GMotW: Cthulhu Dark

Thinking about starting a new feature here. Something to keep me around and saying things, even when my head is wrapped around playtesting and re-writing and other things that don’t translate especially well to Internet Content.

I like talking about game mechanics, because I’m very interested in the power they have; how does a mechanic work, why does it do that, what does it say about the story the game is telling or the people who play the game or the concept of “story” or “game” or “person” altogether? Mechanical interaction is spectacularly over-analyzable. Among my favorite websites, then, is the sadly static Game Mechanic of the Day, which does Just That. Or did; it had a fun but brief run but hasn’t updated in a month, and that was itself after a silent month. It was a keen idea. I’m going to exercise Author’s Privilege and steal this keen idea for myself; I do hope that the author doesn’t mind. Not every day, that’s a fast-track to me burning myself out. Call it a Game Mechanic of the Week.

To inaugurate this (the weekly process at least, not the idea of faffing about concerning mechanics I enjoy), an utterly beautiful rule from Cthlulhu Dark, by Graham Walmsley, a game which has so few rules that EVERY ONE must be brilliant. This one certainly is.

“[Y]our highest die shows how well you do. On a 1, you barely succeed. On a 6, you do brilliantly.”
Cthulhu Dark cover

Ah, it is lovely, isn’t it? The crux here is this: if you attempt something, you WILL succeed; I’m ignoring the means by which players can interfere with one another for the moment. You say you want to climb the wall, you climb the wall; all you need to do is find out how well it happens. You say you’re searching for information, you WILL find information, all that’s to be decided is how useful it will be. You want something, and it is yours. Hot damn!

Missing is boring, don’t you know? Failure is, nine times out of ten, boring. Saying that you don’t make it up the wall means the story staggers as you try again; saying that you don’t see the interesting things in the room means that the story is put on standstill as you look around some more or, worse, stumble on with no idea where to go. On top of that, there’s that awful, emotionally dissonant beat when you say “I hit the guy!” roll, and get told that, well, “no you don’t.” That’s not fun.

Cthulhu Dark, however, eschews this. Instead, your rolls determine how you succeed, building off the old improv adage that you don’t say “no,” you say “yes, but”. Your roll is a gradient running between an awful yes-but and a decent yes-and. Narratively, things always keep moving forward, with two exceptions: if you voluntarily decide to fail (in which case, well, clearly this is in service of the story, because you decided it was a good idea), or if another player decides to interfere. In this case, it’s still in service of the narrative: someone at the table thinks failure would be fun, and explains how and why it could happen. In either case, someone at the table is getting what they want when a character fails, there is never a moment of useless whiffing in service of the Rules.

“But Ed,” you say, “how in heaven’s name is it in service of a Lovecraftian narrative to feature protagonists who always succeed? Or at least, protagonists who succeed quite often indeed? What sort of tentacle-pulp Derleth horse-crap are you trying to pull on me here?”

To that I answer, oh no friend. No, look back to your Lovecraft. Look back at what it is that truly damns his protagonists. It’s not that they fail. Never. It’s that they get what they want and it’s more horrible than they could possibly imagine. Robert Olmstead escapes Innsmouth, but brings its taint with him. Herbert West is utterly successful in his attempts to re-animate dudes, but they are uncontrollable. Francis Thurston learns everything he wanted to know about the mighty Cthulhu, and that is what makes him a target for the cultists. “Yes, but…” is the backbone of a Lovecraftian tale! Yes, you find the truth… but it drives you mad.

Cthulhu Dark characters are as doomed as any Lovecraftian hero. More so, even then your average Call of Cthulhu character, who can take cold comfort in the fact that maybe, just maybe, they might fail a spot check and not discover the ancient tablet of eldrich runes, sparing them the inevitable descent into madness. No such luck here.

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