The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game has a long and distinguished history, almost to the very dawn of the roleplaying game genre. Its first edition was published 40 years ago this year. Buon anniversario!, as they say in my adoptive country. And despite not being able to find it again, I saw recently an article that placed it in the Top 5 bestselling RPG games. (I honestly think it was #2, but without the article I’m hedging my bets.) Countless people have used the tomes published by Chaosium and other third-party licensers to build world and scenarios in which to play over the years. There are of course the completionists among us, of which I am not one, that will read those books from cover-to-cover as new editions come out. But there are the rest of us, who skip over the bits we think we already know. And that’s where this post comes in.
A Keeper, GM, DM, Referee or whatever your favorite system calls the game organizer should constantly be perfecting their craft to provide a better experience for the other players at the table. (BTW…every player has this responsibility too; its just we’re focusing on the Keeper in this case.) As I’ve looked through different systems, the authors generally give some tips on how to best build adventures because at some point, being the creative, world-building types, we want to go beyond the confines of published adventures. Sometimes the material is fairly basic (though we all need to start somewhere) and generic, but I say generally there is something every newbie, intermediate, or veteran Gamemaster can learn from these sections. And so…in a condensed, TLDR-version, lets take a look at Chaosium’s advice on building scenarios from Call of Cthulhu, 7th edition.
The last section for the Keeper provides the best advice, and though it’s nothing new to CoC in particular, it needs to be front and center. The Keeper needs
“positive enthusiasm to make stuff up and create conflict and drama. The spark of life trumps all the rules and advice that anyone can give you on how to run a game.”Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition
We are all in the process of telling a story collectively and playing a game with rules. How your game table chooses to go about it is up to your group. If everyone agrees, then go with it. Because if it excites you; focus on it.
Linear vs Non-Linear Scenario
Modern sensibilities on TTPRGs shun the “railroad” scenario. Nevertheless there is a brief discussion of both the linear (railroad) and non-linear (sandbox) structure to scenario design. In its most basic form, for those unfamiliar with this terminology, the linear story has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and a predetermined end. It is the most recognizable form to those familiar with literature. The beginning sets the scene and tone of the adventure as well as the inciting incident to get the player characters involved. The middle is the playing out of the investigation, typically in a predetermined order but not necessarily, but ultimately provides the ‘a-ha’ moment leading to the discovery of the mystery. The climax is the final confrontation with the villain or in the case of CoC the Mythos. The linear format is often the default position of new Gamemasters because it is what is most familiar to us with other forms of storytelling.
The big issue against the linear style is that it deprives player characters of agency. If the action of the players are irrelevant to how the story unfolds, why play? Better to just read the book. The game theory here is that story creation is not the Keeper’s responsibility alone. We are co-creators with our players, which births the idea of the non-linear scenario. A non-linear scenario is described as one in which the player characters can visit any place in the scenario in any order, with the possibility of different or varying endings based on those decisions. In this system the Keeper creates the geography, the starting atmosphere, and the threat (or Mythos) but once it has been placed before the players it now becomes our story. A good key to maintaining the overall feel the Keeper has initially created is to make a timeline of events that playout through the scenario. The world and the mythos continue in their own machinations while the player characters interact with the the world. Don’t forget though that adjustments are still needed to the timeline based on the player characters’ actions. Ultimately the “sandbox” game does require more improvisation and setting knowledge for the Keeper. If literally anything can happen, the gamemaster needs to be prepared for it because in this case there isn’t a text box to read as might be found in a linear-scenario. The trade-off, the theory goes, is a more immersive and enjoyable experience for everyone playing.
Creating a Campaign
There is a small section on building a campaign that uses the metaphor of a story arc in a television series. The Keeper should develop several plot scenarios, but not going too deep into their development initial. With these starting points the gamemaster can take 3 or 4 and explore how they are interconnected to a central mystery/horror/Mythos. These core ideas will form the basis of the campaign with other adventures dropping hints to the larger story arc. CoC suggests that the Keeper not be afraid to drop in a few red-herrings too because not everything needs to be controlled by Cthulhu, though the smaller hints or clues keep it relevant to the larger campaign. Like the various locations in a single scenario, the various stories of a campaign provide enough information for the player characters to glimpse the larger story and put it together. Throughout the scenarios build the various layers that lead to the final revelation, but they need to be things that always edge the player characters to dig just a little more.
Since I began this discussion with the ending, it is only fitting that I end it with the beginning. #SubvertingExpectations The CoC Keeper Rulebook is obviously interested in teaching people how to run scenarios specific to CoC. In two of the longer sections, it describes how to spark initial ideas for a scenario and then how to sprinkle in the Lovecraftian Mythos, which is the reason we’re playing CoC and not another game.
- Research an Era or a Person/People that Seem(s) Interesting
- A Mysterious Historical Event … What’s the ‘Real’ Story
- Alternate History
- What Mythos or Cult Do You Want in the Game
- Create a Cult
- Everyone Just Wants to Survive (i.e. Survival Horror)
- What Happens When You’re Alone (e.g. Themes of Isolation)
- Borrow from Your Favorite Story
- Start with a Compelling Scene that Changes the Player Character’s World
- Begin with the End (the Frightening Truth that is to be Discovered)
- Read the Player Characters’ Backstories
Three primary themes played out in the world of H.P. Lovecraft: 1) Fear of the Alien, the Outsider, of Knowledge; 2) Corruption of Body, Mind, and World; and 3) Cosmic Horror. Each of these themes may feel particularly suited to CoC, but these are still motivations (at least the first two) that affect people’s actions across genres.