Friday 18 March 2011

Running a Call of Cthulhu pbem - Part Two

So, you’ve got the players, you’ve agreed the rules and the characters are rolled up. Now – what do you do next?

There are two choices here – either pick up a pre-written adventure or start off with one of your own. If your players are new to Call of Cthulhu, it might be an idea to ease them in slowly with something that you can customise and adapt to their playing styles as they emerge. I found with my Majestic Hotel scenario (home-brew) that this worked best. Your mileage may vary. And as we shall see next time, this is not as much work as you might think it is.

If the characters don’t know each other, the Keeper needs to work with each player, checking out the character rationale and history in order to get an idea of what might hook the character into embarking on this investigation. A player can play a character best when they believe in what they’re playing.

“Wait, wait!” I hear you cry – “I thought Old School was all about exploration rather than developing character, and anyway, why should my players develop characters that are probably going to die within a few days?”

Rest easy, my friend – Call of Cthulhu, as we’ve already discussed earlier, is atmosphere-heavy. In a game environment where the feel of the setting is paramount, the degree to which the players believe in their characters and identify with them makes the job of the Keeper easier when it comes to creating an atmosphere of fear and unease.

So yes, for this game, a degree of character history is not only a good idea but also contributes to the way the game develops.

So, the hook. To begin with, the characters will not know each other and, if the players are new to the game, neither will they. This is a perfect opportunity to ease the player into the scenario - they may even meet another player without realising they’ve done so. For some time, they may believe that they are entirely on their own, suspecting everyone they meet and everything that happens to them. Good – this is just the attitude a player needs to develop if they’re to survive any length of time in CoC.

A case in point – my Majestic adventure was set at a luxurious ski hotel high in the Vermont mountains. I wanted to get the characters there but didn’t want them in the CoC equivalent of “you are sitting in a tavern when a mysterious stranger approaches you…”. I checked each character’s personality and history and from that, extrapolated reasons why they should want to go to the hotel, without knowing what was lying in wait for them. One character was a gangster, who was informed that a fugitive from mob justice was staying at the hotel and was told to go there, dispose of him and recover stolen money. Another character, a socialite with money worries got a letter from a friend saying a mutual acquaintance worked there and was looking for entertaining after-dinner speakers. A third character who worked at a coffee shop had let it be known in his character bio that he was looking for another job and so he got a call from the restaurant manager who was thinking of starting a coffee outlet to respond to impending Prohibition.

All three characters now had a reason to attend the hotel without knowing that the others were also on their way.

With a group of characters that already know each other from earlier investigations (yes, some characters do last longer than one adventure) the job is made that little bit easier. They have common history, may have discovered horrible secrets during their last adventure (which might need following up), possibly acquired artifacts whose history may develop to generate new hooks. The individual characters are now a group with, it is to be hoped, a group loyalty and commonality of purpose. It may be that effectively, the next adventure will more or less write itself.

What does this mean for the Keeper? Well, it means that he needs to hook only one of the characters and the rest will follow. If he wants, the other characters in the party can have hooks that either complement or clash with the main party mission – that will make things interesting, especially if everyone is following their own agenda.

As we’ll see later in this series, establishing a miniverse of your own into which the various adventures can be set, and within which they can be adjusted and amended, gives a fertile bed from which new ideas and hooks can arise.

One final point – I’ve been discussing home-brew in this post, which is easy to amend and adjust to the different histories and motivations of the characters. Pre-written adventures are that little bit harder to use in this situation because they often supply their own hooks and suggestions, which may not necessarily fit the characters and anyway, are very general in order to maximise the adventure’s playability. They may also be structured in a particular way and amending one thing makes the rest of the structure that little bit more wobbly. The Keeper needs to look long and hard at the introduction to these scenarios and, if necessary, throw away the suggested introduction and write a new one that will draw the characters into it in a way that make them feel as if it couldn’t have happened any other way. This is completely okay and develops the Keeper’s creativity, imagination and attachment to someone else’s scenario.

One final, final point – even with all this hard work and character motivation, it may be that the players don’t take the bait. You have two choices at this point – coercion and conciliation. (There is a third choice, which I’ll come to shortly). No player likes to feel that they’re being pushed into something; being the contrary types they are, they may even decide to rebel and derail anything the Keeper brings to the table. Players of Call of Cthulhu may, if the Keeper is doing a good job, become rather paranoid and any hint of compulsion will make them believe that Shoggoths or sinister cannibal cultists are waiting in that seemingly innocent apartment…

Conciliation can work if the players are handled correctly although the Keeper admitting that he would really like the party to do X undermines the atmosphere and verisimilitude of the adventure and the campaign setting – the best horror stories are those when the characters blunder into something that quickly unfolds into a nightmare scenario. Not knowing what you’re getting into is part of the game, and – some would say – the best part.

The final option, if the players seem obdurately determined not to take the bait is to walk away, figuratively speaking and do something else. As we shall see next time, this is not always a bad thing – in fact, in some cases, it may be the making of the adventure.


  1. Good thoughts. Your suggestion about having player's detail their to create greater investment, and therefore fear, is particularly insightful.

  2. I'm liking these posts, particularly because I'm planning to start a Play-by-Post campaign for my D&D/Pathfinder campaign I'm running, mostly for players who don't have the time to meet for the in-person game any more.

    I've never done a PbM/PbEM/PbP game before, so one thing I'm curious about it combat. I know there isn't a lot of combat in Cthulhu games, but (at least in the CoC games I've played), there is some. How do you handle that in a PbEM game? Or are you going to deal with that in a future post?


  3. Great series! We've been having a lot of fun in this little miniverse. Starting the Majestic adventure was my first time playing CoC although I was pretty well read when it came to horror and Lovecraft. I've really enjoyed the atmosphere of the game and our focus on story and character development, even though we know that our characters could be short lived. This second adventure also seems like it could be pretty interesting...

  4. We're rapidly heading towards interesting.....

    The agents of Azathoth have been tampering with that online dice roller thingybob and hampering the Scooby Gangs efforts....B-)

  5. Oops - forgot to say I'll be mining some hints and tips from this for what we're doing now......

  6. Damn the agents of Anathoth! Damn them to hell. I knew it wasn't just my crappy luck!