Saturday 9 April 2011

Running a Call of Cthulhu pbem - Part Four

This week, I’m dealing with a very handy tool to make the administration of a pbem much easier. I’m talking of course about Obsidian Portal.

Those of you who have used OP already for other adventures can vouch for the fact that it has few equals as a repository of information for adventures, useful for both players and GMs.

The way in which OP can be used for a pbem differs depending on the type of pbem that you’re running. If, like our group, you are using rotating Keepers, i.e. a different Keeper for each adventure, then the use of OP’s Secret Information Facilities is going to be very difficult, if not impossible. However, if you just have the one Keeper, then the ability to store information and keep it hidden from the players, who only get to see one aspect of the wiki page is very handy.

With Call of Cthulhu run sandbox-style, there needs to be a record of a great many details which, in a tabletop version of the game would just slip by if the players didn’t immediately take them up. Bit-part characters can be created and there is a fluff and crunch format that allows biography in one section, stats in another. Since with an evolving plot, it is very difficult to tell in advance who’s going to be the lynch-pin of an adventure, access to details on various characters, even the supposedly minor ones is crucial.

If you as the Keeper are setting up the wiki, it is important to let the players know where it is and how to get into it. They should be encouraged to check it out and familiarise themselves with it. The Keeper should not touch the character detail sheets unless consultation with the player has been conducted. Likewise, the players can alter details on things like the events log and the wiki pages but should not unless there is a very good reason, e.g. the Keeper has misremembered something, and even then agreement should be gained for the alterations, otherwise it becomes a free-for-all and the value of the wiki is diminished thereby.

These are two sample pages from our OP wiki.

And this is from a wiki that I respect and admire greatly - Cthulhu Supremus Est. This guy knows how to use OP very well indeed and the results can be seen here.

Used well, OP can be a very stimulating and useful tool. It brings a campaign to life in a way that little else can – it also means that new players can mug up on the past history of the campaign without having to get a twenty page update from the Keeper or be forever wondering what the in-jokes are all about.

A Question about Combat
A couple of weeks ago, Martin Thomas asked me the following

"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?"

Well, Martin - the rule book does give some very clear rules on how to handle combat on the table-top and pbem is very similar in that respect – order of fire, damage, hit points, time to reload, dexterity and its effect on who goes first (I won’t quote page numbers because it’ll be different for each edition). It’s best if players and Keeper establish a baseline at the start of the adventure for which rules they’ll be using. This saves arguments in the heat of the moment.
As for dice rolls, we used a mixture of Secure Dice rollers and manual methods to work this. The Secure Dice roller seems to have a mind of its own when it comes to generating scores – I’m sure I’ve failed more rolls in this current adventure than I ever did rolling by hand.
Regarding the scene of the action, I find that a quick sketch map of a room or cave or whatever with the positions of characters and NPCs can be scanned in and e-mailed to the players – this makes sure everyone knows who is where and who can hit whom.
I found that with ammunition and shots fired, it’s best if both Keeper and player keep a record of this so that arguments can be swiftly settled if they arise.
As with all the game’s systems, what applies to the good guys applies to the bad guys, who have the same vulnerabilities and the same limitations on ammunition and combat skills. Remember that combat is very dangerous in CoC – one good shot can take out a much-loved character and that’s before we get into the horrific damage that even the low-level monsters can do. Of course you could always do what one of our players did and construct your own blast bomb out of oil cans and shotgun cartridges. That seemed to work okay.

Next time I’ll be looking at a very frequent occurrence in Call of Cthulhu – character deaths and how to handle them.


  1. Amen about the Secure Dice Roller, that thing seems to hate me at times, especially when a certain librarian is present. It did pull me through a couple of tight spots at the majestic...

  2. That seems to be a problem with dice rollers in general. For example, Dicelink is stuck on "4" (No-one, at that pont) when I roll to see if someone was hit accidentally because of a miss, but rolls 1s and 2s for damage with d4s.

  3. There have been a couple of occasions in the current one we're doing where if I'd taken the results of the dice rollers as sent to me you'd have all had a nice supper and gone home

    (perhaps that would have been better....mwhahaha).........B)

    But I digress one of the advantages of the pbem is the Keeper can go away for 12 hours or so, consult his notes, have a think about who might know what and drip feed a clue from another source to keep the action moving......that and a couple of bright ideas on avenues of investigation.

    The good thing about playing with you guys is how the characters interact with NPCs and surroundings - I still cant get the idea out of my head Arturos is similar to where Gene Hunt and co go after work in Ashes to Ashes!