Catch a clue

Rules in a game can set the boundaries of what is possible, but they also inform what sort of game we’re playing. As I mentioned in my last post, game mechanics can give us clues as to what sort of stories a game is a capable of telling well. We can add to this that good game design encourages the types of stories that the rules were written to support. Two similar approaches to the work of horror author H.P. Lovecraft show how just a subtle difference can clearly define a new literary sandbox for GMs, players, and writers to play in.

The original game of Lovecraftian horror is Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium, Inc. Call of Cthulhu demonstrates a few of the challenges when writing a Role-Playing Game set in Lovecraft’s milieu. One of the overarching themes of Lovecraft’s writing was mankind’s helplessness before the cosmic horror of the Great Old Ones. Utter helplessness is not a popular theme at most RPG tables, where players are willing to accept a tremendous amount of challenge, but also usually want to win at the end of the day. As a result, several of the pre-written adventures for Call of Cthulhu incorporate some manner of victory condition, usually predicated on stopping cultists, that Lovecraft himself did not really present as an option in his own stories. Several of Chaosium’s narratives have to break from convention, because the convention runs slightly contrary to the preferences of the audience.

But even if some of the stories give the PC’s a sense of personal agency, the rules actually work to reinforce a sense of helplessness. Chaosium likes to refer to its Basic Roleplaying game engine as intuitive and easy to play, and it is, but it also incorporates rules for rolling dice to determine just about everything, a mechanic that works against the agency of the players. There’s a roll of the dice to determine how well you comprehend your own language, whether you can have a clever idea, or even if luck breaks your way today. Rules like this make things simpler for a GM, but they also reduce his or her agency in keeping the story moving. Moreover, they perpetuate and reinforce the idea that PCs are relatively helpless before the grand arbiters of fate – their dice. So while the mechanic reduces a GMs control over the game, that same GM can use the sense of helplessness to the dice in order to undergird Lovecraft’s worldview on human insignificance.

Contrast this with Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ mystery game, using the same literary backbone. Pelgrane is also looking to tell horror stories, but they’re primarily telling mystery stories. Most GMs will tell you that mysteries are one of the hardest things to run under most game engines, as clue-finding is usually dictated by dice rolling. If a detective fails to find the critical clue in a mystery, the mystery may well go unsolved. Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE engine discards this premise entirely: if a PC has a skill related to the clue in question, they find the clue. This rule is tied directly to the narrative drive of mysteries: We presume Sherlock or Miss Marple will find the clues, because that’s how the story progresses. The plot consists of where the clues take us – they are means, not ends. GUMSHOE gives you the clues and then lets you follow them to their destination, which is usually unpleasant in Trail of Cthulhu, because it’s still Lovecraftian.

A simple mechanical change creates a significant literary change in the style of storytelling. Always dig deep into your games, trying to understand what the rules want you to do, in addition to what they allow you to do.



2 thoughts on “Catch a clue

  1. I don’t know that Chaosium (at least initially) made a dice-heavy system with the intention of enhancing loss of player agency. Do they mention that somewhere?

    It’d be interesting to dig a little deeper into that, since a discussion about the effectiveness of that mechanic on ‘correct’ or ‘expected’ play.

    We should totally come up with a chart that lays this out. Something like: Intention of Game Designer, Intention of Gamemaster, Intention of Players, then Actual Play, and under each heading one could list the steps each party takes to communicate or implement their vision and what the end result is.


  2. I don’t expect that they made that effect deliberately – a lot of RPGs seem to work from the idea that character creation or game play can be made more simple if the other is complicated. Chaosium has an involved creation system, with a simple play system, but the play system *can* cover just about moment in the game. If we were playing a fantasy setting, using the BRP system, I might not use as many rolls.


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