Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Call of Cthulhu - the game where the rules tell you not to go on adventures

I have been thinking a bit about Call of Cthulhu lately. Fairly recently we started to play the gigantic campaign At the Mountains of Madness, and it switched on the part of my brain that pontificates upon design issues. I began to ponder what makes good old CoC tick.

Some of my recent musings on how rules reinforce and support a certain style of play is especially relevant to an analysis of CoC. If the simple rule that coins is the unit of experience and weight, reinforces the image of the characters as scoundrels our to make a buck, then the question is what is it that investigators in CoC get from the game system?

Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying, is a very slick skill based system. Apart from the stats which are rolled with 3d6, everything else is based on percentile dice. Combat system and skills is all based on rolling a d100 under your rating. Even testing against stats is often done that way, with the relevant stat multiplied by five. Nothing of this reinforce the image of investigators unearthing cults and combating otherworldly beings trying to enter our reality, does it? The key thing, of course, is the Sanity mechanic.

As many of you know, the sanity rules are kind of like mental hit points, SAN. See or partake in too much mind numbing things and your mind fragments. So, what will this teach you? Oddly enough it reinforces the view that the only way to stay sane is to never read a book, partake in a ritual or cast a spell and to shut your eyes as soon as some entity appears. It teaches you to run away and stick your head in the sand!

A typical Call of Cthulhu scenario might look like this. You hear from an acquaintance that a childhood friend have disappeared. Naturally you travel to his last known residence, gathering clues. As thanks for your curiosity you will loose some sanity from what you discover. After some fraternization with the locals you might hear that odd occurrences, maybe cattle mutilations, have been notices around the time when your friend was last seen and about. Following that trail and you loose some more SAN. Perhaps it will tell you that your friend probably have gone out in the wilds, and that once it's midnight he will probably do something really bad. Armed with some unsound knowledge and maybe some guns, you confront your friend and sends the bloodsucking monster back to the void. If you are lucky you only loose some SAN doing it, and if you are unlucky you get to see your friend killed and drained of blood before the beast it dispelled. Your mind is now very fragile and you probably need psychological help.

Did you notice something in that tale? At every step, getting closer to the final confrontation and solving the mystery, you loose SAN! The lesson here is that if you want your character to stay sane and healthy, you'd better not read any books and not investigate anything! There's a disconnect here, since these things which the game system encourages you to stay away from, are the very things you have to do in order to play the game successfully. I guess sitting in your room and never travel when you receive letters about missing persons could be considered successful, but it sure isn't very fun.

Now, players of CoC have disregarded the hints from the rules and actually went out and investigated, ever since 1981. It is a very successful game and often listed as a favourite of a lot of gamers. It has even been described as the "adult" game (by Ken Hite, I think). Maybe it's one of the few games where the heroics come from the fact that to play it you will have to act contrary to all common sense and the prodding from the rules. I'm not sure that is a good definition of adult behaviour, but it sure is a sign of a different player mentality than seen in many other games. The difficult thing is to understand how that came to be.

I strongly believe that rules enforce play. If the are a list of combat actions on the character sheet like "Parry", "Feint", "Dodge" you can bet that those three actions are going to be the most common actions taken by the players. By the same token, a game where you gain most of your experience points from killing other beings, the players will try to kill everything they see. The odd thing about CoC is that in that game it's not true.

If someone just reads the rules for CoC or read any play reports, they would get the idea that not investigating is the way to go. For some reason "the correct way" to play, i.e. do the heroic thing and go forth and protect the world at your own peril, is transmitted by some other means. Have you been taught the "right" way to play CoC? How did you learn about playing CoC? Personally I since long totally forgotten when and how I first heard of the game, and how I learnt how to play it. I wonder if it is a social contract, a code of conduct when playing CoC, that makes people to what is actually not very healthy for their character? I find the question intriguing, since there are a few other games out there which are similar to Call of Cthulhu. Maybe I'm paying way to much attention to this idea of mine that the rules of a game should support and encourage a style of play, but I know from experience how that have helped me in the past to "get" a game. I will probably wrote about my thoughts about that at a later date.

