Limiting the Creative Agenda: Restrictive Assumptions In Chaosium's <em><b>Call of Cthulhu</b></em>

Limiting the Creative Agenda: Restrictive Assumptions In Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu

David Alger

David Alger responds to Herber by disagreeing with the latter’s claim that narrative trumps game-play in the Cthulhu “Haunted House” scenario, stressing that even the most narratively driven games still must be playable in order to be games.

Call of Cthulhu (CoC) is a rare phenomenon in the world of role-playing games (RPGs). That it is such a commercial success and so beloved by its players after a quarter of a century is testament to its brilliance, a brilliance which cannot be fully explained by the underlying mythos. Even RPGs based on the most wonderful films and books regularly fail miserably.

That does not mean that all praise is warranted, nor criticism unjustified, however. Keith Herber makes a number of claims regarding CoC that I feel are overstated; I see the roots of these exaggerations as being in the weaknesses and assumptions of the original Cthulhu game.

The Creative Agenda of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu

To put it bluntly, I think Cthulhu is more gamist than it needs to be (or indeed wants to be) and The Haunted House scenario falls into the same trap.

I am borrowing the term ‘gamist’ from the Threefold Model which grew out of the forum. It has been nicely defined by one of the contributors to the forum, John Kim, in the FAQ he produced. Kim puts it as follows: “ ‘gamist’: is the style which values setting up a fair challenge for the players (as opposed to the PCs [Player Characters, ed.]).” (Kim n.d.)

The other two styles in the model have been labelled Dramatist (values the unfolding story) and Simulationist (values the coherence of the game world - which should be noted is not the same thing as being ‘realistic’). One does not have to accept the model or the interaction of the elements that make up the model in order to appreciate its existence. Ron Edwards, an influential game designer and theorist in the Indie-RPG community came up with the slightly different GNS model (gamist, narrativist, simulationist) (Edwards n.d.) and developed that further into his “Big Model” where these three elements are recognised as “Creative Agenda” (Edwards 2004).

Whether or not these models prove useful for designers or academics, they resonate with players because they expect or want an RPG to provide them with something and quickly come to see that not everyone wants or expects the same. If they want a fair chance to solve the mystery and rescue the situation they will start to feel hard done by, if they realise that they are doomed to failure (or success) no matter what. If they want to be part of an exciting story (valuing the dramatist/narrativist part) they will be disappointed if it all falls apart and the story falters because they kept rolling low numbers with their dice. If they value being part of a consistent fantasy world (simulationist) and want to explore it they will feel robbed when something breaks with their world’s established canon.

It is a matter of debate as to whether stressing the gamist part of an RPG must result in a weakening of either of the other two. What I am arguing is that Chaosium’s CoC is constraining players in its promotion of the gamist element and The Haunted House is a further example of this.

Why might this be? Well, role-playing grew out of tabletop wargaming, as Herber notes, and so it is natural that the game element is prominent. Wargaming scenarios usually provide what is hoped to be a fair fight giving players a chance to “win.” D&D grew out of that background and in it rewards are offered in the form of points or benefits. Herber attempts to distance Cthulhu from some of the gamist elements of D&D and other early RPGs, but I don’t think that some of these distinctions (such as with player motivation and the ‘saving throw’ mechanics) are entirely valid.

First, I want to look at a couple of Herber’s claims and argue that Call of Cthulhu is really a lot less unique from a narrative point of view than he argues and closer to the gamist roots of role-playing games than it might appear at first sight. Second, I will claim that the rulebook and many of the scenarios show a consistent bias towards the gamist agenda, and then third, I will contrast the narrative of Herber’s scenario with the more dramatist/narrativist styles prevalent in some more recent RPGs.

Evaluating Cthulhu’s ‘Unique’ Aspects

To begin with a couple of Herber’s points, he writes “Call of Cthulhu was unique to RPGs in that it did not rely on experience points, treasure or other tangible rewards” (Herber 2007: 41) and that player characters (PCs) would not be working to gain “fame or respect.”

