So, labeling an RPG "not a game" as a gesture of dislike or disrespect is something that's been done a bit on the RPG internets, so I feel the need to clarify: I'm not doing that.
I like games and
I like toys. I feel like old Vampire
is probably a toy, and I love it because so many of the doohickeys on it are well-suited for fun play.
In fact, I don't think it's quite accurate to call any RPG a
toy. A good, long, option-filled RPG book is more like a box
of toys. Another label I've used for such a book is "RPG tool kit".So what is an RPG tool kit?
(Or toy, or toy box?) It's a chunk of material that can be played with in various different ways, constituting meaningfully different games and/or non-game modes of play. By "meaningfully different" I mean having different goals, objectives, win conditions, formal rules, informal rules, and tests of skill.How does that differ from a game?
A game is a chunk of material that can be played with in various different ways within one
consistent framework of goals, rules, and struggle. Color, tone, pace, IC/OOC focus, level of participation, immediate character goals -- these can all vary from one group or session to the next, but the fundamental reason to play is constant.
(This definition isn't rigorously constructed. Feel free to disagree with the premise in the comments, but please don't bog the discussion down by nit-picking my precise wording. If you have better wording available, private message it to me and perhaps I'll use it.)So, how is Call of Cthulhu a box of toys instead of a game?
Call of Cthulhu contains the following:
- Loads of Lovecraft material to inspire you to do Lovecraftian things. What did Lovecraft protagonists do? Alone, they stumbled upon something interesting, kept looking as more and more was revealed, got to some climactic revelation, and went mad.
- Rules for creating varied characters, and advice for running for groups. No single protagonists expected.
- A system for keeping track of Sanity, including which experiences lower it, and what lowering it does to the character.
- Rules for resolving success or failure on various skilled tasks.
- Rules for resolving success or failure on various types of knowledge-hunting.
- An apparent expectation that the group, as led by the GM, will treat the fiction as plausible and causal with respect to when these rolls should be employed. You can't shoot something that's out of range, you can't research if there's no library, etc.
- Advice and modules for the GM to use in providing collections of clues that comprise supernatural truths.
- Many monsters which will probably kill the PCs as soon as they appear, plus a few that won't, sometimes contingent on what the PCs have learned so far, but often not.
So, what's the fundamental reason to play? Various groups have come up with very different answers:
- Audience. Witness the unfolding horrors. No player participation required beyond deciding which door to open next.
- Portrayal. Witness the horror and also add some dramatic reactions.
- Struggle. Use your wits, acting ability, knowledge of physics, in-fiction strategy, rules mastery, and assets on the character sheet, in order to pursue a goal.
3a) Attempt to discover the full truth of a secret.
3b) Attempt to completely escape a death trap.
3c) Attempt to vanquish a threat.
- Some GMs, sensing that one player wants to be audience, another player want to get their thespian on, and a third player wants to problem-solve, have tried to accommodate all three in the same game, taking turns between info-dumps, horror stimuli, and cleverness challenges.
I think I have some more support for this assessment below, but fundamentally, this is why I view Call of Cthulhu as a box of toys.How is that a good thing?
3+ games between two covers! With the same awesome flavor available to all! Flexibility to import bits from one game to another at will!How is that a bad thing?
The book doesn't tell you what the 3+ options are, and it doesn't tell you which pieces to use in which ones, and it doesn't actually offer full
support for all (any?) of them.
Or, to put it another way, if the audience isn't already sold on the "RPG as tool kit" model, and think instead they're buying a game in the sense that I defined above, like how a board game is a game, they're going to be really disoriented.
It's not just a matter of "you can
decide on which pieces work for you" -- instead it's a matter of "you have to
decide on which pieces work for you." And it doesn't say that on the back cover of the book.
In my experience, there are two main results:
1) If you go to a con where it's mostly D&D and Call of Cthulhu, the Call of Cthulhu games are the places to go for players who like acting and roleplay and adding to the mood. The GMs vary, the adventures vary, but a large percentage of players who've continued to play Call of Cthulhu are the ones who can make it a fun experience regardless of the scenario's particulars. Some of them think Portrayal is, in fact, the reason to play; others hold onto what drew them to Lovecraft in the first place, the horror vibe; and others have learned that many an aimless clue-hunt is spiced up by some emoting.
2) If you want meaningful decisions, skills and die rolls that matter, clues that add up, and/or dramatic pacing, it's time to cross your fingers and pray. Even many "amazing CoC GMs" are extremely prone to filling up play time with "roll until you find the useless scrap of data in this
location" drudgery; failing to signal when options are immaterial or dead-ends; haggling over minutiae with players who are seeking advantage where there's none to be had; and random TPKs without satisfying conclusions to arcs of discovery. I've yet to actually meet a Call of Cthulhu GM who said, "Skill rolls are just for momentary color; you're here to portray your characters going mad as I show you cool horror stuff." The "making a game out of the toys" process seems to be almost entirely unconscious, and is thus prone to all sorts of imported baggage.
If you look at Trail of Cthulhu, you can see that it's a reaction to this -- the way it handles clues and prep is targeted at eliminating clue-search drudgery, and the explicit Purist/Pulp division, while primarily a matter of color, may help groups nail down some starting assumptions. Whether you think ToC is better or worse than CoC, I think its publication and continued existence speak to some distinct flaws in the older model -- as far as I can tell, it's basically selling on "exactly like Call of Cthulhu, but with some different rules!"My takeaway:
Even though I like toys, I find it very frustrating when a toy box comes labeled as a game and doesn't help me turn it into one. To the extent that "that's not a game!" makes sense to me as an accusation, it's not a matter of design, but rather one of self-awareness. If the makers of Call of Cthulhu acknowledged that they were selling a toy box, I can only imagine that it would be organized and introduced differently, the better to help seekers of Audience, Portrayal, Struggle, etc. hit upon the optimal tool usage.
(continued below -- last paragraph didn't fit)