Sunday, October 02, 2011

Call of Cthulhu

Now that I'm back in the UK (where I actually have a few friends and some semblance of a social life) I thought it would be fun to run a Call of Cthulhu (pen and paper RPG) game for Halloween.

The one fly in the ointment, however, is that I'd never run, or even played in a Call of Cthulhu game. I'd read the rulebook and flicked a couple of pre-made modules, but as for actually running or playing a game, it was all completely new to this past weekend, I conscripted Sunny to play through a shortish module purely as a play test, so Sunny could be introduced to the system and I could try my hand at getting used to running it.

The first thing I discovered is that the Call of Cthulhu system is a bit of a double edged sword. Once you've actually rolled up a character, the actual game is very 'rules light' with more or less everything working on percentile rolls. For example, if I put 80 points into my character's handgun skill, that means my character has an 80% chance of hitting whatever he's shooting at... and this is simulated in game by rolling 80 or less with percentile dice. This means that it's incredibly easy for a brand new player to get into the game without having to learn a bajillion different rules.

The reason I say this is a bit of a double edged sword is because the simple rules system means there's far more of a focus on the roleplaying element of the game... and while a focus on roleplay can be a good or bad thing depending on the group, a lot of roleplay is almost universally a bad thing for newbies.

Why? Because, not to put too fine a point on it, roleplaying can be embarrasing as hell.

When you're used to it, roleplaying is fun and can be the absolute best part of the game... but when it's your first time around the table and your character gets introduced to the party... and you suddenly realize that, in front of people who may be complete strangers, you actually have to talk and act like your Arnie-inspired Barbarian's perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable.

For example, even though we've been married for seven years and know each other about as intimately as it's possible for two people to know each other...when our game started and I began talking to Sunny as Barney Drum, proprietor of the Lobster Pot Inn...and Sunny realized getting information out of Barney meant actually questioning him and not just rolling a diplomacy check...she immediately got embarrassed. Luckily, she got over it pretty quickly, and by the end I think she was really enjoying getting into her role as a Private Investigator.

Anyway, now I come to think of it, maybe the CoC system is a triple-edged sword, because while the game is mechanically easy for the players, things are pretty hard on the DM.

If you're usually the DM, think about how many characters you actually have to roleplay in a single session of a DnD game. Usually the number stays in single digits, and a lot of the time a lot of the NPC's don't have to be 'properly' roleplayed at all.

Basically, in a DnD game, it doesn't really matter if the barkeep has no real personality because unless he's critical to the plot, he's just background color. For example, when the players ask him if there's any rooms available, you can say "What's that, young feller? Yer need a room? (cough, cough, snort) Well, yer lucky because we got jus' one left. Did yer know that the Duke himsel' once stayed in that very room? That was in the days when I ran this place with my Angie, gods rest 'er...oo's Angie ya say? Well I'm glad yer arsked..." Or, you can say "The barkeep tells you there's two rooms available for 10 silver a night each."

On the other hand, in the CoC module I ran for Sunny, there were no less than 20 NPCs and around 15 of them where absolutely crucial to the plot. Like most CoC modules, the plot was a supernatural mystery and, for the first half of the game, everyone is a potential suspect...and midway through out game I realized that this means each NPC needs to have a distinctly recognizable personality... which means 20 different voices, along with verbal tics and mannerisms... because if your players can't even tell who's who, they're probably not going to solve the mystery either. Oh, and you need to put in as much effort on the totally unimportant shopkeeper who has two lines of bio in the module as you do for the actual murderer....because if you don't you're immediately tipping your hand to the players about who is important to the plot and who can be ignored.

Also, unless your characters are interesting, your players aren't going to be motivated to talk to them...which was a minor problem in our game. As I said, Sunny's a bit naive when it comes to gaming and doesn't realize that if I put a character right in front of her and hint heavily that she should talk to this character that there's a reason for it. After a lot of subtle hints, I straight up suggested that she should go and talk to an NPC who seemed overly upset at a funeral (so she could discover that the NPC had been having an affair with the deceased)... and Sunny looked straight at me and said "Why would I care?" She didn't speak to the character and missed a major clue.

That, without a doubt was a failure on my part. I can't blame Sunny for not meta-gaming to deduce this NPC was important...I just hadn't introduced this character in an interesting enough way to get Sunny invested in any way shape or form. To Sunny, this NPC was just a boring old lady crying at a funeral.

The only other thing that gave me a bit of a problem was the combat...which, quite frankly, is very 'realistic', unforgiving and brutal. In CoC, if someone shoots you in the face with a shotgun, you don't knock off a few hit points and shoot them back on your next die...and even if by some miracle you survive, you may be alive, but you've just been shot in the face with a shotgun. You're not going to do much but lay down and scream.

Basically, when you play a CoC game, you don't necessarily have to solve the mystery or vanquish the bad guys. It's technically a win if you escape with your life or with your sanity intact

I won't bore you with the plot but, during the game, we got to a point where Sunny was supposed to get a glimpse of the reanimated corpse of her friend that the Big Bad was using as a puppet to murder people. Now, before the game, I'd warned her how combat was treated 'realistically', and told her that the basic rule of thumb is that she should react in game in the same way she would in real life.

So, Sunny's knocks on the suspect's door and hears a blood curdling scream from behind the house. She draws her gun, circles around the house and arrives in the back yard just in time to see the zombie literally rip a woman limb from limb.

Now, in my head, I thought the encounter would go like this: Sunny sees the zombie, opens fire, sees that her bullets have little or no effect, so she turns and runs...if she doesn't just run away immediately. If things got hairy, I had a redshirt NPC with her to ensure she could get away.

