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Author Topic: Call of Cthulhu and Campaign Escalation  (Read 1035 times)

jhkim

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Call of Cthulhu and Campaign Escalation
« on: August 18, 2020, 12:55:01 am »
Currently I'm playing through the massive classic campaign book in 1920s Call of Cthulhu (name omitted to avoid spoilers). It's cool to play a classic. However, I thought it would be somewhat more disconnected adventure segments like different dungeons. Instead, possibly because of our choices, it seems like there is a broad and large cultist organization that we are dealing with.

Logically, I feel like our characters would try to recruit more help -- these are really bad people, and we could collect evidence against them if we wanted. And we did hire a bunch of thugs as extra muscle for the last job. But on the metagame scale, I feel like it's breaking the game if we focus on getting other people to fight evil rather than the PCs fighting evil directly. With monsters, there's more of an idea of doing library research and finding their weakness -- but with cultists, it's more like sheer numbers and firepower are most important. In D&D or some other systems, we would go up in level and eventually shift to more of a leader-of-armies campaign. But even in D&D, there can be times when low-level PCs are faced with a larger evil organization, and the move that makes the most sense is to get other people to fight them.

I think in Call of Cthulhu, it's particularly an issue since PCs gain less in power as they advance. But it's a potential issue in many games. How do you prefer to handle it? Last session, I broke character to say something like "The logical thing to do here would be to recruit more, but out-of-character, we'll just move on to focus more on fun adventures." We mentioned some excuses for doing so, but it was a little unsatisfying - though better than intractably arguing, which I've seen in some games.

Stephen Tannhauser

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« Reply #1 on: August 18, 2020, 01:31:56 am »
Quote from: jhkim;1145325
But it's a potential issue in many games. How do you prefer to handle it?

It seems like what you're essentially talking about here is "deprotagonization" -- to paraphrase an old film-/novel-writing maxim, the PCs' decisions and actions should be the most important drivers of the events in the game. Anything that displaces the PCs from that role of central importance (which, as you point out, needn't be a position of great or greatest in-game "power") is going to diminish player engagement. Simply engaging forces to help them fight needn't do this, if the PCs' choices and actions can still be central somehow to how that gets done -- maybe they have to play vital tactical roles in the operation, or lead squads of police to different places and give on-site directions to the cops on what to do.

Conversely, if what the players are really trying to do is just to "fob off" an enemy on an NPC who can handle them, avoiding a foe rather than taking the risk of direct personal confrontation, then the simplest approach is just to neutralize any value they might hope to gain from that action -- just because they've recruited the police to take down the cultists doesn't mean the police have to succeed, after all (Ripley brought the Colonial Marines to face the Xenomorphs, and we all know how that turned out). The cult might also be prepared for police operations via informants, allowing only a small group of unimportant novices to get arrested and undercutting the PCs' credibility for any future requests. Essentially, if the players aren't prepared to put important personal stakes on the line, the action shouldn't get them much reward.

What could cause a real potential conflict with such issues might be if different players in the group want to take different approaches -- your detective PC or soldier PC want to call their allies, while the scholar or the clergyman wants to stay below the radar and keep investigating -- or if the players want to take an approach the GM simply didn't prepare to handle (e.g. he made the mistake of identifying a major cult hideout without mapping it out first, or statting up appropriate numbers of mooks). A certain amount of improvisation would be necessary in such cases, but that's part of the GM's job.
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Spinachcat

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« Reply #2 on: August 18, 2020, 02:47:39 am »
We often called upon outside help in our CoC games...but it gets tricky.

1) If you recruit locally, they could be cultists. AKA, the weirdos in robes at night are the "normals" during the day.

2) It's nigh impossible to tell the truth to your recruits because you'll seem nuts and they'll walk away laughing, but if you don't tell them the truth, there's the possibility of moral dilemmas for some characters.

3) NPC recruits are going to lose their shit at the first sign of supernatural anything. If any cultist is capable of magic, they can send the recruits screaming into the night pretty easily.

In my experience, the best use of outside help was hitting the cultists sideways. AKA, we reported them for running a distillery and a speakeasy. It's a den of inequity! Once we were up against a cult run by a rich guy in New York. Once of the PCs was an Italian priest...so we got the mob to gun the cult leader down and they looted his place. We went along on the loot and we took the musty weird books while the mob took all the cash and art.  

