I’ve been thinking about this game for a while now, and my thoughts are still a bit scattered, but I think it will do them benefit to write them down here. Cultists of Cthulhu: Miskatonic University, formerly known as Cluethulhu, is the biggest, most complex game that I’ve worked on yet. Certainly much bigger than Save the Singularity, Professor Pugnacious, or even Legitimate Businessmen (which has been put on hold so I can work on this).
Goals and Theme This is a cooperative-with-a-traitor Cthulhu Mythos game where each player controls a single character. All but one of the players are Investigators, trying to figure out something*, while the remaining player is a Cultist, trying to do something horrible-summon a Shoggoth, get the Investigators’ brains removed for a one way trip to Yuggoth, open a portal to the darkness where Azathoth dances-there will be a lot of options. That’s one of the key aspects of this game: I want there to be lots and lots of scenarios, so that you may not even play the same one twice, and you most definitely won’t know what’s coming ahead of time.
The Cultist’s identity is secret. After a while, the Cultist’s identity is revealed, and the game switches from being cooperation-exploration-deduction to cooperation-combat-competition. Instead of an uneasy alliance between all characters, it’s a solid compact between the Investigators against the known danger of the Cultist. The two sections of the game, called Acts, should have distinctly different feels. If I would sum them up in a word each, they would be unease and panic, respectively. Conveying those feelings is one of the most important aspects of the design. I think I did a rather good job at generating the feeling of tension in Save the Singularity, though obviously I can’t just copy that mechanic here.
This is a figures-on-a-map game, where you control a single character moving around in the world. It’s not abstract. It’s thematic, almost role-playing. I want it to be very atmospheric. I’m going to keep up the tradition of including theme music with all of Sixpence Games’ games, and in this instance I’m considering having the music have mechanical effects.
*I need to work on this. Currently one of the weakest aspects of the game is “what do the Investigators do before the Cultist is revealed?”
Mechanics My first thought for structure was that CoC:MU should be a big, open world game like Last Night on Earth, Betrayal at House on the Hill, or Mansions of Madness. You control a single explorer and send them around the board, which is a map of a single location. Nothing abstract, it’s all very literal, unlike Battlestar Galactica, for instance. I want the game to be cooperative, but I also want a traitor element to it.
At first I was thinking of having it be like Shadows Over Camelot, where there may or may not be a traitor, but that has come into conflict with my other ideas a bit, so that’s looking unlikely. At the moment, I’m having everyone to get a secret Loyalty Card: all but one say Investigator, and one says Cultist. I’m rather proud of this part: the Cultist card is first taken randomly from a big ol’ deck of Cultist Cards, each with a different set of rules on it. They each have a timer and a doom track (have to rename that) which events (see below) add to, and only the cultist knows how long the timer will last. When the timer runs out, then depending on how much doom has accumulated, different things happen. This is similar to the different scenarios in Betrayal at House on the Hill, with the main difference being that the Traitor/Cultist knows who they are ahead of time, and knows what rules they have to follow. I’m currently intending for the switch from Act I (before the Cultist is revealed) to Act II (after the cultist is revealed) to change up what the investigators (non-Cultist players) are trying to do, what’s happening to them (see events below), and what rules they’re playing by.
I really like this idea, I think it has a lot of potential. I could see making a really good value expansion to the game that is a deck of 50 new Cultist cards, which would add a ton of new games and experiences, and require very little resources to produce, and therefore hopefully by cheap for me to make, and thus cheap for you to buy. One problem that I definitely need to fix is that in its current form is that the Cultist’s card has a lot of important text on it, and the Investigator ones do not. This means the Cultist has to read their card the Investigators don’t, which means that anyone who pays attention to how long people look at their cards can probably figure out who the Cultist is. One proposed solution to this is to have the Investigator cards all have text printed on them: perhaps unique benefits they can get if they accomplish a thing before Act II, perhaps things they need to do in order to be able to win the game, perhaps just flavor text? I’m not sure, but it is a problem that needs solving, and it’s also a problem that seems solvable.
Idea I just thought of while writing this: what if there’s a big Scenario card (made of cardboard, same size and shape as the character cards, so something like 3″x5″) that has a sort of general premise for what’s going on in it that could be one of a few different things, has some things that investigators can do, and then depending on the actual Cultist card, different ones have different importances. Not every Scenario card would connect to every Cultist card. Let’s imagine they’re color coded: the Scenario would have a color, and you would go through and grab all the Cultist cards of that color, pull them out, shuffle them, and grab one of them sight unseen, and that’s your Cultist card that gets shuffled in with the Scenario cards.
