The Drooler in the Dark is a 5-page PDF designed to function as long-term background colour for an on-going campaign with a fixed location. Originally written in 1992 by Michael LaBossiere, the text has been updated a number of times including for the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. It can be downloaded from DriveThruRPG for free but the pay-what-you-want suggested contribution is 50 cents.
A little while ago, I wrote about the porn game Girl Life and what it had to teach us about developing settings in depth as well as breadth. In other words, places in the real world tend to change and develop by their own accord and so one way of making your campaign settings feel more real is to include elements that change and develop over time independently of any input from the player characters. The Drooler in the Dark is designed as a joke, a bit of light relief that can be stirred through sessions of an on-going campaign in an effort to not only break up the tone but also to provide the kind of background detail that makes a game setting feel real by virtue of the fact that it features things going on that have nothing to do with the on-going plot.
The basic idea is that one of the PCs enters into a romantic relationship with an NPC who acquires a pet (usually a dog but cats work just as well). The pet takes an instant dislike to the PC and serves as a source of antagonism in their relationship. This antagonism, though initially little more than irritating, grows ever more pressing as the small fluffy pet starts displaying more and more supernatural characteristics until eventually reaching a level of development where it poses a real threat to the local community forcing the PC and their friends to treat it like any other monster they encounter.
As you might expect from something that is only five pages long, The Drooler in the Dark is really quite short on details. Aside from the introduction and the mandatory stat block at the end of the PDF, the five pages comprise little more than a series of pet-related situations. Each situation is accompanied by a table that the Keeper can roll on. Though all of the outcomes are unpleasant, the lower the dice-roll, the less supernatural they appear. So, for example, a roll of 1 on the ‘Investigator is smooching with their significant other’ table has the Drooler demand to be let outside only for it to relieve itself on the investigator. Meanwhile, a roll of 3 requires a battle of the wills between Investigator and pet wherein losing results in a huge row with significant other that sours the mood for nearly a week.
While these tables are all quite short and obviously intended to be played for laughs, I found them to be rather one-note and heavily dependent upon humour derived from bodily functions. The idea is that the pet is a jerk, the pet makes the PC miserable, the pet starts physically harming the PC, and then the PC has to deal with the pet in the way that they deal with all monsters. My problem with the tables, and the product in general, is that while I really love the idea of having some minor detail like an NPC getting a puppy blossom into an actual adventure over the course of a few sessions, I think how well this stuff works will depend upon how well the Keeper plays it and there’s nothing in the PDF to assist you in either striking the right tone or introducing this element into your campaign:
Firstly, I would have liked a little bit more on the idea of a PC acquiring a love interest. As one might expect given the source material, Call of Cthulhu doesn’t really invite players to cultivate the kinds of NPC relationships that you might find in Buffy and so it would have been really useful to include some stuff on how to introduce an NPC love interest into your campaign. It wouldn’t need to be much… either a few hooks or something a bit more substantial such as the idea of having a romantic relationship restore SAN in much the same way as having characters visit their happy places as per the 7th edition rules.
Secondly, I would also have liked a little bit more detail on how and when to introduce the Drooler into your campaign. For example, presumable you don’t want the love interest to start out with a pet because you want the whole arc of seeing it grow up, plus if an NPC love interest starts out with a jerky pet that vomits acid then chances are that the players might decide to skip over them.
Thirdly, The Drooler in the Dark is supposed to work by introducing the pet and having it slowly grow more monster-like until it has to be dealt with but the systems described in the PDF don’t really allow for the passage of time. For example, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the Drooler will do something that provokes a SAN check the first time you take it for a walk. I would have liked either some guidelines on how to draw out the development of the Drooler, or a set of simple mechanics such as rolling a d6 against a table with 8 entries and having a +1 and then a +2 modifier accrue over the passage of time. That way, you ensure not only that early encounters with the Drooler have relatively low-stakes, but also that things get systematically worse the longer the PC drags their heels over dealing with the pet.
I really like the idea of The Drooler in the Dark and I think it’s exactly the kind of weird background detail that makes campaign settings come alive but I also think that LaBossiere could have fleshed things out a little more than he did. This being said, I do really like the idea and the format and this is a 5 page document that’s available for free so having to do a little bit of extra work in order to fit it into one’s campaign is not exactly a huge hardship.