Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On Stranger Aeons: Some Thoughts on Cthulhutech

I can see, now, why Marty so loves Cthulhutech.

I said I'd dissect it for usable fluff in lieu of a review, because there are already plenty of them out there. I can't do it. There's just nothing here worth reusing that other games haven't done better, and any scrap of novelty is smothered in lashings of racism, sexism, and sheer stupidity. I fully admit to being biased against all three, and the review isn't very detailed, largely because the details are, well, boring. I said I'd do it, though, and here we are.

First things first: It'd be stupid to go into this without talking about all the rape. So I'm going to be stupid. I'm not qualified to talk about it, and I won't. Ditto the misogyny and the racism; this is a blog for relatively trivial things, not social justice.

That leaves the stupidity. Let's start with a quote off their website:

CthulhuTech is now a truly unique hybrid of genres – cosmic horror, anime, post-apocalypse, traditional horror, and science fiction blended together seamlessly.

Also:

Framewerk, the proprietary system upon which CthulhuTech is built, is not only simple and intuitive, it is cinematic, exciting, and puts destiny back in the hands of the player. Its easy to grasp nature makes the game straightforward to learn and quick to start. Its clever dice mechanics make even the simplest of task resolutions exciting.

Yahtzee dice mechanics are not clever, Framewerk is not intuitive, this Frankenstein of a setting has more seams than components, and Cthulhutech is not a horror game.

RPGs are a weird medium for horror in the first place. It takes subtlety to get around the restrictions of the medium. Jump scares tend to startle rather than scare, even if you can pull them off quickly enough; similarly, big scary monsters aren't. Players respond tactically to martial threats -- you can make them retreat, but you can't make them shake. There's also a distinct lack of dramatic irony, since your audience is also your players. Where in a film the audience would be screaming "don't open the door", RPG players are just not opening the goddamn door.

Despair is another tricky emotion to pull off. It's boring. Players see the complete absence of hope, the absolute no-win situation, and they leave, because what's the point of an unwinnable game? Games require the (perceived) possibility of some sort of victory; despair requires a total lack of winning options.

Enter Lovecraft. Or rather, enter Call of Cthulhu; it's not perfectly Lovecraftian, but it's close. Here's a game that walks the narrow line outside of the Despair Event Horizon, as per the source: yes, humanity is doomed, but it needn't be doomed today, even if it will cost you your sanity winding back the doomsday clock. Well-written CoC adventures put that tiny light at the end of a very long tunnel where the walls are made of screaming, and sufficiently masochistic players happily fling characters along with with gusto -- and once the hilarity wears thin, there's a very adult fear hidden among all the tentacles and cults. Cosmicism, the idea that everything we do is but the insignificant flailing of the doomed against the inevitable, can't be conquered with weaponry and isn't shocking so much as sublime. It's also more relevant than jump scares; monsters aren't real, but ask a (non-trust funder) college graduate how much they feel like an irrelevant speck of light in a sea of faceless and indifferent darkness. I run CoC like a career fair, albeit one with a slightly greater chance of success, and when the humor wears off, players can still play to win in the OOC knowledge that there's a winning outcome somewhere.

For a stupid throwaway joke, though, it's relevant to how CoC's version of Lovecraft's work can be made into science fiction as opposed to weird fiction. Cthulhutech is often compared to Eclipse Phase, and with good reason: EP masterfully integrates the very prevalent fear of the new, exacerbated by making it strange and almost literally alien. Inhumanity covered by tentacles is unsettling; inhumanity behind human eyes makes people think, with all the usual associated fear and xenophobia. There's a lot of fun questions you can ask about the identity and mutability of the human condition, especially when freed from biology and economy.

Now, in the face of all of that, Cthulhutech's central premise is "The Mythos showed up. Shoot it in the face with armies of giant robots until it dies -- except you can't possibly win."

Ia, Ia, Cthulhu face'palgm.

