Dennis Detwiller

Controlling the Game, Scenario Creation and Seat of the Pants RPGing

In Gaming, Writing on April 9, 2012 at 8:25 am

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Contribute to the Kickstarter for this project now: The Sense of the Sleight of Hand Man, a Call of Cthulhu Dreamlands Campaign by Dennis Detwiller

I receive a lot of email about my gaming methods in Call of Cthulhu. It’s nice to be known as a heartless killing machine when it comes to Keeperdom; I take it as a compliment. Many people have praised/complained about my style of scenario creation as well. In any case people are talking about it, so I figure, I must be doing something right.

I will say something to the people who say the way I run games is “too cruel” or “keeps the gamers from having fun”; in the twenty or so years I’ve been running game sessions I’ve have about four people who these methods didn’t jive with. Everyone else has had a great time. I’m going to breakdown why I think my methods are successful, why I run the games the way I do, and how I create scenarios.

The first, and most important thing is controlling the game. As a Keeper, it is your game. You own it. You own everything in it, even the player’s characters. In a game like Call of Cthulhu, there is no other choice. The game is fraught with incredibly dangerous, player-taking-over beasties, spells that swap bodies, vast damage amounts and more. PCs are cheap. It is a mechanical fact of the game and Lovecraft’s stories. Call of Cthulhu is a game about death and madness.

I meet a lot of Keepers who say something like “the monster took him over but the Player didn’t want to do that…” What? In my games this isn’t even an option. There is no polite discussion when a mind-control parasite takes over a PC. It’s not a debate, it happens. What happens when a player accidentally blasts themselves with a electric gun or takes 1d10+4d6 damage from a Gug bite? Do you just hand wave and let them survive?

If this is what you do, I’ve got some news for you, you’re not playing Call of Cthulhu. You may gain something in the short-term, a laugh, some player celebration, but when these false successes pile up, you’ll gain something else: boredom. Fear and danger are what moves Call of Cthulhu off the shelves, not success. Player characters must die to allow others to seem to succeed.

Secondarily, when you fudge the game at player pressure you set a vast and terrible precedent. Once you cede control on any issue, no matter how small, you have opened a gulf in the trust the players must have in you. The trust that you will make the session fun, that you will be consistent, that you know what you’re doing. So, own the game. Don’t take any guff.

So, onto scenario creation. I write up scenarios from a single nugget of an idea (like “a mirror which allows time travel”) and then follow the leads out from the inciting event. Many people write scenarios that say things like “and then, this happens”. I try to avoid this (though it does happen from time to time). I attempt to fill in as many of the surrounding blanks as possible by detailing side characters (so the important NPCs have as many facts about them as the unimportant NPCs — don’t want them to stand out artificially!) Finally, I do my best to embed three or four memorable moments in the scenario; something creeptastic and cool which will stick with the players.

Finally, a word on Seat of the Pants RPGing. I’ve done this for a long time. For the last 15 or so years, I’ve simply come up with the basic idea for a scenario (like the mirror example) and sat down with the players and made it up on the fly. The key to this method is taking extensive notes while doing so. Some of my best scenarios (like Night Floors and Music From a Darkened Room) arose in this manner. I had the inkling of an idea and just dumped it on gaming table, making up contents seconds before the players asked. I find the most satisfying and cool scenarios become “more real” when I put the players through them in this style. The players often make me think about and flesh out weird leads that I never would have considered if I had just written the scenario in a void.

I hope this article gives a little more insight into my methods and beliefs when it comes to Call of Cthulhu. 

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  1. I pretty much agree with you, particularly regarding ‘Seat of the Pants RPGing’ – I’ve always been a big fan of throwing stuff at the players and seeing what they throw back.
    One thing I would say concerning both lethality and scenario design is that while CoC should be run mercilessly there should also be believable opportunities for new characters to join.

    • Oh yes. I agree. That’s why Delta Green and the Gilchrist Trust were born — to make bringing in a new “agent” believable.

      • Well said! A firm grip on the session is absolutely necessary to provide the players the rope that they need to hang themselves. As you so succinctly say, if death and insanity are not a regular occurence of gameplay, or are mitigated in favour of player success, you are playing another game.

        My response to bringing in new characters is a mix of character membership in organizations and societies with the player requirement to not create PCs in a vacuum. I tend to run CoC as a Generation Game where each character has a hook or two at design that will bring in someone else to continue their unfinished business… willingly, or not so willingly – as the situation warrants. Often this will occur across generations rather than days, but again that depends on the story unfolding at the time.

        Thanks for this post!

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