To end on a positive tone, I'd like to say that CoC still is one of my favourite games. The fact that I got the opportunity to join in a group playing At the Mountains of Madness is something I am really happy about. It might be that the game really doesn't make sense, but boy am I enjoying it anyway!

Edit: A follow up post to this was posted later to clarify a few points.


  1. That's some pretty good insight. Maybe it's that CofC characters are more heroic than in other games. They know at best they'll probably die saving the world.

  2. That would be heoric, wouldn't it? :)

  3. I'd like to point out that one could restate your entire argument replacing "sanity" with "hit points" and "Call of Cthulhu" with "Dungeons and Dragons." At every step in an adventure, you lose hit points, so why go on an adventure at all? Part of it, I suppose, is that SAN loss is a little more permanent than hit points are in most games. But they *can* be restored through psychotherapy and knowledge of a job well done.

    SAN, like hit points, are a resource that you must balance while playing in order to participate. The reason we don't want to lose all our SAN is because we want to continue playing the game, or perhaps really like the character we've created. But that's all part of the game; without threat, there is no tension, no excitement, and no heroics. SAN as an expendable resource on a different axis than health serves to *increase* this tension, which is why it's successful.

    It also reinforces the ideas from the source literature. Sanity loss is a central theme of the stories the game comes from, and the plot hinges far more often than not on people broken mentally rather than physically. SAN loss as a game mechanic tells a story, and it's one that is faithful to the source material. In fact, one might argue that you don't even really need hit points as a character measure, given the nature of the creatures investigators find themselves arrayed against, but then, you still need a way to deal with cultists, don't you?

    To me, though, the SAN system in CoC isn't the game mechanic that really evokes the feel of Lovecraftian literature. In some ways, making sanity loss concrete removes some of its bite, because that allows players to compute with it. (Side note: Try letting the keeper track your sanity for you, and see how peoples' behavior changes!)

    To me, it's the skill system that really drives the gameplay. If SAN would hold you back, the skill system is what drives gameplay forward. If you go charging into the underground cavern at first sight before doing a little investigation, chances are, you'll be slaughtered. Having a rich, skill-centered system, full of detail and nuance and featuring far more "knowledge" type skills than most other mainstream RPG's, encourages players to rely on skills, knowledge, and piecing things together for their advantage.

    This is highly appropriate for the source material, since the original stories paint the true heroes of the world not as the "action heros" who bravely seek out and destroy evil, but as bespectacled, intellectually curious, campus-dwelling academics whose obscure, niche research has allowed them to connect dots no one else has. They are heroes by happenstance, and the weapons they use against the gods they find themselves opposing are not swords or guns (although those work passably well against the cultists), but books, knowledge, and research. Booklearning, not benchpressing, is what you need to put down that which was called up.

    Have fun playing Mountains of Madness.

  4. I don't fully agree that the argument above applies if you swap in HP and D&D.

    In D&D (at least until 3rd ed) you had loss of HP to be balanced against gain of coins as XP (and XP from defeating monsters). The tension was between the threat represented by HP loss and the gain that was treasure.

    I CoC the balance against SAN loss is not part of the game system. Saving the world is something external to the game, so to speak.

    Have fun playing Mountains of Madness.

    I intend to! :)

  5. You might be right about the skill system being the defining game mechanic in CoC, but it is almost the same as in e.g. RuneQuest and still the game play is very different.

  6. My first CoC game will forever color my impression of the entire concept of the game:

    GM: You look out the window and see a group people dressed in black robes walking in a procession of some sort. You hear drums. Make a sanity check.
    Me: What? Why?
    GM: Because, you hear drums and there are people. It's weird. Make a sanity check.

