About Call of Cthulhu
The writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) is known as the father of modern American horror. He took horror away from the Christian centered dark fantasy of the 19th century (i.e. cross-fearing vampires, tormented ghostly souls) and replaced it with an uncaring universe of horrible monsters and terrible alien gods. Central to Lovecraft's universe were the Great Old Ones, immense beings, often of incredible intelligence, that rule time and space. These creatures await a time when the "stars are right" to return to power on Earth, often aided by deranged, evil cultists. World wide conspiracies and hidden, alien societies abound. Lovecraft was also capable of more intimate horror. Strange, amorphous things hide in cellars or attics, and unearthly voices echo deep inside crypts.
At the same time, Lovecraft also created the Dreamlands, a sometimes horrific, sometimes beautiful world that is one of the most interesting fantasy realms ever developed. Influenced by Lord Dunsannay, this is the world where your sleeping self goes when you dream. It's a world of castles and sailing ships, ruins and monsters.
Lovecraft's universe became known, after his death, as the Cthulhu Mythos, a term taken from the central monster in his story "The Call of Cthulhu". Cthulhu (which is usually pronounced kuh-THOO-loo) is an immense being with a squid like, tentacled face, flippered claws, and giant wings. In the story, Cthulhu was able to tower over a steam ship. Cthulhu lies buried in his tomb in R'lyeh in the South Pacific, dreaming, and waiting for when "the stars are right" to wake again.
Lovecraft and His Writing
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. His father was institutionalized when he was three (and died in 1898), and so he and his mother moved in with his maternal grandfather. There he read books about ancient civilizations as well as the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Various nervous disorders and a couple of attacks kept him from attending school on a regular basis; he never finished high school. His grandfather died when he was 13. He and his mother were forced to sell his grandfather's home and move in with two aunts.
Lovecraft supported himself on the dwindling family fortune and as a ghost-writer and revisionist. His first professional stories under his own name were published in nine out of eleven issues of the pulp magazine Weird Tales between 1923 and 1925. He developed a small core of loyal fans, many of whom were writers themselves. They included young contemporaries such as Frank Belknap Long, August Derleth, and Robert Bloch (most famous as the writer of Psycho), and professionals like Clark Ashton Smith and Conan author, Robert E. Howard. Before he died, Lovecraft's correspondence between these people and others added up to an astounding 100,000 letters. His letters covered topics like science and philosophy, but he also discussed story ideas with his circle of fans. As a result, his peers added to the Cthulhu Mythos. Smith invented the god Tsathoggua, Long came up with the Hounds of Tindalos, and most of the others wrote their own Mythos stories.
When Farnsworth Wright became editor of Weird Tales, Lovecraft received more rejection letters than acceptances. Eventually Lovecraft stopped submitting stories to Wright. Wright rejected "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Shadow Out of Time", two of H. P.'s most famous stories, though they were eventually published in Astounding Stories. Lovecraft ghost-wrote stories for other writers that were accepted by Wright even though Lovecraft had written almost every word.
He was briefly married, and lived for two years in New York. After that, in 1926, he moved back in with his two aunts. On May 15, 1937, he died of Bright's disease and cancer.
Though he died in obscurity, his correspondents kept his stories alive. Ramsey Campbell's Lovecraft-inspired fiction in 1964 sparked renewed interest in Lovecraft's own work. This was followed by Brian Lumley in the early 1970s, whose own work further popularized Lovecraft. Other writers, such as David Drake and T. E. D. Klein, added to Lovecraft's Mythos. Probably the most famous writer to ever take a cue from Lovecraft was Stephen King. His stories "Jerusalem's Lot", "Grandma", and "Crouch End" are quite clearly Mythos stories. He sprinkles Mythos references in his other tales, such as the "Yog-sothoth Lives!" graffiti in his novel Needful Things.
The Mythos has made its way into movie theaters. A number of small independent film makers have made some interesting short films on shoestring budgets. The Reanimator and Dagon are low budget feature length movies closely inspired by the Mythos. The campy Evil Dead movies include the Necronomicon, Lovecraft's fictional book of arcane magic and insanity-inducing knowledge. The Mythos film with the biggest budget and most mainstream acceptance is John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness, which isn't based on any one Mythos story but takes elements from several.
The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game
In 1981, Chaosium — a game company famous for the RuneQuest fantasy roleplaying game — released the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. It started life as a horror roleplaying game set in the world Lovecraft knew best: the New England region of the United States in the 1920s and early 1930s. It wasn't long before adventure campaigns started spanning the globe, but the game still focused on the "roaring 20s". The setting was straight out of Lovecraft's stories and novels.
The mechanics of the game were very similar to RuneQuest. Anything a player could do was reduced to the rolling of percentage dice: two ten sided dice, one representing the 10s digit, the other representing the 1s digit, are rolled to create a random number from 1 to 100. Combat was simplified compared to RuneQuest, but a sanity system was added to simulate the slow descent to madness of Lovecraft's protagonists.
There are many stories of early Dungeons and Dragons players trying Cthulhu for the first time and learning that their style of play meant that their characters wouldn't last long. Call of Cthulhu rewards intelligence and cunning over brute strength. Most of the creatures in the game can quite easily destroy a human very quickly. Or, as it was once described to me, with only slight exaggeration, "In Call of Cthulhu, many of the monsters are as smart as a human being... the rest are smarter!"
Call of Cthulhu has gone through several different editions. 1st Edition Call of Cthulhu was released in 1981, followed by a "Designer's Edition" a year later. 2nd Edition was a fully boxed edition released in 1983. The box included the rulebook, A Sourcebook of the 1920s with additional background information (such as a table of prices for common items, a map of Skara Brae in Scotland, and a diagram of a zeppelin), a sheet of cardboard character figures, and a map of the world with Mythos related sites. The rules were essentially identical to 1st Edition. 2nd Edition formed the basis of the rules for almost a decade.
3rd Edition (1986) was the 2nd Edition with the rules and the sourcebook printed in one book, plus some additional material. 4th Edition (1989) was a hardback version of 3rd Edition with color plates of Cthulhoid artwork bound in the middle.
5th Edition — released in 1992 — was the first major rewrite of the rules. It changed the way combat was handled, and made it easier for players to increase their skills. For the first time, the main rulebook contained rules for three different eras: the 1920s, the 1990s, and the 1890s. 5.5 Edition (1998) was a rewrite of 5th Edition, with a more complete list of Mythos tomes, improved sanity rules, and better organization. It also included the entire text of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu" short story. 5.6 Edition (2000) was a hardcover version of 5.5.
For Call of Cthulhu's 20th anniversary, Chaosium released the hardcover 20th Anniversary Edition in 2001. This was a hard bound version of the 5.6 Edition. Also that year, they released the rare and expensive Miskatonic University Edition. This was a green, leather bound hardcover with an elder sign on the cover. It was stamped with the Miskatonic University seal, signed by the original authors and limited to 300 copies.
The most recent versions of the game are 6th Edition (2004) and the 25th Anniversary Edition (2006). The 6th Edition is essentially the same book as 5.6 Edition (there are no rules changes) but with a new layout similar to that found in Cthulhu Dark Ages. The 25th Anniversary Edition is hardcover repackaging of 6th Edition.
By the end of 2007, there were nine major "time periods" for basing Call of Cthulhu adventures: the 1920s of Call of Cthulhu, the 1890s of Cthulhu by Gaslight, the modern era of Cthulhu Now, H. P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, Cthulhupunk, Delta Green, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and the far-future world of Cthulhutech (though this era is not considered "canon" by most Call of Cthulhu players).
The primary period is the 1920s (and 1930s). This is the era in which Lovecraft wrote his stories, and in which the stories were set. It's not surprising, then, that it is the era that takes precedence. The majority of Chaosium's sourcebooks and adventure books cover this era. Sourcebooks (books with additional background information and rules), including those published by other companies, allow for campaigns in 1920s Britain, and Australia. Chaosium's own supplements detail places such as Lovecraft's fictional towns of Arkham, Dunwich, Kingsport, and Innsmouth, as well as 1920s London, Cairo, Kenya, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.