This is kinda cool, I’m gonna roll with this. The next few paragraphs will be me rambling and trying to organize my just-formed thoughts on this new idea. Skip down to “events” to see me talk about more fully formed ideas.
Okay, so we’ve got big Scenarios that describe Act I and are public knowledge, and then a single Cultist card that is more precise and describes Act II and is secret during Act I. The Cultist knows what’s on the Cultist card, so she knows what things are actually important for the Investigators to be doing. There should be more Cultist cards than Scenarios-each Scenario could refer to one of several Cultist cards. There’s two ways that immediately occur to me that we could do this: either they’re color matched, so the yellow Scenario means grab the yellow Cultist cards, or they’re color coded, so there’s a yellow and green Scenario which means grab all the yellow Cultist cards and all the green Cultist cards, and then there could also be a green and red Scenario, a red and yellow Scenario, etc etc. This would mean that the Scenarios would have to be able to accomodate a variety of Cultist cards, but they would anyways so that’s not a downside, and it also means that Cultist cards would have to be able to deal with more than one Scenario card. Perhaps Cultist cards could have “this is red/yellow. If red, X. If yellow, Y.” Maybe that’s too complex? That might be better done to just have more Cultist cards. Yeah, I think it’d best to have multicolored Scenarios and then each Cultist card is a single color.
So what do Scenario cards have on them? Some flavor, of course, but vague enough that it could mean one of several things. More than one (?) thing for the Investigators to do in Act I. Maybe the timer could be put on the Scenario card? Oh man that’s a good idea! That gives Investigators the knowledge of what they have to do and how long they have to do it, which is really good, it makes their decisions not be made in the blind. I like this! And this way we can vary the length of the timers a lot and maybe have the soundtrack do different things and have short and long games and oh man this is gonna be great. Different colors can correspond to different Great Old Ones, and each one can have a few different types of game to it-find a few different things, or king of the hill, a bunch of different things. I’ve moved out of the realm of saying interesting things and into the realm of brainstorming, so the rest of that goes into my journal and not here as of yet.
Something that’s common in that sort of horror game (BaHotH, MoM) is to have Events occur to the players regularly. I really like this, and I want to include it in CoC:MU, but there is an aspect to it that I dislike. Namely, all the ones I have seen (not counting games like Elder Sign, which isn’t the same sort of open world game I’m talking about), are of the form “A creepy thing happens! Roll a die. If you roll high, it’s not so bad! If you roll low, it’s really bad.” Now that’s fine and dandy, and often works well to get the theme across, but there aren’t really any decisions being made there. It’s all just chance, so the fun is entirely in the flavor. I have been imagining Events as the main mechanic to be happening most of the time, so I want it to be fun in and of itself. Not just through the theme, but also mechanically. On the other hand, since you’ll be doing it a lot and this is supposed to be a relatively quick paced thematic game, not a sit-and-ponder strategy game, the mechanic can’t be too complicated. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
Every character has four ability scores: Brawn, Sneakiness, Willpower, and Rationality. Each one is represented by a number of dice: GG, BB, R, or none. G means a Green die, which has 1 Bad side, 2 Weird sides, and 3 Good sides. B means Blue: 2 Bad, 2 Weird, 2 Good. R means Red: 3 Bad, 2 Weird, 1 Good. When you need to make an ability check due to an event, it’ll say something like Brawn:RBBGR. Say you have a Brawn of BB. Then you add dice from the “Fill” there, the five dice listed next to the word Brawn, until you have five dice in hand. So in this case you would have BB from your ability score, and RBB from the event, for a total of BBRBB. If your Brawn was R, it would have been a total of RRBBG, if it was GG it would be GGRBB, and if it was none it would be RBBGR. Once you’ve got your five dice, you take them in hand, and roll them all at once. You then have the option to pick two of them and reroll. There will be a little results table on the Event card saying what happens depending on what you roll. For instance, 3 Good: +G to Sneakiness (you permanently add a Green die to your Sneakiness ability score). 2 Bad: take a wound. 2 Weird: You stumble around in confusion: move 3 spaces North.
