The Chaosium Canon, and other tales

Call of Cthulhu is based on the writings of H. P. Lovecraft and others, which began as several friends who were playing a behind the scenes game of referencing each other and their works, and their own other works. Simplest example, not sure which order you read them in, but when you were reading the second of the two stories, At the Mountains of Madness, and the Shadow Over Innsmouth, when you ran into the word ‘shoggoth’ and you remembered it from the first one you read, that sweet chill was hard to ignore, whether or not you’d call it fear is irrelevant. The Cthulhu Mythos is not necessarily the first ‘shared world’ but among the first in modern fiction, all the more remarkable because it was done without any formal thought behind it. Even the writers themselves didn’t necessarily think it through in advance, they just connected their stories and stories of others when and how it suited the story they were writing and their mood at the time of the writing. This is one of the reasons there are inconsistencies, but they are the kind of inconsistencies that make it better. Later developments in the post-Lovecraft years created some disagreements, which are still discussed at times, in various forums and media. When the game was created it set aside some of the more ‘controversial’ of these elements, but some Keepers bring them back in. Fair enough, every campaign is the collaborative effort of the Keeper and the players, and as long as everyone enjoys it, all the better.

But the bulk of the Mythos is the result of a shared world concept, and it has its canon, and the game was built around it. We all know Arkham Massachusetts with its witch filled history, and good old Miskatonic University, the Orne Library, Professor Armitage…the region of Dunwich, the town of Innsmouth, the stretch of road known as the Aylesbury Pike. These are parts of the background of the game, and even if you use a different setting, it is in the background, it is something you can run into, in some sense or another. Even if you make your own version of Arkham for your west Texas setting, or a town to fill Arkham’s place that has nothing to do with Arkham per se. This is part of the background, and part of the world you create.

And as Chaosium began to create campaigns and scenarios, things started again. The shared world concept began to creep in. Carl Stanford, one of the ‘men behind the curtain’ in Shadows of Yog Sothoth has a guest appearance in Masks of Nyarlathotep, and even if the characters are not the same ones, if the players are, there is a moment of ‘oh hell I know that guy’. When reading At Your Door, you run into the NWI logo, players who were run through Day of the Beast/Curse of Cthulhu/Fungi From Yuggoth will pause and feel a chill. Players who dig deep in their research and find out who Thalassa Chandler, the current CEO of NWI, in the scenario Coming of Age from the Unseen Masters collection, will feel a chill. Finding that information may be beyond the scope of the scenario itself, but if they do learn it, there is that extra gem. So, a separate canon has grown, one based on the scenarios and stories that followed. We have Mister Shiny from Michael Shea’s amazing story Fat Face, who guest stars in At Your Door, as well as lurking in the background elsewhere (and in the 6th edition, I was never able to relax and decide if the Shiny we met in one example was supposed to be the same…which made his actions all the more chilling.).

That last parenthesis is part of the point. When you have players who you play with regularly, keep in mind the Chaosium canon in addition to the Lovecraft canon, even in the modified form of your campaign.

To paraphrase infomercials….But Wait, There’s More.

Your own campaign will have events and characters that have impact. So when the next campaign starts, the next set of characters, whatever, remember those moments. That policeman who was never quite helpful enough in the first scenario can return to remain a foil…or a foe….or an ally. That villain they never quite beat the first time returns. Or the company he worked for proves to return (I am real sneaky on that one, I will borrow company names from movies and stories and watch the players struggle to remember where they’ve run into it before- examples include the Watershed Corporation, Banodyne Industries, and the housing development Vista De Nada).

Another thing, and this was one I picked up from an interview with Sandy Petersen, the man who made the game. He mentioned that the successes and failures can have impacts on the game world, impacts that may not be something that ‘John Q. Public’ can accept or understand, but may not be able to ignore. He cited an example off the top of his head of a Great Old One manifesting on the world leaving (if memory serves) Chicago never having sunlight fall in it again, regardless of time of the day. This is not something that people can ignore, but no one can explain.

So let your second campaign have something like this if you have room for it (in other words, the players managed to ‘hold off the catastrophe’ but it was close enough you can put something like this in the game world. A river that always has the color and smell of blood, a city that cannot be entered during daylight, or where time runs backwards, or citing the Chicago reference above, where during the day you can’t find Chicago, and if you enter it, the moment before dawn immediately is followed by the moment after dusk, the players jump from one moment to the next as an example. Some place in the game world where the previous game leaves its mark.

So you start with the two canons, you add your own…and the game grows, and your players get those extra little jolts when something familiar, but disturbing, creeps into the picture.

Rolling up Characters and other things.

RPG’s by their nature, use stat blocks to put everything in the world into relative terms so that the player characters can interact with them. Some of this information is only marginally relevant, some is irrelevant, some stats shouldn’t even be considered (assuming there is an INT for a door, unless you’re in a D and D type world it should never come into any kind of play). Every way that a player character can interact with a character, monster, or item has some relevant statistic, even if it’s something you never quite take into consideration. The door mentioned above will have a strength of sorts, a resistance to damage, a weight, a mass. The bulk of the time, with inanimate objects this boils down to a single statistic or two and either opposing said statistic to the relevant opposing statistic by the player character (or npc or monster) interacting with it, or to the resistance table (I love the resistance table, and while I have heard that it is less relevant to the 7th edition, it will always have a special place in my heart, and it sounds like the statistic interactions relates to the old resistance table formula).

