Lovecraft on the Tabletop

25 Sep

Call of Cthulhu

Sandy Petersen first encountered H.P. Lovecraft in the most perfect way imaginable. Poking around his father’s library as a boy in the 1960s, he came upon a battered old paperback called The Dunwich Horror and Other Weird Tales. It was an Armed Forces edition of Lovecraft, one of many hundreds of titles printed cheaply on pulp paper and distributed for free among the soldiers and sailors fighting in World War II. Petersen had no context for the book — no knowledge of the man or his times, no preconceptions whatsoever. There were just the stories. With their strange diction and their sinister air of otherworldliness, they might as well have been dropped into his father’s library from outer space. Petersen felt like one of Lovecraft’s many gentleman-scholar protagonists, encountering a musty old tome that offers a gateway to another world. It was the perfect book at the perfect age, and he was well and truly smitten. Lovecraft remains his favorite author to this day.

It wasn’t as easy to be a Lovecraft fan in those days as it is today. Most of his works were available, if at all, only in editions from the tiny independent publisher Arkham House. Petersen spent years hunting down the stories and learning about the man, treating each new piece of the puzzle as a revelation. And then there came a new obsession: Dungeons and Dragons.

During his first year at Brigham Young University in the mid-1970s, a friend introduced him to the brand new game via a copy of the rules he’d borrowed from one of his professors. Petersen was as immediately smitten with Dungeons and Dragons as he had been with Lovecraft. He soon graduated from player to Dungeon Master, the leader of his little troupe of role-players. With a friend named Steve Marsh, he designed a Dungeons and Dragons variant that Marsh named American Gothic:

By this he meant a fantasy campaign taking place in the modern era, with only a little magic, and most monsters stemming from ’50s horror movies and modern horror literature. I actually started this campaign and went to the trouble of detailing all the possible types of scenarios that could exist, and made up some special rules for combat, experience, and so forth. This campaign was short and abortive, but the things I learned from it planted the seeds for later work.

American Gothic was derailed by Petersen’s group’s love for an all-new RPG that was released in 1978 by a former board-game specialist called Chaosium. It was called RuneQuest.

At a glance, one could easily dismiss RuneQuest as just another me-too fantasy RPG chasing after Dungeons and Dragons players. Look closer, however, and it started to get a whole lot more interesting. RuneQuest games took place in a lovingly detailed world called Glorantha, which Chaosium’s president Greg Stafford had begun slowly elaborating almost a decade before Dungeons and Dragons even existed. Whereas Dungeons and Dragons took place in a vague “lazy medieval” pastiche of Tolkien and popular fantasy, Glorantha was classical in spirit, drawing heavily from Greek and Roman society and mythology. In the spirit of Homer, this was a game where even high-level characters could be killed with a single blow; hit points did not automatically increase when a character gained experience. Like the very first competitor to Dungeons and Dragons, Flying Buffalo’s Tunnels and Trolls, RuneQuest‘s rules fixed many of Dungeons and Dragons other inexplicable aspects, like the way that armor somehow made a character more difficult to hit instead of absorbing damage when she was hit. Most intriguingly of all, it replaced Dungeon and Dragons‘s system of inflexible character classes with a menu of skills from which the player could choose to truly create her own character her own way. And it was all executed intuitively and elegantly, in marked contrast to Dungeons and Dragons‘s mishmash of systems that could make it feel like about five different games stuck together. It was all so new and different that RuneQuest is occasionally still described as the first “second-generation” tabletop RPG. Petersen and company fell in love immediately.

Indeed, Petersen himself, who was now pursuing a graduate degree in zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, without much enthusiasm, was so smitten that he wrote to Stafford personally, asking if he could contribute to the game. A number of magazine articles and a supplement containing new monsters for the game followed. Then came the moment that, in light of Petersen’s twin passions, just had to arrive: he proposed an expansion for RuneQuest that would move the setting from Glorantha to the so-called “Dreamlands” of H.P. Lovecraft, site of a series of lightly interconnected fantasy stories heavily inspired by British fantasy progenitor Lord Dunsany. These tales were and remain far from the most popular of Lovecraft’s stories among fans and casual readers alike, but Petersen thought they’d be perfect for the RuneQuest ruleset.

Chaosium turned him down, delivering the surprising but exciting news that they already had not just a rules supplement but a whole new horror-themed RPG in the works. It would be largely an exercise in Gothic horror taking place in the late nineteenth century, but would nevertheless include the possibility of encountering the Cthulhu Mythos as well. They had already negotiated rights to the stories from Arkham House. (In later years, when it became clear that Arkham’s copyright claim to Lovecraft’s work wasn’t quite as ironclad as they might have wished it was, Chaosium would quietly drop the license whilst continuing to play in the Cthulhu Mythos.) The game was to be designed by an old hand in the RPG community, whose brother had introduced him to the hobby after playing in one of Dave Arneson’s original games of proto-Dungeons and Dragons. But despite its pedigree, Dark Worlds was delivered very late and in what Chaosium judged to be a very unsatisfactory state. With, as Lynn Willis of Chaosium would later describe it, “bad feelings and confusion” all around, the relationship fell apart — whereupon Greg Stafford recalled Sandy Petersen, who was so desperate to be involved in a ludic tribute to his literary hero that he’d offered to do absolutely anything to help, even if that meant just copy-editing or play-testing. Stafford now gave him much more than that to do, tossing the whole project into the lap of one astonished and delighted young zoology student. Zoology soon fell by the wayside entirely as he embarked on the career he continues to this day: that of game designer.

Greg Stafford (center) and Sandy Petersen (right), with Tadashi Ahara, editor of Chaosium's in-house magazine Different Worlds.

Greg Stafford (center) and Sandy Petersen (right), with Tadashi Ahara, editor of Chaosium’s in-house magazine Different Worlds.

The story of the development of this tabletop RPG of Lovecraftian horror, soon to be renamed Call of Cthulhu, is one of the more fascinating and inspiring case studies in the annals of gaming history. The end result reverberates to this day not only through the world of tabletop gaming but also through its digital parallel. Therefore I’d like to take some time today to look at just what Petersen and his friends at Chaosium did and how they did it.

