REVIEW: Keeper Reflections – Call of Cthulhu Campaigning by Michael Fryda

The more time I spend reviewing RPGs and RPG-related products, the more I am convinced that roleplaying is primarily an oral culture.

The problem is not just that RPG texts tend to be quite poor at articulating how it is that specific games are supposed to be played, it’s also that most people’s first contact with a new game is to sit down at a table and go with the flow. This results in a degree of cultural conservatism that goes some way to explaining a lot of the backlash against both non-traditional indie RPGs and more recent attempts by RPG culture to address not only toxic power-dynamics but also the questionable politics of some RPG texts.

It’s not that people necessarily think that GMs should have more power than players or that marginalised people should pull themselves together and stop complaining, it’s more that people aren’t used to asking questions and once questions are asked, they lack a theoretical vocabulary with which to respond.

Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu is a game with a remarkably conservative (some might even say stagnant) playing culture. Despite producing seven different editions in over forty years, Chaosium have never shown much interest in re-examining any of the game’s core concepts and any supplements the company produces for the game tend to be either re-editions of existing books or variations on existing themes. Tinker, tinker, but never fix.

While some might argue that the recent explosion in the number of Lovecraft-inspired investigative horror games is a reflection of the dubious ethics of previous Chaosium management teams, I suspect that some of it is simply down to the fact that while people love the idea of Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu is starting to show its age and would benefit from a bit of a re-think.

One area in grave need of some fresh thinking is the question of what a Call of Cthulhu campaign is actually supposed to look like. Regardless of the edition, people know what a Dungeons & Dragons campaign is supposed to look like and the cycle that has you learning your character, acquiring XPs, and improving your character before going back to learning your character has proved remarkably robust. So… given that Call of Cthulhu is now over forty years old, what is a Call of Cthulhu campaign supposed to look like?

A while ago, I wrote a piece about what I called the ‘Standard Model’ of Call of Cthulhu and how Chaosium’s vision of a Call of Cthulhu campaign is for you to play a brilliantly simple scenario called “The Haunting” and then move on to these vast and hugely expensive globe-trotting meat-grinder campaigns that are difficult to run even for experienced GMs with devoted groups of players. For a long time, the only alternative to the Standard Model of Call of Cthulhu was to play self-contained stand-alone scenarios with pre-rolled player characters. A tacit acceptance that Call of Cthulhu is primarily a game you play as a special event or as part of a break from your regular campaign.

To their credit, Chaosium have been trying to address this problem by drifting away from their traditional ‘Rough guide to 1920s New York’ style of setting book and putting out a load of sourcebooks that present themselves as settings but are actually better understood as short campaigns with some additional setting and character-creation material.

The second you move beyond the adventures provided in the books, you run into the same question that Call of Cthulhu has always faced: What does a home-made Call of Cthulhu campaign actually look like?

Michael Fryda has published a handful of Call of Cthulhu adventures and runs the Youtube channel RPG Imaginings. He has also run a Call of Cthulhu campaign that lasted over fifty sessions and Keeper Reflections: Call of Cthulhu Campaigning is an attempt to explain how he did it by codifying and unpacking some of the lessons he learned and the changes he made. Though somewhat uneven and in need of some external editing, the lessons, advice, and ideas contained in this document are streets ahead of anything you will find in the seventh edition core rulebooks.

 Keeper Reflections is an attempt to provide a model of how to make Call of Cthulhu work for long-term campaign-based play. As such, it is written in reaction against a specific assumed model of Call of Cthulhu campaign. I say ‘assumed’ as while most people familiar with Call of Cthulhu might recognise the game as assuming this particular form, the model of play does not appear anywhere in either the core books or the published campaigns. If anything, it exists primarily as a joke at Call of Cthulhu’s expense.

