Alright, I’m going to open with some great news! My blog now has a sponsorship from the Institute of Investigative Sciences in Huntsville, Alabama. The Institute, and the retail store associated with it, Metro Spy Supply, are now supporting my writing habits. In honor of that, I’m going to do a piece on Call of Cthulhu, the best investigation-themed RPG out there.
For those who don’t know, Call of Cthulhu is a horror/mystery RPG based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It involves investigation into the supernatural, from cults and demons to ancient gods who will destroy the world if awakened. This is generally considered a bad thing.
Unlike other RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons, you don’t play as epic heroes in Call of Cthulhu. Instead you play as more or less normal people who are referred to in-game as investigators. They may be archivists, blue-collar workers, doctors, or actual professional investigators, but the point of the game is that they always end up out of their depth. In fact, it’s understood that the whole point of the game is to see how your investigator ends up dying, or going insane. In this article, I’ll explore some tricks to make your Cthulhu game the best it can be.
- Rocks Fall, NOBODY Dies
Ok, look, let’s be honest here. Watching your characters die is boring. The suspense and excitement of any horror game, especially Call of Cthulhu, is not from characters dying, it’s from the fear that they might. This means that if, as a Keeper, you sling the reaper’s scythe around like a toy, your players are going to stop caring and their investigators are going to get less interesting.
Now, contrary to the subheading here, this doesn’t mean that no one should die. The dice will fall as they may and even the guy who built the biggest baddest investigator ever might decide he can suplex a Deep One and end up getting ripped to shreds. What I AM saying, though, is that you shouldn’t assume that if there hasn’t been a death all session that you’re doing something wrong. You want your players to have time with their characters, to grow with them, to become comfortable with them and to care about them, so that when they get knifed by a cultist or eaten by zombies it has an impact.
- Insanity Isn’t Generic
Even though sanity is mechanically treated like hit points in a lot of ways that does not mean it should be handled as such. The game not only talks about how sanity slippage is gradual, but also how you should make sure that each character’s sanity slippage is unique. Is your investigator developing schizophrenia? Maybe a gruesome scene has given them PTSD, or seeing unreal sights has made them question if everything is a figment.
This is a case where you could benefit from doing a bit of homework on the ways stress can affect someone. I’m not saying you have to read the DSM cover to cover; I can’t push through that and I went to college for Social Work. However, you should have some ideas for unique types of mental disorders so that if your players ask “How does he go insane?” You have a good answer.
- Some Investigation Trivia is Helpful
You can run a better game if you have a working knowledge of ways to find and preserve clues. Your players will eventually hit a dead end and want to make an Idea roll to see if they can think of something useful. Sometimes this means dredging up a piece of information from the past or having them notice something laying around, but you could also have them remember an improvised way for checking for fingerprints, like using confectioner’s sugar (and yes, you can do that). It might also help to know what sort of spy gear is commercially available, so that when your characters go out looking for equipment you know how hard it will be to find.
Again, I’m not saying you need a full education on the subject, but being able to respond to questions with something your players might not know about will add to your game. I also find that it adds a nice touch when what works in game is somewhat similar to what would work in reality (you know, not counting the Lovecraftian elements).
- The Big Bads Are There for a Reason
And it’s not just so you can battle their henchmen. The looming threat of Cthulhu needs to be real, and the Old Ones have stats for a reason.
No, this doesn’t mean that you should put your investigators against old squidface in the hopes that they’ll overcome him. If you read the entries in the rulebook you know that killing most of the Old Ones really only makes them angry. Think instead of the actual story “Call of Cthulhu” where the titular fiend woke up and wreaked havoc until he was disrupted long enough for the stars to come out of alignment. The threat is there and the players have to contend with it, but they’re not expected to directly overcome it.
There’s a great example written into the core rulebook where the players are traveling through a grave and they see a large opening in the distance. Before they reach the exit, though, their gateway to the outside world is blocked by the face of Cthulhu, looking cruelly in on them. That encounter resulted in the heroes trying to run while falling to insanity and tentacles, but imagine instead how intense even a single round of hiding would be if you were just waiting for a threat that big to pass.
Now, this is something that requires a huge amount of care. The presence of an Old One, or even a manifestation of it, on the same plane as the players has some huge and horrific implications. An encounter that includes one of the big bads should be swift and bleak, and should consist not of grit and gunplay but of prayers that you are not significant enough to garner the creature’s notice.
- Let Them Fight, Let Them Be Heroes
Wait, what? I just spent this entire article talking about how the whole point of the game is that the players aren’t controlling heroes. The thing is that the investigators being out of their depth means more if it isn’t constant. Does your party include a badass or two? Let ’em take out a group of cultists if the dice fall in their favor, if their planning is clever enough you can even let them shred a deep one.
The benefit of this is that it gives the investigators motivation to press on. Sure, the players know that it’s a game and you need to get to the next point in the adventure, but at some point you have to wonder why the investigators haven’t given up. If the plot involves trying to stop an angry cult or a monster that is terrorizing the countryside, then the players are more likely to jump in if they think there’s a chance that they’ll win.
Let me also say that there should always be a chance of success. It may be extremely slim, but there should always be a way. I know that this conflicts with the idea that Lovecraftian horror is all about the ultimate insignificance of humanity, but this is a game, and the players should always have a chance to win.
(Featured image courtesy of Jarreau Wimberly. Check out his other artwork on his website here: www.jarreauwimberly.com)