Tuesday, September 13, 2016

"Whatever you do, don't say Hastur!"

     I just picked up a copy of the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rules at my local game store. Call of Cthulhu is a tabletop RPG based on the works of American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The in-game events depict the struggle of people (often average people) against unfathomable horrors from mind warping realities and alien worlds. With a default setting of the roaring 20's, Call of Cthulhu is one of my favorite tabletop RPG's of all time. It is designed to evoke feelings of dread, horror and uncertainty in the player characters (referred to as "Investigators"), and if done well, the players themselves. This style of play is fairly different than what would be found in the typical game of say Dungeons and Dragons.
     In a game of D&D, the players usually portray somewhat above average, trained adventurers who through magic and uncanny swordsmanship can take the fight directly to the monsters terrorizing the town or haunting the nearby ruins. In Call of Cthulhu, even looking upon a creature of the Cthulhu Mythos can result in debilitating loss of mental faculties. In essence Call of Cthulhu is a game of cautious approach, of keeping direct contact with otherworldly beings and their human servitors as a far and absolute last resort. This often results in the goal of foiling your enemies plans to summon a eldritch horror rather than confronting them.
     So, as a Game Facilitator seeking to teach life skills to Participants through tabletop role play, what does a game like Call of Cthulhu bring to the table as opposed to a game like D&D? In choosing a game system to teach life skills, are some systems better for teaching particular skills than others? Well yes and no. It really comes down to mechanics vs. story.
     Tabletop RPG's can be divided roughly into two parts. One is the rule mechanics of the game being played. The other is the story that will be told through group collaboration. Some RPG's have mechanics that lend well to cavalier heroes facing swarms of enemies and, more often than not, returning to tell the tale. Others, are not so forgiving. In Call of Cthulhu, players have a small pool of hit points and few defenses against earthly injury with almost none against the other worldly. Not only is an Investigators body at risk, their very mind is subject to the ravages of alien forces.
     Perhaps the most well known mechanic in Call of Cthulhu is sanity (SAN). Simply reading the wrong book or seeing the wrong thing can render a character physically unharmed, but mentally overwhelmed. Risk assessment in such a game is paramount to continued survival and the maintenance of sanity. Another skill which Call of Cthulhu teaches well through its mechanics is the value of research and preparation in facing the unknown. The Library skill is indispensable to Investigators hoping to survive the eldritch horrors of the Mythos.
     However, though these mechanics support the teaching of particular skills like risk assessment, or act as an emphasis for the value of research and preparation, their prevalence during play is ultimately dictated by the challenges presented. So, a D&D game could present a situation that evokes terror in the PC's (and hopefully a bit in the players), and a Call of Cthulhu game could tell a tale of brazen Investigators throwing caution to the wind and strapping chainsaws to their wrists (groovy). As the facilitator of a skill centric game keep this point in mind; in the end the mechanics are used to tell a story, the story is used to impart skills, and skills are used to lead a fuller life.

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