into mere stats and trivia."

    One of the things I really liked about Trail of Cthulhu, and it's eminently lift-able for CoC, is that not only are the god and Old Ones not statted out, but their exact origins and roles are largely left to the GM to decide. Each entry comes with a handful of suggestions, some mundane, others utterly fantastic, so that even if your players have read the book or run their own campaigns, your version of the cosmology can be utterly unique and alien to them.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I"m with geoffrey---Re-reading the D&DG spurred my first HPL reading, right around my entry into high school. I spent most of high school devouring HPL and related authors (I'd already been reading Howard via the terrible Conan paperbacks then-available, and got into CAS at the same time). HPL was one of the primary reasons for me to go back to OD&D too (for reading only; I've still never played OD&D): trying to track down the older articles on HPL/Cthulhu from TD, as well as GD&H (which I was disappointed to see didn't contain HPL content).

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I don't get the anger frankly.

    It's not anger so much as a deep, deep frustration with the way that everything in our culture has become commoditized. There's quite literally nothing anymore that hasn't been turned into a consumer product and I find it both unfortunate and more than a little bit sad.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I see that the subtitle on the edition above (is that 2nd?) says that it's a game of "Fantasy Roleplaying" rather than the "Horror Roleplaying" of 5th (my preferred edition) onwards. "The Worlds of HP Lovecraft" is then dropped with 5.5e. I don't know if there's any significance in the changes, but I've never noticed it before!

    That's the first edition boxed set cover, which is the one I bought in 1981. The original subtitle is probably a nod to the fact that Sandy Peterson originally wanted to make a game based on the Dreamlands stories and this idea was eventually abandoned in favor of what we eventually saw (with the Dreamlands being a subset of a larger game line).

    ReplyDelete
  16. I also find CoC fascinating from a historical perspective, since the game today is more or less exactly the same as it was when it was released. There have been minor tweaks along the way, and the text has been substantially rewritten, but there are still whole chunks of text in there from the first edition.

    I think CoC is the only game currently published that has, in its essentials, not changed much at all since its original publication. That's frankly remarkable and laudable and is probably the closest to my model of how a RPG should be designed of anything out there. There's a reason why I decided to post Gygax's comments about D&D revisions just before I talked about CoC, as I'll make clear soon enough :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. James: have you checked out Trail of Cthulhu yet?---I'm curious to see what you think of the rules it presents vs. those in BRP COC.

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Allan,

    I haven't tried out Trail -- it's a bit too expensive for a game I will likely never play much -- but I have tried out Esoterrorists, with which it shares a lot of rules, and I don't like it very much. For my tastes, it sacrifices too much "naturalism" for the sake of "narrativism." I also think -- and this may or may not apply to Trail -- that it makes the mistake of treating Lovecraftian horror as a game of investigation rather than of revelation. The two are related, of course, but they're not synonymous. For the latter, the GUMSHOE rules system is simply too narrowly focused in my opinion, but I realize that I'm probably in the minority in thinking this.

    ReplyDelete
  19. The original subtitle is probably a nod to the fact that Sandy Peterson originally wanted to make a game based on the Dreamlands stories
    I wonder if it's also something to do with the relative youth of the hobby back then? Maybe it was called a "fantasy" game then simply because the terminology was so new at the time and genres weren't so well defined.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I share the hatred for plush Cthulhus. There is something vastly irritating about these cutified little abominations. They tame and disenchant HPL's universe, taking away the horror, but also the wonder and beauty of it. They take something out of the work. And they ring false. I really detest them; and it is a part of the so-called "geek lifestyle" I, personally, find repellent. Maybe I am not a true geek. Well, and maybe I don't really want to be one if it comes with Cute Mr. Octopus.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I have to admit that "geek lifestyle" products annoy me as well, but, again, it all boils down to the same thing for me: the commoditization of everything. Once upon a time, such things might have been deemed kitschy, but nowadays, they're part of a larger business strategy that can turn anything into a consumer product. Count me out.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I was the opposite: I came to the game after reading his writings. For me, my preferred horror game was Pacesetter's Chill. For me, this is the type of horror I like, and as a fan of Lovecraft's writings, I never understood how you good "roleplay" his vision.

