Friday 15 April 2011

Running a Call of Cthulhu pbem – Part Five

Ever wondered why so many Lovecraft stories involve the protagonist hurriedly writing a scribbled account of his experiences while the eldritch horrors are closing in?

The answer is simple – said protagonist is the last surviving player in the game and the Keeper doesn’t want his adventure to stall. Some unsuspecting soul, probably the doomed one’s nephew or colleague or best friend is going to find that scribbled manuscript waiting for him and think

“Ah nuts, another TPK!”

It’s a truism in Call of Cthulhu that if you don’t run away, you’ll end up dead. Actually, you’ll end up dead if you DO run away if that monster is faster than you. Probably should have started running earlier.

Generally, however, if the Keeper is doing his job right, a TPK should only really happen in Call of Cthulhu if the party is dumb enough not to run away if the signs are bad. If they do all the right things, make preparations, take a truckload of ammo AND run away as soon as the tentacles appear and still die, then something’s wrong with the adventure.

The aim of a Call of Cthulhu adventure is to scare the party witless, give them a hell of a good time while this happens and maybe, just maybe somebody will die if they’re dumb. Setting an adventure up so that even a well-prepared party has no chance is verging towards Killer Keeper territory. If the party doesn’t spot that they had no chance and were doomed from the beginning, they’re going to hang around in KK territory for a long time.

Chances are that a Killer Keeper wants the party to see just how awesome his final set piece showdown is. He’ll have gone to a lot of trouble to set it up (not having read Part Three of this series) and is looking forward to showing everyone his horror chops as he devours, mutilates and generally trashes the hapless band of investigators.

Of course, it might not be that bad. A Keeper might not realise that he should spare the axe if the party has done everything it should have done. In my Majestic adventure, the party (and this is probably the first time I’ve admitted it) never got to see the Big Bad. Encounters with crazy hillbillies (oh, and green slimy tendrils, which was a bit of a hint as to what they might meet later) were enough to persuade them that the hotel should be given a One-Star rating and probably set on fire. In fact, one of them tried to do just that. But when I realised that they were not going to take that final journey into madness and nightmare, I stayed my hand. They were having a great time and I went with the flow. Many parties will look back on the narrow escape that they had and thank their lucky stars that they didn’t turn that corner, open that crypt, read that book. Of course, not having defeated the Big Bad, they won’t regain any SAN points but hey, that’s the price of life!

Another important thing to consider when talking about mortality in CoC is that when designing an adventure, or even sketching it out in a very rough form (which of course you all do now, don’t you, after Part Three?) a Keeper should remember one thing that is certain about life in Call of Cthulhu – anyone can die. And often very easily and very unexpectedly. Yes, the character may have been stupid and yes, it’s a great shame and a tragedy to boot but death is likely. Very likely. So likely in fact that it’s a very bad idea to structure an entire adventure on the assumption that a particular person will survive it or live long enough to carry out a particular task. Or that a particular scenario or instalment of the adventure can only be solved by a particular character’s particular skill. If only one character has the ability to telepathically see through solid objects and you’ve taken this into account when setting up the fiendish death trap in the cellars of Count Morbidius, then that character had better still be alive if the party is not going to be in deep doo-doo in said cellar.

Hanging the entire adventure, or salient features of it, on that particular character being in possession of all their body parts means one of two things – either the adventure is going to nose-dive rapidly after the Grim Reaper has come to call or the Keeper is going to have to move heaven and earth to keep that character alive, and that means taking delivery of a wagon load of fudge. It’s much better to avoid this before it happens.

Okay, I hear you cry, I’ve got a really dumb party and things look as if they’re heading towards a TPK – they’ve not run away or, perish the thought, their Internet dice rolls have gone really badly. What do I do?

Well, if the party hasn’t quite reached that situation yet, I’d recommend that you advise them all to do the ‘doomed investigator’ routine and scribble down their notes on the adventure so far, leaving them somewhere that somebody can find them or mailing them to their back-up character (of which more in a moment)

If they are all in the cellars of Count Morbidius and something has gone very badly wrong, then I would personally handwave the scribbled note phenomenon for just this one instance and advise them that you’ll be adopting it as a house rule next adventure. They won’t have to say they’re doing it, you’ll just take it as read that they are.

Back-up characters – as smart a move as taking a clean set of underwear to an abandoned crypt under Boston. It’s generally a good idea to have said characters tied in to the current characters in some way – colleague, nephew, friend, parish priest, investigative reporter, that sort of thing. Linked but not too closely. This gives the new character, who may (I wonder why?) be coming into the adventure at very short notice an almost instant hook. By the time the adventure has finished, said character will have perfectly legitimate reasons for hunting down the horrors from the Outer Darkness.

Is it a good idea to have a player bring a new character into an adventure that is half-over if his original character has been killed? I’d say it depends on the player – if you know the player and feel sure that he will run that character without using foreknowledge or information known only to his original character (this is assuming that the OC didn’t leave a log of his doings) then fine, there is no real reason why not. Leave a believable amount of time for the new character to appear – not minutes after the OC has hit the ground, torn to pieces by a Byakhee.

The other plus about having a back-up character is that, even if they are never actually needed to step into the breach (or, let’s be realistic here, there is a slightly extended period of waiting for them to do so) they can in effect have a little life of their own. The Keeper can, with all due respect to the player whose character it will be, contribute events and happenings (interesting but not fatal) that the back-up character can experience. They may even write to the current character to tell them about it. That’s what I call pre-emptive hooks. Nothing too strenuous but enough to give them a link to the current party and perhaps a bit of backstory and knowledge that they can dip into if they need it. With the pbem’s miniverse evolving as you play, this is another facet of the bringing to life of the setting – making it all that much more believable and realistic.

Next time, I'll be smelling something fishy - red herrings and how to make the best use of them.


  1. When I ran Horror on the Orient Express, the entire party had been recycled at least twice by the end, using a very similar method to this. It was only after I'd finished the campaign that I realised that the entire playing group -- myself excluded -- had also been recycled.

    Good picks on Un Lun Dun and Kraken, by the by. I'd say the latter is more Unknown Armies than Call of Cthulhu, but a Keeper will still get a lot from it.

  2. Unknown Armies I'm not familiar with - I'll have to check it out. The sheer macabre inventiveness of Mieville's imagination is staggering, and I sometimes find myself reeling from a surfeit of riches when I'm reading it.

    I hope there's a sequel to Un Lun Dun - I really did enjoy that one.

    I wonder how long it will be before parents start threatening their truculent children with Goss and Subby as deterrents to bad behaviour.

  3. He is a great world builder; each one of his books could easily be a campaign setting in itself. I have The City & the City to read next, and I'm looking for more of the same inventiveness.