Friday, November 3, 2017

The Worst Call of Cthulhu Game I Ever Played

Even though the spooky season is technically over for another year, I have one last chilling story to tell. A tale of player expectations laid low, and of a game that began with such potential, but which lost layer upon layer of intrigue and complexity to reveal the staring, wide eyes of madness. A game that still sends shudders down my spine whenever I think on it.

This was the first Call of Cthulhu game I ever played. Learn from my woes so that your eldritch horrors stay where they should, and bring the terror they were intended to.

There but for the grace of Yog-Sothoth go I.

It All Started Well...

Early in my gaming career, before I had experience with anything other than the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, I got invited by my then-roommate to play a Call of Cthulhu game. I was a fan of Lovecraft's work, and of his contemporaries like Robert E. Howard, and the idea of switching genre, setting, and system struck me as a welcome change to my gaming schedule. The pitch was that characters would all be members of a relatively small, but prestigious, college community.

You know, your standard Lovecraft protagonists.

Like a slasher movie cast, but with graduate degrees.
Early on, I realized the DM was serious about this game. He gave all the initial players (four or five, I can't rightly recall now) only the starting points to spend, and we had to roll our stats in order. Old-school style. My dice didn't betray me entirely, and I ended up with a character who was slightly above average in intelligence, a little higher on charisma, and who, despite being a college student, rolled max on income. And thus was born Victor Black, a fellow who had more aptitude for investments than for most of his other courses, and whose family was largely responsible for the grants that got prominent buildings on campus funded.

Joining Victor was a fellow student majoring in languages and cultures, and one of her sorority friends who worked off-campus at a local strip club, and who for reasons unknown to anyone but the player, carried a katana around in a gym bag. Rounding out the initial party was a local private detective, who was sniffing around campus because someone was paying him to dig up dirt on one of the professors. Aside from the influence of Joss Whedon's work on one of the PCs, everyone else fit the tone, feel, and general setup for what I expected from a Call of Cthulhu game.

Not only did character creation go well, but so did the first few sessions. We ran into each other at a campus party, and ended up chatting with a student about how they couldn't seem to find their history prof. He wasn't keeping office hours, and there was a stack of mail piled up at his on-campus house. He wasn't answering email or calls, and they were worried it was going to mean they couldn't get the help they needed by the end of the semester. So, being good Samaritans, we offered to do our part to look into it. We found the professor's house empty, and ransacked. Something bad had clearly happened, but we didn't know what. So we called the cops, but that just got us stuck further in, rather than pulled out.

You Miss One Session, And It All Goes To Hell

I was working two jobs around this time, and since I got called in to work an odd shift, I missed a game session. The DM told me the session I missed went well, and that some other players had shown interest. He'd run it no problem, and he thought it was going well. That sounded promising, so when I showed up to the next session I was not prepared for what I ran into.

What the hell? My game was just here... I swear it was!
In my absence, the game had swelled from a handful of players, to twelve people. And while we'd had mostly average, normal people (the sort of folks who get roped into Lovecraft plots), it seemed that none of the new players had any interest in maintaining that trend. We had a loose canon police detective, convinced there was a drug-ring conspiracy going on who kept waving her gun around and threatening to arrest anyone who looked at her funny. We had a local survivalist and nutter who had more weapons on his person than he had teeth. And so on, and so forth as we went through the stereotypes of gang members, prize fighters, road warriors, and others.

This shift in player base, and character concepts, had also transformed the game's tone. What had been a mystery plot, where a handful of investigators were trying to find a disappeared professor while trying to get a sense of the strange relics and manuscripts he'd left behind (one being a copy of Unspeakable Cults in the original German), we now had a rag-tag group of door-kicking thugs whose only goal was to find anyone who knew more than they did, and beat/intimidate the answers out of them.

That shift in tone wouldn't have been entirely bad on its own. There is a precedent for Delta Green games, if that's your bag. However, it was a shift that pretty much jettisoned any subtlety, and which had no concern for the world lore, or the plot as it was set up. Worse, the new characters were prepped for war out of an entirely meta concern that they were playing an RPG, rather than because something had actually made their characters believe they were in danger. If you've ever played a World of Darkness game where players decide to just load up on hardware and start building pipe bombs because, hey, this is a WoD game and that means there's bad shit coming their way, then you've seen this before. They were paranoid and heavily armed not because they knew of the horrors of the mythos (none of them had a Cthulhu Mythos skill), and not because they'd experienced anything out of the ordinary for this setting, but because the players didn't get the memo that if you start combat in a Call of Cthulhu game, you've pretty much already lost. You're squishy, the antagonists are squamous beings from the outer reaches of the cosmos... you lose.

