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Defining The Drama in my Mythos-based Game

 
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manifold
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PostPosted: Sat Oct 25, 2008 8:14 am    Post subject: Defining The Drama in my Mythos-based Game Reply with quote

Note: these are some thoughts that helped me in my latest campaign. They aren't meant to be a definitive statement for everyone; ymmv.

My most recent campaign is a pastiche of pulp and horror, set in the Spanish Main during the late 17th century. My original vision was a dark horror game with a Joseph Conrad/Apocalypse Now kind of vibe, with madness being as much a part of the landscape as the palm trees, mosquitoes and humidity. I had a pre-conceived idea of how the campaign would look like, down to having the characters all be churchmenóJesuits, most likelyósent to ferret out heresy in the Main. Of course, the heresy would turn out to be the Horrible Truth, resulting in much mayhem, insanity, and loss of life.
I encountered a few problems at the onset of the campaign, however. First, I am using the Savage Worlds rule set, which doesnít have a set of sanity rules. Iíve said before (and in retrospect, I wish Iíd listened to myself) that the Fear rules for SW do a pretty good job of mirroring Sanity; some effects are temporary, some are permanent, and some are deadly (which is what permanent insanity really is: a type of character death.) However, I made somewhat complicated and clunky sanity rules to dovetail with my clunky, complicated Cíthulhu Mythos Skill rules, none of which did anything to make the game more enjoyable for the group.
Speaking of the group, my players are more of a Solomon Kane bunch than a CoC bunch. They want to kick ass, and plenty of it. Playing Jesuits being driven slowly mad in the stifling heat of Hispanola didnít appeal much to them, so they created their own characters who are much more individualistic and pulpy that the dour band Iíd envisioned. So, the type of story theyíre creating is of a different sort than the one for which Iíd prepared. Such is life; all of this to say: my experience so far with a Call of Cíthulhu-style game has led me to re-assess what exactly this type of game entails.
My original concept of CoC had to do with trappings: Sanity mechanics, moldering tomes of forbidden lore, poorly lit, futile battles with inhuman abominations, etc. However, even with all of these elements in place (some seated better than others), the game seems to flounder. So, I have to ask myself, ďHow do I really run this game?Ē Iíve read lots of advice on how to scare players, adventure ideas, thoughts on what actually is frightening about the Mythos, and many other entertaining discussions, but very few tell you how to actually run a game like this.
What Iíve come up with combines several sources: the CoC d20 book (which contains some fine adventure writing advice), the excellent game Spirit of the Century (which has some of the best, most concise advice on running games and preparing adventures Iíve ever seen) and my own reactions to theĒ Whatís so scary about the MythosĒ thread at Yog-Sothoth.com.
Starting with the first source: whatís so scary about the Mythos? My personal answer: nothing. The Mythos, boiled down to its base elements, is kind of silly. Lovecraft thought that the fear of the unknown was the greatest fear. I disagree; rather, the fear of a threat to whatever you value most is the greatest fear. The great thing about the Mythos is that is threatens everything, so itís a pretty good character motivator. However, it also seems to hold a key to ultimate powerÖkind of like plutonium.
That has become the central metaphor of my campaign planning: the Mythos plutonium. Itís passively dangerous (as in radiation becomes evil dreams of sleeping gods) Itís dangerous when people try to get a hold of it and use it for themselves for private, crazy agendas (terrorists become cultists) The danger here comes not only from the threat of the cultists succeeding, but from the lengths to which they will go to achieve their goals. Finally, the Mythos is dangerous when it explodes (the bomb goes off; the Great Old One wakes up hungry). Trying to prevent this ultimate catastrophe seems to be the ultimate goal of this type of campaign, underpinned by the more immediate goal of avoiding the first two threats and staying alive. Lastly, the Mythos is dangerous to people who get in the way of agencies of the state who are attempting to control, suppress, or regulate the Mythos is any way (KGB, CIA, and in my campaign, the Catholic Church.)
Please know that I realize that this analogy isnít perfect, nor is it an attempt to analyze Lovecraftís stories. Rather, it is a tool to impel my campaign forward. By thinking of the Mythos as a dangerous power source, I give my campaign itís ultimate Maguffin: it is the thing that impels the relevant actions of most of the main NPCís and factions. (Of course, there are the garden variety power-mongers, honest cops, dishonest cops, endangered innocents, and other complications, but these arenít there to give the campaign itís basic form; rather, they are interesting details.) I think this idea bears repeating: the Mythos isnít the ultimate threat, itsí the Maguffin. Itís what motivates the threats, and motivates the characters to neutralize the threat.
So, thatís the conclusion: in this campaign, the thing that motivates and impels the characters and NPCís is either the threat or promise of the Mythos, the potential of its power. The trappings of Sanity mechanics, dangerous magic, and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know are window dressing for a drama of survival and conflict. Going forward, I can see this campaign being much easier (and much more fun) to plan and to run.
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DustDevil
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PostPosted: Sat Oct 25, 2008 10:17 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sounds like good, interesting stuff... Post updates! I'd like to know how this "plays out" using the SW rules. I've been trying to convince my group to play CoC (basic rules) for a while now, and they've been dead-set against it due to the dark & destructive nature of the game. A game system with rules that aren't stacked so firmly against the PC's might be an easier sell. Wink
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fanchergw
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PostPosted: Sat Oct 25, 2008 12:02 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Unfortunately, a game is only as successful as the players want it to be. If they're not interested, it doesn't matter much what the GM does or what rules they use. Hopefully, you and your players will be able to find something that they want to play as much as you want to run it.

