After many years of running fantasy campaigns, I'm suffering from dungeon burn-out. I just can't muster the enthusiasm that I need to run a good campaign, so I've decided to put my fantasy campaign on hiatus, shift gears and trade in the swords and armour for Tommy Guns and Elder Signs.
So I dusted off my old Call of Cthulhu boxed set and tried running a session of Lovecraftian horror for the first time in nearly thirty years. I bought this game, on the advice of the game store owner, sometime in 1983 or 1984, and it was my introduction to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. To say that it captured my imagination would be a gross understatement. I spent countless hours reading and rereading the rule book and supplements, marveling at the mythos creatures, the sinister spells, and the tomes of forbidden lore. It is fair to say that Call of Cthulhu has influenced every roleplaying campaign I've run since but, ironically, I've only ever actually run one or two sessions of Call of Cthulhu, back when I first bought it.
It's not always easy to find a group of players willing to give Call of Cthulhu a shot. Let's face it, the game can be a tough sell to a lot of gamers. Many of us engage in the hobby for the sense of wish-fulfillment it gives us: finding treasure, leveling up, and actually killing monsters. It's a much smaller subset of gamers who get off on being messily torn apart, or going mad, whose only pay-off for successful play is living just long enough to uncover the next layer of the conspiracy.
Yet, there are enough such players to have kept Call of Cthulhu alive and well, and essentially unchanged, for more than three decades, which is an impressive accomplishment in the gaming industry - a testament to the lure of Lovecraft's mythos.
It was a challenge to run a good session, though. Horror is hard enough to write, let alone to play. In addition to the game master's normal duties of adjudicating player actions, keeping track of NPCs and running combats, you must also set the tone of the adventure, control the pacing, and provide enough clues for players to unravel the mystery. That's quite a lot to manage and my old, long-vanquished stage fright made an unwelcome encore.
There are just so many things that can spoil a CoC session, and having uncooperative players practically guarantees failure. Goofing around at the wrong time can spoil the mood, and rebelling against genre conventions, instead of embracing them, can ruin the game for everyone. Horror genre gaming requires a lot more cooperation and collaboration between the players and GM than in many other types of gaming, especially a typical fantasy dungeon adventure, where part of the challenge and the fun is the almost adversarial stance of beating the GM's dungeon. CoC requires a whole different outlook and style of play and it can be delicate juggling act, but I was fortunate in having a group of players who were willing to play along, buy into the premise, and work to make the session a success.
Consequently, the first session was a great deal of fun and, as all good adventures should, left the investigators with more questions than answers.
Until next time, save the last bullet for yourself.
Welcome Back to the Labyrinth
"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."
"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."
"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"
"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"