Thursday, 13 February 2014

Milestones in gaming #5: Call of Cthulhu

I first stumbled across Call of Cthulhu when I started reading White Dwarf in the mid-1980s. At the time, CoC was being covered on a monthly basis in the magazine, and even had its own column, Crawling Chaos. I had no idea at the time who H.P. Lovecraft was, but the idea of an RPG set in the near past which involved some kind of Mythos intrigued me. What were these Deep Ones? Who was Yog Sothoth? The articles did not explain.

What also made me curious was the different approach the published scenarios took from the hack and slash of Dungeons and Dragons Basic. This game was not about slaughtering hordes of kobolds and walking off with your own body weight in gold. Here professors and private eyes delved into forbidden secrets, frequently hidden away in musty old tomes with exotic names like the Necronomicon and the Voynich Manuscript. Yes, they toted modern guns as well, but it seemed as if your character could actually go insane in this game!

The artwork used on the front of the game also helped to sell it to me: at the time I think the second edition boxed set was being sold in the UK by Games Workshop, featuring two investigators in 1920s dress being warned away from an old American colonial mansion. But what I particularly loved was the art used on the front of the Cthulhu By Gaslight boxed set which Chaosium released in 1986. Here, in Victorian London, a promenading English gentleman was about to be assailed by the forces of the Mythos.

I liked the idea of gaming in Victorian England, and while at the time I did not own a copy of the game, I devised my own version to play at school with my friends. This took the form of a diary in which investigators took turns to write updates, similar in tone to Bram Stoker's Dracula, with the GM adding notes about what was happening. It was not the Cthulhu Mythos they faced, as I still had little idea what that was, but frequently creatures from Dungeons and Dragons and popular myth were unleashed on 1870s Britain. Most of the plot, slightly inspired by Ghostbusters, involved an investigation into the works of a medieval sculptor that were coming to life.

But I digress. I eventually got my hands on a copy of the game in 1988, when GW published it under license as a hardback. I ran The Haunted House, the classic beginners scenario in the book, for my group. Luckily it was on a dark and stormy night, and they eventually broke off the investigation because the players were becoming too frightened! This was a major change in pace from our usual fare.

As it turned out, CoC became my 'go to' RPG at university as well. In my final year the books on my shelf attracted curiosity, and before long I was running a regular Sunday afternoon session for a multi-national group of players. I realised that one of the great things about the game is the familiarity of the setting for new players. The default setting is 1920s USA, but it can be easily adapted backwards or forwards in time, or moved to another country. Indeed, I'm currently brainstorming 1920s Malaya and Singapore as an alternative setting. CoC represents, in my view, one of the ideal entry level RPG systems. It is easy to learn, does not require much additional background knowledge (everyone understands what a doctor or a journalist is, but who knows what a Ventrue is?), and focuses on investigative elements that are familiar to anyone who has watched a TV crime show.

CoC remains one of the most popular and widely played RPGs ever written, and despite being published in 1981, has changed little from its first edition, far less so than Dungeons and Dragons, for example. It is a true classic.

Next time: Warhammer and miniatures gaming


  1. Call of Cthulhu is my favourite rpg by far. I love it to bits. I had a similar experience when playing "The Haunting" -- as it was renamed by the time I played it in 1995ish -- with players getting spooked by the sinister goings on in the Corbitt house, no doubt helped by us playing it in an old cottage out in the Sussex wilds.

    1. I think it got renamed because Chaosium came out with another CoC adventure called The Haunted House.

    2. Indeed they did. It's not as good.

  2. Love it too. For a while it was my favourite.... WFRP and PF all are up their as well..... it has certainly dominated my gaming habits in the past.... and am looking forward to playing in El Kel's rendition of Eternal Lies. My main problem could be staying awake in a non action style game. I have been permanently tired for years!