A Session of Squamous

So I got the chance to run a Lovecraftian-style scenario at this past weekend’s con, using the rules-light system Squamous. The scenario was inspired by some actual events around an oil company building a pipeline through indigenous land, but I changed the location, and changed the name of the tribe involved to something fictional, so as not to give inadvertent offense to anyone.

I used my usual dialectical method to come up with the details of the scenario. Some of the local oil company executives in charge used sorcery to arise to their positions of power, and when they became upset at the protests by the natives, they summoned a shoggoth to remove the leaders and terrorize the rest of the community. Unfortunately, their control over the shoggoth was limited, and it would eat a few extra people now and then. All the local community knew was that some protesters had mysteriously disappeared; a resident drunk would talk hysterically about seeing someone get eaten, but he was ignored.

I made some pre-gens, and they all had in their background that they knew a particular person who’d recently gone missing, Hannah, and were either a relative or close friend of hers. The backstory (which they didn’t know) was that Hannah was in hiding, but not eaten yet. She obtained documents showing the local police chief was corrupt, bought off by the oil company, and threatened to expose him if he didn’t allow the indigenous protests. The Captain alerted the oil company (TransWorld Oil), who sent their thugs to grab her. She escaped, and is now hiding in the forest.

The PCs went looking for Hannah, and at one point searched her apartment. Now some oil company goons had been watching her place, and burst in, hoping to kidnap the PCs and interrogate them to find out what they knew. Now Squamous’ system is very simple, but has a couple of good ideas mixed in there, inspired from a number of other games. One such rule was that for initiative, the players make a Nimble (basically agility) check, and those who succeed go before the baddies, those failing go afterwards. In practice this worked very well, I thought. Now, the problem I ran into was that the oil thugs didn’t want to kill the PCs, but to take them captive – and Squamous had no grappling or non-lethal rules. So I made some up on the spot. Basically, instead of causing a wound you could grapple the opponent, limiting their options and giving them a penalty; if they didn’t escape a subsequent success would give the grappled foe a further penalty, and then you could render them helpless.

One of the attackers tried to grab the PC sorceress, but she successfully cast some damaging spells on him. The other attacker grabbed the other PC and had her in a hold, so she couldn’t do anything but try to escape or attack at a penalty. She tried to attack and succeeded, slamming the thug’s shin, but he maintained his hold and brought her down to the ground, effectively pinning her. Then the PC sorceress tased him with the taser she got off the enspelled attacker, and the thug collapsed. The PCs then got out of there before more goons could arrive.

The other issue I ran into was in the battle with the shoggoth. The fight itself worked fine – it was nerve-wracking as one of the PCs was swallowed up by the creature and barely managed to get out; the sorceress went insane, and the other PC was down to one wound by the time they dispelled the shoggoth. But the problem was the rules for banishing the creature were very sparse – it looked like you just spent the sanity points and that’s it. That was way too easy and anti-climatic for me, so I added in some prerequisites: they had to surround the being with salt, and one person needed to chant a spell for three rounds first. When the shoggoth grabbed a PC, dragging them through the circle and trying to absorb them, it caused some consternation.

One element the players enjoyed using was Resources: you could spend a resource point to have an item you need, or to gain some other benefit; in this game, a player used a resource to have a contact in the local police department.

Squamous has some rules for recovery, and advancement. Advancement is entirely about improving effectiveness.

My thoughts on the overall experience of running the game: I like the very rapid learning curve, and the rules included a couple of gems I’d like to continue using in other games. Now, to go a bit deeper: my main interest in roleplaying games is seeing how characters react or change under pressure, when meaningful decisions have to be made. In general, I like the Lovecraftian genre because the pressure can quickly become quite extreme, the decisions and consequences momentous, and the change in the characters profound. Most of the time, unfortunately, the play culture around Cthulhu-related games doesn’t support the play I personally enjoy – scenarios are more like dungeon crawls, PCs die or go insane and are quickly replaced without fanfare or anyone caring much. That can be fun sometimes, but I usually want something different. For me, I want the game to primarily be about the *characters* and how they change or not (or about us discovering who they really are), not so laser-focused on solving the scenario’s problem.

So as I reflect on this game, I wonder to what extent a particular game system needs to focus on facilitating this type of play, and to what extent this type of play just naturally happens when the people playing want it to. Sorcerer, it seems to me, puts the focus on the character basically all the time, and when your kicker is resolved or the sorcerer dies the campaign is over. In Finding Haven (a WIP of mine), you can fail a roll and as a result start having doubts about a friend, or change a belief about yourself. In Squamous by contrast, you can get hurt, lose sanity, and that’s it – and if you do die, you can have a new PC up and running in a couple of minutes, and the game can continue without a hitch.

There’s no explicit rules in Squamous saying you have to care about what happens to your character, or even list what it is they want or value. But suppose as a group everyone does. The rules don’t actively prevent me from playing it the way I like – as one example, in this game session, we had a good time after the action was over making epilogues for the PCs, describing how the events affected them over the coming years.

Anyway now that I’ve written this out I’m realizing I don’t really have a specific question; “what rules facilitate character-focused play” is probably too broad to be answered. But I’m interested in any further analysis, thoughts, or experiences y’all have on any of this. Did you ever have to make up rules on the spot? If so how did it go? Have you ever taken a rules-light game like Squamous and used it for more character-focused play? If so how did you do it, and was the result satisfying for you?