Instead, I describe the scene, ask Sunny what she wants to do and the conversation goes something like this:

Sunny: "Well, there's no point shooting at him, he's already dead."
Me : (hinting like crazy)  "Well, you have your gun in your hand, you've just seen this figure in the gloom tear this woman's arms off...wouldn't you fire a few times anyway?"
Sunny: "Not if he's already dead."
Me: (hinting even more) "Remember what I said before the game? If this happened in real life, do you think you'd have the presence of mind to think that logically? Also, the whole supernatural thing is new to you...would you immediately think 'zombie' or would you think that maybe the guy wasn't really dead or maybe that this is someone pretending to be him?"
Sunny: "No, I saw his body before the funeral and I know it's him...and a bullet's not going to do anything to a dead guy."
Me: (getting a little desperate) "Not even out of panic? maybe you'd try and knee-cap him?"
Sunny: "What's the point if he's dead?"

At that point, I came to a realization. One, that Sunny picked up meta-gaming really quickly. Two, she can be as dense as radiation shielding when she wants to be and, three, I was breaking the golden rule of DMing by trying to railroad her. Just because the encounter wasn't going the way I expected didn't mean I should force her into an action to get the game back on the rails.

What I could do, however, was let the zombie attack first to teach her not to hesitate during combat.

I don't mean that in an evil DM way... Sunny is almost totally inexperienced and therefore a little naive when it comes to gaming, so I figured I'd do one combat round, which would result in a near miss or a minor hit...then the redshirt would get the zombie's attention and scream at her to run.

Basically, I wanted her to learn a lesson: When you're face to face with a superhuman zombie, you either shoot or don't stand around agonizing over what to do.

Turns out I should have read the stats for the zombie a little closer before  the game.

You see, I knew that the zombie only had a 40% of hitting so I figured it was going to miss anyway.

I made my attack roll. I needed less than 40 to hit and I rolled a freaking 2...a critical hit.

I immediately regretted not bothering with a DM screen. As competitive as Sunny is, if she got the slightest hint I was fudging things, even in her favor (especially in her favor) she'd probably quit playing right then and there.

Well, I thought, the Zombie's only clawing at her, how much damage can claws do?

I looked at the stats. It turns out that claws can do two d6 damage plus a bonus d4 for the critical hit.

Did I mention that Sunny's character only had 14 hit points?

So I rolled. The dice came up 6, 5 and 2.

In case you're math impaired or all that 'd6' talk was greek to you...I wanted the zombie to miss, or just inflict a minor hit. Instead it had essentially ripped Sunny's character open from shoulder to hip and immediately rendered her unconcious.

In CoC, there's no 'instant fix' healing spells. You don't spend healing surges until you're all better. When you're injured, you regain something like 3 hitpoints per 'd4 game weeks'... plus, there was the small fact she was unconcious, rapidly bleeding out on the floor and there was a murderous zombie literally on top of her. It was game over.

Of course, as she was the only player and I really wanted to finish my play test, she awoke a few days later in the small town's Doctor's office... which resulted in some really interesting situations as the town doctor was a major suspect.

Anyway, if this was a review, I'd say I really enjoyed Call of Cthulhu and I'd highly recommend it as a nice change of pace from the more rules-heavy systems out there. It also strikes me that the game is highly can add or remove skills from the character sheet easily and the percentile system means you're never really stuck flipping through sourcebooks for rules. If a character wants to try something unexpected that isn't covered by the rules, all you have to do is estimate the chances of him succeeding and tell him to roll. Basically, you can remove all traces of Lovecraft's monsters and just have a great system for running a straight up mystery or adventure game. In fact, the only thing the system's really not good for is DnD style dungeon crawls.

Having said that, this system is really for players who like to roleplay, so it's only worth bringing out if you're playing with a group who are completely comfortable with each other. If you're not willing to get around a table and spend most of the evening in character, CoC probably isn't for you.

1 comment:

Sunny said...

SHE SAID*"I really enjoyed playing CoC too...
It became a LOT easier for me to role-play a P.I. when I realized that it really wasn't that different than my actual JOB in the states. While I was at my last site- I was in charge of three investigations that occurred on my shift. CoC was a LOT easier(mainly because I didn't have to do any of the paperwork involved in a REAL investigation! WIN!!!!!)
I just had a bit of a hard time with the "realism" factor.
And yeah- I don't like being "spoon-fed" hints when I'm playing a game- but the first run thru an RPG like CoC or D&D I don't mind it a bit. It helps me to get used to the game. Also- I SUCK at guessing "who Done its". That's the reason I don't read Mystery books. I'll certainly WATCH a mystery on TV- but it's NEVER EVER been who I thought it was.
I think in CoC, I'll need to change up a few of my % points for some skills. A couple I chose would be perfect for a RL P.I. but are completely USELESS for an RPG P.I. Me being an inexperienced player and not knowing what was involved I was thinking too RL and not enough RPG. So I defo want a DO-OVER on the skills please.
Now- the game really DOES make me over-THINK about what I want to do- cause if I'm hurt or die- that's it- like you said- you don't have "spells or healing surges" you can use- and the healing time is WELL LONG- just like RL, altho with much less physical pain. ;-)
Anyway- Just thought I'd let everyone know what MY take on it was too. So, in a nut-shell, I loved it- and would LOVE to play again. We gotta get a regular group together.
Hmmm...I wonder if Fargo, Claudia and WW are available....??? Maybe Martin and Faye, too.