Call of Cthulhu is its own monstrosity. As it lurchs up from the seabed, this system breaks the shoreline and demands a different storytelling method from its game master. In Dungeons and Dragons, players find themselves in a dungeon with reaching the monster at the end as their goal. It asks the players, “How many die rolls will it take to beat this monster?” Call of Cthulhu asks instead, “What if that monster cannot be defeated; even worse, what if that monster cannot even be comprehended?” The game master, officially referred to as the keeper, has a unique challenge ahead of them when designing a Call of Cthulhu campaign. The climax of a campaign is often deadly, but there needs to be more to a session for the players leave satisfied. This buildup of tension is pivotal to Call of Cthulhu, and it can be difficult to create. Here are five tips for making that challenge a little bit easier.
1) Design Your Encounter Backwards
When a keeper creates a storyline for the first time, it doesn’t matter where the players start the campaign. Forcing a beginning will be counterintuitive when it comes to starting a compelling narrative. A keeper should let the players decide where the story begins; whether that be in one player’s private eye office or the occult ward at Miskatonic university, it should not be part of the keeper’s plans. They simply provide the hook and let the players pull at the string.
The best place to start is right at the end, and a keeper should first ask themselves where and how it’ll be. A Call of Cthulhu campaign is a horror story, and a horror story without a compelling ending is simply going to be forgotten. When a keeper knows some of the ending details before it even starts, they will have a solid resolution that they can build towards. This can include clues that, when pieced together, point the players towards that resolution. These details will supply the leads that point the players towards the campaign’s climax with a series of sensical and connected events that will keep them engaged.
Every campaign has a bad guy, but a keeper shouldn’t spend too much time on their villain. To keep this simple, the villain (likely a cult) needs a who, a where, and a what, as they are the only important questions for building the conclusion. Who is the Old One they are summoning, where is the ritual happening, and what are they doing to complete the ritual? For a first design, a keeper shouldn’t plan too much for their villain. Instead, focus on the resolution and plant clues for the players to discover their enemy’s plan as the story unfolds. Working backwards allows a keeper to plan a campaign without having to solve their own mysteries.
2) Plan Specific Discoveries That Progress The Story Forward
Due to its investigative nature, Call of Cthulhu can hit roadblocks that leave the players at a dead end. A good mystery will have details hidden beneath layers of misdirection and red herrings. Keepers may find this compelling, but more often than not, the players will find this frustrating. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t include red herrings or tough puzzles for players to solve; instead, a keeper should plan their mysteries with a balance of leads and dead ends.
Using a tiered discovery system can be very beneficial to first time keepers. In a tiered discovery system, a keeper plans a structure in order for the players to make discoveries. Instead of having every piece of the puzzle available for the players to find, keep some clues hidden until players find enough background to make sense of these new discoveries.
To better understand this concept, let's say the players need to investigate a series of missing person reports at a hotel outside the city. Naturally, they’ll want to look into the history of the building and the disappearances; this is the first tier. Instead of allowing the players to immediately discover the shady hotel owner and his criminal past, the keeper should hide some of the mystery and allow the players to make smaller, more thematic discoveries. It’ll set a mood when they arrive at the hotel if the only clues they’ve come across have been from newspaper clippings, police reports and rumours. It’s only when they find themselves stranded at the hotel do they discover that the hotel owner isn’t as friendly as they initially seemed.
A focused structure will keep the story moving and ensure that the players and the keeper don’t lose themselves in the details. There is a fear of planning a story with such simple hooks will lead to a linear storyline. This fear of linearity stems from the fact that, as the keeper, all the answers are already known. The players get to turn over the rocks and uncover the clues one by one and make their own theories that could soon be turned on their head by a future discovery. A simple structure of clues and discoveries is what will make a campaign compelling for players.
