In a world where geek culture is becoming ever more pervasive, where videogames sell millions of copies and comic books get adapted into blockbuster movies, there still remains one hobby that rides along the edges. There is still one hobby that is shunned by the mainstream. Join me now as we explore the world of tabletop role-playing games. Join me, the TABLETOP WIZARD!
October! The time when most people are thinking about black cats, witches, what kind of sexy black cat or witch they’re going to dress up as (or where they’re going to go to view women dressed up as sexy black cats or witches), the Tabletop Wizard is thinking of something completely different: Horror role-playing.
I’ve mentioned before that there are all types of RPG games; pretty much every genre you can think of is covered by one ruleset or another, and horror role-playing is no different. You’ve got Chill, Vampire: The Masquerade (or any of the White Wolf games which cover almost every monster from ghosts to werewolves), Deadlands (for that Weird West flair), and so many others.
My personal favorite, though, is Call of Cthulhu. Big shocker there. I would think that anyone who ended up on this site would already be familiar with at least the concept of Cthulhu; it’s become quite in vogue on the Internet to invoke H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal and horrible dragon-octopus-space god when you need a stand-in for ultimate evil (or cuteness, depending on where you’re searching). Anyway, Call of Cthulhu is, yes, a story written by early 20th century author of sci-fi/horror/weird fiction H.P. Lovecraft, but it’s also a damned good role-playing game system designed by Sandy Petersen and still published to this day by Chaosium.
The system is an extremely simple one, with a few genius mechanics that set it apart from most others. The Call of Cthulhu RPG is an investigation game – it’s all about gathering information, digging up clues and gradually revealing the scope of the threat you must eventually face down or flee from. It was designed to emulate the oft-times bleak, apathetic and sanity-destroying universe of Lovecraft where, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, if you happen upon a monster in the sewers, it would be much preferable to run the other way than to try and engage it.
The base mechanics are all about percentages. You want to find out information about that oddly angled stone you found in the church steeple? Visit the library and roll under your Library Use skill on a pair of ten-sided die or a D100 (if you’re feeling sassy). Different situations modify the rolls in different ways because it’s not always easy to fire your gun at a vast and Polyphemus-like blasphemy even in the best conditions.
This brings me to the Sanity mechanic: Lovecraft’s protagonists are constantly finding themselves in situations of cosmic horror, learning about things man was not meant to know and glimpsing things that the prosaic human mind has no reference for, which generally leads to them passing out from the overwhelming emotional stress. In CoC, this is emulated by rolling against your character’s Sanity, or SAN, stat. A sanity roll can be forced in any number of ways, from facing down a croaking Deep One to stumbling upon a dead body stuffed in a closet – anything that is out of the norm for Joe Sixpack to experience can cost a character Sanity points. If you lose enough in a single game session, your character can go temporarily, or even permanently, insane. It may be needless to say that Call of Cthulhu players are generally a cautious bunch. They may start out brazen, but toward the end of any given campaign you can bet they’re hiring local toughs to kick down doors in their stead.
Call of Cthulhu is a deeply cinematic game; it’s a system that gives an immense amount of power to the Keeper (the CoC term for the Dungeon Master). It is also at its very core a game of pure storytelling – the stats and character sheets and die rolls service one thing: the narrative. It’s not a game about heroics (though heroics do happen), and it’s not a game about toppling evil warlords and tossing around magic spells (though these things can happen as well); it’s a game about understanding your limitations and trying to push beyond them. While it’s not an inherently heroic fantasy-type game, the characters involved are often the most heroic and selfless you’ll find in games. After all, they’re willing to sacrifice life, limb and even sanity in an attempt to understand the cosmic doom that hovers over all of mankind and in some small way try to stop it.
It’s not always easy to run a horror game, because it’s all about the buildup. It’s all about the lead-in. Like in a good horror movie, you want to try to ground as much of your game in reality as possible. You want your player characters to have names and jobs. Maybe you’ll want to run through some mundane and routine tasks that these characters would do in their daily lives at the start of the game. One of the most effective things in Lovecraft’s writing is just how real he writes the real world. He had a scientist’s eye for detail and he used it to great effect. As the Keeper in a Call of Cthulhu game, you want to try to emulate that style.
The main ruleset for CoC is set during the time that Lovecraft was writing: the 1920s and ’30s. There are gaming sourcebooks for these time periods that are so detailed that they could probably be used in any American History course, and CoC is well known for its use of props and handouts that are authentic to the period, all to help ground the players in this alternate world. These tricks, however, don’t need to be exclusive to the Call of Cthulhu system, or to horror role-playing in general. The point of any RPG is to immerse yourself and the players in the world of the game, and sometimes that can be very difficult.
