'Quick and Painful': How Call of Cthulhu’s scary stories changed roleplaying

15 January 2020
Call of Cthulhu helped turn H.P. Lovecraft from a cult figure into a pop culture icon. Lead writer Mike Mason looks back on how the underdog RPG defined horror gaming – and how it continues to terrorise players decades later

Words by Alex Meehan | Images courtesy of Chaosium

When it first emerged from the darkness in 1981, Call of Cthulhu was unlike any RPG adaption seen before it. Whilst fans of systems like Dungeons & Dragons or Tunnels & Trolls had created their own horror scenarios within those systems, Call of Cthulhu was the first to take a fairly unknown property – the works of H.P. Lovecraft – and turn it into an original survival horror pen-and-paper RPG.

Aside from a couple of obscure cult films, such as 1970’s The Dunwich Horror, Lovecraft had at the time largely remained a shadow at the door of popular culture, and certainly hadn’t received any attention from the tabletop gaming community. Up until 1981, it seemed Lovecraft was known only to readers of weird science-fiction; readers such as Chaosium’s very own Sandy Peterson, who was eventually brought on to rework the Lovecraftian RPG after the first draft had failed to impress the company’s creative directors.

The landscape of tabletop roleplaying before 1981 meant that most RPG writers were still somewhat fixated on Tolkienian settings; Call of Cthulhu itself was initially intended to take place within Lovecraft’s Dreamlands (think Alice in Wonderland, but more sinister). However, once Peterson received the lacklustre first draft, things started to shift in a rather different direction. Throwing out the Dreamlands setting, Peterson drew upon his knowledge of Lovecraft’s texts and love for classic horror films to develop a wholly unique RPG system. 


Terror is Human

Based on Lovecraft’s more introspective tales, Call of Cthulhu presented its players with a world where they weren’t traditional heroes. Characters didn’t seek riches, renown or arcane mysteries – simply surviving the cosmic nightmares was enough.

This ethos can be seen within Call of Cthulhu’s unusual character creation system. At the time, most RPGs lured players in with a heady blend of escapism and power fantasy. Players would expect to start with a small collection of skills, before eventually gaining access to a vast array of spells and abilities. However, Call of Cthulhu championed realism over escapism and, as such, a character’s skills would develop naturally as they used them. Characters could not level-up. They could not gain more health points. Mike Mason, lead writer of the RPG’s latest seventh edition, says that this was, all in all, a very different approach to character-building then previously seen.

“All of these elements fed into one another to form the antithesis of the then current mould for character development in roleplaying,” he explains.

This approach to character creation was a key element to building Call of Cthulhu’s rather exotic flavour of survival horror. Keeping characters grounded in reality ensured that the cosmic horrors they encountered would be that much more terrifying.

“Combat in Call of Cthulhu is normally quick and painful,” Mason summarises.

The combination of stunted character growth, and the unlimited potential of Lovecraft’s creatures, made for some pretty scary encounters.

In Call of Cthulhu, it’s very possible for characters to meet an unfortunate end at any point. This looming sense of vulnerability meant that, for the first time, players would have to seriously consider whether running away would be a better option. Mason outlines just how unique this approach was: “You may not be able to deal with a situation, and just about survive it. [...] I think it was the first game to really channel that idea into the mechanics themselves.” 

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With the odds overwhelmingly in the enemy’s favour, players were encouraged to think of tackling threats in ways beyond walking in all guns blazing. Gathering information and exploring the campaign’s narrative would provide players with unexpected solutions.This not only made Call of Cthulhu the intelligent upstart child of ‘80s RPGs, but it also put storytelling front-and-centre for the first time.The creation of Call of Cthulhu was a sign that pen-and-paper RPGs were stepping away from the once combat-heavy wargames of yesteryear towards a creative climate wherein character and story could drive everything.

Call of Cthulhu was a part of this next level [of storytelling RPGs],” Mason says. “[It] definitely earmarked the horror niche of this movement.”

Call of Cthulhu provided players with the option to write a backstory for their characters, thereby giving them the opportunity to develop a fleshed-out person with a life worth protecting against the uncaring forces of Lovecraft’s world. As Mason puts it: “You’re creating someone that’s more than a collection of stats [...] which is why it means so much more when faced with the possibility of having to roll a new one.” Call of Cthulhu provided clever ways for players to get more invested in their characters, and therefore inject tension into every possible encounter. 

Which is not to say that Call of Cthulhu was entirely perfect. Despite being a pioneer of the medium, the RPG was still a product of its time. In the act of translating Lovecraft’s rather unusual brand of horror, Chaosium felt the need to include some very traditional combat mechanics. Mason explains that “all the writers had to go by as reference points were really just D&D and RuneQuest. [...] Combat was a common denomination across RPGs of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.” However, Call of Cthulhu’s combat system did differ from D&D in that, rather than rolling d20s to match or beat a difficulty level, the player would roll a d100 with the aim to get a percentage equal to or under the target number.

Nevertheless, this reliance on combat arguably made Call of Cthulhu clunky, with players sometimes being forced to encounter creatures they simply weren’t ready to deal with – which can turn an effective horror experience into a frustrating one.

Call of Cthulhu was a strange beast, because it did fall between those posts of early combat-heavy RPGs and modern story-focused systems,” Mason says.


Weird World

The ‘80s saw the creation of literally hundreds of pen-and-paper RPGs, copycats and original creations included. Whilst many of these systems have long since fallen into obscurity (R.I.P. Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo), a few still stand sentinel: Call of Cthulhu joins undisrupted queen bee of roleplaying D&D as one of those surviving icons.

Over the years, Chaosium and its fans have developed Call of Cthulhu into an RPG that’s more comfortable with its identity. With a more balanced system favouring accessibility and immersion, the game has solidified its place as a tentpole RPG, serving as a key influence for newer horror systems such as Kult: Divinity Lost and Dread.

It certainly helps that the Cthulhu Mythos it’s based on has exploded in popularity in recent years, helped on the tabletop by the likes of Arkham Horror, the board game spin-off from Call of Cthulhu that birthed its own Arkham Horror Files universe. Lovecraft’s growing place in the public conscience today is something that Mason believes Call of Cthulhu had a firm hand in.

“It’s played a major role in bringing the weirdness of Lovecraftian horror into the wider world of pop culture.

This review originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.


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