Cthulhu Purist How-To

Graham Walmsley launched a preorder for his book Stealing Cthulhu over on Indiegogo, which is the UK version of Kickstarter. I got in on it, and just finished reading the .pdf version of the book.

I like it a lot.

It’s Graham’s ((Is it all right if I call you Graham? Thanks.)) guide to creating Lovecraftian scenarios for roleplaying games. Now, I bought it to use with Trail of Cthulhu, specifically my Armitage Files campaign, but it’s stat-free, and easily applicable to any gaming system where you want to run the types of adventures it describes. The advice is about how to build the right kind of scenario, and how to tell stories that reflect the ideas within the more purist H.P. Lovecraft stories.

This is important to understand. Stealing Cthulhu focuses on what Trail of Cthulhu calls the Purist mode of gaming. Things are bleak, horrific, deadly, and maddening, and you count it as a win if you run away successfully from the monster at the end of the story. You can’t actually win in Purist mode. You can only survive ((And often not even that.)). The stories that inspire this book are things like The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Whisperer in Darkness,  The Shadow Out of Time, At the Mountains of Madness, and, of course, The Call of Cthulhu.

Graham is a perfect person to talk about constructing this style of scenario. He’s written a quartet of Purist scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu, published by Pelgrane Press. I haven’t read them all ((Because a friend of mine is going to run a couple of them, so I’m being a good player and keeping my nose out of them.)), but the ones I have read are solid, scary, and original. So, I’m going to trust his take on the subject matter.

But you do need to know what you’re getting into. This type of scenario is not going to suit all players; some people want more heroic escapism in their games. They want a chance to defeat the bad guy and triumph. If you’re looking for advice for that type of game, while there is some applicable advice in this book, you should probably look elsewhere. This is all about the joys of going mad while being shredded by something with too many mouths and dimensions.

Now, in addition to his advice, he also passed the book around to Gareth Hanrahan, Ken Hite, and Jason Morningstar, three other folks with mad Cthulhu cred, and had them annotate it for him. So, you get Graham’s take on things, coupled with a very knowledgeable peanut gallery tossing in their opinions. It makes for a good read.

Now, in talking about a book like this, it’s hard to keep from just paraphrasing bits of advice from it, so I’m going to talk about it at a pretty high level. If you want more details, go buy the book ((If the ideas I’ve outlined above sound at all interesting, you really should just go buy the book.)).

The main advice in the book is to steal from Lovecraft, but to then twist it to make it fresh again. Now, that doesn’t sound like something you need a whole book to say, but it’s the discussion behind that simple statement that make up the meat of the book. Graham talks about what it is useful to steal – creatures, scenarios, locations, patterns, and descriptions – and how to twist them to make them seem new without sacrificing the Lovecraftian bleakness and horror of the original. To do that, he ((And his annotators, as well.)) talks a great deal about what each of the things discussed mean: what they symbolize, what makes them horrific, and how to strip them for parts. It also talks about how to work in things that gamers like but that don’t often show up in Lovecraft’s Purist stories – things like gunfights, actual mysteries and investigation, magic use, and cultists.

This section leads off the book, right after the introduction, and makes up a little less than half the page count. It is filled with examples and references, and is a thoughtful discussion of how all the moving parts of a story fit together to produce the effect you’re looking for.  Graham points out not only what works, but some common pitfalls to avoid. The tone is somewhat scholarly, which is kind of fitting for a Cthulhu resource, and is offset by the more chatty tone of the annotations ((And kudos to Graham for keeping in the stroppy, argumentative ones. I enjoyed the contrasting ideas presented, and think it ultimately reinforced your theses.)).

The next section of the book cherry-picks some of the best elements of the mythos and shows how to ring them through the changes described in the first part of the book. It’s not exhaustive ((I was sad to see Ghoul left off the list, though the reason for that is explained in the Afterword, and I accept it.)) – there are only fifteen entries – but it illustrates the ideas in the book wonderfully. More than that, you wind up with the skeletons for two or three different scenarios for each entry, ready for you to flesh out and add the stats from your favourite system.

Graham finishes off the book with three appendices: Miscellany, where he lists the notes that don’t fit anywhere else in the book; Bibliography, which again is not exhaustive but very focused; and Cthulhu Dark, his rules-light system for running Lovecraftian roleplaying games.

