Against the Standard Model of Call of Cthulhu

It is not always obvious what a particular game is supposed to look and feel like in play. Even if we can work out how a game functions on a session-by-session basis there is no guarantee that we’ll be able to work out how to run a campaign. When it comes to Call of Cthulhu, the question of what campaign play is supposed to look like boils down to one single question:

What do you do after running “The Haunting”?

If you stick your finger in the air and wait long enough, you might feel the tickle of a summer breeze whispering that these might be pretty good days for table-top roleplaying.  I could talk about the collapse of once-iconic RPG publishing houses, the continuing decline in the number of bricks-and-mortar shops selling RPG products, the growing centrality of crowd-funding to RPG publishing, or the fact that we have never come close to overcoming the systemic social problem of finding a new gaming group once you leave high school… but you could point to a few highly-successful podcasts and say ‘Look… Good Things!’ and I would be forced to agree. At least up to a point.

I have listened to a ton of podcasts and watched a ton of YouTube videos but I have never once encountered a game session that looked or felt anything like one of mine. I’m not even talking about the fact that a lot of the Actual Play stuff revolves around experienced performers backed by people who know how to edit meaning that a podcast RPG session is inevitably a lot funnier, less prone to people getting side-tracked, and less likely to have a session haemorrhage momentum because the GM didn’t sleep all that well and inexplicably decided to spend 35 minutes flicking through his books looking for a particular rule. I’m talking about the fact that most Actual Play stuff seems combat-focused to the point of excluding almost everything else.

As someone who has always found combat to be the least interesting aspect of table-top gaming, I realise that this is an old problem. Indeed, if you look back over the history of RPGs, you’ll find that a) the hobby has always been associated with Dungeons & Dragons, and b) Dungeons & Dragons has grown more complex with each new edition.  As a result, the outer-most, easiest-to-discover layer of the hobby is devoted to a game that does stuff like punish people for making poor tactical decisions at the point of character creation. To be honest, if RPGs had been as visible in the early 1990s as they are now then there is precisely zero chance that I would have taken up the hobby: I don’t enjoy board games, I don’t enjoy war games, and I don’t enjoy the style of play that has come to be associated with games like D&D.

As I said, this is an old problem and the problem has historically been solved by the visibility of games that are not Dungeons & Dragons. The idea being that D&D gets new players in the door and that those who don’t enjoy games about minis, traps, and treasure will organically find their way towards games focused on other aspects of the table-top RPG experience such as Call of Cthulhu. Setting aside the fact that there were once hugely-visible RPGs that looked arty and counter-cultural enough to suck alternative and goth kids into the hobby, there is no denying that the peristaltic method works but in order for it to work, there needs to be a culture not only of artistic diversity but also of creative experimentation as the minority of gamers who stick around long enough to want something more out of their gaming need other visions of gaming to migrate towards.

This is where I start to get a little bit worried…

Spend any time in the places where RPGs in general and Call of Cthulhu in particular are discussed and you will find people asking about how to get their group to try out Call of Cthulhu. Quite often these people have never actually played Cthulhu themselves but they want to give it a try. Now… the problem is that while popular podcasts and YouTube channels give a clear (albeit idealised) vision of what it is like to run a Pathfinder campaign, notions of what a Call of Cthulhu campaign looks like appear to have ossified into what I would call the Standard Model:

A player hears about Call of Cthulhu and decides to invest in the game’s core books. However, while the new books may look pretty, they are not all that great at explaining the realities of what a game looks and feels like. I mean… sure… there are rules for creating private detectives and academics, but what does an RPG campaign feel like when it isn’t animated by the Risk/Reward escalator that takes you from killing small things for small rewards to killing big things for big rewards? What are the PCs even supposed to do on a week-by-week basis? In truth, Chaosium have never had particularly convincing answers to these questions and (for reasons best known to their accounts department) the void in creative structure tends to be filled with product.

The Standard Model for playing Call of Cthulhu has a group start out with a single session adventure like “The Haunting”.

