Cthulhu by Frostbite – pt.2

A complaint I have often heard from new CoC Keepers is how to persuade players to “go into the basement.” As others have said before me, you are setting yourself up for failure, or at the very least a predictable and flat encounter if your session is being constructed that way. The trick lies not in goading your PCs to enter the lair of the big bad, but in freeing your creativity from the confines of lairs and other scary places. Lovecraftian horror is all around us, all the time… we just need the right context to perceive it.

To Investigate or Investigate… there is no question

In the one-shot I am planning, the things I am starting with are the characters and the environment in which they have been living and working. For these characters, the idea of not investigating will need justification, not the reverse. For these characters, the moment of beating inertia will be behind them, or mostly behind them, as the reasons which have precluded dragging their carcasses across the ice and snow to the “crater they all know is out there” will become less important than the investigation which urges them onward. This may sound a little forced, or like it limits player freedom, but in a very real sense, they are not free. We are not sitting down to play Monopoly, we are sitting down to have an introduction to Call of Cthulhu, and the unique brand of horror that it can deliver in its timeless and elegant way.

Fewer Degrees of Separation than you might think

Setting up evocative and effective links between the characters – even if those characters begin play as strangers to one another – is not always possible in an established group that has clear intentions to carry the game forward into a campaign. Players are typically more amenable to taking on limited or prescribed characters in the understanding that a scenario is just a one-off. Often I notice new Keepers being asked to shoehorn oddball characters into the group because it is what the player wishes to run, rather than because it will suit the group, the situation, and the campaign for that persona to get involved. I certainly was asked to do so… with the worst time resulting in a character seeking to get me to devote time to his desire to con blue-haired old ladies into buying life insurance during a tense scene with cultists, because it was [quote] In Character [end quote].  The worst time was also the last time for me. Fortunately, it was fairly early into my forays as a Keeper, and didn’t leave too many lasting scars. I am okay now… really.

Clear and Present Dangerous Liaisons

Establishing clear and present ties to the existing characters and having an ongoing dialogue with the players about potential replacement characters, the chain of information their existing PC would try to pass on, and ways for the replacements to hear of, and seek to investigate the demise / madness / disappearance of that PC are an essential ingredient in preserving the flow of the story, the legacy of the characters, a sense of the humanity and reality of the setting, and provide your players with reasons to fully invest their characters in what is going on around them, and who is connected to them.

On a surface level, as the characters will be RCMP or attached in some way to the RCMP detachment in the region, the investigation will begin with the need to fulfill their duties and obligations. To make this work on more, and more interesting and engaging levels, each character will have one or more additional reasons to be involved, some strong enough to motivate involvement regardless of occupational duty. As play goes on, the interplay and conflict between some of these motivations will hopefully ground the investigators in the sense of disconnection between the mundane, everyday world of their lives, and the ever more bizarre environs that they uncover in what to their knowledge was a simple hole in the ground from the dawn of time.

This is much faster to do with pregenerated characters, but I find it is more difficult than sitting down with the players and brainstorming ways to build a cohesive and realistic group with hooks to pull them together and pressures to push them apart. While I like to have this level of connection for pretty much any ‘serious’ game, I feel it is essential if you are going for an atmosphere of cosmic horror such as evoked by Lovecraft and his circle. If the unreal and unbelievable are to have any power, the characters must first be grounded in the real and believable. If the characters’ pursuit of answers or solutions to the horror that surrounds them is to have any credibility, their initial footsteps toward that mystery must be rooted in their real life aspects and attachments.

4 Responses to “Cthulhu by Frostbite – pt.2”
  1. Jennifer says:

    Better a con artist that a dwarf.

    I find the idea of a Cthulhu generations game intriguing. I never did anything like that, but I may suggest it to my group or at least set something like that up for one of my own characters.

    • Runeslinger says:

      It certainly adds an extra dimension to the game, and the interplay between periods and generations can be both challenging and allow for great escalation.

      Try it!

  2. D. says:

    After many years, I have generally put the burden of figuring out why the characters are together on the players. They seem to do a better job of managing each other in this respect than I have ever been – plus they come up with really creative stuff. That and I stole a page from White Wolf and started doing Prelude adventures – in my currently on hiatus CoC game it even turned into a mini-campaign (set in WWI Paris).

    • Runeslinger says:

      I do too, normally, although I remain involved in the process. I have never tried doing Preludes with CoC characters, but I do like to establish a sense of the charcters’ family and colleagues before getting started.

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