Final assessment? The book is very focused on producing one type of play experience. That’s not to say that it’s not useful if you don’t want to create the kind of adventure where your investigators die horribly in the ancient catacomb of a bizarre church, but that you will find less useful stuff if you’re trying to do something more heroic. I don’t think this is a bad thing, any more than I think a hammer is a bad tool because it doesn’t tighten screws well. The book sets out to do a very specific thing, and succeeds in doing it very well. But with so many games trying to encompass a multitude of play styles, it’s important to know that Stealing Cthulhu doesn’t follow that path. Buying it with the wrong expectations will lead to disappointment.

I do have one little niggle. I’m hoping the .pdf version I’ve got is going to get another editing pass before it heads to print. There are a couple of typos, and some missing or inaccurate footnote references in it that I’d like to see cleaned up. In general, though, the text is pretty clean.


I have just had a brief exchange with Graham Walmsley. He informs me that there are hidden things in the book, and the typos I have noticed may be part of that. So, it looks like my little niggle, cited above, may just be me not getting the hidden stuff. I shall have to reread with an eye to that.

Thanks, Graham!

If you like the stark, eerie horror of Purist Lovecraftian games, this is the book for you. The advice is useful, and the scenario skeletons littered throughout the text are a gold mine of ideas, assuming you don’t just lift them outright and hang some stats on them. If you want to run a Purist Lovecraft game, in any system, this book will fill you with joy and your players with dread.

Which is how it should be.


Character Building

I’ve been a little lax about posting this past week or so because I’ve been caught up in preparation for a few games. One of the games is a playtest of the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay*, another is the next installment of the Hunter – Shadow Wars episodic campaign, and then there’s the bookkeeping for the Storm Point campaign, and the pregame development of Scio Occultus Res.

But the work I’m doing on the games has got me thinking about building characters in games, and the different systems the games offer and why, and the different goals and ideals that players have when building characters. See, I’ve been building some pregens for the WHFRP playtest, some NPCs for the Shadow Wars game, and watching my players build their characters for SOR. I’ve also been reading some other games, like Starblazer Adventures, Mutant City Blues, Two-Fisted Tales, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel, and Mongoose’s latest iteration of the classic Traveller.

What I’ve noticed is that character building systems in game sit on a continuum of customizability, ranging from games where you pick an archetypical character and play it to games where you build each individual aspect of the character. There really isn’t anything at either extreme of the continuum; even a system that focuses on archetypes like Feng Shui or Shadowrun lets you customize a few aspects of the character, and even a game where you build almost everything from scratch like Unknown Armies or Spirit of the Century has a few predefined elements that you need to use to create your character.

In the middle of the road, though, you find the race/class systems, like Dungeons & Dragons, and the skill-based systems, like Call of Cthulhu. Each still has components of the other in it – you get to pick skills and feats to customize your character in D&D, and your choice of profession shapes your skill picks in CoC.

This says to me that , as gamers, we tend to like the ability to build the kind of character we want to play in a game with few restrictions, but we also want a bit of a structure to help realize the ideals we have in relation to the rules. It also seems that the more detailed and low-trust* the rules system is, the more the structure is needed to make the mechanics of character interact properly with the mechanics of task resolution and other systems.

Character building also sets the tone for the game. Consider that, in D&D, most players look at the concept of roles for picking their classes. Now, roles really only impact the game in combat, which leads to the tacit assumption that combat is going to be the most important part of the game. The majority of rules in the game deal with combat in one way or another, from the powers of the characters to entire books of monsters to fight. Now look at a game like Mage: The Awakening. In that game, first you build a normal human, then transform him or her into a wizard. That leads to the tacit assumption that the themes of transformation, alienation from mundane life, and the price of power are going to be present in the game, leading to a more introspective, internal focus for play.

Some systems even have mechanics for building in backstory for your character. The Burning Wheel is a primary example, along with Traveller and Spirit of the Century. Some things you get to pick, but some you don’t, and your choices may restrict or open certain other choices for you. Classic Traveller even had the chance your character would die during character generation, forcing you to start from scratch with a new character*. This can be very useful for games where you really want a bit of depth to the characters, and it leads to assumptions that character history and motivations are going to feature in the game.

