Saturday, June 6, 2009

Call of Cthulhu, rules analysis redux

Brian Gleichman over at Whitehall ParaIndustries (a very nice blog, go read it!) saw my post about Call of Cthulhu and posted a response in which he calls it an epic fail. I thought it was wonderful with some discussion, so I posted some short notes over there as a reply. He was totally right that I did fail! But, I consider my main failing to be that I was too unfocused in my post, and will try to remedy that a bit by this follow up.

Let's begin with this: 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?

This was my main question. Later I talked about how the SAN mechanic actually discourage what is the main thrust of the game, investigating.

My next observation is this: 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.

So the idea here is that if you're analyzing the game from a pure game mechanic standpoint there is something missing. It's the Social Contract or the meta level (Brian have a very good essay about the different layers of design here) that make CoC work.

That being said, I think there are game mechanics which make CoC the game it is, and some of that was touched upon. Where my failings began to show is for example when I replied to some comments. I was a tired and unfocused and didn't made any of the points I had hope to make from the feedback I expected. So I'll try to put a few points to rest here.

I don't feel that the idea that rules define play needs to be defended. It does fine by itself from my experience. What I was aiming for was how this is still true, but that CoC tells us that there's more at work! In the Old School Renaissance it's popular to claim that old school rules drive old school play. Now, CoC shakes this up a bit, and we can doubt if it is indeed the whole story. Being less than clear on that point was probably the the failure of my first post.

Now there's a very interesting comment to Brian's post by the always eloquent Jeff Rients:

I honestly don't get people who don't get Call of Cthulhu. There are monsters threatening the world. Someone must stop them, even though stopping monsters is dangerous. If you aren't that someone, then there is no game.

Compare that with the result from the first Chaosium playest (quote from Greg Stafford):
We sat down and test played it. We knew the RQ system worked. We wanted to test this setting and is unique SAN. After the first game we all agreed, “OK, this works, but boy are we depressed!” We played it again, and thought, “It really does work, but why would anyone want to play this more than once?” So we changed one little thing: we made a way to regain Sanity. Then we edited the manuscript, got my friend Gene Day to do some art, Lynn laid it out and we got it into print.
Some game, eh?

So, what we have with CoC is a disconnect between how SAN discourage investigation, and how people play the game. It opens up interesting opportunities to talk about mix and match "cargo cult D&D" and the social aspects of play. All of which I find fascinating! Not only that, I also think that there are actually ways in which the game mechanic reinforces play in CoC. It's a useful starting point to study the rules and how they support a style, and sometimes prove it's irrelevant.

I hope that came across as clearer, and also as more developed. If you are interested in the theory of design and "old school" play, Call of Cthulhu will be very worthwhile to study.


  1. Ah the dangers of the written word, either writing (or reading- as I could have been more generous in judging your intent).

    It seems we agree more than not afterall.

    One thing that hasn't come up yet is that I've spoken with various people online that play CoC in effect to lose. The point is to have their character die or go insane. For those, the mechanics actually do enforce the desired end and games of this type push the SAN mechanic for all its worth.

    I don't think this is very common (one tends to see extremes online), and the default in most case is CoC as pulp horror with the heroes in the end defeating evil. These types of games (which include many of the modules) general balance the SAN mechanics such that they are an additional threat, but one managed without much difficulty.

    Here the mechanic functions more like a role-playing aid and/or Hit Points for CoC moving it a bit towards a D&D style game in a way(something a number of people have said to me when talking about the game).

    CoC is a very interesting study.

    It has a heavy division in its players online(basically split between the two camps I note above).

    And it's one of very few games published over decades that is even in the most recent editions very close to the original rules- something D&D can't say.

    So it did something right.

    But in the end, I don't think that it's success was *driven* by the combat, character generation, or even the SAN rules as most of the time IME they aren't invoked as send their time doing the investigation and the role-playing that grows out of that..

    Rather I think CoC excels at allowing the rules to get out of the way, only coming into play at specific moments. It's a excellent example of using rules as a support for the rest of the RPG experience.

    So the handouts, the mystery, the appeal of danger and the setting drive the game. The rules just provide an answer to a question now and then along the way.

  2. Very often people claim just that, the rules get out of the way. I found the statement intriguing enough to make me think out loud like I've did here.

    Sandy sure did something right with that game, indeed!


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