I am struggling with character motivations in Call of Cthulhu or similarly investigative horror settings. For some reason I seem to have issues imagining the reasoning behind characters who really want to go down the rabbit hole. Let me explain:

Most of our Call of Cthulhu campaigns (I am sometimes player, sometimes GM) start as fairly mundane adventure-like or investigative stories set in the 1920s (though the timeline is not important). After spending some time investigating, the events and clues the characters encounter tend to become stranger and stranger, getting more and more detatched from the reality the characters know.

From what I can tell this is how many (most?) CoC campaigns start out -- at least this is the basic structure of most of Lovecraft's own stories, and of many of the published adventures by Chaosium and other CoC communities.

Now, sooner or later the story tends to reach a point where the [snip] hits the fan: supernatural events/sightings/beings/places, quasi-magical powers, mythos encounters -- the stuff that happens when you scratch the surface of the real CoC world.

The problem I have here -- as a game master and as a player -- is that I find it very hard to figure out a good motivation for a character to keep pursuing the story/investigation at that point. Say, instead of just high-tailing it out of there, saving their life and sanity and trying to forget everything. For me this then leads to either

  • metagaming if I am a player (i.e. I/my character will play along in order to not disrupt the story, but this is unsatisfactory to me), or
  • railroading if I am the GM (pushing the characters further along the story if they want to or not, because I was not able to find motivations for the characters to do so willingly).

How can I construct good character motivations (as the characters player and the GM) that will keep the characters in the story without falling back to metagaming/railroading?

Often such a plot involves risking live and sanity, discovering horrors and turning ones reality upside down. I feel such drastic consequences also call for a strong motivation. So while "curiosity kills the cat" is one way to go about it, this just doesn't feel very realistic to me.


5 Answers 5


Powerful drama requires powerful motivations. When everyone at the table agrees that they want a Horror game, they must craft their characters around these motivations. If they don't buy in, then you get the kind of power-fantasy where the heroes do the quite sensible thing of feeding Cthulhu a couple cases of dynamite and legging it. That isn't horror, that's fantasy (and it's totally cool if everyone wants that other kind of story.)

The mark of a sane person is to be able to see something that's likely to get them killed, incarcerated, driven insane, or otherwise disrupt their status quo and go "Nope! I've got taxes to do!." And then goes and does them.

Sane people, unfortunately, are boring. (This bug has been filed and is currently in the triage queue for Human 1.2. It's a very long queue.)

Take a look at True Detective, the protagonists are horrible, driven, people who cannot let things lie, who cannot take the easy route, and who, by existing, create drama. People like these are the fodder for horror stories, because at some level, all horror stories resonate with "don't be that guy."

Every single character must have an overriding need that cannot be simply fulfilled by going home and doing the (equivalent of) taxes. They may be fleeing something, trying to right an injustice, rightly (or wrongly) wanting something, or someone that they're willing to go through hell for. They must be able to point to their motivation as the answer to "What do you value more than life itself?" The purpose of the dramatic horror is to put that goal in jeopardy. "If you turn away, you'll never get the story." "If you go back to being sane... you'll always know that you could have been somebody."

The trick is getting player buyin. Horror stories require very specific protagonists, as they cannot be power-fantasies. The first requirement for a horror character to be effective in themselves is for the thing, duty, ideal, or person, that they're willing to make poor personal judgements for. Start character creation with that, and then figure out what kind of person is willing to make those poor life choices. Then watch to see how life puts them through the blender. If they ever achieve their goal, their arc is done. Either they must have some new, even more impossible dream, or they've won, and they can go retire and the player should make a new character.

Take a look at the types of horror protagonist:

Winning is not what we associate with horror, though. The protagonist who is destroyed might be a subset of dramatic hero, the tragic hero. Aristotle tells us that the tragic hero is brought low by an internal flaw, which leads to a grave mistake. Awareness of this mistake comes only after it’s too late to rectify: this is his anagnorisis. His arc is from a state of unawareness to one of belated awareness.