Traditionally, once you have your characters created, you throw them together into a group, have them meet in a tavern, and they all decide to risk their lives together. Kind of cheesy, but it works. Now, however, many games are going out of their way to build in reasons why the characters work together, helping the GM give the disparate characters a history together. The brilliant novel idea from SotC and other FATE games is one example, where everyone winds up with connections to at least two other people in the group. WHFRP now has a party sheet, which gives the group a reason to work together, along with benefits and perils specific to that type of group. Traveller mixes and matches this, giving characters a chance to link themselves to other characters during character creation, and then pick a group skill package to represent why they’re together and what they get out of it.

As a GM, I like these sorts of ideas. It takes some of the pressure off when the players are the ones who decide why they’re together and what they want from each other.

And, of course, some character generation systems appeal more to different players than other do.

Me, I like random in character creation. I like rolling the dice and having them dictate aspects of my character, trying to fit the disparate pieces together into something that I want to play. Others I know hate the random method, because they have a much more developed idea of what they want their character to be, and don’t want to let the dice ruin it. And some just don’t like the inequity of randomness, where some characters may start out just plain better than others. I can understand that.

And then there are those players to whom the system trappings of the character are just so much decoration -  the real heart of the character is his or her inner life. See, I like a character that can do something mechanically different from the others in the party; it gives me the chance to stand out in areas where I excel, and it prevents me from stepping on other players when their characters have the chance to shine. But I know some players who are more than content playing the “other fighter” because the attitude, behaviour, motivations, drives, and reactions are all different.

These things come up in character development, too. Some plan out each little advancement, whether in a level-based system or a skill-based system, doing their best to tweak their character to fit the ideal in their head. Others take advancement as it comes, and make their choices based on what seems to fit best at the time. This has some connection with the optimization ideas I discussed back here, but it’s not always about min-maxing.

I think this is part of what keeps most character generation systems near the mid-point of that continuum I mentioned earlier. Developers are trying to make a system that works for the largest number of players. Which is good, because you want more player buying your stuff, but leads to a bit of conservatism in the big games out there. In RPGs, the big guns are definitely Wizards of the Coast, with D&D, and White Wolf, with their World of Darkness games. Both of these have stuck very strongly to their core race/class, abilities, and skills through multiple iterations.

It’s the independent games that are pushing the envelope, coming up with cool new ways to build characters. The FATE games, The Burning Wheel, and Dogs in the Vineyard all have innovative new twists to their character creation that can be looted for other games – the novel idea from FATE, the idea of drives from The Burning Wheel, and the crux moment from Dogs in the Vineyard are all things that can usefully be lifted into pretty much any game.

And then there’s creating NPCs. This is, of necessity, different than creating PCs. As a GM, when you create an NPC, you generally have a specific purpose for him or her, a story role or goal that the character fills. Maybe he’s the villain, or the mentor, or the annoying dependent. Maybe she’s a love interest or a rival or an obstacle. This purpose shapes the type of character you create, but I also find that I shape the character based on what I know about how my group reacts to different things. In the Storm Point game, for example, I know that if I send a halfling NPC anywhere near the party, I’m just asking for him to be distrusted (and possibly stomped), so I only use a halfling if that’s the sort of reaction I want to provoke, or if I’m trying to prove to them that all halflings aren’t deceitful, manipulative crooks.

Of course, you don’t need nearly as much mechanical background for NPCs as you do for PCs. All you need is enough information for the NPC to serve his or her purpose. For longer-running NPCs, you may eventually need to come up with an almost-complete set of stats, but if the only reason the PCs are going to talk to the bartender is to find out that the guy they’re looking for isn’t in the bar, you barely even need a name.

Having said that, one thing that I did in the Dresden Files playtest is create a number of characters along side the players, and then use my characters as NPCs during play. This worked especially well using the DFRPG rules, because of the novel stage, where my NPCs wound up with nice connections to several of the PCs. This meant that the PCs had NPC contacts they could call on in play, contacts that they had a history with. I really liked it.

I think the point I’m trying to make in this post is that there are a myriad of systems for creating characters, and a myriad of ways that players – and GMs – look at making characters. Whatever method you use has got to suit both the game and the players, and that you shouldn’t be afraid of mixing and matching elements from other games to make the types of characters your group likes. Remember that the game isn’t what’s written in the rulebooks; it’s what happens at the table, when you and your friends sit down and start playing.

