Supernatural Horror – Lovecraft (2) The Cthulhu Game

When I last bothered to do a Supernatural Horror in Gaming post—last week’s doesn’t count—it was about Lovecraft.  I was reading a lot of Lovecraft at the time, and figured it would be the first of several posts on Lovecraft and gaming (or, rather, Lovecraftian gaming); most of all, while the tropes and recurring themes of the Mythos work are useful, they’re not clear-cut helpers for running a horror game. As we’re counting down to Halloween and the witching season, it’s time to get the old horror cogs grinding again.

A Cthulhu game is a very different animal from most roleplaying games you’ll run or play in. While there are any number of flavors a Cthulhu game can come in—the characters can be pulp heroes, or D&D adventurers, or elite military operatives—the tried-and-true formula for Call of Cthulhu is normal boring player characters, who may or may not have horrible secrets, who stumble upon something much larger than themselves. As everyday working-class joes, the players don’t have access to mystic spells or ‘mecha or the big guns; they have to survive by their wits and through teamwork together.

Neither of which usually happens, of course; most Cthulhu games are one-nighters or short tournament games for conventions, since that’s all the time needed for the characters to die, go insane, and murder everybody else, hopefully in that order.

People tell me you can run full-length Cthulhu campaigns; I’m kind of skeptical. Between the fragility of the characters, and finding 2-6 players who are interested in the methodical, oppressive grind of the Mythos, I just don’t see it going on for years and years. Not that I think it wouldn’t be fun, but it’s hard enough to find people interested in a space opera game, much less “let’s play ‘you’re a speck of dust in the eyes of these all-powerful extraterrestrial entities, and will probably go insane and die from learning a fraction of their secrets,’ mkay?” Your group may prove me different; power to you!

Choose Your Style: The Characters Have A Chance!

There’s been a movement in recent years to make characters more capable, closer to pulp heroes. The Mythos monsters can be killed, or at least subdued for another millenia, or otherwise driven off before they finish eating the world. The two-fisted protagonists can still die, depending on the GM, but they at least have a chance of success. A lot of games with Mythos aspects also fall into this genre: it’s hard to imagine D&D or Pathfinder characters falling to their insane deaths, unless the module is built that way, and CthulhuTech walks the fine borderline between oppressive-depressive and awesome anime heroes.

This is another style of game entirely, and a lot of purists don’t see it as truly Lovecraftian: Lovecraft’s horror was the realization within people that they are nothing more than insignificant specks of dust, lost in the void where greater cosmic powers shake the rafters of the heavens.

Choose Your Style: Grand Theft Normal Boring Life

The standard Call of Cthulhu game puts the characters as normal people: nothing out of the ordinary, nothing too powerful. We’re talking average joes here, bartenders and teachers and whatnot. The Mythos horrors are even more deadly and powerful when the insignificant specks of dust are insignificant specks to the rest of the dust cloud. In theory, characters are less likely to try action-movie heroics when they’re playing pencil-pushers; in reality, when they do, their lackluster characters are unable to pull off anything awesome.

“Gaming the system” and making a soldier or cop won’t actually help; when that character inevitably goes insane, they’re just giving the GM even more fodder to kill the other characters—firearms and/or explosives. The way to game the system is not to play: no matter what the players make, the GM will have some trick up their sleeve. Players may think that having big guns is an asset, but when they go insane (or get corrupted), the other players may think twice on their choices in life.


All Cthulhu games share one general theme in common: investigation. The characters will, at some point early on, hear about some strange occurrence or organization, and will (hopefully) hit the books. It may sound dull—and it is a reason people don’t like Cthulhu games, because they spend so much time researching things that won’t matter shortly since they’ll all die—but it is a stable trope of the genre.

There are some advantages to doing all this research. Knowing what they’re going up against could be a major asset to the PCs, if they choose to pay attention and plan accordingly. It may also be a chance to learn some of the antagonists’ weaknesses: maybe the ancient voodoo cult was terrified by a certain symbol. Or maybe the players could get a bonus to some rolls against the bulbous horror (which would work really well in, say, tactical high fantasy; I’m thinking of the archivist class from Heroes of Horror here).