I'm apparently crazy for thinking fighting eldritch horrors with armies makes them something other than eldritch horrors. Then again, look at the original fiction; it was first-person, about introverted protagonists somehow apart from most people, and that isolation highlights the contrast between the human and the eldritch. They might be physically isolated (The Beast in the Cave) or mentally apart (Herbert West--Reanimator, however poor it is), but they're never on a battlefield with their foes in broad daylight and scores of allies by their side. They do not, as Ctech mecha pilots do, banter. (Whenever I read that bit, I can't help but think of the Monty Python sketch. It's better than what they probably meant.)

There's something about the military nature of the New Earth Government that breaks the horror too. I'll get into how contradictory the NEG is later, but their fighting arm is rife with cliches, among them "the military mind". Where cosmic horror could be defined as a fight to understand, here we have a fight to annihilate, because there's already all the understanding they need. It might just be the supercilious tone or the slavering, Call-of-Duty military fanboyism soaking through the setting description, but there's none of the wonder here that so agreeably tinged the original Mythos. If the indifferent things beyond the stars are terrifying, at least they are sublimely so; not so the Ugly Bugs We Shoots With The Guns. It just feels too clean.

Despair comes through okay though, but in entirely the wrong way. Yes, you can't win in Call of Cthulhu -- but what the players do matters. Contrast to Cthulhutech's adventure design, where anything that matters is outside the scope of the adventure. It's a wonderful tone, really. "How to stop the players from making a difference (and punish them if they try)" Baeraal got it right in the comments:  Ctech adventures are guided tours through interesting things, and the sourcebooks are full of cool stuff that isn't available to the players, assuming it's even in a published book. They like to "present" things and then make you buy another book to actually stat them. This is the kind of thing these people think is a good idea; screw organization, we have advertisements. It would help if more books were completed before they quit publishing in favor of whining about how they're victims of declining literacy rates or whatever.

But really, they aren't Marty, even if I only know that because I can prove he was off his computer at the time they were making these forum posts. Rather than focus on their myriad failings as editors and representatives of their product, let's look at their failings as designers.

Like the technology.

The  NEG machinery in the setting is one of the places where itfeels like two very different games awkwardly butted together. Science fiction (and a good portion of fantasy) games, by and large, tolerate you meddling with the literal nuts and bolts of the setting, so there's an effort to make them accessible; there's usually some skill that's functionally Meddling With Shiny Bits and some sort of customization available beyond "roll to break this thing." My players respond well to this, probably because I'm used to playing with people who like having rules self-consistent enough to self-test whether or not something will work. Minovsky Physics (or Minovsky Magic) just work better than talc-soft sci-fi for our purposes, and I would go so far as to say that they are better generally, or at least more empoweringly immersive. If I come off as whiny about soft science fiction on here, that's why: it's not as fun to let my players tinker with something if it only works as a bundle of rules covered in handwavium.

Cthulhutech feels like some of the writers were on board with this and others were mouth-frothingly against it. Certainly mecha customization is incredibly badwrongfun, and likewise nanofabricators are either repair mechanisms or glorified knick-knack delivery systems. Cracking open the miraculous fuelless engines driving everything fries your brain, the mecha flight pods are verboten, the battery in your Ipod hurts to think about...walls, invisible walls everywhere. I'm cool with that for a completely silly anime game; if all you want is giant robots roundhouse kicking byakhees in midair, great, go play BESM. There's just some tonal dissonance with all the despair and cults and suicide; the sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism and the mohs scale of sci-fi hardness aren't quite orthagonal.

So there's two games we can make here. One's Saint's Row of Cthulhu; put the players in the Good Guy military and have them kick the crap out of the Bad Guys, who we know are bad because they are ugly and weird. Make it goofy, make it funny, knock yourself out. That's a completely valid game; heck, I'd run a BESM 1-shot in it, giant sharks and arbitrary misfortune and all.

