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Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu
A Look at Chaosium's Horrifying Journey
into the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, Part III
by Wayne MacLaurin and Neil Walsh

In the first installment of this piece, we provided an introductory overview of Chaosium's unique game system, Call of Cthulhu.  In the second installment we introduced a few of the important supplements that Chaosium publishes for this game. This time, we'd like to discuss Horror Role-Playing in Chaosium's other (non-1920s) milieux: the 1890s, the 1990s and the Dreamlands -- as well as Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu Fiction.

The Dreamlands

Call of Cthulhu

The Dreamlands were intimately connected to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos fiction and a considerable amount of his writing as they pertain to dreams. Lovecraft's Dreamlands were largely inspired by the fantastical writings of such writers as Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith. The Dreamlands are a series of places deep within the realm of dream, but with a certain continuity and integrity which is often lacking in more mundane night visions. The Dreamlands, for Lovecraft, were as real as the waking world on some level, but their shifting reality was as fantastical, beautiful, haunting, horrifying and bizarre as dreams ever are. So too with The Dreamlands of Call of Cthulhu role-playing.

The Complete Dreamlands, Fourth Edition, Expanded and Revised (April 1997) provides the Keeper (i.e., Gamemaster) with everything required for unforgettable voyages into the collective unconscious of humanity where it overlaps with the collective unconscious of several other sentient races. Included in this book are statistics and information concerning personalities from the fiction of Lovecraft and others, creatures and Gods, spells and tomes of arcane lore -- all pertinent to The Dreamlands. There is also a handy gazetteer of some of the more famous and infamous places within the glorious ephemerality of Dreamlands geography -- places ranging from magical forests to cities built of precious stone with streets paved in gold; from the underworld realm of horror and death to the dark side of the moon and all its forbidden secrets. There are maps for the Keeper's reference, although such maps would no doubt be as useless for dreamers as would a map of the individual water molecules in the Pacific Ocean.

Role-playing in the Dreamlands can provide players with relaxing and amusing distractions, or it can turn into horrific nightmares, causing the characters to awaken screaming with their hair turned white and their sanity knocked down a few notches. The Dreamlands reality has its own rules and parameters, most of which will never be fully understood by the hapless players. Nevertheless, it is a fantastical world of infinite possibility which can be enjoyed either in isolation from the waking world reality, or in combination with it. That is to say, an adventure within the Dreamlands may or may not have relevance to or consequences in the waking world. In fact, there is a section in the appendices for generating characters native to the Dreamlands, for players wishing to remain entirely within this unusual world.

Also included in The Complete Dreamlands are a couple of excellent adventures, one which takes place wholly in the worlds of dream, and one which alternates between the waking world and the Dreamlands. Both originally appeared in the first edition of The Dreamlands (1988). The latter adventure in particular, "Pickman's Student," is a classic of Call of Cthulhu Dreamlands role-playing adventures, bringing the characters to some of the most unusual and frightening places of this weird realm. It also includes some very inspired deviousness, such as using one difficult and horrifying portion of the adventure as a recurring nightmare, where the dreamers are forced to relive events over and over again until they get it right -- or go mad trying.

Chaosium continues to support role-playing in the Dreamlands with such supplements as The Dreaming Stone, an adventure set primarily in the Dreamlands.

Cthulhu Now (1990s)

Classic Call of Cthulhu is set, as were most of Lovecraft's works, in the 1920s. It's a great period for the game. Travel is still an adventure in itself and many conveniences of the modern world are either very new or simply not available. However, this does present some interesting challenges for the Keeper. Creating a believable campaign in a setting that is largely unknown to both the players and the Keeper is difficult.

Call of Cthulhu Cthulhu Now takes the essence of Call of Cthulhu and transports it to the 1990s. All the bizarre and strange secrets of the Mythos -- complete with cultists equipped with modern weaponry, secret government agencies, terrorists out to unleash unspeakable evils on an unsuspecting world. From the point of playability, it's a much easier stretch of the imagination to immerse yourself into a world where you already understand the economics, the politics and the day-to-day routine. Granted, there isn't as much supporting work from Lovecraft or his contemporaries, but anybody who has seen an episode of The X-Files or read a Stephen King novel can appreciate a good work of mystery and terror in a modern setting. Movies like In the Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness, The Relic and, a personal favourite, John Carpenter's remake of The Thing, are all excellent examples of mixing horror and terror with just the right amount of unspeakable evil influences lurking in the background.

A Resection of Time (February 1997), is a good example of an adventure set in the present day. Investigators will be led from California to Massachusetts to the jungles of Central America, where they will follow clues to unravel the mystery of a recently-dead (or missing?) friend as well as certain other mysteries about the ancient Mayans which have remained secret for more than two millennia. Player characters will be so confused they may never completely sort out the good guys from the bad guys. And if they aren't already paranoid, they'll walk away from this one with a few more conspiracy theories -- if they walk away at all...

Naturally, in most 1990s campaigns and adventures, investigators will want to rely on modern weaponry as a method of dealing with both cultists and their unhuman companions. This route can lead to an abrupt end to the campaign if cultists also carry similar weapons, or if a player character misses a crucial sanity roll and opens fire on compatriots now mistakenly perceived as the enemy. And another thing: firearms have an annoying tendency to be much less than effective against unspeakably horrific monsters than you might think. (When was the last time you saw a particularly nasty movie monster do anything else but eat the members of the swat team sent in to deal with it?)

