The Terrible Triad (or Cthulhu’s Three Pillars)

Whether deep in dungeons, running in dystopian mega-cities, or solving cult murders, every single roleplaying game employs a simple core procedure: 

  • The GM provides a situation.
  • The characters take an action (dice may be rolled or not)
  • The GM describes the results

This procedural cycle continues until the scene, session, or campaign concludes. In D&D, 5th edition, the game and this action cycle rest on the Three Pillars, which are defined by the designers as roleplaying, combat, and exploration. Through each cycle, a Dungeon Master and their players rely upon the three driving pillars to fuel their meaningful decisions. Since its inception, D&D has leaned heavily upon combat and roleplaying to direct gameplay, but many Dungeon Masters remain uncertain how to approach and fully integrate the poorly defined third pillar, exploration. Is it hex crawling with calculated travel distances and iron ration consumption? Is it uncovering background lore? Or is it discovering the village burgher likes to barbeque halfling children? Call of Cthulhu (CoC), on the other hand, lives and breathes in the realm of “exploration,” which the game’s setting clearly frames as investigation.

The Terrible Triad—not as awful as it sounds.

We would like to introduce a Cthulhu re-imagining of D&D’s Pillars, the Terrible Triad, as a basis to approach how we run our favorite game. We replace Exploration to form an action triad consisting of investigation, combat, and roleplaying. When playing a typical investigative CoC game, bound within the triad is the ultimate goal of player action, clues—or, more simply, information. More information unlocks more possible actions, which helps propel all aspects of the Triad. If you are running a survival horror scenario in CoC, the triad attempts to unlock a different goal, survival (obviously), but information still paves the way to safety and/or victory. 

The Terrible Triad easily applies to any investigative type game, such as Delta Green, Vaesen, or Trail of Cthulhu, but helps inform an approach to D&D’s Three Pillars, as well. In truth, the Triad or Pillars apply to all roleplaying games thanks to the reliance on the aforementioned core procedure. Uncovering more information serves to provide a new or clarified situation, which the characters subsequently act on to continue the procedural cycle. Without the reward of information, the characters just run around whacking stuff or small-talking the locals. Sly Flourish refers to this information as secrets in D&D, while Keepers refer to them as clues. Investigation and Exploration typically provide the best access to clues and secrets.

Interplay of Triad elements for information.

We believe in a powerful interplay between the three elements. Imagine the points of the triad forming a Venn diagram, where several player actions, potentially occurring simultaneously can be used to acquire their desired result. Often explosively. For example, during one of our Delta Green games, the Agents arranged to be present for an autopsy following a suspicious death. During this scene, the players attempted to save the medical examiner as he was attacked by a horrific parasite unleashed from the victim’s body (Combat), made skill-based observations about the creature as they attempted to contain it (Investigation), and roleplayed conversations with the dying doctor to obtain as much information about the threat (Roleplaying) before they inevitably set the whole building aflame. Typical. The intersecting player actions revealed several clues contained within the scene, as well as provided our game with one of its most memorable moments. Here are some additional examples of potential intersection point clues:

Combat/Investigation Clues:

  • Recovered item (artifact, key, map, tome, weapon)
  • Physical information (personal identity, physical characteristics, weakness revealed)
  • Verbal information (betrayal, dying confession, shocking revelation) 
  • Fleeing Opponent (dropped clue, method of travel, secret passage, track to lair)

Roleplaying/Investigation Clues:

  • Flexible (players seeks out NPC, who provides useful information)
  • Proactive (an NPC seeks out players to provide information)
  • Link (an NPC sends players to another clue node, such as a different NPC or location)

Roleplaying/Combat Clues: Witty Repartee and Villainous Monologuing

Similarly, the Three Pillars provide overlapping support in D&D. Searching the body of an orc after a Combat encounter counts as Exploration, especially when it turns up a curious-looking key, which fits a mysterious trapdoor. Successfully navigating temple politics through Roleplaying to unveil a plot to assassinate the neighboring kingdom’s high priest also blends with Exploration. Of course, Exploration is also as simple as following tracks or seeking out the hamlet’s local job board. 

With the Triad in mind, a Keeper aims to provide satisfying results for player actions that unlock their desired goals. When considering potential results consider the player, character, and group goals. Do not hesitate to give them information they crave when they engage with one of the three elements. It need not be high-detail or game-changing, but it encourages proactive player attempts to employ the Triad. This serves the game well in both homebrew and published adventures, as it seeks to maintain engagement and interest. Intrigue, exciting discoveries, and secrets revealed through Investigation (or Exploration) provide robust threads to interconnect scenes and create successful adventures and campaigns. 

A team of veteran investigators actively engaging with their clues.

For Dungeon Masters and Keepers alike, we recommend this post from Burn After Running, which effectively subdivides the types of Exploration into digestible concepts.

1 thought on “The Terrible Triad (or Cthulhu’s Three Pillars)

  1. Owen says:

    An informative and thought provoking read as always. I feel it’s definitely the investigation aspect that has cemented my love of Call of Cthulhu and its variations.

    I enjoy D&D a great deal as a player, but when it comes to running a game, the investigative focus of CoC and typical fragility of characters (mind and body) really does create an irresistable blend of intrigue tempered with inevitable caution.

    I also feel that the typically more rare appearances of combat (at least in my scenarios) make them more tense. I’m pleased I’ve genuinely surprised my players with them a few times and I don’t think any of the situations felt like victory/escape/survival was assured until the last few rounds.

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