Saturday, 25 February 2012

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land

Call of Cthulhu: Wasted Land is the brainchild of Red Wasp Design, a UK-based game studio. It’s a turn-based strategic skirmish wargame based loosely on the writings of H.P Lovecraft, though its gameplay reminds me more of the X-Com series than it does Call of Cthulhu. I’ve had a lot of fun with it this week!

The year is 1915. The Schlieffen Plan hasn’t worked, and Germany’s advance on Paris has stalled. The trenches that are to become symbolic of the Great War have just been dug, and your main protagonist, Captain Hill, is an ordinary soldier fighting on the Front. A mysterious branch of military intelligence sends a boffin, Professor Brightmeer, to help him root out and destroy a particularly insidious foe: Kaul, a nominal ally of the Germans who is using the carnage for his own ends. Brightmeer is joined soon afterwards by Carl Green, martial arts expert, and Emma Gold, a student of Freud, and they join forces with Hill’s platoon to rid the world of Cthulhoid horrors. Together they advance through No-Man’s-Land, at first gathering clues, trying to fathom Kraul’s plan, and later penetrating the villain’s lair to confront him once and for all.

Wasted Land is a strategy game. Your units (Hill, Brightmeer and their allies) have a certain number of Action Points, which they spend moving from place to place, shooting, or performing other actions.  When their turn is done, the enemy have a go, and then the cycle repeats. The victory condition for the scenario changes each time; your goal could be to survive, or to shepherd Brightmeer to the objective so he can study it or blow it up. Win one scenario and you move to the next, until the end is reached. It’s a pulp-action plot complete with moustache-twirling villain but the writing is entertaining with some nice asides from Cornishman Sid Brown, the artillery spotter whose pigeons helped me out of more than one scrape.

Cthulhu tabletop gamers are known for their love of historical accuracy, and Wasted Land does an excellent job. I only caught one duff note, a reference to Salvador Dali’s artwork when, at the time of the scenario, Dali would have been eleven years old. Otherwise Red Wasp did a good job of tying together their timeline.

Veteran tabletop players may be a little surprised by the emphasis on combat. Generally speaking Call of Cthulhu teaches you to run away from, say, Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath as they’re extremely dangerous and nigh-on impossible to kill. When three of them turned up at once, my immediate reaction was to order my units to flee. What I ought to have done, as I soon discovered, was order my sniper to shoot holes in the lead monster while bringing my martial artist into close range for a few bayonet-hacks. By the time the campaign is over you’ll have depopulated an entire regiment of Dark Young, as well as many other Mythos beasties.

Sanity is another famous Call of Cthulhu mechanic, mental hit points that run out very quickly when your character faces off against horrors from beyond. In Wasted Land you lose Sanity for encountering horrors, but you also lose them each time you attack one, which means if one unit attacks a zombie three times they lose three doses of Sanity, and then they’ll lose more when the zombie attacks them. When Sanity runs out either the unit is paralyzed for a turn and loses all their Action Points, or goes manic. Mania gives them a double dose of Action Points, but at the end of their manic period they’ll fall unconscious and die unless someone helps them. Mania can be a godsend, but when your sniper, heavy weapons guy and martial arts expert all go manic in the same round you do start to feel sorry for the enemy, who’ll be on the receiving end of all that rage.

Sanity can recover naturally after a period of mania or paralysis, but if you want to keep your units in fighting trim then Psychoanalysis will plug those holes in their brains. Gold and Brightmeer start off with this skill, but anyone can learn it. This tends to result in a front line of hardened killers with a support character or two standing directly behind them muttering ‘tell me about your relationship with your mother’ as the undead close in, but needs must!

As a skirmish wargame it has a few flaws, chief among them lack of a Fog of War mechanic. The player always gets to see where everyone is, which does detract from the horror of what is meant to be a horror game. X-Com had this nailed, and it’s a bit puzzling when a series that’s nearly twenty years old has chops that an app released in 2012 doesn’t. The AI sometimes spawns new enemies in inconvenient places, so you can be attacked from the rear while facing off against something nasty, but as a general rule you’ll have plenty of warning of any attack. Most of your opponents are close combat specialists, so your sniper will have a field day as they charge in and your martial artist will enjoy ripping up whatever’s left. This is where Sanity really starts to make a difference, as the last thing you need is a unit in a vital strategic role suddenly lapsing into paralysis.

