Blending Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots with D&D

Call of Cthulhu—for all it’s other Lovecraft-inherited flaws—has traditionally done a good job of building expectations of death and insanity into the core of the game. Furthermore, it has done this in a way that builds tension for longer campaigns without (usually) compromising the characters central to those campaigns. CoC does this best by blending one-shots with longer campaigns.

D&D can make use of this! I plan to do this in a game I’m starting soon.

The way that Call of Cthulhu usually handles this is by using a one-shot to set the scene and tone of a longer campaign. Characters in those one-shots are sacrificial, and their survival is a surprise rather than a given.

While similar assumptions of character death underlie old school B/X D&D, those assumptions are less present in most 5th edition D&D games that I’ve been in (or run) recently. Many players have more heroic narrative expectations of their characters. But I want to use Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots in a longer D&D game to give the players a better sense of the tensions and threats that await them.

My hope is to let players experience the fates of other characters (who are not their primary campaign ones). By uncovering the setting’s past, through magical archaeology or some other information gathering, I would let them play one-shots as characters other than their PCs. The players would know beforehand some of the conclusions to be reached in the scenes they played out, but they would otherwise be free to play those snapshots however they saw fit, and could have a chance to learn more about the setting in ways that fed into their main PCs’ decision making and views of the world.

Given that I expect to have some inexperienced players, my hopes with this are manifold; I wish to create spaces within the game for my players to come to terms with character death, to give them information about the setting which would otherwise require hefty info dumps, and to let them cut loose and experiment with decision making that doesn’t hamper their narrative goals or visions for their main characters. We’ll see how I do.

Shenani-games: Random Character Generation is GREAT

This weekend was a good one for gaming.  On Saturday I ran a last minute seat-of-the-pants adventure involving a great deal of bullshitting, and on Sunday I continued to run a standing campaign based on the material I started posting about last fall, in the setting I’ve been writing about this spring.  I had a great time with both sessions.

I’m not going to tell you much about the campaign, since that would potentially expose spoilers, but I absolutely have to share the basic setup of the Saturday game with you.  You remember whothefuckismydndcharacter, right?

Because we had very little time to set up and run the game, I decided that the players should roll down the line, which is to say that they had to roll their ability scores in order without being able to shift them around and spend too much time thinking about what they were going to be.  Then Spaige whipped out whothefuckismydndcharacter and got “a fucking sentimental Human Warlock from a cavern without echoes who is a recovering cannibal.”  I immediately decided that people could rearrange their ability scores as long as they shifted them to match a randomly generated character from that site.  Two of our players (Thom and Whitney) were hardcore / lucky and both rolled down the line AND used the random character generator.

The party ended up with an elven wizard, two warlocks (one human, one half-elven), a rock gnome rock bard, and a dragonborn barbarian.  The party’s wisdom scores were (I believe) 6, 6, 7, 8, and 12, with the barbarian as the wisest party member.  The lowest charisma score for the party was 14, and most people had 16 or higher.  Marvellor the Shit had a 20.  How did he end up with a name like that?  Well…

As the first few people figured out who their characters were, everyone decided that the PCs should start at 3rd level and that everyone would need an epithet of some sort.  We made a joke about the gnomish bard rocking out, and so he quickly became Duane the Rock, rock gnome rock bard.  The dragonborn barbarian, who had once survived a cookpot (it said so in his backstory), was described as having proportions like unto a Red Delicious; he’s bigger up top than down low, but he’s all around larger than he really should be.  He came to be known as Horgrin the Vast.  Spaige’s human warlock took the Great Old One pact, and was thus able to communicate telepathically (Spaige, seriously, I still want the fluff you came up with for that demon-tainted cave of the cannibalistic thought-collective, it was great), so she became Chathi, the Last Disciple of Silent Whispers, or Chathi the Last for short.

Whitney still needed an epithet and was randomly generating her character name (she got extra bonus points, because she randomly generated everything including wizard her spell list), but she quickly realized that her name was her epithet.  She ended up playing The Gart, which was perfect because it continued the tradition of four letter epithets.

By this point people were starting to get a little cracked out and/or drunk.  Thom showed up late and generated his character as quickly as he could, randomly generating the name Marvellor for his half-elf warlock, but was stumped for what to call himself until we pointed out that he needed a four-letter epithet.  Thus was born Marvellor the Shit, and his less impressive imp familiar Bixby the Crap.

Together these hooligans decided to search out a treasure as yet untouched by the adventuring group which had touched (more like scarred) all of their lives.  There’s so much that I’m skipping over, like the beautiful way in which they connected the fragments of backstory given to them all through the random character generator, but suffice to say that they had reason to despise and outdo the people who had ruined the lives that they once led.  As such, they journeyed into the land of Kraskya, the ancient and ruined city, and promptly fought a large number of things that they were hilariously ill prepared to face.  And despite the fact that high charisma types and people with enchantment and deception spells rarely do that well against the undead, they triumphed.

Of course, we left off while they were still stuck underground, more or less trapped by a very very large number of skeletons, but I’m sure that will be a good story for another time.