This is a reprint of my column from Unwinnable Weekly #69. If you like it, try a subscription.
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The day after Halloween, my RPG group played the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game for the first time in something like twenty years.
Based on the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu is a horror game set in the real world – in the case of my campaign, in 1920s-era New York City. Back in junior high, we played it like D&D with tommy guns, which lead to frustrating attrition among players. Coming back to it now, I find an elegant and subtle system that we, as teenagers, were completely incapable of playing.
Call of Cthulhu is the most heroic of all role-playing games. In games like Dungeons & Dragons, the core goal for players is improvement. Over the course of games, their characters grow more experienced and accumulate hordes of treasure and magical artifacts. This is essentially true of every RPG I’ve ever played.
Except Call of Cthulhu. Because it is a horror game set in the real world, characters are frail things, especially compared to their brethren in other games. Worse, it is impossible to mitigate that in an impactful way with special equipment. Like the real world, anyone with a gun (which, depending on the model, can do up to ten points of damage before bonuses) poses a significant risk to a character’s health and well-being (most investigators in my current party have around 10 hit points). An outré monster, then, with squamous bulk and a myriad of claws and tentacles, represents a nearly impossible physical challenge.
Exposure to the supernatural also preys on the sanity of investigators. By merely seeing something unnatural, they stand to lose sanity points. Lose enough and an investigator is plagued by psychological traumas. Lose them all and the character becomes irrevocably insane and is removed from player control.
The one thing characters gain through the course of the game is knowledge. They are bound together because they have glimpsed the true and terrifying system of the world that lurks, unseen to most, beneath the veneer of civilization. Each brush with magic or monsters, every case they work, adds to the knowledge even as it erodes their sanity. In this way, the death of a character is, perhaps, a kind of release. A goal.
These frailties makes the investigators truly heroic. They persist in the face of their assured destruction, because to do anything less is to doom the world. They have no promise of reward and no prospect of retirement.
The game is, in fact, designed to destroy characters in interesting ways.
I am looking forward to seeing what dire fates my players find for themselves and, unlike our teenage selves, I think they are too.