Not Really What Was Intended

Last weekend, Yours Truly was in the City of Bridges for a LARP convention called SLARPA, which sounds like a dermatological fungus, but it isn’t. At least, I don’t *think* it is; I’m not a dermatologist, though, so I don’t really know. It could be. Anyway, the thing I went to was decidedly not a dermatological fungus. The SLARPA folks have been asking me for some time now to please come up to their fine city and run a Live Action game for their convention. So this year, because I had a Secret Weapon in my arsenal, I decided that this, I would do.

The Secret Weapon, of course, was MrGod2U, who ran the LARP that I think I have had the most fun playing, of all the LARPs I’ve participated in. Apologies for the TERRIBLE sentence structure there. We do what we can. Anyhow, he and I (MrGod2U, not the terrible sentence structure) thought it’d be Mighty Cool to run a Cthulhu Live game. I was terribly nervous at the thought of running Cthulhu Live, because…well…because if you eff up the story for this particular system, you are royally screwed. 

So time passed and MrGod2U and I had Planning Sessions in which we cackled and tapped the tips of our fingers together in mad glee. This past Saturday, we executed our horrible plan. I won’t go into too many details about the actual story, because we may try to get it published with Skirmisher Publishing (who do the Cthulhu Live rules and modules). I think the game went well. IT sure *looked* good. And peeps, you were wonderful roleplayers. It was like watching “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, but better, because we wrote it. 

But here’s something I’d like to ask you about. 

Why do you play Cthulhu Live? 

By way of explanation – the setting of the game makes it very difficult for player characters to interact with, alter, or change the story. Also, there are generally only two ways to end the game: dead or insane. Sometimes there’s a third: fleeing in terror. So do you play the game for the story? Do you play it because you love to play LARP? Do you play it to explore the theme and/or setting? Why do you like (or not like) Cthulhu Live?

cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.


  1. I am a big fan of the horror genre, and while I have read a lot of books and seen many a movie, it it still lovecraft that truly scares the bejeebers out of me…

    it is still true horror.

    my two pennies…

  2. Firstly, I’d like to just say that the reputation Cthulhu Live(or Call of Cthulhu) has for not being something the players can interact with is more or less unjustified – mostly put out there by its detractors. Of the published Cthulhu Live scenarios I’ve read(including the two in the 2nd edition main book), the Investigators have a very strong opportunity to change things – indeed, the authors of Cthulhu Live seem to more or less assume the PCs will manage to intercede in the horror and stop it(temporarily, always temporarily, but in the Mythos that “temporarily” can be millions of years).

    I think this is well-supported by the source material. Taking the four stories that I think sort of deliniate the Lovecraft that I think is most inspirational to the games – Call of Cthulhu, Shadow over Innsmouth, The Thing on the Doorstep and The Dunwich Horror – all four of them actually have the protagonist live to the end of the story. In both the Thing on the Doorstep and the Dunwich Horror, the investigators actually manage to kill the horrors in question by the end of the plot – in both, of course, it is suspected that the true evil hasn’t really been stopped, but again, temporary victory. Call of Cthulhu is more ambigious, but it is very easy to read the “boat decapitation” as what prevents Cthulhu from rising right then and there – at least buying some time. Shadow over Innsmouth is more pessimistic, but at least at the end the narrator is still actively contemplating action – though in this case, he has “flipped side”. I think of all of them, The Dunwich Horror is the closest to what the archtype for the roleplaying game is – run around in terror, trying to figure out what is going on, gather enough evidence to research the threat, and then, armed with knowledge of what it is, go and drive it away.

    Now, as to why I love playing Cthulhu Live… There are a lot of reasons. But first and foremost is I find horror games just have a level of immersion that is hard to get elsewhere. I think part of it is, on average, Cthulhu games have a reputation for props, special effects, and settings that blow most salon-style games away. But a lot of it is the feeling of tension you get. You know walking in, even if your character doesn’t, that you are in danger. Death or madness could come swift and easy. You have to be focusing and putting your all into things, or your dead. You are quite possibly dead even if you do.

    But here is the thing – *There can be no tension in a LARP without choices, decisions, and consequences*. The second the players get the idea they cannot effect what is happening(whether this is true or not), all tension flees the room immediately. Tension is built on uncertainty, and if there is no uncertainty about your life or death, people stop caring almost immediately. So I find the players having choices and strong ability to affect the outcome is pretty much essential to making a game scary. If players have to work hard and choose hard, they are on the edges of their seat, agonizing over everything that happens. If they think they’re just along for the ride, they sit back, relax, and enjoy the show from a distance.

