The Hotness
Games|People|Company
Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls
Guide to Glorantha (Two Volume Set)
Far Trek
Technoir
Dread House
Star Wars: Force and Destiny Core Rulebook
Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana
The End of the World: Wrath of the Gods
Shadowbrook Manor
Scourge of the Demon Wolf
Whitehack
Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set
Player's Handbook (D&D 5e)
Occult Adventures
Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads!!!!
Stalker
Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game
Baker Street: Roleplaying in the World of Sherlock Holmes
The Darkening of Mirkwood
Star Wars: Force and Destiny Beginner Game
Mythic Game Master Emulator
Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game (2nd Edition)
The Covetous Poet's Adventure Creator and Solo GM Guidebook
Feng Shui 2
Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook
The Cypher System Rulebook
Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game
Role-Playing Mastery
The Revised Recon
KidWorld the Role Playing Game
Microscope
Cosmic Patrol Core Rulebook
Wild West
Horror on the Orient Express (2nd Edition)
The End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse
A Red & Pleasant Land
Hell Unleashed
Desperate Allies
Dungeon Masters Guide (AD&D 1e)
Monster Manual (AD&D 1e)
Dread
B2: The Keep on the Borderlands
Gemini
Masks of Nyarlathotep (3rd & 4th edition)
Malleus Monstrorum
M2: Maze of the Riddling Minotaur
AD&D Core Rules 2.0 Expansion CD-ROM
The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, Volume 1: Your Story
Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Beginner Box
Inner City
Recommend
125 
 Thumb up
 Hide
33 Posts
1 , 2  Next »   | 

Call of Cthulhu (2nd - 6th Edition)» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Here I am reviewing my own game. rss

Your Tags: Add tags
Popular Tags: [View All]
Sandy Petersen
United States
Rockwall
Texas
flag msg tools
designer
publisher
mbmbmbmbmb
Howdy all! This is Sandy Petersen, author of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. I wasn’t really sure whether to post this here or in the “first edition” section, but eventually decided that more players seem to haunt this area.

I’m not going to try to explain the rules of the game. Call of Cthulhu is over 30 years old, and has sunk into the collective subconscious of RPGs. Even people who don’t play it know enough to make jokes about it and, frankly, that’s about the biggest praise I can think of. Instead in this article, I am going to discuss the history, design decisions, and position of this strange little game. In other words, like Cotton-Eyed-Joe, where did it come from? Where did it go?

HISTORY
I got into D&D almost immediately after it came out, way back in 1974. Soon my friends and I were hardcore roleplayers. We tried other RPGs too, such as the almost-unplayable Empire of the Petal Throne, the absolutely-unplayable horrors of FGU (Chivalry & Sorcery and Villains & Vigilantes), First edition Traveller, etc.. In 1978 we encountered first-edition Runequest and it took our group by storm. Today we would call it the first second-generation RPG. It had pretensions to combat realism, a complete mythic world, and a real magic system! We loved it. At first we played both D&D and Runequest, but after about a year D&D play dropped off to nothing, and we were solid Runequesters.
I was such a fan of Runequest that I wrote to Greg Stafford, the president of Chaosium. Instead of putting me on the FBI stalker list, he encouraged me, and I published some articles and one book of monsters with him. Ultimately I proposed an expansion to Runequest in which the players could adventure in H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. Greg wasn’t interested, because he already had a guy designing a Lovecraft game set in the real world. Ack! This was like the holy grail to me, because I had been a Lovecraft fan since the age of 8, literally. (You can draw your own conclusions about my childhood.) I begged to be allowed in on the project, and then Greg dropped another bombshell - the other guy was dragging his heels, so Greg wanted to drop the whole project in my lap. Excelsior! Greg never even sent me the other person’s notes and writings, so I had to do the whole thing from scratch.

I had previously worked on a game I called American Gothic, which was basically horror set in the modern world. It had not gotten too far along, and used its very own RPG system which was, admittedly, much inferior to Basic Role Playing, which is what Greg demanded. He also demanded that I set the game in the 1920s, which is when Lovecraft wrote the stories.

WHY THE 1920s?
To me, Lovecraft was never about the era. His characters used cutting-edge technology, such as submarines, airplanes, and recording devices, and interacted with cutting-edge events, such as the discovery of Pluto, and 20th-century population conflicts and pressures. So the way I saw it, if HPL had lived in 1980, he’d have written about Jimmy Carter (my dream is a 1980 HPL story where we find out it wasn’t a giant swimming *rabbit* after all).

