Cthulhu called – was the keeper happy?

This was at a small convention some years ago (between 3 and 6, I would say), in the middle of nowhere, Finland. The game master and the other players were all strangers to me. There was maybe three or four players. I went in to fill the table, anyways, as I did with Savage worlds in the same con, too.

The game was Cthulhun kutsu (a translation of what the name implies) or Call of Cthulhu, I don’t remember anymore and I don’t know if the edition was even named. We were of the coast guard (maybe somewhere in USA?) and there was a ship that did not react and might be just floating, not steered. We are to figure out what is happening.

Knowing that there are many ways to play Cthulhu, I asked the game master if we (as players) should be trying to complete the mission, first and foremost, or if we should be playing up all the horrors and how real people would react when facing such. The latter was the answer, but not said with confidence. This was what I guessed, since the Finnish rpg scene has been very partial to character immersion and such matters, presumably due to the connection to the Nordic larp scene with similar emphasis.

We went to the ship, communications died, the ship seemed empty, we poked around a bit, saw a human figure, there came tentacles that hit someone who failed rolls and was obviously (to the players, not the characters) infected by them. My character failed their sanity roll and there was a random roll of insanity; I get something to the effect of delusions or paranoia or combination thereof, so gleefully started playing that my character saw the others as faceless humanoid tentacle monsters, too. I escaped to a life boat, tried to hide there, kicked the others and threatened them with a flare.

The game master seems a bit frustrated over the course of events and has my character fall unconscious by fiat as some kind of beam hits her head. As befits the situation, I don’t remember much about the rest of the game. It ends with the characters in a life boat, with some tentacles rising from the sea. We thank the game master. There is some after-play talk and the game master says something to the effect of having hoped that we could defeat the thing. Well, that is precisely what I asked at the very beginning, now wasn’t it? The game was okay by my standards, anyway, but the game master felt a bit disappointed.

, , ,

13 responses to “Cthulhu called – was the keeper happy?”

  1. Convention Games

    Convention games are adventures in their own right, never knowing who will show up. And that is exciting, but it can lead to games not going the way everyone wants. Was the adventure a published one or one the GM had written for themself? 

    • I remember no discussion of a

      I remember no discussion of a published adventure, so I guess it was custom.

    • I wonder if that had

      I wonder if that had something to do with how they characterized play for the adventure.  Really just speculating on my part. 

      But an adventure I write for a convention is going to be personal and I have a personal stake in people liking or enjoying it. That can affect GM behaviors. 

      I say that especially as I am currently working on 2 adventures for 2 upcoming conventions and trying to apply good design ideas and also form a certain emotional distance from them.

  2. Try so succeed, but embrace failure

    I sympathize with your question to the GM, and think it points to a possible problem with CoC or a certain type of RPG culture.

    In the CoC adventures I've played and run (many years ago), the GM expected the players to struggle … and then gracefully accept and even enjoy defeat.

    So you try to complete the mission and experience growing dread at the futility of your efforts and approaching loss of  control of your PC (when he goes technically insane and becomes an NPC — though I don't remember if that's what the rules actually say).

    I'm neither defending this set-up nor saying there is no other way. Apparently, this GM expected you to try your best and was willing to let you succeed — or fail (which I find commendable) and presumably had an appropriate scenario.

    As for his answer, my guess is that he did not want to be tagged as not being into 'proper roleplaying' (portraying various emotions like panic, not going for optimum tactics etc.).

    • It might have been that I

      It might have been that I overplayed the character's delusion and thereafter their will to just leave the situation.

      I think the game master did not use force, aside from having my character go unconscious by fiat, but that was to retain party unity (essentially), so qualitatively different from forcing a certain outcome in a traditional party-based play paradigm.

      You might be correct about the last comment concerning what I would say real roleplaying.

  3. Honesty, terminology, and ritual

    For a while, I thought it was best to keep my opinions out of this topic, but then again, I also respect the reflections and it seems rude not to acknowledge them. For anyone reading this, try to see it as "Ron at this site" and not "Adept Play owner & operator."

    Who knows what precisely happened at the table or inside any participant's mind? That's not the issue. The important topic is what was said between them, the nature (or construct) of their communication about play. All I can do is compare it to similar instances, for example …

    • "I'm all (or only) about the story."
    • "The imagined reality is everything, it has to be real to me."
    • "Just go ahead and play your characters, what happens, happens."
    • "It's not about winning."
    • And hundreds of others

    All of which I've seen instantly and completely vanish during play with the very person talking, or rather, "vanish" isn't the right word because the stated aim, whatever it may have been intended to mean, was never there in the first place. GM or player or in-between, depending on the system, doesn't matter a bit.

    Talking about role-playing is riddled with dishonesty, most of it probably "innocent" in that literally misleading the other person may not be intended. I think it's related more to ritualizing the activity, or establishing social bona fides for participation, or in some cases code for some other behavior or way to participate.

    There are many, many subtopics: e.g., whether "playing my character" implies complying with GM plot-signals or proceeding as if there were none; whether the concept of "challenge" is an invitation to subvert the contest or to strive within it (we are, after all, dealing with a cult-like regard for that stupid Kubayashi-Maru backstory); and other such mix-ups of what the various words even mean. I'll stay at this most generalized or encompassing level.

    At that level, I'll tell you something: I no longer believe a fucking thing that someone says about how they play or what they want out of play. it may be borne out in play or it may not; if borne out, then it may mean what I thought it did, or it may not. The one thing I know, always, is that a person will play in some particular way during the session, and they do want something out of it.

    In phenomenological discussions, if we're talking about "purpose of play," then the single thing that needs to stay out of the conversation is some personal proclamation, or worse, some statement ascribed to a third party, especially an abstract one. ("What about the people who …?" Me: Oh, shut up.) Or, as is more relevant here, if we're talking about a given upcoming session of play, then it's best to stay color-forward and mechanics-clear, and to see what happens.