P.S. Tour of Darkness has sanity rules.

Gordon
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manifold
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 04, 2008 1:02 pm    Post subject: A resolution, of sorts. Reply with quote

I appreciate all of the feedback.

I'm afraid I may have cast the players as the villains in my quandary, but they aren't. They simply want what they want, and I'm not going to deny them that. Their vision is A-OK with me, just to be clear.

That said, I think the Ethos of the Mythos is not going to fly, but the Mythos itself--the Great Old Ones, the servitors, the secrets, the magic--will stay. However, the slow descent into madness will go, for the most part. There will be no sanity loss, mainly because pulp heroes of the stripe of Solomon Kane are pretty close to crazy to begin with. They are far removed from the delicate psyches of Lovecraft's protagonists. They are often outsiders, driven by an internal fire to do...something. Rather than the slippery slope, they face moments of decision: to give in to the cold grip of fear or soldier on. The SW fear rules mirror this nicely: a die roll, and consequences for failing. No psychological hit points, just a single event, pass-fail and continue. (I think I'll have the Heart Attack go out the window, though. Rather, I'll use the same mechanic and on a fail the character is incapacitated for 3d6 hours. He can be unconcious, catatonic, babbling incoherently, etc. But being scared literally to death doesn't really seem all that worthy of a Wanderer to me.)

The tomes, and some creatures or locations, however, will create some trouble for those who spend time looking at them. A skill, called Mythos Lore, will impose itself a die type at a time on those who encounter the Mythos. This will act as a sort of Sanity mechanic, as each die must be bought with a hindrance. (This is a clean rip-off of Nanoc the Sane's system.) Each encounter with a new element of the mythos will be met with a Mythos Lore check. A failed check means the die type has been upgraded. Get to d12+1, and you're too far gone for even Solomon Kane. This is permanent insanity, from which there is no return. (Maybe; this is pulp, after all.)

Finally, I'm going to replace the Righteous Rage mechanic with something less random. I'm going to let the players create 1 aspect, a la Spirit of the Century, which will power their rage. Accepting complications based on that aspect will net them bennies, which can be used to fuel RR rather than a random die roll. This fits Howard's ethos better, I think: the power of one's convictions can give one super human prowess in times of great need. Very pulpy, but that's where we stand.

I realize I'm cherry picking the mythos, but this is the game I'm in: Lovecraft's Mythos with Howard's ethos.

Yar F'tagn, indeed.
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Jordan Peacock
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PostPosted: Tue Nov 04, 2008 2:41 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Huh. Regarding "Solomon Kane vs. Call of Cthulhu," I've run into what might be a similar phenomenon, if I'm catching on at all.

I've got players who speak in nostalgic tones about the great Call of Cthulhu campaigns they've been in, where everyone ends up dead, or driving off into the sunset - but stark, raving mad. (Or, in a similar vein, chaotic games of Paranoia.)

However, if I bring up the idea of actually doing something like that, for some reason it just doesn't fly. It could be that I just don't have the proper touch to do that kind of horror - or at least that I don't have the cred for it with my gaming group. Nobody really WANTS to play that sort of very mortal character, it seems - not in the present, anyway.

The same players are just fine with doing the occasional session of "Betrayal at the House on the Hill," though. But then, it's not like that requires all that much investment in the character. It could be, in my case, that if we're going to start a campaign, the players feel obliged to put work into backstories ... and once they've put in that much work, they really don't look forward to their loving creations getting arbitrarily killed off for horror-movie cheap thrills.

Hmm. I guess if I really wanted to do a true CoC type game, I'd have to present an engaging bunch of pre-gens (with more choices available than I likely have players at the table, so nobody gets stuck with the one character nobody else wanted) and make it a one-shot (or possibly a three-parter, if the real life-threatening stuff doesn't pop out until the last session).
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manifold
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 05, 2008 5:29 pm    Post subject: yep. Reply with quote

I think "arbitrarily killed" is an important phrase. When a character is killed by the plot--when he's killed to make an important point in the story--then that's arbitrary. It's a significant campaign event. When a character dies because he was first in line when the big monster jumped out of the closet, that's random. I think the random deaths are more unappealing than the arbitrary ones.