The great Sid Meier has often advocated starting a game design from its fictional or historical topic rather than beginning with a set ludic genre. His early masterpiece Pirates! provides an excellent example of how productive such an approach can be. Sandy Petersen was considerably more restricted when starting to work on Call of Cthulhu — he needed to deliver something that was recognizably a tabletop RPG at least somewhat in the spirit of Dungeons and Dragons — yet there’s nevertheless much the same spirit of directed innovation about his process and his end result.

If there’s a literary model for the structure of Dungeons and Dragons and its many derivative works, including even Chaosium’s innovative RuneQuest, it must be that most seminal of fantasy novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins starts off weak and vulnerable, sets off on a series of grand adventures culminating in a showdown with a dragon, and finally returns home a stronger and better little hobbit. In the book he lives happily ever after, while in games he more likely heads off again to do something even more remarkable and get even stronger. Still, the general comparison holds. This is gaming as self-improvement — or, if you like, the ultimate power fantasy. There’s of course a reason that this model held and continues to hold such sway over both tabletop and computerized RPGs: it’s damn fun. Everyone loves the feeling of accomplishment that comes with new hit dice, new spells, new magical equipment. Everyone loves trouncing a monster that just a few levels ago would have trounced you. Yet this mode of play is totally at odds with the spirit of Lovecraft’s fiction. Novice designer that he was, Petersen realized this only slowly, as a project that had first struck him as “relatively easy” for a devotee of the Cthulhu Mythos like himself turned into something that left him “appalled.”

He turned back to Lovecraft’s stories, analyzing how they were put together and how they made him feel as a reader. He then asked how he could create those same feelings in his players. Most importantly, he asked what there was about horror that made it different from high fantasy or giddy adventure, and thus what should distinguish his game of horror from all the RPGs that had come before it.

How can I make the mood of a fantasy role-playing game match the mood of a modern horror story? I needed spooky happenings to get the player chilled, I needed black horrors that would chill the minds and blast the souls of the intrepid investigators, and I needed to make sure that the game did not degenerate into a slugfest or simple matching of power against power.

Lovecraft presents no comforting narratives of self-improvement. His is a deterministic universe where intentions matter little, where even the cleverest and strongest are often doomed by the whims of a malevolent fate. Assuming they survive at all, Lovecraft’s protagonists invariably end up psychologically scarred for life if not actually insane — certainly not eager to count up their newly acquired hit points and set off to do it all again. How to recreate this feeling of near powerlessness within the framework of a game that people would actually want to play? This was Petersen’s challenge.

The core of his response was Call of Cthulhu‘s sanity — or, perhaps better said, insanity — system, a brilliant innovation that is justly still celebrated today for advancing the RPG’s potential as a story-making engine. Like so many brilliant innovations, it wasn’t entirely born of its creator’s own ideas.

Looking through an RPG magazine called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice one day, he came upon an article by Glenn and Philip Rahman that offered the beginning of an attempt to adapt the Cthulhu Mythos to Tunnels and Trolls. It outlined a “willpower” statistic. If a character saw something particularly horrifying, she would have to make a willpower check to avoid running away in terror. Fail badly enough and her willpower score would be permanently reduced. The article came and went in the world of Tunnels and Trolls without making much impression. But when Petersen read it it hit him with the force of a revelation. Call of Cthulhu characters could have a “sanity” statistic that would be difficult or impossible to increase but all too easy to decrease. Knowledge of the Mythos, in many ways the very object of the game, would, almost paradoxically, have the important side effect of costing a character sanity. Once a character went insane, she would revert to the control of the “Keeper,” Call of Cthulhu‘s equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons‘s Dungeon Master, quite possibly to suddenly make life much more difficult thereafter for the rest of the players. Meanwhile the player whose character had just gone insane would have no option other than to roll up another. If nothing else, the system would ensure that the lifespan — sanity-span? — of most characters in Call of Cthulhu who persisted in their investigations would be quite short. Thus weak, inexperienced characters would remain the norm. If your Call of Cthulhu characters manage to improve more than once or twice before insanity or death get them, you’re quite probably playing it wrong. Call of Cthulhu is lethal by design.

When Petersen first tried the system on real players, he himself was shocked at how effective it proved to be in evoking the spirit of Lovecraft.

My players found a book which enabled them to summon up a Foul Thing From Otherwhere (a dimensional shambler) and decided to do so. At the moment they completed the spell, the players suddenly chimed in with comments like “I’m covering my eyes.” “Turning my back.” “Shielding my view so I don’t see the monster.” I had never seen this kind of activity in an RPG before – trying NOT to see the monster? What a concept. You may not credit it, but I had actually not realized that the Sanity stat, as I had written it, would lead to such behavior. To me it was serendipitous; emergent play. But I loved it. The players were actually acting like Lovecraft heroes instead of the mighty-thewed barbarian lunks of D&D.

The deadliness extends well beyond the sanity system that stands as the game’s most central innovation. Chaosium had extracted the core mechanics from RuneQuest to create their “Basic Role-Playing” engine, a house system meant to power all of their future games, including Call of Cthulhu. Thus Petersen’s new game already came equipped with an unusually gritty and lethal combat system. “Investigators are not fighting machines,” he wrote in the rules. He further made sure that all of the various Mythos gods and creatures would be suitably overpowered in comparison to the players’ characters. As he’s often noted since in interviews, the least dangerous opponent you’re likely to encounter in the game is a cultist, who’s pretty much just like you. Thus the best you can hope for is even odds, and as far as going toe to toe with the likes of Cthulhu himself… forget about it. There’s an old axiom among Call of Cthulhu players that if a scenario ever comes down to gunplay you’ve probably already lost. It’s the first RPG in history whose combat rules are used as often as not when the players are just trying to get the hell away from something, not to kill it. In making the characters so fragile, so human, Call of Cthulhu can prompt a connection between players and characters that other games can never hope to achieve. Death, injury, and insanity mean something in this game.