Of course, in NuChaosium woke not-thinking, you just have to tell the white people in town that the cultists are black and the whites will immediately go into berserk murder frenzy. Brown skin! HuWhite smash!

spon

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« Reply #3 on: August 18, 2020, 06:35:15 am »
One of the tropes of Cthulhu is that the PCs don't want the world at large to find out about the Mythos - after all, which government would pass up the opportunity to have Cthulhu on "their" side! So if the PCs need help, they usually don't go to the authorities. Also, how do the PCs know that the authorities aren't already involved?
If the PCs try to get the police to help, they might end up getting arrested themselves.

But if the PCs do decide to ask for help against the cultists, they will need proof that the cultists are actually breaking the law in such a way that bringing the equivalent of the SWAT team is necessary. And if the PCs have broken the law to get that information, the police might decide to arrest to the PCs too. If the PCs try
to get help from locals, rather than the authorities, then that has its own set of issues - as Spinachcat mentions above.

Bren

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« Reply #4 on: August 18, 2020, 10:31:32 am »
Having the authorities involved in confronting Mythos threats is right there in the source material. A police raid on a Louisiana bayou is described in "The Call of Cthulhu" and the US Navy torpedoes the Deep Ones' reef near Innsmouth.

Different groups will enjoy different styles of play. If you want a big battle with a gang of cultists as a backdrop for what the PCs are doing, then involving the authorities can work very well instead of having the PCs running about stealing Tommyguns and grenades from a nearby National Guard armory so they have the firepower to shoot it out with the cultists. Other groups are going to enjoy having PCs who are directly involved in the mayhem. One option to keep the players involved would be for them to run a second set of PCs who are part of the police flying squad or National Guard unit called in to confront the cultists. Then the players can have all the fun of watching their fellows in uniform suddenly go psychotically paranoid and cut loose with an automatic weapon on the closest of those who are after them, i.e. their squad mates.
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« Reply #5 on: August 18, 2020, 10:39:29 am »
In The Shadow over Innsmouth the US government torpedoes the Deep One lairs. In The Call of Cthulu a police squad deals with the swamp cultists. Calling in the big guns is completely in-genre. This is not a game about slaughtering entire cultist lairs single handed.

edit: What Bren said! :)
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« Reply #6 on: August 18, 2020, 10:49:40 am »
I know in Delta Green 2e is that the agents are a tiny bit more hardy than normal people sanity wise, and calling for backup that exposes others to the Mythos just means after the operation you have a NEW thing to cleanup (all of the poor bastards that helped you in the previous operation who are now insane, cultists, etc.)

Lynn

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« Reply #7 on: August 18, 2020, 12:54:14 pm »
Quote from: Bren;1145366
Having the authorities involved in confronting Mythos threats is right there in the source material. A police raid on a Louisiana bayou is described in "The Call of Cthulhu" and the US Navy torpedoes the Deep Ones' reef near Innsmouth.

Right, but you've exposed so many other people to this terrible, terrible knowledge.  That's a Call of Cthulhu game orientation vs Lovecraft problem.

But there are caveats here.

The protagonist calls in the government in Innsmouth before they undergo the Deep One change themselves. I could imagine the protagonist suffering more SAN loss as a result of 'turning in his own kind.'

The existence of cultists themselves on the Legrasse raid really isn't a problem The Call of Cthulhu. All the cops really know is that these are loonies that are too loony even to be hanged.
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jhkim

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« Reply #8 on: August 18, 2020, 03:37:35 pm »
In my case, I wasn't thinking of going to the legal authorities like the police. Our PCs are more likely to try something like Spinachcat's example of getting the mob to gun a cult leader down. Right now we're in a foreign city, though, and don't even speak the local language -- though there is a large English-speaking presence. I'd picture just trying to recruit a dozen more private individuals to become convinced that the cult is evil and has to be taken down.

In many campaigns, though, yes - it often makes more sense in-game that the PCs should work with the authorities and others rather than act on their own. For example, in a fantasy campaign, if the village is being threatened by goblins, take a few days to train a dozen villagers with spears and slings and lead them in an assault. That could be better for the village's long-term survival prospects as well.

There are a bunch of solutions to this. The most common is just to use a little metagame logic and stick to the more usual RPG assumption of PCs acting as lone vigilantes -- and that's an acceptable approach. But it is a point of tension that came up in my recent play, so it's been interesting to hear other people's takes on it.

Quote from: Bren;1145366
Having the authorities involved in confronting Mythos threats is right there in the source material. A police raid on a Louisiana bayou is described in "The Call of Cthulhu" and the US Navy torpedoes the Deep Ones' reef near Innsmouth.

