Monday, April 30, 2007

Cthulhu's Gates

So, a busy weekend, filled with work and social obligations. The former included some material for the upcoming Die Seidlers 6/The Settlers 6 game from Blue Byte. The latter included celebrating World Tai Chi Day down in the International District with the rest of my class, and playing History of the World with friends on Bainbridge.

But the interesting part of the dweekend consisted of playing Call of Cthulhu with former-WotCer Charles Ryan, now living in England but over on this side of the pond on business. GMing was Sacnoth, who through great effort found an adventure that we had not all played/read/GMed. And it was pretty good - in addition to Charles and myself, we had representatives from the current WotC Book, Games, and Web departments, so it was old home week.

The adventure used pre-generated characters who were tied into the adventure itself, but they were a scattered group of individuals, some with little or no mythos knowledge, who come together to face horrors from beyond the stars. Over the course of the adventure, many of use discovered that the world was not as we assumed it to be.

And I started to make a list of how one's character passed through in a typical Call of Cthulhu scenario, moving from innocence and ignorance to deadly knowledge. This passage, these stations of the tentacled cross, are pretty common in a lot of scenarios, and where it works, the game seems to work, and where it fails, the game seems to be less grounded. Here's the list I came up with.

Why Do I Care? One of the early challenges for a character is "why ame I here?" If I'm a country vicar who collects stamps, why should I suddenly be involved in a set of mysterious lights over in the old mill? Curiosity can only go so far. In the case of the adventure, my grounded, realistic astronomy professor was dragged in by the disappearance of a lion in the care of my zoologist daughter. Upon resolving that mystery, I was done, but by that time I was comfortable enough with the other players to continue the adventure, but the initial engagement was key.

Who ARE these people? A gathering of random individuals confronted with the strange is one of the challenges of Cthulhu. In the adventure we ran, the pre-gens have connections with each other (often hostile, which threatened group cohesion). In other adventures, it is a Gms challenge to bring people together and keep them together. The "Tatters of the King" adventure I have been running has an odd group of player character (though I have seen odder), but keeping the med student, Texas antiquarian, German test-driver, former occultist, English fop and valet engaged and together has been a challenge.

How do I explain this? When confronted with the first mystery, coming up with a reasonable explanation is a challenge. As a player, I am steeped in cthuloid knowledge and know that I will be fighting eldritch horrors. But my character in the game is my rational scientist, and as such I cannot accept the nameless horrors and must look for other reasons. But there is an eventual point where you use the very language you have been denying and begin the slow slide into the abyss.

Why don't I just walk away/call the authorities? Another challenge point - if it is not your job to explore that sewer, why go down there? After the first brush with danger, why remain in (or worse yet, go back into) the old haunted house. Again, the player needs a good rational to keep him engaged.

Where can I get weapons? For those whose characters already have weapons this becomes: When can I start using weapons? At what point does my knowledge justify breaking and entering? Suddenly seeking out and carrying firepower? Using that firepower? Even if you don't know that the things you are fighting are supernatural, you seek out protection. Some characters (and players) hit this point surprisingly early.

The Monsters Are Real. This is where the psychotic break occurs, where deadly illumination dawns, and is often, though not always, connected with a sudden catastrophic SAN loss on the character's part. (in my case, my scientific professor launched into combat with an eldritch horror, bellowing the secret magic phrase that the crazy professor gave him). This is the graduation moment, when the character fully embrace the reality that the game presents, and from this point forward, you are willing to talk about Mi-Go and ghouls and other monsters. In this passage you are set apart from the safe, real world (noted by the sudden loss of SAN).

And often that's then end of the story, both in canned adventures and in mythos stories. Often because (with small adventures), we're usually on top of the final confrontation and the TPK (total party kill), but even after that the nature of the game changes - you are now part of the new world.

In the same way, all these steps are already taken into account in the "back-story" of Dungeons & Dragons. Everything I've talked about above has already happened before you start your first adventure. You already have your job (your character class) that is built upon the assumption that you fight monsters, are carrying weapons, have a reason for the others to be here (you are all adventurers) and set to some degree apart from the rest of your people.

This may be one more interesting difference between the more popular D&D and the niched-but-praised nature of CoC.

More later,