An essay on the session of Trail of Cthulhu I played at Ropecon, being a rather lengthy treatise on what made it work and on the merits of the rules and the GM, and on the responsibilities of the players in horror roleplaying games, and by extension, in other sorts of roleplaying games that try to engage the participants’ emotions.
I’ve loved Trail of Cthulhu ever since I read it. The art is perfect for a Cthulhu book, Kenneth Hite—the author—really knows his Lovecraft, and the system is trimmed down to the essentials and really suits my playstyle. There are some bits that I don’t like, but are really easy to hack; overall, it’s very versatile beginning from the system right down to the Mythos monsters, so that every Keeper can make it their own. One year at Ropecon, I ran my ass off of Trail—25 hours within 48 hours—but now was my first opportunity to play it. Bonus: it was run by a woman, which I don’t get too often. This was also my first opportunity to play Cthulhu (and horror) after reading Kenneth Hite’s Nightmares of Mine (which has been updated to GURPS Horror) and his terrific essay on Cthulhu in his Dubious Shards.
The GM was Anni Salminen and the scenario, The Horror of Oakley Court, was of her own making. I wouldn’t have guessed, because her handouts were in English and her map of the hotel was stunning. Nothing fancy, but really realistic, and she admitted having scoured the internet for ages to find a good floor plan. I didn’t quite know what to expect, since Anni was more shy than I’ve used to from GMs, but she made it a strength. She sat back, gave the information, kept a killer poker face, and made us do the dirty work of getting ourselves into trouble.
Part GM, part scenario, part the rules: it all worked beautifully. The GM made the risky choice of letting us take the initiative and find all the information by ourselves without unnecessary prodding. With a wrong group it could’ve crashed, but in this game I felt like we were solely responsible for what we did. If the GM knows what she’s doing, she can make it look like the players were skilled and lucky enough to find the correct clues and never let the players know that she would’ve given the correct clues anyhow. What Anni did was make it clear that some paths of investigation were dead ends, and some were rewarded. That’s what mattered! It felt really good just to poke around and hit the jackpot. Not that I know how she had structured the scenario: for all I know, she let us find the clues no matter what we did. But the important part is that we didn’t know that, and all the time there was the tension of not knowing whether we were on the right track and how much time we had.
Trail can be used to run railroads and support the illusionist way of GMing: give the players the illusion of freedom but whatever they do, they end up with the right clues. I don’t know if it would work in the long run with the same group, especially if the players got in on the GM’s thing, but in horror one shots I really don’t care: if I feel the horror, I’m satisfied.
GUMSHOE, the system Trail uses, for those who don’t know, is sort of a two-part system, composed of two kinds of skills. The first ones, which the system is most famous for, are the investigative skills, which always give you the clues you need to move the story along; the numerical value of the investigative skills is a pool of points you can use to enhance your successes: making contacts, reducing the time needed, looking good while doing it, and so on. The other kind of skill, general skills, use a single d6 to which you can add points from a diminishing pool in your skill.
On paper, the resource management seemed iffy at first, but I love it, both as GM and as player. It’s really quick, and suits horror gaming really well, because you get the feeling of fighting a losing battle and never really knowing how much you can afford. It adds a level of uncertainty to the game, and does it lightly, without interrupting the flow of the game. The beautiful thing about it is that your basic chance of success if 50%: the usual difficulty is four. So adding points to the skill roll doesn’t really require a lot of math, and is more of a gut thing. Sometimes you just know you need to succeed and burn three or more points on a roll, which almost guarantees a success. Spending the points feel gratifying and desperate both at the same time!
Some people have suspected the auto-success being a bane to roleplaying, resulting in a laundry list type of gaming, where the players declare all their skills while arriving on scene, and get all the clues. Sure, you can do that—if you suck and your GM lets you suck and suck the life out of everyone else’s game. Once you’re concentrating on the fiction and portraying a believable character, you need to be a disruptive smartass to resort to the laundry list tactic. Because if you’re serious about playing, you’re concentrating on the coherence of the fiction and the character, which both are a creative limitation to the mechanics. (The list of skills is actually a boon, because it’s really easy to see what the character knows and can do, and consequently it’s really easy to focus on portraying and advocating him in the fiction.)