Madness and Sanity

A central theme for Lovecraft, and something most games latch on to. There’s lots of fun little bits to play around with here. You can always describe the world in more and more nightmarish tones as the characters’ sanity drips away. And it’s fun to play the paranoia card: if someone has something they’re hiding, have the less-sane characters notice it. Or perhaps have someone find something that could be read as incriminating another character. The less sane the characters are, the more reason you have to give them ideas that their companions are actually working against them. Work that inter-party conflict; it’ll come out eventually, when the characters go fully insane.

Characters that Hate Each Other

Speaking of paranoia and party conflict… many great Call of Cthulhu adventures feature pre-generated characters with pre-generated reasons to hate each other. Long-standing hatreds, jealousies, phobias or disorders. Some adventures have intricately detailed histories of why the characters are so messed up, why they hate one another so much, or other reasons to build party conflict. The best one I’ve seen was from one of the World of Cthulhu magazines, where the characters were inbred country folk on a rural island village. Each one had a very grim past, filled with dark secrets; some were jealous of other PCs, while others had personal reasons to hate someone else.

Trust and mistrust are two of the most important tropes to horror, and two that come up the most in a Lovecraft game. Any reason to not trust another PC is another reason the monsters will win: if the party’s focusing on screwing each other over, or are too preoccupied with other things, they’re not going to be looking into the dark for monsters. And are going to be much less likely to do the “working together” parts necessary to survive.

Nobody Believes You

Let’s play What If. What if you uncovered some dark, foreboding secret about that traveling religious group that recently set up shop in town, revealing tales about human sacrifice and elder gods coming to destroy and slaughter, finding all sorts of horrible truths about this outwardly friendly group of pacifists? And what if you took this information to the authorities: the first harness bull walking the beat that you run across, or perhaps the lieutenant at the station itself? What would happen?

Most likely, you’d end up with a breth test on the spot, followed by a night in the slammer to cool you off, and a drug test to boot. Or they might laugh at you to your face and shove you aside, continuing on. Or they might send you to a psych ward, and you’ll end up in… a sanitarium. Or, if you’re really unlucky, the chief of police is in on it, and throws you to the wolves—in this case, the cult you just stumbled upon. And you already know how that’s going down.

Which is why it’s never a good idea to go running to the authorities in a Cthulhu game. Either nobody will pay attention to you, or something bad will happen, be it a $20 fine or death by cannibalism. The only option is to keep delving, looking for more evidence (and a good contact to unload it on), or to prevent the cult’s goals by your own power.

Baiting and-or Switching

Probably the biggest problem with a Cthulhu game: if you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. The first time players run through a Cthulhu game, they expect something other than what they’re in for: sure, it’s got a legendary reputation for character-slaughtering, but would is the GM cruel enough to really… Oh. Apparently so.

After the first couple Cthulhu games, your players probably won’t be looking forward to another one: the goal isn’t exactly to kill their characters, but that’s what happens nine times out of ten. (Unless you’re being very, very nice and softball the hell out of everything.) On a macro level, people are investing a lot of time into the game, and not all players it “productive” or “fun” to continually play in campaigns where they already know what’s going to happen.

So, the first rule: if the characters don’t want to play a Cthulhu game, either don’t run one, or better yet, don’t tell them it’s a Cthulhu game. At this point in time, you can find a roleplaying game in every flavor with elements of the Mythos in it: Cthonian Stars and CthulhuTech for science fiction; 4e D&D and Pathfinder have elements for tactical high fantasy; Trail of Cthulhu and Realms of Cthulhu for pulpy “heroic horror.” If you don’t want to pull a complete bait-and-switch, run one of the pulpy, action-heavy game where players not only have a high chance of survivability, they also can allow the players to save the world.

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