A month or so ago, gaming legend Kenneth Hite dropped by to share his thoughts on the past, present and possible future of Lovecraftian Roleplaying. If you missed that fantastic interview, you can read it here. So popular was this entry into the “State of the Tentacle” series that we couldn’t wait to get Kenneth back to share some more of his insightful views on the Cthulhu world. Thankfully he was willing to oblige.
CR: The (proposed) 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu seems to have sprung from the premise that there is potential benefit to be had in reforming the venerable mechanics by either streamlining them or making them more player-facing. Notwithstanding the perils of radical redesign, are there any obvious features from more recent RPGs that you believe could potentially enhance CoC? Any lessons from the ill-supported d20 Cthulhu rules that could be usefully rolled back into the parent game?
Kenneth: With Call of Cthulhu as perfect as it is, I hesitate to suggest changes at all. Any changes you might make would work for some sorts of campaigns, but be needless cruft for others. That said, introducing “cell system” mechanics a la Conspiracy X for organized investigation groups, or the mass-combat system from Savage Worlds for high-action games, or the Madness Meters from Unknown Armies for games focusing on the Investigators’ own spiral into insanity, or Passions from Pendragon for games more about interpersonal conflict, the character generation in-process from Rafael Chandler’s Scorn, tactical rotes from Hunter: the Vigil — lots of good games have at least one good mechanic you could attach to Call of Cthulhu to further focus play, if you liked.
As far as d20 Call of Cthulhu, it was so focused on translating the game into levels-and-XP language that I don’t think it had any spare energy for adding better mechanics. However, Scott Glancy’s setting chapter in that book should be required reading for anyone writing a setting of any kind, and could be nigh-seamlessly ported into a new Call of Cthulhu edition.
CR: At present Trail of Cthulhu is arguably the Lovecraftian game which is experimenting most with pushing the boundaries of traditional Cthulhu gaming formats. Going forward, do you imagine that the game will continue to “hop around” as it has between a diverse range of innovative but disconnected new re-imaginings of Lovecraft? Or do you imagine growing some of the more successful books (e.g., Bookhounds) into supported “product lines” of their own?
Kenneth: Although Simon makes all final decisions at Pelgrane, I think we’re very unlikely to fork our own audience by creating sub-lines. Bookhounds of London remains its own thing; Robin’s upcoming Dreamhounds of Paris likewise for Surrealist dreamscaping; my upcoming Deathless China won’t spawn a line of wuxia supplements. The “product line” mentality, I suspect, is one of those things we need to wean ourselves (and our audiences) off of in the publishing side. Plenty of novels and films stand alone; we should try to create RPG books that can do likewise, and I think the Pelgrane “setting-driven campaign frame” model is a real winner in that regard. I’d much rather put my own creativity into coming up with a new and innovative re-imagining of the source material, as you put it, than grinding out “Bookhounds of Los Angeles” and “Bookhounds of Zagreb” and so forth.
That said, the PDF supplement is the ideal means of testing the waters, or of getting one good idea or adventure out there. It’s not at all unlikely that I might provide some more Bookhounds-centric or at least very Bookhounds-useful material, for example, in an upcoming issue of Ken Writes About Stuff.
CR: How much priority do you think publishers of Lovecraftian roleplaying games should put on recruiting new gamers to the Cthulhu-end of the RPG hobby? Any thoughts on what might make such games more attractive to brand new people? What about existing gamers who have never dipped their toe into Lovecraftian horror? And, any ideas about how to entice more of the “big name” game designers to want to spend some time with Cthulhu?
Kenneth: I think every publisher should at least think about recruiting new gamers, or at the very least try to avoid driving away new gamers. But that said, realistically, there aren’t any Lovecraftian-side publishers with the resources to adequately test, develop, and market an introductory product. Also, Call of Cthulhu is a pretty successful introductory game as is: short rules section, easy-to-understand core mechanic. It could use a presentation makeover (remember how very lovely the d20 Call of Cthulhu book was?), but other than that I don’t have any good ideas about how to make such things more attractive to new gamers: I suspect the answer is “a very expensive targeted marketing campaign.”
For existing gamers, if they haven’t heard of Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu-gaming in general, they aren’t going to leave their dungeon no matter how nicely someone asks. If they have heard of it, the almost entirely positive word of mouth Call of Cthulhu (and, gratifyingly, Trail of Cthulhu) has received will tempt them or it won’t. There’s very little I or anyone can do besides work very hard to make good games, and build the network of players — the more people play your game, the more people want to play your game. A lot of that latter component is very hard, very thankless work: recruiting people to run games at GenCon and other conventions, prize support, demos in game stores, and on and on. Every company could be doing more of that, especially and including us.
Per your last question, some of the biggest names — Monte Cook, Robin Laws, Mike Selinker, Reiner Knizia, John Scott Tynes — have already designed Cthulhoid games! For those who haven’t, I suspect the answer to that question is “pay them or challenge them,” just like it is in any field. This is why the absence of major indie-game designers in the Cthulhuvian lists is so surprising: Cthulhu is a reliable sales driver at their level of the market, and successfully transferring Lovecraft’s cosmic horror into narrative game play is incredibly challenging.
CR: Thanks, Kenneth for coming back! Now I guess we better let you go and actually write some of this wonderful-soundings stuff!