Of course, the gnawing question on everybody's mind was nicely put to rest in the original Cthulhu Now rules.

"What happens when we nuke Cthulhu?" The answer is, of course, "He reforms fifteen minutes later. But now he's radioactive."
And, no doubt, angry.

Cthulhu by Gaslight (1890s)

The 1890s provide another ideal setting for Call of Cthulhu role-playing. The late Victorian era was the height of popular spiritualism. Seances were common occurrences. Spirit mediums and mesmerism were gaining popularity. The Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 to scientifically investigate such phenomena. Other societies, focussing on esoteric wisdom, were cropping up all over the place, including Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which attracted such famous occultists as the great magician Aleister Crowley and the poet William Butler Yeats.

Since Call of Cthulhu is largely a game of investigation, what investigator would not be inspired by the trappings and settings of the most renowned detective of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes? And as Call of Cthulhu is also a game of horror, what could be more terrifying than the repugnant odours of Victorian London, the flickering shadows of gaslight, and the mysterious night mists lurking in the hunting grounds of Jack the Ripper, still at large?

Unfortunately, Chaosium has never published a great deal of material for this setting. The original Cthulhu by Gaslight box-set is currently not in print and is a rare find. However, Dark Designs was recently published for Call of Cthulhu role-playing in the Victorian era and does not require Cthulhu by Gaslight to play.

Call of Cthulhu Fiction

So far in this article, we have dealt with the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game system, which was inspired by the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. But Lovecraft inspired more than gamers and game designers; his Cthulhu Mythos inspired several of his contemporaries and many more who came after him to write fiction in the same vein. Under the Call of Cthulhu Fiction imprint, Chaosium has published a line of fiction with 16 titles still in print. Most are collected short stories, some new, some previously published, some by Lovecraft, many by other writers who inspired or were inspired by Lovecraft.

Call of Cthulhu To begin with, we'd like to point you to one of Chaosium's fiction publications which is a reference work, rather than a short story collection. Encyclopedia Cthulhiana, by Daniel Harms (December 1994, but still in print), is a handy -- although, perhaps necessarily, incomplete -- tool for gamers and readers alike. There is no complete chronological compendium of all Cthulhu Mythos fiction from all the various writers, most of whom borrow heavily from themselves and each other. As a result, any reader of Cthulhu Mythos fiction is inevitably going to encounter a story which makes reference to something in another story which they will not have read. Encyclopedia Cthulhiana offers some hope that you might be able to sort out the reference and make sense of an otherwise potentially confusing mess. I generally keep it handy now whenever I'm reading new Mythos stories, and I hope to see future editions with updates and new additions. (Hats off to Harms for doing the groundwork on this imposing project.)

With regard to the fiction itself, Chaosium has two principle types of collections: one is a tribute to a particular writer of the Mythos genre; the other is a tribute to a particular aspect/entity/concept within the Mythos. Examples of the former include Singers of Strange Songs: A Celebration of Brian Lumley (August 1997) and Made in Goatswood: A Celebration of Ramsey Campbell (July 1995), both edited by Scott David Aniolowski. Both collections include one or two new or previously published stories by the authors in question as well as several new stories by others in the style of the celebrated author and/or using the Cthulhu Mythos elements which made him famous for his Cthulhu Mythos fiction.

Call of Cthulhu Examples of the other type of collection include The Cthulhu Cycle (July 1996), The Necronomicon (November 1996), and The Nyarlathotep Cycle (May 1997), all edited by Robert M. Price. These compilations contain works related to the title character or item.

The Cthulhu Cycle, for example, shows the evolution of Great Cthulhu in fiction. Included are previously published but now hard to find stories by Lord Dunsany and M. R. James which probably planted the seeds of inspiration for Lovecraft's monstrously wonderful creation. Lovecraft's own "Call of Cthulhu" is present here as well as August Derleth's pastiche, "The Black Island," which in many ways could almost be considered the sequel to Lovecraft's story. Nine more stories also featuring Cthulhu by later authors (including Alan Dean Foster's first story for which he was paid) round out the collection, for a total of "Thirteen Tentacles of Terror." Almost all of the tales in this little tome had been published previously, although never before all together.

In the case of The Necronomicon, the editor, Robert M. Price, has done a fabulous job of piecing together a great collection of stories about the Tome of the Mad Arab. Probably the single most recognizable creation of Lovecraft's (next to Great Cthulhu himself), the Necronomicon has been the central element of dozens of stories and plays a part in dozens more. This collection contains such stories as "The Howler in the Dark" by Richard Tierney, "Demons of Cthulhu" by Robert Silverberg and several "versions" of the Dread Tome itself.

Well, that about does it for our look at Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu game system and the supporting body of work. We hope you'll be intrigued enough to give it a look the next time you drop by your favourite gaming store, or pick up a couple of the collections of fiction that Chaosium has painstakingly pieced together. It will be worth your time. And if you don't, you won't know exactly what the hideous creature lurking in the darkness of your basement is...

Copyright © 1998 by Wayne MacLaurin and Neil Walsh

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