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Call of Cthulhu

Entry updated 11 March 2024. Tagged: Game.

Role Playing Game (1981). Chaosium. Designed by Sandy Petersen.

Call of Cthulhu is an authorized interpretation of H P Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos in the role playing medium. The core game, set in the 1920s, effectively reflects the central concerns of the Mythos stories, with some variations. Lovecraft's work typically confronts a lone protagonist with inhuman horror, while the requirements of a Role Playing Game mean that in Chaosium's version a team of investigators will normally be used, some of whom will be physically capable action heroes rather than the archetypal Lovecraftian scholarly researchers. More jarringly, the tone of some of the published adventures veers towards pulp fiction, featuring ghosts and Werewolves. Another difference in mood from the original fiction is the introduction of magic spells, though these can generally be interpreted as invocations of Alien beings. Nevertheless, the game is strongly evocative of its source material, especially in the sense of helplessness often felt by its players when confronted with almost overwhelming opposition. An interesting aspect of the design is the sanity mechanic, which ensures that the more useful (and disturbing) information characters acquire, the closer they come to madness. While the game's mechanics are largely based on those created for Chaosium's fantasy game RuneQuest (1978), such novelties as this focus on mental states and the general emphasis on investigation as opposed to combat made the first edition an innovative example of RPG design. Early Call of Cthulhu adventures were also notable for the way in which characters were led from one scenario to the next using physical clues (such as fake newspaper cuttings and business cards) which the players could interpret; a classic example is Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984 Chaosium; 2001 rev vt The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep) designed by Lynn Willis, Lawrence G DiTillio.

There have been multiple editions of the RPG since the first, all broadly similar, in 1982, 1983, 1986, 1989, 1992, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2006. Chaosium have also published a number of different milieux for the game. The first such work, Cthulhu by Gaslight (1986 Chaosium; rev 1988; rev 2012) designed by William Barton, is set in 1890s London, featuring such fictional heroes as Sherlock Holmes, while Cthulhu Now (1987 Chaosium; rev 1992) designed by William Barton, others updated the background to the late twentieth century. The Dreamlands (1986 Chaosium; rev 1988; rev 1992; 1997 rev vt The Complete Dreamlands; rev 2004) designed by Sandy Petersen, Chris Williams is based on H P Lovecraft's Dreamlands setting, as described in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (in Beyond the Wall of Sleep coll 1943; 1955), in which humanity's collective unconscious overlaps with that of inhuman races. Games Workshop (GW), who were responsible for publishing the early editions of Call of Cthulhu in the UK, also released Green and Pleasant Land (1987 GW), which provided background details for Britain between the wars. More recently, Chaosium began publishing a series of "monographs" which presented material created by Call of Cthulhu Gamemasters, and sublicensing their intellectual property to other RPG companies. These initiatives have led to the release of several new settings. Thus, Cthulhu Invictus (2004 Chaosium; rev 2009) designed by Chad Bowser, Deane Goodwin, Andi Newton deals with ancient Rome, Cthulhu Britannica (2009 Cubicle 7) designed by Keary Birch, Alan Bligh, John French, Paul Fricker, Mike Mason with the United Kingdom, Queensguard (2009 Chaosium) designed by Jeffrey Rissman with a Steampunk Alternate History of America, Cthulhu: Dark Ages (2004 Chaosium) designed by Stephane Gesbert with medieval Europe, and Cthulhu Rising (2005 Chaosium) designed by John Ossoway with the twenty-third century, when humans have begun to travel to the Mythos-haunted stars.

Delta Green (1997 Pagan Publishing [PP]; rev 2007) designed by Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, John Tynes, and its sequel Delta Green: Countdown (2000 PP) designed by Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, John Tynes, are perhaps the best received Call of Cthulhu supplements which were not created by Chaosium. Player characters are present-day agents of a rogue intelligence operation, founded after the events of the H P Lovecraft story The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936) but later disowned by the government that created it. The setting effectively fuses conspiracy theory with cosmic horror, pitting the players against an imminent Final World Order ruled by the gods of the Mythos. In Lovecraft's stories the threat is external, originating from incomprehensible alien forces; in Delta Green the horror owes as much to our human masters as to extramundane terrors.

The Mythos has influenced the design of many Videogames, including the text Adventure The Lurking Horror (1987) and Alone in the Dark (1992 Infogrames, DOS; 1994 3DO), a well known ancestor of the Survival Horror form. The first such game to be officially authorized was Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet (1993 Infogrames, DOS) designed by Didier Briel, Hubert Chardot, Beate Reiter, a highly atmospheric work which is arguably the best evocation of the spirit of the RPG in a digital medium to date. The related Call of Cthulhu: Prisoner of Ice (1995 Infogrames, DOS; 1997 PS1, Saturn; 1998 Win) designed by Philippe Chanoinat, Hubert Chardot, Frederic Cornet, Michel Monteille, Christian Nabais – a loose sequel to both Shadow of the Comet and H P Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness (cut February 1936 Astounding; restored in The Outsider and Others, coll 1939; 1990 chap) – is visually superior to its predecessor, but suffers from more restrictive gameplay and a more linear storyline (see Interactive Narrative). The most recent such game is Call of Cthulhu: The Dark Corners of the Earth (2005 Headfirst Productions, XBox; 2006 Win), a Survival Horror First Person Shooter hybrid based on a reimagining of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. As in the RPG, the gameplay of Dark Corners of the Earth emphasizes stealthy escapes and investigative work rather than combat; madness is a constant threat.

Related works: A version of the RPG using the d20 rules was published in 2002 by Wizards of the Coast. Mythos (1996 Chaosium) designed by Charlie Krank is an atmospheric Collectible Card Game based on the franchise; The Call of Cthulhu Collectible Card Game (2004 Fantasy Flight Games) designed by Eric Lang is another such work, more conventional in form than its strongly story-oriented predecessor. Arkham Horror (1987 Chaosium) designed by Richard Launius, Lynn Willis, Charlie Krank is a cooperative Board Game with role playing elements, based on a group of investigators exploring the town of Arkham and sealing interdimensional portals to prevent the return of a god-like Mythos being; a revised second edition was published in 2005 by Fantasy Flight Games. Cthulhu Live (1997 Chaosium; rev 1999; rev 2006) designed by Robert McLaughlin is a Live Action Role Playing game, intended primarily for large groups.

In 1993 Chaosium launched a line of Mythos related fiction, knowledgeably edited by Robert M Price. The books were divided into three general categories: reprints based around a particular Lovecraftian theme, compilations of a particular author's work, and collections of new stories. These three strands were initiated with, respectively, The Hastur Cycle (anth 1993) edited by Price – a collection of stories related to the titular entity – Mysteries of the Worm (coll 1993) edited by Price – which contains Mythos fiction by Robert Bloch – and Cthulhu's Heirs (anth 1994).edited by Thomas M Stratman. Several original works of fiction, some award-winning, have been set in the world of Delta Green, including the short story collections Alien Intelligence (anth 1998) and Dark Theatres (anth 2001), both edited by Bob Kruger with John Tynes, and the novels The Rules of Engagement (2000) by John Tynes and Denied to the Enemy (2003) by Dennis Detwiller. Strange Authorities (coll 2012) collects all of Tynes' Delta Green fiction, including The Rules of Engagement. [NT]


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