Alternatively, make it considerably more realistic, less NGE and more Battletech, and pull them out of the cockpits a lot. Focus on the politics of very expensive war machines; turn them into the toys of myopic, greedy politicos more concerned with their own power than the larger war. Cut off their supplies out of sheer bureaucracy while giving them things they don't want (because they're manufactured in the districts of influential politicians). Make them "prove themselves" over and over for the amusement of self-important, hidebound superiors. Give them nothing but obstacles and scorn, and have the higher-ups impose ridiculous demands on them to make them politically acceptable. Combine the desperation of Wunderwaffen with the brazen lying of the North Korean propaganda machine, then put them at the mercy of sociopathic manchildren in control of both. Make things break. Insanity will follow shortly. Blackadder Goes Forth meets Starship Troopers in Night Vale, if you will. Modulated correctly (with a structure considerably more empowering than it appears), it'd make an okay maverick campaign.

The New Earth Government as written supports both, in that half of it is this utopian Star Trek lite (drugs for everyone, yaaay) and the other half is various flavors of State Sec. Now, maybe I'm seeing a dissonance here that doesn't exist in this post-9/11 world. If that's the case, by all means disregard the below, but something about our benevolent NEG's pet Schutzstaffel bugs me anyway. Parapsychics with powers deemed disruptive to society: either they're publically identified with a little badge and constantly watched or the OIS hit squads round them up, declare them to be inhuman monsters with no rights to speak of, and throw them in internment camps, habeas corpus be damned. These are the good guys, people. I'd say they created a chilling look at how easily we can rationalize atrocities, but not once is it even hinted that the authors aren't fully on board with this, and there's literally no better option out there to play under. This is simply Doing What Must Be Done, and either you're with the NEG or you're with the cults. I'd be happier with it if they actually represented a threat, but most "dangerous" parapsychics don't; they're so nerfed by the rules that they're essentially harmless. Just to be perfectly clear: I'm not saying the authors are Nazis. I'm saying they assume the PCs will be happy with working for a government that endorses behavior that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

There's a larger problem here, by the way: most of the suggested classes roleplay for you, like D&D's paladin and druid. If you want to fly a mecha, you're in the military, which takes up all your time, and you're under the purview of their thought police -- which goes double for Engel pilots. If you're a Tager, they've got an ideology in a box all ready for you. I'm not saying it doesn't make sense, but it takes some of the fun out of roleplaying when they specify so much about your character based on the advantages you take. It would have been nice to see Tagers reworked to have free time, or non-military mecha (since the Operator Side Effect that makes them better presumably also makes them useful in civilian work), or really other cool roles that don't come with a heavy authoritarian hand on the player's shoulder dictating how they spend their time. There is much registration and regulation swirling around the type of PCs for whom the adventures are written, and not a lot of freedom.

Part of this is because the setting is honestly sparse. It is detailed, and in fact is choked to death with specifics (especially the clunky, overly-precise mess of a sorcery sstem), but there's not a lot of variety. The single unified world government is monolithic, the cults are pretty similar variations on "we do bad things because Muwahahaha!" and the eldritch atrocities are faceless and bland -- not that the last two matter, because there's very little support for non-NEG characters. Heck, look at the Nazzadi: "Uh, Pluto and revolution and discrimination and now they're making up their own culture. Also they're mostly hot and like sex and nudity, because they never had such silly taboos in the first place." Thanks, guys. I really need to sell my players on cheesecake to get them to play half-aliens. Never mind meaningfully differentiating them from humans, or actually giving them a culture my players might find interesting. No, we need more skin!

Again, this is fixable. Chuck the whole aesthetic and most of the backstory; the bioweapon thing and the false memories and the rebellion are just all over the place, and Space Drow just doesn't need to happen. If you want to make a cosmic horror race, I wouldn't make them outwardly distinguishable from humans. I wouldn't even make them a race in the fantasy-sorta-genetic sense; I would crib the Watts-McLeod exsurgent strain off of Eclipse Phase and fold them into parapsychics. Maybe make it spread memetically.

