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
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Lovecraft was an amazing author. His horrifying stories of cosmic indifference have influenced countless authors, game designers, and heavy metal bands. But Lovecraft always had a darker, more disturbing tinge to his stories than unfathomable beings from another dimension, the mere knowledge of which will cause a human to go insane: he was horribly racist, xenophobic, and sexist. This facet of Lovecraft has not discouraged those he hated from enjoying his work, creating new tales within his Mythos, and even working to subvert the tales they love. Enter Harlem Unbound, a source book from Darker Hue Studios for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, set, unsurprisingly, in Harlem in the 1920’s, with a mission to upend the worst part of an amazing author. Lead Designer Chris Spivey was kind enough to spare some time and tell us a little about the book.
1) What new mechanics are you bringing into Call of Cthulhu and the GUMSHOE variant, Trail of Cthulhu, that brings 1920’s Harlem and the African American experience to life?
I created the Racial Tension modifier to provide a mechanical effect to aid in play and establish a baseline both for both player and keeper. This mechanic helps remove some of the out-of-play tension and lets the player know that Keeper is not just being a jerk by providing a benchmark for Keepers.
2) Tell us a little bit about your background with the Lovecraftian Mythos. What got you interested in this particular type of story?
I am actually going to pull a big chunk from a blog post I did about this, as it sums up everything…
I was part of a group that had to stay in a house for an estate sale. The owner had passed away and had these massive piles of books, and I stumbled onto H.P. Lovecraft. We were given free reign of the house but chose to all stay in one area together. Come on, empty house + young kids + reading horror fiction = ghosts!
Reading that Lovecraft collection in the home of a recently dead person, tucked in my sleeping bag, and listening to the sounds of my sleeping friends made it magical. The shadows lurked around the room and every creak caused me to stop reading and stare into the darkness. Chilling!
The ideas that were presented resonated with me as an African American male growing up in the deep South. I understand the concepts of cruelty and the uncaring nature of the universe. Yes! I get it! The best man can do is struggle against the insurmountable evil and win for a day or two, and at the very best, delay the maddening doom and protect humanity.
3) What about the Harlem Renaissance makes it so suited to subverting Lovecraft?
The very heart of the Harlem Renaissance was about embracing change and celebrating the African American spirit. The movement highlighted African American intellectualism and creativity and sought to make the world a better place through racial and gender equality and more freedom of sexuality. It was everything Lovecraft was against, and dovetails perfectly with the concept of cosmic horror.
4) Part of your work revolves around Prohibition. Is there something that ties together the hidden world of speakeasies and the world of the Great Old Ones? (Author's note: this question is a result of misreading during my research for this interview. Chris gave a great answer anyway.)
That is a great hook, but doesn't appear in any of the current scenarios. You never know…
5) The book will contain five scenes for the games (including one with the Harlem Hellfighters!). Do any of the larger than life figures of the Renaissance make an appearance?
Harlem Unbound contains four scenarios and there is an additional digital scenario that will be released to Kickstarter backers in 2018. The backers received a few exclusive items as a thank you for their support.
A few high profile figures from Harlem do make appearances throughout the scenario, such as Jack Johnson and A’Lelia Walker, and the book provides detailed hooks to bring in many more. It was one of my goals to have players and keeper be able to engage with actual Harlem luminaries at this stage in their lives.
6) What advice would you have for game designers who are cautious about creating more inclusive games for fear of “getting it wrong?”
If you are working on something that is not your struggle but care deeply about it, team up with someone for whom that struggle is real. That means hiring them at a good rate, giving them credit and being a team. Their voice needs to be heard. Research is a powerful tool but lived experience is essential and is an important way to stop potential appropriation.
Check out physical copies of Harlem Unbound here. Buy digital at DriveThruRPG.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging, river-running nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
Picture Reference: http://www.darkerhuestudios.com/shop/
What’s that shadow creeping around the corner? What could possibly make that otherworldly sound? Didn’t that thing’s face look exactly like mine? When doubt begins to fester in the minds of your players, you know you’re doing your job as a Keeper of Arcane Lore. This is no easy feat, so here follow four tried and true techniques to cause dread within your players at the game table.
1) Terrors Unknown
Call of Cthulhu, and games like it, work best when players don’t know what they’re up against. Humans naturally fear what they don’t understand, and the easiest way to utilize this fact is to keep your players guessing. Describe things vaguely, or better yet, keep them obscured. This serves also to drive the players forward, as we all have a natural inclination towards mysteries and the solving thereof. Release information in small spurts to string players along, but always keep the shroud over the monstrosity causing the mayhem.
2) Sounds Unearthly
If you can, provide a foreboding soundtrack to your game. Luckily, in this great age of technology, even our phones are capable of hosting and playing spooky music. For the more enterprising among you, captured or downloaded sound effects can play a big part in creating moments of dread. Employed at the right moment, a good atmospheric track coupled with faint creaking can send shivers down the stoutest of spines. Message me for recommendations on sound effect sites and other useful resources!
