That Time I Surprised My Players With Cthulhu

Years ago I ran a game of D20 Modern using D20 Call of Cthulhu/D20 Delta Green over three years that culminated in the characters facing down the apocalypse. I thought the campaign was successful...until I polled my players and realized they weren't happy with it. Here's what I learned.

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The Campaign

The basic campaign was a Majestic-12 style series of agents who were handpicked to defeat Lovecraftian threats. The establishing backstory put them through training in preparation for the horrors that would come, but it felt more like a superhero game or a secret agent game than a horror game. And initially at least, that's what the game was -- fighting terrorists while trying to keep their cover as regular citizens. You can read the entire story hour here.

It didn't last though, at least in part because I had always planned to introduce a grand Cthulhu-style arc. More and more supernatural elements crept in, our heroes' abilities increased as they got more powerful, and soon one of them was a psychic capable of bringing down entire buildings on bad guys. Their firepower increased accordingly. In the finale the heroes discovered that they were all masks of Nyarlathotep -- clones who were fated to rule the world -- and to avoid evil winning they self-destructed by aiming an orbital laser at themselves. I thought it was epic.

My players hated it. In fact, it was the last time I ever gamed with them. So what went wrong?

We Didn't Create a Social Contract First

Everyone in the campaign was a friend of mine for decades, so our play styles were well-established and they were comfortable with me as a game master. But that wasn't the problem -- or rather, that level of comfort is what enabled me to spring a Cthulhu-style game on them.

I never asked the players if they wanted to play a horror game. Call of Cthulhu had a bad rep with them as a game where "you go nuts and die." What the issue really was about was player agency, and my players were concerned that in running that kind of horror game they wouldn't have a lot of control over their characters. Although we dabbled in corruption mechanics, we didn't implement any sanity-shattering rules. Despite this, the players still felt I forced a play style on them that they didn't sign on for.

Call of Cthulhu and D20 Games Have Different Power Arcs

It's worth noting just how opposite these two systems are, even though they can look similar -- D20 Call of Cthulhu has stats for lots of Lovecrafitan monsters, but that doesn't mean the play style is the same. Simply put, playing a game of Call of Cthulhu means you buy into your character's weaknesses. My brother, who enjoyed playing his character as a terrified wimp (and also the geeky genius of the group), dove into his role as someone who would lose his mind when faced with extraterrestrial terrors. The other players didn't find it amusing, and frequently complained that the monsters were overpowered.

Of course, the monsters WERE overpowered, which is part of what makes Cthulhoid monstrosities so terrifying. Often the players had to find other ways to defeat creatures besides just shooting them or blowing them up. D20 Modern lends itself to a combative style of play, but the nature of investigation and the cautious approach was at odds with their competitive play style that they took from D&D.

These two confounding factors led to a bigger problem which I only began to notice near the end of the campaign.

"The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few"

As the campaign progressed, our heroes -- well aware that the end of the world was at stake -- began to take on a nihilistic view. They didn't care who they killed or blew up if it meant defeating entities from beyond from destroying the world. Their argument, one that was difficult to counter as their characters saw more and more hideous monsters lurking in the shadows, was that they had to do whatever was necessary to get the job done.

This changed their behavior in scenarios where for example, there was the possibility that a kindly old lady might be possessed by an evil entity, or someone might be held hostage. They didn't care, they had a world to save, so they would just blow up everyone to be safe...and if someone innocent got hurt, well they probably would die if the world ended anyway.

In some ways I had succeeded in turning the characters into the monsters they eventually became. I never forced them -- the character decisions all led to the point where they ended up having to make sacrifice to save the world or revert to their own selfish ends -- but my vision of the characters "going out with a bang" as part of their grand sacrifice ultimately soured them on the game completely. It sounded great on paper, but it wasn't fun.

If I were to do things differently, I would talk over the tone of the campaign first and be honest with them about what was to come (without giving too much away of course). In the end I think I knew they would say no, which is why I ran the campaign the way I did. Although the game concluded successfully, knowing the players didn't have fun in the latter parts of the campaign is a harsh lesson to learn after three years of gaming together. Because if we're not having fun, why bother gaming at all?
 
