Today I want to tell you about one simple house rule which really improves my games.
My Call of Cthulhu campaign is mostly classic, with squishy investigators who are easily torn apart by monsters if they don’t go mad first. So far the five-person party has lost three investigators in three months of in-game time. However, there is one rule I use from Pulp Cthulhu: the Blaze of Glory rule.
Blaze of Glory means that a dying character can succeed at any one action before they die. (By the rules as written, Blaze of Glory gives you a bonus to any skill rolls; I instead treat it as an automatic success, because I can’t imagine anything more dispiriting and frustrating than failing your Blaze of Glory roll.) The action does have to be possible given the rules of the world; the character cannot permanently eradicate Cthulhu from the universe forever.
I have been extremely pleased by the effects of the Blaze of Glory rule on my game. Having squishy investigators is a tradeoff. You can’t beat the suspense of knowing that one mistake or one bad dice roll could kill your character and nothing will save you, or that in a straight-up fistfight the bad guy is as likely to kill you as you are to kill the bad guy. And I think it sets the mood of cosmic horror very well to know that you’re going up against horrors far out of your league.
But if death can happen at any time a lot of deaths are, well, anticlimactic. A character’s plotlines and arcs are left unresolved. The death scene isn’t meaningful and dramatic, worthy of a character the player has put dozens of hours of effort into. Honestly, it’s kind of lame.
The Blaze of Glory rule straightforwardly fixes this problem. It gives the player a lot of flexibility in making sure the character’s arc is resolved in a way most satisfying to them. And it means that the player can make sure their death is awesome.
I’ve had a player use their Blaze of Glory to destroy an evil artifact or to kill a major villain universally despised by the players. (That last one led to a “GO CARRIE! FUCKING AWESOME!” among all the players.) Thematically, of course, I think it’s very appropriate for cosmic horror for characters to be able to achieve things only at great sacrifice– and what sacrifice could be larger than your life? And it creates legendary stories players will talk about for years. What’s more badass than pulling yourself up when you’re nearly unconscious, grabbing a knife, and stabbing the big bad while your vision is fading to black?
But I think Blaze of Glory’s effects on less dramatic deaths are even more positive. I had a player roll very badly on her tropical-disease checks and die of malaria, which is not the sort of death one normally wants in an RPG. She chose to use her Blaze of Glory to heal the Sanity of a beloved NPC. The scene where she played out saying her final words of wisdom, summing up her experience as a character and encouraging the NPC to go on without her, brought multiple players to tears. It took what could have been an incredibly frustrating sendoff and turned it into one of my favorite moments in the entire game.
I recommend that more GMs consider incorporating Blaze of Glory in their own campaigns. I particularly recommend it for games with a high expected body count, although it might be too empowering for a straight horror campaign. Blaze of Glory is particularly suited for play focused around storytelling, and may be less suitable for games focused around addressing and overcoming challenges (it may be boring for a challenge to automatically be solved when a character dies).
When adjudicating “within reason”, I encourage the GM to say yes whenever possible. If the players want to use their Blaze of Glory to kill off a villain or otherwise derail your plans, let them. Be willing to allow the spontaneous development of psychic powers or spellcasting ability, if that is a thing which is possible in your universe. Don’t fuss about the likelihood of a character dodging all those bullets. If something is simply not possible at all, be willing to work with the player: if the hammer of Thor can only be lifted by one pure of heart, maybe the Neutral Evil thief repented in his final moments and had one last moment of shining moral purity.
I leave you with a clip from a film where the GM was very clearly using the Blaze of Glory rules: