This is the second post in what might become a real 30 day post-something-every-day marathon. The questions of the March Madness Non-D&D OSR Blog Challenge at the Tomb of Tedenkhamen blog deal with non D&D roleplaying games. As my collection consists of a good number of non-D&D RPGs, I decided to take up the challenge.
March Madness Non-D&D OSR Blog Challenge Question 2: In what system was the first character you played in an RPG other than D&D? How was playing it different from playing a D&D character?
As you could read in yesterday’s Non Dungeons and Dragons RPGs – March Madness Day 1 post, the first non D&D roleplaying game I ever played was Call of Cthulhu. As such my first character also came from this game.
My first non-D&D characters
It was a game of modern day Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green where the players were special forces or at least federal agents. My character was of Asian descent (I don’t remember his name) and was the FBI martial arts instructor. As I myself am a practitioner of martial arts, at least I would have a character that knew what he was talking about. I don’t recall a lot of details about that session except that it was a romp through a city’s sewer system, fighting a bunch of creatures throughout the sewer tunnels. What I do remember vividly though, is the picture I chose for the character, an image of Jet Li in traditional Chinese outfit.
Another one of those early characters was a hacker who called himself Darkstar. He was created for the Delta Green scenario A victim of the art (Delta Green: Countdown). The cool thing about this game is that we were not playing federal agents this time. We were playing a film crew that worked for the Phenomenon X news channel. Needless to say we were mainly interested in getting great footage, not so much in solving the case. One of the many great moments of that game session was annoying a federal agent to the point where he grabbed a camera and smashed it into the ground. Of course this was being filmed with another hidden camera. Outgame high-fives all around when that happened.
How is playing a Call of Cthulhu character different from playing a D&D character?
Playing a Call of Cthulhu character hardly compares to playing a D&D character. In D&D when you see the monster, you can kill it most of the time. In Call of Cthulhu when you see the monster, it kills you most of the time. And if you don’t die, chances are you left your friends to die when you ran away, or you end up in a straight jacket muttering gibberish to the flowers in the garden of a hospital for the mentally insane.
Dungeons & Dragons is a level-based game where you increase in power as the game progresses. A new level means more hit points, it could mean extra spells, better saving throws, new feats or abilities and so on. The items you find on your adventures also grow exponentially in power and this makes that you can tackle bigger and bigger challenges in terms of monsters. In Call of Cthulhu your hit points will be the same for as long as you play. What increases are your skills but if the Cthulhu Mythos skill starts increasing, it decreases your maximum sanity level. In other words, you go crazy a little bit easier as you start understanding the unfathomable truths of the Cthulhu Mythos. Sure you could find a magical item or artefact in Call of Cthulhu, and if you spend time reading through musty tomes, you could even learn spells. But there is always a consequence and those items and spells will affect your sanity.
This level based approach makes Dungeons & Dragons ideal for long-term play. Campaigns could potentially go on forever. Even if you reach a sufficiently high level, you get special ‘epic’ abilities, or can start governing area’s which takes the game to a whole different level if needed. Or you could just keep adventuring at the highest levels in games where you personally deal with dragons and treat with gods.
I’m not saying Call of Cthulhu can’t be played long term but the lethality of the game can’t be ignored and the slow deterioration of the mental state of the characters is part of the setting. If you want to tackle Masks of Nyarlathotep for example, you better be prepared to play several different characters over the course of this game as the campaign’s death rate is as infamous as its status as one of Call of Cthulhu’s classic campaigns.
So then what makes this such a great game? From the above you could conclude that as a character you can’t really ‘win’ the game and that fighting the Mythos is hopeless. And it is exactly that what makes Call of Cthulhu appealing. That feeling of desperation, the fact that you might win the smallest of victories at great personal cost while the big picture reveals it was not even a scratch on the intricate web that is the Mythos, and the investigation of weird cases as you clue together a puzzle not meant to be completed are all great components for a horror roleplaying game.
Another strong point for Call of Cthulhu is that you play in our world which is a lot easier to relate to. Granted if you’re not playing in the modern day setting, you might need to check some details on how to portray a 1920s character but even the 1920s real world is still the real world. And you can easily imagine how weird or horrifying a specific event is, as you can identify with your fear if that would happen in the here and now world of the player. Additionally, you don’t play an ‘adventurer’. You play ordinary people, a doctor, lawyer, writer, journalist, … who in some way, shape, or form suddenly gets caught up in or is confronted with some dark and gruesome event.
Although you could definitely play D&D in a dark and grim setting, I think it shines more for heroic playing styles. On the other hand, when playing Call of Cthulhu you can also go Indiana Jones and take a more pulpy approach. The Goodman Games releases would be great for that, as would the mechanics of Savage Worlds. In the end it’s up to the players to decide the direction they want to take their game in. And remember, not all is lost. In 1980 TSR released Deities & Demigods in which even the Great Old Ones received stats and thus were ‘killable’. Don’t let Cthulhu’s 400 hit points and armor class of 2 stop you. He only has 30 attacks doing 1d10 each, you need a +2 weapon or better to hit, and he regenerates. Oh yeah and then there is the magic resistance of 80%. For sure you would fare much better against a wimpy creature as Nyarlathotep who only has 200 hit points, 2 attacks, and a measly 25% magic resistance.
Statting Great Old Ones really takes away a lot of the ‘magic’, it takes away that feeling of helplessness and desperation. And it was repeated in 2002 when Wizards of the Coast released its D20 version of Call of Cthulhu. Cthulhu received a small boost though to 882 hit points, more damage output, and an armor class of 47.
I’ll finish with a great example of the approach to characters from the A victim of the arts scenario. The Phenomenon X crew arrives at the scene where a body was found. The director sets the stage on how we where going to shoot some footage. “On the night of … the victim walked from … to … Join us as we walk those same steps towards where a body was found, cruelly murdered.” The idea was for the anchor woman to walk the streets towards the crime scene in the evening talking about what had happened, while the news van would slowly drive next to her enabling the camera man to get the necessary footage. My girlfriend at the time who was playing the anchor woman, then refused to do it. She refused to be the only one out of the vehicle in the streets. So it ended up in the director pleading for her to do this, and in the end he even had to get out of the van, walking next to her (but out of the shot), just in case something would happen. When you get that kind of discussions in a Call of Cthulhu game, you know you’re in a great game.