The model in question is what I refer to as the meat-grinder in that involves taking fragile human characters, confronting them with the mythos, and allowing them to either get killed or driven mad in quite quick succession. The fragility of the characters combined with the lethality of the mythos means that this style of Call of Cthulhu campaign will often see a high burn-rate when it comes to player characters.

The interesting thing about this model of play is that while it tends to emerge quite organically from classic Chaosium campaigns like Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express, you will not find it described in any Call of Cthulhu book. At no point, does any rulebook tell you to create more than one character and there are no mechanics comparable to Paranoia’s reserve clones. No… the books just have you create a character and if you wind up having to create fresh characters every two or three sessions then that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

While I have some fondness for this style of play, I agree that it makes long-term campaign play almost impossible. If this is how Call of Cthulhu is supposed to be played then I would expect some mechanics inspired by rogue-like computer games where new characters can inherit from their forefathers but these do not appear anywhere in the game or (as far as I know) any professional or amateur supplemental material. In fact, the high burn-rate of characters in Call of Cthulhu games tends to go completely unaddressed. It’s assumed that members of the public will continue to join doomed expeditions and throw themselves into the jaws of the mythos and, more importantly, it’s assumed that players will be fine with such a lack of campaign object permanence.

How are you supposed to build a campaign and tell longer-form stories if you keep changing characters every few sessions? Chaosium has never had an answer to this question and I suspect that most groups have solved the problem either by ignoring it or fudging the mechanics. The closest Chaosium have come to addressing this problem by giving new characters more and more skill points with each passing edition but this solves one problem merely by creating another one: First edition characters were fragile but quick to create. Seventh edition characters are more robust but take much longer to build. This means that while characters may die less quickly, their loss becomes more of an inconvenience. Shifting from a model where you spend twenty minutes rolling up a new character every other session to a model where you spend an hour rolling up a new character every five sessions sounds a lot like six of one and half dozen of the other if you ask me.

Fryda addresses this problem in quite an odd way as he talks at great length about making his table safe and not wanting to put undue pressure on players who are already struggling with neuro-divergence and mental health problems. In practice this means that rather than talking about ‘Sanity’ (or SAN), he talks about ‘Cosmic Trauma Resistance’ (or CTR). A CTR-check works exactly the same as a SAN-check and the rules are completely unchanged but ‘Sanity’ was taken to be a less loaded term than ‘Cosmic Trauma Resistance’ and so was kinder to players’ sensibilities.

For the record, I hate Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules. I think they are not only offensive but dated to the point where they are borderline unplayable as written. The rules were an imperfect abstraction of Lovecraft’s decidedly singular views on human psychology which were themselves shaped by the fact that a) 1920s clinical psychology was still remarkably crude, b) Lovecraft knew almost nothing about psychology, and c) Lovecraft lived to see both of his parents dragged off to the mad-house never to be seen again. Filter all of this through Sandy Peterson and the norms of 1980s RPG design and you have an almost perfect storm when it comes to codifying horrendous views of mental illness.

Now… someone might very well respond that SAN is an abstraction from mental health in the same way as hit points are an abstraction from physical health and nobody complains that Dungeons & Dragons’ hit-dice are insulting to the chronically ill. I agree, but I would also point out that while hit points are an imperfect abstraction of a real process, it is easy to understand what that process corresponds to and why it exists. The problem with the Sanity mechanics is that while they may be full of official-sounding terminology, few of those terms map onto how they are used in real-world clinical psychology and even if they did, it’s not entirely clear that the process of mental corruption that features in Lovecraft’s stories is supposed to be an analogue of real human psychology.

Terms like ‘Cosmic Trauma Response’ or ‘Mythos Taint’ might be a better fit for the processes of being confronted by so many horrendous truths that you grow progressively more alienated from the world of human beliefs and emotions, but the Call of Cthulhu rules confuse that with mental illness resulting in rules that are offensive, confusing, and a poor fit for the actual source material as Lovecraft wrote about people being driven mad by bug-eyed monsters, not people battling with real-world mental health problems.

