Monday, March 17, 2014

Call of Cthulhu and the challenge of fantasy gaming in a normal world

A couple of weeks ago I ran my first session of Call of Cthulhu.  It did not go well for a variety of reasons. But I think that the crux of it was the inherent clash of playing a fantasy game but one that is so firmly rooted in a real, actual world.  Cthulhu is a horror game and a substantial portion of that horror is generated by the knowledge that you as a normal person are pretty much entirely powerless against the strange things in the world that you find yourself in pursuit of.  That degree in Accounting? Not going to help against one of the Elder Gods, nor is your buddy’s ability to use a library going to fend off Dimensional Shambler.  That’s a frightening thought, the notion that the closer that you get to the thing you are seeking the more danger you are putting yourself into. I planned on using this basic struggle of everyday normalcy versus the unknown as the basis for the building horror that would ultimately drive the investigators to the precipice of insanity and fear.  Turns out the players preferred normalcy in their fantasy life and I can’t say that I blame them. 

Our Cthulhu game was meant to be nothing more than a two or three week interlude between campaigns of D&D and Shadowrun. I had played a little as a player but never ran a game before and I was looking forward to it, though I really did imagine it being a challenge.  The game just seems so mood dependent and in my experience that is one of the hardest things to really establish and maintain, especially in a casual weeknight game that features a lot of bourbon.  The structure of the game is also a little intimidating in the sense that so much of what the players are doing is asking questions in the form of investigating. That’s a lot of answers for the Keeper to have (Keeper=DM=GM).  So I decided to run a premade scenario to save myself the legwork of creating all of those answers and after much searching around I settled on Mr. Corbitt from the Mansions of Madness book.  It seemed like a pretty straightforward urban adventure and would be easy for everyone to get into.  The plot is basically that one of the players has a neighbor that is up to some creepy shit that the investigators get exposed to.  The more they dig into it the more they realize that something totally insane is going on with the neighbor, his house, and his unhealthy obsession with an Indian deity and his vile offspring. 

But guess what? The players had no interest in digging into the business of their neighbor.  Nobody likes a nosy neighbor, who wants to be that guy? At first I was bummed that it was obvious that the adventure was going nowhere, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made.  The party consisted of a Catholic Priest, a 70 year old parapsychologist, and an author of books about animals (our current fourth was unavailable for a couple of weeks). Realistically do those three individuals have any business snooping around and sneaking into a neighbor’s house? Especially if there might actually be danger inside? No! Not at all.  What happened was that they saw that the neighbor (Mr, Corbitt) dropped what appeared to be the bloody arm of a child one night while coming home.  They asked him if everything was alright and he said that it was, and they basically left it at that.  I considered railroading them a bit into the plot but then I reminded myself that this was Philadelphia in 1921, not some ork filled fantasy world where Adventurer is an acceptable professions.  These were just three guys with jobs who were having an adult dinner party in the time of Prohibition.  The last thing that they would really do would be to get mixed up in some weird shit.  (The scenario notes offer a suggestion if the party does not pursue the matter with the neighbor.  It says to have Corbitt come over and ask the neighbor to water his garden while he is out of town for a couple of days.  He also gives them a give basket of poisoned food as a thank you.  Both of those seem like horrible ways to keep yourself low key and avoid drawing attention when you are summoning demons in your creepy sub basement.  I decided to pass on this suggestion,)

So, I think that’s the big flaw of Cthulhu.  It’s by no means a bad game, it’s actually pretty awesome and I know lots of people love it.  But there is a weird disconnect between setting the game in the “real world” and then expecting players to behave in a manner that is actually inconsistent with how a normal person would act.  Which way are we supposed to be play this? I suppose that once a character is exposed to these unseen horrors of the world that they are more likely to get involved in a scenario knowing that there may be some truth behind it, no matter how ridiculous it seems.  But what about that initial hook? I guess I could have had the party witness some straight up insane Lovecraftian madness right at the beginning, but that sort of defeats the purpose of the slow burn and the impending doom, which is what this game is really designed to do.  If you give it up right away, what’s the point? And also seeing that sort of craziness is likely to make a player run really far away from whatever it is.  Not look further into it. 

The other thing is, why wouldn’t the players just call the cops? If I thought that the person that lived next door to me was some sort of murderer and I was in danger I wouldn’t try to thwart his plans myself. This isn’t Scooby Doo. I would call the police. Especially if I was a 70 year parapsychologist. 

No comments: