This will be a reoccurring collection on my thoughts on the tabletop role playing game Call of Cthulhu. I started as a keeper during the COVID pandemic, and I have been enjoying it immensely. While I am by no means an expert, I thought collecting my thoughts to track what I think works and what doesn’t be beneficial for me and perhaps others.

Part I: Cosmic Indifferentism

The following contains minor spoils for The Haunting.

Before I ran my first session, I did hours of research as to how best be a Keeper. A common consensus is to let the investigators take the full brunt of their decisions. If a player’s actions lead them to a dangerous, or even fatal, situation, you should let them face the full force of their actions, as not allowing it will be in direct conflict of the core themes of the game. This is what I will call the indifferentism approach to running a game.

Other popular tabletop role playing systems, like Dungeons and Dragons, have central themes of action and adventure. Call of Cthulhu’s central themes are of horror and investigation. Setting the appropriate mood for Dungeons and Dragons is often simpler, since the players are often easily invested in seeing their characters grow to become a great hero. In Call of Cthulhu, rather than saving the world, the investigators are trying to solve a mystery and escape without losing their sanity or their live, and often there is no heroic ending. Just a gradual decline into madness.

When you sit down at a table and start a session, the players are aware they are playing a game. The question becomes how a Keeper creates a scary atmosphere with the players aware that it is fictional. The way a Keeper can achieve this mechanically, that is without “setting a mood”, is twofold:

  1. Have the players fearful that a decision can lead to their investigators losing their sanity or losing their life.
  2. Have the players race against the clock, so that inaction or wrong decisions will worsen the situation.

This is where the Lovecraftian theme of cosmic indifference comes into effect. Cosmic indifferentism to Lovecraft is believing in a “meaningless, mechanical, and uncaring universe that human beings, with their naturally limited faculties, could never fully understand.” As a Keeper, you must act disinterested in the investigators; the story continues with or without them.

Take the first session I ran, The Haunting. Immediately I became huge fans of the investigators: one a muckraking journalist willing to do whatever it takes to get the bottom of a story, the other an eccentric banana farmer. Their combination, a sort of good-cop, bad-cop scenario set them up for many comical moments. Because of how much I enjoyed the characters, I quickly broke both two mechanics for creating a fearful atmosphere:

  1. I allowed for too much healing. The story ended up taking a little over two months of in-game time. For those aware of The Haunting this is a huge amount of time.

    This was because every time the investigators took damage, they wanted to go to the nearest hospital and received treatment and medicine, and I allowed it.

  2. Since they took so long at the hospitals, the feelings of necessity to complete the investigation waned. Why bother investigate the house if no one really cares?

If I were to act indifferent to the players, I should not have been thinking in context of the investigators, I should have been thinking in context of the story.

Corbitt, the villain who is buried under the house haunting the investigators, would do whatever in his power to prevent people from uncovering his body and the magic that keeps him alive. His life’s (and afterlife’s) work is to continue the efforts of the mysterious Church of Contemplation. By letting the investigators come and go as they wish he is acting against his best logical option, either killing the investigators or driving them insane so that they would not stir up trouble.

Too much freedom is the antithesis of tension. Being new to running a tabletop role playing game it is easy to want to make it as open as possible. Isn’t that where the fun comes from, the creativity of exploring a limitless world? However, that is not the case, there are limits: the limits to succeed. If the players choose to keep acting against the story, let them, but let there be consequences.