Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Total Buzz Kill? - Part One

So, over the last month I’ve been on the receiving end of two Total Party Kills (TPK’s) in two very traditional roleplaying games. They both left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, and I’m trying to determine if that’s anything more than my own hypocrisy at work. I present my thoughts in two parts, each using a different system and game example.

The first, let’s call it Game 1, was a traditional Call of Cthulhu adventure. A one-shot multi session game, and the TPK was basically akin to the final exam. Had we, the players, been rigorous in our investigations, we would have discovered the vital clue, which would have enabled us to dispatch the villain by attacking her super-weakness. As it was, we were playing rather eccentric dilettante characters, looking into the mystery of a missing friend, and as such, we weren’t especially diligent. We did enough investigation to discover our friend’s fate, and identify a likely culprit and spent several enjoyable sessions exploring and investigating. We had an encounter which revealed that supernatural powers were at play and our physical resources would be stretched to combat these forces. So we armed ourselves as heavily as possible and stormed the breach.

Unfortunately it turned out that the villain was utterly indestructible by normal physical means, so despite being decapitated and suffering various other indignities at our hands, the villain dispatched us one by one, either personally, or by use of minions. Even fleeing proved of no use, as the final characters were slain in the streets. Because we had failed to glean the key clue, we were doomed.

Now, you might say – well that’s just Call of Cthulhu right? You knew your character was going to die or go insane long before the first dice were rolled. It’s the nature of the beast.

To which I’d say; no. That’s not Call of Cthulhu. At least not the way I run it, and I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that the creators intended either:

When investigators die, it is not enough that they die bravely if they die too soon. Keep the scale of violence low, the pace of play moderate, and provide time to recover. If the investigators insist on pressing forward into certain death, the keeper with integrity may not long resist, but the keeper who chides players into combats soon discourages players." – Call of Cthulhu Core Rules, 5.5ed (p142)

Now, there has been some debate from the fine minds over at Gametime about this. People have argued that if Cthulhu were serious about this kind of thing, they’d have built it into the system. Perhaps, but to me that’s like creating a rule to stop people acting like a dick – it’s implicit in the idea of roleplaying with others. The game must use social conventions, shared understanding and trust, not rules, to establish a benchmark for any aspect of the game.

However, I note that clearly the extended Keeper’s Lore section of later editions of Call of Cthulhu is sort of a band-aid to fix some of the common problems people have had, including the prevalence of death and insanity needlessly inflicted on characters by GM’s. And it’s true that this kind of thing is more common in a ‘one-off’ scenario.

I put this down to the disposable nature of the characters and the perceived benefit of ‘raising the stakes’ to try and shortcut player buy-in normally established over many sessions. To my mind the jury is still out on whether this is the most successful method to achieve these ends.

But, back to Game 1. The game had set a pass/fail criteria, which involved high stakes, and we failed. Should the GM have edited the scenario to make it less arbitrary? Perhaps, although obviously he/she shouldn’t have to. Should the GM have made sure that we had the clue? Perhaps, and I think this is the kind of experience which kicked off the GUMSHOE system, guaranteeing that vital clues are found – although to be fair, we made it all the way to the end scene – we just missed a vital piece of information (which could easily have been ruled an optional, rather than core scene in GUMSHOE). We solved the mystery, just didn’t ‘win’ the game.

Ultimately, I think that this kind of experience can put many people off games like Call of Cthulhu, and raises the issue of GM trust. I trust that the GM will provide me with a good experience, and I trust that he/she will follow the advice in the CoC core rules about making sure that any character death “acquires a sense of justness”. Without such trust, the game will certainly devolve into a rules and mechanics fest, as I try and seek any and all possible advantage using mechanics, because I don’t trust that the GM has my best interests at heart.

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