Do what you need to do in order to give yourself the characters that you need. Characters that you will remember and talk about. Look around, try out new things, read other games, experiment. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it. If something does work, keep doing it.

And remember. Games are supposed to be fun. Have fun.

*About which I will post a full report when the playtest is done. Back

*Low-trust is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that both the players and the GM can have a solid, shared understanding of just what is and is not possible for the character. High-trust is not a bad thing, either. It means that both the players and GM have more of a chance of surprising each other with something cool. Back

*Mongoose’s new Traveller has a more interesting (IMO) mishap table, where something bad happens and you have to leave your current career, but it retains the death option in what it refers to as Iron Man Character Creation. Back

Brockford House Postmortem

Yeah, they all died.

**WARNING** This post is contains spoilers for The Brockford House, a scenario that I pulled out of the 4th Edition Call of Cthulhu rulebook.

To fill out the adventure, I created some investigation that the characters could do before heading to the house. This included a couple of notes in books about the superstitions of the area, emphasizing that it was considered bad luck to stay on certain islands overnight, and tracing that back to the legends of the native people of the area. It also included a number of news articles outlining the history of the man who had built the house some 25 years earlier, and the horrible fate that befell him and his family.

The investigators dug up these clues, and decided to go interview folks in the town and some surviving Penobscot tribesmen to see if they could get any more information. What they got led them to believe that there was some sort of evil monster(s) that only came out at night and would kill anyone outside on the specified islands, one of which was the site of the Brockford house.

So, they paid one of the locals to ferry them out to the island, with the plan to stay overnight and sort things out. They brought some things with them for protection: salt, bibles, silver pentacles, etc. Nothing that would actually have any effect on mythos creatures. Strangely, to my mind, no one tried to buy any extra weapons or explosives, despite the fact that at least one of the players kept complaining about the fact that his doctor character only had his scalpel to defend himself with. (The characters were all pregens.)

They explored the island, and found a spot where there were hand- and footholds carved in the side of the rock leading down to a little smugglers’ bay, but the tide was in, so they weren’t able to climb down to check it out. After scouting the exterior, they moved to the interior. They found the room where the sacrifices had been chained up, and spotted the weird deer heads on the walls, and even found the hidden books. They looked at these last briefly, but didn’t want to take the time (or risk the SAN) reading them.

In the basement, they found and smashed open the hidden trap door, and climbed down into the room with the altar. There, they discovered the stairs down into the caves, and proceeded downwards. Once down, they wiggled through the stalactites and stalagmites into the open area, then got cold feet because it was getting near sunset, so they went upstairs and barricaded themselves in one of the guest rooms.

That’s when they took the time to read the books, and became somewhat rattled.

Now, at this point, it was closing in on 1:00 AM in the real world, so I cut to the chase. Rather than roll the random chance to see if the Deep Ones came upstairs to investigate the broken trap door, I just decided that they would. With successful listen checks, the characters heard the boxes they had piled on top of the trap door getting pushed aside, so they decided to set up a barricade and firing position at the top of the stairs. Moving around the furniture let the Deep Ones know that their prey was on the top floor, so up they came.

There followed a nasty battle, as two of the characters tried to hold the barricade while the other two went for more furniture to pile at the top of the stairs. When that didn’t seem to be working well, they ran back to join their companions, in time to help the two badly-wounded characters back into their original room. One of the characters went mad at that point and threw herself out of the window to her death on the rocks below. Another had his head slapped off his shoulders by a Deep One’s claws. The last two, armed only with a sword cane and a scalpel, were quickly overwhelmed and died, leaving one more mystery for the owner of the house.

It wasn’t all one-sided, though. They did manage to put down four of the Deep Ones before they died.

Some observations on the game:

  • Bad rolls gathering information makes for a boring and discouraging game.
  • Too many avenues of investigation, and surprising (to me) decisions by the characters as to what to investigate, led to a much later start at the house, so I wasn’t able to stretch out the on-site stuff as much as I would have liked.
  • As a Cthulhu one-shot, everyone assumed they were doomed from the start. That may have led to the actual doom, as they figured nothing they could do would change that.

When it was over, one of the players made an interesting comment. He said, “It was a fun game, but I was never scared.”

I hadn’t realized that he expected to be, or thought he should be.