Another minor gripe is the battlefield itself. It’s beautifully laid out and there are plenty of obstacles, like poison gas or muddy ground, which either slow your units or injure them. However it can be difficult to tell the difference between open ground, which you can shoot over or move through, and an obstacle blocking your line of sight and movement. Level design is also occasionally uninspired, so that what could have been an interesting tangle of barbed wire and poison gas through which you have to choose one of several paths to your objective, becomes instead a linear route the boundaries of which are very clearly marked.   

That said, there were enough challenges here to keep me occupied and I soon learned to tell the difference between terrain types, so my sniper never ended up in a useless location. Though the enemy started to feel slightly outclassed towards the end, the final showdown was appropriately climactic, and were I Field Marshal Haig I’d not have been stingy with the medals afterward!

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being abysmal and 5 being near-perfect, I’d rate Wasted Land as a solid 3. A Fog of War mechanic would have made this a really great game, but it wasn’t to be. Even so, as a tactical skirmish horror game it works very well, and the atmospheric art design really drives home the feel of being on a Great War battlefield. Here’s hoping Red Wasp come out with a sequel sometime soon!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Trail of Cthulhu: Hauntings

On a completely different note, let's talk ghosts.

Ghost stories are a fiction staple. Writers like M.R. James turned the short haunting tale into an art form, and there's an argument for saying that ghost stories work best in short form rather than long. The short sharp shock is often what's needed here; carry on for too long, and the story gets stale. That said, when the ghost story works in longer form, it works really really well, and that happens at least in part because the authors of those stories never try to explain too much. The best ghost story is one with an irresolvable mystery at the bottom of it, so that the audience goes away with residual chills that will worry their sleep. It's not like a monster movie, where the dynamic almost demands a dramatic climax. A ghost story doesn't need resolution in order to work its magic.

In role playing games, ghosts often take the antagonist role, and usually only for a scene or two. They're an obstacle, sometimes a warning, and that's pretty much it. To my mind that's a pity, since they could be so much more atmospheric. I'm going to kick off this particular mini-discussion with ghosts of place, and I'm going to use Bookhounds of London as a setting.

Ghosts are often considered singular entities, and usually human, or at least linked to humanity. The murdered soul of dear old Auntie Doris, come to tell her doting relatives just where the will is hidden, for instance. There are several human links in that. First the crime of murder, which is something that humans do to other humans. Then there's Auntie Doris herself, and her relations. Finally there's the will, which represents a human desire to pass on an inheritance and accumulate wealth. For some reason the Auntie Dorises of the otherworld never tell their nearest and dearest to go stick it where the sun doesn't shine on account of that cheap casket she was buried in, and what happened to her dear old cat Mittens, eh? Down the river in a sack before Auntie's body was cold, no doubt.

However there have been other ghosts; trains, ships, battlefields, buildings; spirits of place, linked to the material world only by the most tenuous of chains. I particularly like the idea of a ghost building. The NY Times article linked to is talking about structures that never actually existed, of course, but to my way of thinking that makes the best kind of ghost story. An entire skyscraper, designed, planned down to the last rivet, yet never was built. Imagine what might be inside something like that. Who (what?) would work there, live there? Where would it get its heat, its power? What vistas could you see from its upper stories?

In Bookhounds, the protagonists are adrift in London, a tangled and bloated metropolis that has forgotten more about its own history than almost any other location on earth. It has reached out and swallowed villages whole, like Cronos devouring his children. It has seen out the Romans, witnessed the executions of Kings and the murder of princes, been the obsession of a long-dead multitude of men and women, been bombed by airships in the Great War, and in the early watches of the night it dreams about everything it has ever been.

A spirit of place, in a location like London, ought to reflect that half-hidden history. The ghost in this kind of tale isn't something that can be met, or neatly resolved by producing hidden wills. It is a memory trying to recreate itself, but some of its bones are missing and the rest are scattered. There may be great power at the back of it, but that power was squandered years ago, and now only a small residual current remains. Perhaps the memory is of recent vintage, say of a zeppelin raid, or perhaps some buried temple is trying to break free. Maybe the docks are trying to recall their Napoleonic glory days, or a hunting lodge still can't quite forget its past.

There are any number of tales that could be told, but there are some things the Keeper should bear in mind:
  1. The truth of the haunting will probably never be known for certain, since most of the facts are unavailable.
  2. It cannot be dealt with in the same way as, say, an ordinary antagonist encounter. Ghouls, for example, can be shot, or bargained with. There is no way to communicate with a haunting of place, and probably no way to kill it.
  3. It has a great deal of power behind it, possibly magical power. That means other people besides the protagonists are going to be interested in it. That also means it could be very dangerous.
With that in mind, consider the following example:

Jerusalem Lane

This haunting is located in ramshackle early Victorian house overlooking a narrow lane, that runs between two rows of houses, with a long-neglected churchyard at one end and a busy shopping street at the other.

In the early hours of the morning, at any point between two and four o’clock, music can be heard from the upper window of the house, but this music can only be heard by someone standing in the alley. It sounds as though someone were playing scales on a piano, with a young boy or girl singing accompaniment.

At the same time this happens, those in the lane cannot find their way out again. It is as if the lane were impossibly long, and shrouded in shadow at the shopping street end. Some who experience this claim to have seen lights at the churchyard, but nobody has ever tried to investigate them.

The experience is said to last between one and ten minutes, no longer; potential Stability 3 loss.

·    Architecture The house from which the music sounds probably was built in the early 1830s, and would have been part of a larger development. James Camberwell, a prominent architect, was the developer. Camberwell is known to have battled in the courts for the use of the land, as there was some dispute over who owned it: the Church, or the man who sold it to Camberwell. The Church also objected to the height and scale of Camberwell’s development, claiming that it blocked their ancient lights. Camberwell eventually won his case.

·    The Knowledge The churchyard, in common with many other spots in London, is supposed to be a mass grave dating back to the Black Death, but this is probably more rumour than fact. It is supposed to have been dug out in 1873 when the church was deconsecrated and demolished. The bones were removed to a different parish, but the stones (some of them, at least) were left behind. In 1896 the bodies of two young boys were found in the long grass. Each had their throats cut, but otherwise the bodies were unmolested. In the present day the churchyard has a reputation as a lover’s lane, and a gang hangout. It’s not uncommon to find a group of men gambling there, or drinking, during the day, and youngsters sparking with their girls in the evening.

·    Streetwise and/or Magick The spot is thought to have had megapolisomantic significance before the church was demolished, as it stood on a ley path. However the destruction of the church and construction of the housing development has polluted the track, and it no longer provides the magickal power that once it did. However there are still one or two street magicians who try, every so often, to reconnect to the place’s dissipated essence. Strange creatures are thought to haunt the old churchyard, and it might be a place to meet a lone rat-thing or ghoul.
  • Credit Rating or Bureaucracy The house in question has been owned by Erasmus Phillipson, an ex-patriot living in Boston, since 1902, and it is rented through the estate agents Dawson & Dawes. It is frequently untenanted for months at a time. The inhabitants never claim to have seen anything themselves, but the place has such an uncanny reputation that it puts off the better class of tenant. The last one was jailed on assault and indecency charges, and the place has been vacant for ten months since then. Before Phillipson there were two owners, a Mr James Copper (died 1900) and Miss Elizabeth Bowden (died 1864). Neither of them had children. Miss Bowden was the first owner of the house, and lived there with her sister for most of her life. Mr Copper did not die in the house and neither did Miss Bowden, though her sister Emily did. 

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Art of Books, part Two

In which I return to the ebook quandary!

This is inspired in part by two book-buying experiences: The Greatcoat, by Helen Dunmore (which I recommend, with a caveat that it isn’t particularly spooky), and Monsters in America by Scott Poole, which I didn’t end up buying because the price was too high.
When last I tackled this topic, Travis (hiya! Hope all’s well in London!) commented on the pricing problem, and said:

 Firstly, [the vendors] want prices that are near, or in many cases more, than trade paperbacks. We have to agree right away that this is ridiculous.”

Now, Monsters in America speaks to that problem. I didn’t buy that book, because the vendor’s price was wildly overinflated. Monsters is only available in hardback or electronic format at the moment, and Amazon’s price for the Kindle version is only a buck shy of the hardback price. That’s crazy. There’s no way a Kindle version ought to be at the same price as a hardback, particularly given that the hardback is usually considered the premium product. People want those because they want to display them, and they’re often considered collectable because they’re usually a limited print run. There’s just no way that a Kindle version has the same value. The only possible justification for this price point is competition; the vendors are afraid that a rush to buy the Kindle will limit the demand for the hardback. That’s backwards thinking. The market for a hardback doesn’t overlap with the market for electronic. People expect completely different things from a hardback than they do, say, a paperback. Paperbacks are bought to read, and carry around; their covers will get torn and battered, their pages creased and folded. They aren’t expected to be put on display. Nobody’s going to care that their dust jackets are slightly foxed or that the binding is beginning to separate. Whereas a hardback is bought to keep, and is often kept carefully, because their condition speaks directly to their perceived value.
But then, this is the Amazon price, and my take on it is that since Amazon just aren’t booksellers, (though they obviously want to be), they don’t understand the book market well enough to accurately price their stock. Clearly there's also a market war going on which is only going to get hotter, and that will have a knock-on effect on price that has nothing to do with demand for ebooks. Amazon want to sell Kindles, so they make the price of their ebooks attractively low. Meanwhile Barnes and Noble wants to sell Nooks, Apple iPads, and so on and on. I must admit, this is where I start to think that the market has lost its collective wits. Why would a bookseller like Barnes and Noble want to sink their R&D budget into a new electronic toy, when the electronic goods manufacturers are coming out with tablets by the bucketload without needing the impetus of book sales to drive demand? It's like Ben & Jerry's trying to increase market share by inventing the perfect spoon - but I digress.

Going back to price, there’s also the point that, as discussed by Dan Gilmore of the Guardian, publishers don’t like discounting the ebook price too much, and publishers have a big say in how their wares are priced. Gilmore attributes this discount dislike to the publishers’ fear that consumers would become too used to underpriced books, thus reducing demand for anything other than electronic. I’m sure that plays a part, but I tend to agree with the thesis that there’s more to a book’s price than just the cost of paper. There’s editors, proofreaders, marketers and marketing, and a host of other expenses most of which are invisible to the consumer. These costs are fixed, fairly high, and have nothing to do with the format the books are published in. And that, of course, is before we even get to the question of the author's advance. I'm aware that there is mathematical justification for arguing that you don't need all that, that an author can self-publish with nil marketing at a minimal price point and make money. However even a glance at some of the stuff available out there at low-or-no cost shows the benefit lost to the creator in not having a good editor, or proofreader. Much of it is just trash. There may be a few fresh ideas in them, and with a bit of luck someone who really deserves to succeed will do so through ebook self-publishing. Most won't.  

For those who really want to frighten themselves, check out Ewan Morrison's take on where self e-publishing is headed.  I don't think he's wrong. This bit in particular strikes a chord:

"And what has happened to all those new authors who were told they could make money from epublishing? Well, they are working entirely for free (on spec) on the promise of those big 70% royalties on future sales. They write their books, they blog, they net-network and self-promote; they could put in as much as a year's work, all without payment."

On the whole I would agree that the current price of ebooks, as exemplified by Monsters, is crazy. However I don't think we can expect the actual ebook price to fall much below the paperback cost, which is where Dunmore's book comes in. (I bet you thought I'd forgotten about that!) Dunmore's Greatcoat is part of Hammer Horror's new publishing experiment; they seem to be aiming for a more literary style. The Woman In Black is another in this vein. Where this ties in to the current discussion is this: the Greatcoat's price tag was roughly the same as the paperback version, and the decision to buy was made all the easier since there doesn't seem to be a paperback version available via the States. I was happy to buy at that price, in a way that I wasn't for Monsters, and of course the instant delivery was a plus.

Given that the costs to the publisher are more or less fixed, I suspect we can't hope for a significant drop in ebook price below the paperback price point, unless we're prepared to accept a sharp reduction in quality. I also suspect that most consumers are willing to pay paperback prices for ebook versions, though I agree with Travis that it seems only logical for there to be an ebook version bundled with every paperback sold.

However price wasn't the only thing Travis talked about. He also mentioned ownership:

"Secondly, they want everyone to buy, but no one should own. Try loaning your ebook to a friend. Sure, Amazon will let you do it for a limited time, as will B&N, but both also for a limited number of people. And don't forget, you DON'T OWN the ebook, you are licensed to read it."

I agree, this is a problem. However I do wonder how much of this is an actual problem, and how much a problem of perception. Put it another way: did we ever own books? Could we dispose of them precisely as we pleased?

Not quite, I'd argue.

"All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form or binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser."