But every character has their statistics. Their base statistics, their skills, and these will each change in various ways as game play continues. This is true in any game, but in CoC, the progressions aren’t quite the same as in many. Hit points don’t ramp up with ‘levels’ (unless you’re playing the old d20 version), and depending on the time scales, aging can raise some stats and lower others, some injuries can impact stats, and experience is reflected in skill checks and I love the skill increases with experience in CoC, characters end up feeling very individual very quickly. Few games permit this level of complexity in character development without feeling clunky. Having said that, characters do become more powerful in advancement of skills, and building an advanced character on the fly can be quite daunting. Rolling up a CoC character can be a bit time consuming, though not cumbersomely so. But in a game where character mortality is so readily addressed, it is a bit intimidating.

And the Keeper has to keep this in mind with every npc, and creature encountered. Granted, it is easy to let some elements slide in characters who are of minimal import, but a Keeper has to always be ready to respond to the game as it plays out. A minor npc can turn into a major running character easily, and gaps may need to be filled in as this character develops. Especially if things develop to a point where one has to be considered as a potential replacement pc down the road (always tricky, but it does help explain why the character gets involved with an ongoing situation, which is often problematic).

In rpgs, there comes a point for every player and every game master where there is a moment of disillusion, where the player has a ‘can’t stop seeing the man behind the curtain’ feeling and sees the stats as just numbers, ways of equating things. This is easy to set aside, but it is a sobering moment, and the stat blocks in CoC can be quite intimidating when looked at. Remember, most monsters, even a good number of the ‘non mythos’ monsters, are serious threats to pc survival. Also, keep in mind that combat is a serious matter in a game where it is so easy to die, where many of the monsters have major immunities, and can inflict massive damage. You can’t stay with that disillusionment, but once you get through it, you do gain a new resource.

Take those stat blocks, make new monsters that may be identical in core numbers to something established, but change the things that aren’t the stats, what it looks like, where it’s from, how it functions, and what those ‘new attacks’ are.

Stat blocks make the characters, make the monsters, make the cars and doors and buildings and….the world…..but don’t forget that it is a world…never let it just be the blocks, never forget the numbers, but never let them just be numbers.

(having said that, its always a good idea to keep a few old characters around from some other scenarios or sourcebooks for a quick npc’s core information when you need it, for when that horrible moment when the players refuse to take that right turn and instead go left down the road in a direction you didn’t expect.)

The monster bigger than anything else in the game (even humans)

“It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” – Brian Stimpson, played by John Cleese in the film Clockwise (1986)

First, before I go into this article, I have to say this one quote has been one of my favorites from any film, and while this movie has a strong British sense of humor, I highly recommend it to any Anglophiles in the states, and encourage any UK residents to dig this gem up for a wonderful journey. This film is underscored by this quote in a brilliant way and leads us to this entry. One more digression before I get into the body of this entry, but it is taking the quote above and the core of it, through the mythic nature of Hope, and how its importance in CoC cannot be overstated.

The Greek myth of Pandora is relevant too, both in its positive and its negative. I would like to assume that there is at least some familiarity with the myth, which was one of the Greek ‘why things are the way they are’ legends and playing on stereotypical perceptions of gender at the time. Pandora’s curiosity drives her to eventually open the box of troubles, releasing all of the evils on the world. With one exception (until I bring up my point here), left in the bottom of the box was Hope, supposedly the boon in the midst of the grief. But I maintain, referring back to the Cleese quote, and leading to the theme of this post, instead of the one boon, it may well have been the greatest evil in the box of all.

When you surrender to despair, you don’t keep striving, the struggle is pointless when you feel there is no way to win your goal. Hope keeps you struggling even in the face of even the darkest of despair. Hence the core of the movie quote. He is straining to accomplish something and it feels like the universe is conspiring against him. As long as he clings to the hope of achieving his goal, he keeps striving towards it. If he gives up hope, then he stops struggling, and the story is effectively over.

I think you can start to see my point here, and how it ties into Call of Cthulhu.

The game, much like Lovecraft’s fiction, deals with situations where victory is a bit hard to define, and harder to achieve. But the players have to win at least a bit, have to have hope, or they will lose interest in the game.

Lovecraft’s timeline makes a few clear statements. First, Humanity’s reign as the dominant life form on Earth is limited, and in a long enough time frame, humanity will be replaced on the planet by at least two more life forms before the end of the world when the sun enters red giant phase. This is simple evolutionary logic, and it is implied strongly that humanity’s time on earth will be shortened by the shift that allows the Outer Gods and Great Old Ones to rejoin our universe, however you choose to interpret that.

It is unclear if humans will survive that shift. It is implied that our species will, but no longer as the dominant species on Earth, possibly not the dominant species anywhere we go that we have to share with any other species. It only indicates that Humanity will not be populating the planet at some point in the future when the other species take their place as the dominant life forms.

So the players may or may not be fighting for the survival of our species in the larger picture of a campaign. The point isn’t the survival of humanity, usually, of course, that can depend on the scenario, the campaign, the setting. Humanity’s days may well be numbered, are definitely numbered on Earth itself. We may be unable to stop the extinction of our species, but the point is to push that date back. To delay the stars being right enough to let the others through. Additionally, never lose sight of the fact, you can create and play totally satisfactory scenarios that never leave the scope of protecting individuals from localized threats, and an entire campaign can do nothing more than save a family from a dark legacy if everyone enjoys the game.

If they never give up hope.

No matter how nihilistic your opinion is, or the players, never let them give up hope. That nasty monster that keeps the investigators looking into the case when every bit of common sense says to give up or just run for their lives, or give up and let the monsters win.

That greatest of evil, Hope. The most important menace in the game, the one that you need to keep your investigators in its grip from the first day till that moment that they retire their character, however that happens, death, insanity or the character saying ‘I’ll stay back at the fort and help you guys research’ while the player rolls up their next character.

And strangely, that connects to what I’m hoping for my next post, which I expect to put up by mid-week.