Petersen replaced combat as the main focus of Call of Cthulhu with investigation, even going so far as to officially name the players’ characters not “adventurers” but rather “investigators.” This shift was thanks to a quality in Lovecraft’s stories, seemingly so resistant to becoming conventionally fun games, that actually makes them unusually suitable for ludic adaptation in comparison to most works of horror. At heart, many of Lovecraft’s stories are mysteries. The story “The Call of Cthulhu,” Petersen’s game’s namesake for a very good reason, is a perfect example. Its protagonist is an academic who, after coming upon some curious documents among his recently deceased grand-uncle’s papers, slowly ferrets out layer after sinister layer of a global conspiracy of evil. The classic mystery structure is, as I’ve described in a previous article, a perfect setup for a ludic narrative. The real story in a mystery is fixed, leaving the game designer only to provide for the more manageable, almost purely logistical scenario of its uncovering, whilst leaving the player with an obvious goal: to learn more, to solve the puzzle that is the mystery. For this reason mystery stories and games were often intertwined well before the arrival of Dungeons and Dragons or computerized adventure games: R.A. Knox’s ten rules of good practice for designing a mystery; the Baffle Book of solve-em-yourself mystery stories by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay; the classic board game Cluedo; the Crime Dossiers of Dennis Wheatley and J.D. Links, proto-RPGs that captivated players four decades before Dungeons and Dragons. In a sense Call of Cthulhu would merely continue an already long tradition.

As the first full-fledged RPG to do so, however, it was also unique. With combat so lethal and as often as not pointless, other skills came to the fore. Call of Cthulhu became the first and quite possibly still the only RPG where “Library Use” is one of the most valuable skills one can have. Many other skills are equally cerebral: “Accounting,” “Archaeology,” “Law,” “Linguistics,” “Geology,” “Zoology”; the list goes on and on. Playing Call of Cthulhu is a nuanced, intellectual exercise in comparison to its antecedents, a process of ferreting out information and piecing together clues that forces a real engagement with the story and the setting that most games of Dungeons and Dragons lack. Given the nature of the Mythos, it would be quite the stretch to call Call of Cthulhu “non-violent.” Yet it was certainly a different and in its way a more realistic take on violence than had been seen in RPGs before. Violence here is horrifying, as it should be. It’s also swift and deadly and deeply damaging to characters’ psyches as well as their bodies, just as it is in reality. Call of Cthulhu feels like a game for grown-ups, a game capable of producing real drama. Petersen himself notes that “no one’s impressed when a Dungeons and Dragons party kills a werewolf, but when you face off against such a fearsome beast in Call of Cthulhu and survive, it’s a tale worth retelling.” An official Chaosium description of the game further emphasizes just how markedly it departed from all that had come before:

There are no material rewards for those who choose to risk their lives and minds discovering the eldritch horrors hidden in the darkest corners of the world. There are no caches of treasure that await discovery by fearless and intrepid explorers, nor does fame and glory come to those who should defeat some being from “outside.” Those individuals who would speak publicly of what they have learned will soon find themselves ridiculed or even worse. Exploring the Cthulhu Mythos is a more or less solitary pursuit, small groups of adventurers only rarely coming into contact with others who may have some knowledge of the Mythos’s secrets. Even these individuals are usually unwilling to speak too freely of what they know and some, having lost their minds, may prove to be actual worshippers of the hideous Other Gods or Great Old Ones. Those who would choose to learn too much about the Mythos are driven mad, anyone gaining near complete knowledge losing all of his sanity permanently. The only motivation to continue the exploration of these mysteries is that of human curiosity; a desire to know the truth, regardless of the cost. This motivation is common to both the players of the game and the protagonists of the stories.

As Petersen tells the story today, Greg Stafford, Lynn Willis, and the other principals at Chaosium had “contempt” for Lovecraft as a writer, considered him a “hack.” An idealistic take on this might be to say that they were, like many others — myself included — more intrigued by the idea of the Mythos and its potential than thrilled with its actual execution under Lovecraft’s hands. But even that may be too generous a spin. Petersen claims that, eager to find a competitive edge in the increasingly crowded field of RPGs, Chaosium’s strategy at the time was simply to make games in as many viable preexisting literary worlds as possible. During the first half of the 1980s, the strategy also yielded a game called Stormbringer that took place in the world of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy hero Elric, one playing in Larry Niven’s Known Space setting, and another based on the ElfQuest line of comics. There was also a supplement that let players of many fantasy games adventure in Robert Asprin’s much-loved Thieves’ World milieu, and one that would have similarly opened up the world of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories had TSR not wrested the license away at the last minute. None of these efforts represent quite as radical a re-imagining of the RPG as Call of Cthulhu, but all did contribute in their own way to bringing more sophistication and storytelling nuance to the form.

In the case of Call of Cthulhu, the folks at Chaosium found a task that they could approach with almost as much passion as Petersen did the core rules. Lynn Willis in particular put a great deal of time and energy into “A Sourcebook for the 1920s,” an entirely separate book included along with the core rules in the box. It’s an interesting document even for those with no real interest in playing the game to which it’s attached, including along with maps of the world as it then existed treatises on crime and law enforcement, on (non-fictional) cult activities, on travel by air and rail and sea (complete with typical timetables), on money and prices, on important historical personages. Chaosium had largely originated the idea of the elaborate RPG sourcebook with RuneQuest‘s world of Glorantha, but the one included with Call of Cthulhu, built as it is from the real world, feels qualitatively different. Petersen has since been dismissive of Chaosium’s efforts to ground the game so thoroughly in Lovecraft’s own times, saying that what is important is the horror, not the setting.

The Chaosium folks wanted to enjoy playing the game I was going to design, and they wanted a “hook” to hang their fun onto. They chose the 1920s. In their games, they loved driving old cars, talking about zeppelins, flappers, the Weimar Republic and all that stuff. My own games usually didn’t reference the era at all, except peripherally. Yeah, they were in the 1920s too, but they could just as easily have been set anywhere in the 20th century. A haunted house is a haunted house as far as I was concerned.

