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.
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