Diceless Explorations… Cthulhu Live

First, a disclaimer. I was introduced to Cthulhu Live a long time ago. The version of the book I’m working from is from 1997 so I’m sure the game has evolved since that time. I still chose to write about this system though because it was a game I enjoyed reading and it did have a shaping effect on my thinking as a player, a GM, and as someone who enjoys diceless play very much.

A Quick Overview of the System

In Cthulhu Live, players take on the roles of Investigators, just as in Call of Cthulhu (both are from Chaosium). Cthulhu Live is a LARP system (as the title implies) and it plays without randomizing elements. I was surprised – when rereading the game – to find that it does use a resolution mechanic that involves cards at one point in the process but I’ll get to that.

In the game, you have four ability scores representing Dexterity, Constitution, Education, and Power. That’s right, there is no Strength score, which the game mentions as being “to the chagrin of thousands of armchair barbarians” (CL, 10). I’ll come back to the missing score later.

Character Investigators also have skills – which primarily serve the function of a “you have the skill so you don’t take penalties” type of modifier. In order to use skills, the player simply says to the Keeper (the GM like figure who is still overseeing the session) that they wish to do something. “Hey, I want to pick that lock” or “Hey, I want to use my knowledge of baroque circuses” or any such skill the Character has. The Keeper (GM) compares the Ability being used to a Success Score (what some games would call the Difficulty number or Target number). If higher, the character succeeds. If lower, the character fails. It’s really as simple as that. Well, almost. The permutation comes in the fact that if you beat the Success Score, how much you get out of that is often dependent on how much you beat the score by. Higher levels of success can translate into getting more out of a Skill Test.

Now, I’ll admit, when I was younger and I read this game – back in 1997 – I was thinking to myself, “That’s a terrible rule and I don’t want to play this game.” I’m still not sure if it is a great rule, but it is an understandable one. First, the Keeper doesn’t have to worry about making a lot of judgement calls and the players can reasonably gauge their abilities by knowing that if they have a DEX of 3 it is probably not in their best interests to get into an Ice-Dancing competition, because they’ll fail. And I can see the very strong appeal of this in a live-action setting where you will have a lot of players, probably only one Keeper, and potentially a thousand things to keep up with all at once, all in different parts of the room/building.

Combat plays out a little differently – players divide their DEX score into an Offense and Defense number and use the two numbers in comparisons to determine how much damage they inflict and take in combat turns. These numbers are represented by players displaying cards for their Offensive number while simply knowing their Defensive number. Players also have cards for options to Flee and Dodge. Again, this is simple, straightforward, doesn’t require a lot of investment on the Keeper’s part, and players are in a position to reasonably account for their own abilities. If you have a terrible DEX then it is probably in your best interests to go on the defensive (or avoid fighting at all). Combat does have a few complexities beyond this but I don’t want to lay out the entire system, just give you a feel for how it shakes out. Also, when someone is able to make an attack and doesn’t have to worry about defending themselves (like shooting a gun at a target with no ranged options to fight back) they become super dangerous. When I created my Legends of Ryllia game in 2004 I used a similar notion of splitting your combat number (and had similar results) and I still think this is a great way to make combat systems interesting. One thing that is truly interesting is that the game has no “to hit” part of attacking and defending. You simply “do damage” and “defend.”

Sanity and Magic also have their own sections in the book but ultimately, Magic is just a test against a Success Score just like skills (though a lot more dangerous) as is Sanity – with both tests using Power as the Ability in question.

What Excites Me About This Game
Well, as I mentioned, I’m intrigued by the combat system. I like the splitting of ability for combat into offensive and defensive components. I like the choice offered by fighting a defensive fight or going super aggressive and trying to defeat an opponent quickly. I like how the different permutations of this basic choice contribute to how a combat feels in play. As I mentioned, I’ve used a similar system in my own games and I find that it really allows players to set a tone of their combat style without needing a large variety of “bells and whistles” mechanics to define that style. The game I’m currently working on will also use a similar system for combat.

I’ll admit that the overwhelming difficulty of Magic in the game is a plus. Because success or failure is so coldly calculated (you do or you don’t, no roll, no luck, you just do or do not) then it becomes vital to ensure that you have thought through using a spell or a ritual before you start. You need to have the extra helpers and the proper components or you will simply fail. And failure may have consequences. I’m a big fan of difficult magic. I like magic to exist in a setting but I’m not fond of magic as it exists in most game systems. This magic – while making sense for the setting and mood – also makes choosing to use magic a very deliberate choice that requires players to “have it right.”

Finally, I find the roleplaying discussion pretty fascinating. Again, this is a LARP, not a table-top game, but passages such as the following really are important for diceless play and are useful even to table-top play as a reminder to become immersed in what you are doing…

Don’t just point at a mysterious statue and say that you want to use your Archaeology skill. Pick it up, if you can, and examine the craftsmanship. Test how hard the material is with a thumbnail, tap to see if it’s hollow, and pull a notebook from your pocket to “check your notes.” This applies to all skills.