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Michael Tresca

Comments

Interesting article. I think that the 'bait and switch' tends to be used to bring in horror elements (to make them surprising) and that's an especially marmite genre for TTRPG. Sad, because the bait and switch actually suits the genre more than letting the players know to expect it, but the players also need to enjoy the campaign!
 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
We all have a story where thought the game was great and epic and the players were not nearly as pleased. It happens though and it is good to learn from. Thanks for sharing that with us!
 

Von Ether

Explorer
A textbook example of frequent GM growing pain, the "bait and switch" and the OP has a good list of the temptations to do it and also examined some good reasons not to not do it.

Beyond looking good on paper, we often see media and fiction where the protagonist is pulled a bait and switch in the plot, like a police officer who learns the supernatural is real and eventually embraces it.

But players -- and their PCs -- are not a crafted novel. It's more akin to a creative project and, as the team leader, you've switch goals from the agreed upon reason why everyone joined in the first place.

And if you are going to switch tone in a game, it's best spell out in particulars.

I had a horrible time in an urban game where the PCs eventually became street supers. The GM had a nebulous timeline of when we would eventually go super, but wanted it to occur "naturally" and announced after the fact we may not exactly get the powers we signed up for "to keep things interesting." After about four sessions of waiting for the switch, I was climbing the walls.

I think if the GM told us that it would take four sessions before we got out powers, we'd know to settle in. Sadly, I think he trying to feel out the "right" time to do things and was finding out there was no such thing.
 

Sunsword

Explorer
To make sure I understand this, Talien, did the players ever bring concerns to you while the game going?

I do believe everyone at the table needs to buy-in to the campaign, but I think the GM still needs to be able to shock the players, otherwise, what fun is it if you know the end?
 

Von Ether

Explorer
I do believe everyone at the table needs to buy-in to the campaign, but I think the GM still needs to be able to shock the players, otherwise, what fun is it if you know the end?
I agree with you, but as I often say, "GMs are often gourmet cooks working at a comfort food restaurant filled with players." Players don't mind the occasional surprise or unexpected twist within the tropes of the game they are playing (a surprise or twist is not necessary the same as a shock.)

For many players as long as they get to settle in and run the same elven ranger they run in every game, they are in for the ride because they pretty much KNOW the ending. Just like they know the set piece endings of every book they read and TV show they watch. In fact, they get upset when their expectations are confounded.

Fantasy is the most popular RPG genre because its tropes are the most familiar. (GM burn out happens when they stop seeing tropes and only see cliches.)

Talien had switched the genres, the back stories of the players's PCs without their buy in (technically), and even the "win" state of the game (from monster bashing to group self-sacrifice.) He took what looked like a cool gamble, but it didn't work.

You can draw outside the lines, on occasion, in RPGs, but you got to also know where the paper ends.
 

talien

Community Supporter
To make sure I understand this, Talien, did the players ever bring concerns to you while the game going?
They didn't say it in so many words. A few times they complained about the power level of Cthulhu monsters, which was my first hint. The idea was that the monsters were never meant to be shot to death, but rather beaten through a combination of clever sleuthing, foiling summoning rituals, and the right use of explosives.

The second sign was the aforementioned "kill everything, let God sort them out" response where they stopped caring about the plot because they were trying to save the world. They skipped from investigating to just attempting to mass murder anyone who even seemed slightly sketchy. In essence, they were rebelling against the structure of a typical horror game.

The third sign was when they discovered they had all been "tainted" by the Mythos. They really didn't like that, but that came at the end of the campaign.

D20 Modern sits in a weird space between D&D tropes and modern tropes. D&D very much emphasizes the ability of the individual to overcome -- through personal power -- obstacles. D20 Modern has a similar approach, but with modern tropes heroes are theoretically constrained by civilized society. By the end of the campaign they had pretty much reverted to D&D-style warfare against anything that moved, civilization and mass hysteria not withstanding.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
That level of honesty when critiquing oneself is hard - and fruitful. Reading it, I think that introspection will make you a better gamemaster moving forward - though if you can regain the trust of those particular players is a different question.