Here are some tips that I use when I run a horror game:
Use reality to make the strange and supernatural all that more otherworldly. As I mentioned before, ground your game in reality. Spend some time on the characters before the threat even presents itself. Run them through a day at work. Don’t be afraid to throw atmospheric things into your game that your players can never understand.
For example, I recently ran a Call of Cthulhu Delta Green game for some friends. Delta Green is a modern-day conspiratorial setting for the CoC RPG. The main case had to deal with a certain mathematical formula that, when solved, drove people insane. One of the non-player characters had solved the equation and when the player characters caught up with her, she was standing by the side of the road taking notes about each car that passed by. In effect, she was using the formula to predict the license plates of the passing cars before they passed, but this wasn’t something she explained to the PCs or something that was integral to the plot.
One of the other NPCs who became infected by the numbers claimed that the numbers were talking to her from the air, and that she needed to “clear off the earth” to make way for those that would come after. Again, not a detail that has anything to do with the plot, really – just a creepy way to show how those infected by the formula now view the world. I also played both NPCs as very normal and for the most part friendly characters. Crazy people often don’t know that they’re nuts. It also adds to the feel that there’s a much larger world out there, and the PCs are only glimpsing a portion of it.
Play up sounds and smells, temperature and bodily sensations. As humans, we’re inexorably tied to our senses. They’re our gatekeepers to the world, so I’ve found that the easiest way to immerse your players in the world you’re creating is to play up the smells and the sounds. Let them know what that hotel room smells like and what the babble of the outdoor marketplace resembles. Would their characters be cold or warm? Is it stuffy where they are? Is their collar chafing? When the monsters are near and the PCs don’t realize it yet, is the hair standing up on the backs of their necks? When they cast a spell, what does that feel like? Just some things to think about before you run your game. It can be very effective.
Role-play first, then let the dice decide. I love role-playing! It’s why I wanted to write this column. Horror and investigation games are the perfect vehicles for some great role-playing. I love it when the players start to call each other by their character’s names. I love it when they say things like, “Well, I would do this…but I’m not sure my character would.” In order to coerce them into thinking more like their characters, I like to have them role-play out any NPC character interaction first, and then roll the dice to see if they succeed.
For example, in the game I mentioned previously, two characters needed to find a way into a school dorm room. The elderly woman at the desk wasn’t about to let two older strangers into a building full of college kids until one of the players decided he wanted to seduce her. So, we role-played it out, then he rolled and rolled well. They got in with no problems, and the old woman was more than happy to help them out after that. I also like to give bonuses to rolls for exceptional role-playing.
If it serves the story to forgo a die roll, always serve the story first. As the Keeper or GM, always remember that you’re in total control. The rules are there to help you govern the world, but it makes no sense to make yourself a slave to them. If you can fudge a roll and make something dramatic happen – for good or ill – go for it! I’m also a big fan of critical successes and failures actually having a huge effect on the game. If someone rolls a critical failure, something absolutely terrible is going to happen to them. The same goes for successes. If it’s in combat, they’ll do something so totally awesome that it might change the tide of the battle. If it’s for a skill, I might give them some freebie skill checks the next few times they use the skill.
Never call your monsters by name! Just don’t do it! Describe them – preserve the mystery of the world. As soon as the players hear the words “Deep One,” they have a reference for what they’re fighting. If they’re playing CoC, then they’re probably familiar with the Lovecraft mythos and they’ll know all sorts of things about the Deep Ones. It’s now a quantified thing.
If you instead say, “You see something splash around the corner. It’s vaguely man-shaped with two legs and two arms – but that’s where the similarities end. Its feet are wide and huge, as are its hands. Flat and webbed. Its shoulders slope up powerfully and sprout a head that sends shivers down your spine. A too-big mouth gapes open and shut, white needle-like teeth glimmer within. Its eyes – huge and reflective in the dark tunnel – stare out, unblinking. At the sides of its neck, the occasional slight flutter of gills. The reek of sea water and brine is almost overpowering. You don’t think it’s seen you yet; what do you want to do?” Now people who aren’t familiar with CoC get an idea about what a Deep One is, and those who are very familiar get a more personal and primal experience with something that they know very well.
Horror role-playing is great because it needn’t be a serial game. They’re great for one-shots, and the Call of Cthulhu system is so easy to pick up that you could be running a game within an hour after flipping through the core rulebook. Use the tips above, and you’ve got a great few hours of gameplay ahead of you. So, instead of going to the same boring old Halloween parties this October, give a horror game a try. Just don’t lose too much sanity!
If any of you out there have any gaming tips, I’d love to hear them – sharing is caring!