Over the weekend we brought our long-running Trail of Cthulhu campaign to an end after a year or so of play. (It was the excellent Eternal Lies, in case you’d like to check it out—which I can highly recommend.)
In a Cthulhu game (of any system), there’s a temptation to tally the score and measure its success according to the number of player characters killed or driven irrevocably insane. By that count, the game was an abysmal failure: Through a year of play, only one death (voluntary, in a world-saving moment), one insanity, and a couple of significant maimings. Despite that, though, this wasn’t just one of the best RPG campaigns I’ve played through—it was, perhaps, the campaign most true to the mindbending horrors of the Cthulhu mythos that I’ve ever experienced.
How can that be? Particularly when you consider that the GM, it turns out, had made a conscious decision not to kill characters? Isn’t it a widely-held maxim of tabletop gaming that without the real fear of character death, players don’t have enough incentive to care—to worry about the consequences of their actions—to fear? And, heck, the mythos all about fear.
I’ve never believed that the fear of death is critical to the RPG experience. When we watch a movie or read a novel, the main character’s survival is rarely in question. What creates tension is the question of how the character will survive a given life-or-death struggle. Of what the consequences will be. And whether the character will overcome whatever grand conflict the plot has put before her.
It’s no different at the gaming table. Our characters might have died—even though the GM wasn’t gunning for us, the possibility certainly existed, and we dodged a couple of serious bullets along the way. But the truth is we were not motivated primarily by keeping our characters alive, particularly once we were out of the first act. We were motivated by a dire, existential threat to humanity, and the knowledge that we were pretty much the only ones who could defeat it. We were motivated by the need to succeed. And that was always in question.
(The fact that the one casualty gave her life, voluntarily, to assure the success of the mission further proves my point.)
So only one death. But along the way three characters lost limbs. One of those ultimately went insane, but not until after the close of the campaign’s events. A couple of us fell into the grip of addiction and alcoholism. This was a party that survived, but as seriously damaged goods. And that felt more true to the Cthulhu mythos than a dozen deaths.
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