The first supplementary time period came out around 1985. Cthulhu By Gaslight allowed gamers to play Call of Cthulhu in Great Britain of the 1890s. The adventure included in the box had the players joining forces with Sherlock Holmes to foil Mythos cult activities in Yorkshire. Although a very interesting era, it was never as widely supported by Chaosium as the modern era or the 1920s. Other companies mostly ignored Gaslight, though Pagan Publishing released an excellent supplement that allowed players to play Cthulhu By Gaslight as members of the occult Golden Dawn secret society. Many of the Gaslight rules (but none of the original adventures) were incorporated into the 5th Edition rulebook.
H. P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands was released the same year as Gaslight. It came in a boxed edition with a rulebook and a scenario book much like Gaslight. This added background information, monsters, and rules for playing in Lovecraft's dream world. A couple of supplements and adventure packs were released for Dreamlands adventures, the Kingsport town supplement featuring the Dreamlands in particular, but this "era" was never heavily supported. Dreamlands is an era unlike the others in that it can be used to supplement any other era. Characters can enter the Dreamlands from 1890s or the 21st century as easily as they can from the 1920s. The Dreamlands make for an interesting break in the usual flow of Mythos horror, but some Keepers (the name given to Call of Cthulhu referees) dislike it because it takes away from some of the overwhelming horror found in the rest of the Mythos. A small minority of Keepers have run games set exclusively in the Dreamlands. The Dreamlands supplement is now available as a separate book with all of the boxed edition's contents as well as additional material.
Call of Cthulhu is a game where the background date is almost irrelevant. Convention games have been set in almost every time period imaginable, from the Dark Ages to World War I. Chaosium's Cthulhu Now supplement brought the game into the 1990s (the information from Cthulhu Now is largely included in the latest editions of the rulebook, as well as the D20 rulebook). The Blood Brothers adventure books added humor (one adventure has an Abbott and Costello scenario) and fictional time frames (a 1920s sci-fi scenario). Strange Aeons comprised scenarios from many different time periods, including Elizabethan England. Steve Jackson Games took Call of Cthulhu into the 2040s and made it part of it's GURPS Cyberpunk universe with the release of GURPS Cthulhupunk.
Chaosium released Cthulhu Dark Ages in February of 2004. This was the first new background era for Call of Cthulhu since the release of Delta Green (see below). Cthulhu Dark Ages is set between 950 C.E. and 1050 C.E. This is the period after the dreaded Al Azif tome was translated into Greek and renamed the Necronomicon. Copies of this blasphemous book flourish throughout Europe, while civilization begins to fall to the powers of the Mythos. The Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath haunt the woods, and the Mi-Go guard the mountain tops. This is the period when humanity almost succumbs to the forces of darkness. It is a worthy addition to the Call of Cthulhu game line-up.
In the early 1990s, Pagan Publishing began work on The End Times, a book set when the "stars are right", or at least mostly right. A lot of work was done on this project, but then it was cancelled. The preliminary work is now available for interested Keepers. Chaosium sells End Times as a 70 page monograph. Less than a full supplement but far more than just a collection of house rules, Chaosium may use sales of the monograph as gauge for producing a formal book. The same information, in a slightly less cohesive format, is available for download from Yog-sothoth.com. End Times takes place in 2147 C.E. Cthulhu has risen. Dark Young stalk the Earth. The Mythos has taken over. Earthbound Humanity has been enslaved, or is trying to scrape out an existence in the shattered remnants of civilization. Homo sapien's only real chance for survival is with the small colony on Mars made up of the descendants of the lucky few who escaped the Earth. Characters are Mars colonists dealing with mysteries on Mars itself, and trying to find out what happened to those poor souls on Earth. The monograph is quite extensive and well thought out, and there are three or four scenarios available for it.
In 2008, a new Cthulhu Mythos setting was released by Catalyst Games (and originally printed by Mongoose Games). This setting was Cthulhutech. The game is set in 2085 with humans fighting various forces after the Earth had been invaded twice (once by human-engineered "aliens" called the Nazzadi, and once by the Mi-Go). The game takes many elements of the Cthulhu Mythos and fuses them with Japanese anime and giant robot mecha. Those who like the game praise it for it's original fusion of Lovecraft's ideas and modern science fiction memes. Those who dislike it point to the difference in tone, and some of the more unlikely aspects (such as Deep Ones creating mecha).