However, the good folks at Chaosium did not respect Lovecraft. Greg’s exact words were "HPL is a terrible writer." That was mild, compared to some other Chaosium opinions. They were okay with having a fan like me design the game, because that way my love for Lovecraft would be in the rules. But on the other hand, 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.

So Call of Cthulhu to this day is officially set in the 1920s, and has the big 1920s guidebook, with which I had little to do, except providing some monster stats (like for mummies and wolves and so forth). But that was the Chaosium thing.

SANITY
The central driving mechanic of Call of Cthulhu is Sanity. This stat starts pretty high, then deteriorates over time. Though there are methods of raising it, usually you can tell how long you’ve been playing a particular investigator by how low it’s dropped. Lots of folks have told me how ingenious and revolutionary this concept was, and I’ve seen it adapted to many other games under many different names.

As such I’d like to take full credit for inventing it. But I can’t, alas. The original concept was published in an article for the Sorcerer’s Apprentice magazine, where the authors (whose names are published in other interviews of mine) suggested that the player be given a Willpower stat or some such thing, and if he saw something too scary, he could take a Willpower check, and a bad enough failure could reduce it permanently. Reduce it permanently?! This was what I hung my hat on. I took the fundamental idea, called it Sanity, made it the focus of the game, and instead of, on rare occasions, lowering this stat, I had almost every encounter and event reduce one’s Sanity, till player-characters could become gibbering wrecks, or even turn into GM-controlled monsters.

It worked like a charm. In the very first game I ever ran of Call of Cthulhu (long before the rules were finished), 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.

I knew I was on to something and kept refining the Sanity mechanic, in conjunction with the people at Chaosium, until it reached its current state. One big change was that I had concluded that Sanity should only diminish, and never increase, and the folks at Chaosium thought that was too negative even for a game about Cthulhu. They were right, I feel. And after all, Sanity still trends downwards, so I got my way in the end. If anything it’s more agonizing for the players this way, because they are fooled into thinking they can work their Sanity back up. Ha ha.

THE MONSTERS

Early reviews of the game took issue with my portrayal of the monsters and gods of the Cthulhu Mythos. (Well, at least T.E.D. Klein’s review did.) They wanted mysterious undescribed horrors, but I just wasn’t raised that way. Not after 7 years of D&D, anyhoo. So I wanted concrete stats and I got them. The biggest problem was that, of course, Lovecraft didn’t specify hardly any of his monsters. They had descriptors instead of names. "Hunting Horrors", "Formless Spawn", that sort of things. My response, pedestrian as it may sound, was to take those descriptors and turn them INTO names, plus adding a few extra monsters for good cheer. (Yes, the Dark Young are totally my invention. Now it can be told.) Turning the gods, like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, into monsters went a little against the grain, but on the other hand, the wholly-materialistic Lovecraft kind of treated them LIKE big monsters. Cthulhu, for instance, isn’t really a god - he’s just a huge alien horror; high priest and ruler of his loathsome race. (And what is he a high priest OF? That’s never said.)

HOW TO PLAY LOVECRAFT
Lovecraft is famously unfilmable. If you take the stories literally, he’s almost unplayable too. The Great Race went extinct 70 million years ago - how can you interact with them? Shoggoths are so awful, people go insane just seeing them in dreams. Lovecraft wrote a story about a guy who had sex with a gorilla. WTF!? One of the tasks I was assigned by Chaosium was to write an essay about “How to Play Call of Cthulhu”, and I put a lot of thought into it. In the end I based it on Lovecraft’s own stories – not the plots, but the way the tales played out. Instead of crashing through the front door of the cultist temple and opening fire, I recommended trying to investigate – the main thrust of the game was actually a mental struggle instead of a physical one. The players are trying to understand what is going on. Knowledge is power. Once they realize what is happening, they can (usually) solve the riddle and save the world, though it usually requires a big boss confrontation at the least.

Really, it’s a very cinematic game. This is in part because I grew up informed by horror films. (I’m a huge horror buff - ask me anything.) Naturally, I picture my game sequences in the form of film scenes, rather than literary ones. So I wrote a game which is, in fact, built around show-stopper images. The dark library looming up in the darkness. The desolate hills. The hideous chanting from underground. It’s all visual and auditory - like a movie.