Just as the product of ten seconds' thought, use Genius: the Transgression a bit. Maybe Inspiration or something like it is the product of a more benign eldritch horror trying to get humanity up to speed, and suddenly you have the wizards to parapsychics' sorcerers, with all the aspersions that casts on parapsychics. It needs a lot more work, though. The point is, if they aren't immediately noticeable, they're a lot more troubling, especially if it's that variable. It's the difference between a vampire and a zombie. Making it revelatory makes the Ashcroft Foundation, and indeed all eldritch research, an existentially fascinating endeavor. Stare long enough into the abyss, and it's all so simple...so if it's comprehensible, is it me understanding it or is it something else making me understand it? And when am I desperate enough that it doesn't matter anymore?

There's another point here, and that's insanity. I don't like awarding insanity points automatically; it's much more tenable to have the players insist on accruing them. Fewer invisible walls that way, and a lot more player agency. Insanity points (or Cthulhutech's longer-term equivalent, Insanities) become a way for players to tell you what unnerves them, rather than a slap on the wrist for poking interesting things, and this fits something as personal as dissociation from rationality. If you remember Jin from SUETHULU, this is partly his idea. We've both had to ask players to have more faith in their mental fortitude, because otherwise they'd rack up crazy at an unsustainable rate. Forget that here, though. Cthulhutech has to codify insanity, to automatically slap points on without tests in "extreme cases" every few plot points. You don't know what crazy is; the authors know what crazy is, even if it's arbitrary and silly.

And that's the problem close to the center of this mess. The only reaction Cthulhutech rewards is complete, uncritical acceptance of everything the game throws at you; this game doesn't need players, it needs disciples. The adventures are full of "but even if the players win, it doesn't matter" interspersed with "here is how to nullify the players' pointless apparent victories", and the setting has tons of lists the things the players can't do, or shouldn't do, or that will make your game --gasp!-- non-canon. Most of these involve success in some form. The end effect is reminiscent of DM of the Rings: when in doubt, make the game non-interactive. And then doubt everything. Then give everyone important a magic five-minute invulnerability amulet, set the players up to fail at irrelevant objectives, and do your best to shock them with un-helpable victims of horrendous atrocities in the meantime. This...

FATAL is a horrifying blend of unspeakably disgusting things with absolutely no redeeming features, and yet I find I prefer it to this. FATAL did what it set out to do; it was supposed to be a game about awful people doing terrifying things, and accordingly it included a system for creating awful people and (ludicrous) rules for doing terrible things. I would never want to play it. I can't think of anyone that would. It is the worst roleplaying game ever made, but Cthulhutech isn't even that; it hit the bottom of the barrel, pulled out a katana, and started hacking. It is an unpublishable series of boring novels wrapped in needlessly complex mechanics and a dull, oppressive setting designed to funnel the players into one end of the plot slideshow and out the other. Along the way, you'll meet stereotypical villains with exactly zero depth being evil for the sake of evil, hard-bitten allies that run the gamut from sad to silly, and very few ambiguous or neutral NPCs, because crafting characters is hard and writing "and this is who wins" is easy.

And that's bad in a campaign, let alone a setting.
So yeah. So much for dissection; I hope it was at least entertaining.

10 comments:

  1. And this is why you made a mistake when you allowed yourself to be tempted by Marty's promise of "Cthulhutech without creepy sex." Creepy sex is the least problem of CT. You did a good job describing CT's problems in this article. When people talk about CT they should do the same without mentioning the most disturbing parts of it. That way no one would think that CT can be "corrected" by removing all disturbing parts. Because it can't.
    And if someone wants to play "good CT" game, they should play something else entirely, like "GURPS Cthulhupunk" and "GURPS Mecha".

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  2. I was planning on reading some of the CT books to get an Idea of the system, but this article is gorgeous and convincing.

