Saturday, March 31, 2012

Gamemastering Call of Cthullhu - pacing

Today I was once again behind the screen as Keeper of Arcane Lore. I'm collecting experience, and this was my sixth time as a Keeper! While running this session I experienced something I wanted to talk about.

I have been running games now for almost 25 years, and I think I have a pretty good grasp on how to behave in many different situations. Are the players looking excited? Are they laughing? Do that guy over there look like he is getting bored? I think I have those things nailed down when I stomp around in my familiar fantasy grounds. Especially the problem of pacing is something I usually know how to handle.

Today they players sat down trying to continue from having explored a warehouse of a suspected cult and having had to retreat with one member of the party K.O.'d. What now? From my point of view it was pretty obvious what to do in a Call of Cthulhu game. You visit every named NPC and talk to them to track down ever scrap of knowledge, since knowledge is the most important thing in this game. Right?

Naturally, my players did not do that.

After some very intelligent and smart use of backstory, connections and leveraging Credit Rating, one of my players found a masonic brother and started to talk. Since he was the D.A. I thought that this was a guy who knew stuff, and had resources. I had him mention a few things and be friendly. That and some interest from the players in one of the named NPC and they had finally gotten the idea that talking to people was good, and digging around for people in the know was fruitful. Finally.

Now the P.I. in the party decided to go sneak into the posh mansion of one of the key NPCS. In broad daylight. In an area where I specifically mentioned police patrols being regular and observant. Guess who got to spend a night in jail?

So. What would I have done? Well. I don't understand why they didn't start to talk to all the people on the list they had gotten from their main contact? I would have visited each and every NPC, in alphabetical order! After the session some of the players even voiced the opinion that it felt like it was a bit hard to find the clues. I even play with GUMSHOE inspired rules, so they will find core clues, and they know it. At least I have mentioned it. Interesting.

You do know about the three clue rule, right? Go read that essay if you haven't.

Now, if this had been a fantasy game I would have rolled for a random encounter. I love the idea of a random encounter. The random encounter could provide a conveniently dropped clue, to make it an even three, or just something to do so that after the encounter someone had a new idea.

What do you do when there's a lull in the action in an investigative game? You can't really push the players toward the next clue. It would be bad form, and boring. Also, in order to entertain them while waiting for the penny to drop, do you let wandering kobolds show up and pick a fight? I guess not. I think there are, after more than 20 years, still some things this old dog has to learn.


  1. As you say, pushing them towards the 'right direction' is not a good idea. If the players feel like it isn't their methods that have yielded their information but merely that they've hit a 'clue button' they'll quickly grow tired with it.
    But gently guiding them 'out of character' towards the expectation of the game that they'll talk to people they've already met is not a bad idea. Just remind them that these people are here for a reason and might have information. While still letting them go their own way of course.

    Secondly, let them know that sometimes jumps of logic might be needed. As the 'Three Clues' essay points out, it is probable that you do not have Mr. Holmes himself at your table, but it is (to my mind) allowable to expect the players to make their own decisions and sometimes not be led by a breadcrumb trail to the 'correct' answer. Especially in CoC, the misjudged deductions can lead to more interesting evidence etc. that might otherwise have lain by the wayside. In my (admittedly limited) experience, most scenarios for CoC have an excess of information that can be stumbled into. So encourage them to make the occasional leap of faith, requestion an old suspect or visit a cold trail.

  2. Yeah, I think I will have to talk to them about talking to people after the next session if they still feel they have a hard time getting somewhere.

    Guiding players without leading them by the nose is a fine art. I think games in our world need different skills. Now when I have slept on it, I think the key might be to make it feel real, to make them think and act like they would themselves act.

    I have been blessed with players who have taken what clues they do have found and runs with them. Always good to remember the "three clue rule" though!

  3. Interesting post.

    I did not have (and I'm not sure my original post illuminated this clearly) much of a problem with railroading.

    My biggest problem was not really to bring the payers back on track, nor was there really any potential for the Victim track that Zak delineates. There were just innocent bystanders not getting involved at all.

    In that case I think I as a GM/Keeper should do some song and dance to keep them engaged in the secondary world, be it bring them clues to the "story" or just make them have something to do. I think I finally did the latter, and incidentally accomplished the former.

    Sometimes I think people are so afraid of being "railroady" that they forget that unless the GM at least partly feel it's his responsibility to have fun, and facilitate others having fun, that they just sit there. I sure did.

    1. Agree. Didn't mean to highlight the railroad versus sandbox/freedom debate. The part that seems relevant to your original post is the idea that of bringing the entity of interest toward the PCs if they are not moving toward the entity of interest.

      I'm not sure what you mean by innocent bystanders though. From what I read, it sounds like the PCs were investigating a warehouse associated with a cult? And one of them was a private investigator? Sounds like fertile grounds for a victim track to me. By the way, I write this having zero experience with CoC other than what I have read about it in posts like this, so I might be totally off track.

    2. I see what you mean.

      I'm thinking of a follow up post, having thought more on this.


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