3) Vistas Unreal
Visual aids can do wonders, as long as they aren’t too revealing. Handouts with faux-bloodstains and hastily scrawled script describing, in vain, horrors beyond comprehension can truly unnerve players. For those with a little extra time on their hands (or who are preparing to showcase at a convention), I recommend the “diary” handout. Purchase an inexpensive journal and fill as much of it as you can with believable entries, up until the last pages. Then, go certifiably nuts and introduce your players to your insidious creativity.
4) Characters Uncanny
Call of Cthulhu isn’t always terrifying. There are moments of laughter, drama, and intrigue too. Let your players get into character before you lean into the creepiness. Let them laugh and joke and settle into a place of comfort. Only when they seem convinced that nothing could harm or disturb them should you strike. Slowly start distorting their sense of reality. Introduce facts that couldn’t possibly be true. Let them look in the mirror and see something they don’t recognize, even if it looks just like their true face, only… wrong, somehow.
Whatever spooky strategy you choose to affect upon the battlefield of your players’ minds, make sure you have fun preparing it. See what works and ask for feedback from the table. Now, go and bring terror to those that call you ‘Keeper!’
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact
I have to admit, sometimes I am a lazy role-player, and more recently I am the laziest role-player. I expect to turn up at the latest session -ready for fun- with little-to-no time in preparation.
I haven’t always been this way. I have done the GMing stuff where there is more work involved, but at this point in my life I want a gaming experience that takes me away into the mythical world and away from the drudgery of laundry and lesson planning. However, my foray back into regular gaming was not my easy, comfortable sweater that I expected and wanted to slip on. No, it was shiny new settings and games, and I had a lot to learn. As lazy as I am, I am glad for it.
1 . New games make you read
I know it sounds like a boring reading comprehension test, but with new systems and settings comes new ideas and ways of looking at role-playing. And every rule/adventure book has its own feel that you become immersed in. Now, I’m not talking about just skimming the pages until you see numbers underneath the class/race/occupation/skills that make your eyes light up (but you do need to do that as well). I am talking about reading about the world that has been lovingly crafted for you to explore or being consumed into a new culture through someone’s words. These can be the clearest depiction that gives each person the same sense of what is going on or they can be an outline that make you develop those places and people together. Often a completely new setting will spark your imagination and energise your play.
Furthest to the south is the sandy and inhospitable lands of the Owl Clan, who share strange and arcane secrets with the emptiness of the desert. They are known for consorting with spirits that often spell ill to their "mistresses."
From a stone-age fantasy D&D 5E setting created by VP Quinn
2 . New games make you think and role-play differently
We all fall into a bit of a routine with role-playing. Even those with a streak of interesting, dynamic characters often use similar techniques to get information, to engage in combat, or even to interact with NPCs and PCs. There are vastly different games each with their own idea of these interactions. They force you to think differently. As an investigator in the Cthulhu world, I started by looking into one thing at a time at one place… like some sort of linear path. What I learned was that sometimes a scattershot of searching sometimes works best. It is a small thing, but it is a skill I will use in other games.
Also, with my first jump into the Cthulhu world being just a few months ago, the simple words from the first handout are a callback to an unending exploration of how I role-play and how fear can motivate action.
A landlord, Mr. Knott, asks you to examine an
old house in central Boston, known as the Corbitt
House. The former tenants, the Macario family,
were involved in a tragedy and the owner wishes
to understand the mysterious happenings at the
house and set matters straight. Mr. Knott been
unable to rent the house out since the tragedy
and hopes that you can clear things up and restore
its good name. He offers to reimburse you
for your time and trouble. The landlord gives you
the keys, the address and $25 cash in advance.
Call of Cthulhu, The Haunting
What could go wrong?
3 . New games remind you of some of the awesome things you used to do
Remember that one time, you put that clever twist on your gaming experience. No, not that one, the other one. Nope, not that either. I think you did it around 2005…. What do you mean you don’t remember that far back?
Often, we remember the epic battles and the clever encounters from years back. We have told and retold them with great fervor. But sometimes it was the little things that added more interest to the group and kept things going. Often a new game will remind you of such experiences and rekindle the love of the minute details.
Though my jump into 13th Age was only one session, I was enamored with their idea of the “One Unique Thing.” Often, I had characters with that extra trait that set them apart, but often as time went on those clever ideas were left behind in the process. This forced me to look at that critically at the beginning of character creation. It is now in the forefront of my mind as I am in the midst of making a new character right now.
4 . You have a chance to use different dice
Seriously, I have some under utilized dice in my pack. I look forward to dusting off some d6s for this wade into the Star Wars 3E universe.(Editor’s note, Star Wars’ games seem to like using odd or specific dice. The fantasy flight version of SW has its own dice which are cool, but it also requires you buy their specific dice. It’s a marketing ploy only a big game can get away with.)
This article was written by Vanessa who is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously. When she isn’t involved in things and stuff, she teaches middle school science, math, art, and other random subjects. She loves new teenagers in action. They make her laugh and shake her head and her world is much better with laughter. She thinks everyone should be roleplaying. She is also trying out this new twitter handle at @sarasma_nessa
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.