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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 I
by Wayne MacLaurin and Neil Walsh

Call of Cthulhu is by no means a new phenomenon.  In fact, the first edition of this rather unique game system was published in 1981, placing it in the same era as other role-playing game (RPG) classics like Runequest, Traveller and -- the granddaddy of them all -- Dungeons and Dragons.

However, with the notable exception of Dungeons and Dragons, most of the early RPGs have faded into relative obscurity.  Call of Cthulhu is another survivor.  It boldly leapt onto the RPG scene, quickly attained a firm tentacle-hold, and has continued to grow in popularity ever since.  Over the past 16 years, Chaosium has published in excess of 100 supplements for the Call of Cthulhu game system -- an impressive feat for any game company.

The H.P. Lovecraft Influence

Nyarlathotep Based on the wonderful and strange works of H.P. Lovecraft, the Call of Cthulhu game immerses the players in the exciting era of the 1920s, complete with flappers and gangsters, prohibition and popular Egyptology.  But this version of the 1920s also includes fanatically deranged cultists, sanity-threatening conspiracies and, of course, unspeakably monstrous creatures; creatures so terrifying to behold that the mere sight of one would send the average person screaming and drooling straight to a padded cell.

Cthulhu himself is a creature of immense evil, trapped beneath the ocean and worshipped by demented cultists struggling to free their monstrous lord. The rest of the cthulhoid pantheon is equally cheery, populated by entities like Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Tulzscha, Ghatanothoa, and a whole host of other equally unfriendly things, often with even more unpronounceable names. A few of the epithets which are easier to get your tongue around, but are no less ominous, include The Crawling Chaos, The Unspeakable, the Thing That Should Not Be, and He Who Should Not Be Named.

Cthulhu and his fellow demonic deities might be unstoppable, if they cared. Luckily for humanity these beings consider humans and their petty achievements to be no more significant than those little microscopic insects that live in your pillowcase.  However, besides the mad cultists of human persuasion, there are many servitor races that perform the will of these dark gods.  The bad news for us is that some of these races are far superior to humans physically, intellectually and technologically, and some of them tend to be as effectively immortal and as mind-shatteringly horrifying to look upon as their evil masters.

A Brief Overview of the Game System

Call of Cthulhu There are a few reasons why Call of Cthulhu has been so successful.  First of all, the nature of the game seems to encourage good role-playing.  The players (known as "investigators") are generally required to do some creative and co-operative puzzle-solving in order to get to the bottom of the mystery, to find or to improvise a solution, and to escape with their lives and sanity intact.  Most scenarios are at least somewhat dependent on the evocation of an atmosphere during play, usually a creepy, spooky and/or tense atmosphere.  Chaosium has also done an absolutely marvellous job of creating a rich gaming world that helps to set the tone of the game. 

Investigators take on the persona of normal, average people: detectives, reporters, professors, musicians, psychiatrists, or whatever.  They have no superhuman attributes.  A typical player character might have some special skills like photography, the ability to pilot a hot-air balloon and/or a smattering of some obscure, archaic language.  Characters are extremely mortal and the monsters, generally, are not.  Nevertheless, the situation is not entirely hopeless for our heroes.  With enough guile, luck, arcane knowledge, bravado, or whatever it takes, they may prevail. 

Perhaps the single most unique and perversely enjoyable aspect of this game system is the concept of sanity.  In Call of Cthulhu, a character's sanity is probably the single greatest strength (or weakness) they may possess. Anything may have an effect upon sanity.  Spend a nice quiet weekend relaxing with some soft music and a good therapist and your character's sanity may increase.  But if, as you are walking back to your room at night, a horribly mangled corpse happens to fall out of the sky, you will most likely loose some of that precious sanity.  And, if the corpse happens to be that of a close friend, you'll probably need several more weeks of rest. One good clear look at a particularly nasty critter like a Shoggoth ("a shapeless congerie of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light..."), and chances are you'll run off screaming into the night  -- and likely be eaten by that Shoggoth if you don't run in the right direction.

According to the original rules, sanity points once lost could never be regained.  This made the game an entertaining, but short-term and generally hopeless affair.  Succeeding editions, however, quickly rectified the situation and enabled investigators to regain sanity by undergoing therapy, defeating the monsters, attaining their goals, or sometimes even by spending that tranquil weekend avoiding monsters and corpses.  It should be noted, however, that the more one learns about the horrible truths of the Cthulhu Mythos the less likely one is to ever again attain a normal, comfortable level of sanity. 

Sanity, and the fact that the characters are usually caught up in something involving a horrifying monster or other sanity-draining encounters, make the goals of this particular RPG a bit different.  In most games, the players are out to survive, defeat the bad-guys (or the good-guys, in the case of some of the newer Gothic games), grow rich and powerful and live happily ever after.  In Call of Cthulhu, the goals are simple: defeat the incredibly powerful, virtually unstoppable horror without going permanently insane and being eaten by the horrible monster (not even necessarily in that order).  Temporary insanity, however, is almost unavoidable -- which should be seen as a good thing, as it provides more fun and challenging role-playing opportunities.

But a good role-playing system is not enough to keep a game alive these days. Players want lots of supporting material.  And in this department, Chaosium delivers.

Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu Publications

The Investigator's Companion Chaosium has published several campaign-length, globe-spanning adventures (e.g., Masks of Nyarlathotep and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth) and many individual adventure modules, as well as many supplementary materials for players and gamekeepers alike.  The London Guidebook, The Cairo Guidebook and The New Orleans Guidebook each provide great background material on specific locations as they were in the roaring '20s -- or rather, as they would have been in the '20s if Lovecraft's twisted mythology had been reality, unknown to most of the general populace.  The 1920s Investigator's Companion gives the players plenty of material on the 1920s in general and on specifics such as skills of typical occupations and costs of common goods.

In the past couple of years, Chaosium has expanded their publication of Call of Cthulhu material to include fiction.  They now have well over a dozen collections of Lovecraftian stories in handsome trade paperback editions which include stories by Lovecraft himself as well as by authors who inspired and were inspired by his writings.  For enthusiasts of the Call of Cthulhu game, and for fans of darkly demented horror, these collections are a source of considerable enjoyment. 

But if you're new to the world of role-playing in the world of Lovecraft, don't make the mistake of being overwhelmed by the volume of material in print.  All you really need to get started is a copy of The Call of Cthulhu, 5th Edition.  It includes all the rules, explanations, and descriptions the gamekeeper can't do without, and it even includes a few introductory scenarios which can be used for novice players.  Once you've started on this path to madness, you'll no doubt appreciate the wealth of information, supplements, adventures, and fiction available from Chaosium.

Coming Up

Over the course of the next few issues, we'll be taking a closer look at some of the supplements Chaosium has produced for the Call of Cthulhu game system.  We'll be covering some of the material published for Cthulhu gaming in the 1890s, in the 1990s, and in Lovecraft's Dreamlands (a truly bizarre addition to an already disturbing world), as well as their relatively new line of Cthulhoid fiction. 

Copyright © 1997 by Wayne MacLaurin and Neil Walsh

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