Knowledge is how you defeat them. And no one was using their brains at this table.

The best example of this is what I would call the culmination of this plot arc. The professor, you see, had found a statuette of Tsathoggua, and had secreted himself inside the access tunnels beneath the library to begin a summoning ritual. You know, the sort of thing mad cultists do in a CoC setting. We had an idea of where he was, but no clue about what he was doing. We'd seen no mythos creatures, been subject to no magic, and except for finding a few unexpected bloodstains, hadn't had to make that many sanity checks. Despite that, to go track down one rogue professor who we thought had simply gone a little bonkers but who was otherwise harmless, every member of the party (excluding my PC) armed themselves with guns, blades, and actual body armor as if they were a SWAT team getting ready to raid a Mafia stronghold.

Eleven heavily-armed nutters kicked in the door, and found one old man in tattered clothes, his beard grown long, standing over a makeshift altar. It was absurd. He held a ritual knife in his hand, and when he didn't drop it (after it was established he was speaking gibberish and and looked like he hadn't slept in days), the firing squad opened up on him. He was dead after three shots, but they kept going just in case. In case of what I couldn't say, other than he was clearly a bad guy in a Call of Cthulhu game, and you get XP and rewards for killing bad guys, right? Just like how vigilante justice always goes down swimmingly in the real world?

That was around the time the self-proclaimed occultist, and the only guy who looked like he had half a clue despite being dressed like Chris Angel's mopey second-cousin, picks up the bloody ritual dagger. A dagger that is now part of what could very likely be a murder scene, and that is both ancient, and creepy looking. But hey, what harm can it do? So he picks it up... and immediately loses his character as he's possessed by the spirit of one of Clark Ashton Smith's greatest additions to the mythos.

Then, just as he was going to do his very best to bring a knife to a gun fight, a squad of campus police officers showed up, and all failed their sanity checks. They shot at the possessed occultist, they shot at the spirit hovering over him, and at things only they could see. Victor survived because as soon as this nonsense started going pear-shaped, he took to his heels and bolted out of there. He was one of the only PCs to survive with marginal sanity intact, and with no wounds.

Don't Forget The Ambiance!

Right, how could I forget that?

So, in addition to a bunch of players taking what was established as a mythos-classic game, and trying to turn it into Buffy The Vampire Slayer with more guns, there was something else that happened. A complete and total erosion of any ambiance and atmosphere.

Part of that was where it was played. The sheer number of people meant we needed a big venue, so we had a long table set up at two of the players' house. It was in the dining room, so it was brightly lit, and all the curtains were open to let in the afternoon sunshine. And, of course, because they had a wee one, there was the sound of children's cartoons and singing from about fifteen feet away from the game table.

That's bad enough, but what are you going to do? Some gamers get kids, and kids need to be entertained. The problem was that no one other than three of the original players made much of an effort to roleplay, to maintain the tone of the game, or to play sensical characters with realistic reactions to things. You know, the sorts of people who are more likely to believe that a college professor had a psychotic break due to stress and a deteriorating marriage when they find his house empty, as opposed to people who immediately jump to the conclusion that his erratic behavior is a sign he's possessed by demonic forces, and that he is now an agent of eternal evil who can be killed with impunity.

All in all, it was a game ruined by several things. One, that the DM didn't know how to say no, and stuffed a dozen people into a game he was (at least initially) trying to make a ground-level, slowly-ratcheting thriller that would tip into genuine cosmic horror. Second, the blatant metagaming of most of the players at the table, made somehow worse by little to no knowledge of the mythos lore they were supposed to be uncovering. And third, the long waits between turns, resolved actions, etc., which was filled largely by out-of-character chatter that made it impossible for anyone to hear what was supposed to be happening, much less to be scared by it.

In short, this game is the reason I helped Dungeon Keeper Radio put together an episode for running horror campaigns. Because this experience was many things, but scary it was not.

So, that's my rambling account of my first, and extremely poor, interaction with a Cthulhu mythos game. There have been others since, and I will say they were much more satisfying.

If you liked this story, check out my other Table Talk entries. If you've got some of your own, I'd be happy to shine a spotlight on you. If you're looking for more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help me keep Improved Initiative going, consider becoming a Patreon patron. Just head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss some love in my tip jar.

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