On closer examination, however, the PCs do gain “experience ticks” through their actions, allowing them to tackle trickier adventures, making the distinction a little finer than suggested and, while PCs are not adventurers out for money and fame, they are offered 10% of the house’s sale value and if they win will become “well-known in occult circles” (Herber 1990: 119).

The “weakness” in the mechanics of other games that Herber brings up (for instance in the idea of representing horror via a ‘saving throw’) is somewhat misleading as he depicts a rather awful role-playing session. Moreover, one could point to some rather poor examples of making sanity checks in Cthulhu like the following:

Keeper: You three try sanity rolls for 1/1D10 points each.

Joe: I made my roll successfully.

Cathy: I blew it, but Jake lost only 3 Sanity points.

Paula: Uh-oh! I’m really scared. I lost 9 points.

Keeper: Let’s see. Paula, your investigator is not indefinitely insane, since you had 76 points…

(Example from the Call of Cthulhu rulebook, Petersen and Willis 2005: 81).

This example is as poor - in terms of narrative failure and intrusion of the game mechanic - as the one Herber gives, but since the Sanity system is one of the endearing and enduring aspects of the CoC system, clearly a system is not invalidated by one poor example.

The assumed Creative Agenda of Chaosium’s CoC

Switching from Herber’s argument to the CoC publications themselves, I want to look at some of the underlying assumptions they seem to contain. For example the rulebook makes the point that part of the enjoyment comes from scaring the players (not the PCs). It may be pushing the point but when Herber says “A player creeping around any CoC scenario who has a current SAN rating of 33 (or possibly less) is usually ready to jump out of his skin” one should remember that it is the character that has the SAN rating!

A dramatist might quite like to role-play during a character’s descent into madness, the question becomes not “will I make it?” but rather the thrill of anticipation: “what will put my character over the edge?” and “will he defeat the villain first?”

That does not preclude tension or even fear through identification with a character, but it is not the same emotion as the designers envision as a natural aim of CoC: “Call of Cthulhu is a vehicle for alternately scaring and then reassuring players” (Petersen and Willis 2005: 25).

Certainly it is true that the Cthulhu rulebook says “If the investigators do exciting things stylishly and memorably, keeper and players alike have won” (Petersen and Willis 2005: 26), but it is still clear that there is a game to be played and that the target is for the investigators to solve the mystery. Keepers are encouraged to make sure that there is a challenge for the players, or else they will “become bored” (Petersen and Willis 2005: 25). This implies that it is the challenge of defeating opponents that makes the game fun. Players are ‘investigators’ and the point is to solve the mystery. An early scenario writer put it like this: “Death in Dunwich, like all good Cthulhu scenarios, is a mystery” (Wimble 1983: 33). The rulebook has the same message: “The game is an evolving interaction between players in the guise of characters unravelling a mystery” (Petersen and Willis 2005: 25).

By way of contrast, the more recent Wizards of the Coast’s Cthulhu d20 rulebook added a stronger narrative dimension: “Playing a role-playing game involves sitting around a table or room telling a collaborative story with a group of players” (Cook and Tynes 2002: 5).

The metaphor is more that of actors and directors than players and referee. It is possible that this Cthulhu RPG has placed too much emphasis on the dramatist style and fails to recognise the needs of other styles. However, the change of style is quite clear as one reads through the two different rule-sets. The Chaosium CoC slants heavily towards the gamist agenda.

I should point out that the Simulationist style is strongly present in CoC. The Mythos pushes it strongly. It is not expected that one can go toe-to-toe with Shoggoth so a more investigative theme is suggested by the rulebook (Petersen and Willis 2005: 26). Some fans of the Cthulhu Mythos are appalled by the idea that one might want to have it any other way. Reading a review of the d20 CoC the reviewer answered a presumably prevalent question:

“Does this game - through use of its level/feat/class based groundwork *promote* sessions in which Investigators attack cultist hide-outs A-Team style? No - bad players and worse Gamemasters promote that” (Harford 2003). It is declared “bad” to want to play “A-Team style” because that breaks the Simulationist understanding of the Cthulhu Mythos. Interestingly, the D20 rules do open up these “non-Lovecraftian” possibilities and declare literally, “Do as thou wilt” (Cook and Tynes 2002: 5). If Chaosium’s CoC is too gamist, it is not without the possibility of becoming too Simulationist.