If he’d had his druthers he’d have placed the game in the (then) present day of circa 1980. This, he says, would “let the keeper take more for granted about the world and not get caught up in details such as ‘Were there trans-Atlantic flights in the early 1920s?'” Personally, though, I think the game benefits enormously from the efforts of Willis and company. The setting is for me a huge part of the game’s murky personality — but then, I’m the sort who gets genuinely curious whether there in fact were trans-Atlantic flights in the early 1920s. (The answer, for the record, is that there weren’t, unless you were Charles Lindbergh. Late in the decade you could book passage on a zeppelin, if you had the means.)

While the gist of the rules themselves would remain very true to Petersen’s original design, Chaosium did tinker here and there in the interest of playability. Most notably, they dialed back Petersen’s brutal sanity/insanity system just slightly by making it possible in some circumstances to regain lost sanity points, and by introducing the idea that some forms of insanity might be only temporary. It was a fine line to walk, remaining true to the spirit of Lovecraftian horror while not creating a game that just felt too futile, pointless to even bother playing. Despite his fearsome reputation, Lovecraft did occasionally allow his protagonists small victories. For instance, the labyrinthian hell beneath New York in “The Horror at Red Hook” is sealed off with concrete at the end of the story, although it’s strongly implied that this represents at best a stopgap. Similarly, “The Colour Out of Space” returns whence it came in the end — even if, ominously, it also seems to leave a small part of itself behind. Chaosium’s tweaks let Call of Cthulhu capture the feel of these small victories, a feel not so much of triumph as of having briefly delayed the inevitable, having kept the cosmic evil at bay for a few more months or years. Petersen, to this day a notoriously lethal Keeper, predictably thought that Chaosium’s tweaks went too far. Once again I disagree; I think they add just enough hope to make each new battle against the Mythos feel worthwhile. Lynn Willis:

Dark endings may be effective ways to end short stories, but they do not work for fantasy role-playing — nobody enjoys seeing their characters always crushed, impaled, drained, sliced, throttled, and otherwise made corpses without relief, and neither is it much fun to have investigators staggering from catatonia to amnesia to stupefaction without much chance to do more than shrug.

That said, the game remains insanely (ha!) deadly in comparison to most of its competition, and Call of Cthulhu thus remains a tough sell for many players. Many simply loathe the bleakness of its premise. Others point to what they see as a fundamental design flaw: the fact that the insanity system directly motivates players not to want to follow through on the ostensible goal of the game, that of learning more about the Mythos so as to better combat it. It’s hard to really argue against the truth of this statement. The question must be whether the narrative texture provided by these two competing motivations is more important than Call of Cthulhu‘s merits (or lack thereof) as a piece of traditional, fair game design. Even among fans, Call of Cthulhu seems to work best in fairly small servings. Certainly long-running campaigns of the sort that are common to Dungeons and Dragons are quite rare in the world of the Mythos. In some ways almost as much an artistic experiment as an attempt to create a likable, playable game, Call of Cthulhu‘s very structure has always limited its appeal.

Released in late 1981 with relatively little fanfare, Call of Cthulhu proved to be a steady seller if never quite a spectacular one. Chaosium supported the game lavishly, particularly for the first several years after its release, which marked a very good period commercially for the company in general. Some of the scenarios and supplements they released have become almost as iconic as the game itself. Benefiting from the fortuitous release of the hugely popular movie Raiders of the Lost Ark just a few months before Call of Cthulhu, much of this material leaned rather heavily on pulpy globe-trotting adventure at the expense of the horror, a development that Petersen always to a greater or lesser degree decried. Yet it’s also hard to argue with some of the results, especially given the element of campy fun that’s always been such a big part of Lovecraft’s own appeal as a writer. Perhaps most legendary of all the Call of Cthulhu supplements is something called Masks of Nyarlathotep by Larry DiTillio, a scenario so huge it needed to come in a box all its own to hold its 450 pages or so worth of detail along with all of its maps and other goodies. No one else in tabletop or digital games at the time was implementing scenarios of this scope and complexity. Sure, it felt at least as much like Indiana Jones as Lovecraftian horror, but, what with opportunities to travel around the world battling cultists in lovingly evoked 1920s versions of New York, London, Egypt, Kenya, and Shanghai, who could really complain? (Well, Petersen to some extent could…) Compare this with the typical Dungeons and Dragons adventure module of the day, which consisted of 20 to 30 pages mapping out the bare tactical challenges of a dungeon and its inhabitants, with all of a paragraph or two giving the players a reason to explore it. Many players found the grand international tapestry of adventure woven by Masks of Nyarlathotep and scenarios like it more compelling than the Cthulhu Mythos itself, resulting in a whole new sub-genre of RPGs focusing on pulpy inter-war adventures rather than horror.

The Masks of Nyarlathotep

After spending some years with Chaosium in the 1980s, working on Call of Cthulhu and other games, Sandy Petersen migrated to the digital realm, a move he frankly acknowledges to have been precipitated by the hard fact that there’s a hell of a lot more money in computer than tabletop games. We’ll likely be meeting him again in future articles in his new role as a designer of computer games. Chaosium, however, stayed the course and stuck to the tabletop, a decision that brought more downs than ups after the company peaked in influence and commercial success sometime shortly after 1984, the year of Masks of Nyarlathotep. Despite nearly going under on multiple occasions, Chaosium has straggled on right to the present day, sometimes as a “real” business with a few full-time employees, sometimes as little more than a hobby. Call of Cthulhu is the only game they’ve maintained continuously in print throughout that period, often as the only game in their catalog. Its influence and reputation have always outstripped its actual sales, but it remains a classic example of game design, eminently worthy of study by designers writing for the computer as well as the tabletop. In the latter realm, some more recent systems like Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press have attempted to create a more playable, forgiving version of a Lovecraftian RPG, while other systems, like the long-lived The Arkham Horror, have tried to do the same as board games. (Not having played any of these games, I can’t speak to their success.)

