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

talien

Community Supporter
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.
Oh yes, my son's campaign is known as The Exterior (Gamma World-esque using D&D 5E rules). We've run through three D&D-style campaigns so far with my son and daughter. Keeping them both engaged has been an interesting design challenge -- they have very different tastes in both play styles and tolerance for combat.
 

talien

Community Supporter
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.
Thanks, it's definitely a fine line between those two extremes. There were times when it was magical (or horrific, really) -- my favorite is when one of the heroes tries to execute someone possessed by a parasite (who begged to be executed)...and it doesn't work, with the poor sap screaming, "IT DIDN'T WORK!" over and over.

But that kind of horror isn't for everybody.
 

lordabdul

Villager
Thanks for the write-up! Very interesting.

I tend to play a lot of horror games (CoC, DG, etc.) and over the years I've indeed come to realize that they are very different from the main types of RPGs. As you said, they have a different "power arc". In most RPGs, you character gets better, and hopefully you play your character for long time, hoping they don't die. Your enjoyment of the campaign is tied to your enjoyment of how your character evolves and develops within the story of the campaign.

But with horror games, and especially CoC, it's the opposite: characters can only get worse. Whatever you gain (knowledge, spells, etc.) is always coming at a cost (SAN, usually), so your character, sooner or later, will be out of play. Oh and of course, monsters are super deadly. In my opinion, however, the key is that your enjoyment of the campaign isn't tied to the character, but to the story itself. "I went through 5 different characters while playing Masks of Nyarlathotep! What a ride! It was awesome! Two of my deaths were so awesome!". This is a very different relationship to your characters than in a "classic" RPG.

Now I'm much more careful with explaining that to prospective players... and in general, I think I'm a lot more mindful of player expectations that I was a decade ago.
 

talien

Community Supporter
But with horror games, and especially CoC, it's the opposite: characters can only get worse. Whatever you gain (knowledge, spells, etc.) is always coming at a cost (SAN, usually), so your character, sooner or later, will be out of play. Oh and of course, monsters are super deadly. In my opinion, however, the key is that your enjoyment of the campaign isn't tied to the character, but to the story itself. "I went through 5 different characters while playing Masks of Nyarlathotep! What a ride! It was awesome! Two of my deaths were so awesome!". This is a very different relationship to your characters than in a "classic" RPG.
You bring up a good point, which is up until then we had always played a fantasy game. They all also played Shadowrun (I wasn't a fan), so I think they expected a lot of similar tropes. My brother, who has played more superhero games and less D&D, thoroughly enjoyed playing a victim. He liked his cowardly, nervous, twitchy super-smart geek character and relished role-playing him freaking out when aliens or other horrors pushed him over the edge.

He was the only one, and frankly his enjoyment probably kept me on the path even after the other players started to lose interest. Of COURSE they were all going to die at the end, that was built into the campaign. But I wasn't honest with myself or them as to where we were heading, and I think that's what soured them the most.
 

lordabdul

Villager
Yeah, sorry to hear about that happening to your group, it's definitely one of the sucky aspects of being the GM, when the game doesn't go well and you don't know what to do and you somehow feel responsible. It's really why every game book in the world tells you about discussing the game beforehand with the players, agree on a tone, set expectations, etc. Somehow it took me a long time to mature enough to do that. Oh well.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
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.
It's a really delicate balancing act. A player with very plain mac-and-cheese tastes will often be overly excited by what satisfies a more adventurous player who doesn't mind more plot twists and the like. But you're 100% right, almost no player will be on board for a game that fundamentally violates their conception of who their PC is.

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.)
That's one reason for it, certainly. I often find burnout happens to me when I start to run out of ideas or get frustrated with the system.

You can draw outside the lines, on occasion, in RPGs, but you got to also know where the paper ends.
1000%.

In a game I'm running, one way I set expectations was to say pretty early on: "This is going to have a very Indiana Jones feel. You may not be able to directly defeat all adversaries but instead count victories as 'we foiled the plot and escaped with our lives.'"
 

Von Ether

Explorer
Thanks for the write-up! Very interesting.

In most RPGs, you character gets better, and hopefully you play your character for long time, hoping they don't die.
...

But with horror games, and especially CoC, it's the opposite: characters can only get worse. Whatever you gain (knowledge, spells, etc.) is always coming at a cost (SAN, usually), so your character, sooner or later, will be out of play

... "I went through 5 different characters while playing Masks of Nyarlathotep! What a ride! It was awesome! Two of my deaths were so awesome!". This is a very different relationship to your characters than in a "classic" RPG.
I know of long running Shadowrun game that is a frankenmash of both! The players revel in making super competent characters and tricked out equipment (rules mastery and bad assery), but they love to double cross/murder each other, cause chaos and go out with a bang. They brag about how many of their own PCs have died and come back for more. The GM must love it too since he keep giving it the game. Sometimes they play Pathfinder 1ed, but the mayhem is the same.

The offshoot, is that now other peoples games are "boring" and no one wants to jump into their game.
 
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