Friday 11 March 2011

Running a Call of Cthulhu pbem - Part One

Last week, I posted a long list of links that I had accumulated during the seven months of being the Keeper for a Call of Cthulhu pbem. This week, I want to start posting on the insights and ideas that I came up with over the same period.

These eighteen areas of play will, I hope, outline a method by which an aspiring keeper can set up and run a CoC pbem and do so in a way that is very close to sandbox. Some of these ideas may be obvious to certain readers, but others may find them informative and insightful (I hope).

I began with a very simple premise and then let the actions and reactions of the players guide me as to where the adventure went. The game that resulted from that was a very different one from many CoC games inasmuch as there was no predetermined adventure outline and goal as there often is with published modules. I think that this gave my players the flexibility to explore the setting and feel that what they did made a real difference.

So, without further ado, let us address Point One:

A lot of bloggers have commented, whenever the subject of Call of Cthulhu comes up on a blog post, that they love the game and would dearly like to play it, but cannot find players out there. As I have mentioned on a couple of occasions, CoC is probably one of the best games for running by this method. Combat-light and atmosphere-heavy, a sandbox version of it is almost a horror novel that writes itself.
The blogosphere is, therefore the perfect place from which to recruit players who don’t even have to be in the same country as their Keeper.

So, if you want to play, put the call out. See who responds and once you have the right number of players (which in my experience is usually about three or four), you need to move on to establishing a few ground rules for the way the game is going to play out.

Ensure that everyone knows what to expect from - and what they need to give to - the game. This may need formalising if the players are new to each other. Many players, if they have never gamed together, will have different styles and ways of going about things. A short e-mail from the Keeper to establish some protocols will serve to make everyone aware of what will happen and how. The sort of thing that this e-mail will cover will involve such things as regularity of updates, reply times, house rules and variations to the rule sets that players may have, secure dice rollers, etc.

A mention also needs to be given to the period in which the game is going to be set. When CoC first started out, the Lovecraft era was taken as a given, but now there are a great many different settings and periods and some players may have a preference that differs from other players or the Keeper. This needs to be established before play can begin.

If the players are already known but the game has a new Keeper (our campaign has rotating Keepers for adventures), the agreement may need to be changed. The new Keeper may not have as much computer access as the old one, they may have a busier lifestyle or may have a different take on certain rules that they want to discuss. The accession of a new Keeper is a time of change and a good opportunity to renegotiate.

As an adjunct to this, the Keeper needs to ensure that everyone knows when the next session is going to be. If you have got into the habit of updating the game every day and there is going to be a hiatus, let the players know when you anticipate being able to update things again. E-mails have been known to be less than reliable and an email sent and not received is indistinguishable from an email not sent. Request Read Receipts if there is any hint that an internet connection is less than reliable.

Real life has a habit of intruding into game space and holidays and prolonged periods of absence need to be communicated – to all players if the Keeper is going to be off line, and to the Keeper if a particular player is going to be absent. Sometimes, however the interruption is unexpected, and in order to cover this, the Keeper may need to NPC a particular character until that player is able to take up the reins again. Generally, the agreement of players for their characters to be NPCs under the control of the Keeper or of another player is contained within the starting agreement.

If a player’s character has to be run as an NPC, this works best when the action is fairly low-key and no dangerous situations are expected. Pounding the streets and talking to beat cops, librarians or the local priest require little in the way of life and death decision making. When things start to get hairy, either contact the player and explain the situation or have another trusted player make the rolls and decisions. The player may wish to supply a set of stock actions that their character will take in the case of danger and this can be handy in determining what happens in such a situation.

Once everybody knows where they are, what they are doing and how they are going to do it, ensure that they have a copy of the rules or, at the very least, a copy of the Chaosium Quick Start rules. They can then get their characters rolled up and equipped.

It may be an idea for the players to run their ideas for characters by the Keeper before the game starts. The reason for this is that, to begin with, players will not be communicating with each other, only with the Keeper (for obvious reasons – their characters have not met yet) and therefore have no way of knowing the characters that others have chosen. The Keeper will be able to judge the make-up of the party and guide players if he thinks that a combat-heavy or research-heavy party is developing. As with all parties, a broad spectrum of skills and specialities is best equipped to deal with Mythos eventualities.

Well, we’ve covered the initial logistics of setting up the game and establishing protocols. Next week, I’ll be discussing adventure hooks and the first session of the game proper.

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