But, this site being The Digital Antiquarian rather than The Tabletop Antiquarian, I’d like to conclude this article not with an exhaustive history of the later years of Chaosium or Call of Cthulhu or its many paper-and-cardboard heirs, but rather with the real point of this side trip to the tabletop: the immense and too-often overlooked shadow that that original tabletop Call of Cthulhu casts over so much computer-gaming history that follows it. Many computer games, beginning with Infocom’s The Lurking Horror (subject of my next article), were inspired to a greater or lesser degree by Call of Cthulhu‘s example to also play with the Mythos. Some adopted a great deal of their tabletop progenitor’s structural underpinnings. The Hound of Shadow, for instance, developed by the appropriately named Eldritch Games and released in 1989 by Electronic Arts, is practically an unlicensed computerized version of Petersen’s design, complete with a set of suspiciously similar skills to choose from.

Yet almost more interesting, and probably even more important, is the role that Call of Cthulhu played as a proof of concept showing that it could be just as captivating to play someone weak and alone and afraid as an almighty world-conquering hero. Alone in the Dark, the urtext to a whole new gaming genre that became known as survival horror, put that premise to good use in 1992. Just to further underline the association, it also plays with the Mythos, being loaded with references to Lovecraft’s works and lore. Other perennial survival-horror series, like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, later built on Alone in the Dark and by extension on the original Call of Cthulhu, often losing the explicit Lovecraftian references but retaining always the delicious horror of being all alone and very nearly powerless in a cold, unforgiving world. Suffice to say that this is a thread that we’ll be coming back to from time to time just as long as I continue to write these articles for you. Credit where it’s due, then, to Sandy Petersen and Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. Games just don’t get much more influential than this one.

(Sources: the book Designers and Dragons Volume 1: The 1970s by Shannon Appelcline; Different Worlds of February 1982, July/August 1985, and January/February 1986; interviews with Sandy Petersen by Matt Barton, The Gentleman Gamer, Yog-Sothoth, and The Escapist; Petersen’s own “review” of his game on RPG Geek; Grognardia’s post on “The Prehistory of Call of Chtulhu“; Places to Go, People to Be’s history of RPGs. Plus my own memories, alas from long ago now, of battling eldritch horrors with my friends. Thanks, Sandy!)


Posted by on September 25, 2015 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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50 Responses to Lovecraft on the Tabletop

  1. Brian Bagnall

    September 25, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    It’s somewhat of a relief you aren’t covering The Lurking Horror yet as it gives me one more week to finish the game. I tried it ages ago and enjoyed it but never finished. There’s no time like the present!

  2. S. John Ross

    September 25, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    Tunnels & Trolls introduced many shifts away from D&D’s mechanisms, including armor absorbing damage (and spending energy to power spells instead of just forgetting them, etc). RuneQuest built forward from that, and I know tabletop isn’t your realm of focus, but this piece makes it sound like RQ did some of T&T’s heavy lifting.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 25, 2015 at 7:42 pm

      Thanks. Made a small edit to acknowledge Tunnels and Trolls’s contributions. Will likely get a bit more into Tunnels and Trolls’s history, by the way, when we get to a certain famous CRPG on which Ken St. Andre worked as a designer…

  3. Alex Smith

    September 25, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Great article as always. One thing I have always loved about CoC and Arkham Horror (which is essentially CoC light with stock characters and encounters and slimmed down mechanics) is that sense that it is okay to fail. I’m a pretty competitive guy who hates to lose, whether to a fellow human or a computer program, yet there is just something so “right” about struggling against the Mythos and failing that it never gets me particularly upset. And when you pull out that win by the skin of your teeth, its just that much sweeter.

    One pedantic correction, which happens to be one of my few grammar pet peeves. When discussing the “Color Out of Space” you write “returns from whence it came in the end.” I know just about everyone on the planet uses the term “from whence,” but whence is defined as “from which” or “from where.” Therefore, putting “from” in front of “whence” is redundant, and it should just be “returns whence it came in the end.”

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 25, 2015 at 8:01 pm

      You’re right, of course. Edit made. Thanks!

  4. Keith Palmer

    September 25, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    I’m afraid these discussions are driving me to the heretical thought that I’d find it genuinely interesting to see a story in which it’s possible to survive and even coexist in a universe on the surface “Lovecraftian,” and remembering my approving reactions to a history of science fiction by Alexei and Cory Panshin, The World Beyond the Hill, which commented on how other science fiction authors, no matter how “pulp” or even “dodgily unscientific” their treatments, were having different reactions to the universe of the 1920s and 1930s than Lovecraft and other writers of enduring literary merit… the posts remain quite interesting, all the same.

    The brief mention of “RuneQuest” actually got my attention. At the back of my family’s copy of “What To Do After You Hit Return,” a book of early “BASIC computer games” comparable to Dave Ahl’s, there are several pages promoting that very RPG in much the same way you do. That fairly early connection between RPGs and home computing has stuck in my mind for a while.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 26, 2015 at 7:31 am

      There have been quite a number of stories in the Mythos from other authors that present the Lovecraftian gods as less than irredeemably malevolent toward humans — even of one faction allying with humans to fight another. Sandy Petersen and many others have always decried these sorts of scenarios, saying they lose the horror and the sense of unkowability that is to them the essence of Lovecraft. Obviously it all depends on what you’re looking for. The Mythos is large and varied enough to support quite a number of different sorts of spins, from cosmic horror to pulpy adventure to something that feels closer to “pure” science fiction.

      And there was indeed a huge demographic overlap between early computer users and tabletop RPGers, meaning that coverage of the two fields started bleeding together very quickly. I believe that Dragon Magazine started its first column on computers and computer games in about 1980.

      • Keith Palmer

        September 26, 2015 at 11:58 am

        I remember now comments in S.T. Joshi’s introductions that the “post-Lovecraft Mythos” authors had missed the point of the original stories (where he, of course, hadn’t). Against that I just have to place your point about “room for differing interpretations.”

        In any case, I can also remember comments from Steven Levy’s “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution” about computers as “systems to explore,” and RPGs could certainly be seen as the same sort of thing.

      • Sniffnoy

        September 26, 2015 at 7:05 pm

        It’s probably worth pointing out here that the Lovecraftian gods are usually presented as indifferent to humanity, not malevolent in the usual sense…

  5. LoneCleric

    September 27, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    Since you’ve brought up board games, I’ll provide my two cents. I think Arkham Horror nicely covers several aspect of the “Arkham feel” but fails lamentably on one.