STRENGTH OUT OF WEAKNESS: WHY WAS CALL OF CTHULHU A SUCCESS?
This question can be broken into two parts. First, how did this game, so peculiar and quirky, survive to this day? Second, why did other, often better-produced and more mass-market, horror games, such as Chill, vanish into the netherworld of forgotten games? (White Wolf is still doing fine, though.) Cthulhu is a bigger meme than Frankenstein today. He sure wasn’t back in 1981, and I credit a lot of his popularity to this game.

Other roleplaying games were about living your dreams. You got to pilot a starship, cast mighty spells, fight dragons. In Call of Cthulhu, you played a puny pedantic neurotic, plagued by nightmares and horrors beyond human comprehension – it was a nightmare, rather than a dream. Rarely has a game been more out-of-synch with its contemporaries. But oddly enough I think this is the secret of Call of Cthulhu’s success. It’s contrarian. If you don’t like the heroic subtext of other RPGs, you can be as inferior as you like in CoC. And of course, since you are just a helpless mortal, any success you have is magnified. No one’s impressed when a D&D party kills a werewolf, but when you face off against such a fearsome beast in CoC and survive, it’s a tale worth retelling.

So both people who didn't like the testosterone heroics of other games, and people who just wanted a break, to use their brains instead of their brawn, both gravitated to Call of Cthulhu. In doing so, another benefit soon became clear - girls liked scary stories, but were not always interested in Conanesque antics, so you could get your girlfriend to play when Cthulhu was running. There were even all-female campaigns here and there around the country. In an era when only male nerds played RPGs, this was not insignificant.

Of course there was a sort of backlash against Call of Cthulhu. Other horror-based RPGs appeared, trying to "fix" CoC’s perceived flaw by making the heroes mighty again. The problem was, there are lots of venues for you to be mighty, already. Traveller, Champions, D&D, all place you above the common ruck of humanity. When a game like Chill does so too, who cares?

What about Vampire the Masquerade, you ask? Well, it plays off on the conventional RPG hero motif. But it also, unlike other horror RPGs, gave you a complete and interesting world, in which much of the game’s emphasis is actually about politics and diplomacy as much as adventuring. So it complements Call of Cthulhu, rather than being a rival. It’s certainly easy enough to imagine CoC investigators trying to hunt down and destroy the obsessed, fey bloodsuckers of the Masquerade. A crossover game might be interesting, at least as a LARP.
  • [+] Dice rolls
Paolo Robino
Italy
Dueville
Vicenza
flag msg tools
"I'm a Nay Saying worm beast!"
badge
mbmbmbmbmb
Great piece, thank you! This is the kind of stuff I'd like to read more: inside commentary about the genesis of RPGs. Bravo! thumbsup
12 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Jan
Belgium
De Haan
flag msg tools
designer
If you have some sanity left...
badge
...come and join me in the tavern I buy you a mug of beer.
mb
Wow thanks a lot for sharing this. I'm so happy that I learned to know this game. I just love GM'ing it and my players love to play it.
13 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
jeremy waffles
United States
Tucson
Arizona
flag msg tools
mb
Thanks, that was great!
9 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
DMSamuel
United States
Middletown
New York
flag msg tools
designer
publisher
mbmbmbmbmb
Hi Sandy - Wow, what a great read! Thanks for posting this!
9 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Dan Owsen
United States
Redmond
Washington
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Great article, thanks for posting!! I also grew up reading Lovecraft, and still have my 1st edition COC boxed set.
9 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Johan L
United Kingdom
Buckinghamshire
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Really interesting article Sandy, thanks for sharing.
8 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Pedro Ziviani
Iceland
Hafnarfjörður
flag msg tools
designer
mbmbmbmbmb
Hi Sandy, thanks for sharing this. It was a great read!
9 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Robert Masson
United States
Van Nuys
California
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Sandy,

As a long-time fan I wanted to say Thank -You! CoC was my great love post D&D and it has held my imagination throughout my life. I don't get to play RPG very often now but I continue to scribble notes about campaigns and they all have a Cthulian Mythos theme . Most recently I have been reading Delta Green and The Laundry and am completely inspired to gather the Bretherin of Gamers to my Table and once more let the explore the dark crevasses of the Universe..

Your Article was outstanding and insightful! I was great getting to understand the genesis of this wonderful game. Do you still design and publish games?

