Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Add A Dash Of Cthulhu

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about Mash-Ups - taking two dissimilar games or themes or genres and mixing them.

The prime example of the RPG Mash-Up is GURPS Cthulhupunk, where Steve Jackson Games took the Horrors of the Cthulhu mythos and worked them into their pre-existing Cyberpunk setting to create a dark future with a horrific twist. With the "Humanity" mechanics already extant in most Cyberpunk-genre gaming, there was an easy mechanic to tweak for the sanity loss experienced in Cthulhu-based games.

My friends elsewhere provided me a list of Mash-Ups they'd like to see. Before I tackle some of their specific mash-ups, here are some general notes on how I plan to go about doing this:

I'm not going to completely mix two different RPG's. I'll mix their settings, or will take some genre tropes from one and drop them into the other. I may suggest some hybrid mechanics in some cases. If one element of the mixture is in a system which I don't own, I'll make some suggestions for an alternative system to use for the base mechanics. My goal is to maintain the flavor of both settings when I do this. There are impossible mixtures unless you're doing a parody. Toon and the X-Files, for example, are not a mix you can really do "straight."

See, I believe that every campaign is like a recipe. GM's take pieces from the game that they like and emphasize them and then they de-emphasize the other parts - if you're a GM who likes the Guns, Guns, and More Guns element of Cyberpunk 2020, then you're probably going to downplay the horror of the Humanity Loss. Both are perfectly valid - it's just a matter of what you (as GM) prefer and what your players will accept.

That said, let me start very generically:

Adding A Dash of Cthulhu

The easiest mashups involve either very slight changes or else changes which will try to hide themselves - Much as I love to hate White Wolf, their World of Darkness concepts are very easily inserted into just about any game, as each of the various supernaturals has "Stay Hidden" as part of its credo. You just need to figure out the appropriate mechanics.

The other common addition is that of the Cthulhu Mythos. For those of you who don't know anything about the Cthulhu Mythos, they're based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. The basic concept (and I'm horrendously oversimplifying this) is that there are horrific things out there that don't fit into the world we allow ourselves to see. Because of this, any encounter with them causes people to go mad - it starts small, but it can spiral out of control.

It's also commonly added to other games to add an unworldly or eerie feel to that game.

Here are a few Cthulhu Mash-up ideas you may not have considered:

Ghostbusters/Cthulhu (Thanks Tim!)

People who see Ghostbusters and only see a comedy are missing quite a bit - the film is filled with occult investigations which closely match the sorts of investigations that Call of Cthulhu (CoC) veterans are well-familiar with. It starts with some minor weirdness that drops hints and then escalates into a world-threatening Horror From Beyond. Even the sequel had a few ideas - the most notable was the primary supernatural villain (Vigo, if I remember correctly) used a human pawn (a very Mythos-esque touch).

This could be very easily run as a straight CoC game - just set the PC's up as licensees of a Ghostbusters Franchise (an idea mentioned briefly in the films that was used as the basis for the Ghostbusters RPG). Don't worry too much about the Particle Accelerators or the Traps or any of the Tech - all PC's need to know is that it works. Assume that a hit on a living body is lethal (or very nearly so, depending on the needs of the story), and go from there. Ideally, the players should open their franchise somewhere in Small-Town New England - both because New England is rich with ghost stories and because it's where Lovecraft set the bulk of his tales.

Start 'em off normally for Ghostbusters - the thumping noise is the dog next door's tail hitting the wall. The moaning noise upstairs just means you need some new insulation. Give 'em a ghost or two here and there, but bide your time. Experienced CoC gamers will see Cthulhu around every corner. Just gradually turn things up a notch or two, and, before long, you've got a full-fledged Cult Conspiracy that may or may not be related to the sudden increase in ghosts.

If you wanted to run it comically instead of straight, I'd suggest using a different system. Deep Seven Games has their XPG system that will work wonderfully - it's versatile enough that you can run it straight, but light enough that it doesn't get in the way of comedy. You can tweak the wounds track slightly for psychological wounds (madness), and go to town.

Traveller / Cthulhu

Traveller is a classic hard SF RPG that's been released now in several bonus flavors (GURPS and d20). Because it's a hard SF setting, it's ideal for the inclusion of something other than normal fantasy.