    You get to race around Arkham, collect clues, and have otherwordly encounters while attempting to close enough dimensional gates to get that pesky Old One back into slumber.

    The part bugging me is the endgame. Most games will end in a direct confrontation between the Old One and the heroes, and I just don’t buy it. :-(

    That being said, FFG also publishes “Mansions of Madness”, another board game in the Lovecraft universe, which is scenario-based and runs on a smaller scale (one mansion, over one night). In that game, the rules DO point out that direct confrontation with the monsters will likely fail. :-)

  6. LoneCleric

    September 27, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Oh, and since you’ve mentioned the Hound of Shadow and Alone in the Dark, I wanted to point out that in 1992, Microprose also released “The Legacy: Realm of Terror”, a Dungeon-Master-like adventure-RPG with clear lovecraftian influences.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 28, 2015 at 5:23 am

      Yeah, that one was actually done by the remnants of Magnetic Scrolls.

  7. jdv

    September 28, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    There’s a late 90s version of Alien, a PC/DOS computer game, where your dreams of alien ovipositors and access to eldritch mirror worlds while negotiating “normal” human interactions you can’t trust borrows heavily from this RPG, too.

    Event though on the face of it, it is a completely different story.

  8. Michael Simmons

    September 28, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    Call of Cthulhu remains lodged in my memory as the time when my friend came over to play it…

    I spent a couple of hours making my character in intricate detail. When it was finally time to play, it took all of about 10 minutes to “investigate” the vampire’s house, and for my character to die.

    I hope my friend remembers the look on my face when he asked if I wanted to start a new character, because I’m sure it wasn’t a happy look.

  9. Frank

    September 30, 2015 at 1:41 am

    Another point about Call of Cthulhu and computer games is that for many years only Dungeons and Dragons and it were the only TRPGS available in Japan. Japan’s Galapagos tabletop ecosystem has been exposed a bit more to western audiences in the last few years with a number of successful translation Kickstarters.

    There are some traces of CoC in a number of Japanese computer games as well.

    But others can probably tell it better than me:

  10. Alex Freeman

    September 30, 2015 at 3:45 am

    “RuneQuest‘s rules fixed many of Dungeons and Dragons other inexplicable aspects, like the way that armor somehow made a character more difficult to hit instead of absorbing damage when she was hit.”

    Actually, that feature of DND makes sense if you know how armor actually works. In the middle ages, for instance, if you had a sword, and your opponent were wearing plate armor, you wouldn’t try to cut through his armor because that would be futile, and it would likely damage your sword. Instead, you’d look for gaps in his armor and try to stab through them. Thus, wearing armor makes you less likely to be hit because less of your body is unprotected. That is, in fact, the official justification given for wearing armor making a character less likely to be hit in DND.

    Amor class is supposed to be a measure of how hard it is to land a solid blow on someone. Thus, armor raises (or lowers it depending on whether you’re using ascending or descending AC), and so do being small, fast, or dexterous. Dexterity makes you more likely to land a blow on an opponent, but so does strength since hitting harder makes it more likely the blow will harm your opponent.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 30, 2015 at 5:34 am

      That sounds a bit tortured to me — or rather a justification after the fact. ;) What if your opponent is wearing leather armor and you’re carrying a big old club? Are you still looking for gaps? Despite the insane quantity of different sorts of pole arms in the original rules, D&D is hardly a painstaking simulation of medieval warfare. It’s an evocation of a romanticized medieval world that never existed, and most things work the way people imagine they would work in such a world. And the conventional wisdom on such things is definitely that armor would reduce damage.

      Not that it’s ultimately all that important. It’s a mechanical abstraction that works well enough. Far more objectionable really is the way that armor class starts at 10 and goes down instead of… you know, starting at 0 and going up like all the other stats. Foolish consistencies and hobgoblins?

      • Alex Freeman

        September 30, 2015 at 7:14 am

        Well, fair enough. There is debate over whether medieval people actually wore leather armor as it probably would have offered less protection than padded or quilted armor and been more expensive too. Maybe the standard reply would be that you’re trying to club some part of the body not covered by the leather armor.

        I suppose if you had something blunt like a club or mace and hit armor like padded or leather armor or mail, the best the armor could do would be to simply lessen the impact of the blow. Having said that, the combat of DND was apparently supposed to resemble the combat in the Conan the Barbarian stories.

        I totally agree with your take on descending AC. i thought that exact same way when I first found out about it, but it was actually fixed in DND 3. What I think is more objectionable, though, is the overly abstract hit points.

        • Jimmy Maher

          September 30, 2015 at 8:16 am

          Hit points are generally described in a similar way to armor class: as characters get more experience they learn to avoid the full brunt of attacks against them, thus taking less damage. This is counter intuitively reflected in an increased hit-point total. (I’m sure you know this already; just summing up.)

          D&D’s systems work well enough for combat-and-leveling-focused dungeon crawls, but they’re highly problematic for creating any sense of real, embodied presence. What’s *happening* when you take X points of damage in D&D? It’s impossible to know, impossible to really picture. Call of Cthulhu’s rules, on the other hand, explicitly say that Keepers should NOT just say that “you take X points of damage” but actually describe what’s just really *happened* to you.

          Maybe the biggest disconnect with D&D is that so much of the rhetoric surrounding it, especially in the early days, pushed against what it really does best: the abstracted tactics of crawling dungeons and fighting monsters. There’s of course nothing wrong with that, but trying to turn it into a real storytelling engine strikes me as crazy, especially today when there are so many better alternatives out there.

      • Lisa H.

        September 30, 2015 at 5:24 pm

        *resists digging up a monster book for AD&D 2nd Ed and looking up the base AC of a hobgoblin*

  11. Lisa H.

    September 30, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    That was referring to the “Foolish consistencies and hobgoblins?” remark, of course. Should have quoted.

  12. Alex Freeman

    September 30, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    “D&D’s systems work well enough for combat-and-leveling-focused dungeon crawls, but they’re highly problematic for creating any sense of real, embodied presence. What’s *happening* when you take X points of damage in D&D?”

    Yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The lack of presence really goes against the role-playing aspect. I remember having a problem related to that when I was running some adventure, and one player, being something of a loose cannon both in the game and in real life, decided to throw a dagger at someone walking past the group. (Did I mention he was playing a thief?) Since the target was facing away from the group, he couldn’t have seen it coming. Well, it was a hit, and one hit point was subtracted, but was that for physical damage, or was it for a lucky evasion? I ended up deciding to treat hit points as real hit points because it doesn’t seem to work any other way in practice since healing spells can restore all hit points, and poison-touch monsters always seem to hit hard enough to poison characters.

    “Maybe the biggest disconnect with D&D is that so much of the rhetoric surrounding it, especially in the early days, pushed against what it really does best: the abstracted tactics of crawling dungeons and fighting monsters.”

    I’ve read that Gary Gygax intended DND to enable people who’ve read fantasy adventure stories, particularly pulp fantasy like Conan the Barbarian and the Grey Mouser, to be able to live out their own adventures like those, but again I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about DND being best suited for tactical dungeon crawls. Maybe Gygax wanted story-telling possibilities with DND but didn’t really know how to design it for that sort of thing because, as a designer, he couldn’t move past his war-gaming days. His war game Chainmail is actually the forerunner to DND.

    “There’s of course nothing wrong with that, but trying to turn it into a real storytelling engine strikes me as crazy, especially today when there are so many better alternatives out there.”

    Which ones do you recommend for fantasy?

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 30, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      Gygax was kind of all over the place on what D&D was or should be. The game of course did evolve from wargaming, and conventional wisdom would have it that in the Gygax/Arneson friendship the former was the wargamer, the latter the more fiction-focused guy. (Gygax supposedly drove Arneson crazy at times: “How many kinds of pole arms do we need, Gary? It’s a stick with a pointy thing on the end of it!”) On the other hand, though, I’ve already written ( about some of Gygax’s rhetoric of the late 1970s, in which he manages to invoke Aristotle and Shakespeare in connection with this game made for “thespians.” On the third hand, an absolutely delightful article written not long before his death ( quotes him as dismissing role-playing entirely, saying, “If I want to do that I’ll join an amateur theater group.”

      I’m afraid I’m not at all the person to give specific game recommendations. I cast an eye over the tabletop RPG scene from time to time, so I know lots of much more grounded systems exist, but I haven’t actually played in many years. Among my readers, I know that Victor Gijsbers is or until recently was quite involved in the modern scene. If he happens to read this, maybe he can chime in with some recommendations.

      • Victor Gijsbers

        October 1, 2015 at 9:43 am

        By now, I guess it is received wisdom that D&D is especially suitable for dungeon crawling, and not so much for telling co-authored stories. I’ll use the word “co-authored” to indicate that everyone around the table is contributing significantly to the story that is being told. Many traditional games — and I would be surprised if Call of Cthulhu is an exception — put most of the story control in the hands of a Game Master and leave the players to discover this pre-existing story and, at most, react to it.

        The current rpg (or “story games”) scene publishes many, many games, far too many for me to keep up with. :-) If you would like to look at a relatively traditional but modern game, you could check out Fate. It looks like D&D in some respects, but the core mechanics have been built to make your rolls be about the stuff your character actually cares about. Fantasy is one of its core genres, I think.

        If you’d like to depart a little more from traditional games, I have heard very good things about Dungeon World. It’s based on Vincent Baker’s post-apocalyptic Apocalypse World, but for traditional fantasy adventures. (I played neither, but I did recently play another game based on Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts, which is basically set in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe. It was awesome. Truly great mechanics.)

        If you want to get a taste of recent rpg mechanics with a game that can be played in a single evening, I cannot recommend Fiasco highly enough. It is a humorous game about hapless petty criminals who get into all sorts of trouble, and it is played without a Game Master.

        But let me know what you are most interested in, in terms of setting, theme, number of players, length of game, and so on, and maybe I’ll have a more specific recommendation for you.

        • Alex Freeman

          October 3, 2015 at 3:31 am

          Well, I was thinking something along these lines:

          It looks interesting, but I’m not sure I want to plunk down $50 for something that turns out not to be as good as it looks.

          Basically, something that focuses on swords & sorcery instead of high fantasy, preferably eschewing humanoid player character races like elves, dwarfs, and halflings. Something that has physical hit points instead of abstract ones and describes the damage done to characters but without being prone so much to you losing your character because of a single lousy roll of the dice (although I’m still OK with that being simply possible). Something that has the elegance of modern design and the simplicity of the old school.

          • Victor Gijsbers

            October 5, 2015 at 9:24 am

            If you want something with hit points and so on (which are extremely uncommon in modern school storytelling games) you’d probably be best served in looking for the games that are marketed under the label “old school revival.” I know little about this, but some titles are “Lamentations of the Flame Princess”, “Adventurer Conqueror King”, “Monsters & Magic” and “Swords and Wizardry.” I’m pretty sure at least some of these have free or extremely cheap versions available.

            For a very different approach, I can also recommend Sorceror and its supplement “Sorcerer & Sword”, which is about sword and sorcery gaming. It doesn’t have physical hit points or anything, but it does have protagonists who make unwise pacts with demons in order to become powerful. The supplements of Sorcerer are good sources of inspiration even when you’re not playing Sorcerer.

          • Alex Freeman

            October 5, 2015 at 5:40 pm

            Well, maybe I should have been clearer. It doesn’t have to have hit points, just not some system like DND’s hit points. I really meant some system that does a better job of deciding what some injury is and so forth and isn’t overly abstract. Some system that always tells you if the reason you didn’t get hit is because you dodged, you used your shield, you used your weapon, or your armor absorbed the blow and doesn’t conflate being hit too lightly with not being hit at all.

            • Jimmy Maher

              October 5, 2015 at 10:38 pm

              I fear that you two are talking past one another, and that’s to some extent my fault for roping Victor into the conversation. Sorry about that! Victor is interested primarily (exclusively?) in games that focus on personal interaction and storymaking, not so much on combat. But I think that you, Alex, are looking for a very different sort of game, something more traditional but with more realistic (or at least more embodied, less abstracted) mechanics than D&D. I feel certain that the game you’re looking for is out there — Chaosium’s BRP? GURPS Fantasy? — but fear that neither Victor nor I may be quite the right person to find it for you.

          • Alex Freeman

            October 5, 2015 at 10:57 pm

            Well, I actually am open to personal interaction and storymaking in addition to having mechanics more embodied and less abstracted (and ideally more realistic or more like combat in fantasy literature) than those in D&D. I have some objections to the way DND is done, particularly the combat system and magic system.

  13. Felicity Banks

    October 1, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    I was born in the 80s (complete with naturally enormous hair that would have been grand if I’d been into high fashion as a toddler), and as a result I came rather late to the table (hah! Table!) but I am well aware of the impact of D&D on the role-playing and Interactive Fiction world/s I love so much.

    When I heard about Call of Cthulhu (summarised perfectly with “it’s horror – everyone dies and/or goes insane”) I knew instantly that it was both brilliant and not for me. I really can’t handle horror, though I admire it from afar.

    My own IF gamebooks are very much on the “powering up, and beating the baddie” side of things, and I’m in the process of learning that a LOT of IF is about different experiences – like romance, or mental illness, or non-binary gender experiences, or even gamewriting itself. I suspect that the non-violence of these games owes a lot to the Call of Cthulhu revelation that there are so many different experiences to be had.

    And now I need to think about how many untapped experiences are out there, and how to give those experiences to readers.

    Thank you again, Mr Lovecraft et al. I owe you.

  14. Manuel Llanes

    January 18, 2016 at 3:12 pm

    Wonderful article, so many memories… !
    On the note of Sanity as a game mechanic, a video game makes good use of a similar one is PS4´s “Bloodborne” .
    It has a similar stat (“Insight”), and it´s used in very clever ways.


    BB is also considered to be thematically touching on Lovecraftian themes

  15. Peter Piers

    February 15, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    That CoC cover art reminds me suspiciouly of Alone in the Dark!

  16. Ken Brubaker

    March 30, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    If I remember correctly from many years ago, one of the really unique things about the sanity was that the more intellectual you were (and thus better as an investigator), the more likely you were to fail on your sanity checks when confronted with something from ‘outside’.

    This made for an interesting trade off when creating your characters: do I make a dumb guy who can shoot an almost useless gun but won’t crack or a smart guy who can figure out the clues but won’t be able to handle stuff that shouldn’t exist?

  17. DZ-Jay

    March 24, 2017 at 10:57 am

    >> “Thus the the best you can hope for is even odds…”

    Doubled-up “the.”

    >> “R.A. Knox’s ten rules of good practice for designing the game that with the reader that is a classic mystery novel…”

    I’m having trouble parsing that sentence. Perhaps an extra preposition or a missing comma or something…?

    Very interesting read. Cosmic horror is not really my cup-o’-tea (nor are RPGs), so I’m not very familiar with the Mythos nor the games depicted here. However, I still find it fascinating to learn how the games I do recognize, such as Alone In The Dark and the Resident Evil series, were influenced by the early innovations of games in a completely different genre and medium.


    • Jimmy Maher

      March 24, 2017 at 12:35 pm


  18. DZ-Jay

    March 24, 2017 at 11:08 am

    To me, H.P. Lovecraft’s work is sort of like Phillip K. Dick’s in that the most interesting part of each is the influence they’ve had on subsequent works by other authors. Reading Lovecraft and Dick always leaves me exhausted with a sense of “what the heck did I just put myself through?”

    However, beneath the purple prose of the former and the paranoid and psychotic ramblings of the latter, there is enough of the seed of an idea, a conception so interesting in its own right, that it tends to take roots in our mind, building itself up as it grows — almost in spite of its original story and presentation. Thus we see an entire world (and explore it by our own devices) rather than the perhaps limited landscape that the author’s diction directly conveys.


  19. Big Grandma

    June 16, 2019 at 9:07 pm

    Having recently prepared a short CoC scenario for some friends,I can say that one of the main charms of thar RPG for me is the linkage with the real world that it has. I wanted my scenario to be set in Boston in Prohibition era. So, I started researching about the city and the gangs operating there. Thus I learned a lot about bootlegging, rumrunners, the speakesies and all the techniques employed (note: I am not American, so I had only tangential contact with the subject).
    You mention somewhere in the article that players feel a closer connection with their investigators. They are all only humans after all. The research involved in each scenario, the real characters you can introduce and the attempt to bring realism in your scenario and to tie it with the unspeakable, unnameable etc. horrors of HPL is what makes it a great RPG for me.

    • Jimmy Maher

      August 14, 2019 at 7:36 am


  20. Ben

    January 20, 2023 at 1:16 pm

    Dungeon’s and Dragons‘s -> Dungeons and Dragons‘s

    Algeren self-improvement -> Algeran [Alger-ian?] self-improvement

    Phillip Rahman -> Philip Rahman

    Pettersen -> Petersen

    ten rules of good practice for designing the game with the reader that is a classic mystery novel -> ten rules of good practice for writing a classic mystery novel [?]

    Robert Aspirin -> Robert Asprin

    Fahfhrd -> Fafhrd

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 20, 2023 at 5:02 pm


  21. Ben

    January 23, 2023 at 4:29 pm

    You haven’t changed “ten rules of good practice for designing the game with the reader that is a classic mystery novel” – still not clear what you’re even trying to say here

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 24, 2023 at 12:54 am

      It’s just not that hard to parse for me. Ten rules of good practice for designing a classic mystery novel, which is a game with the reader.

      • Michael

        September 25, 2023 at 10:47 pm

        Wow! Now I understood that! You mean to say that writing a mystery novel is like playing a game with the reader, and that there are ten rules for designing one. Until I saw this comment, I had no idea what you were saying – this just looked like a word jumble. Some people probably parse the dependent clauses better than others, but I think the tricky part comes when “the reader that is” leads into a phrase that does not, in fact, describe the reader.

        • Mike Taylor

          September 26, 2023 at 2:37 pm

          For whatever little it’s worth, I’m with Ben and Michael on this one.

          • Jimmy Maher

            September 29, 2023 at 4:45 pm

            Fair enough. Thanks!


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