Trapped by Cliché at Miskatonic University!

30 Sep

I found myself largely pleased but a little troubled from Sunday night’s Call of Cthulhu session. For a one shot adventure it went pretty well —it started in media res with our three player characters Viktor, Simon and Violet all attending the Thaw Ball at Miskatonic U in the first week of the Winter-Spring semester.The players jumped into investigating the new students on campus (four Bostonians who were acting awful hinkey, later to be reveled as nascent cultists on the cusp of their first encounter with the mythos). The characters took it on themselves to break into the mysterious new students house of their own accord. No hints, no nudges, the PCs leapt in with both feet and were breaking into the old damned house on Pickman Street, creeping around in the dark, sleuthing and generally mixing things up off their own bat.

The middle part of the session was also pleasing, especially the dinner party with the cultists where the PCs, up to their necks in intrigue, tried to dissuade these new students from delving too deeply into dire mysteries.

The trouble started during the finale. I’d had this notion, half-formed in retrospect, that the PCs would be forced to make a choice between:

  1. handing over their close friend, who’d fallen in with the cult, to Nyarlathotep (wearing his waxy mask and robes that hide); or
  2. refusing and bearing witness to some mind-rending horror.

The fact that this was not a real choice only occurred to me later (and is probably worth a separate blog post), because they were never really going to hand their friend over. In fact they would do everything they could to save her. They were the good guys after all.

So , thanks to this short coming on my part, I fell back on the oldest cliché in the Call of Cthluhu (rule)book — thwart the summoning of cosmic horror. (To be more accurate, the ritual had already been completed, but thwart/undo the summoning is two sides of the same coin).

Why clichés make for bad roleplaying experiences:

Clichés are predictable: This is the rub with the ‘stop the summoning’ cliché. All drama is removed from the game, because it places the players on a path where they already know the outcome — they will probably thwart it, unless the GM is feeling particularly cruel (or the rolls don’t go their way) in which case they won’t. So while there might be opportunities for a bit of combat or a scare or two, there’s nothing new to be gained from this outcome.

Clichés stifle creativity: Once the players and GM are on the path of a cliché, they’re likely to make it well worn. Everyone will play to the predictable outcome and nothing new or exciting is likely to come from it. Clichés may be nostalgic, especially for seasoned gamers, but they’re ultimately unsatisfying, and the lack of creative expression will probably leave everyone a bit dissatisfied.

Clichés undermine the session’s potential: Ultimately the cliché will damage the rest of the session. Sure, in my Miskatonic U scenario we had some good moments, but the thwarting the ritual finale didn’t really support all the good work that had gone before it. The players worked with me to an outcome, but it was an outcome that didn’t raise us above the obvious, making it a mostly good session with a poor finale. Not memorable, not worthy of the RPG hall of fame.

3 Tips top avoid cliché:

If you’ve carefully crafted your session, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a cliché pop up. But as I was improvising (and under time pressure to get the session done), I took the obvious way out. Over the last few days I’ve thought of a few options that I could have used instead:

1) Do the opposite: They’re expecting to stop the ritual. Perhaps there is no spell to ‘unsummon’ Nyarlathotep. Perhaps they must make him an offering, chose some other unfortunate to take their friend’s place. How far will they compromise themselves?

2) Go back to character: Viktor is a white Russian émigré, Violet a preachers daughter, Simon was a street hoodlum — they’re all escaping their pasts. Perhaps they each see Nyarlathotep as someone from their back story —a revolutionary with a gun, the preacher, a mugging victim — and are taunted, threatened. An opportunity presents itself for character roleplaying and a way out of the cliché. If they resolve their issues with the past (in this occasion), a 1-2 points of SAN loss is in order. If they are overwhelmed by it, end up crying on the ground, screaming for deaths release, then some temporary insanity comes their way. Either way, Nyarlathotep is gone. He’s done his mocking and is happy with that.

