Why Games do Cthulhu Wrong?

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Spinachcat

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Here is a video discussing the topic. It is 6 minutes long and brings up a few interesting points. Maybe no new points, but I am most interested in your opinions on his thoughts on "lack of player agency" and "player control" as important for a Lovecraftian game.
 

CRKrueger

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Well, he's talking about video games, where, even though it's much easier to scare people through atmospherics, it's hard to get that yawning gulf of madness horror that Lovecraft characters get. Lots of horror games have found ways to mess with the controls and visuals to try and remove that control and in a video game, I agree that it's an essential part of "Lovecraftiness". Check out this trailer from E3.

In an RPG, I think the players might be more mentally there already, but you have kind of the same problem in that players generally don't like to lose control of their characters, due to personality mechanics or certain things like fear, charm, etc. I think to properly portray the Mythos in Lovecraft's view, there does need to be some kind of mechanic, whether Sanity or other, that can effect the character.
 

Baulderstone

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I think the video falls prey to one mistake that is common when discussing Lovecraft. It makes "Cthulhu" the entire Mythos when he isn't that significant on a larger scale. By leaning too hard on Cthulhu, the most familiar part of the Mythos, you already make your job harder.

I also feel that Lovecraft's best stories don't revolve around needing to avert the imminent end of the world, which if a common way to raise stakes in RPGs and videogames. Sure, there is "The Dunwich Horror" as a good example, but it lets the heroes have a win. The ones I find more unsettling are stories like "Pickman's Model" and "The Whisperer in Darkness". "Pickman's Model" gives us a character explaining why he won't ride the subway, and it comes down to his awareness of an ongoing menace beneath the city. The protagonist in "The Whisper in Darkness" becomes aware that are, and have been for centuries, aliens exploiting the Earth and humans that collaborate with them in secret. Neither of these stories present an immediate threat to all of humanity, but they both leave the main character to continue with an awareness that there ongoing horrors that humanity is oblivious to.

That's a tricky thing to present in an RPG. An adventure where the players learn there is a threat out there, yet simply have no way to deal with it other than to accept it exists has a serious risk of feeling like an unsatisfying anticlimax in play. In a story, "Pickman's Model" can tie the story up by framing it as the reason to avoid the subway. You can't be guaranteed to get that kind of tidy structure in a gaming session.

I'm not sure that lack of player agency is essential. The amount of protagonist insanity in Lovecraft's stories is greatly overstated by fans of Lovecraft that have never read him. Still, having an ever decreasing pool of sanity points is a cool way to instill dread in a player as they watch the number on their character sheet grow smaller.

The video did well in highlighting isolation as a factor. The challenge is a little harder in an RPG group where you have a whole gang on investigators that all buy that their is a horror out there and can support each other. It's always scarier when there is nobody else to help assure you that you did see what you thought you saw.
 

Necrozius

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Like games that are meant to emulate other properties like Tolkien, Star Trek or even Star Wars, Lovecraftian RPGs benefit from player buy-in. By that I mean that the players are on board with the themes and moods prevalent in these stories.

To encourage players to embrace the mindless horror and to reduce loss of control, I'd make a game that has a system that rewards players who act out the insanity, fear and general angst of the Mythos.

Something like: character X fails their "fear" check when they face an awful source of Cosmic Horror. While they could choose to do nothing and to act normally, they would miss out on some benefit (less XP, no extra "bennies" or whatever). If they decide to react and play off the scene ("character X's hands are shaking and he's murmuring 'this can't be happening, this can't be happening' over and over" OR "character X begins to weep and laugh at the same time; he backs away into the wall, petrified") and they take some kind of penalty for this, then the rewards are greater (more XP, extra meta-currency points or even they find better clues to the mystery through ironic luck or visions).

That's the only way that I could think of getting players on board.
 

CRKrueger

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If the players know going in that the system has rules for things like Fear, Terror, Charm, Sanity, etc and they may either be called upon to roleplay those states against their PCs interest or perhaps they may have the PC removed from their control on occasion, then...they know that going in.

If they are also on board with Mythos themes, a Lovecraftian setting, etc, then they're in with that too.