It’s the fit with the source material that’s the important bit here as while the Sanity rules are definitely offensive, it’s not their lack of political correctness that makes them an impediment to long-term campaign-based play. Fryda even admits as much when he writes:

“But what does the above have to do with Call of Cthulhu campaigning specifically? If the goal of a role-playing group is to develop, enhance and grow investigators over time, the consequence of the game can’t be losing mortality. You can’t grow a character that dies in session one, or even session five.”

He then goes on to explain that his players tend to survive by simple virtue of being cautious, but it’s not in the least bit clear what this has to do with having a safe table and the rules of the game being outdated to the point of being offensive.

In truth, this whole section of the document is rather odd as Fryda puts considerably more effort into a pre-emptive (and rather passive-aggressive) defence of his views than he does into a clear articulation of what those views might be. Given the huge amount of sizzle and small amount of steak, I wonder whether this section of the document might not have been re-written a few too many times. It would not surprise me if earlier drafts of this section started out telling us how to create a safe table, then started to defend the right to keep a safe table only for Fryda to re-read the section and conclude that the passage came across as patronising to his players, prompting him to re-write the passage until the steak was replaced by a lot of passive-aggressive hissing about how he won’t apologise about changing the game to make his players feel safe.

While I don’t want to put words into Fryda’s mouth, I would suggest that the following principles would be consistent with the substance that Fryda is gesturing towards:

  1. Rule Zero states that all rules are subject to change if they get in the way of people having fun.
  2. Rule Zero means that people are justified in changing the rules of Call of Cthulhu to produce games that they want to play.
  3. Making changes to the rules in no way invalidates either the original rules or any house-rules that other people might choose to introduce.
  4. As written, the Call of Cthulhu Sanity rules are both offensive and overly lethal.
  5. A high number of character deaths is both a hindrance to long-term campaign play and hard on emotionally-fragile players.
  6. Lowering the rate of character death would make the game more fun for emotionally-fragile players and make the game richer by opening up the possibility of long-term character development.
  7. Replacing the Sanity rules with talk of Cosmic Trauma Resistance would not only make the game less offensive, it would also make the characters more robust by virtue of the fact that frequent SAN checks are replaced by less-frequent CTR checks.

I don’t think there is anything controversial about any of these steps.

I would even argue that making the game a bit easier in order to cut down on the number of character deaths is consistent with the direction of editorial travel since the game’s creation. Indeed, it is no accident that Peterson preferred the two-fisted approach to the mythos found in the works of August Derleth to the existential bleakness of Lovecraft’s original vision. Nor is it any accident that every successive edition of Call of Cthulhu has made the characters more robust. Nor is it any accident that Pulp Cthulhu talks quite openly about a tonal spectrum of Call of Cthulhu games running from the high burn-rate of Lovecraftian impotence all the way to pulp-ish adventure stories full of square-jawed heroes using weird science to fight back against the creatures of the mythos. In fact, Fryda’s description of his campaign makes it quite clear that part of his answer to the question of how to run a 55-session Call of Cthulhu campaign is just to run Pulp Cthulhu instead of the basic game.

Once the basic question of lethality and character survival is addressed, Fryda shifts his attention to the question of how to tell a Call of Cthulhu story that lasts 55 sessions. His approach to the question is absolutely fascinating.

Fryda works quite hard to increase player buy-in by having each adventure end with a choice between at least three different paths forward. In other words, each adventure that Fryda presents to his group will have at least three hooks for further adventure and Fryda encourages his players to discuss which hook they will choose to swallow. This means not only that the decisions will be meaningful to the players but also that the campaign will track the players’ interests.

