29 May 2015

The TMC Effect: Too Much Cthulhu

When I reviewed The Void, I mentioned that it, like a lot of games, are suffering from the To Much Cthulhu (TMC) effect. This is the major overkill of Cthulhu throughout the role play and board game industry. This is the latest fad being jumped on, replacing TMP: Too Many Pirates. Remember how every game was seemed to revolve around pirates, from Green Ronin’s Freeport to Looney Labs’ Pirate FLUXX, and everything in between. There was good material in there (the previously mentioned Freeport is an excellent example), and there was a lot of mediocre output, but towards the end even a great product would look stale because of the overkill. The pirate fad has fallen off, but something else has taken over (as you hear this revelation, make a sanity check).

Cthulhu, the H.P. Lovecraft horror horror mythos, is the new king of all games. Board games like Arkham Horror (an early game which did not follow the trend, but help make it), the Call of Cthulhu Card Game, Chez Cthulhu, Munchkin Cthulhu, Cthulhu 500, Elder Sign, the Smash Up Obligatory Chthulhu Expansion, Cthulhu FLUXX, and on and on. BTW: I own a lot of these, just so you know I ain’t no ‘thulhu hater.

In the RPG arena, Call of Cthulhu was the trend maker for TMC in RPGs. A great background, excellently written adventures, and its revolutionary sanity mechanic turned it into an RPG hit. Along with the 1920’s setting, Chaosium brought Cthulhu to other times: the dark ages, the gaslight era, modern day (although modern day in Call of Cthulhu means the 1990s). Other companies have made their own spins on the game. Delta Green is a sort of an X-Files meets Cthulhu (although it predated X-Files by a pretty good amount, so they were not followers in the genre, but sadly not remembered as being leaders either). Future settings bring us CthulhuPunk for GURPS, CthulhuTech and The Void. Then there are the ports to other game systems: d20 Cthulhu, the GUMSHOE powered Trail of Cthulhu, and Realms of Cthulhu for Savage Worlds.

That’s a lot of Cthulhu and the list is not even complete.

The effect is that the surprise and mystery of the background is being lost. If you played enough times, you begin know what the universe is about, how it works, and the overall goal of the antagonists, no matter which Cthulhu RPG you are playing. Even gamers who have not played any of these games know much of what the mythos is about from other sources: the board games they play, or the magazines and books they read. The best horror is when no one knows what the hell is going on. Unfamiliarity breeds fear. It is like when players first play D&D. Encountering a skeleton was nerve racking, not knowing what it could do or how to kill it. Later, when encountering most of the classic monsters, players plot how to take the enemy down based on the player's meta-knowledge (“Skeletons! Switch to bludgeoning weapons,” said the first level fighter who grew up on a farm and never encountered unread in his short life).

That is why I like writers who design new universes to base their horror in, so that even regular Cthulhu players will be lost. Kult was that game back in the 90s. It had a highly original mythos, and was full of surprise because of that. Unlike all the Cthulhu-based games, it also dumped the idea of sanity, replacing it with something new: mental balance, a chart of your connection to humanity (it was interesting that being a saint or a sinner eventually makes you less human, and though it is two very different journeys they end in the same place, where your soul becomes unchained). The adventures were dark, so dark it made Call of Cthulhu look like Scooby Doo.

Vampire: The Masquerade and the other World of Darkness games were set in very original backgrounds full of unknown, and even though based on supernatural beings like vampires, really avoided the clich├ęs that have been ingrained in the genre over the last century of literature, film and TV. There was no sanity, but each type of character had its own terrible problem haunting them. Years later, when the World of Darkness had aged and the mysteries revealed, White Wolf went the distance and rebooted the game into the new World of Darkness.Like it or not, it was a daring move.

I want to see new games with original backgrounds and entities, and am not getting enough. I have not pursued it yet, but I have heard good things about Noctum, whose design seem to support many different styles of horror in a consistent and original world.

This was my problem with The Void. The game presented a generic near future mixed with the over exposed Cthulhu mythos. It did not excite my imagination at all. I really wished it had worked for me as space horror has not been explored enough in RPGs.

Well, I am out of time to rant. I have to get back to setting up my Cthulhu Pirate game. With ninjas.

No comments:

Post a Comment