As a result, I don't see a need to incentivize, through OOC methods, roleplaying under the agreed setting/system. Now if the game already has that kind of currency, sure, it makes perfect sense to leverage that for this purpose. I'm generally leery of roleplaying xp awards and the like, but that may be a way to go as well.
 

Simlasa

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I agree with most all the guy in the video has to say.
I've never had Cthulhu show up in a game and I seldom name-drop it either.
When I first read Lovecraft, the mention of 'The Old Ones' struck me as shadowy presences of malign intelligence. No mere menagerie of fugly kaiju. Not just monsters. Fighting them would be like fighting the wind or gravity.
That's one part of where I think Call of Cthulhu has gone a bit astray... it's wandered into Lumley territory too far for my tastes.

I'm not big on the world threatening mega-plots either... and I think Fear/Sanity/Madness is a good reason for removing 'player agency', at least for a moment if not permanently.
The idea of giving out goodies to encourage proper roleplay has never sat well with me... it's assumed you're there because you want to play the game, because you want to roleplay... why should the game need to bribe you into it?
I'd rather start with Players who are into it and want a horror game.
 

Necrozius

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The idea of giving out goodies to encourage proper roleplay has never sat well with me... it's assumed you're there because you want to play the game, because you want to roleplay... why should the game need to bribe you into it?
I'd rather start with Players who are into it and want a horror game.

That's how I actually feel about it but from my experiences most players that I've encountered tended to react really badly when fear, insanity and corruption came into play. Yes even with WFRP and Dark Heresy of all game systems.

Sometimes you gotta use bribes to encourage buy in. It's unfortunate, but when one has trouble finding players for any sort of game at all, you do what you can to "survive".
 

Baulderstone

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I've observed that if you have player buy-in, the mechanics in CoC can actually get in the way at times. From a pacing perspective, the sanity mechanic can be really intrusive. "Okay, something dramatic and horrifying happened! Let's all pause, roll dice, and adjust numbers on your sheet before I let you react to it."

Recently I realized I have been stepping on interesting reactions from my players. They would start to respond with a perfect reaction to a situation, and I would interrupt them for some mechanics.

I still think the mechanics work, but I always make sure to get a reaction from players before calling for sanity rolls now. It gives me something better to work with when adjudicating the rolls.
 

opaopajr

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Nice summation of what would be necessary points for video game conversion. Those same points don't map completely to RPGs, as though video games and RPGs are both games, they don't suffer from the same media limitations and community expectations. However, it is a good launching point as to where to tap "disempowerment" as a facet of horror play.

For me, the big touchstone words when running CoC (and similar horror,) is: Unwelcome Revelations; Reluctant, Isolating, Heroics.

One of my favorite video game lines that leans on these horror themes is the Phantasy Star series. Everything you do to stop disaster helps get you closer to the Dark Force's web of lies. You can't stop it, it still comes. And you can't run away, because without your interference no one else will be as prepared. It is a classic tragedy: you end up out of place, by fickle forces greater than you, and cannot truly return home.

And that's where I notice I have to have Buy-In to even bother. Bribing people to play is not fruitful for the longevity of my campaign table. You either want to be there or you do not. Why fight genre reluctance?
 

Simlasa

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I do try to hold off on hitting Sanity for every little thing. Some of the published scenarios are ridiculous about that. Rolling for San loss gets boring if it's too common.
And there's lessened impact after you've seen a thing a few times.
In the game I'm preparing to run, most of the PCs are WWI vets, so mangled corpses won't necessarily hit as hard.
But some Mythos stuff twists the very nature of timespace around its presence... and that's always going to be inimical to human brains unless precautions are taken.
 

Baulderstone

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And that's where I notice I have to have Buy-In to even bother. Bribing people to play is not fruitful for the longevity of my campaign table. You either want to be there or you do not. Why fight genre reluctance?

True. It will never be that fun playing a horror game with people that only react appropriately when they feel they are going to get an XP cookie for it.

I do try to hold off on hitting Sanity for every little thing. Some of the published scenarios are ridiculous about that. Rolling for San loss gets boring if it's too common.
And there's lessened impact after you've seen a thing a few times.