Fryda further increases player buy-in by specifically tailoring the various hooks to things he knows will interest his players. Fryda is a bit vague on what this means in practice but I assume it’s about being mindful of player choices during character creation as well as reactions that occur during the game sessions themselves. For example, a player who puts a lot of points into combat skills will be either wanting or expecting a lot of in-game combat. This means that their GM would be wise to include a number of combat oriented-hooks in order to ensure that the player has the option to engage with the stuff that interests them and thus have the opportunity to shine. Similarly, if a player’s ears prick up at mention of a specific spell-book or a particular monster then a good GM might take note of that interest and pander to it in the form of future dangling adventure hooks.

Fryda is also big on encouraging his players to invest in elements of the game-world. For example, Fryda mentions that the first session of his campaign involved playing through The Haunting and when the players expressed an interest in buying the old Corbitt house and using it as a base of operations and paranormal research; he allowed them to do so. Fryda also encourages his players to invest in useful technology such as weird science weapons that grow progressively more powerful as their owners make engineering checks that allow them to combine them with other objects and so gradually increase their power. Another innovation Fryda introduces is treating mythos tomes as sentient NPCs with personalities in their own right. Characters bond with these objects in order to gain their secrets but the closer the relationship becomes, the more characters run the risk of being corrupted by the tomes. This is a fantastic idea and I would have loved to see it discussed in a little more detail but I assume the idea is that having a relationship with a mythos tome means not only CTR-checks but also acquiring Cthulhu mythos skills and these are used as abstractions of the extent to which the tome has got its magical hooks into the player.

Fryda also allows his groups to acquire companions. Companions start out as NPCs with particular skillsets like academics, lawyers, or translators. Rather than using these NPCs as useful skill-ratings with names, Fryda uses the connection between characters and companions to have the companions be drawn into the characters’ world and have them confront the mythos on their own terms. As the characters develop, the companions develop too and this development means that companions can become independent sources of drama that can provide their own adventure hooks particularly when companions start developing their own relationships with other NPCs and factions that exist in Fryda’s game world.

In other words, while the characters in Fryda’s campaign do last longer simply by virtue of being more robust, they also acquire sets of agendas and relationships that exist outside of individual adventures. This sense of a world independent of that week’s adventure is particularly important for Fryda as rather than writing all of his own adventures from scratch, he starts out by daisy-chaining published scenarios and then starts re-mixing published material by lifting scenes from existing adventures and partially re-writing them to fit the needs of a given week’s session.

I would have loved to see a section on how Fryda re-works published material. Like a lot of people, I have run campaigns that were little more than series of pre-published scenarios that used a handful of enduring NPCs and a bit of additional material to tie them all together but I usually wound up having to write the occasional scenario from scratch myself in order to ground the campaign world and tie different things together. Fryda may deploy a similar technique but he doesn’t mention writing very much of his own stuff and there is absolutely no explanation of how you go about pulling apart existing adventures and re-mixing their component scenes to produce your own cohesive narrative, let alone a cohesive narrative determined primarily by your players. The closest we get to an explanation of how this works in practice is an assertion that he went out and read as many adventures as he could find meaning that when his players made a decision he could instantly think of a published scenario that struck a similar tone or had an appropriate narrative shape.

I would also have liked to see a bit more on how Fryda uses his NPCs and companions as while there is quite a bit about what happened to his group’s companions in play, those sections of the document are so close to the lore of Fryda’s personal campaign that they just sound like someone giving you a blow-by-blow description of their current game. There’s some stuff about cats and dream-bodies but the rest is just Lovecraftian word-salad partly because Fryda’s campaign is full of quit deep cuts from Lovecraftian lore but also because a lot of the named entities he uses in his game have been re-mixed and re-invented to suit the purposes of his game.

While there is some unevenness to the document, Keeper Reflections – Call of Cthulhu Campaigning offers a really compelling vision of how to run a long-term Call of Cthulhu campaign without having it be either a series of stand-alone adventures or one of those enormous ‘classic’ campaigns that cost an arm and a leg and take three years to finish. This is the kind of GMing advice that should be front and centre in the core rulebook, I’ve been playing Call of Cthulhu for thirty years and this document made me want to start another campaign.

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