I’ve been on a bit of a Discovery Channel reality show kick lately — largely because I can watch it on Netflix on one screen while working on something else on the other. For some reason these kind of shows don’t demand as much of my attention, likely because I don’t mind when I miss stuff.
But I recently discovered that most of these Discovery Channel shows are perfect settings for Call of Cthulhu games!
As I talked about before in the Cthulhu Formula, one of the big keys to one-off Cthulhu games is getting the setting right. Ideally the setting should be some place interesting that you can build good, quirky characters around. But the crucial part is that the settings needs to put the characters, who are just normal people going about their normal lives, into a place where they can’t just call the cops or go home when stuff starts getting freaky. As technology progresses this gets particularly difficult — finding ways to get the characters somewhere without internet or cell phone coverage in particular.
Enter the Discovery Channel.
Take Deadliest Catch: what better Call of Cthulhu setting than a crab fishing boat in the middle of the Bearing Sea during a storm?
A crab boat has a crew just about the perfect size for a gaming group. Cell phones don’t work. Radios and sat phones are iffy, especially during a storm. When things go wrong there’s nowhere to run — just endless frigid waters as far as the eye can see.
The characters are just going about their life, fishing for crab, playing pranks on other boats, when they get a distress call… the storms are so bad the Coast Guard can’t respond, or doesn’t even hear the call. The players’ boat is near enough to investigate and they come upon the eye of the storm with the other boat just sitting dead in the water. They go to investigate and find… whatever. Maybe the boat is deserted, with only vague clues as to what happened in its last hours. Maybe the crew were mercilessly hunted and slaughtered by some thing (and maybe that thing has made it onto their boat).
This show is positively filled with possibilities made perfect by the setting. The characters are all alone on the Bearing Sea. Take out their radio & EPIRB through misfortune or sabotage and there’s no chance of calling for any kind of help. And there are strange things out in the middle of the ocean — not to mention the character’s lives are based on hauling up things from the bottom of the sea. Perhaps they brought up something strange, and wonderful, and ultimately horrible.
I can’t believe I’ve never thought to run a Deadliest Catch game. Hell, even the title sounds like the title of a Cthulhu Game!
Or how about Gold Rush. A small group of out-of-work adventurers heads up to Alaska to try to strike it rich mining for gold. Once again, they’re up in areas so remote that cell phones don’t work. Better yet, a simple storm can make the roads unpassable. Once again, the crew is the perfect size for a gaming group. For more setting interest, there are bears all over the place, and they can be dangerous. During the height of summer the daylight can last for 20 hours (and in winter darkness lasts that long… but you don’t mine in winter, of course. But perhaps wintering over on mining grounds…).
And my favorite part… the characters are literally digging as deep as they can looking for ancient riverbeds. What happens when they dig too deep, and unearth something strange. The entrance to some kind of alien tomb, with the promise of riches inside. Or they trigger an ancient curse, or release some foul entity too ancient and powerful to be killed that was entombed millenia ago.
You can also choose to have neighboring claims with NPCs that can go crazy, or get killed off. Perhaps the initial disturbances you can write off under as the kooky neighbors trying to jump your claim and scare you out of town. But more likely it is raw greed that will drive the characters to push forward in spite of strange happenings until they are in too deep, following the trail of gold farther and farther down until they awaken the slumbering monstrosity below. And now they have to survive those few all-too-long hours of darkness with nothing but their wits and several large pieces of construction machinery between themselves and the gibbering terrors that man was not meant to comprehend.
I love the machinery too! Bulldozers and loaders and excavators are the perfect bits of interesting equipment to give the characters just a chance in hell of fending off Cthulhu monsters. And they have the potential to create all kinds of problems, especially as sanity begins to ebb away.
Of course Gold Rush isn’t a great title for a Cthulhu game — probably have to change that up to something like From Beneath It Devours.
Another similar show is Ice Road Truckers (not actually Discovery Channel, but along the same theme) — also a great setting, though you’d have to work a bit to get a full group into the setting.
I haven’t yet plumbed the full depths of the Discovery Channel offerings, but I have high hopes that they will continue to produce shows that translate perfectly into Cthulhu settings. And I do believe my next Cthulhu game will be set in an Alaskan Klondike gold claim.