That version of the caveat is taken from the 1999 Harper Collins paperback, Flashman at the Charge. In some variant forms the prohibition specifically warns purchasers that if they buy the book without its cover (stripping, it's called), they're buying stolen property. Admittedly this is more of an attempt at moral 'suasion than an enforceable prohibition, not unlike the bit at the beginning of the DVD when some spokesman says, more in sorrow than in anger, that you really shouldn't pirate movies. Even so, it still represents the publisher's contention that ownership has its limits.

The publisher has always asserted their ownership of the words within the book, and ebooks haven't changed that. We bought the husks that the words came in, and when we tired of those we lent them on, or gave them away, or sold them. There was no way the publisher could stop us doing that, short of coming into our homes and posting guard over the bookshelf, and that assumes that they wanted to stop us. I suspect that most publishers accepted the second-hand trade as a useful adjunct to their own business; publicity that they didn't have to pay for, which increased the demand for their own back catalogue. Yet there were probably some who resented the percieved loss of revenue, just as video game publishers lament the perceived cost to them of second-hand sales.

The chief difference between the trade in ebooks and the trade in the physical version is that where the publisher could never control what happened to the words after they left the shop, now they can.

Give someone, anyone, control, and they tend to want to exercise it. They would justify this as acting in their own self-interest, though frankly I doubt that many of them'd think very carefully about where their true self-interest lies, never mind about wider problems of the market and future growth of the business. There has always been a short supply of Timoleons. Besides, it's always easier to say No than Yes, because No has a definite, quantifiable result, where Yes could go almost anywhere. Yes could end up floating around on the net for free, which I suspect is the publisher's real nightmare.

I do see this ownership issue as a problem. People have become used to being able to lend or give their words to others, and a change in format isn't going to change this. Eventually there will have to be a system in place that allows an ebook, once bought, to be transferred to another user. However I also think that we're in a transitional stage. We still haven't got a reliable cross-platform delivery app for ebooks that can be read by all tablets and operating systems; the equivalent of having plenty of words, but no paper. How then can we expect to have a lending system in place?

I think this is a problem that time alone can solve. That shouldn't stop people demanding the service, of course, but we probably ought to accept that this particular demand may not be met quickly.

That's it from me on this topic - at least for the moment!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Bang Bang

With apologies to Nancy Sinatra.

Without giving away too much information, some Trail scenarios of mine are going through playtesting and one of the comments (heavily paraphrased) was 'I'm surprised by the amount of combat in the scenario.' That made me think about combat in the abstract: what use is it, can you have too much or too little, and is there an assumption that Trail scenarios have less combat than BRP?

Incidentally there are going to be some very mild spoilers here for certain BRP scenarios and campaigns (Black Devil Mountain, Masks of Nyarlathotep and Tatters of the King in particular) so if you really would rather not know, read no further.

When Call of Cthulhu first came on the scene it followed in the footsteps of Dungeons and Dragons, which was an extension of Chainmail, which was itself an elaborate form of wargaming. The whole point of the system was combat. What your character wore, their religion, their alignment or any other non-combat facet of their character paled into insignificance compared to the amount of damage your character could deal and absorb in a combat round. Ever since those halcyon days fantasy gaming has had a love-hate relationship with combat that has yet to be resolved, but the chief difference between fantasy combat and horror combat is that, in fantasy, the heroes are expected to win handily. In horror, as has been mentioned before, all victories are pyrrhic, and defeat is not uncommon. That made the early Chaosium scenarios little more than combat-heavy bloodbaths, which is probably how the game got its reputation as a character-killer. D&D had much the same problem with character death during the early levelling process, but once you survived past fourth level, gained a few hit points and had more than one spell at your disposal, your odds of survival increased significantly. BRP wasn't like that. If you went into a combat situation your odds of survival were always low, and as combat situations were the meat and drink of the scenarios available at the time you tended to die a lot.

In game, this meant that the players were plunged into situations that seemed pretty hopeless at first glance. It also meant that clue-finding took a back seat to gunplay. Black Devil Mountain is a fairly typical example of this tendency. Though there are clues to be had, none of them really matter very much to the narrative. The whole point of the scenario is to funnel the characters towards a combat moment, and more time is spent detailing the specifics of that moment than, for instance, describing the cabin that the protagonist inherited, even though the cabin forms part of the hook of the scenario. The players could ignore every NPC, march straight towards the combat zone (which is pretty clearly signposted from the start) and go in guns blazing, which that would be just as valid an approach to the challenge posed as finding clues. In fact it was probably more valid, as it solved the problem quickly, where clue finding tends to be a slow, uncertain process in BRP. Though this combat-heavy approach could result in exiting scenes, I think most current players of the game would agree than these early scenarios proved beyond doubt that you could have too much combat in a horror game.

