Tips for a Beginning Keeper (Call of Cthulhu)

edit: this post is super-old and still gets traffic – I made an updated version here!

So, yeah, it’s been kind of a long time since I posted anything on this thing. In the interim, I’ve got an almost-job (more work experience) at an online clothes-retailer company as a content administrator (ie copying and pasting stuff from a spreadsheet into a holding program to be transferred onto the main website later), I am not going to sit here and lie to you guys it is pretty dull. But it could be a lot worse! And the people are nice so it’s kind of fun overall.

But, also a lot during that time I have been working on the Cthulhu on Parade! podcast! Including helping to create a monstrous christmas song with some friends for a charity album which you can hear and donate for here: http://casttheworld.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/cthulhu-christmas/

However, this post is only marginally about either of those things! For the majority of this modern-day radiogram shall be to inform you of the things that I have learned with regard to hosting a game of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing system that I produce the Cthulhu on Parade! podcast’s content with, or in other words…

Tips for a Beginning Keeper!

See, I brought the heading of the post back into the body of the post for a kind of instant-callback.

One of the great things about the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game is its propensity for diverse settings and play-styles. Since a lot of the surface rules are fairly skeletal and easy to pick up, it’s a great system for beginning players and can be adapted to a wide variety of storytelling techniques ranging from stories of lighthearted pulp adventure to dark, bleak horror and most scenarios tend to land somewhere between the two.

From the position of a player, a game should be fun, exciting and engaging. First, they will come to terms with their character, becoming attached to how they fit into the world around them and interact with other players and non-player characters, and then they shall stumble upon a mishap or mystery that drives chaos into this order, ultimately leading to a story of their personal success or failure.

Good role-playing within a group is brought about by shared character history and interaction. Keepers should strive to nurture a spirit of group co-ordination amongst player characters, either by workshopping character back-stories with the players or building scenes into the story that bring characters closer together.

Essentially, this means that characters should have to (at some point in the story) work together to accomplish their goals. Whether this is by having a large rock in the way that requires multiple people to push aside, or by the ship’s deck needing co-ordination between the captain, navigator, look-out and gunman depends on what the story will allow, but collaboration and a close-knit team breeds good group role-playing.

This doesn’t mean that all interactions in the game should be a shared group experience, of course, as that would not allow for much individual character development. But deployed correctly, putting characters together in a tight spot that they can only get out of by working together will make for a much stronger team, and give characters a reason to keep hanging out together despite all this craziness.

Additional hints and tips for Keepers:

  • Learn and remember the combat rules.

Unstructured combat is chaotic and quickly becomes boring and confusing.
Highest DEX goes first, then second highest etc. If characters lose more than half their current hit-points in one attack, they have to make a CON x5 roll or pass out. Knock-out attacks and immobilizing with Grapple require the resistance table, and so on. Not every rule needs to be applied but you should be conscious of the rules you want to follow.

  • Remember to ask for skill checks and SAN rolls.

This doesn’t mean to constantly ask for skill checks for everything a player does, but if a character is constantly reading books (languages), lying to people (fast talk) and installing high-powered death traps (mechanical/electrical repair) without rolling for them and so without chance of failure, the actions will have less weight. Likewise, the sighting of a bloated-corpse-like, bat-winged amphibian horrorterror from beyond Mars, while scary-sounding enough, won’t actually affect the sanity of a character without calling for the sanity roll.

  • The unknown is scarier.

Players should never fully understand the mentality of cultists or monsters, or ideally ever get a good look at them. Strange rituals, undulating shapes and the suggestion of wings and teeth in the night is more disturbing than a cultist of Nyarlathotep calling up a Byakhee because the shopkeeper didn’t refund his money after he purchased a poorly translated copy of the Necronomicon.

  • Go with the players.

As a Keeper, it’s easy to feel the need to stick to the written rules of the scenario you’ve learned and want to cram in all the cool things you’ve thought of. This never works out. Players will want to throw the ornate headpiece into the ocean, melt down the golden statue that opens the door to the giant winged toads of infinite knowledge and sell it for a few hundred dollars, and they absolutely will not go visit the party of Elaine McPlotPoint and no amount of subtle placements of party invitations in the local newspaper will convince them otherwise (they just won’t read the newspaper).

Instead, your job is to merely present the situation and to know all the facts of all the possible outcomes (or at least be very confident when you make them up). Your scenario is the framework for what is roughly going to happen, but the players are going to decide how that turns out. And if they get too off course, just make them take an IDEA roll and “suggest” that maybe the golden statue might be connected to that statue-shaped hole they saw in the large stone door a few hours ago, and filled up with cement.

Unfortunately, the most important rule to remember is that the game is supposed to be fun for everybody. And your job, as the Keeper, is to make sure that happens. If you can fit in something approximating the actual story somewhere in there, and give some sense of satisfaction at the end that players have actually done something, then you’ve done a great job.

Good luck.

Also, here’s this video:

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