Articles Comments

The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Alternate Views » Playing the Powerless

Playing the Powerless

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?

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

Filed under: Adventure Design, Alternate Views · Tags: , , ,

7 Responses to "Playing the Powerless"

  1. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    Wow. Too much to answer in comments. I think my next article will be about why I play, and love, Call of Cthulhu as much as I do. I’ll hit on your points, and toss in some observations of my own.

  2. Philo PharynxNo Gravatar says:

    Part of it is that it takes out the risk. In all of the empowerment games, what do people worry about? That their special snowflakes will get melted. Nobody likes it when their characters may die. In CoC, you know something bad is going to happen. It might be a rubber room, it might be getting bitten in half, it might be an infection of spores from some cross-planar fungus. But you go in expecting not to make it out.

  3. Eric from NJNo Gravatar says:

    t’s simple. I know my character is going to have a bad ending. It will not be a fail when it happens, because it is the endgame. My goal is to pull out every idea and bit of willpower I have to keep going that one last minute/hour/day with that character and see how long it lasts.

    It’s like playing 80’s video games. We had few with endings. You saw how far you could go until you died.

  4. JamilNo Gravatar says:

    Neat stuff Stu,

    I think that, like roller coaster rides or scary movies, horror rpgs place us in situations in which we “can” feel vulnerable. This exhilarating experience is something that some people enjoy. I would call this a controlled form of “thrill seeking,” which I think probably comes from people living highly protected, very comfortable daily lifestyles that lack the intensity of real world dangers.

  5. watdefuNo Gravatar says:

    Hey Stu

    I’ve started playing a remote gaming version of Cthulhu


    We had our first session this week. We’ve never really played the game / genre before or at least not properly. We were probably too young and immature, similar to you all we seemed to want to do was shoot stuff and never really got immersed in the game.

    Another dis-empowerment fantasy game would be Paranoia. Although I think the main point of this game is to get one over your fellow players which is of course great fun.

    Great podcast / blog

    Stu (another Stu)

  6. Dirty RicoNo Gravatar says:


    I also thought and have used Sean’s description of most rpgs as “Empowerment Fantasies” while Call of Cthulhu is a “Dis-empowerment Fantasy” when trying to sell my WoD Hunter group on a game of Call of Cthulhu. (Wish me luck, I am running them through machine Tractor Station Kharkov 57 next Friday!)

    To answer your question; to explain the difference, perhaps we can look at the empowerment fantasy. Here, a player has a character that has AMAZING powers – whatever the genre, the character is far more powerful than the player.

    If you, as a player, were to stop and think, you may come to the conclusion that (using a standard RPG as example); a character with an 18 Intelligence, is certainly smarter than you or any other player at the table for that matter. Another player with an 18 Wisdom is probably wiser than anyone at your table. Frankly, lets not even talk about the guy with 18 Charisma.

    So with these dudes and/or dudettes; could they really not figure out the solution to your problem WITHOUT YOU (the player)??? Honestly, do they really need you? Or are you, the far from min-maxed player, holding your own characters BACK?

    Now, the dis-empowerment fantasy – ala Call of Cthulhu. Short of a Delta Green character, who could not kick your characters ass??? Stick a fork in them, this Party is done! Really, their only Hope is the player making the right decisions to save the character’s skins. You choose wrong as a player the character goes to the fate that they would have met without you. Choose well, and hey, the guy might just come out alive, and need a few decades of psychotherapy.

    Love the Podcast!

    Dirty Rico

    PS Have you noticed the inverse proportion of successful die rolling to age? What better die rolls? Get your son/daughter to roll your dice.

  7. […] In Playing the Powerless and Why I Play The Powerless, Stu and JimTo give their thoughts. 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.” […]

Leave a Reply