The Narrative expectations of The Haunted House

It should be noted, on the other hand, that I am not suggesting that there is no narrative in The Haunted House, even if the lack of a typical narrative structure or clear progression makes it seem a little thin. Narratives which one can access from various points have long existed, after all, for instance the experiments with Shufflebooks or the recent audio production which comes on two CDs which can be listened to in various orders (Morris 2003).

The fact that one can have one’s encounters with the haunt in a fairly undefined order does not necessarily weaken the possibilities for a more Dramatist group. After all, the adventure begins with the players going to the house and most climaxes will involve a battle with the haunt. (I suspect few groups will explore the rest of the house after dealing with the haunt, just to have a look.)

However, that there is no defined shape to the story between these points does make it harder to adapt the scenario for the less-gamist group. The haunted house is there to be investigated and exorcised, it is not there to be escaped from (quite the contrary) and it is not there as the backdrop to a rescue scenario. I think this is a weakness of the scenario which reflects the inherent assumptions of the RPG. It is a good scenario for a specific type of player - i.e. one for whom the gamist element is, at least during the scenario, the prime motivating agenda - when the richness of both the Cthulhu Mythos and Herber’s fantastically detailed and enticing house could be used for so much more.

Newer scenarios (for instance the d20 campaign Nocturnum) are different in precisely this respect. The Haunted House puts the onus firmly on the investigation by the players: “It is not the designer’s intention that this mystery be solved at the first attempt” (Herber 1990: 85), and instructs the dramatist game master to avoid moving the plot along: “The keeper should not assist the players” and advises “If the, players [my emphasis] are both persistent and intelligent, they are likely to solve the mystery” (Herber 1990: 119). In Nocturnum, however, the story unfolds more around the players who are more front-row audience members as well as lead actors/co-writers. The drive comes more from the game master and the unfolding adventure is described by phrases like “one by one the pieces fall into place,” and “the investigators slowly realise…” (Petersen and Hardy 1999: 7).

Certainly a good game master can create a whole new adventure in the Van Laaden house, but it is an adaptation because the gamist slant looks for players to play in a certain way rather than saying “here’s a house; this is what’s going on; come on in.”

Certainly Lovecraft’s stories favour the “discovery plot” and “overreacher plot” as Kenneth Hite puts it (Hite 2007: 37) and so it is natural that the RPG and its scenarios follow that model (even if, as Hite comments, scenarios with PCs as overreachers seem to be rare). But Lovecraft strove to open his world to the development and enjoyment of other styles and voices (for whatever reasons) by encouraging other writers to hint at and utilise his creations in new works, and I think that is what Cthulhu RPGs should be aiming for too.

Works Cited

Edwards, R. (n.d.). “System Does Matter.” Retrieved from The Forge.

—. (2004). The Provisional Glossary. Retrieved from The Forge.

Harford, J. (2003). Review of Call of Cthulhu D20. Retrieved from RPGnet.

Herber, K. (2007). “On ‘The Haunted House.’” In Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin, Second Person. The MIT Press.

Hite, K. (2007). “Narrative Structure and Create Tension in Call of Cthulhu.” In Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin, Second Person. The MIT Press.

Kim, J. (n.d.). The Threefold Model FAQ. Retrieved from Darkshire.

Morris, J. (2003, July). Flip-Flop (Doctor Who). Big Finish Productions.

Games Cited

Petersen, S., and Willis, L. (2005). Call of Cthulhu (6th Edition). Chaosium.

Cook, M., and Tynes, J. (2002). Call of Cthulhu (d20 Edition). Wizards of the Coast.

Herber, K. (1990). “The Haunted House.” In The Curse of Cthulhu.

Wimble, E. (1983). Death in Dunwich. Theatre of the Mind Enterprises.

Petersen, and Hardy. (1999). Nocturnum. Fantasy Flight Publishing.

Ben Underwood:

Alger’s idea that the gamist/narrativist dichotomy is useful for those playing games rather than those designing or theorizing about games, evokes Stanley Fish’s notion that interpretive communities determines one’s reading of a text in Is There a Text in This Class?