All the Best,
Rob
14 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Frank Eisenhauer
United States
Atlanta
Georgia
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Thank you for sharing! Very insightful.
7 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Kevin Heckman
United States
California
flag msg tools
designer
"What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?"
mbmbmbmbmb
Sandy -- first off, thanks for creating a game which has given me and my friends countless enjoyment over the years. Secondly, thanks for peeling back the curtain and letting us look at the creative process.

One question regarding your comment on the era. No doubt you're correct that Lovecraft didn't write about the 1920s per se, but about the "modern era" (to him anyway). Yet the Classic era stuff outsells the Cthulhu Now stuff by a wide margin, and in general the modern era scenarios (except for Delta Green) are held to be almost completely inferior. Why do you think that it's been so challenging to prouce quality stuff for the modern age, if Lovecraft translates equally well to any era?

As a side note, my first CoC book was 4th ed (1988?). Key to setting the tone was the creepy, shadowy black-and-white picture of the author staring balefully out at me from the back cover. You look a lot jollier now, but I kind of miss the old guy's glare.
15 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Eric M. Aldrich I
United States
California
flag msg tools
designer
publisher
mbmbmbmbmb
Yes, thanks for posting.

As you've said, I've always felt this was the first successful contrarian view of "traditional" (ala D&D) devised, and a milestone in the development of RPGs.

Thanks for a great game.
12 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Stuart Boon
United Kingdom
Glasgow
Lanarkshire
flag msg tools
designer
mbmb
Absolutely brilliant to hear these thoughts from you, Sandy.

Call of Cthulhu has always been a game apart and your commentary gives us some indication why.

To my mind, what matters most is that early passion and interest in all things Lovecraftian. That enthusiasm is so well communicated in the game. It engenders enthusiasm in keepers and players alike and answers a desire to play a game that is always 'against the odds'.

For generations of folk who have found themselves at odds with the world, Call of Cthulhu has been there. And for that, we owe you eternal thanks!
10 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Andrew Goenner
United States
St. Cloud
Minnesota
flag msg tools
designer
publisher
Yup, changed the Avatar for self-promotion.
badge
Go vote in the 24-Hour RPG Design Contest!
mbmbmbmbmb
Thank you for contributing such an amazing game to the roleplaying subculture. I still remember worrying if my investigator was going to get eaten by a crocodile while tracking down Nyarlethotep or go complete batguano crazy first.

Now I just need to get myself a copy so I can introduce it to my current players...
8 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Brian Franzman
United States
Tacoma
Washington
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Thanks for the insight! It's always interesting to learn the history behind something I've grown so attached to over the years. In my case, it's been the RPGs that tended to influence my tastes in literature. Chaosium turned me on to reading all sorts of Mythos fiction (HPL, Bloch, Campbell) via Call of Cthulhu, and on the flip side, King Arthur Pendragon got me started reading old Arthurian literature. You have my gratitude for a great game and the discovery of a new side to me!

I haven't touched any Runequest yet, but now you make me curious about trying that one... Good analysis of the failure of Chill to capture the horror market, though that game's reliance on standard horror tropes did make it fairly vanilla. And I think "playing the monster" is the key to the success of the White Wolf games (though the abundance of angsty goth kids certainly helped)...

Do tell, though, how you feel about the continual revision of CoC's Sanity rules! I remember back in the day (4th edition?) when you would simply roll up a phobia and move on. Now, you have a focus on making permanent insanity much more realistic, which works well but doesn't hold the same flavor. Did you play a major part in these changes?
9 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Chick Lewis
United States
Claremont
California
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Yowee, what a great and interesting tale !

I have been Keeping CoC games every month for 15 years, and just last month, my ladyfriend became a first time Keeper, and I got to play a character !!!

Thanks for a great article, Sandy, and a truly wonderful Game System. It has brought me SO much enjoyment over the years.

Chick
7 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Eric Dodd
New Zealand
Martinborough
flag msg tools
designer
July 5th Miramar -Be There!
mbmbmbmbmb
Thank you, Sandy! It's wonderful to have you posting here about your fantastic creation.

You have inspired so many people with Call of Cthulhu and for that you can never be thanked enough.

