Heroism vs Realism
In preparation for a new streaming project, I've been exploring the Call of Cthulhu tabletop role-playing game. Coming from a Dungeons and Dragons background, the two systems could not be more different! One is based in medieval fantasy, depicting heroes and adventurers questing across the land, slaying monsters, amassing fabulous wealth, and kicking progressively more butt as the story goes on. The other, conversely, is set in an alternate history of the real world and follows a group of average schmucks as they do their best to avoid encountering monsters. They fight a losing war to postpone the inevitable end of the world another day longer, assuming that they keep their bodies and minds intact long enough to do so!
Having played 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons almost exclusively for nearly a decade, I am very excited by the opportunities that another role-playing game presents! A lot of them boil down to running a more realistic game. This started me thinking about the differences between playing heroic fantasy and pseudo-realistic horror, and the changes that would necessitate in the way that my players and I approach the table. Some of our preconceived notions would have to be amended.
The Thrill/Chill of Combat
Regular readers here on the Dungeon Feed may have detected several articles ago a hinted frustration with the response of player characters to a life-threatening situation in Dungeons & Dragons back in my Legend of Vox Machina article (click HERE). When presented with a terrifying monster that has both the ability and desire to kill the player characters, one would think that prospect would be… well, terrifying! But often this is not the case.
D&D focuses heavily on combat. Almost everything that a player character unlocks as they level up relates in some way to being more effective at dealing, taking, or preventing damage. Each battle is an opportunity to show off those newfound powers, and is therefore an exciting prospect for the players! Oftentimes that trickles into the role-play, and characters become bloodthirsty embodiments of violence ready to throw down at the slightest provocation. And who can blame them? That is the behavior the system encourages through its mechanics.
Because D&D characters are so finely tuned to excel in combat, they will often emerge victorious against incredible odds! This makes the characters (and their players) feel like big badass heroes! Awesome! That’s what the game wants! Both in and out of the role-play, they will chase that high again. They will charge into ever greater dangers, heedless of or in spite of the potential consequences, trusting in their bravery, the DM, and the mechanics of the system to ensure they prevail!
On the other hand, investigators in Call of Cthulhu are fragile, squishy sacks of organs who are one stray bullet or one hobo's switchblade away from being dead. And that’s dead with a capital D! There’s no healing or resurrecting magic to prevent or undo death’s embrace.
Not every investigator is handy in a fight. Not everyone has any means of defending themselves. Even characters that have a decent means of fighting back are still vulnerable to virtually every conventional kind of assault. Even if an investigator is an ex-marine or a martial arts expert, a well-placed bullet will still take them down, let alone an attack from an interdimensional being or an alien from beyond the stars!
Investigators are encouraged to role-play their characters as though their character is one hit away from being dead at any given time. any and every combat with any and everything could be deadly for the persons involved. Role-playing an investigator as though they valued their life means that they may cower instead of making a stand, flee instead of fighting back, and abandon their allies rather than dying as a group. They must make the calls in life or death situations that we as people must also make. It may not seem heroic, but ensuring that someone survives the immediate danger to deal with the greater looming threat… that is its own form of heroics, and gives duty and purpose to the characters of the story!
Speaking of which…
Heroics vs. Horror
One might argue that many things are the “point” of a D&D game. One might indicate the three pillars of D&D set out in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (Combat, Exploration, and Social Interaction), or say that the point is to level up, improve yourselves, face greater challenges, and gain power and renown across the course of the adventure! One might also argue that it is to tell a satisfying story, to have fun with your friends, or to kill stuff and get loot. Whatever else your answer might be, nearly every game of D&D is about a group of heroes or burgeoning heroes taking a stand against evil, dauntless and undeterred in the face of adversity! Because that's what heroes do.
And that is what the game is designed to reward! The mechanics of the game support the idea that players are going to pilot their characters towards danger, and equip those characters with the means to defend themselves and remove any obstacles in their path. D&D encourages you to become a problem solver, using the tools it gives you to win the day! D&D wants you to go on an adventure, be an adventurer, and run TOWARDS the problems you face.
Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, expects you to do the opposite, and reinforces that mentality with its game mechanics as well. As previously mentioned, the combat is deadly, and the game rewards you for avoiding it where possible… if continued survival is considered a reward. There’s a whole chapter in the book about mechanics involved in running for your life from a pursuing monster! It also emphasizes the mental toll of brushing up against things that defy conventional logic and reason, having investigators regularly take damage directly to their Sanity. Losing the ability to control the character, and even to know if the world they’re perceiving is the truth of the matter IS and SHOULD BE horrifying!
But the game gives you access to skills that center around discovery, investigation, research, interrogation, breaking and entering, car chases, and more! While they don’t want you directly confronting these nightmarish beings, they do want you to learn about them, identify them, uncover their strengths, habits, and weaknesses, and then exploit them! These are the advantages regular humans are going to require if they hope to stop these eldritch beings.
That’s how CoC is different. The name of the game is horror, not heroism. Investigators have so little control over the world they exist in that they can feel helpless in the face of certain doom. And, depending on your taste, that probably sounds thrilling or awful. Cthulhu wants you to struggle and strive, to dwell in the uncertainty of your fate, and to never be sure which moment may be your last! There is RICH storytelling potential in that, and Cthulhu wants to immerse you in it!
Facing the End
All good things must come to an end, the proverb says. At some point, a character’s story is over, no matter the medium. Different TTRPGs have different ends in mind, and drive you toward them throughout gameplay.
While playing D&D, the players’ characters are the most important people in the game! They face dangerous encounters and are driven toward two possible outcomes: glorious victory, or noble death. In the best case scenario, you square off against a nigh-unstoppable being as the last hope for the world and emerge having conquered it! You then write yourself an epilogue of retiring and hanging up the sword, becoming a respected noble of the realm, or ascending to something approaching godhood yourself. Or, at the end or somewhere along the way, the challenges you face prove too great, and your story is cut short. Hopefully it is in defense of your allies, a courageous self-sacrifice, or bravely defying a great evil. Either way, you’re likely to be remembered by the world and by your allies as a hero to the last!
You either win, or you die trying.
When playing Call of Cthulhu, those are not the only options. In fact, “winning” has to be redefined if it’s going to remain in the discussion. Investigators transition from the blissful ignorance of everyday life to realizing and accepting that they are indescribably insignificant in the face of the truth of the universe, and utterly helpless in the face of the cosmic horrors that operate beneath our notice and above our realms of thought. So surviving might be considered “winning,” as might saving a town from horrors at great personal cost, or casting a spell to banish a winged horror but irreparably breaking your mind in the process. These are “wins” in this game. And even if you do save the world… no one will believe you. You’ll forever be the crackpot, madman, occult-obsessed maniac that mothers tell their children to avoid.
That’s the big difference, in fact. In D&D, characters in the world want to be near your character, want to grow up to be like them, and will remember them long after you’re dead. Nothing could be farther from the truth in CoC. Even if you do win, it won’t feel like much of a victory, and your character will spend the rest of their lives haunted by what they’ve seen and done until they meet a disquieting end.
As you can tell, these two games are incredibly different. Neither is necessarily better than the other, and both serve their purpose well. I’ve spent years running adventures in fantasy worlds for heroic adventurers facing down adversaries they would eventually defeat to reap great power and riches. I have greatly enjoyed that time, and strongly recommend D&D to anyone who wishes to tell similar stories.
Now that I’ve matured as a roleplayer, I am interested in greener pastures. Rather, pastures that are withered, befouled by some inexplicable thing, and that give off a fetid stench. I’m curious to tell stories more grounded in reality, where actions have greater consequences, and where the characters themselves are more relatable. I crave the opportunity to run games where scary things feel scary, and being frightened is more than a condition detailed in an appendix. And Call of Cthulhu is going to give me that chance.
I’m going to be streaming my first Call of Cthulhu game on Twitch tonight (May 1, 2023) at 7 PM CST. There will be a great cast of players, and I’ve worked diligently this past month to make it fun and interesting both to play and to watch. If you’re curious about how it is different from D&D, or just want to show your support, click HERE to follow our channel and be notified when we go live! The videos will make their way to our YouTube channel afterward.
What do you prefer? Realism? Heroism? Have you found a way to balance the two? What other game systems support these play styles? As always, we’d love to get your feedback! Comment below, or find us on socials to share your thoughts by clicking HERE!