“The Haunting” is particularly popular as it does a fantastic job of teaching everyone at the table how to play an investigation-based game: Players learn to follow a kind of escalation spiral whereby they start out with low-confrontation book-based research that ‘builds the legend’ and sets the mood before moving on to more risky and confrontational scenes like breaking into someone’s house and going toe-to-toe with an undead cultist. Meanwhile, novice GMs learn about how to dispense clues and how the order and manner in which clues are dispensed can dictate things like mood and pacing. Then they learn a bit about how to run an encounter on which the aim is to scare the players rather than calmly dispatching their characters using a series of mechanically-appropriate stat blocks. “The Haunting” may not be my favourite Call of Cthulhu adventure but there is no denying the fact that just reading that adventure will teach you more about investigation-based gaming than anything in the actual keeper’s section of the main rulebooks.

Having successfully navigated their single-session introductory adventure, new groups are then gently encouraged to ‘move on’ to one of Chaosium’s famous campaigns.

In fairness to Chaosium, this encouragement is so gentle as to almost be part of the background radiation of gaming culture.  Much like The Enemy Within or The Great Pendragon Campaign, series of interlinked adventures like Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express are now so famous that they exert a gravitational pull that is almost independent of the game they were written for. I certainly admit to buying a copy of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in order to take a ride on its infamous canal boats and I dare say that a lot of gamers buy Call of Cthulhu in order to take a run at one of Chaosium’s epic globe-trotting campaigns.

The problem with this standard model of playing Call of Cthulhu is that running one (or even ten) single-session adventures simply does not prepare you for running a long, complex, and notoriously difficult published campaign. The standard model is not just flawed; it’s nothing short of a recipe for burn-out and disillusionment.

I have been playing Call of Cthulhu for nearly thirty years and I have never – either as a player or as a keeper – managed to finish one of Chaosium’s globe-trotting campaigns. In my experience, the games always start really well and people enjoy them but, somewhere around the fifth session, people inevitably start to loose characters and the general thread of what’s going on. It starts with someone cracking a joke about needing to re-transcribe their notes, then people stop taking notes, then they keep asking who all the NPCs are, and then they can’t remember what happened in the last session. It starts with someone making a mistake that costs them their character and everyone expressing their sympathies for the loss, then you have to start the session a bit early because two people have to roll up new characters, and then people suggest playing something different for a few weeks before coming back to the game with fresh characters and a clear head.

RPG culture tends to forget that campaigns are not easy things to run.

On a purely practical level, getting a bunch of adults together for a regular shared activity is not easy even at the best of times. Aside from real life entanglements, people have priorities and relationships that change over time and those changes can have profound consequences on your gaming group regardless of the games you happen to be running. I have been in a number of doomed gaming groups since entering the hobby and none of them broke down because of what actually happened in the games.

Even assuming that your group has zero internal conflicts and are happy to keep playing the same game for months on end, not every group has it in them to finish one of Chaosium’s infamous meat-grinders; long campaigns demand a lot of the people running them.

For starters, there are the challenges of preparing and running enough material to keep a group of adults engaged and entertained for three or four hours on the trot every couple of weeks. Then there is the difficulty of keeping track of which pieces of information have found their way to the players and mapping out the consequences of their actions week on week for months at a time. You also need to bear in mind that many of these large campaigns are difficult to the point of being impossible and so you are going to have to make sure that no defeat or setback results in the kind of dwindling momentum that inevitably leads to players getting bored, frustrated, and interested in playing something else.

Chaosium’s big campaigns are infamous for their attrition rates when it comes to characters.  Groups who do manage to complete them do so by adopting the H.R. policy of a World War I general: Fuck the body count, keep on marching forward, plenty more where that came from. The only problem is that it’s not just characters that you’re killing… it’s also time, motivation and good will. The big commercially-published campaigns will always have a place in Call of Cthulhu but we really need to start finding better and more appropriate answers to the question of where to go once you’ve finished “The Haunting”.

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