What say you, Cthulhu?

Continuing on my last post, I’ll outline a theory of what investigative play in Call of Cthulhu is really about. Investigation in roleplaying games is at the same time a rare yet common beast, so it’s important to understand what it does. Consider: almost any plot-based roleplaying game adventure is predicated on characters investigating this or that. At the same time Call of Cthulhu is pretty much the only game that outright comes out and says that it’s a game about investigation. Simultaneously, Cthulhu is about Lovecraftian stories. Let’s see what the investigation does to faciliate a horror story.

There are three games we’re interested in here:

  • A game of Lovecraftian horror, where the players cooperate to create pulp stories of the macabre. At the end the protagonist goes incurably mad, and the closer the story is to Lovecraft in terms of mythos trivia and style of description, the more aesthetically pleasing it is.
  • A horror game of situation immersion where unearthly sights are painted in words by the GM for the entertainment of the players, who enjoy the rising tension and mad escapes from beasts out of space and time.
  • A commando team game where the GM presents a situation, often with rather incomplete knowledge base, and the job of the players is to scout the enemy, formulate a plan and decimate the opposition.

(A note for the theorists out there: I’m not actually parroting GNS or whatever here, those are all practically important and constantly surfacing hypothetical games whenever I get into a discussion about Call of Cthulhu; the game itself is horridly incoherent, so it has the tendency to make people see what they want to see in it. Besides, the first two games are simulationistic, while the last one is gamist.)

The above three games are all available to some degree in Call of Cthulhu, although the first one is really just a persistent minority fetish not really supported by the text of the game, except insofar as the “Cthulhu mythos” is a shared object fetish for both these gamers and the game itself. The latter two, though… both are in the book with great clarity, and what’s worse, they are in different parts of the book. The players are instructed in commando tactics while the GM is instructed to build an atmospheric horror story. Not good for even knowing what the game is about.

Anyway, my point here is to focus directly on the middle game there, because that’s what I want right now out of Cthulhu. The basic plan is pretty simple: ignore the adversial challenge presented by the scenario and accept the GM to have major powers of adversity, whatever is necessary to break the player characters, should breaking them be necessary for the immersive horror. Drop the specific mythos and invent your own horrors, at least insofar as player familiarity with the game or the works of Lovecraft impedes immersive horror. Use the setting as a basis for the horror story, not an end to itself. Drop whatever parts of the rules are not necessary for immersive horror.

However, the problem of investigative gaming is still there; what is it doing in Call of Cthulhu? Why is it an investigative game, if the point of the game is to have an immersive horror story experience? Most horror stories, including most Lovecraft stories, are not about investigators analyzing footprints or any other CSI cliches. What does the investigation offer for the horror game, exactly? This is an especially relevant question for me because Dead of Night, an excellent horror game, does most of the CoC thing quite effortlessly, but mostly by emulating B-horror movies. So if you can get immersive horror without the investigation, is CoC then totally deprecated as a horror game?

Purpose of investigation

My theory on the purpose of investigation in a CoC game is that it allows the players, as opposed to the GM, the opportunity to control the pace of revelation and, therefore, horror. This can be seen to some degree in the literature that inspires Call of Cthulhu: the protagonist is quite voluntary in getting closer and closer to the mystery, only being encouraged by initial discoveries, and then shattering like glass when he finally encounters the horror. There is no extended shock-horror treatment where the protagonist is haunted by monsters, the horror is in how the protagonist himself is destroyed by his revelation.

So investigation is a pacing mechanic, and that includes everything between the protagonist and the horror, really: the protagonist needs to go to the civil records to find the address, he needs to take a train to get there, whatever. It’s all pacing, then? Do we, as players or audience, need to have the setting and the backstory revealed in little pieces to create the correct ritual space for horror immersion? Perhaps. But if this is the case, we have no need of Idea checks, Library Use rolls or such; why not just have the GM frame scene upon scene of waiting? What is actually happening structurally when the protagonist works the library in search of Cultes des Ghoules?

Methinks I’ll have to find that new Robin Laws game, Esoterrorists. I’ve been told that it has some notions of how investigation can be turned into meaningful game content. I have my own vague ideas, but they need time to reach fruition. For now, formulating the question needs to be enough.

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