Horror is a tragedy rife with various anxieties.


Tragedy depicts the downfall of a noble hero or heroine, usually through some combination of hubris, fate, and the will of the gods. The tragic hero's powerful wish to achieve some goal inevitably encounters limits, usually those of human frailty (flaws in reason, hubris, society), the gods (through oracles, prophets, fate), or nature. Aristotle says that the tragic hero should have a flaw and/or make some mistake (hamartia). The hero need not die at the end, but he/she must undergo a change in fortune. In addition, the tragic hero may achieve some revelation or recognition (anagnorisis--"knowing again" or "knowing back" or "knowing throughout" ) about human fate, destiny, and the will of the gods. Aristotle quite nicely terms this sort of recognition "a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate."

Horror takes this and removes all of the "fate" bits. It presents us with a horrible uncaring universe, rife with the unknowable, and tells the story of the futility of challenge. The basic contract of the character with the story is "find motivations for doing this stupid stuff. In return, you may realise your own stupidity in time to regret it." **It's a story of hubris, the compulsions beyond the pale, set against a backdrop that simply doesn't care or even potentially comprehend.

Here are some further resources, so this doesn't turn into a conference paper:

Rationalists can experience horror, for they are driven by the need for understanding. Take Harry Potter James Evans Verres, a rationalist with an alarming amount of hubris. If you replace his antagonist with the literally unknowable, and force him to choose between the lies of the real, and the truth of the uncaring void, without allowing rationalism to win, you have both a really (even more) depressing story, and horror.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wait; So your complaint about this answer boils down to "This is a great answer, but no one does that, so their games suck"? Isn't that a pretty strong sign that this is a GOOD answer? People not following good advice does not make that advice bad. \$\endgroup\$
    – Airk
    Nov 13, 2014 at 18:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Arik: My complaint is that no-one I know invests this kind of mental/creative effort into any game of any genre. I have to caveat that with "in my experience", especially when it comes to CoC, which nowadays I avoid. I am concerned that the answer sets such a high bar for participation that only some high priesthood of RPG players could possibly enjoy a game this way. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 13, 2014 at 19:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NeilSlater: I run a game called Mist that asks for this kind of emotional commitment from players. I run campaigns in other systems on a regular basis with the covert purpose of sifting through the masses of humanity for players who would be capable and interested in this kind of game. Such players are very rare, having these kinds of games is extremely difficult and time consuming to arrange (perhaps akin to forming a high priesthood of RPG players), and GMing or playing in this kind of game is totally worth it. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16, 2014 at 7:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is such a great answer. I think there's a bit of plot vs character imbalance assumed in the original question. It's a bad assumption that you can take any plan and plug any characters into it and the characters will jump right into it. Following your advice, the op should actually have characters who are capable of driving this kind of story (in the desired direction). \$\endgroup\$
    – Rab
    Nov 16, 2014 at 14:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ This recipe for horror protagonists is also a good recipe for villains. (For example, it's a pretty good explanation of how Anakin became Darth Vader.) If players are having difficulty investing the game with the kind of protagonists Brian describes, it may be useful for them to think in terms of, "I'm a villain who is going after nastier villains." \$\endgroup\$ Nov 16, 2014 at 17:58

I think you're metagaming. You, the GM and player, know that continuing to pursue the truth will lead to madness. Your characters don't know that. They don't know the risks yet. Your characters are just finding out (possibly for the first time) that "magic" or something like it is real. If you, in real life, just found out that magic was real, wouldn't you be a bit curious? Would you say to yourself, "Well, this got weird. I quit," or would you want to learn more?

What would it take to get you to turn around? What would you have to see to curb your curiosity? How far would you have to go (how trapped would you become) before that thing happened to you?

I think the key is to start your characters out with normal motivations. Lead them toward the madness, but don't let on that things have gone too far until it's too late for them to back out (the cultists know how to find them, the demon has their scent, the end of the world is nigh and no one else is available to stop it). Then their motivations can change, more from necessity than desire.