    Hell, I’ll broaden my statement from being just about tension: Without choice and consequences in a LARP, there is no investment. Without investment there is no love, no hate, no fear, no anger. Nothing, except a very abstract story crafting that defeats all the strengths of the medium. LARP isn’t as pretty as a movie, isn’t as witty as TV, and can’t have the same complexity as a book. Its strength is its interactiveness. That is what needs to be leveraged.

    Take a look at a heroic “Bad guys beat the orks” LARP. Yeah, you know the bad guys are probably going to beat the orks. But it can’t be a sure thing. If it is a sure thing, players don’t see the point in participating there. In order for victory to be meaningful, you have to take a chance that things could jump the rails, the heroes will all die and the evil empire wins the day. Sometimes games will have unsatisfactory endings as a result. That’s okay. That’s the price we pay for everything else that is good about a LARP – and in the end, most people find a crummy ending they decided upon way more satisfying than a pre-scripted awesome ending.

    Similiarily, it is alright for the default in Cthulhu Live to be death and damnation. Most of the time it actually isn’t, of course – the trick is often to make failure seem almost completely unavoidable, but for it actually to be much easier than it looks. But the thing is, what makes it scary is the players knowing how easy death is – but that victory is also possible. Death is scarier when the possibility of getting out alive exists. The horrors that are unleashed upon reality are more terrifying when you know you could have stopped it. Seeing everyone you love have their souls turned inside out has more impact if you know if you’d just done something different you could have stopped the evil ritual and saved everyone.

    That all being said, I’m okay with those decisions being *deferred*. Because Cthulhu can be so very very props and costume intensive, players really will accept being told “No, you can’t stop the monster from being summoned. We spend $150 on the costume, and spent the past 2 hours getting three of our actors into it, the damn thing is coming out.” But then when it *does* emerge, that’s when decisions matter – both the decisions made right then and there, and the decisions that were made earlier(Do we kill the priest? Do I give the ancient artifact to the cultist? Do I give away all my worldly possessions to purchase that unholy tome at the auction?). You might not be able to stop the monster from appearing, but it is in your hands whether it just eats a couple of cultists before you banish it, or whether it kills everyone in the room and then emerges to devour half of New England.

    So, yeah, I like Cthulhu because it is *scary*. Death and madness are the default endings. So I am so much more engaged trying to avoid those endings, because I know victory will be possible – but only if I give me all to it, and have a side of luck as well.

    When you’re hiding in the closet and the monster is coming down the hall, it isn’t really the monster that freaks you out. What freaks you out is you are sitting there going “Hide or run? HIDE OR RUN?!?” Make the wrong choice, and he’ll get you. Which is the right answer? Is there a third answer I haven’t thought of? That crisis there is what makes me terrified. Like all good plot in a LARP, the monster isn’t the point – he’s just there to ramp the intensity of my decisions up to 11. That, then, is the point.

    1. Yes. Not impossible to interact with the story/plot. Just very difficult at times. I mean, in a pre-made story, if the investigators don’t do their jobs, if there aren’t any, or if they all die or flee early on, it’s pretty tough to get the learnin’ you might need to change things.

      1. Oh, yeah – I totally accept that the story in Cthulhu Live can be a little bit more rigid. Most of the time I’ve found Cthulhu Live games actually have a fairly large sandbox period though where although there are constraints(You can’t really kill the baddies before the finale), folks are free to do what they want. Usually this is where the interpersonal plot stuff usually comes out the most, and where a lot of the fun stuff happens. Although they can’t yet succeed in their objectives, what the Investigators(and I think the fact that “Investigator” is the generic term for “Call of Cthulhu player character” says something about what the role of the PCs should be) do in that period often determines whether or not they have the knowledge and resources(including people – if folks all die foolishly before the climax, a lot harder to beat the evil cultists!) to succeed in the end.

        I guess to expand that to more of a general statement about LARPs again – for me, if one can intelligently talk about “the story” of a LARP before the LARP has been *played*, things are already going off the rails a bit. It is like the marketing guys talking about the story of a new movie before a script or a director even get chosen. One of the major reasons most folks play LARPs, of course, is that they get to create the story collaboratively – they aren’t going through a pre-existing story, they are making it in play. A good LARP one-shot should turn out different every time you run it because the choices the players make are different. That is also, of course, what makes roleplaying games so hard to run some days. :) In Cthulhu, we accept it might be a fairly strongly guided story – like if you sign on as a writer to the Spiderman franchise, you immediately have some ideas who constraints your script will be under – but it still has to be dynamic.