3) Don’t End With The Big Bad
As part of a keeper’s initial planning they may want to plan an ending where the players go face-to-face with someone like Cthulhu himself. As exciting as a moment like this would be, it’ll very likely end with the entire investigative team either dying or going insane. This may be memorable, but such a climax should only be considered if the entire play group is aware of such a possibility. Most players will likely want some sort of resolution, but that doesn’t stop a keeper from making it as Lovecraftian as they can be.
Due to the mechanics, Call of Cthulhu is a very unforgiving system. It’s realistic in the sense that a gunshot or two will kill most characters and NPCs; or the sight of some sort of unfathomable, cosmic monstrosity will cause a person to lose all sense and reason. Player death is often unavoidable in this game. It’s because of this that a first time keeper is recommended to make the villains human. A cult is a very good tool for this. The climax can be about stopping the ritual that summons Yog-Sothoth instead of fighting Mr. Yog-Sothoth itself.
This gives a chance for the players to achieve some sort of victory; they stopped the evil machinations of the dark forces in their city, but they also learned of unimaginable forces that lurk between the stars or beneath the ocean. This mark will have a lasting effect on the character that is a lot more tantalizing to the player than killing them. This may compel players to continue their adventures past this first campaign. It’s this headstrong attitude that allows keepers to be even less forgiving the second time around.
4) Design With A Sense Of Dread
Call of Cthulhu provides a completely different kind of atmosphere over something like Dungeons and Dragons. The players should feel tense and uneasy as they dig deeper into the strange happenings of their keeper’s storyline. This doesn’t mean there can’t be any room for some jokes and comedy, but the scales should be tipped more towards the serious side. To balance this successfully a keeper should plan out encounters that provide a constant flow of dread.
A good way for a keeper to learn this kind of mood is by actually reading some of the works of Lovecraft. There are various pieces by him and other writers of his time that provide excellent examples of dread. The flavor of horror in these stories is a lot different from that of the conventional horror most people are used to. This doesn’t stop a keeper from adding these ideas into their story, but if the end result is about an ancient one being awoken, the horror should be about the hopeless of human existence against the entity as opposed to being chased and running away from it.
Once again: if the players are already face to face with the ancient one, they have already lost. This idea should be the fear that provides the horror. The fact that these characters are fragile is what can push players into really embodying the spirit of the campaign. Push the fact that they may win today, but that doesn’t mean another victory for humanity will happen tomorrow.
5) Don’t Feel Locked Into Lovecraft
This one is a small simple point that is important for keepers to know. Call of Cthulhu is a fun roleplaying system. It works very well with an unforgiving pass/fail system but provides players with a lot of customization and roleplay design. However, Lovecraft isn’t for everyone. Some people find issue with the racist overtones of his writing, so a keeper shouldn’t force anyone to play through a game set in Lovecraft’s world. There’s an entire world of horror that the Call of Cthulhu system could be adapted to. Instead of focusing on the idea of players specifically going against an Old One, a keeper may take influence from other sources.
There are a variety of authors out there continuing the feeling of Lovecraft without being explicitly in his style. Weird stories of horror focus around the fears humans have on a primal level: weaknesses, insecurities, the mistakes they can’t come back from, etc. These are all aspects of horror found within the genre that Call of Cthulhu strives in. If Lovecraft doesn’t resonate with the group, a keeper should find something that works for them. A simple, mysterious piece of horror can sometimes be a lot more interesting to a group than sticking specifically with the source material.
The magic of Call of Cthulhu is the unique perspective a keeper brings to their storylines and their own taste in horror. There is something uniquely human about telling scary stories; a strange desire to experience fear lurks within all of us. Creators have been sharing what makes them scared since the dawn of time. Hopefully these tips allow new keepers to do the same with their playgroup.
Justin Cauti is a writer and Twitch streamer. He plays board/roleplaying games on the internet at http://www.playingboardgames.tv. Follow him on Twitter for updates on his boring life and writing projects @LeftSideJustin.
Picture Reference: https://www.dailystar.co.uk/tech/gaming/681400/Call-of-Cthulhu-preview-Could-this-be-the-PS4-and-Xbox-One-s-next-cult-hit-horror-game
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.