Friday, December 30, 2011

Choosing the Lesser Evil

Horrible Choices in Call of Cthulhu, and Carcosa

Ever have one of those soapbox posts, you get on your high horse and blah, blah, blah and rant, rant, rant?  I sat down to write a Carcosa review, and then it morphed into a long post about violence and morality  and stabbing goblins in the face.  I re-read that awful bitch-fest and decided to go in another direction.  You'll thank me later.  I still talk about Carcosa a bit in the wrap, but this post mostly became about the difficult ethical choices you often see in Call of Cthulhu.

I've heard Ken Hite speak a few times on the podcasts, and he frequently identifies Call of Cthulhu as the only moral role playing game.  There are no alignments in the game, so it's not like you can label yourself Lawful Good.  Where would this idea come from?

It's fairly simple; characters in Call of Cthulhu are investigators trying to stop ancient horrors from entering the world, but the act of investigation in Call of Cthulhu destroys your character.  Playing the game (successfully) is essentially a selfless, moral act.  As characters investigate situations involving the eldritch horrors, they accrete sanity damage.  The more they fight against the horrors of the Mythos, the more sanity they lose, and the easier it becomes to keep losing sanity.  It's the sanity death spiral.  Character death or forced retirement is inevitable...  the only question is how long can your character keep up the good fight?

While the "sanity death spiral" is a death of a thousand cuts, a frequent horror theme requires a much more explicit form of sacrifice.  Back in my "horror in dungeons & dragons" post, I called this theme The Monstrous Choice: Is the group willing to do whatever it takes to stop an even greater evil?

I spend a fair amount of time forced to read subjects like "decision theory" as part of the corporate gig.  I'm familiar with the theoretical problems around outcomes and expected value calculations, and how they should influence decisions in a business setting.  Yawn...  It's remarkable how quickly the theories get tossed out the window when faced with a real world situation, when your pulse is racing and everyone is watching and Monty Haul is asking if you want to keep your prize or see what's behind door number three.

It's the same with the ethical constructs - folks can have their well thought positions on "the ends justifies the means" or "two wrongs don't make a right" (simplifying consequentialism versus deontology) - but there's nothing like putting a face-to-face table top group right in the middle of a deep ethical crisis during a gaming session, then sitting back to watch how they work through the problem when they've got actual skin in the game (so to speak).

Spoiler Alerts!  Spoilers for Beyond the Mountains of Madness and The Black Drop, forthcoming.

I've had some unforgettable Cthulhu games that stared unblinkingly at difficult ethical choices, and I would say all the participants came out of those games with memorable experiences.  Here are a couple of war stories demonstrating The Monstrous Choice theme to illustrate the idea.

Beyond the Mountains of Madness
BTMOM is Chaosium's epic campaign (440 something pages) that puts the players in the role of Antarctic explorers following in the footsteps of the ill-fated Lake Expedition that discovered the Mountains of Madness and the city of the Elder Things.

Deep into the module, there's the strong likelihood the group will be faced with a terrible choice.  The ancient Elder Things had built a god-trap that keeps a world-breaking entity imprisoned just outside our space and time, and the god-trap requires the brain of a hominid to function.  Earlier in the adventure, the reawakened Elder Things kidnap a key NPC in the expedition and carry him off to their tower as replacement parts for the machine.  When the party finally learns his fate, they see his decapitated head powering the machine, and it's quite likely they cripple it when they pull his head out of the machinery.  As things fall apart, they learn the true function of the machine and its earth-saving importance as a key piece of the god-trap.  Where can they get a still-living brain to insert back into the neural matrix?  :Gulp:

In hindsight, it's easy to see that section of the adventure is a screw-job, but it is effective in presenting the group with a terrible choice - either watch the god-trap fail, releasing The Prisoner, or sacrifice a party member or NPC to the machine.

