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.