Monday, June 30, 2008

Cthulhu Recap(s)

This is a two-for-one Cthulhu recap post. First, my review of the movie of the same name and second, in keeping with the quote I've stuck up under my blog's title, I'm going to chat a bit about the Call of Cthulhu game I ran this weekend.

Des has already written an excellent review, complete with nifty film stills, that examines the film's deeper implications on a couple levels. There will be no such introspection here! Instead I'm going to discuss the film's merits from the perspectives of a fan of horror movies and as a gamer.

As a horror film Cthulhu succeeds admirably, and has perhaps the most effective treatment I've yet seen of Lovecraftian horror. The trouble with adopting ol' H. P. to the big screen has been that he tends to describe his monsters as, well, indescribable. How do you depict, say, a color that doesn't exist on the normal spectrum?

Well, that particular conundrum may never be solved, but the makers of Cthulhu took great care to keep their particular horrors the things of half-glimpsed nightmares. There are briefly illuminated glimpses of strange sights seen in flashing headlights or the pop of flashbulbs (in a particularly effective sequence that caused several audience members to walk out of the theater, presumably due to claustrophobic issues). Strange tentacles lurk at the very periphery of the frame, and you find yourself straining to see what the protagonist sees before he passes out.

The film is an adaptation of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," which has been adapted to film before by Brian Yuzna in the movie Dagon. I had mixed feelings when I first saw Dagon. I thought the first half was quite effective, and it did an excellent job of depicting one of my favorite Lovecraft sequences of all time, the first night at the hotel, and the chase through the hotel rooms, our hero being pursued by a faceless mob. But Dagon soon descended into cheap splatter horror, becoming more focused on gore and naked breasts than on chills. Not very Lovecraftian. Cthulhu maintains, and even builds upon, its creepy atmosphere throughout the whole movie.

One thing I will fault both movies for however: apparently it's really hard to find someone who can do a "crazy old sailor" character effectively. At least in Cthulhu you could understand the actor, but in both movies they tend to, shall we say, chew the scenery just a tad too much.

From a gaming perspective, Cthulhu is an excellent example of how to run a modern-day or Cthulhu-punk scenario (the movie itself seems to be set in the near future, perhaps 5-10 years from now). The writer did an excellent job of taking today's concerns (terrorism, global warming, loss of personal freedoms) and tying them into the nihilism of Lovecraft's dark and uncaring cosmos. It's also a fine example of effective pacing, with steadily mounting creep-outs and disturbing sights that any horror GM would be well-advised to study closely.

The One-Shot
So this weekend I sat down to run a Call of Cthulhu scenario for Des. I brought out an old favorite, "The Menace from Sumatra" from Dark Designs. The Gaslight period is probably my favorite period for horror gaming; combine that with virulent alien fungi and you've got a winning scenario.

Now, I picked up Ken Hite's Trail of Cthulhu when it came out, but I have yet to run anything with it. I'd be interested in running "The Menace" using Trail and comparing it to how things went this weekend using the old rules (I'm pretty sure the scenario could be shifted to 1930s San Francisco with little alteration).

The reason for this is because Des's character died a terrible, terrible death. This was partly my fault, as I neglected to dangle a juicy enough hook for her bookish professor character to latch onto--I'll be honest, I've grown lazy as a CoC Keeper thanks to the last half-dozen or so characters featured in my games being either private eyes, journalists, or psychic investigators; they tend to be fairly proactive when going after supernatural weirdness. The other reason Des's professor met a grizly, fungus-infested end was because of a lack of clues being found and leads drying up.

Trail of Cthulhu aims to solve both those classic CoC bugbears: all Investigators start with a Drive that provides a reason to stick their noses into supernatural horror, and clues are generally dispensed free of charge, no roll necessary--it's what the Investigators do with the clues that forms the meat of the Trail of Cthulhu philosophy.

In a way, comparing Trail to Call is like comparing D&D4e to 1e. In essence, our session this weekend traced the sad fate of a victim of the blue fungus, like we were examining a hapless victim NPC in-depth. We could easily go back with a fresh character, perhaps a relative of the poor professor, and continue the investigation. In that sense, the old school CoC rules emphasize the world over the characters, much as old school D&D/AD&D did. It's like having your 1st-level fighter go off to the dungeon, get killed by a hail of goblin arrows, then rolling up the fighter's brother and heading back. Trail is much like the latest generation of games that set the protagonist as the central element of the story. It's not about matching wits with a cold, uncaring system, but rather the system helping you at least get a fair way into the scenario. Now, don't get me wrong--Trail appears to be as faithful to Lovecraft's vision as Call. It's just that Trail seems to say, "Hey, let's at least try and get the PCs to the Big Bad at the end before blasting their health and sanity."

Which one is "better" is, of course, a matter of personal taste. I can see Trail as being less frustrating, and for that I want to give it a try. But we may find the simple old school brutality of Call to be more to our liking. We shall see.
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