Different groups will enjoy different styles of play. If you want a big battle with a gang of cultists as a backdrop for what the PCs are doing, then involving the authorities can work very well instead of having the PCs running about stealing Tommyguns and grenades from a nearby National Guard armory so they have the firepower to shoot it out with the cultists. Other groups are going to enjoy having PCs who are directly involved in the mayhem. One option to keep the players involved would be for them to run a second set of PCs who are part of the police flying squad or National Guard unit called in to confront the cultists. Then the players can have all the fun of watching their fellows in uniform suddenly go psychotically paranoid and cut loose with an automatic weapon on the closest of those who are after them, i.e. their squad mates.

I agree that it's in-genre for Lovecraft's *stories* for the authorities to wipe out horrors. But I think it is out-of-genre for published Call of Cthulhu RPG modules, as well as for many groups even if they're playing without using modules. As for the style of play I want -- for me, there's a clash between what makes sense in-character, and how I'd prefer to play. I think either style could be fun for me. In this case, knowing that this is a classic published module, I'd lean towards playing it as it was intended to be played - but I also don't want to blatantly break character in doing so.

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« Reply #9 on: August 18, 2020, 04:46:38 pm »
I've seen NPC help used in game more than once (though not frequently). Some judicious use of NPC assistance is in line with published scenarios - certainly NPC assistance is mentioned (and the NPCs are statted out so that they could be used) in more than one of the world spanning campaigns that I've played in or run. That said, such aid is used in dealing with the human cultists, not the blasphemous, otherworldly horrors of the Mythos. An underlying premise of the genre is that the Mythos is knowledge that human-kind was not meant to know. So involving large numbers of NPCs in confronting Mythos horrors is spreading that knowledge more widely which goes against a key genre assumption.
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Stephen Tannhauser

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« Reply #10 on: August 18, 2020, 08:12:52 pm »
Quote from: jhkim;1145416
I agree that it's in-genre for Lovecraft's *stories* for the authorities to wipe out horrors. But I think it is out-of-genre for published Call of Cthulhu RPG modules, as well as for many groups even if they're playing without using modules.

This, too, I would argue goes to the issue of deprotagonization -- calling in authorities or outside forces did happen in the original stories, but when it comes right down to it, Lovecraft was not an adventure writer: he wasn't interested in battles or pulse-pounding action scenes. The emotional core of the section of "Call of Cthulhu" where the bayou cultists are arrested by the police is not a big battle scene, but the conversation with the lone prisoner afterwards and his chilling revelations.

The goal of the game is to concentrate on that same atmosphere: the dread and horror of being one of the few who knows the terrible truth about the world, and who must sacrifice life or sanity to delay inevitable doom just that fraction longer. It's not that battles or outside forces have no place in the flow of events, but that they shouldn't take centre stage in a way that detracts from that atmosphere.

(This is one way in which the basic model of gaming in and of itself is kind of antithetical to cosmic horror, I have always thought: a "game" is by definition an activity where members of a team cooperate through the options available under a strictly enforced set of rules to accomplish a victory, and cosmic horror is ultimately all about the meaninglessness of both victory and rules. So CoC as a game has always had kind of a philosophical uphill fight trying to do what it does. But the degree to which it's loved suggests it's doing something right.)
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Marchand

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« Reply #11 on: August 19, 2020, 10:58:11 am »
Quote from: jhkim;1145416
In my case, I wasn't thinking of going to the legal authorities like the police. Our PCs are more likely to try something like Spinachcat's example of getting the mob to gun a cult leader down. Right now we're in a foreign city, though, and don't even speak the local language -- though there is a large English-speaking presence. I'd picture just trying to recruit a dozen more private individuals to become convinced that the cult is evil and has to be taken down.

In many campaigns, though, yes - it often makes more sense in-game that the PCs should work with the authorities and others rather than act on their own. For example, in a fantasy campaign, if the village is being threatened by goblins, take a few days to train a dozen villagers with spears and slings and lead them in an assault. That could be better for the village's long-term survival prospects as well.

There are a bunch of solutions to this. The most common is just to use a little metagame logic and stick to the more usual RPG assumption of PCs acting as lone vigilantes -- and that's an acceptable approach. But it is a point of tension that came up in my recent play, so it's been interesting to hear other people's takes on it.



I agree that it's in-genre for Lovecraft's *stories* for the authorities to wipe out horrors. But I think it is out-of-genre for published Call of Cthulhu RPG modules, as well as for many groups even if they're playing without using modules. As for the style of play I want -- for me, there's a clash between what makes sense in-character, and how I'd prefer to play. I think either style could be fun for me. In this case, knowing that this is a classic published module, I'd lean towards playing it as it was intended to be played - but I also don't want to blatantly break character in doing so.

Who cares what published CoC modules assume?

