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I'm currently running a game of Cyberpunk 2020 for a couple of friends. Things are incredibly silly so far and the group seems to really like it. To get an idea of what I've run them through so far:

  • The introduction game to the setting and system: a one-shot where the party is looking for someone murdering the contacts of a corporate man, who turned out to be a serial killing cybernetic walrus man strangling people with his Cybersnake-tusks.
  • Breaking into a corporate building and stealing a window cleaner robot that had the brain of someone who betrayed the corporation installed in it and delivering it to his aunt, a posh elderly upper class woman with a collapsible umbrella built into one cyberarm and a 30mm missile launcher in the other.
  • The party was send as a final attempt team (two teams before them had failed) to extract a kidnapped VIP, who turned out to be presidential candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who in turn turned out to have undergone a full body replacement because he suffered massive organ failure back in 2018.

So, nothing terribly serious. But now I've been wanting to experiment with adding some bizarre elements to it in the form of Cthulhupunk. The plan is to have them extract an object that was tainted by eldritch influence and have it turn against them (despite that it should not be able to do this), snowballing a plot where they discover that a corporation is attempting to exploit beings from beyond for their own gain.

Such a thing is in stark contrast to what I've run before, and I don't think that cosmic horror can be played for laughs without undermining the entire point behind it. Of course I could play it 100% straight, but I am not entirely sure if my players would like it. And it would pretty much ruin the surprise if I asked "Hey guys, wanna turn this into Cthulhupunk?" (And yes, I know that book is GURPS.)

So I am wondering how I can figure out if they'd be up for the change of tone without spoiling it for them. Note that I am not asking HOW to run a Cthulhupunk game, just how to figure out if they'd be up for a change of tone without them knowing of the change, keeping it a surprise. I am also not asking if they'd be able to handle it or about their lines and veils: I am asking about if they would like the TONE of the game, which I feel this question does not answer.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @BESW While it is a good answer, I do not feel it covers my question. I am interested in figuring out if they'd like the tone of a Cthulhupunk game, not what their individual limits are. I have played with them before (as a player, not a DM) and know their general limits, but we've never given a cosmic horror game like this a shot before. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Jacobs Aug 14 '15 at 11:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you have contact with the players in contexts that are not your game? \$\endgroup\$ – GMNoob Aug 14 '15 at 14:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ " I don't think that cosmic horror can be played for laughs without undermining the entire point behind it." Who says insanity can't be fun? \$\endgroup\$ – JAB Nov 8 '16 at 15:09
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Hint it and measure enthousiasm

The general approach I take when I'm not sure what my players like, or whether they'd enjoy a specific thing, is to hint to it during the session and see if they bite. This works best in an open world or if you've already taught your players that they can say "no" and the story will go on, but even if they're used to being railroaded around you can still drop hints to events and see if they bite.

The basic idea is to include the direction you'd want to take in something that is obviously not directly related to what the players are doing. Commonly used for these purposes are rumours, idle chatters, news reels playing in the background, headlines in the paper, etc.

Think of how in movies there is often a movie-set on while the main character is leaving to go somewhere and then just after he slams the door, the camera lingers for a bit and lets you hear the last part of a crazy news report about "possible aliens spotted" or "scientist does crazy invention; is world doomed?" or what have you.

You can have those in your game, too. The next time the players are in a bar, describe how the radio is on and they overhear how a missing kitten was found, a 100-year old man was visited by the mayor, and a resident crazy person claims their best friend was eaten by a dusty book they found in the attic. See whether the players remark on the last story and whether they think it's interesting. (This can be in character or out; either means it has peaked their interest)

If you get an initial reaction, bring that story, or elements of it, back later. Keep them in the background, but let the players get a glimpse of how it's going. Make it sound like whoever is dealing with it, could use a hand. But don't make it sound like they ought to get involved yet. Again, measure their reaction to it. If they have at least something of a reaction, you can drop the story more directly into the game. Have them meet someone who is part of the investigation, who tries to contact them for help. Preferably while they are in the middle of something. Let the tone simmer through in the way this request is formed; this'll be the first time that you really present the tone you're aiming for, but while the players are busy.

If they immediately drop everything to help this person; they are really interested in changing tone. Go wild. If the players sound enthousiastic, but the characters want to finish their current job first, they are also interested in the new tone, but make the change more slowly, so they can get used to it. If the players sound confused or seem to accept more out of an "oh, this will be the next story" line of thought, they are probably not very interested and I would consider running the core of the story in your original tone, or just dropping it altogether. These players might enjoy the tone, but not in the current game.

If they flat-out refuse to help or protest out of character, they probably don't want to run in the given tone at all and you should probably drop it and maybe apologise for bringing it up.

However

I feel this is also important to mention. While the above makes it possible to change the tone of a campaign slowly, I would not actually advise doing it. (It's more suited to introducing new topics and stories).

The reason here is that (most) players design their characters and background and set their expectations based on the originally described tone of the game. Characters grow in the direction of the original tone, too. But your new tone would probably be better suited with completely different kinds of characters.

For example, if I know there's going to be a lighthearted cyberpunk game, I might run a glitching cyborg, a tough jock who's afraid of talking to robots, or a street-rat who mugs rich people with a robotic monkey-sidekick. Light-hearted, fun characters to play.

But if you suddenly start changing the tone to something creepy and horrific, these characters would probably not be appropriate.

If you wanted to run a cyberpunk chtulhu game, I'd much rather have heard beforehand, so that I could have created a android infected with a virus that interferes with his motor controls and occasionally his judgement, an ex-army guy who has severe paranoia after nearly being killed by a friendly drone-trooper over a joke, or an orphan who has been without a community so long, he thinks his mindless automaton is actually his friend.

