Friday 16 July 2010

Crawling out of the computer - Cthulhu pbem!

For the past two weeks or so, I and three others – Old 4 Eyes, Dungeonmum and Rich Hart from Gaming on the Precipice have been conducting an experiment.

We wanted to know if it was possible to run Call of Cthulhu by e-mail. Given that we live in different countries (and time zones), a live game was out of the question and at least two of us have had great trouble finding players in our locales. Pbem seemed to tick everyone’s boxes – in theory - but would it work in practice?

The experiment has, I am glad to say, been a resounding success. Complete with Chaosium’s Quick Start rules plus (in my case) a Fourth Edition rule book snaffled from ebay for a shockingly low price (woot!) we have been having a whale of a time. For me, it’s almost like having a group of friends sitting round the table with their dice, pencils and paper. To quote Dungeonmum

“This is my first PBEM, got to say what you lose in immediacy you gain in retention of information and the ability to prepare and roleplay properly. I think I'm enjoying the real world setting more than I would a fantasy one, feels like we're really travelling back in time!”

I’m the Keeper for this particular adventure (instigator’s privilege) and possibly more that might follow until the others in the group feel confident about taking up the mantle of Keeper themselves.

Call of Cthulhu is, to my mind, a game that cries out to be run by e-mail. It needs that slow and steady increase in tension and menace. It needs the feel of epistolary communication. It eschews the vulgarities of combat, the administration of which can so often slow a pbem game down.

In order to be able to craft and refine the playing experience, the Keeper needs that little bit more time to prepare, research, polish and finesse his game. In this particular game, I’ve been adding vintage pictures of scenes and characters to give it that period feel.

In terms of game mechanics, I also find that pbem works very well. Players can communicate with each other almost as easily as around a table, and if a player wants to keep discussion between themselves and the Keeper secret, an e-mail is a damn sight more discreet than passing a note or going into another room. Information is written down, readily to hand and speaking of information…

…I’ve also created a wiki on Obsidian Portal, where I am exploring the possibilities. It’s a very good game aid and an excellent resource (thanks to Chgowiz for steering me to it). I’m listing as much as I can in the wiki section so that any other member of the group who wants to run an adventure can refer back to stuff that’s happened previously and is therefore canon.

And I’m also delighted to say that the adventure has an official chronicler – yes, Dungeonmum is blogging up the experiences of her character in her own and most excellent style.

We hope to be able to expand the number of players for the next adventure, so I’ll be looking to recruit a couple more brave investigators who fancy probing the mysteries of the Old Ones and their evil doings.


  1. I've never played Cthulhu, so this is an outsider's question - how well does e-mail communicate dread, fear etc.?

  2. I've never played a proper PBEM RPG, for that matter, so my ignorance is broader than I first suggested.

  3. It all depends, I suppose, on the GM's writing ability. Having read quite a lot of horror fiction (and of course HPL) the written word does encourage the imagination to work hard to summon up the images and sensations. Visual representations of horror (a lot of modern filsm) often resort to shock and gore to obtain the same effects.

    And reading, of course, is a solitary activity. I don't know where you are as you read this but I'll wager you're on your own. The communal nature of face-to-face gaming defuses a lot of the tension that a GM might try to build up. There are more distractions in a group (which work against conjuring up images in a player's head)and there is that little reassurance that your friends are there, and it's all a game. The GM who can work up a sense of real fear in his players (and not just an 'oh XXXX, my character is going to die') is a rare bird indeed.

    I'm sure that as the adventure goes on, my players will be better able to answer your question.

  4. I've played Call of Cthulhu face to face exactly once ....more years ago than I care to admit...B-)
    The narrative style of Call of Cthulhu seems to lend itself well to PBEM for me at any rate, an email update every 24/36 hours or so isnt demanding, though I seem to have developed a paranoid streak since starting this campaign and I make sure to read everything twice
    Its been an enlightening experience for me being blissfully unaware of the early part of the 20th Century after losing interest in the "Causes of WW1" when doing A levels!

  5. I've never played in a CoC campaign before - but I'm having a blast. It really does lend itself excellently to PBEM. I really dig the horror genre and Lovecraft so this game is a pleasure for me. It feels like a really interesting walk down historic America - with tentacles :)

  6. Glad everyone is enjoying it. Lots more eldritch goodness to come!

  7. PBEM has been a very pleasant surprise:

    There's no time constraints, no table and snacks/minis/dice etc to set up, no waiting around for someone to turn up or get disappointed when they can't make it.

    Reading a description is far more atmospheric than hearing one read out to you by a DM who is usually someone you know well.

    Role-playing a character is much more believable as well, I can hear my PC's voice in my head but if I had to reproduce it myself it would be plain embarrassing or descend into farce and detract from the game.

    Above all it is thoroughly FUN. I heartily recommend it.

  8. Lots of tentacles....and eyes.....B-)

  9. I have been looking for info on CoC PBeM for a while, and this is the best source I have found.
    Thank you for posting it.

  10. @G - check out my post on sources for the game

    and keep an eye out because once I finish this particular adventure, I hope to run a series of posts on tips and guidelines for being a successful pbem Keeper.