Note that End Times, Cthulhupunk, and Cthulhutech all conflict with each other in their timelines. Cthulhupunk is set in the universe of GURPS Cyberpunk and GURPS Cyberworld in the 2040s. End Times has the United Nations setting up a base on the moon by 2020, and things pretty much collapsing on Earth by the 2040s. Cthulhutech has the Earth invaded by aliens twice by 2085, with the Earth recovering enough to fight the Mi-Go on close to an even footing. End Times has a grittier, more "realistic" feel than the other two books, though it's not impossible to mate it to Cthulhupunk. End Times doesn't spend a lot of time describing technology and society in the mid 21st century; society in the 21st century is doomed, and the campaign itself doesn't start for another 100 years. With a little bit of work, Cthulhupunk could serve as a prelude to End Times. End Times is compatible with Delta Green, at least superficially. By comparison, Cthulhutech is a completely separate game, both in background timeline and in game mechanics.
Chaosium has a long history of allowing other companies to help support their game. The best is Pagan Publishing. Publishers of the excellent Call of Cthulhu magazine The Unspeakable Oath, Pagan added scenario packs, campaigns, and sourcebooks to Call of Cthulhu. Pagan's work, though often darker and more mature than Chaosium's is of high quality. Pagan's best addition to the game is Delta Green.
Delta Green can be loosely described as The X-Files meets Cthulhu, but that does not do the game justice. For one thing, it was begun before The X-Files debuted. For another, Pagan's central conspiracy is actually better thought out and developed than Chris Carter's "black oil" alien invasion plot in The X-Files. Delta Green's ingenious interaction between the Cthulhu Mythos and modern conspiracy themes is wonderfully seamless. In short, Delta Green is what Cthulhu Now should have been.
Delta Green is a conspiracy within the U.S. government to seek out and neutralize paranormal threats to the country and the world. Against the Delta Green agents are the "men in black" (Majestic-12, a group investigating aliens that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947), the Karotechia (a Nazi occult organization) and The Fate (the Mythos meets organized crime). The second Delta Green supplement, Delta Green: Countdown includes information from similar organizations in other parts of the world, including Great Britain and Russia. It also adds to the allies and opponents of Delta Green with inclusion of the Hastur Mythos and the Keeper's of the Faith (an "underground" ghoul organization).
Further support for Delta Green came in the form of three "chapbooks". Until 2008, these were out of print and rare, fetching high prices on eBay. Pagan compiled all three chapbooks into one sourcebook and, with the help of Arc Dream Publishing, released Delta Green: Eyes Only in 2008 as a 1,000 copy hardcover edition. A softcover edition is due in 2010, as is Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity, the fourth major sourcebook. It includes chapters on the Cult of Transcendence, the De Monte clan in New Orleans, a Canadian connection to Delta Green, and lots more.
Beside the roleplaying books, Pagan has published four Delta Green fiction books. An anthology of short stories, Alien Intelligence, was the first book. It was followed a couple of years later by John Tynes' Rules of Engagement. The third book was Dark Theatres, another anthology. In June 2004 they released Dennis Detwiller's novel Denied To The Enemy. Another excellent resource of note is "The Black Seal", a British magazine dedicated to Delta Green.
Alternate Game Mechanics
Call of Cthulhu was written using Chaosium's Basic Role Play (BRP) game system. In 2008, Chaosium released Chaosium's Basic Role Playing, a stand-alone, generic BRP rule book. The book gleaned rules from several different versions of Chaosium's BRP, including Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer/Elric, RuneQuest, Superworld, and RuneQuest, several of which have been long out of print. This book provides Keepers with a number of interesting optional rules for Call of Cthulhu.
The Cthulhu Mythos as a background does not require any one particular set of game mechanics. While the BRP system is the most popular way of running roleplaying games in Lovecraft's universe, it is not the only way.
