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!


  1. I've never played in a location-based or boudnary-based CoC game (despite having played a lot of CoC), if you have, could you write about how it worked?

    Let me back up a minute. Architects sometimes talk about two ways of defining a space - the boundary and the hearth. Boundaries are like the borders of a country** or the walls of a cave: they make a bubble of space which is all self-similar on the inside. Dungeons are boundary designs: everything inside the dungeon is ready for inclusion in the game, which is whatever events happen inside the dungeon.

    Hearths are like lights in the wilderness - they define spaces by drawing people toward themselves. Event-based or plot-point-based games are hearth-like: if there is a creature who will eat the world and you need the book to get the ritual to dismiss the creature then creature, book and ritual are hearths: the game happens when you engage with them. If you ignore them then you're experiencing something that is not the design of the game, and you could maybe play "hotter and colder" with how much you're engaging with the hearths and how much you're doing something else.

    And IME CoC is the very first self-consciously hearth-based game and I don't know how I would run a location-based CoC adventure, because even if all the clues were inside a cave, it would still be the clues running the investigation.* So that's why I ask if you've ever played location- or boundary-based CoC.

    * note, these clues don't have to exist in a single trail of breadcrumbs: there can be multiple places to go from each single clue, per The Alexandrian's "node-based design."
    ** the nation-state is a boundary-based idea, the mandala-state is a hearth... so it's not all countries that follow this model.

  2. I completely agree with the "hearth analogy", though in upcoming weeks you'll see me refer to it as "points of darkness" instead of points of light, to borrow a phrase from a fellow blogger. Points of darkness is much more evocative for the horror theme.

    The idea is that the Call of Cthulhu sandbox can dispense with rail road by using loosely tied situations (hearths / points of darkness). After all, it's impractical to have a location-bound sandbox that might range from the British Museum to New York to the Pyramids of Giza.

    I'm using the term sandbox to describe more than a hex-crawl or site-based adventure in D&D; there are ways to structure a virtual sandbox and deliver a free-form game experience - and node-based design is a fine way to structure and manage the information on the Keeper's side of the screen, even if the player's aren't so bound.

    The closest I've seen to the traditional D&D approach to structuring locations were in the Lovecraft Country supplements by Keith Herber (Arkham, Kingsport, Dunwich, and Innsmouth) though I don't think the typical scenario needs that much detail.

  3. I've been running Tatters of the King, and while it's a pretty good campaign, as written it is a horrible railroad. I decided to ignore the stated order of events and run it more or less as a sandbox, and the players have responded well to it.

  4. I think this post and the promise it holds just made my year.

  5. I'm planning a post or two on how I run investigation/criminal/espionage/character-based "sandboxes" (what you might call node-based design), so I'm interested to read your thoughts on that. I've never run a CoC game, but plan to.

  6. 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).

    I've always thought that this was an interesting idea, but I've never really been able to implement it well. The problem comes with defining and communicating the "doors" between nodes in the flow chart without also seeming like you are limiting the players. It's like the difference between a multiple choice test question and an essay test question.

    When you think about it, this is really a pretty sophisticated metaphorical translation that is going on here: from limited spacial movement to predicting potential avenues of investigation. So any techniques you have would be welcome. I look forward to the future posts.

    The 3E DMG also mentions this in a "behind the curtain" section on why dungeons are used (page 58):

    You have an easy way to control the adventure in a dungeon without leading the characters by the nose. In a dungeon, the parameters are clearly defined for the PCs—they can’t walk through walls (not at first, anyway) or go into rooms that aren’t there. Aside from those limits, they can go wherever they like in whatever order they like. The limited environment of the dungeon grants players a feeling of control over their characters’ destiny.

    A dungeon is really nothing but an adventure flowchart. The rooms are encounters, and the corridors are connections between the encounters, showing which encounters should (or could) follow which other ones. You could design a dungeonlike flowchart for an adventure that didn’t take place in a dungeon and accomplish the same thing. One encounter leads to two more, which in turn lead to others, some of which double back on previous encounters. The dungeon becomes a model, in this way, for all adventures.

    This whole line of design thought also reminds me of the discussion about point crawls over at the Hill Cantons.

  7. That 3E DMG quote is right on the money - makes me kinda wish I had those books - I absolutely use flow charts to help generate investigations, and often notice how they're a bit like dungeons.

    The Hill Cantons post is great because it reminds - organizing your thoughts on post-it notes is really helpful! Easy to move around while still brainstorming.