Speaking of creative limitations: playing Cthulhu in a semi-realistic non-violent mode is terrifying. The cliché about playing Cthulhu is equipping yourself with dynamite and preparing to run away, but that takes away all the joy and the challenge. Create a character who is not used to violence and not prone to violent behaviour, and you place yourself a limit to what you can do in the game in order to survive. When dangers approach, you can’t resort to the combat rules—the straightest, the emotionally easiest path—but you have to face the uncertainty and find creative and horrifying solutions to the situation. Sure, it can end in violence, but you need to work to get there, and make horrifying decisions in game to drive your character to that point.
These limitations require activity on the player’s part, which brings me to the part in the title: Kenneth Hite’s thoughts on playing Cthulhu and horror in general. The key here is that players need to come to the table to be afraid. It seems like a basic thing, but it’s been absent from many a horror game I’ve attended; the usual modus operandi are rather avoidance, planning, and humour, by which the players attempt to counteract the horror.
What I advocate, with Kenneth Hite, that players need to embrace and amplify the horror that the GM does to create. It’s not enough to let oneself be moved and frightened by what the GM does—and give him some slack if he isn’t the Johnley Carpenbrick of horror gaming—but the players need to make their characters act in ways that add to the horrific atmosphere.
There were a few things that I tried, and they worked for me; I hope they also enhanced the other players’ game, but since we didn’t sit down to chat about the game more, I don’t know. I’ll list them:
1) Act out the insanity (and stability loss, if you’re playing Trail). If your character experiences horrifying things, let your amateur thespian out and stutter, speak too fast, breath heavily, make rash decisions, scream, utter incomprehensibilities, swoon, get catatonic, desribe your character’s eyes—scared? determined? crazy? broken?—and shaky hands and sweaty brow. It’s your turn to shine and show us how frightened the game makes your character and yourself! (Trail gives good guidelines to this, by the way.)
2) Don’t plan too much. Planning somewhat is good and makes for a more believable (and survivable story), but the way I want to play and run horror isn’t a tactical exercise. Whatever you do, there must still be horror. I think the responsibility here also lies on the players, who have to balance between being reasonably survivable and still leaving room for anxiety. I’m willing to say that the primary task of the players is not to solve the situation, but maintain their fear. (I guess this can get complicated in some groups and result in analysis paralysis, if the views on what’s a good plan differ wildly, but in this game of five players, we had quite a good understanding between each other. I took the lead in planning, but no one complained.)
3) Of course, I assume here that you’re trying to build tension and fear, and not merely building towards a bloody spectacle towards the end. While I love a bloody fiasco and horrifying deaths in one shots, a certain death and the attitude of aiming to kill your character in a cool way detracts from the terror and the dread that horror roleplaying can deliver. It’s the old division between terror and horror: terror is the anticipation of terrible things happening and the mounting dread; horror is the monster revealing itself and ripping people to pieces. And you can’t have terror if you’re not willing to do your bloody best to maintain it.
It’s really the same with any emotion: when you start feel uncomfortable and anxious, feel it and channel it into creativity and emotional play. Your acting becomes better and more honest, because the other players can see and hear and feel that you’re really feeling things. Besides, the GM appreciates your feedback: it really sucks to GM a game where you’re doing your best to make the players feel something, while the players are doing their very best trying to pretend that nothing can ever touch them.
4) This last one is straight outta Hite: playing Cthulhu is really gratifying when you’re sympathizing with your character and make him a hero, even though you know he’s probably doomed. (And you probably don’t need me to tell you that not all Cthulhu scenarios have heroes and that this way of playing is not universally applicable.) You might have to doom your character yourself, in an ultimately futile gesture because mankind is eventually doomed anyway. But your own sacrifice will buy time for people you’ve never met. You need to maintain both your sympathy for the character and the consciousness that his fate can and probably will be awful. If he doesn’t die, he will estrange himself forever from other people. He’s like the gunslinger in Westerns who saves the community but needs to move on because with blood on his hands he cannot ever settle down among peaceful folks.
The result is a complex, tragic mixture of emotions that you’ve helped create in yourself and in others.
You’re both the artist and the audience. Which, to quote Luke Crane’s Sunday talk, is why RPGs are awesome.