That's how it always works in the Cthulhu mythos fiction. By the time the characters realize what they're really into, it's too late for them to run away from it. The madness doesn't pop up and yell "boo!" in their face right at the beginning of the story. It creeps up on them unsuspectingly. Things get a little weird, but not too weird. Then they get a little weirder, but not until after the characters have started to get used to a little weird. Then it gets really weird, but by then the characters have started to accept that weird is actually normal, and besides, they can't run away now because the weirdness is coming for them whether they run toward it or not. Then, and only then, the story goes totally off the rails, and they realize they should've turned around somewhere back by "things get a little weird", but they passed the point of no return long ago. If only they could have seen it, and realized it, they wouldn't be here.

But they didn't see that point of no return. They didn't realize it. Back then, things were just a little weird, and that's not weird enough to turn anyone around. By the time they are, there's no place left to turn back to.

The key is not throwing your characters into the deep end of the pool right away. Gradually introduce them to the mythos, and try to keep the players' foreknowledge of the mythos from interfering with the characters' ignorance. If you're playing a game with characters who already have knowledge of the world, work their path of discovery into their background. Think about why they're trapped in this situation. Is it obsession? Do they need to protect themselves from supernatural powers as a consequence of whatever they stumbled on? Are they looking for something specific that can't be found any other way? Don't allow them an easy way out.

But remember that they probably started out as normal people with a normal amount of curiosity who just accidentally got in way too deep, and now can't get out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sounds like a Breaking Bad kind of setup, the slippery slope. The characters are likely to be the sort who at least have some professional curiosity about the world - scientists, explorers, people who are supposed to be the ones we ask when we're seeking knowledge - or people whose lives take them out into the wild places or the seedy alleys, be they cop or cowboy. Come what may, after first encountering a little of this, they're going to want to know more, like a scab they can't help but pick at. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt Moran
    Nov 14, 2014 at 8:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ And be aware that this shape is slightly different from the "two push" format of the typical short-form story like a movie, in which the protagonist briefly resists entanglement until some specific further event changes his mind, or the "one push" format of the typical "you're in a bar and you get a mission" simple RPG setup :-) Because it's different, it requires the GM to be aware what to do. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 14, 2014 at 17:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 "Would you say to yourself, "Well, this got weird. I quit," or would you want to learn more?" and thus began science. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pharap
    Nov 15, 2014 at 21:47

In addition to the excellent answers already posted, let me suggest that you look at the kinds of protagonists that Lovecraft wrote about; police investigators ("The Call of Cthulhu", "The Horror at Red Hook"), artists looking for unique experiences ("Pickman's Model"), and people who actually wanted to find out more about the squiggly things under the bed in order to stop them ("The Case of Charles Dexter Ward").

Whenever I, personally, play CoC I play characters that need to know things; reporters, cops, writers, archaeologists. They risk themselves for two reasons, generally; to either get the big story (wouldn't you want to be the one to definitively prove to the world that ghosts exist?), or to solve the mystery because if you don't, then that shoggoth you ran into is going to eat the town while you're home doing your taxes.

Call of Cthulhu characters often don't fight the Mythos for loot and experience, they fight the Mythos because the alternative is to turn New York into a sanctuary for Leng Spiders. Do you want that?

Of course, the tragedy is that you really can't fight the Mythos in the long term. Knowing that, though, are you willing to just roll over and give up?

Or, more mundanely, are you going to go to your lieutenant and tell him that you're not going to solve the case because it's too scary? Good luck explaining a ghoul in your police report.

  • \$\begingroup\$ IMO this is the best answer to the question that's been asked. The other answers are good, but this answer really dunks my biscuit. \$\endgroup\$
    – m-smith
    Nov 14, 2014 at 9:57

It's a good idea to make sure everyone in the group understands what the point of the game is about, so they can build appropriate characters. Sometimes people go in building "survivalist" characters, which means the motivations also don't fit the genre expectations.