I think one of the strengths of CoC and the Basic RPG system is that they do transfer so easily into different eras. Human investigators are weaker than the horrors of the Mythos in whatever time and era they are placed, so the tricky issues of balancing do not seem so important. Dark Ages, Cthulhu Invictus, Cathulhu and all the Strange Aeons settings show that many stories and settings can be easily driven by the game rules and structure you created.
7 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Scott Josephus
United States
Illinois
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Hi Sandy, I spoke to you via email a while back on BGG. I just wanted to echo the sentiments of the others here, and I think your assements about why Cthulhu took off and stands to this day as a Classic in the field is spot on. Your game introduced the Mythos to me, and gave me a lifelong passion for Lovecraft (My daughter wore her My Little Cthulhu T-shirt to Gencon this year while I wore my H.P. Lovecraft shirt - she stole my little stuffed Cthulhu). And I hope to pass this love of the Mythos onto her. googoo
6 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Myles Corcoran
Ireland
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Excellent stuff, Sandy. Thanks for the insight to the genesis of CoC.
5 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Hovhannes B.
United States
Unspecified
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Thank you for such an amazing read! I am also a huge fan of the C'thulhu mythos and have wanted to develop games in that vein. I have to admit that I have played CoC but at the time I was maybe 14 and don't remember it in fine detail. I read about a "leather bound collector's edition" which is coming out that I just might have to get!

Anyway, thank you for the thread.
5 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Phil Hibbs
United Kingdom
flag msg tools
mummykitty wrote:
Great article, thanks for posting!! I also grew up reading Lovecraft, and still have my 1st edition COC boxed set.

I have the original manuscript, signed in person by Sandy. He also signed my Serpent Man tee-shirt (pic from Petersen's Guide).
5 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Paul Maclean
United Kingdom
Innsmouth House
flag msg tools
publisher
mbmbmb
The following may be an interesting listen in relation to Sandy's article.

Sandy's Game: 25 Years of Call of Cthulhu

7 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Sandy Petersen
United States
Rockwall
Texas
flag msg tools
designer
publisher
mbmbmbmbmb
Robert Masson asks if I’m still in the game biz. Emphatically yes I still design and publish games. I have been doing so my entire life. Call of Cthulhu started it all. However, I must confess that since 1988, my games have been digital instead of paper. I am now partner in a tiny iPhone app/game startup called Barking Lizards.

Kevin H. asks why I think it’s so hard to do good games in the modern age, since Lovecraft can be any age? Well the egotistic reason I could give is that I am no longer at Chaosium, and Cthulhu Now only came out at the end of my tenure. A more humble reason is that, even now, the good folks at Chaosium really like the period stuff (though they are willing to admit that HPL has hidden virtues). Since they love period material so well, they (unconsciously perhaps) put a little more oomph into it.

Brian Franzman asks what I think about the continual revision of the Sanity rules. Well, I approve of all the Sanity rule changes up to 1988, since I was involved with them. Frankly, I have not paid attention to all the changes since then in Call of Cthulhu. I still play the game by the old rules. It’s possible the new rules are superior to what I did – I’m just not familiar with them.

Hovhannes B. – I think the leatherbound edition might already be out. At least I have one.

Phil Hibbs – so you ended up with my manuscript eh? I’ve known Phil for years. The ms was sold at a convention in England to help pay my way over so thanks Phil.
12 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Robert Masson
United States
Van Nuys
California
flag msg tools
mbmbmbmbmb
Sandy,

Thanks for the response! And it seems that I have been enjoying your work much more than I had initially realized! I have been a fan of Doom and the subsequent sequels from Id software from early on! I had no idea you had designed so many of the levels! Outstanding!

I will check out Barking Lizards this week. I primarily play Boardgames now as my schedule rarely affords me the time to run an RPG campaign (although I still dream..) and I am fascinated about the opportunity that Smart-phones and Tablet computers offer to game developers and consumers. Moreover I am convinced that games offer a way to understand and teach complex concepts and indeed to DEAL with the complexities of life in a much more positive and enjoyable way. If you have not had a chance to read "Reality is Broken" by Jane McGonigal I suggest you do so immediately! It is a fascinating treatise for taking games to another level of influence i our lives that I think is deeply insightful!

Rob
4 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Sandy Petersen
United States
Rockwall
Texas
flag msg tools
designer
publisher
mbmbmbmbmb
the new barking lizards does not have any games out yet. It basically dwindled and died about two years ago and has been reborn with me as partner. So we'll see how it goes.
7 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
1 , 2  Next »   | 
Front Page | Welcome | Contact | Privacy Policy | Terms of Service | Advertise | Support BGG | Feeds RSS
Geekdo, BoardGameGeek, the Geekdo logo, and the BoardGameGeek logo are trademarks of BoardGameGeek, LLC.