I agree. If something gets no serious reaction from the players, it probably isn't worth a Sanity roll. A published adventure may have a fresh bloodstain on the rug (SAN loss 0/1d2). If the players approach the stain pragmatically as a clue, it's not worth making them roll for a piddly SAN loss. I'd skip it.

If a PC sees the blood stain and leaps to the conclusion, "Oh my God! That thing must have gotten Williamson!" Now you have a SAN roll moment, and probably a bigger one than (0/1d2).

Good CoC adventure design has a limited number of big Sanity blasts. Ones that if you fail, you stand a real chance of being tipped into Temporary Insanity. Having a series of SAN rolls with minor losses scatter over an adventure for attrition purposes doesn't work as well.

In the game I'm preparing to run, most of the PCs are WWI vets, so mangled corpses won't necessarily hit as hard.
But some Mythos stuff twists the very nature of timespace around its presence... and that's always going to be inimical to human brains unless precautions are taken.

The new Delta Green brings over some ideas from Unknown Armies. SAN loss can come from the sources of Violence, Helplessness and the Unnatural. You can have a character who was built up resistance to Violence-based SAN loss (With a resulting loss of empathy). You can get build resistance to the Unnatural in this Delta Green (although you could in Unknown Armies, given the different nature of the supernatural in that).
 

CRKrueger

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That's how I actually feel about it but from my experiences most players that I've encountered tended to react really badly when fear, insanity and corruption came into play. Yes even with WFRP and Dark Heresy of all game systems.

Sometimes you gotta use bribes to encourage buy in. It's unfortunate, but when one has trouble finding players for any sort of game at all, you do what you can to "survive".
I hear ya. We've all been there.
 

Spinachcat

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By leaning too hard on Cthulhu, the most familiar part of the Mythos, you already make your job harder.

True, but his name is in the title.

I like using Azathoth, the blind idiot outer god who knows nothing of its worshipers (and cannot learn, for it cannot fathom anything so small or meaningless) which makes its cults even stranger.


I also feel that Lovecraft's best stories don't revolve around needing to avert the imminent end of the world, which if a common way to raise stakes in RPGs and videogames.

Agreed. That's why I like "smaller stake" monsters like Elder Things or cults attached to a single creature.


When I first read Lovecraft, the mention of 'The Old Ones' struck me as shadowy presences of malign intelligence. No mere menagerie of fugly kaiju. Not just monsters. Fighting them would be like fighting the wind or gravity.

Good point on the fugly kaiju.

I often have the PCs discover that Mythos creatures don't feel time as we do. Our year may be their second and our single second may be their year, and both simultaneously. Thus, human civilization is utterly momentary, but if they do pay attention, the amount of damage even a minor Mythos being could do in that "one round" is almost unfathomable.
 

TristramEvans

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I've said it before, and I''ll say it again, but I think the only RPG-like game to correctly capture the feel and spirit of Lovecraft's original stories is De Profundis.

Which is, in fact, not really an RPG, but a Story Game, in the classic sense of the term. Players communicate with each other via letters. It's one of those games that I think would actually work really well in online play.

Call of Cthulhu and other Mythos-themed games aren't really "Lovecraftian", in the literary sense of that term (and there's just as much Machen, Chambers, Bloch, and Derleth etc in the DNA of those games as Lovecraft himself). Which is, I'd say, a good thing. Actually roleplaying a group of five people slowly going insane as their reality crumbles around them might make a fun one-shot, but it's not much good for a role-playing campaign or long-term play, and would get old pretty fast.
 

Brock Savage

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I think at this point the Mythos is bigger than Lovecraft in the same way that D&D is bigger than Gygax and Sword & Sorcery is bigger than Howard. I use the following literary themes from the excellent Realm of Crawling Chaos as my guide for building a Mythos game:

The Insignificance of Man
The Vastness of the Universe
The Reality of Man as an Animal
An Uncaring Natural World
Science as a Double Edged Sword
Superior Otherworldly Beings
 

Teotwawki

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I think games--and a lot of GMs--get Cthuluvian critters "wrong" in that they miss the point that many aspects of the Mythos are, at best, semi-material in our shared plane of existence. Example: despite repeated popular internet citation, a ship in the South Pacific didn't "kill" Cthulhu any more than deleting a disagreeable meme on a social media page destroys all known copies.