The Cthulhu Mythos is filled with aliens, many of whom colonized Earth before Humanity appeared on the scene. The Old Ones/Elder Things, the Great Race of Yith, and so on. It's not hard to treat these as lost civilizations for a character with an Archaeological bent to explore. You can also find their descendents on a distant world - whether or not to inflict Sanity Loss of some sort for these is up to the GM. Mankind is mentally able to handle the concept of aliens by the time in which Traveller is set. Whether they can handle the thought of aliens on Earth before humans, however ... or the behaviors of some of these aliens (especially towards humans). It's also possible that, when they left Earth behind, they took humans along as a servitor race. There may be human-descended cultures that were abandoned when their overlords fell for whatever reason.

There is magic in the Cthulhu setting, too - I saw it explained away once as being replicating nanobots which recognize certain sounds and act accordingly. I really like this idea for a Traveller-style game. The thought that self-replicating nanobots have been present on Earth since long before we were can be a maddening thought. It's also a great story hook - a scientist working on nanotechnology spots one (or more) of these and starts to put the pieces together. He learns over the course of his investigations that they are present everywhere humans have been, probably brought along by the first human visitors to some of the foreign worlds we now live on (or visit). By extension, races with whom we have had contact are also now infested with these nanobots. If the alien technology is superior to ours, they may already be aware of these nanobots. They may also have similar nanobots of their own. Either way, what happens when we contact an alien race who already knows how to use them? What if the meeting goes poorly?

There are a number of systems you could use for this - GURPS is the easiest, as it has books which include both the Cthulhu Mythos (GURPS Cthulhupunk) and the Traveller setting (GURPS Traveller). You could also fairly easy use the Silhouette Core Rules. It's almost as customizeable as GURPS and I (personally) like it better.

In Nomine / Cthulhu

In Nomine is all about the conflict between Heaven and Hell and how the individual solders deal with it. As such, it's built very strongly on a Judeo-Christian background setting. For most groups, the PC's are a group of Angels (or Demons), who are dealing with the conflict in their own way.

What if Cthulhu himself or the Old Ones had their own Angelic equivalents? Cthulhu has been asleep under the oceans for so long - maybe his awakening (and a new rise of R'lyeh) is heralded by the sudden appearance of these Angels. They'd definately strike a dischordant note in the Symphony ...

It's also possible to add deeper questions here that are not covered by the standard In Nomine game - what if Angels and God only exist because enough people believe they do? If that's the case, then how many people does it take to create a God, and can Cthulhu be stopped if you force enough of his worshippers to stop believing? You don't need Cthulhu to make this question work, either - if Satan knows that human beings need to believe for either side to exist, then his goals and motivations suddenly alter, even if the actions taken don't.

Legend of the Five Rings / Cthulhu

There are two ways to do this without too much trouble.

The easiest way to do this is to treat the Cthulhu Mythos as part of the Shadowlands and the corruption there. Use the standard Shadowlands mechanics for Taint, and you're good to go.

Or, you can decide that the Cthulhu Mythos in Rokugan is a remnant of a Gaijin invasion from centuries ago - not all the Gaijin were slain during their invasion, and they went into hiding helped by members of the _________ Clan (use whatever clan helps your story most). They brought their Gaijin Gods with them, and they've been worshipped in secret for centuries. Weird Things are starting to be noticed in the Empire, and your PC's are sent to investigate.

This allows you to create Cthulhu Cults within the Empire itself. Modify the Taint rules slightly for Sanity. This has a few strengths that the standard "Just Treat It As A Shadowlands Beastie" lacks:

First of all, PC's will (once they discover them) assume it's just another Cult of Fu Leng at first, allowing you to catch them off-guard.

It allows for some political play - the group that hid the Gaijin sailors was almost certainly not doing so with their Clan's knowledge and approval - what do you do when it's discovered? Especially if it's YOUR clan, and you're in a mixed-Clan party?

Although the cult is definately illegal, its practitioners won't reek of Taint, either - if there's no Taint, you'll have a hard time proving anything. And it's hard to find them Even if it's just peasants, they can be trouble enough if you gather enough of them together.

System-wise, I'd suggest the classic L5R roll-and-keep system. You can go d20 if you want to, but you lose a lot of flavor that way. And there's not much modification necessary, making it a fairly easy changeover.

Hopefully, I've listed a game or genre here that is similar enough that you can take some of these tips and tweak them for your game. I'll have more Mash-ups in the future - my friends gave me a few ideas that are percolating, and some gave me ideas that'll require some research.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done! A very pleasant and intriguing read that makes me want to get back to my Cthulhu-mixed-with-Judeo-Christian-Mythology novel...