Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Indiana Jones Effect

After some spirited discussion with the Grand Experiment about the merits of 4th Edition D&D in the comments of my first post, I need to pause for thought before posting the second part of my TPK post, which is about a D&D campaign.

In the interim, I’d like to briefly mention a phenomena which I’ve observed, largely in Call of Cthulhu games. Most players new to Cthulhu start the game with a quirky or interesting PC. An artist or author, professor or doctor – characters drawn, for the most part, from real life. These characters do well in the initial phase of the game, and are often successful investigators. However, while 85% of a Cthulhu game will be about investigation and character play, there usually comes a time when there is a confrontation, combat or even a monster to face.

When these worthy starting characters succumb to oblivion (hopefully not on their first outing), the next character will, most likely, bear a strong resemblance to Lucas’ Indiana Jones. A tough, whip toting, brawler who can handle most weapons, and would love nothing better than to roughhouse with cultists in the heart of their temple – and also probably knows his/her way around a library.

An entirely natural reaction to the death of a first character due to a failure of physical prowess.

But, of course, Call of Cthulhu is not kind to such innovation. A tougher character, willing to take risks and even be provocative, often meets the full might of the Mythos head on, and much like a meeting with a freight train, the results aren’t pretty.

The third character is then often a compromise. The player will take all the elements of the first kind of character, but make a small concession to violence in the form of an increased dodge or weapon skill – hopefully justified by character backstory.

I mention this phenomena not to pass judgement, just to observe that no matter our intentions when running games, and framing encounters, people will often view things on their own terms, and for some that means that character death, however noble, is a failure.


  1. IME the 3rd PC is sometimes one which is bizarre and takes little account for the skills needed in the scenario. I think this arises out of (rightly or wrongly) some players sense of growing futility.

  2. Yeah, I can understand the third character being the bizarre one. "All right, let's create a person..." "All right, let's create someone who would survive..." "All right, let's create something that's just plain old fun as a breather...."

    Question is, what would the forth one be?