Trans-dimensional existence isn't easy for some folk to grok, and that shows in a number of published games, a greater number of tabletop experiences. Natural order and laws of physics don't apply to Yog-sothothery. An encounter with it is not just seeing, hearing, and smelling some fœtid thing, it's being in the presence of another world, and the actions and reactions of atomic particles are altered; thinking, feeling, and sensory input becomes damaged; belief and consciousness are molested.

That's why I think games do Cthulhu "wrong".

Of course, your universal reality may vary.
 

Ladybird

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I think games--and a lot of GMs--get Cthuluvian critters "wrong" in that they miss the point that many aspects of the Mythos are, at best, semi-material in our shared plane of existence. Example: despite repeated popular internet citation, a ship in the South Pacific didn't "kill" Cthulhu any more than deleting a disagreeable meme on a social media page destroys all known copies.

Trans-dimensional existence isn't easy for some folk to grok, and that shows in a number of published games, a greater number of tabletop experiences. Natural order and laws of physics don't apply to Yog-sothothery. An encounter with it is not just seeing, hearing, and smelling some fœtid thing, it's being in the presence of another world, and the actions and reactions of atomic particles are altered; thinking, feeling, and sensory input becomes damaged; belief and consciousness are molested.

That's why I think games do Cthulhu "wrong".

Of course, your universal reality may vary.
I like the way Cthulhu Dark does it; if you try to fight an otherworld entity to win, you die. It can't be done. You lose. You can fight to escape, or defend something, or someone, or hold them off, fine, but that's it.
 

Black Leaf

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Simlasa

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An encounter with it is not just seeing, hearing, and smelling some fœtid thing, it's being in the presence of another world, and the actions and reactions of atomic particles are altered; thinking, feeling, and sensory input becomes damaged; belief and consciousness are molested.
That's been my answer to people who claim they wouldn't run in fear from seeing 'X'... that they've seen soooo many modern special FX movies with big oogie monsters that they would be immune to seeing any Mythos stuff.
That even beyond the confronting realization that 'X' is real... you'd also be in the twisted time-space its presence brings about. Lovecraft mentions in a few places how the presence of such things can corrupt a place... leave lingering wrong-ness. Kind of like 'Roadside Picnic'/Stalker... or the town in Uzumaki.
 

The Butcher

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Saying a game is “doing Cthulhu wrong” makes about as much sense as saying D&D is “doing fantasy wrong” because it does not map 1:1 to Tolkien or Howard or whatever.

The Mythos has mutated well beyond Lovecraft’s (and friends’) haphazard continuity and inconstant style, into its own pop culture beast.

CoC6 had this nice line — “Lovecraft did not confine himself to the Mythos, and neither should you” and that’s advice I wish the self-appointed genre police would follow.

(On a related not, sorry, not seeing that video, for reasons that I trust should be obvious.)

“Lovecraftian horror should be about lack of agency.”

I believe lack of agency can make for good horror, but lousy gaming. (Except when used very sparingly.)

Besides, it’s not like Mythos protagonists lose every time. Their victories might be tiny by Great Old One standards but meaningful at the human scale.

And finally — no one is beholden to be faithful to any author, school or inspiration. Want to kill Cthulhu with mecha? To go full Derleth and play white hat agents of the Elder Gods vs. bad guy Great Old One cultists? To play Aquaman riding Cthulhu into battle? Be my guest. Just set expectations with your players and go nuts.
 
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Simlasa

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The Mythos has mutated well beyond Lovecraft’s (and friends’) haphazard continuity and inconstant style, into its own pop culture beast.
Having Cthulhu show up in something has become a pretty lazy reference... the same sort of brilliant as Superman being a fascist or Batman liking young boys... but also selling toothpaste.
Any meaningful image eventually gets ground into something safe. I'm looking forward to Shoggoth's having pie fights with Abbot & Costello.
 
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