I'm going to start with a game that I play a lot at Origins, which is the grand old game of Cthulhu. Cthulhu these days seems to have infected popular culture in surprising ways. Since becoming a lovable, public domain Elder God, the Great Old One has been seen in plushie form, heading up his own indie video game, and taking orders from Eric Cartman on South Park. But Call of Cthulhu, the tabletop RPG by Chaosium, was my first exposure to the Mythos, as it wasn't so mainstream back in the days when I was first learning to play RPGs.
|And yes, of course someone made a Hipster Cthulhu|
Actually, it was one of the first RPGs that I ever played. As a bright, impressionable young college student, I showed up at the annual Halloween meeting of the Bowling Green Gaming Society with no real expectation of what I was getting in to. They were playing Call of Cthulhu Versus the Ghostbusters, and had an extra character. Since Call of Cthulhu is extremely easy to pick up, even for the novice gamer, I played a character who (I struggle to remember but think I am accurate) turned out to be the team nerd a la Egon. (These were original character Ghostbusters, with a franchise business based out of Cleveland.) Even though the Ghostbusters ought to be able to handle a threat like Cthulhu, our novice status in 'busting and the game's punishing rule set left one Ghostbuster incurably mad, and one dead… As for my character, he ended up falling off of an under-construction skyscraper and shattering his spine, but, with his sanity intact he was able to live to tell the tale, even if he would never walk again.
So yes, Call of Cthuhlu can be a brutal, unforgiving game. But it's easy to pick up and play. Most conflict resolution is straightfoward: your character sheet shows your percent chance of accomplishing any task, in a specific set of categories. Since you typically play as an "investigator," an ordinary person with no super powers, your chances to do something are generally small, especially if it falls out of your area of personal expertise. Roll your dice to get a percent under the skill number on your sheet, however, and you can succeed. There are a few extra rolls you might make involving damage and sanity loss and such, but the player doesn't concern with them too much. You'll lose your sanity points now and then, but, if you actually get in to combat, you probably did something wrong. The strongest person you should ever actually be fighting is a cultist who is about at your power level. If you see an Elder God or even one of his mutated minions, you should run. If you can.
If you've played a lot of Cthulhu, there's some common sense rules to survive, if that's what you really want to do. Never read any mysterious books you find; you're better off burning them. Never touch any mysterious-looking objects or artifacts. Don’t go anywhere alone. Don't bother with a gun.
Of course, playing the game to survive makes it a lot less fun, so actually you should ignore the above advice and allow the game to kill your character or drive them insane whenever possible.
I've played the game about a dozen times, mostly in convention settings. Because it's just begging to be subverted by its oppressive horror atmosphere, it's not always played "straight." I've seen Scooby Doo Vs. Cthuhlu and Clue Vs. Cthulhu and The Penguins of Madagasgar Vs. Cthuhlhu. (OK, we played that with a different dice system, but, the concept is still funny, so including it anyway.) This year at Origins I played a few different rounds, but it was always with one or more seasoned vets who understood both the system and how to survive in it. We weren't taking great pains to be no fun, but in the two actual Call of Cthulhu sessions I played (one historical, one modern), it was Slow Pitch Cthulhu Softball, with no deaths, only minor injuries, and maybe a pip or two off the sanity bar.
I was kind of disappointed by one session this year. The roleplaying at the table was fantastic on the part of the players, and the GM was highly prepared with different props, photos, mood music and even an intro video. But the actual scenario left our well-crafted characters with very little to do. Early teases about supernatural involvement in our situation turned out to be red herrings or false alarms. The session culminated in us attending a ritual where the correct action was to simply not interrupt it, then win the scenario. We may have been the first team to deduce this, since the GM just had to half-heartedly admit it was over and we won, then told us with laughter how many previous tables had interrupted it and caused lots of death and carnage. Note to GMs: If the correct action in the finale of your scenario is "do nothing," please consider rewriting your scenario. At best, the players will get annoyed with this a bit; at worst, you're making them look like idiots by trying to trick them in to making the situation worse for your own amusement. Yes, even in Cthuhlu. (Then again, I guess "show up and do nothing" was also how you win Raiders of the Lost Arc.)
By contrast, last year I played in a game where the world was destroyed -- mostly due to our characters' fear, uncertainty, and overall bumbling -- and that was cool and hilarious. I could tell that one guy at the table felt a little upset by it because he really wanted to play the hero. In straight Cthuhlu, though, playing the hero can be entertaining, but is ultimately folly. There are no heroes in Cthuhlu. There is a lot of dead meat.
If I had one complaint about the game from a player standpoint, it wouldn't be its ruthlessness, but that its ruthlessness has an unintended side effect: it takes too long to get to the interesting bits. At a con, a GM will give you a mundane character. Then, likely, you'll play around several hours of this character doing entirely mundane tasks, with no supernatural involvement. The session needs to last a certain number of hours, and the moment supernatural stuff gets involved in a major way it's all going to go to Hell very quickly. From a storytelling standpoint, the boring setup stuff is necessary for contrast. Then again, it's also… you know… boring. Your mileage may vary there.
I know of a few PC game adaptations of Call of Cthuhlu, but I haven't played them. I did really enjoy the obviously-Cthuhlu-insipred Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, on the Gamecube, and I see some Cthulhu inspirations with the sanity system in the very scary Amnesia: The Dark Descent. If you have any experience with the Cthulhu video games and happen to stop by, let me know if they're worth a play!