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  3. Yes - this fits everything I have read about CthulhuTech, also. And like I said elsewhere, I can easily see why Marty would like it. The authors seem to be of a similar mindset to his.

    I also think (as you might have hinted on?) that they couldn't make up their minds about whether the NGE were supposed to be the good guys or the "kinda bad, but they're the ones trying to keep us from going extinct, so let's just go with it" guys a la the Imperium of Man of Warhammar 40,000. My best guess is that they were intended to come across as twisted and corrupt but to still be the only game in town for those wishing to survive, and that maybe all of human society was supposed to have that same unnerving everything-is-fine-on-the-surface-but-what-are-we-really-becoming? quality to it. But then the authors tried to make it so, and it turned out that they were just too much of smug, jingoistic assholes to pull it off. The NEG, after all, is AMURRRRKA, and AMURRRRRKA can't be losing its soul, no more than AMURRRRRRKA can possibly be losing a war to some space-commies. The gloating tone whenever the books talk about the NEG just ruins the impression of a utopia-that's-secretly-a-dystopia and leaves the reader not knowing what to think.

    Or that, at least, is my best theory.

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  4. honestly, I love cthulhutech. I dont have a .. good rebuttal or argument or anything, but the settings dispariate elements have always appealed to me. I do admit though, most of my love for the setting comes from both 'my' version of the setting, and from Earthscorpion's fanficitions. but yeah, the authors were notorious for the badwrongfunning, and the terrible pre-made adventures. plus, the fact that pretty much everything after vade mechum was bad, I realize more and more that Im excusing a -lot- of things.

    still, sticking to the two books (with maaaybe ancient enemies. maybe.) and ignoring the precanned adventures, I find it a surprisingly compelling setting, especially because of a lot of the ambiguities and potental tweaks. thoughma s I said, I might be forgiving a lot for the sake of a romanticized version of the setting. (nazzadi are kind of alright in my book, though they do feel pretty unnecessary.)

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  5. ... Is it worth pointing out how completely, utterly ripped from Guyver the Tagers and Dhohanoids are? It's not even homage or tribute or anything. They basically just tore stuff out of that manga and slotted it into their game.

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    1. Considering the writers said as such in the book, not really. It's the first anime listed as an influence, right ahead of Neon Genesis Angstathon and Robotech.

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  6. I've often pointed out that Eclipse Phase is a distinctly Lovecraftian science fiction game; the insignificance of transhumanity in the face of things like the ETI and TITANs is part and parcel of the themes of the game.

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  7. You forgot mechanics for armed conflict are actually 3 seperate systems which don't play well with one another. That is the biggest failing. It is really 3 games that might be ok in one package. Mecha and Engels versus big scary monsters, inhuman beasts fighting a turf war out of sight of general populace, and joe q. public fighting a system that is against them and trying to hide the truth. They all can work within the framework presented, but they do not work together.

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  8. Cthulhutech's Greatest sin is it's example adventurers and it's GMing advice. The book literally instructs you to make all your players victories irrelevant. The players make the checks to escape the pursuing Dhonaoids? Another car full of them pulls out in front of them and they crash anyway. The PCs are winning the ensuing combat? Add more enemies until they start losing so their NPC allies have to bail them out anyway. The PCs saved some of the NPCs the cultists were slaughtering? They all die, regardless of how many, in the ensuing building collapse anyway. The PC isn't interested in the 100% mandatory love plot with one of the NPCs that dies later to create drama? That's okay too, the PC will be unresistably mindraped into loving the NPC so that there will care.

    Cthulhutech doesn't just make you a tourist through the setting of cool machines and magic, it makes you a tourist in your own life. Nothing you ever do is supposed to meaningfully affect any part of the setting, even your own story. A demigod and a four year old could both go through the same Cthulutech adventure and it would turn out the same.

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  9. "Where in a film the audience would be screaming "don't open the door", RPG players are just not opening the goddamn door."

    We play at very different tables because I've yet to meet a party where NOBODY decides to go through the door

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