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07 March 2009 @ 10:38 pm
Adventures in Character Creation  
In between creating characters for my DunDraCon game and another to play in an 1890s campaign, I've been doing a lot of character creation with Call of Cthulhu, and it has not been a happy experience. A common complaint about CoC using their traditional Basic Role-Playing (BRP) system is that characters are almost always incompetent bumblers, constantly failing underskilled rolls with even the most menial of tasks. I think a lot of this comes from a wrongheaded approach to the rules, where Keepers call for skill rolls in situations that should be an automatic success unless the player rolls a 01 for a critical failure, or when, outside of combat, a failed skill roll is interpreted as a complete failure rather than simply less than a full success (i.e. your failed Spot Hidden roll may still give you the clue necessary to get to the next scene, but it doesn't give you all the clues that could have alerted you to the cultist ambush in that next scene). That said, characters created under BRP do end up as poorly-skilled even for an average person, which might be okay if you're trying to play H.P Lovecraft in a Lovecraftian game, but less so when you want to break out of that mold and play an even slightly competent and well-rounded human being, much less a WWII commando. So I am going to try to create a typical Our Darkest Hour character from just the basic CoC rules (the ones in the 6th edition book) and those in the Basic Role-Playing book, and see if I can come up with a system that works. Here is the character I am trying to create:

Lieutenant John Doe, US Army
Intelligence Officer, OSS/Delta Green (30 years old)

STR 11
DEX 11
CON 11
SIZ 13
APP 11
POW 11
INT 13
EDU 15 (+1 for age)

Hit Points: 12
Damage Bonus: +0
Sanity: 55
Occupation Skills: Conceal 60%, Fast Talk 60% , Handgun 60%, Other Language: German 51%, Other Language: French 26%, Persuade 60%, Psychology 60%, Sneak 60%, Spot Hidden 60%
Hobby Skills: Electrical Repair 40%, Hide 40%, Library Use 40%, Listen 40%, Navigate 40%, Sub-Machine Gun 40%, Rifle 40%, Occult 40%

This is already a much-weaker character than what I'd assign to players at a convention (I like PCs to have a core set of competent skills, with three highest skills set at 90%, 80%, and 70%) , but I'm trying to see if even the most basic kind of ODH character can be created under the existing rules. Lt. Doe has the base professional level (60%) in his occupation skills, and the mid-range skilled amateur level (40%) in his hobby skills. I have only used the skills listed in the 6th edition CoC rulebook, ignoring vital skills like Tradecraft, Cryptography, Signals/Radio Operation, Demolitions/Explosives, Military Science, or Etiquette, and there are absolutely no personal skills that differentiate Lt. Doe from any other cookie-cutter intelligence officer (like a skill in Art: Saxophone because he's a jazz enthusiast or Craft: Cooking because he likes French cuisine). He can speak one language as a native (German) and another well enough to understand and be understood (French). And finally, his characteristics are all at the exact average under the dice-roll system of CoC (rounding up). Yet even this most basic character is unable to be created under the rules in the 6th edition rulebook nor under the  "normal" option of the point-buy system in the BRP rulebook.

Under the point-buy system in the BRP book, you have 24 points to spend on characteristics in a "normal campaign", with all characteristics starting at 10 except EDU (which the book never says where you start off from except that it is a "GM decision"), with STR, CON, SIZ, and APP costing 1 point, and DEX, INT, POW, and EDU costing 3 points. It costs 21 points just to bring all of Doe's stats to their average level in CoC except for EDU. And if I do start EDU at 10 like all the other stats, it would cost another 12 points to bring that stat up to average. So, to even get an average CoC character from the point-buy system would cost 9 more points than what is allowed in a normal campaign, and almost all of what is allowed (36 points) in a "heroic" campaign. That is, unless I just start everyone's EDU at 14, which may be what the author is encouraging, but even that means I can only create an almost absolutely average character in a "normal" campaign and anyone with more than one slightly (very slightly if it is DEX, POW, INT, or EDU) above-average characteristic will instantly have to be below-average in one or more other characteristics.