I think you are overthinking the IC vs OOC angle, and I also think you and/or your Keeper are under-thinking what CoC is about. It is not a wargame of Norms vs Cultists. At least not, I would argue, at its best; if you want to play a Norms vs Cultists wargame, then by all means go for it. I could see that being pretty cool.

If you manage to get the police or the mob or whoever in to deal with the cultists, well done, minor victory. But the High Priest escaped, or there is a bigger High Priest who is now amused by the thought of toying with you, or during the climactic gunfight the Orb of Athultep was smashed and now even weirder stuff is going on.

Remember layers of the onion (not sure if current edition still has that advice). Each mystery solved or threat defeated just leads you deeper into the dark heart of the Mythos, until everyone dies/goes insane or your group decides you have secured a meaningful enough victory, like stopping Cthulhu rising (this time), and want to play something else.
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jhkim

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« Reply #12 on: August 19, 2020, 02:13:09 pm »
Quote from: Stephen Tannhauser;1145450
The goal of the game is to concentrate on that same atmosphere: the dread and horror of being one of the few who knows the terrible truth about the world, and who must sacrifice life or sanity to delay inevitable doom just that fraction longer. It's not that battles or outside forces have no place in the flow of events, but that they shouldn't take centre stage in a way that detracts from that atmosphere.

(This is one way in which the basic model of gaming in and of itself is kind of antithetical to cosmic horror, I have always thought: a "game" is by definition an activity where members of a team cooperate through the options available under a strictly enforced set of rules to accomplish a victory, and cosmic horror is ultimately all about the meaninglessness of both victory and rules. So CoC as a game has always had kind of a philosophical uphill fight trying to do what it does. But the degree to which it's loved suggests it's doing something right.)
Quote from: Marchand;1145502
Who cares what published CoC modules assume?

I think you are overthinking the IC vs OOC angle, and I also think you and/or your Keeper are under-thinking what CoC is about. It is not a wargame of Norms vs Cultists. At least not, I would argue, at its best; if you want to play a Norms vs Cultists wargame, then by all means go for it. I could see that being pretty cool.
Stephen and Marchand - From your points of view, my group is playing it wrong as "norms vs cultists". We're using a classic published campaign module - and we're playing it as a game. Or I'd rather say - there is always a spectrum between focus on atmosphere and focus on game-play. I've played and run in more atmosphere-heavy games that focus more on the personal and cosmic horror, but this is a module campaign played over Zoom for my Thursday-night group that we picked as a more casual option during difficult conditions. We appreciate the atmosphere of cosmic horror, and we enjoy dying horrible deaths -- but it's to add color to the game play, not as the focus.

Even in highly atmospheric games, though, it's still a game and there's still potential issue with personal action versus trying to use other forces. A very long-term, atmospheric game I played in featured a lot of having the PCs act as generals and leaders in the struggle to save the world from the Outside forces that were straining on it.

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« Reply #13 on: August 19, 2020, 06:25:31 pm »
Quote from: jhkim;1145523
I'd rather say - there is always a spectrum between focus on atmosphere and focus on game-play. ...We appreciate the atmosphere of cosmic horror, and we enjoy dying horrible deaths -- but it's to add color to the game play, not as the focus.

Even in highly atmospheric games, though, it's still a game and there's still potential issue with personal action versus trying to use other forces.

Agreed completely there; I apologize for any inadvertent implication that your particular game was being played "wrong" -- that certainly wasn't my intent.

I was thinking more about the idea of deprotagonization in RPGs in general. From a Dramatic perspective, it seems like the problem with it is that it removes the PCs from the position of primary agency in the narrative, and from a Gamist perspective, it seems like the problem is that it's almost always invoked as a way to gain the scenarios' benefits without subjecting the PCs to any significant risk -- all Gaming is about maximizing your risk-benefit calculus, of course, but there's a difference between maximizing and avoiding completely.

Either way, I would say that generally it's to be avoided even when it might appear to be the strategically or tactically "best" option -- I think any conflict your PCs have to get somebody else to win for them shouldn't really be an important conflict, and if the PCs are ever in a situation where that's the only option and a completely unavoidable one, I'd say the scenario designer has gone wrong somewhere.
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« Reply #14 on: August 19, 2020, 06:43:06 pm »
I love, love, love the idea that exposure to the Mythos creates cultists.

It's very Paranoia (ala, just reading the Communist manifesto turns you into a commie, beard included).

It would be amazing fun for the throwaway NPCs who helped the PCs in a previous adventure become their own nightmare in a future adventure where they (now the True and Worthy Cult) try to achieve the vile plans they stopped previously when they were Blind to the Truth! Of course, they are wiser cultists because they know the PCs exist out there...