Category Archives: Tabletop Gaming

Tabletop Games I Have Played – Call of Cthulhu

This is the first entry in a occasionally-updated series I’m going to start about different tabletop RPGs that I have played, and my personal tales. There’s no particular timeframe I have picked for when I’ll write tabletop stuff, but I’ve played a really diverse amount of tabletop games in various convention and home settings, so I could feasibly write on this topic for a long time.  You have been warned.

I’m going to start with a game that I play a lot at Origins, which is the grand old game of Cthulhu. Cthulhu these days seems to have infected popular culture in surprising ways. Since becoming a lovable, public domain Elder God, the Great Old One has been seen in plushie form, heading up his own indie video game, and taking orders from Eric Cartman on South Park. But Call of Cthulhu, the tabletop RPG by Chaosium, was my first exposure to the Mythos, as it wasn’t so mainstream back in the days when I was first learning to play RPGs.

And yes, of course someone made a Hipster Cthulhu 

Actually, it was one of the first RPGs that I ever played. As a bright, impressionable young college student, I showed up at the annual Halloween meeting of the Bowling Green Gaming Society with no real expectation of what I was getting in to. They were playing Call of Cthulhu Versus the Ghostbusters, and had an extra character. Since Call of Cthulhu is extremely easy to pick up, even for the novice gamer, I played a character who (I struggle to remember but think I am accurate) turned out to be the team nerd a la Egon. (These were original character Ghostbusters, with a franchise business based out of Cleveland.)  Even though the Ghostbusters ought to be able to handle a threat like Cthulhu, our novice status in ‘busting and the game’s punishing rule set left one Ghostbuster incurably mad, and one dead… As for my character, he ended up falling off of an under-construction skyscraper and shattering his spine, but, with his sanity intact he was able to live to tell the tale, even if he would never walk again.

…Good times.

So yes, Call of Cthuhlu can be a brutal, unforgiving game. But it’s easy to pick up and play. Most conflict resolution is straightfoward: your character sheet shows your percent chance of accomplishing any task, in a specific set of categories. Since you typically play as an “investigator,” an ordinary person with no super powers, your chances to do something are generally small, especially if it falls out of your area of personal expertise. Roll your dice to get a percent under the skill number on your sheet, however, and you can succeed. There are a few extra rolls you might make involving damage and sanity loss and such, but the player doesn’t concern with them too much. You’ll lose your sanity points now and then, but, if you actually get in to combat, you probably did something wrong. The strongest person you should ever actually be fighting is a cultist who is about at your power level. If you see an Elder God or even one of his mutated minions, you should run.  If you can.

If you’ve played a lot of Cthulhu, there’s some common sense rules to survive, if that’s what you really want to do. Never read any mysterious books you find; you’re better off burning them.  Never touch any mysterious-looking objects or artifacts. Don’t go anywhere alone. Don’t bother with a gun.

Of course, playing the game to survive makes it a lot less fun, so actually you should ignore the above advice and allow the game to kill your character or drive them insane whenever possible.

I’ve played the game about a dozen times, mostly in convention settings. Because it’s just begging to be subverted by its oppressive horror atmosphere, it’s not always played “straight.” I’ve seen Scooby Doo Vs. Cthuhlu and Clue Vs. Cthulhu and The Penguins of Madagasgar Vs. Cthuhlhu. (OK, we played that with a different dice system, but, the concept is still funny, so including it anyway.) This year at Origins I played a few different rounds, but it was always with one or more seasoned vets who understood both the system and how to survive in it. We weren’t taking great pains to be no fun, but in the two actual Call of Cthulhu sessions I played (one historical, one modern), it was Slow Pitch Cthulhu Softball, with no deaths, only minor injuries, and maybe a pip or two off the sanity bar.

I was kind of disappointed by one session this year. The roleplaying at the table was fantastic on the part of the players, and the GM was highly prepared with different props, photos, mood music and even an intro video. But the actual scenario left our well-crafted characters with very little to do. Early teases about supernatural involvement in our situation turned out to be red herrings or false alarms. The session culminated in us attending a ritual where the correct action was to simply not interrupt it, then win the scenario. We may have been the first team to deduce this, since the GM just had to half-heartedly admit it was over and we won, then told us with laughter how many previous tables had interrupted it and caused lots of death and carnage. Note to GMs: If the correct action in the finale of your scenario is “do nothing,” please consider rewriting your scenario. At best, the players will get annoyed with this a bit; at worst, you’re making them look like idiots by trying to trick them in to making the situation worse for your own amusement. Yes, even in Cthuhlu. (Then again, I guess “show up and do nothing” was also how you win Raiders of the Lost Arc.)

By contrast, last year I played in a game where the world was destroyed — mostly due to our characters’ fear, uncertainty, and overall bumbling — and that was cool and hilarious. I could tell that one guy at the table felt a little upset by it because he really wanted to play the hero. In straight Cthuhlu, though, playing the hero can be entertaining, but is ultimately folly. There are no heroes in Cthuhlu. There is a lot of dead meat.