Then we get to where this really falls apart: skills. Under the 6th edition CoC rules, you have EDU x 20 to spend on occupational skills, and INT x 10 to spend on everything else. To get even the basic level of professional competence in the 8 skills I assigned Doe as occupation skills (that's actually conservative for some published templates, which have as many as 12 skills in an occupation), it would cost a total of
400 points. To get the middle of the "skilled amateur" level in his hobby skills would cost 195 points. That means he must have at least an INT of 20 (to get 200 skill points to spend on his hobby skills), with a subsequent minimum EDU of 20 to get the 400 points to spend on his occupational skills, leaving a whopping 5 hobby points from INT to spend on one and only one skill that makes Doe a more well-rounded character than just his job. Now this is impossible to begin with under the 6th edition rules, as INT cannot be higher than 18; so, even if I rolled the stats, I could never get this build no matter how good my luck was with the dice. And at the "normal" level of  the point-buy BRP rules (which does allow characteristics up to 21), assuming that I do start EDU at 14, it would cost 48 points to raise INT and EDU to 20, leaving me to cannibalize Doe's STR, DEX, CON, SIZ, APP, and POW down to 7 with only 8 points left to bring one or two of those up to average level. So I could create Lt. Doe with these skill levels in the "normal" BRP point-buy, but he'd be so 4F I doubt they'd even let him into the OSS.

There is a solution in the BRP point-buy, which is to bump everything up to "heroic" level, where characters start with 36 points to spend on characteristics and use EDU x 25 and INT x 15 for skills. Under this level, Lt. Doe would need an INT of 13 and an EDU of 16, which costs 15 points (again, considering I set starting EDU at 14, which is not written in the damn book) leaving him with one less point to get the 12 points Doe needs to get the average STR, DEX, CON, SIZ, APP, and POW listed above. Even under the "heroic" level, Lt. Doe will still have to be less-than-average in some characteristics just to get the most basic cookie-cutter skills a WWII-era spy would have.

To get an interesting, competent, and average character under the BRP point-buy system, I have to kick-it-up to the "epic" level of BRP, which give characters 48 points to spend on characteristics, and EDU x 30 and INT x 20 to spend on skills. After spending everything for the build above, Doe's player would have 24 points left to spend on characteristics, 50 points left to spend on occupation skills, and 65 points left to spend on any skills the player chooses. Assuming the players splits those 24 characteristic points evenly, Doe could end up with STR 14, DEX 12, CON 14, SIZ 16, APP 14, POW 12, INT 14, and EDU 16 with an extra 80 points for occupation skills and 85 points for any skills.

But the problem here is not that BRP or CoC doesn't provide high enough characteristics. It's the same damn problem I've always had with character creation in CoC: too few skill points to spend on too many skills. Remember that I built Doe only with the skills listed in the 6th edition rules, and adding all the skills necessary for most WWII-era spies in all the other books would require at least another 200 skill points to spend on them. And characters shouldn't have to be running around with absurdly high EDU and INT scores to justify decent competence in the variety of skills that make up a well-rounded character. So let's try that:

Lt. Richard Roe, US Army
Intelligence Officer, OSS/Delta Green (30 years old)

STR 11
DEX 11
CON 11
SIZ 13
APP 11
POW 11
INT 13
EDU 15 (+1 for age)

Hit Points: 12
Damage Bonus: +0
Sanity: 55
Occupation Skills: Fast Talk 80% , Handgun 70%, Other Language: German 51%, Other Language: French 26%, Persuade 60%, Psychology 60%, Sneak 60%, Spot Hidden 90%, Tradecraft 60%
Hobby Skills: Art: Poetry 40%, Cryptography 40%, Demolitions 40%, Electrical Repair 40%, Hide 40%, Library Use 40%, Listen 40%, Military Science 40%, Navigation/Land 40%, Parachuting 40%, Sub-Machine Gun 40%, Rifle 40%, Occult 40%, Signals 40%

This build costs 21 points for characteristics (assuming that EDU starts at 14), 470 points for occupation skills, and 434 points for hobby skills. While Roe has the same average characteristics as Roe, he is significantly more competent (although not overly so) in certain skills and has a greater variety of skills.