        I guess also a critical thing is always in communicating that dynacism to players. That can be really hard. But all the choice in the world doesn’t matter if the players somehow become convinced they can’t affect the outcome. On the flip side, one can get away with having something extremely linear as long as the illusion of choice is very real(I don’t like this personally because, sooner or later, people figure it out and then your credibility is shot. But if you’re good at it, it can work). I find Cthulhu can sometimes fight an uphill battle that way because of the negative reputation it has gotten…sometimes players get fatalistic mid-game because the go “Waugh, it is Cthulhu, we have no choice but to die!” when the Keeper is like “Umm, dude, have you even *tried* to stop the evil ritual?” A lot of times it has a lot more to do with the players’ mindsets going in than anything the storyteller does. But, of course, you doubtless know that player “expectation management” is probably one of the most important, hardest, and least rewarding parts of running games.

        1. Ah. You were using the generic “Investigator” and not the specific “Investigator”. **::SIGH::**

          It’s a good point you make, that it is sometimes difficult as a player to separate what you know of the setting from what your character may know. And then on the flipside of that, how to make the setting engaging for players who *are not* familiar with the Mythos itself. It’s an odd balancing game.

  3. I have only ever played the one game of Cthuhulu Live, so I’m not entirely certain what I was expecting or what would draw me back (aside from you personally running another Cthuhulu Live game).

    I loved the atmosphere of your game most, I think. It was definitely the creepiest game I’ve ever been in, by far. I’ve always enjoyed Lovecraft’s works, and so to actually PLAY in that mad world was quite a treat. It’s less interactive than most LARPs, because you can’t really Win, you can only stem defeat a little bit longer, but I win all the time in LARP. I play for the experience, and hoo boy did I get that here. While I couldn’t make much impact on the story, and I’m sure that playing a Cthuhulu chronicle would be the height of hair-pulling frustration, for a 1-shot in a setting I’d never played in before this was FANTASTIC.

    And then my character in your game somehow Lived to the end, and was even Sane. That was the cherry on the cake.

  4. I love to LARP. I vastly prefer Cthulhu Live to tabletop, because at least there is *some* chance I might be scared in a larp. The rules are – well, not always the best for that kind of a game. But a good Cthulhu game is very very good, and I have had the bejeezus scared out of me a few times in my Cthulhu life.

  5. Cthulhu is great as a player, because you know what you are getting into. You will be faced with both unnamed horrors and human fallibility. You will almost certainly be driven mad/eaten alive/witness the end of humanity/suffer some unthinkable end. But maybe, just maybe you live. And your faint hopes are on a clock. You’ll probably have to make horrifying choices along the way. Because you know that going in, there’s a great deal of fun to be had in playing the variations on facing horror, rather than wasting time trying to ‘win’ the scenario cleanly. Thanks to the fiction, we know that no one survives contact with the mythos unaltered.

    It’s this deadline type play, plus the shorthand that playing in Cthulhu mythos stories provides that makes the game engaging. for me. It’s one of the few games that ever really caused my heart rate to go up, and caused a contradictory feeling of terror mingled with “this is so damn awesome” that is completely unforgettable.

    1. Good call on pointing out the timeline aspect. Even if the characters don’t know the clock is ticking(and often you even know IC), the players are usually all aware of it. The timeline to destruction really does ratchet up the tension.

    1. We didn’t do any props or costumes for ours.

      Although, I did make a custom-made soundtrack…or rather, Sean-the-boob-man made it for me while everyone in his office grimaced at how cruel and horrific the game plan was. And, to be sure, the arterial spray *was* neat. And the brain splatter. That was awesome; I’m not going to lie about that.

      Ours was a really story-heavy game, light on props and costumes.

    2. I must admit to a large part of the thrill of many of the Cthulhu games I’ve played in as stemming from the props/costumes/special effects. To specify: Amy’s props/costumes/special effects. So awesome. :)

  6. So i am just checking your blog out and i have to answer this i don’t know if this is the one i played in but it needs attention.
    I have only played in one Cthulhu live game, and that was yours as a npc, but out of 5 years coming 6 that is still the best game i have ever had the pleasure to be apart of, i was scared witless and i have never been so engulfed in a Larp as that one, honestly during it i had a hard time seperateing me from the character i was so tense and in character, you had an amazing plot and the tension was incridible. I don’t know why the idea of no dead or crazy appeals but i can say for sure that it does not repel. I know i stated once but again, That game was my all time favorite so far. Fantastic job running it.

    1. Aw.

      Thanks, Shy!

      I think that’s probably the effect that MrGod2U has on LARP. But also, that was an incredible group of LARPers, and the venue was perfect.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: