A few months ago on the show, we had a guest host, Sean, who used some very concise language to distinguish Call of Cthulhu from most other RPGs. Most games, he said are “Empowerment Fantasies,” while Call of Cthulhu is a “Dis-empowerment Fantasy.”
It got me thinking about the ‘why’ of dis-empowerment games. Why does someone want to play a game where they are overwhelmed? Why does someone want to portray what will inevitably be the losing side?
I Wanna Be Awesome
The answer is not the inverse of an empowerment game. Most of us, we can reason, don’t get to go out and do whatever we want, find adventure and slay evildoers. We have responsibilities, limits (be they self-imposed or not). We play empowerment games to get a chance to do what we normally don’t get to do. That’s simple.
If you were to ask a player what he wants out of normal RPG he’ll say something like, “I want my character to do cool shit,” or “I want to become powerful,” or “I want to battle hordes of monsters.”
I Don’t Wanna Be Awesome
But what about dis-empowerment games? Why?What do we get out of them that makes them fun to play? Firstly, I should point out that most role-players DON’T find this type of game fun. There are hundreds of empowerment games and only a handful of dis-empowerment games.
That said, there are lots of people who love playing games like Call of Cthulhu. What do they get out of it that they find enjoyable?
I have a few thoughts:
Unraveling a Mystery
This, I would venture to guess is probably the biggest reason. Most of us enjoy successfully unraveling a puzzle. Hunting for the pieces of the puzzle and putting them together is a staple of many genres — not just horror. We get to use our powers of reason to assemble disparate parts into a whole. It’s satisfying.
Knowing What Others Don’t
This is almost an empowerment aspect in some ways. Characters in cosmic horror can eventually become the people who know too much. Others live their lives in ignorant bliss, but not us. We know what’s really out there, and we have to do something about it. It may kill us or drive us mad, but we have to try.
Immersion is that brass ring of role-playing. It’s where the players experience a portion of the emotions their PCs feel. It may be anger, vengeance, exhilaration, relief. It can also be fear, tension and dread. It’s the same reason we go see horror films. It’s the creeping dread we feel when Brad Pitt is screaming “What’s in the box?”
Showing True Bravery
Few characters get to show true bravery and make the ultimate sacrifice to spare their companions (or the World) — even if it is only putting off the inevitable.
I’ve only played CoC once, and it was a long time ago, and we were mostly shooting things — so this is mostly conjecture.
I’m curious about this, and I’d like to know what is it players expect (or hope) to get out of a good game of cosmic horror.
When you play CoC, what are you looking for in the game?