The group didn’t have much time to struggle with this one… they were tossing out some half-hearted ideas such as drawing straws for a volunteer when Deb took the helm.  She calmly took out her revolver and gut-shot "Cole the Cook", who was played by Dennis, and then coolly informed everyone, "There, I've made our selection.  I suggest you get Cole into the preparation tank before he bleeds out and I need to shoot someone else".

The sudden violence snapped everyone out of their paralysis, and they reacted by dragging Cole off to the acid bath where his head would be prepared for insertion into the machine.  Cole screamed and cursed while he was carried off, but no one bothered to question the morality of what they were doing; they were too busy saving the planet.

That's only a small section in Beyond the Mountains of Madness; it's a massive adventure and a true magnum opus for Chaosium and the authors.  I keep hearing that a second edition is in the works (a German second edition was released last year) so I'll keep my fingers crossed - I'd love to have that one in hard cover.

The Black Drop
The Black Drop is a Trail of Cthulhu scenario put out by Pelgrane Press; it's hard to believe it came out all the way back in 2010!  It's a short adventure, suitable to two nights of play, or a single epic session.  It involves a remote outpost of the French government on the far southern Kerguelen Islands in the years prior to World War 2.  At the same time the players arrive to bring supplies to the small group of French colonists, a party of four or five Nazis arrives for their own nefarious purpose, heading into the mountainous interior.

Over the course of the scenario, we learn that the Kerguelen plateau was once part of ancient Lemuria; Lemurian artifacts have been recovered on the island; the Lemurians kept a sleeping god in a state of torpor beneath a basalt temple on the side of a mountain there.  Every thirty years or so, when an astrological event happens, the transit of Venus, the god creeps towards wakefulness.

The twist in the scenario is that the Nazis, whom everyone expects are the villains, are actually a group of occultists that know the island's horrible truths, and their secret society sacrifices its members to keep the evil god asleep, by performing a gruesome bloody ritual as the god stirs.  It's quite likely the players don't figure this out until they've knocked off a number of the Nazi scientists, eliminating necessary members required for the final ritual and creating some tough choices for themselves.  Meanwhile, the small group of French colonists are all cultists that have fallen under the power of the god as it creeps towards consciousness; they cause no end of trouble running and gunning across the mountainous interior.

I ran this one as a one-shot with my D&D group that summer, and they were off guard when the straight-up hunt for cultists pivoted into the difficult ethical choice of teaming up with the Nazis for the sacrificial ritual.  One of the characters, Adam, abandoned the expedition at that point, making the Kantian choice - "Let justice be done, though the world perish"; he'd rather perish and let the world be destroyed than team up with Nazis.  The others accompanied the surviving Nazis to the ritual site and helped entomb the gargantuan god-thing back in torpor as Venus made its solar transit, but it involved a lot of squick.  A bunch of dudes were drugged and more or less fed to the god to keep it immotile, while one character masqueraded as the high priest, and returned it to its slumber beneath the earth, using the Lemurian artifact.  Only one PC survived, but it was a "team effort" to succeed.

As I was reading through Carcosa, and considered the previous Carcosa controversy that roiled through D&D discussion boards a few years ago, it struck me the root cause is one of perception; people are looking at the setting through the wrong lens.  Carcosa is a horror setting with a D&D label.  Carcosa brings The Monstrous Choice, so common in horror gaming, and thrusts it into the forefront of D&D, challenging the players to survive in a hostile, evil world.

An actual review of Carcosa is still forthcoming from me.  It's a cool book, with some whacked out ideas, and it deserves it's own post.  I'm reminded of something I wrote some 6-7 months ago: defending the horror.  Back then, brouhahas were brewing over gruesome D&D art.  My answer now is the same as it was back then, and speaks to why players like to challenge themselves against such things; the darker the world or setting, the brighter the light cast by even a single candle, and there's great satisfaction in success when so much is on the line.

*About the Watchmen scan:  I only lightly studied ethics in high school, but the first time I can remember having long discussions with friends about ethical quandaries involved Moore's Watchmen.  Who was right, Ozymandias or Rorschach?  I still love that book.

In my CoC experiences shared in this post, Deb was an Ozymandias and Adam was a Rorschach - a funny way of looking at them!


