Saturday, 7 January 2017

Why so Cthulhu?

So here's something Dan said to me over the extended gaming weekend that was my New Year:

"I'm surprised just how into Call of Cthulhu you are."

And that got me thinking. Why am I so keen on Call of Cthulhu? Or, to take a step back, am I especially keen on Call of Cthulhu? And if so, why and in what way?

A suuuper quick precis of my gaming history. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks aside, I first encountered the concept around the age of 12 when I was on holiday in the states and bought a copy of Dragon magazine. Over ten years later I started running D&D 4th edition for some librarians, and a few months later was finally invited to try out a tabletop RPG. Since then I've played a few White Wolf one-shots, quite a bit of D&D, various random one-shots and playtests, some Warhammer 40K, and a moderate amount of Call of Cthulhu. I've also listened to podcasts of and read the rulebooks for a few other systems, like Traveller.

I've run one short campaign, which was D&D 4th edition and based around adapting existing scenarios. I've written a scenario for 40K that I haven't yet run, as well as a game about lizards. When I have ideas for future games, they are generally for Call of Cthulhu.

Call of Cthulhu is what I tend to default to, and I'm working this out as I go along. Broadly speaking, there are factors which tend to make me actively gravitate towards it, and there's also more passive reasons why I just find it a comfortable fit.


One of the things that I think Call of Cthulhu genuinely has going for it is the system. It is simple, reasonably robust, reasonably genre-appropriate, and broad. It takes almost no effort to understand the mechanics well enough to play ("this is a percentage, roll under it"), and not much more to memorise most of the rules. Character generation is quicker than most other games and choosing names frequently seems to be the bottleneck.

I enjoy games with much crunchier rules too - both Warhammer 40K and D&D are much more complex. But if I want to throw someone into a situation and just get on with it, or to start playing myself, Call of Cthulhu is the most straightforward option.

It's also flexible enough that you can use it as a rough approximation for a very wide range of settings. It doesn't handle all genres well (in particular, anything heroic tends to fall down on the combat, and it's not crunchy enough to be tactical) but you can use almost any setting. Modern day? Historical? Ancient world? Future? Traditional fantasy? Gothic? Cyberpunk? You just need to tweak the skill list to get something that's useable. I'm not saying it will be great - I'm saying it will do.


Call of Cthulhu is often used as an investigative game, and I find that tends to suit me. I am an inveterate prodder at game realities, and as a player I frequently find myself having to bite my tongue to avoid roleplaying a detective. I always want more information, to try out theories, to see what happens.

Call of Cthulhu has several advantages here. Firstly, it's often played explicitly as an investigative game where you are trying to puzzle out what happened, which makes it a great fit. Secondly, because it's usually quite an ambient experience rather than one where you're in constant peril, there is usually a lot of room for asking questions, testing out theories, and going to gather more information; while there are situations where "let's just try my idea" will get you killed, they're relatively few compared to a combat-focused game.

For what it's worth, my limited experience of White Wolf games was that they also offered a satisfying amount of room to play around with ideas and with in-game abilities in creative ways.

A third aspect is that the setting lends itself to quite thorough investigation, because the mysteries you're solving tend to be weird enough that eliminating the impossible isn't always a good idea... while fellow-gamers don't necessarily want to indulge quite as much as I often do, Call of Cthulhu tends to get them more onboard than many other games.

Source material

Obviously, Call of Cthulhu is broadly based on the work of HP Lovecraft and associated folks. I quite like these. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself an actual fan, honestly. There's plenty of problems with both Lovecraft's stories and those of other people. Lovecraft had a whole bunch of prejudices, and in a way his taste for short stories made it difficult to get into the work as deeply as novel authors allow. The related works are a very mixed bunch, divergent in genre (Clark Ashton Smith is a different beast from Howard, Derleth or Lumley, for example) and in focus. Some authors are keen to write genuine horror, which I flee from with alacrity.

Still, there's something in it which appeals to me. There are mysteries, and slow unfurling writing full of description (keen readers may have noticed my own verbose tendencies) and fantastical events. I like the old places, and the ancient tomes, and the peculiar people, which appeal to me far more than, say, reading about men with guns being manly.

Genre knowledge

Tying into the last point, I think one of the reasons Call of Cthulhu does genuinely appeal to me more than many other games is that I have a much better grasp of it. It's one of the few games where I actually know the source material, in many cases better than everyone else I'm playing with, and feel I have a good grasp of what I'm doing. This is because Call of Cthulhu is based on books.