  7. An important thing to remember is the genre of the game. As much as the system drives the game, so to does player expectation. D&D is a fantasy game - for the most part, players expect to be wowed, to be able to play larger-than-life heroes, and/or to increase their personal gains. Call of Cthulhu is a horror game - players will generally approach such a game with a different set of expectations (e.g. to be challenged by mind- and soul-crushing opposition).

    I wouldn't find myself getting much fun out of a horror game if it was all about beating down monsters and taking their stuff - I expect to be challenged in other ways. In that respect, I believe CoC does what it needs to: it presents a set of rules that make it beyond physically dangerous for a PC to interact with the game world.

    Of course the system dissuades players from embarking upon adventures - as any good horror game should.

  8. Remember that (some) SAN loss is balanced in CoC with character improvement in two ways: increase in the Mythos knowledge skill (perhaps the most useful skill in the entire game), and access to spellcraft (which allows characters to have capabilities far beyond the "mortal" levels that can be achieved solely with skills). This is little different from how mages in D&D are given access to spells, but typically have fewer hit points.

    With regard to RuneQuest, yes, the two systems are similar, but there is one important difference, which I think does drive a different style of gameplay: the hit locations mechanic. That detail alone makes the game system more focused on gritty, realistic, hand-to-hand combat. Throw in healing magic, (theoretically) available to anyone, which makes such combat survivable, and you have a different vibe that favors low fantasy gameplay.

    I think it's significant that Chaosium removed the hit location mechanic for CoC and not for their other games like ElfQuest or Elric. That decision places the focus squarely on skills, which in turn, encourages investigative and deductive play.

  9. CC got it right.

    The key failure of this post is where you observe that "Now, players of CoC have disregarded the hints from the rules and actually went out and investigated, ever since 1981" but fail to take it to the logical conclusion: if it's stupid and it works, it ain't stupid.

    That is, rules which seem good or bad on paper will sometimes turn out to be different in play. Rules which seem bad or good in isolation will turn out differently in combination with other rules in play.

    You tell us that the SAN rules stop CoC adventures from happening, and then tell us that lots of CoC adventures have happened over the years anyway. That is, "there should be a problem, but there isn't." You're focusing on the "there should be a problem."

    But there isn't.

    This is what comes of too much reading of game books, and not enough play.

  10. Well, I don't think he's asserting that people who play CoC would sit down to play, but not follow up on the plot. I think he's expressing the interesting fact that the game rules expressly punish you for participating in the intended manner of play through permanent SAN loss, rather than reward it, as most RPG's do. I get what he's saying - it's very counterintuitive. I think he agrees with you.

    But when you think about it, it's not all that different from other RPG's. In your typical dungeon delve, hit points are expended as you power through, they get low when danger of losing your character is high, etc. Mechanically, the only difference between hit points and SAN is that the SAN loss is measured over the time frame of a campaign rather than the current dungeon delve. But when taken in the context of the game world, well, it's one of those strikingly apt game mechanics that really does reinforce the themes of the source material.

    And that's why players power on despite the SAN loss mechanic: it's intimately tied to the game world. If you choose to enter Lovecraft's universe, it would be pointless to then ask for no one to go insane from the horrors that dwell there. (Although perhaps we'd prefer a little less eager Keeper-ship than what Apprentice Polymath experienced...)

  11. CC is phrasing it better than I could. I do play the game, and know it works. But, from a design viewpoint it makes me curious. I love to think about games, just because I love to tinker.

    Of course the system dissuades players from embarking upon adventures - as any good horror game should.

    Maybe this is what it as all about. Horror games should be like CoC, without an in game reward.

    I've been thinking that the relative deadliness of the BRP system is part of the reason why it works so well. Maybe hit points would be unfitting for CoC, but Elric!/Stormbringer didn't have it either!

    The SAN mechanic is interesting. Maybe it was the first time anyone wrote a game with campaign play in mind. Nobody will loose enough SAN during an "adventure" to go totally bonkers, but the way it erodes you in the long run is the killer.


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