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One thing that needs to be examined re: mystery/horror gaming, is the relative fragility of player characters. When Cthulhu d20 came out, it was widely praised except for one item that got smacked up one side and down the other, which was that hit points still went up with level, theoretically enabling a 10th level character to get a shotgun blast to the face and still be in the fight. (This is not necessarily the case, BTW. The massive damage threshold in CoC d20 is a low, low 10 points. A shotgun to the face, doing an average of 12 points of damage, would trigger a Fort save vs. DC 15 to avoid dying instantly, no matter what your level or how high your HP. But I digress.) The general perception is that in order to keep suspense, the characters should be both fragile and expendable.

I've never actually played Call of Cthulhu, but I've read accounts of games where there was almost a revolving door of characters coming in one session, getting devoured or going nuts the next session, and a replacement character coming in the third. I've always found this baffling — how can you get any emotional investment in a character who's only going to be around for six hours or less of gameplay? And how can you come up with concept after concept when they get knocked down like so many bowling pins, short of resorting to "This is Agatha Lovejoy's twin brother Arnold Lovejoy..." followed by "This is Agatha and Arnold's cousin, Rupert Lovejoy..."

On the other hand, if the characters aren't threatened by combat, the natural instinct of most gamers will be to shoot first and ask questions later (if at all). Nothing takes care of gibbering cultists quite so efficiently as a Thompson equipped with a 50-round drum — at which point you're playing Doom or something instead.

So, it's a paradox which is going to require some thought. I'm curious, any of you out there in LJ-land who have played CoC (in any incarnation), how deadly was it? And how did it impact your experience? I'm very interested to hear about it.

-The Gneech


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 12th, 2008 10:35 pm (UTC)
I've found that, at least in BRP Cthulhu, it's pretty deadly, but really characters tend more to end up in the hospital than outright dead. Wounded guys do bookwork, healthy guys, unlucky suckers, do legwork. And NPCs tend to become PCs rather than "the lovejoy clan."
Jun. 12th, 2008 10:51 pm (UTC)
Heh! Interesting. :) I would imagine it's kind of weird to have an adventure from bed.

Jun. 12th, 2008 10:43 pm (UTC)
Well, it really depends on who's running it. The idea behind the high lethality threshold of the game wasn't so much to feed fresh characters down Shub-Niggurath's gullet so much as it was to maintain an atmosphere of terror. Considering the usual RPG tendency to boost characters up to the point where almost nothing presents an actual threat to them is sorta counter-terror (so to speak), a fear-based game must feature a constant tension of potential messy death. Without that, the game's "horror" becomes a dark fantasy backdrop - as is often the case with World of Darkness games - not true Lovecraftian terror.

As for who would play such a game, and how? Um, you did. The pulp horror game I ran back in college? That was essentially Call of Cthulhu with the HERO System rules. It's all in how you play it. :)
Jun. 12th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC)
Actually, I posted about that game in reference to this topic a while back. Thing is, the HERO System rules are fairly forgiving, even for heroic-level characters. Pudgy ol' Professor Mannington held off a knife-wielding cultist with his bare fists, as I recall. That's why I was asking about CoC specifically.

Jun. 12th, 2008 10:54 pm (UTC)
Awwww. I wasn't sure you remembered that! Thanks. :)
Jun. 12th, 2008 11:04 pm (UTC)
Credit where credit is due! That was a great game. :) I always hoped we'd do a sequel to that one sometime.

Jun. 12th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC)
Panavision, Arriflex, celluloid...
Jun. 13th, 2008 10:18 pm (UTC)
This is a good point. The game isn't necessarily "you're so fragile that you just die in droves." You can survive (though possibly only to spiral into madnesss)...you just need to be cautious and realize you're a non-superhero who can get hit by a truck and die.

CoC characters have some degree of sturdiness...you can do things like get shot a couple times and live to tell about it...it's just not a game that lends itself, unmodified to picking up and axe, grunting "it's you and me, ugly!" and hoping it'll come out alright in the end.

The idea is you do develop an attachment to the character, and so you fear for his life a little...so you end up playing him like someone who fears for its own. That's CoC of it. It's not just a horror game. It's a fear game.
Jun. 13th, 2008 01:03 am (UTC)
I played in a very good CoC campaign years ago. (Original rules). We had a bit of character turnover, but in the month or two that the campaign went, only 4 or 5 characters died/went insane/something else horrible.

I think the fragility of the characters forced the party to be innovative about how we aproached danger (which is something the system aims for). We couldn't just grab a bunch of guns and going blazing in, we had to find ways around some of the major dangers or to very quickly think and react to the dangers we were facing.

The slow decent of sanity is genius if role played well. All of the party members slowly got more and more twitchy and we descended deeper in the storyline. It was a real loss to me when my character had to be institutionalized...
Jun. 13th, 2008 01:13 am (UTC)
I'd never played any form of the game myself, but from chatter I'd heard, PCs often found human NPCs, random animals, or each other deadlier than the requisite Horrors From Beyond Space And Time©.

Then again, that may have been one GM's peculiarity. *shrug*
Jun. 13th, 2008 01:56 am (UTC)
o/` If you're feeling dead, I'll be your Reanimator!
I've got the way to bring you to life! o/`

Jun. 13th, 2008 03:01 am (UTC)
Well, think of the survival rate of your average character in a lovecraftian novel. The few that do make it out alive are usually a gibbering wreck, and some of these were people at the top of their form.

The problem is that there is a conflict between *authenticity* and good roleplaying mechanics. The soundest strategy in the few of this style horror game that i've played is often a honkload of running away. Trouble is, roll lousy, and it's goodbye you.

As other folks have noted, CoC isn't about the combat nearly as much as it is about the roleplaying, planning, strategy, and often running like crazy and whimpering for your mother.
Jun. 13th, 2008 06:01 am (UTC)
As someone who's GMed at least three games in three different genres that turned into horror games -- not always intentionally -- I will tell you what my GURPS Supers players learned:

It doesn't matter how many hit points you have, or what amazing powers and abilities you may possess: if you're up against someone or something who can remove the heart from someone's chest without leaving a mark, and abduct a party member without being seen even by the abductee, bladder control issues WILL arise.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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