This section is discussing how doing a great job of playing will often be rewarded with small mechanical bonuses from the Keeper and how it aids in the illusion created by the play experience. Again, this is more of a LARP bit of advice, but it never hurts to remember that you can “interact with the environment” even when you are sitting at a table in your basement or living room.

What Is Less Exciting About This Game
I’ll be the first to admit. In many ways, this game epitomizes what many people don’t like about diceless play. It has a very binary success-failure condition with no way for the players to improve their position through roleplay and a potential and possibly flaky Keeper reward. In a LARP – especially a one-off – I don’t see this as such a bad thing. For a longer game, or at the table, I can see the difficulty creeping in.

Second, for all that combat does right in this game, the lack any sort of a “to-hit” mechanic really does create a situation where combats are foregone conclusions in situations where attrition matters. Since fatigue doesn’t really enter into the equation, going on the full defensive is really not a valuable tactic unless you know you will get reinforcements, and there are no really “tactics” to combat – in that you can’t really attempt to manipulate the outcome by tricking your opponent or having some unique edge. Also, because combat is downplayed, that lack of a Strength score comes into play in weird ways and echoes beyond combat – like what about kicking down a door or lifting a heavy weight? (I didn’t forget to mention the Strength score, yay!)

Finally, I find that there is another area where this game becomes a little awkward mechanically. The game very intentionally explains that it leaves out skills like “Spot Hidden or Fast Talk” and forces players to rely on their own skill (as the people who are playing the game) to do those things. But then it strangely does things like force players to have the Fine Arts skill to be able to draw – so a player who can’t draw but wants their character to be good at it is covered, but a player with terrible eyesight (me) can’t play an eagle-eyed hunter because, well, Spot Hidden is on me. This is another of those areas of play where interaction between player skill vs. character skill vs. GM rulings becomes a very important question to answer. For myself I like a softly regulated mix of all of the above working together to guide outcomes rather than a hard-and-fast reliance on one over the others. This game makes strange choices where Player Skill matters and where it doesn’t.

Final Thoughts
This got very long. I suppose I’ll leave off with the thought that, this early version of Cthulhu Live is maybe not the best game I’ve ever read, but it has some very thought-provoking elements for a diceless player/GM. It offers up a very specific vision of a game without random elements and the associated benefits and difficulties. I suppose, that one thing I can say about it, through all my gaming purges when I’ve sold or given away gaming stuff over the years, I’ve held on to this one because I enjoy returning to it from time to time as a diceless touchstone.

As always, I hope to hear from you – and thanks for reading.

7 responses

  1. This isn’t a live game that I’ve tried, but it does sound like it could have its advantages. The White Wolf Mind’s Eye Theater system was my favourite, and I ran that game for three years – with a bit of help – and I really liked it until you got to, for want of a better term, higher level characters. They would be constantly re-testing due to having put so many points into something that as an ST you could spend several minutes resolving one game rock-paper-scissors (lizard-Spock).

    The other alternative – that I played at least – was a Star Wars live action game, which used dice. Sounds reasonable, as most gamers use them fairly often, but it was the biggest immersion killer out there. People were happy to suspend disbelief on any number of other things, but people stood in tense combat ready positions as one dude struggled to find somewhere to roll his d6 from where he was, or hunt it down after he had just dropped it from a standing position, was just too much.

    I do agree about being dubious over the whole pass/fail idea though. Especially when you say that there’s no tactical advantage to be gained during combat. I’ve played Amber diceless before, and even though it really could be just pass/fail, it instead becomes all about being inventive with what you have and how best to manipulate the situation for a tactical advantage. Do you think that there’s scope for the Keeper to house rule tactical play into the combat, or would it get in the way?

    1. I’ve also played the Star Wars live action game (I ran it a time or two for friends) and while it has it’s appeal, you are right – the use of dice was a total buzzkill.

      As for the Pass/Fail idea – it’s interesting because it’s not so much pass/fail as it is Fail or Pass (and by how much do you Pass). So really, it has multiple layers of fail built in because you might have an EDU of say, 14 and you succeed at getting the information provided at 13 but not 15. And the level 15 information might actually be what is important.

      Then again, I’ve seen “passive” skill use creep into games that use dice (more and more) as a tool to “speed up play” and “cut down on rolling.” So, I guess it isn’t as strange when you have the option to roll vs. no options at all.

  2. I have often looked at the Cthulhu Live books since stumbling across them on DriveThru, but have not purchased them. I am not that drawn to LARP, for a number of reasons, but the largest is the one you outline here: the struggle for a wholly satisfying resolution mechanic.

    In your quest to make a diceless game, are you finding many alternatives to using either a randomizer or a bidding contest?

    1. It really seems that you either have pass/fail, or some form of bidding/resource management. In other cases you can replace dice with Cards – which creates a randomiser but not always in the same way that dice work.

      Honestly, I find the MET system I mentioned before to be a very satisfying resolution mechanic and would happily LARP with that system (if I enjoyed LARP in its own right – which I usually don’t). Most of the flaws in how MET worked came from the attempts to port the powers over from tabletop to LARP. YMMV.

      I prefer games that are almost purely narrative, with mechanics only providing a structure I can hang my play on. I’m still working at it – it’s just hard to know when you’re satisfied.

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