Monday, January 16, 2012

Call of Cthulhu's Old School Roots

One goal for this year was to write more frequently on subjects with nexus to Call of Cthulhu - reviews, discussions of the literature, how to play the game and run campaigns.  If you've hung around here a bit, you know in my D&D discussions I'm biased towards the rules light, old school style of play; a good place to start any discussion of Call of Cthulhu is how it measures up as an old school game.

My power trio of early games is Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, and Call of Cthulhu.  One important element that ties all three games together is they attempt to simulate a game world, with a set of coherent rules where conflict and skill resolution are handled by dice; you don't see any of the things that creep into later generation games like dice pools, resource pools, action points, or similar elements that support cinematic, action-hero play.  The game master exerts strong narrative control, and all three games lend themselves well to free form, exploratory scenario design.

The default approach to Call of Cthulhu is to play ordinary folks in the 1920's, who through one reason or another, begin to investigate occult mysteries.  It's the game that pioneered such exciting character choices as "Antiquarian", or "Historian".  The action oriented might choose to be a "Police Officer", or "Private Detective".  Characters are generally fragile, and the scale is human (as opposed to the super-human action heroes that grace power fantasy gaming).  Like other games of the period, COC uses random character attributes.

Conflict and Balance
All of the chief conflict resolution systems use dice for resolution - combat, skill checks, and sanity rolls.  Like Traveller, character skill is an important element to the game - investigators are typically armed with such exciting skills like reading ancient languages, or knowledge in various scientific fields like botany or zoology.  (Gun skills are useful for dealing with cultists and mortal foes, but not so much against monsters).

There is no "game balance" whatsoever.  Invariably, the investigators will cross paths with cultists armed with terrifying spells, or horrible monsters from the Cthulhu Mythos.  Survival during an investigation is primarily dependent on player skill, since physical conflict against monsters is a bleak proposition.  The ability to analyze clues and information, marshal resources, and solve problems, is critical to successful Call of Cthulhu play, and the game challenges the players far more than their characters.

Paradigm of Investigation
Characters in Call of Cthulhu perform investigations, which are essentially fact-finding, exploratory scenarios.  One of the things I'll highlight in some upcoming posts is how investigative scenarios are basically virtual dungeons; you can flow chart an investigation much like a traditional dungeon (and I find it's helpful in scenario design to avoid a linear experience).  One issue we'll visit below is that poorly done scenarios are essentially rail roads.

Rules History
Call of Cthulhu was first published back in 1981; the first few releases were boxed sets, followed by progressively more elaborate core rules.  I've heard there have been something like 30 different unique printings of the core rulings in one form or another, although the game is officially on the 6th edition, with rumors of a 7th edition in the works.  Unlike D&D, that generates wide-scale changes between editions, COC typically features only minor variations, and early edition supplements remain completely compatible with the latest and greatest set of rules.

We tend to have big debates in the D&D world about play styles and DM approaches; sandbox play is right, and rail road play is wrong, that kind of thing. Similarly, in the Cthulhu space, one can find scenarios that are written in a linear style with foregone conclusions and elements we'd describe as a rail road.  One of the things I'll get to discuss over the course of the year is which published scenarios and campaigns support free-form exploration in the old school style, and which campaigns and scenarios are linear rail roads, and how groups have different expectations.  For instance, many Call of Cthulhu devotees are more interested in good horror experiences than character agency, and don't mind a linear plot if the situation provides a novel experience.

Another thing that drifts from old school play, is when scenarios put significant emphasis on character background and back story, more than we're used to in old school Dungeons & Dragons.  This isn't inherent in the game system, it tends to be the foible of a specific module writer.  You folks that complain about the pre-generated characters in Dragonlance know of which I speak.

The original game doesn’t provide a lot of guidance on campaign structures that allow a group of disparate investigators to come together without straining credulity; it really becomes a problem when the body count piles up and replacement characters need to be introduced.  "This is Bob, my other character's second cousin's brother…"  Call of Cthulhu D20, Delta Green, and Trail of Cthulhu all added useful tools for structuring campaigns that provide an ongoing rationale for character involvement, and I'll explore these ideas in upcoming posts as well.  Despite the issues, Call of Cthulhu is absolutely an old school system, and it's possible to structure the same kind of free-form, exploratory adventures in COC that we enjoy so much in old school D&D.  It'll be fun to discover here on the blog.

My goal is to do a Cthulhu-related post or so each week, but not overwhelm the D&D stuff; judging by how the side poll is going, the majority of folks that come by here are either COC players or somewhat interested in the game and genre, so that should be fine.  Let me know how it's going!