3) Cut to black, resolve it later: this option wasn’t really available for me, as it was the end of the scenario (with no opportunity to pick up a follow up session any time soon). But I’ve played in a CoC session where the GM cut to black, before the big san blasting confrontation, and we woke up with scattered memories of what had happened. Piecing these together and finding out what had happened made for the subject of the next session. Roleplaying doesn’t have to follow a linear narrative, and sparing use of the ‘cut to the next scene’ technique strikes me as a useful way to dodge a cliché.

Any one have some thoughts on how to turn potential cliché on its head and save the session?


6 Responses to “Trapped by Cliché at Miskatonic University!”

  1. Nikitas October 1, 2010 at 6:24 am #

    I’ll start by being the devil’s advocate on this one 🙂
    Clichés are not always that bad, especially little ones: they can help to know your troupe better, and, while it is true that they cut off creativity, it’s also true that at some basic level, every game has a “theme” you can’t avoid completely, or the players will be disappointed (i.e. an ENTIRE campaign of D&D without combat!). And I had some really bad gaming experience with a plot so twisted it barely made sense, and all just to avoid clichés.

    Then again, of course, you’re asking for something better than clichés, not worse. So, here’s my two cents: I have been a player far more than a storyteller so, I usually focus on NPC habits and quirks, and try in that case to avoid clichés as much as possible, working on their motivation as hard as I can (that way, when a random event occurs, I just go along with the singular NPC involved, and roleplay him according to his character).
    But of course in your example this is not entirely possible: you were talking about a plot twist, not merely a singular character, and trying to define the motivations of Nyarlathotep… well, I don’t want to go there at all! And it was a one shot adventure too! I think that I would have made it a two session adventure, asking for a time break to think about an outcome. The fade to black option is also good for not describing the horror, Lovecraft style. The second option you suggest seems to be the better one, but it needs time to structure a thing like that, it doesn’t sound like an improvisation.

    Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done in that exact situation. Maybe I would have fixed it clumsly with some NPC arbitrary decision. All things considered, it could have been worse than a cliché-sque final!

    • RPG Plotter October 3, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

      You’re right of course — the line between archetype and cliché or mythic story and cliché is sometimes a very narrow one. Familiar ideas, symbols and characters can often shorthand and aid the progression of the larger story. In many ways the key task I’d set myself with the Miskatonic University Call of Cthulhu campaign was to rise above the obvious interpretation of Lovecraft’s world and aspire for fresh was of doing things.

  2. Pagrin October 2, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    I’ve always found the best way to avoid a cliché plot it to alter the point of perspective.
    For example the age old “it was all a dream.” takes on a whole new meaning if you are not the dreamer. What extremes would to go to to keep the dreamer asleep?
    In the case above where a creature has been summoned and someone needs to be sacrificed. You might try looking at the summoning slightly differently. What if a portal opened and the players where sucked through to where Nyarlathotep was. IE they had been summoned to his realm. What would they be willing to do to get home?
    In both cases the problem is basically the same, however because of a slight alteration, the players perceptive and the problem solving is likely to shift.

    The thing about a cliché is they tend to show up nine times out of eight at some point. this is because they are in themselves common events. I feel trying to avoid them is pointless. However flavoring them makes people feel new elements have been added.

    After all there are basically only about five or six stories, the rest of the details are just that details to hide the fact.

    • RPG Plotter October 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm #

      All good points. There are certainly clever ways to come at things with preparation and planning. The trouble arises when you’re improvising during a session and trying to avoid cliche on the fly 🙂

  3. Raven October 3, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    So the PCs, refusing to offer a sacrifice, instead ask Nyarlathotep to just please go away.

    And Nyarlathotep, in his most human form (lean, tall, black, bald, aristocratic), raises an eyebrow, *hmpfs* ascerbically, says “Very well, then,” steps out of the summoning circle, and walks out into town — perhaps to pick his own sacrifice? Who knows? Dare the PCs follow him to find out?


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