How playing Call of Cthulhu ruined gaming for me and why I love it.
Like most folks, Dungeons and Dragons was the first roleplaying game I played. It was full of wonder and adventure and even though it was just my friend Ben and I it was amazing and enchanting beyond anything I had experienced. Pretty soon I was hooked, and was making up my own monsters even though I didn’t grasp all the rules because it was exciting and could literally be anything!
Then my parents banned me from playing after they heard some bad press about Dungeons and Dragons. My dad warned me about how guys in the Air Force would play the game all day long while on lock down during an alert. I know this was an attempt to warn me away from something, but it had the opposite effect of just confirming that this game was THAT good. But despite all that, I was a generally obedient kid, and so I told my friend I wasn’t allowed to play anymore and roleplaying died out for about a year. Then I got introduced to the Star Wars Roleplaying game by West End, and I was hooked anew. But this was good jedi and spaceships and not evil wizards and rogues so my parents were fine with it. That was my go to game for years. Eventually D&D worked its way back in, and I encountered many other games, like Vampire: the masquerade and Shadowrun.
But then one day a friend invited me over to play Call of Cthulhu.
I was pretty excited to try this game out since about a year before I’d picked up my first Lovecraft short stories and quickly fell in love with the world that was created. We investigated a haunted house, lost some sanity with the dead rising around us and the great thing that was being summoned in the basement and in the end closed the gate and lived to tell the tale another day, primarily due to some lucky rolls involving Latin.
This caught my attention in a way that hadn’t been since my first dungeon crawl many years before. These monsters weren’t a collection of stats to be beaten. In fact at best we could stop them, but never really defeat them. Orcs and Goblins and even dragons had just become stat blocks and often were just battles of attrition, you couldn’t do that with a thing that couldn’t die.
The next time I ran a Star Wars game it was with a new group (several from the Call of Cthulhu game) so I used an adventure I had run before and the group of rebels trying to defeat the mechanizations of the evil Empire. I found though that when they encountered the giant sewer rats I wanted to take the game down a darker path. I actually had to stop the game for a moment and poll the players –high adventure heroics, or dark and gritty. They chose the high heroics and so I played out the adventure as I had before and everyone had a good time, but I really wanted it to be something else.
Since then I’ve found that most of the games that attract me have that dark overtone. Be it Warhammer Fantasy Role-play or Lamentations of the Flame Princess there is an attraction I have found to these heavy metal inspired games. If I wasn’t paying one of those games, I was generally finding ways to shift the tone of some other game or system so it was more grim and dark and perilous.
I think the reason why is the monsters. As a young role-player every monster encounter was something new and exciting. As both a player and a character I never knew how things were going to react. As time went on many of the foes became cookie cutter and even though there was threat presented to the character, it was just a matter of scale. Every monster was SUPPOSED to be defeated, so I came to expect to always meet opponents of an appropriate difficulty.
Call of Cthulhu changed all that. Now the answer isn’t that I always have to have a grim-dark setting. But rather to present new and different threats to players. Things that make them scratch their heads and wonder. There is probably even room for re-tredding old monsters and just presenting them in different ways. It has given me a push where in any genre or setting, I want to present new and interesting things to the players to push not the bounds of their characters abilities, but to elicit the best of the creativity and ingenuity of the players.