  1. You constantly challenge me to write better blog posts.

    It's hard to do. . .

  2. "The group didn’t have much time to struggle with this one… they were tossing out some half-hearted ideas such as drawing straws for a volunteer when Deb took the helm. She calmly took out her revolver and gut-shot "Cole the Cook""

    What time period is the adventure set in? I'd think most real 'gentlemen' of the 1920s would be fighting over who gets to sacrifice himself to save the world. Dulce et decorum est, pro Patria mori.

    1. Easy to say, hard to do.

      It kind of makes it more horrible in that no one volunteered. *shudder*

  3. Good post. I really want to play CoC again. it's been ages.

  4. Great post.

    I think Hite's absolutely right about CoC, and that's why it remains my favorite RPG. I wonder how closely, among the D&D camp, the pro- and anti-Carcossa camps map to people who have, respectively, played and not played Cthulhu. It's always an entertaining experience to run the game for people who are dyed-in-the-wool D&Ders.

  5. I often hear it presented as the pinnacle of the RPG experience but am I the only one who thinks the "Monstrous Choice" is an especially tedious cliche? Especially since it is usually found in a protractedly contrived scenario and often in combination with "To save the world" which is the _most_ tedious RPG cliche.

  6. @Welcome to Dungeon!

    I agree that save the world choices are often less than satisfactory, both because they tend to be game-enders if done properly and because they assume a certain kind of character morality. I'm not familiar with CoC, but sense is that even extended campaigns are not like open-ended potentially interminable D&D campaigns. Thus, they are more like extended one-shots, which is maybe why the game ending monstrous choices perhaps world better. That's just armchair quarterback speculation, though.

    That being said, I do like "lesser" monstrous choices which require the PCs to make a trade-off no matter the direction they choose. I think this is more about following events to their logical conclusion. Example: rather than choosing antagonists for the PCs, have competing power centers. Stick the PCs in the middle in a way that the powers are interested in what the PCs are doing (this could be as simple as the discovery of a MacGuffin) and let the PCs choose their allegiances (or lack thereof).

    Those CoC supplements sound like a great read though, even just for D&D inspiration.

    If it were me as a player, I would try to find a way to let the elder god loose, just to see how it affected the campaign world. Then again, I was one of those people that wished the aliens won in Independence Day.

  7. I was thinking of writing a post like this, and you beat me to it. Damn you!

    Really good post.

    I loved playing Mountains. It was indeed quite epic. CoC had some very special qualities. I love that game. I think one reason the "save the world" schtick gets used is that it works...

  8. In my current Call of Cthulhu campaign, the players have gone from a group of gentlemen curious about some seemingly-unconnected coincidences to plotting the murder -- in the next session -- of a non-player character they believe to be involved in a dangerous ritual.

    They're not thugs, have never committed a crime before, and they're not even sure what this ritual will do, but together -- after much discussion -- they decided that the only way forward was to murder this man.

    It's not quite the big earth-shaking choice of Mountains of Madness or The Black Drop, but it's the same sort of thing, and the discussions made for a memorable session.

    The game is full of these choices, even at a smaller scale. One of the recurring discussions in the group over the past couple of sessions has been whether or not to use the spells they've discovered to get an advantage over the enemy and halt their plans. In Call of Cthulhu, magic taints and corrupts so even a minor spell becomes a moral choice.

    There are a number of reasons why it's my favourite game, but the moral element is one of the biggies.

  9. Yeah, that's a really good point Kelvin - CoC characters tend to be ordinary people, so the frame of reference between player and character is close - heck, many games even take place in the modern day. Even small choices can create ethical or moral dilemmas when projecting how a modern person would tackle the decision, like choosing to read a Mythos book and fight fire with fire.

    @Brendan: a lot of CoC and Trail stuff can be inspirational for D&D, heck the initial idea for the Black City megadungeon was borne out of my experiences with Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

  10. In all that waffling, I forgot to say "great post", but it's implied!