I've screwed up DMing in the past, including the ending of a several year campaign. I was getting burnt out and when the players did something that they didn't realize would have big consequences near the beginning of what would have been the third act. It instead triggered the end game. Logically, if you were omniscient it made sense. But we skipped by so much of what the players would have learned at in that last act that would have made it epic. And that's not the first, last, or worse mess up.

If we are honest with ourselves and our players, and learn from it, well that's what experience is.

Good luck moving forward.
 
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Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
D20 Modern sits in a weird space between D&D tropes and modern tropes. D&D very much emphasizes the ability of the individual to overcome -- through personal power -- obstacles. D20 Modern has a similar approach, but with modern tropes heroes are theoretically constrained by civilized society. By the end of the campaign they had pretty much reverted to D&D-style warfare against anything that moved, civilization and mass hysteria not withstanding.
Ah, Supers Murder-Hobo Cthulhu. :)
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
Interesting article. When I ran a Call of Cthulhu campaign with my players, I made sure that they wanted to play it, and that they understood how this campaign would be different from a normal D&D campaign. I made sure they all understood and accepted the premise of a horror story where everyone eventually goes nuts and/or dies, and where monsters are super deadly. Fortunately they were all on board for that, but years later it took a bit more convincing to get my players on board with the idea of a pirate campaign.... which we've now been playing for several years.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Two more pieces of irony:
1) The game before this one was a pirate D&D game. They really enjoyed it, but as you can imagine the tone was very different.
2) About mid-way through the campaign the characters blew themselves up fighting Cthulhu (they caused a nuclear sub to detonate in his face)...then woke up again later with no memory of what happened. That's when the cloning happened and each character gradually became more corrupted by an entity (one was controlled by Y'golonac, another by Yog-Sothoth, etc.) although this never impaired play so much that they couldn't be the hyper-competent agents they wanted to be.

But in the end they just didn't like the ending; the idea that they were not fully in control of their characters (or rather, that I kept something secret about each of them) soured them on the whole campaign.
 

pogre

Adventurer
Was this campaign the reason that you never played with the group again?

I have been in a game where the G.M. clearly loved their concept, but the players were less thrilled about it. It is tough to let a GM know things are not as fun - you want to respect their time and effort in putting together the game.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Was this campaign the reason that you never played with the group again?
It was part of it.

My plan was to then run a new D20 Future campaign building on what had happened in the D20 Modern game. That completely fell apart once I realized nobody was enjoying themselves. I was also traveling 1.5 hours to game and had two young children, so that was a factor. We switched to an online Shackled City game but not all the players joined -- some just weren't going to play online no matter what -- and then when that fell apart (as online games often do) the whole group collapsed. Of the original players, only two made it that far and one was my brother.

I just bought a new table for my game room (check this out: Transformer Table 3.0-World's Best MULTIFUNCTIONAL Furniture) so I'm planning to start over with a new game. It's a big difference between gaming with my high school friends of three decades and finding new players as an adult, that's for sure!
 

Celebrim

Legend
Yeah, beware the impulse to play "Gotcha!" with your players. It seems to come from a good place, because who doesn't love a good twist, right? But it is the dark side.

And I think even in D&D, if your players have adopted the approach of unrestrained warfare against the world, it's probably a sign that your campaign has - perhaps without your knowledge - come to be one that involves an antagonistic relationship between the players and the GM.
 

pogre

Adventurer
I just bought a new table for my game room (check this out: Transformer Table 3.0-World's Best MULTIFUNCTIONAL Furniture) so I'm planning to start over with a new game. It's a big difference between gaming with my high school friends of three decades and finding new players as an adult, that's for sure!
Hah! I was just looking at those tables! Very cool.

I am fortunate that my boys enjoy gaming a lot. I have two away at college, but I still have two at home and they are big time gamers. It's great having them at the table. I'm really going to miss playing with my kids when they are all out of the house. Hopefully your children will enjoy gaming too.
 

MonkeezOnFire

Explorer
I remember reading your story hour a couple years back. I don't remember if I ever finished it, but I do remember that I really enjoyed it. I specifically liked the power level you presented where monsters couldn't be directly fought by gunning them down but also their mere presence doesn't turn the PCs into a quivering pile of madness.
 

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