A D20 version of Call of Cthulhu was released in 2001 by Wizards of the Coast. D20 Call of Cthulhu was an innovative approach to adapting Call of Cthulhu to WotC's D20 system. Unfortunately, this book was never properly supported by WotC. A single campaign was published by WotC, and the hardcover version of Delta Green — published in 2008 by Pagan Publishing and Arc Dream Publishing — included D20 stats.
A number of game systems have been adapted to the Cthulhu Mythos, with the conversion rules posted on the web. Dennis Detwiller and Greg Stolze created the excellent World War II superhero roleplaying game Godlike. Godlike was originally co-published by Pagan Publishing, but now the game is owned by Arc Dream, publishers of Wild Talents, which extends the Godlike universe into present day. (Full disclosure: Allan Goodall is a freelance writer for Arc Dream.) The Arc Dream web site includes rules for adapting Godlike's dice pool system — called the One Roll Engine — to Call of Cthulhu. The conversion notes, by Arc Dream president Shane Ivey, are called Cthulhulike.
The One Roll Engine is a dice pool system. You roll from two to ten 10-sided dice looking for dice that match. The number of dice that match indicate how quickly you succeeded at a task or how much damage you doled out. The number on the dice that matched indicates how well you succeeded or where you hit the target during combat. The One Roll Engine (ORE) is found in such games as Godlike, Wild Talents, Monsters and Other Childish Things, Reign, and A Dirty World. (HyperBear author Allan Goodall authored This Favored Land, a Wild Talents sourcebook for the American Civil War.) In 2006, Dennis Detwiller released the free horror roleplaying game NEMESIS. NEMESIS is modern horror roleplaying using the ORE game system. Included in this game are conversion rules for playing Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green using ORE. It is available for download from Dennis' web site: http://www.arcdream.com/dennis/NEMESIS.pdf.
GURPS Cthulhupunk is an obvious starting point for anyone converting the Cthulhu Mythos to GURPS. Quite a few people play Delta Green using GURPS mechanics, as GURPS has very good support for modern day campaigns.
Two new games set in the Cthulhu Mythos were released in 2008. Trail of Cthulhu uses Pelgrane Press' GUMSHOE game system. The big draw of Trail of Cthulhu is that it builds in mechanical support for investigative "dead ends". In Trail of Cthulhu a scenario can't stall out because characters are missing important skills. Reality Deviant Publications published Shadows of Cthulhu, a variant of Call of Cthulhu using Green Ronin's True 20 game system (which itself is derived from WotC's D20). Also in 2008, Miskatonic River Press was founded by the late Keith Herber, author of some very well received Call of Cthulhu supplements in the 1990s. Miskatonic River Press released several supplements, including updates of Keith Herber's out-of-print modules.
In 2009, Reality Blurs released Realms of Cthulhu, a sourcebook for play Cthulhu Mythos games for the Savage Worlds roleplaying game.
Other Call of Cthulhu Games
It's almost impossible to list all the Cthulhu Mythos inspired games on the market. Here are a few of the more popular and/or more interesting:
- There are two Call of Cthulhu collectible card games: Mythos, by Chaosium, which came out in the late 1990s, and the Call of Cthulhu CCG by Fantasy Flight Games (the games have very different game mechanics).
- Steve Jackson Games publishes Munchkin Cthulhu, a Mythos version of their popular Munchkin card game. So far there is a base set and two expansion sets.
- Pagan Publishing put out a card game called Creatures and Cultists in the 1990s as a supplement in their The Unspeakable Oath magazine. They sold it separately after that, on card stock. A couple of years ago, Pagan Publishing and Edge Entertainment produced a high quality version featuring art by Dork Tower's John Kovalic.
- The Arkham Horror board game was re-released by Fantasy Flight Games, and has grown well past the original Chaosium version with far superior graphics and several add-on supplements.
- Atlas Games continues publishes the Cults Across America board game.
- The Hills Rise Wild is Pagan Publishing's combination board game/miniatures wargame set in a wacky Mythos background.
These are just a handful of the Mythos-based games available. There are dozens of other games with a Cthulhu Mythos theme.