I mean, when you play D&D, and your character gets hit by a sword, you don’t expect the player to bleed, right? He just plays his character as if the character were bleeding.

By the same measure, I don’t expect players to be scared during horror games. Tense, yes. Worried for their characters, sure, if it’s not a one-shot. Cautious, you bet. Even creeped out a bit. But scared? Nope.

Their characters, on the other hand, should be played as if they were scared.

And that may be one of the reasons some people don’t like horror games. They like playing heroes, people who overcome their fear and triumph over adversity. It’s why Vampire: The Masquerade morphed into a superheroes-with-fangs game. In horror movies and literature and games, the genre expects a certain type of response from characters: desperate, gibbering, uncontrolled fear.

And if you don’t like playing that kind of character, then horror games aren’t going to cut it for you.

My two cents on the question.

Anyway, everyone had fun, despite the TPK. We’re going to try the Trail of Cthulhu rules in a couple of weeks.

The Thrill of Cthulhu

Tomorrow night, I’m running a Call of Cthulhu one-shot for a group of friends.

It’s going to be interesting; I’ve got four or five people coming to play, and only the tentative fifth player has any deep experience with the game. Two of the others have played a bit, one has played other games but never this one, and one is very new to gaming, her only experience being the Dresden Files RPG playtest. That means I really want to show off what Call of Cthulhu has to offer as a game.

Picking the scenario turned out to be tougher than I thought. I was planning on running The Haunting, which is sort of the default intro scenario that’s been published in (I’m pretty sure) every edition of the rules. Unfortunately, one of the players has just enough memory of it to make that not feasible. So, I was stuck looking through all my Call of Cthulhu books, trying to find something that would work. For it to be a good one-shot intro scenario, I felt it needed the following elements:

  • Research. If the characters don’t have the opportunity to look around libraries and newspaper morgues and interview people, it’s not an archetypal Cthulhu adventure.
  • Investigation. If the characters don’t have a strange place or event to nose around in, then what’s the adventure?
  • Danger. Come on, it’s a one-shot! There’s got to be a real chance of disaster.
  • Mythos elements. There’s got to be some mythos magic, and a mythos threat, to really show that this is Cthulhu, not just a random horror game.
  • One session. We’ve got to be able to wrap it up in a single evening.

So, I dug through all my old books, trying to find something that fit all the criteria, and came up with The House on Stratford Lane, from an old issue of The Unspeakable Oath. It didn’t quite fit all the criteria, not having much in the way of research and having a chance that no mythos threat materializes, but it was pretty good, and all the Pagan Publishing Cthulhu stuff is interesting and well-written.

Which gave me an idea; I should ask Scott Glancy, president of Pagan Publishing, for his suggestion of a scenario. See, I spend GenCon every year working the Pagan Publishing booth with Scott, so I know he knows about good Cthulhu adventures. Last year, I even got to playtest a scenario involving a WWI German airship, and something nasty brought back from an archaeological dig.

He gave me a number of good suggestions, and even pointed me to the relevant message threads on Yog-Sothoth.com, but the one that stuck out was The Brockford House. I had to dig out my old 4th Edition rulebook to find the scenario, but it had everything except the research. That’s the one I picked.

So, for the past few days, I’ve been building a research section for the game, and developing props for the game. Because, as any CoC player knows, it’s all about the handouts. And making neat props for games is just a lot of fun – having a newspaper clipping or page from an ancient tome that looks like a newspaper clipping or page from an ancient tome really increases player immersion in the experience and suspension of disbelief.

I’ve been aided in prop making by the good folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, most specifically by their Prop and Font CD. I’ve been using it to put together newspaper clippings and some pages from… other sources.

Here’s a little tip about aging paper for games that I picked up back when I was studying drama at University: soak the paper in cold tea for about 15-20 minutes, then dry it flat. If you want a ragged, distressed sort of edge to the paper, tear it while it’s soaking wet – it gives you a much more worn, interesting looking edge to the page. Do this after writing or printing on it. That’s important.

A lot of you probably already knew that, but maybe it’ll be useful for someone.

Anyway, I’m all excited about the game tomorrow night. I think it’ll be fun. And after we play this one-shot, I’m going to test-drive the Trail of Cthulhu rules with the intro scneario provided.

I’ll let you know how things go.