If I had one complaint about the game from a player standpoint, it wouldn’t be its ruthlessness, but that its ruthlessness has an unintended side effect: it takes too long to get to the interesting bits. At a con, a GM will give you a mundane character. Then, likely, you’ll play around several hours of this character doing entirely mundane tasks, with no supernatural involvement. The session needs to last a certain number of hours, and the moment supernatural stuff gets involved in a major way it’s all going to go to Hell very quickly. From a storytelling standpoint, the boring setup stuff is necessary for contrast. Then again, it’s also… you know… boring. Your mileage may vary there.

I know of a few PC game adaptations of Call of Cthuhlu, but I haven’t played them. I did really enjoy the obviously-Cthuhlu-insipred Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, on the Gamecube, and I see some Cthulhu inspirations with the sanity system in the very scary Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  If you have any experience with the Cthulhu video games and happen to stop by, let me know if they’re worth a play!

Monopoly: You’re Doing It Wrong

So I’ve been writing about video games mostly.  But sometimes I also play board games. I’m particularly fond of Dungeons and Dragons, which, while not a board game per se, has board game variants.

Whenever I tell people this, sometimes I add that there are conventions for board games; there are board game enthusiasts.  The response of the average, non-gamer person is “You mean, games like Monopoly?”

…Sure.  Except not really.

By all accounts the American obsession with Monopoly is pretty odd.  For one thing, it’s a “serious game,” one of the first games with a social agenda to penetrate the mass market (although nobody thinks about Monopoly that way, by some accounts the original intent was to create a game that showed the problems with monopolies in an economic system and how them driving people to bankrupcy is a bad thing).  For another thing, it’s not really a great game. It’s adequate, but most people who play it then complain that it has problems, such as lasting too long, and taking too long to get interesting.  A larger problem with it, which fewer people mention, is that it’s an elimination game, meaning that it isn’t over until one player remains, leaving early knockouts from the game out in the cold.  Maybe they can play Catan while they wait.

Of course, since Monopoly is the first board game people think of when you mention a board game, when you say you like board games, the thought process of the person you are talking to seems to go like this…  1) Board games = Monopoly 2) Monopoly is sort of dull 3) Why would anyone like board games?

People…  A big part of the problem with Monopoly isn’t Monopoly. It’s you.

Zack Hiwiller discusses this on his blog, right about the time I was getting in to regular conversations about it.  You can read that to get the gist of what I’m about to say, but, basically: most everybody I know plays Monopoly with two variant rules. 

1) When you land on Free Parking, you get “the lottery,” which is typically a large sum of money. The most common thing to do here is have everyone who pays an income tax throw that money in to the center of the board instead of the “bank,” then it becomes the lotto prize for hitting Free Parking. In my family, we also threw $50 in there to start to sweeten the pot.

2) When you land on an unsold property, and you don’t want it, just pass.

These aren’t the official rules.  Both of these house rules cause balance issues that actually weaken the game.  The Free Parking rule allows for an exciting “come from behind” scenario, but this leads to players who should be knocked out of the game to continue to play, which causes the game overall to be longer.  Being able to pass on properties means properties are sold more slowly, which also isn’t in the rules: passed properties are supposed to be auctioned to the highest bidder.

This is why it intrigued me to learn about the new, electronic Monopoly that is being made without dice or paper money.  My number one question about it was “Does it make you play the game by the actual rules?”

Apparently it does.  After a fashion.  It does seem to enforce the auction rule, which most people don’t use or know.  (I get why; it’s awkward to run an auction without a pure neutral arbiter, and maybe the computer will help with that?)  I would also bet that, therefore, it gets the Free Parking rule correct.  (There’s actually no reward at all for landing on Free Parking.  One of the great mysteries I have personally never understood is where exactly that Free Parking “lotto winner” rule came from in the first place, since pretty much everyone seems to play the game with that house rule and everyone who does just learned it from their families.  Who started that, and, since they don’t understand game balance and actually made a bad rule, are they still alive to be punished?)

Places the electronic Monopoly seems to differ from the standard rule set is that 1) it adds random events, such as auctions or races (according to the NYT article) and 2) It, apparently, does away with one of Monopoly’s best and most important rule sets, the ability to negotiate with other players for trade and sale of properties, Get Out of Jail Free cards, etc.  Being able to sell your properties to other players is in fact part of Monopoly’s rules, and one of the only rules that makes the modified version that most people play playable at all.  It’s fairly unlikely, after all, that you will just stumble across a perfect Monopoly of three (or two) matching properties while negotiating the board yourself.  The “you give me that one and I’ll give you this one and fifty bucks” kind of trading allows players to build up their properties without relying on bare random chance.

It will be interesting to see if this new Monopoly does well. In a perfect world, while everyone might own a copy of Monopoly for the nostalgia (mine is Nintendo Monopoly, natch), they would also realize that there are other board games worth their time and might check a few of them out.  Maybe they might find a new household favorite.  Balderdash, which is very social and a little educational, was always popular in my family, and that’s before I knew that they made games in Europe.

Or, I guess you could just play Scene It.

Augh, augh, augh.