So my own method for character creation would be to give 48 points to spend on characteristics, but start EDU at 10. Starting characters have EDU x 35 to spend on their occupation skills, and INT x 35 to spend on any skill they choose. Under this build, Lt. Roe has all his characteristics as listed above (with 15 points remaining, which depletes quickly when spent on DEX, POW, INT, or EDU). After spending for Roe's skills, there'd still be 55 points to spend on occupation skills and 21 points to spend on any skills, enough to make him further competent or well-rounded, but not some kind of "epic" superhero.
 
 
 
gbstevegbsteve on March 8th, 2009 11:40 am (UTC)
BRP doesn't really work. In Rune Quest it's not quite so bad because from D&D, players are used to starting off as ineffectual and the threat ramps up gradually.

But CoC characters are supposed to be real people and you just end up with rather ineffectual wimps. I mean parachuting 40%, what does that mean? I know for a fact that 95% of night time parachute jumps over occupied France were succesful so how can anyone have 40%?

That said, the only stat that really matters is POW because it determines your starting SAN and that is the core of the game.

But most CoC grognards will defend the game to the end talking about its simplicity (or other such nonsense). Gah!

Sorry, much as I love the game, this is a bugbear of mine.
Gil Trevizofurrylogic on March 8th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
[ENGAGING COC GROGNARD DEFENSES]

I don't approach a 40% Parachuting as a complete pass/fail situation. Under normal conditions, if you fail your Parachuting roll, that just means you're coming down harder than you should or your chute has some minor malfunction that can be corrected in flight (unless you critically fail - 01% - then it's time to engage the reserve chute). You get another Parachuting roll to correct things, and if that fails, you hit the ground hard and take a few hit points (i.e. sprain your ankle). The jump would still be considered successful, but it isn't without negative consequences. That is under normal conditions, whereas if you're jumping in the middle of a storm, it might be more dangerous, but still not necessarily fatal.

About the only thing I approach as a hard pass/fail in CoC are combat skills. That's where CoC does work in my opinion - the myth of the hyper-accurate death machine is just that, and most combat (at least of the period I'm dealing with) seems to involve expending a lot of ammunition for little relative effect.

And I do feel you lose a lot of the tension when your characters are far too competent (i.e. have a mechanic where they are assured they can make almost any roll they should be skilled in). Scott Glancy once talked about how "the dice are the Old Ones" in his games, and the tension that comes when a single dice roll could really mess you up is lost if *all* skills, especially combat ones, are too easy to make.

[DISENGAGING COC GROGNARD DEFENSES]

That said, it's definitely not explicit in the rules that you should play this way, and, like I've shown here, neither CoC nor BRP are designed to make characters with competent skills. If there is some advantage in the simplicity of the rules, I don't think it's so much in gameplay as it is in the ability to house-rule the system into something more satisfactory. That, and the fact that the Keeper has to properly interpret the rules to make the game playable, do point to serious design flaws.
(Deleted comment)
Gil Trevizofurrylogic on March 8th, 2009 11:45 pm (UTC)
The particular problem I have here is that I'm dealing with WWII-era spies, who have a lot of skills beyond three primary ones, and doubly so when they are Mythos-aware WWII-era spies. I doubt CoC was ever intended to approximate anything other than the weak-willed amateur antiquarian of Lovecraft's fiction, so it works for that. But when you try to broaden out to encompass different genres, some adjustments have to be made.

That said, I definitely agree with you - a purely binary approach to success/failure is not the way to go.
Jamestaavi on March 9th, 2009 06:04 am (UTC)
I go with the Unknown Armies approach: Any skill above 30% or so means you succeed in all normal situations; the percentage is your chance of success in a high-pressure situation.
E.g. handgun 40% is your chance of shooting someone with a handgun while rapidly leaning out from cover as they also try to shoot you, not your chance of hitting the target in a firing range; drive 40% is your chance of succeeding in a high-speed car chase while being pursued by a byakhee, not of driving down the freeway; etc.
Gil Trevizofurrylogic on March 10th, 2009 08:16 pm (UTC)
That's my take as well, although I've been fiddling with just where I think this "succeed in normal situations" level begins. I like the idea of 30% because it fits in nicely with a 30/60/90 categorization of skills: 30% is skilled amateur, 60% is professional, 90% is a master of that skill. OTOH the Keeper's Companion starts "succeeds if normal" at 20%, while the BRP book starts it at 26%.