It's also important to remember that the key point of horror stories is some point of understanding. You don't necessarily need to understand all of what the horror is, or how it works (in fact, learning all about it usually ruins it rather than increases it) but there needs to be a reveal and realization of how bad the situation is or a bit more on what's going on. The character who dies in the first 5 minutes of the movie doesn't make a good viewpoint character at all.

There's basically two types of horror story protagonists: the ones running away from the threat, and the ones who keep trying to look deeper, even though they know this is messed up.

Those who won't turn back

The latter characters are driven by near-obsessive motivations. Movies like Pi, Pan's Labyrinth, and the Ninth Gate are pretty good examples. Some good potential motivations:

  • "I must know the truth, all of it."
  • "This can't be real. I'll keep digging deeper until I prove it is all made up."
  • "I've always had a theory about the deeper truth, this is the only way to prove it!"
  • "One of my friends died pursuing this, I swear I'll find out WHY."
  • "I will stop this, all of it. It must never be allowed to rise again."

Now, there's a reason these kinds of characters generally are loners/sole protagonists - and that's because if you put too many obsessed characters together, it just looks real weird. Or, maybe, at that point, you've basically formed a cult. (Ironic, especially in a Chthulu mythos...)

Group Horror

Normally, what you can do is have one or two very driven characters, and the rest of the group is support staff driven by other goals.

"Professor Irwin is brilliant, and I can't say I understand much of what he's going on about, but I know that if we complete this expedition and bring back the famed W'skselth statue, my name will be famous!"

"My brother always has had grand ideas, but he's never had to go into the real wilderness. I saw what happened in the war, I've had to drink water out of mud puddles and kill wild dogs for food. He's going to need me."

Character Friction

Now, the thing to realize when you do this, is that characters with differing motivations along these lines will reach the point where they will be pulling in different directions. One person wants to keep their brother safe, another really wants to just get the statue, another still is trying to spend time studying the inscriptions on the wall... the biologist wants to take back a sample of the monsters...

In horror stories, this is a great chance to give character development, to show who the personalities are, and to set up spaces where people fail to cooperate, or act together in ways that create opportunities for things to get worse.

Most roleplaying games, on the other hand, are pretty crappy at the play structure that comes out of it, though. You end up with people arguing, and then the party falls apart without much entertaining value to come of it.

Two system based things make this work better - rewarding players for roleplaying their character's motivations brings the focus of play on those, rather than a "mission", and second, having a set of rules for social conflict. When the group is pulling in different directions, being able to get people to agree on some level through convincing, bargaining, or threats, allows for more functional stories and mirrors the kind of fiction it draws from much better. Without these things, the group tends to either splinter or have no real goals at all as individual characters.

"Campaign" may not be the way to go

Most horror stories don't last a very long time. High danger threatens quickly, and so most stories end quickly. And characters usually don't last very long in these situations without reaching their physical, mental, or emotional destruction. (Be sure not to confuse action-supernatural stories with horror - those have way more control and agency to the characters involved.)

It makes sense to look to resolve one horror scenario. A campaign might make more sense to introduce new characters each scenario or event. Maybe they have connections to the previous characters ("My uncle retired after that expedition. He was rich, but very eccentric. I just got a letter from him, he was in ill health and had something important to tell me...")

You might have a single character who gets pulled back in, years later, forced to act to deal with the problem. ("That's no murder! I know that sign! They didn't destroy the book! The University lied!")

You'll also notice that the reward system of character growth and improvement is not particularly well suited to disposable characters this way.

Closure Mechanics

It can help to have mechanics that drive pacing a bit. If you can guess how close your character's story is to ending, you can roleplay in a way that brings the issues and their motivations to a climax. (Maybe this is too metagamey for you, I find it makes great games and doesn't require a lot of thought.)