    • Hey Ron,

      Hey Ron,

      whether the concept of "challenge" is an invitation to subvert the contest or to strive within it (we are, after all, dealing with a cult-like regard for that stupid Kubayashi-Maru backstory)

      Could you explain the parenthetical note? I found Kobayashi-Maru on Wikipedia, but I don't know what is the backstory you are referring to, here.

      On the more general level, there are about four people, maybe a few more, with whom I have a fair degree of trust that we can talk about what we are trying to achieve with roleplaying, in a given game.

    • Serves me right for recording

      Serves me right for recording a Star Trek presentation at the Patreon at the same time as writing that. It's not necessary for my point.

      Let's not proceed further down the rabbit hole, and end with my reply: I'm referring to the refusal to engage with the tactical parameters that are presented, and instead to find some way to sabotage, invalidate, or overturn the overall contest. The positive version displays admirable lateral thinking and the refusal to accept a mandated loss condition (even for an opponent). I suggest that the negative, infantile version is widespread across pop/geek culture, especially since a memetic label was provided in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

    • Okay.


      This reminds me of the two possible reactions to a mathematical word problem: Try to solve it as a mathematical problem or try to talk one's way out of it by embedding it in a realistic context and using that context to invalidate the problem.

      The desirability of the response is different within and outside a mathematics classroom.

  4. CoC

    I hear stuff like this all the time from CoC players and Keepers, but there's little in the way of mechanical incentive to NOT fight or flee when you run into the the bad guys. In this regard, Call of Cthulhu is still a D&D-like adventure game, albeit one in which the players can anticipate going up against an ancient red dragon by the end of the first session. Sanity is just mental hit points, and it behooves the players to be able to run fast or carry lots of dynamite.

    • That’s a good point. The only

      That's a good point. The only imagined or creative touchpoint is "Lovecraft! Cthulhu!", which lost any aesthetic criteria decades ago. When the game was first published, the mass of popular references, parodies, movies, games of all sorts, plushies, and basic "Chthulhu-ness" of fandom didn't exist.

      If my reading of the 1980s scenario material is correct, the source references were independently-known and rather heartfelt by the participating players and GMs, rather than being summarized and discovered via the role-playing texts. Therefore whatever each person brought to the table regarding the source material and its relevant applications was a real thing, of interest to all the others.

      It might also be relevant that, as with fantasy and science fiction of the time, almost no one had a truly complete knowledge of the literature. Therefore if one person were more familiar with, say, the Dreamlands stories, then it would matter a lot for that table and would be appreciated.

      This is of course no longer the case and hasn't been the case perhaps in the entire experience of many people reading this. Now, it's circular, given weight or jolts only through particularly theatrical presentations in convention games (which are now basically dinner theater without the food) and by Monte Python like referencing throughout play. In this context, then yes – Sanity is just hit points.

    • Ron, I can confirm your

      Ron, I can confirm your reading, at least for my group. Your comment made me thinking about how we (my group) played in the 90s

      CoC was our main game and my main experience of discovering RPGs, we played a 5 years campaign from our 11 years to our 16, almost exclusively playing CoC – it was 1991-1992. I remember very well that we used to read lovecraft a lot, a prerequisite from our 12 years old GM, who had the integral works. The library facing the school also had bilingual Lovecraft books, and it also helped us to learn english! 

      We never played the long and famous global campaigns such as Masks or Orient Express, but we played a lot of the official adventures and we never left Miskatonic Valley. I know that we played all the adventures of the core books (4th and 5th ed) of Arkham Unveiled, the Tales of Miskatonic, Kingsport and Dunwich, and .. really a lot of Dreamlands intertwined with all this. I think they are all 80s scenarios. I also remember the GM gave us things to read, according to the adventures, pretty much like the advice in Sorcerer and Sword. I could sum up the whole 5 years experience in this sentence: "Wait.. Is it a dream this time?" (a phrase that would trigger a sanity roll every time we aid it).

      We were a group of  five players, and two of them were really into the Dreamlands novel, specially the GM, while three of us were more into the Charles Dexter Ward and Horror Dunwich stories. I'm not sure, but really the globe-trotting campaign never appealed to us, and we didn't play in Innsmouth so much. I remember we plaied nothing in New York, and if I remember well, it may be due to the fact that none of us like the Red Hook story.  In fact, I remember very weel that playing in New York or Australia would have been very strange to us, while we were passing a few of our time fearing Dunwich, and most of our time in Kingsport, where our character all moved permanently.

      Your comment only realize know the link between how we engaged a lot with the source material and how we brought it at the table. I also remember that we talked a lot about the source material for its own sake, because we liked it, not just "the material of the game", and that we read almost everything lovecraftian (Campbell, etc.), but also a lot of Edgar Poe's novels and Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil (who is Poe's french translator). I think Poe was how we discovered Baudelaire (which means … Lovecraft > Poe > Baudelaire). And now that I think of it, this Poe/Baudelaire has been hugely influencal in how we played the game, and I can't separate them from my head. For intance, we started with classical noir clichés (we were very young, we did a lot of clichés!), such as an alcoolic PI, but the more we played, the more we seen those kind of 19th-20th anti-heros romanticist stereotypes, prostitutes in love, passionates poets doing bartending to pay the rent, etc. Maybe that's why we ended up playing Kingsport, and we didn't like Arkham so much.   

    • Hey Jared,

      Hey Jared,

      I wonder how well the game would work if played honestly as a problem-solving game, with the full knowledge that the problems are terrible and will probably make you insane or kill you.

Leave a Reply