More elaborate campaigns were just as bloody, though not as quick. Masks of Nyarlathotep, which is still considered a classic of the genre, wanted more clue-finding but in the end was a series of combat encounters, some of them bloodier than others. While there was some scope for occult inquiry and spell casting, ultimately it came down to a massive battle scene. Players and Keepers alike accepted that this was the natural way of things. There was a balance to be had between combat and non-combat play, and the exact nature of that balance was up to individual preference.

Things changed. The roleplaying market in general began to prefer story-driven games, and BRP was not immune to this trend. Fast forward a few years and now we have Tatters of the King, the polar opposite of Masks. In games designed along Tattered lines, combat takes a back seat to clue finding. The presumption is that the only solution to the problem - to any problem - is to think things through, gather information, and use the right occult tools for the job when the time comes. Going in mob-handed will not solve the problem; it will complicate it. Meanwhile on YSDC Keepers wonder how to rein in their turbulent players, having firmly convinced themselves that gunplay has no purpose in a game like Call of Cthulhu. Yet this is merely an assumption, and like all assumptions it is open to challenge.

In Trail the game has taken one step further and made finding clues part of the core mechanic of the game. BRP's percentile system placed no weight one way or the other; you could put points in combat or in non-combat skills, and both choices were equally valid. Whether the scenario was or was not combat heavy was largely a matter of preference, not game design, and as preferences changed so did the published scenarios. Yet in Trail the clue-finding mechanic often doesn't involve a contest at all, and finding clues is the purpose of most of the scenes in any given scenario. This is so central to the system that it may be easy to presume combat always takes second place, or that Purist gameplay (as opposed to Pulp) has no combat at all.

I am not convinced this is so.

First, there's the question of challenge. All roleplaying games feature challenge of some description, which the protagonists then have to overcome. Typically in a narrative the protagonists face several different challenges of varying difficulty before encountering the climax. In this progression, combat has its uses, even in Purist style play. Particularly in early challenges, combat can provide victories which in turn boost the players' morale. Morale is always important in gaming, but in horror it has a special purpose: it convinces the players that they have a chance, even when the odds are stacked against them. That hope, even if it is an illusion, draws the players back again and again. It won't matter if they lose in the end, so long as they believe, going in, that they had a chance of winning. Defeat under those circumstances is, in its way, just as satisfactory as victory, inasmuch as player agency - the belief that the actions of the player matters - is preserved. If the players start to think, from the very start, that they have no agency, then they're not going to have much fun, and nothing shatters agency quicker than a series of seemingly inevitable defeats. A quick, victorious combat against mooks, or even the occasional heavy, gives them reaffirmation of agency, and that can only help the game.

Second, there are going to be times when combat serves to demonstrate the power of the enemy more effectively than any other mechanic. There is a reason why Fleeing is an important skill in Trail. There are only so many occasions when finding a blob of ichor or a crabbed note in an occult grimoire will suit the narrative. Clues like these are the sizzle, but at some point there's got to be some steak to go with that sizzle. It may be a steak they can't handle; it's probably better for the narrative if it is. In game, these are the times when the big bads show up and lay waste to everything in sight. NPCs tend to die a lot in these scenes, and there may be a few player deaths as well. That's kind of the point. Without an effective demonstration of power the players have no reason to worry, any more than (in real life) most people worry too much about the rats in their basement. They may accept, in a vague kind of way, that rats exist, and are probably closer than they'd like to think about, but they don't break out the shotguns and dynamite to deal with their rat problem. Combat scenes provide a reasons for the players to get proactive about their steak - to mix those metaphors as thoroughly as possible!

That's my take on combat in Call, and Trail, of Cthulhu. It's not that it has to be the be-all and end-all, as it was in Black Devil Mountain. Nobody wants to go back to the days of Dungeons and Shoggoths, where 9 out of 10 investigators had a Tommy Gun and the 10th one was schlepping around a box of dynamite. There is such a thing as too much combat, and I think horror is more suited to a story-driven than a combat-driven style of play. That said, combat does have a legitimate purpose, even in a clue-heavy game like Trail. It provides challenge, reinforces player agency, and demonstrates the power of the enemy, all of which are as important to the narrative as clues are.

Happy hunting!