To cut a long story uncharacteristically short, my family were never great TV watchers and we didn't even have a TV for most of my childhood. Between that and other factors, I just never got into TV. I could say that I was reading instead, or doing school clubs, both of which are true, but honestly I've just never developed the habit or skill of watching TV. In the pre-iPlayer days I was rarely organised enough to reliably watch a particular show. Nowadays I'm too skittish and sitting down to watch something for an hour feels like a huge investment of precious time - I prefer something that feels less passive.

The end result of all this is that I am, for a nerd as big as I am, spectacularly unversed in most of the mainstays of pop culture. I never watched Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, Xena, Ally McBeal, Twin Peaks, Seinfeld, Frasier, Law and Order, Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills, The Fresh Prince, Byker Grove, Dawson's Creek, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Shield, The West Wing, any police procedural whatsoever, any soap whatsoever - I can't even compile this list without reference to Google because I don't even know what the shows are that I didn't see. I saw a handful of Futurama episodes at university, caught up with Firefly on DVD years later, and somehow managed to watch a good proportion of the episodes of mid-run Buffy. I did see quite a bit of Dr Who on video, and found the resurrection of the show disappointing enough that I lost interest years ago.

Similarly, I never really watched that many films, and the ones I did see tended to be fairly light-hearted and family-friendly. I did, however, read ferociously, mostly in the areas of nonfiction, fantasy and sci-fi.

And all this means I am equally spectacularly at sea in terms of the tropes of most of these things, which is a real problem because most role-playing games seem to either be specifically based on film and TV, or at the very least to be heavily influenced by them.

The RPGs I find easiest to grasp are Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer 40,000. I really don't think that's an accident. All three are primarily based on books (yes, even 40K - the game itself consists of books, which have fluff in them, and there's lots of tie-in books too). I am familiar with a lot of the stuff behind all three. Traveller I've still never played, but it feels like it could fit with the fairly dry and hard-but-not-annoyingly-philosophical tone of a lot of the books I read in my younger days.


In terms of actually playing in or running a game, Call of Cthulhu has another big advantage in that it's a real-world game. This it shares with World of Darkness, though that gameline massively dilutes its advantage with an incredibly complex layer of supernatural stuff.

When you're starting out as a player, you don't need to know very much specific. It helps if you have a rough idea how the period you're playing in works, but even that can be worked around. You do know how the real world works, and have a broad idea of how things like shopping, social interaction, law and order work - especially given some narrative wiggle-room. The weirdness of the setting is specifically an unexpected and alarming element which is disruptive to the PCs, so you're not actually required to know anything about that ahead of time.

For the GM, it's also a boon, because it's really easy to run. You can use real-world locations and history, and improvise rapidly based on actual facts you know about reality. It's easier and quicker to guess plausibly how a certain NPC might behave, or how a town might respond to some bizarre events, than it is to make a similar judgement about a fantasy world. You can use actual maps to decide where players can go, rather than having to invent new locations on the fly. Plus, the players can use their understanding of real history, science and so on to follow what's going on; they don't need to have read up on the metaphysics or magic laws of your setting, and have everything patiently explained to them "which your character would already know, of course".


I think this ties in to a more general point that I find Call of Cthulhu relatively easy to GM for.

I feel like I wouldn't even know where to start with a D&D campaign, and I'd have to invest a huge amount of effort to create a situation that might be playable in order to dangle it in front of potential players. And I'm sure any of the people I game with could run a better one. Maybe I just lack confidence. I certainly enjoy playing D&D, and I've actually got the broad strokes of a couple of worlds from my 4e campaign, but coming up with all the geographies and combat and faction motivations seems like a lot of hard work. And it must be said, so far everything I've suggested to the usual group has been met with absolute silence, so not a lot of encouragement over there.

Writing a single scenario for Call of Cthulhu is a relatively limited feat. Okay, okay, yes, I admit I personally end up putting preposterous amounts of work into writing really robust investigations over long periods. But the principle stands! You can come up with one idea, play around with it and see if it seems to have any meat on it. If so, you can flesh it out as a standalone scenario and then stop. There isn't the same expectation of presenting a long campaign that some other systems have. I think the absence of an XP system is one of the factors here; because doesn't offer the satisfaction of gradual increase in power and new exciting abilities, there's less expectation of long-term play.

Also, Call of Cthulhu is legendarily fond of prewritten adventures. I've only actually run a couple, but there's a widespread acceptance of them in the gaming community. You can GM by selecting, reading and running prewritten adventures, rather than writing all your own material.

