Friday 1 April 2011

Running a Call of Cthulhu pbem - Part Three

This week, we’re going to be looking at a way to reduce the amount of work that a Keeper needs to put into the game.

For many, Call of Cthulhu is a very linear game. The investigators probe Mystery A, get clue B which leads them to Mystery C, and so on until Denouement Z, where death, insanity or (possibly) survival await them.

This is the format which many, but not all, of the published scenarios embrace. Even those which do not follow a strictly linear path nevertheless intend that the party arrive at a certain point or the world will end/R’lyeh will rise/Very Bad Things will happen.

What I propose is, to be frank, a sandbox Call of Cthulhu. Although there may well be a sketchy idea in the Keeper’s mind of where he wants the adventure to lead, it needs to remain just that – sketchy. In this version of the game, nothing is firmed up further than perhaps two steps ahead of the party’s current location in the unfolding narrative. You will remember what I said in an earlier post about the game being almost like watching a horror novel write itself? Well, the narrative structure in sandbox CoC is exactly that – only becoming fixed once the party has actually done what they are doing. Before that, there are a number of different outcomes for any particular course of action. It’s a bit like a role-playing game designed under the Copenhagen Interpretation.

So, the Keeper needs to stay two steps ahead of the party and no further. To do otherwise would lead to an explosion of possibilities which few Keepers have either the time or the energy to handle.

It’s usually fairly easy to work out the possible outcomes of a single course of action and make plans for them. Indeed, the advantage of the pbem format, with its turnaround time of days rather than minutes is that the Keeper has the time to react to what the players do and the time to prepare new material and new avenues of investigation.

Of course, what the Keeper needs to remember is that the party should be under no obligation to pick a particular option, even from a limited number of offered alternatives.

One of the disadvantages (if indeed it can be called that) of working this way is that some of the material developed is never used – I’m afraid that this is just the way the adventure goes. There is always the option of recycling stuff that doesn’t get its day in the sun.

This is a perfect example of why it is not a good idea to plan too far in advance. No doubt you’re a creative person who puts a lot of effort into your game. Without some form of self-restraint, you may become overly enamoured of your creations and go out of your way to ensure that your work is not wasted – we’ve all done it in the past. If you have not done the work in the first place, the temptation to railroad the players into it is avoided.

Part of the fun of CoC pbem is the thrill of watching something new and unexpected develop. Flying by the seat of one’s pants sometimes generates the sort of game developments that might never result from endless planning sessions and careful deliberations; it’s like automatic writing – you’re tapping into something in your subconscious, raw creative energies that come coiling out of you, living and breathing. You’re laying story-larvae – don’t smother them, watch them grow!

In order to make sandbox CoC work, the miniverse in which the Keeper’s game is set needs to be introduced into the developing narrative landscape of that game. If hints, mentions, suggestions, fragments of mysteries and events connected to - but not necessarily immediately germane to - the adventure in play are slipped into conversations by NPCs or even the format of newspaper clippings, a network of hooks, ripe with potential can be developed, from which the players can make choices – and meaningful ones at that.

It takes a certain amount of mental flexibility to adopt the sandbox approach to CoC. Some people like to know where they are going before they set out. Others get nervous at the amount of work they think is needed for this approach – although we have seen that this is not the case. Others like to get very creative with all elements of the adventure they’re writing and then become locked into that because they have an urge, understandably so to let the players experience their creation in all its glory.

So, Keepers need to pry their fingers off the handlebars, so to speak, and maintain the lightest of touches on the future of the adventure. This is not always an easy thing to do, especially for those who have come to CoC from the adventure path end of the gaming spectrum. Nevertheless, the rewards are immense – players really do feel as if they are masters of their own destinies. The converse of this, of course, is that they have no-one else to blame if they fail.

Of course, much of what has been written in this post will make using pre-written scenarios very difficult, unless you are the sort of person who views the booklet in your hand as a starting point, nothing more, and feel yourself under no obligation to use all of it. If you are, that’s fine. Take it, dismember it, gut it, fillet it. Throw away (or store for later) the bits the party just don’t seem to want to know about. Scribble your own notes in the margins, change the names, change the towns. Download your own pictures. You’ll be amazed at how quickly someone else’s material becomes your own.

Next time, I’ll be talking about a very valuable tool for keeping tabs on all these adventure elements.


  1. Now I know how your evil mind works.

    Reading that Copenhagen Interpretation lost me a few San points.

  2. Welcome to my world! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

  3. I tried this, but it pretty much died on its arris. At least one of the players wanted more structure in his Cthulhu games, but all of them had difficulty with following hints and leads under their own initiative. The game didn't collapse, but everyone sort of lost interest.

    That said, it was a tabletop game, so there are different dynamics involved. At least some of the problem was irregular attendance, although the sandbox approach was designed to combat this issue!

    Oh well. I'm keen to see more of your thoughts on this as I think it could work, but it was just beyond me.

  4. @Kelvin - this is a common problem with players, I find. I designed a sandbox module a while back and asked Dungeonmum's group to playtest it. It was basically a "there's your landscape, now get exploring" but they were totally fazed, coming from a "Here's your mission for tonight" style of play.

    I think maybe as a part 19 for this series, I should hand things over to my players to give some advice to other players on how to play in a sandbox. In fact, it might be illuminating all round, since there is an awful lot of advice on the OSR blogosphere on how to DM a sandbox but precious little on how to be a player in one.

  5. I think that would be an excellent idea!

  6. Very interesting post. I actually have been using this method for my PbP Castles and Crusades adventures for a long while. Your paragraph on this method requiring "mental flexibility" is totally true. PBEM and PbP does allow quite a bit of extra time vs. table-top gaming for staying ahead of your players. My favorite part of this approach is thinking of all the possibilities for the game direction to take and waiting to see what my PC's will choose to do.

    Really enjoying this, keep it up!