Characters suitable for such kind of game, for whom I'd have explored the background that lead them to where they are and whose mannerisms are designed around a serious theme and for whom I've thought about the horrible fate probably awaiting them.

(Note that the first and second examples are intentionally the same characters, just described for a different kind of tone of campaign. The tone matters hugely in how people portray characters, which parts of their background they write out and what goals they set for them. I wouldn't enjoy losing that work and having nothing to fall back on because the tone switched without my knowing.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ (Posted per the guidelines of a Frame Challenge: meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/3318/…) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Aug 14 '15 at 12:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it is worth repeating this excellent comment rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/24533/… \$\endgroup\$ – Maxime Lucas Aug 14 '15 at 12:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the bit about it being hard-to-impossible to retool characters for a different tone. I've seen a campaign that underwent tone changes start to fall apart for exactly that reason; Only a last minute triage and restoration of the original tone saved it. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Aug 17 '15 at 1:41
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Just Start It

Start introducing the new stuff - slowly - and see how the players react. This is similar to Erik's suggestion, but the main difference is that rather than dropping just hints about the new tone, you instead simply start to move the game in that direction, complete with appropriate plot elements, characters, and narration style.

Narration style is an important factor, and one of the easiest to start with. As you start to move the game to a more serious plot, change the tone of your narration and interactions as a GM. Use levity at appropriate moments, of course, but be mindful of how you describe the world to the players. Instead of "a freaky book with gross eyes and little tentacles sucking at you", it's "a deeply unsettling tome with glassy eyes that follow your movements, and thin tentacles that reach for your fingers". NPCs are no longer "Joe the Cybernetic Walrus Man", they're "Joseph, who survived an inhumane experiment performed by a madman". And so on.

This helps shift the players' mindset from "silly" to "serious", without ever raising the issue directly. As the players pick up on the tone shift, they'll likely start shifting their own tones accordingly. I've made the silly-to-serious shift in several campaigns, both as GM and as a player, and while there will still be the occasional goof-off moment (they're still tabletop gamers after all!), in general players will follow the tone set by the GM.

Shifting the game slowly but directly toward the desired tone makes the transition smoother and less disruptive/noticeable to the players. If your players turn out to be interested in the new tone, it's much easier to finalize the shift if you're already halfway there, than if you've just been dropping the occasional Cthulu cultist on the street and now the players have to start over from scratch. You'll also minimize the amount of time spent chasing story on the silly side of the plot that ultimately won't lead anywhere once the story becomes serious (unless you have a knack for turning one-offs into Chekhov's Guns). Introducing the tone change slowly alongside the plot will make the transition feel deliberate, seamless, and well-played.

Be Prepared In Case the PCs Resist

Your players may resist the tone change, and that's fine! Maybe they prefer the silly game, or maybe they aren't interested in Cthulu but would be open to a tone change to something other than cosmic horror. Listen to your players as you add in the new elements, and be prepared to back off again if they express intense disinterest. Any story elements you introduced can either be pulled back with a silly reveal ("It was a guy with a holosuit all along!") or left as mysterious events that the players can return to in the future if they choose.

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Plan a single, coherent session that has the tone you want. Treat this a trial run session and be ready to either forge ahead with your horror plot, or let this fall by the wayside. After the session is over, talk with your players and ask how they felt about the session. Did they enjoy it? Would they be happy if the chronicle as a whole moved in that direction?

This lets you keep the surprise without committing anyone to a whole arc. A one-off session that doesn't fit the normal tone of a campaign can often be fun, even if people don't want to continue in the vein, so you risk little by trying it.

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What I'd suggest is, omitting actual details, discuss with your players whether they'd be open to a tone change to a "more serious, horror-oriented story arc." That would leave things open for you to revert to your existing semi-silly tone afterward, depending on reaction, but be sure they're on board for the kind of change you're considering -- and not require giving away any details on what kind of horror you're talking about. It would also clue you on whether they think they can play their existing characters in such a setting.

It's unlikely they'll expect a Chthulhu-esque tone, but it's possible one or more might suggest it -- letting to get a better gauge on their attitude without actually bringing it up yourself.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Just my view, but I think I'd tend to avoid asking and mentioning horror, because that would tend to give away much of the surprise/discovery element, and also one of them might immediately ask if it's Cthulu horror, which would even more extremely telegraph what you had in mind to reveal during play. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Aug 17 '15 at 23:47
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What do you mean you can't run a silly Chthulhu plot? Please consult IOU (Illuminati "You are not cleared to know what the O stands for" University), also from Gurps. An ancient tome of evil that speaks with the voice of Dr. Ruth and advises the players to do unspeakable things to improve their sex lives? An object that warps the very fabric of reality by adding rainbow hues and talking ponies? A cyberdeck that leads to a realm of madness and dispair, punctuated by large signs saying "no fun here, and especially no ice cream!" Impose insanties and corruptions on your players that fit their strengths and silliness, a street samuri develops a japanese accent and impeccable code of honor, a rigger believes he knows how to speak in bianary and insists on "talking" to the machines in their native language while controlling them (think R2D2 beeps). A shaman starts getting visitations from his ancestor, who is a very drunk native who speaks in horribly steriotypical (think bad western) indian english. Take your cues from Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan as well as traditional Chthulhu. Have them realize they are slowly going insane, and changing physically as well (the good news, your street samuri can no longer drop his gun, the bad news, it is now part of his hand, having grown into his skin), but leave it up to them whether this is horrifying or hilarious...

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    \$\begingroup\$ Illuminati ≠ Cthulhupunk, which is what the question is about. One is humour poking fun at the Mythos, the other is non-humorous cosmic sci-fi horror in the style of the Mythos. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 17 '15 at 19:47

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