Games like My Life with Master, Polaris, Thou Art But a Warrior, Poison'd, 1001 Nights, Grey Ranks, Bliss Stage and so on do great at this. The closure mechanics either force a character to an endpoint of the story or the whole story itself. What a lot of these games do, that Call of Cthulhu doesn't do, is that the endpoint gives the players some aspect of narrative power when they hit their endpoint. It's really quite satisfying to build up your character's eventual doom/damnation/death and finally describe it in an emotionally satisfying way.

These mechanics also tend to work very well in horror because you can make sure to reveal key horror elements before all the characters die/go mad/etc.


If the players have set up their character motivations well, then you don't have to do much to keep things moving. It's really simple:

  1. Don't block investigations, don't try to "hold back" information to slow things down
  2. People w/info, and clues "throw" themselves at the PCs a lot

A useful game to check out might be Dogs in the Vineyard - since it basically sets up an investigation in every Town, one of the pieces of advice is that there's always someone throwing info at the PCs, just that the info may be biased or edited, or when they're lying you simply tell the players outright, "You're pretty sure this isn't all true" so they know they maybe want to poke at the situation more.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Excellent answer. For another take on long-running group horror, you might consider the approach taken in stories like Stephen King's IT where a group of seven children band together against cosmic horror, then (mostly) come back together many years later to deal with its resurgence. Other stories have similar groups and clubs dedicated to stemming the horror, which aren't quite cults but aren't quite normal people either. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 13, 2014 at 21:01

I think it's best not to force anything. It seems unnecessary and ultimately undermines the logic of the situation and its dramatic effect and immersion.

As a player, I would come up with clear understandable motivations that make sense and yet can get the character hooked into the scenario. Then I would discuss with the GM to see if the GM finds them sufficient material to work with. Having agreed, it would merely be my responsibility to roleplay the character, and the GM's responsibility to provide situations which make the story interesting.

Some ideas for, as you asked, "good character motivations that will keep the characters in the story without falling back to metagaming":

  • Any character who cares deeply about some outcome, whether it is protecting his loved ones, a life work, a manic money-maker, where there might seem a golden opportunity, or a terrible threat, from the Mythos which can't be avoided and has to be faced. All you need to do is provide the deep motivation for something in the real-world, with which a creative GM can make some luring connection to the Mythos, especially if you clear this idea with the GM first.

  • Being fascinated with understanding some mysteries. The character may be slightly autistic/savant or just naturally very curious/obsessive about figuring things out (a very driven investigator, scientist, doctor, scholar...). They have a busy and/or controlling mind that won't let mysteries go. They may run in terror but won't be able to prevent themselves from returning to find out more.

  • Some fascination that foreshadows diving into the Mythos. As I recall from some Lovecraft, the characters who investigate tend to notice before they know anything is surreal, that they find they are strangely fascinated or drawn irresistibly towards something that leads to the Mythos.

  • A philosophy, religion, delusion, hallucinations, psychedelic drug habit, or other strong interpretation pattern which can lead the character to try to include the Mythos and be unwilling to avoid embracing it one way or another. This might lead the character to relate to some Mythos elements as either being divine or demonic or just part of a truth which must be faced, or even mistaken as a delusion or something that must not be as terrible as it seems.

As a GM, I would allow and encourage players to flee as long as hard as makes sense, and even let them, for a while. Then, if they didn't return to the subject by themselves after a while, I would add some real or imagined reminders, clues, enticements, omens, stimulus for character hooks as above, or other developments which may have them naturally choosing to get back into investigating. In many game types, I find that just leaving players to their own devices can provide the best games anyway, as the players tend to enjoy getting to do what they want, and it generally involves getting back to the intended subject anyway. Even when it doesn't, it can be a lot of fun.

As GM I would also consider what interaction the players have had with the Mythos, and what that may have stirred up that may come looking for them. Or, what other real-world investigators may get interested and come looking for them, bringing new clues, opportunities or crises. Or simply, what the encounters with the Mythos may have done to the characters, that alter their character or their character's attention or perceptions so that they end up having nightmares or hallucinations or paranoid misinterpretations of mundane events etc.


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