The most important aspect of this is that sometimes the Bad result might be “the Doom Track increases by one”, and the Weird result might be “the Timer increases by one”. That means that you have to make a decision as to which one you’ll be trying to avoid, which will give interesting decisions to the players to make, and will give the Cultist a way to try to subtly shift the game to her favor without revealing she’s the Cultist.
There’s another idea that I had which I want to use, but which isn’t quite as significant. In most games of this theme, sanity works like just another sort of hit points. You get a certain number of them, bad stuff happens that takes them away, and when they reach 0 you die. I don’t think that’s very thematic. Instead, inspired by Zombicide’s experience point tracker, I want to have sanity work like this: instead of starting with x sanity, you start with 0 Horror. Bad things give you more Horror, that increases your Horror track which will be tracked via a slider at the top of your character card a la Zombicide or BaHotH, which at various stages has “you gain a Madness!” Madnesses are cards drawn from the Madness Deck, and are either ongoing penalties or one time bad things. For instance, you might get +Red Willpower, or have to make a certain check to be able to pass through doorways, or be forced to attack the next player to be adjacent to you, or even become a cultist! This is another thing that lends itself to physically small but high value expansions.
Wounds, on the other hand, I do want to have count down to 0 and then you die. I also want to have there be interesting penalties, but I think those will be just printed on the character card rather than randomized via a deck. I’m not entirely certain why this appeals to me, but it seems like a good idea. It lets people try to plan ahead, see just how bad their next wound would be, and it increases a sense of dread, knowing what sort of bad things are coming. Madness, on the other hand, seems like it should be inherently unpredictable. I’m open to changing this, though.
One area where I’m as yet undecided is how to do the board. The two options I’m considering at the moment are to have the entire board set up in advance, preferably in a randomizable way (so you don’t need to select specific tiles depending on the scenario, but instead any scenario works with however you set the tiles up, or at least you don’t need a very specific arrangement of tiles), like Last Night on Earth, or to have the tiles be laid down as you explore, like Betrayal. The advantages of the former are that it creates a solid feeling of being grounded in a real setting, it works well for outdoor areas and multiple buildings (and given that this is supposed to take place at Miskatonic University, there would be multple, distinct buildings). The disadvantages are longer setup time, less mystery and exploration, and potentially less of a feeling of replayability (“oh I’ve seen that setup already”). Hopefully that could be avoided by having the pieces of the board be highly modular (you can put them down in a lot of different orders) and having there be a lot more tiles than are placed down in any given setup. For reference, Last Night on Earth: Timber Peak (the standalone expansion and only one I own) has a board consisting of one central square tile and four outer L shaped tiles that hook onto it, forming a large square. There is one central tile and six outer L tiles to choose four from, and all are double sided, for a total of 2,880 distinct possible boards (I’ve made a few assumptions there as to what should count as distinct, but still). That’s a lot of possible boards, so this isn’t actually very limiting. I’m glad I actually did that calculation!
The other possibility is to have the tiles be laid down as you explore, like Betrayal at House on the Hill, or The Cave, or Zombies!!!. The advantages to this is that it strongly creates a sense of exploration and mystery, you don’t start out feeling like things are under your control (the unknown is inherently scary), and there’s basically no setup time. A disadvantage is that it would be really hard to make this work with multiple complex buildings: buildings would either have to be very simple, ie a single tile, or else it would seem very likely to run into conflicts-buildings bumping into other buildings, or having tiles connected that make no sense with each other. I envisioned buildings with multple areas in them: a library with a regular and a restricted section, a science building with a storeroom and a laboratory and an observatory, an outdoors area with a garden and a greenhouse. So while I like that format, I’m not sure I could get it to work with the rest of the game.
One thing that I started out really wanting to include but that hasn’t worked particularly well in playtests is non-player characters. As the name suggests, Cultists of Cthulhu: Miskatonic University takes place at Miskatonic University, a normal-seeming, actively used university. It’s got students and teachers attending and teaching classes. They shouldn’t all disappear just because the events of the game are happening (unless that’s part of one of the scenarios, of course). It’s clearly fine to have an unrealistically small number of people on campus, we don’t want to have hundreds of miniatures, but I do definitely want there to be some. The difficulty comes in figuring out how to have them exist and be useful to the Investigators, fit with the theme, interesting mechanically, have the mechanics evoke “this is a person I’m talking to”, and then most difficult of all, have the NPCs react in realistic ways when Act II begins. This is the part of the design that I am most stuck on.