If you do want to write scenarios, though, I think the "real world, but with weird elements" makes it really accessible. All you really need is one weird spin. I've got a huge list of ideas waiting to one day be scenariofied: they're inspired by things ranging from weird stories, to stories in a completely different genre, to purely mechanical challenges ("can you write a scenario where X?", to historical and political events, to slightly odd stuff that's happened to me in real life, to nursery rhymes, to advertising.

I've written an entire scenario based on a photo someone posted on Twitter. I think it's genuinely good.

I just don't have the extensive genre knowledge or game experience to comfortably write scenarios for most other systems. I'd want to play a hell of a lot more White Wolf, for example, before feeling I had even the slightest idea what to do with them.


Finally, it's probably worth accepting that a fair bit of the reason is purely circumstantial.

My friends include several very experienced GMs who can easily run a long and satisfying D&D campaign. Since my own foray collapsed for timetabling reasons, there's been no reason for me to try. Those slots have enough D&D in them already and it's better than I'd do.

Besides the regular online gaming, most of my games consist of irregular weekends of board and roleplaying games. These are of uncertain duration, and it's unpredictable how many people are available - usually three, sometimes four, occasionally two (including me). Experience of trying to run D&D on a roughly similar model was very poor. However, these are good occasions to try a one-shot that lasts four to eight hours. Of the games available, everyone is reasonably keen on Call of Cthulhu so it makes sense to run that. We sometimes experiment with other one-shots, but there's not huge enthusiasm and of course it's a lot of upfront time investment learning a system.

Because I live a long way from my existing gaming groups, I have limited opportunities to play or run games, but plenty of opportunities to think and write about them. Call of Cthulhu lends itself well to this because it's focused on prewritten scenarios, and because most of the game content you need consists of NPCs and clue chains rather than combat. Writing up mysteries is, I think, more satisfying to do than writing up potential combat because you can put together a coherent whole situation, whereas with combat it's all hazy until the sword hits the goblin.

If I write a one-shot for Call of Cthulhu, I'm reasonably confident that at some point I'll be able to find players for it. That isn't the case for campaign pitches, as that requires a lot more investment from everyone and is competing for a very limited amount of weekly gaming space.

I have a suspicion that if I'd come into gaming via a different group of people, I'd be happily running around with White Wolf and a fistful of storygames.* I do like mechanics; I like crunchy games and simulationism and worlds I can poke. At the same time, I like satisfying narrative and tropes and acting and silly voices. I'm a big reader, I've done some acting, that could be me.

And if storygames didn't all seem to be so freaking miserable.

Now it could well be that if I decided to sit down and write up a load of D&D campaign notes, I'd be able to come up with something worthwhile. It's a tough first step though, and one I've never really felt the encouragement to try, because given my current gaming setup I'm not especially optimistic I'd ever get to use it. I mean, I like the idea of running another D&D campaign, but I also like the idea of being toned and muscular or writing a novel. So far, none of these seems likely.


  1. I agree with pretty much everything you've said here.

    I favour GURPS over CoC because it does a slightly better job of adapting to the sort of game I like to run (which often has lightweight special abilities in the hands of the PCs), and particularly because it offers a lot of options for modelling personality quirks that many games relegate to "oh, you can just roleplay that". But if I could never run GURPS again I might well end up with something vaguely CoC-like.

    The scenarios I've written for YSDC games days have tended to come out of "here's an interesting setting, what Cthulhoid twist can I put into it".

    1. I've found your YSDC scenarios very effective so far (though I'm still waiting for Still Bennies to go up, I think?). I'm trying to think now... I think my scenarios in general tend to come from either a short story (or specifically a situation), a striking image or a sort of thought experiment.

      - "Perishing" is a heavily modified rip-off of the premise of a short story
      - there's a scenario I want to write based on an advert I saw once
      - one of my back-burner scenarios is an attempt to write a Lovecraftian scenario where nothing strictly bad happens to anyone

      I have the GURPS quickstart but haven't got round to running anything with it yet, mostly just because we've already got rulesets that do most of the things we tend to play. I quite like special abilities myself for flavour and a bit of a spin, and I think it's nice the way a light sprinkling of that sort of thing can highlight genre and tone well.

    2. Hmm, yes, looks as if PoC hasn't put Still Bennies up yet.

      Ideally I like to have two or three disparate inspirations which I can then jam together. (Bad TV and film is very good for this, because that's often what they did - so one can easily rip out one subplot and plumb it into something better.)