    I should, when I have time, talk about my three gaming influences. It would help explain many things, I think. :)

    ReplyDelete
  23. But if you don't have a plush Cthulhu you can't have the experience of seeing your two year old daughter holding it over a potty and saying "Great Cthulhu pee now: psssshhh!"

    Call of Cthulhu would in fact be a more fun and interesting game if it took a more explicitly toolbox approach to the Mythos, focusing on the themes that gird the whole

    Yes! I spent about a decade playing CoC as written before I finally realised that having stats (and even standard names) for the creatures and Old Ones was a bad thing. I always knew I'd have some chance against a Byakhee or a nightgaunt, given the right tools, while stopping Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep would require the use of some plot-token McGuffin. It shouldn't be like this... but I'm not sure how you make it a game without some reproducible methods for player success. One unfortunate consequence of having all those monsters statted out in the rulebook, though, is that it almost inevitably takes the focus off the cultists as antagonists.

    As for the uncaring universe, I think Poe taught me where the horror is there, even for atheists like myself - his stories about people being buried alive show that neglect can be as bad any deliberate and sadistic torture.

    As for the endless drive to commoditization, doesn't it creepily prove HPL's point? Capitalism - the ruthless exploitation of everything and everyone in the universe in pursuit of abstract tokens of success - sounds rather like the greatest horror of all.

    ReplyDelete
  24. As for the endless drive to commoditization, doesn't it creepily prove HPL's point? Capitalism - the ruthless exploitation of everything and everyone in the universe in pursuit of abstract tokens of success - sounds rather like the greatest horror of all.

    If that were all that capitalism is -- and I agree that, in practice, it often is -- that would indeed be horrific, but I'd stop short of calling it the greatest.

    ReplyDelete
  25. the greatest horror

    I'm actually not sure what the greatest of all possible horrors might be - too horrific for me, certainly, and I was being at least a bit tongue in cheek about "capitalism:" people have done terrible things in the name of any motivation one could mention. I appreciate the rich irony though, of saying "is nothing sacred?" over Cthulhu. I also wonder at HPL's own thoughts about his creation: I understand he described himself as an atheist, but he was a very religiously oriented one: his Great Old Ones were always objects of worship. I'm curious about manifestations of Cthulhu that you consume, exchange, or live in.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I appreciate the rich irony though, of saying "is nothing sacred?" over Cthulhu.

    It is indeed.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I still just don't get it. Its sort of like Bill Waterston's refusal to allow Calvin and Hobbes merchandise.

    It doesn't automatically make his comics purer that he doesn't allow a child to own their very own plush tiger to love and go on adventures just like Calvin does.

    Maybe I am just a consumer whore, but I LIKE having a cute plush Cthulhu. I regret not having the cash to get Summer Fun Cthulhu a couple years back because the idea of Mighty Cthulhu singing backup for Jimmy Buffett is incredibly amusing to me.

    I have tons of toys and models of characters and machines from shows I loved as a kid or love today.

    If someone dared break my Vehicle Team Voltron I would have to bring out the grade A asswhoopin.

    Its fun and entertaining. Is it so wrong that some people derive a different kind of fun from Lovecraft?

    This cute little vampire picture on a cheap yo yo doesn't take away from Bram Stoker's original novel. My Godzilla figures don't take away from the powerful message of the 1954 original.

    Its just a different way to enjoy it.

    I still have fond memories of learning to build plastic model kits with glue and paint so I could have various Robotech mecha.

    I remember assembling Rick Hunter's VF1S Veritech over 2-3 days of painstaking assembly while my mom watched TV in the living room while my 13 year old butt was sitting in the kitchen, listening to reruns of the Carol Burnette Show in said living room. I'm 34 now.

    Is my memory invalidated since the cartoon Robotech was designed to sell toys and models?

    Sorry James. I just don't get your line of thinking sometimes.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Its sort of like Bill Waterston's refusal to allow Calvin and Hobbes merchandise.

    Funny you should say that, because I've always respected Watterson for that decision and wish more creators would take a similar stance.

    ReplyDelete
  29. "Repellent"? Really?

    Really?

    Cripes.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.