Monday, 11 June 2012


I'm working on a larger project for Pelgrane, while at the same time juggling several smaller ones. It can be a struggle, at times, to keep everything straight, and to balance out the needs of one job with those of all the rest. The Pelgrane project should be in its final stages by the end of the month, which shall be a relief to me. I've enjoyed it immensely, but it does occupy a fair amount of my time, and there are other things I need to be getting on with. I've promised myself I'll have written the first three chapters of a novel by September, for one thing, and it's June now. So I have that to contend with, plus writing for the Escapist, and sundry other concerns. Always a struggle.

In Cthulhu roleplay, the element of conflict is ever-present. Without that tension, there'd be nothing to enjoy; without the life-and-death immediacy of it, there is no horror. Characters spend their time battling the Mythos in order to save some fragment of humanity, to restore order in the face of all-consuming chaos. They're like ants, busy serving the Queen even though the exterminator's already poisoned the nest. What often puzzles me, though, is why they do it at all, and that's something that often puzzles the players, too. Without motivation, why struggle? When I write, I do it out of fascination, and because it pays; not enough, by any stretch, but any paycheck's welcome. That's my motivation, but the average character may have little more going for them than a Miskatonic PhD and a willingness to do dangerous things for no material reward. Why even get out of bed in the morning, with only that as a spur?

Pelgrane attempts to solve this problem with the Drives mechanic. Drives are what makes a character tick, the very essence of their underlying humanity. They may be driven by Curiosity, Revenge, Arrogance, or what have you, and so long as they act in accordance with those Drives, the characters are rewarded. Alternatively, if the Keeper feels that the player is being less than proactive, their Drive can be used against them, to prod them into action. It's a neat mechanic, and one that's not always well understood. My players have only just realized that obeying their Drive can get them a Stability boost, which is a great benefit aroundabout mid-session, when a few Stability checks have been made and pools are looking a bit low. This despite the fact that they've access to the same rulebook I do, and have been playing for a while now.

The thing is, Drives are a mechanical solution to a problem that oughtn't exist, but does. So many of the early Cthulhu scenarios had, as a stake, Destruction of the Entire World, at least in part because without that kind of stick to beat the players with, nothing would get done. They'd find excuses not to go. Why, they'd ask, should I leave this cushy janatorial job at good old Miskatonic, Rah, Rah, Rah, and go off to darkest Africa in search of some ancient diety? Never mind that the day job can be boring as hell, and Africa's a good deal warmer than New England in the wintertime. With the Entire World to play for, the game assumes, everyone will want to get involved.

But is that really so? There are any number of actual, real-life crises right now, that threaten the world as we know it; everything from nukes, to terrorism, plagues, global warming, water shortages, oil shortages, and on and on, yet only a handful of people actually bother to worry about those things, or do anything about them. I don't think anyone tries to do something about all of them at once. I'm willing to be proved wrong, but I doubt I am. I'm as certain as I can be that none of the players I've had over the years flung themselves, heart and soul, neglecting all other concerns, into solving even one of those problems. Maybe that's an indictment on them, or me; I don't know.

What I do know is this: people are motivated, more often than not, by material goals. The Safety of the Entire World is an abstract, an ideal; it's the equivalent of the final boss on a level, you beat the thing not because you really want to, but because, if you don't, the game will never end. Getting paid for writing is a material goal, one that puts my butt in a chair more hours than I care to think about. Saving a friend is a material goal. In Bookhounds of London, the characters have nothing but material concerns to occupy them, and the game is the better for it. People care about the things in front of them, about their co-workers, their jobs, their families, their neighborhoods. Those are the things they focus on, because those are the things that occupy their day-to-day, that keep them busy, that stimulate them.When those are threatened, things get nasty quick.

Of course, the obvious objection, from a roleplay perspective, is, why care? Many characters don't have family, friends, or even jobs - at least, not jobs that they know much about, or have to deal with. Where's the motivation then? The answer is, there isn't one - which is why those elements have to be developed, over time. Way back in 2011, I addressed this point, but it bears repeating: the early sessions of any campaign are best if they're kept low-key, perhaps even without any Mythos involvement. That is when you develop the setting, and the mood; it's when you nail home to the players who their friends are, and their enemies, what their neighborhood is like, and what they do for a living. A little exitement is fine, but no need to go overboard. Better that they get to know their surroundings.

That way, when you tear them apart, there's more reason for them to struggle.

1 comment:

  1. I once ran a game involving police officers where the first three sessions were entirely run-of-the-mill The Bill-style adventures set in a new city they had recently moved into. After that, I started dropping clues as to something terrible waiting in the wings. After a short drip down a historical mine, they packed up their family and left.

    Although their motives still didn't last out the whole adventure, per se, in truth I think they found their ending and it's a far more satisfying one than any I could have planned. They explored as much as they needed to before figuring out they should get the Hell out of Dodge.

    Real motivations lead to more genuine and interesting endings, I find.