That sounds like picking nits, but it's really not. I'm not just being a semantics snob--I think you really hit on something. Danger and helplessness in danger is one of the hallmarks of horror--but it certainly isn't everyone's cup of tea. Dead Lands, an alleged horror setting, has characters who are anything but helpless ordinaries caught up in events outside any hope of survival. Solomon Kane, also a "horror" setting, doesn't have much of the element of helplessness either. In fact, the horror aspect of both settings seems to be similar to literary horror, where the characters as well as the players are the audience to the helplessness of others. The characters in both DL and SK are not exactly the protagonists of the story; they act as both protagonists (because they can be changed over time by the story) and as antagonists (because they cause change over time in the story.) They kill monsters and tell tales, thereby making things better for the true protagonists of the Reckoning--the innocents. In a sense, it's like jumping into a slasher movie not as a bunch of stupid teenagers but as a team of Navy SEALs tasked with protecting a bunch of stupid teenagers.

Contrast this with CoC in which the characters are clearly the protagonists. They are the ones who are helpless, they are the ones sucked in and ruined by the mythos. They aren't there to save the day; the day is lost before it begins. In this sense, the characters are the same as the characters in a horror novel or story: something horrible is going to happen to them, and all the players/audience can do is watch. Sure, they can call out advice to the screen/page/investigators, but in the end, the audience are voyeurs of the worst sort: those who get off on the misfortunes of others. CoC as a game has a nihilistic ethos, and the positioning of the characters as helpless or frail is essential to that position.

I have a theory: as we get older, and the forces of life begin to act on us in more and more uncomfortable ways, a nihilistic fantasy about meaningless death or inevitable insanity becomes less and less appealing. Players want for the most part to be part antagonist, to affect change. I don't blame them. CoC is fun for the creep outs, the secrets, the challenges, and the mythos but the overwhelming dread ending in total destruction is only intermittently cathartic, whereas kicking the dragon's/shuggoth's/hangin' juge's ass almost always is.

I think it comes down to this: players want to think their characters have a chance--to live, to save the world, to get rich, whatever. That's why I think the Pinebox stuff is successful: the players are antagonists. Failure isn't a foregone conclusion. There's hope.

(Note: This is about perception and player reaction, not the merits of CoC. CoC is grand, and I love it--but only in small doses. On the whole, I'd rather kick ass.)
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jamused
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 05, 2008 6:21 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

My reaction is quite the reverse. Assuming that the death isn't my decision, I can take being killed randomly. Them's the breaks. If I think that my character was killed by the GM to make a point in the story, important or not, I'd suggest he leave that stuff to when he's writing his fanfic...or I'd find somebody who wanted to play a game instead of craft a story.
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Jordan Peacock
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 05, 2008 8:15 pm    Post subject: Re: yep. Reply with quote

manifold wrote:
I think "arbitrarily killed" is an important phrase. When a character is killed by the plot--when he's killed to make an important point in the story--then that's arbitrary. It's a significant campaign event. When a character dies because he was first in line when the big monster jumped out of the closet, that's random. I think the random deaths are more unappealing than the arbitrary ones.


Random deaths are always unappealing, of course, and they can happen even in "normal" campaigns. What I meant, though, is that in some horror games, someone IS GOING TO die. Bang, you're dead. The monster HAS to kill someone off for there to be the proper level of terror and fear of mortality. I've read some of the pregenerated adventure modules, and many times the threat level is presented like that. I can understand it, of course: There's nothing that quite drives home the point that, yes, PCs can die, than actually having a PC die.

Quote:
Dead Lands, an alleged horror setting, has characters who are anything but helpless ordinaries caught up in events outside any hope of survival.


Usually. There was one published Deadlands Classic adventure in which it was guaranteed that one of the PCs was going to die. There was even a sidebar warning the GM not to wimp out by letting the PCs figure their way out of this mess. It was meant to be inescapable and unavoidable. (I won't say which one, though.)

Quote:
In a sense, it's like jumping into a slasher movie not as a bunch of stupid teenagers but as a team of Navy SEALs tasked with protecting a bunch of stupid teenagers.


Heh. For some reason I found that example particularly amusing. Smile

Quote:
I have a theory: as we get older, and the forces of life begin to act on us in more and more uncomfortable ways, a nihilistic fantasy about meaningless death or inevitable insanity becomes less and less appealing.


Interesting theory. Maybe my players just think they've already "done their time." Wink
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