Monday, August 16, 2010

The Prehistory of Call of Cthulhu

It's pretty well known, I think, that Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis's roleplaying masterpiece, Call of Cthulhu, was in fact the second Lovecraftian RPG Chaosium attempted but the first one to be completed and actually published. If you read articles or interviews with Petersen or Willis, you'll see oblique references to this unpublished earlier game. For example, in the February 1982 issue of Different Worlds, Petersen tells the tale of how he approached Chaosium about producing a Lovecraft-based RPG:
A year and a half ago, I wrote to Chaosium, offering my services in writing up a RuneQuest variant based on a fantasy world derivative of H.P. Lovecraft's dreamlands cycle, as best exemplified by the short novel, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Greg Stafford replied that they were working on a variant game called Dark Worlds which was to cover H.P. Lovecraft's novels in a modern sense.
In the same issue, Lynn Willis adds some additional details:
Originally, Call of Cthulhu was not about Cthulhu at all ... Nor was Sandy Petersen the designer. The springboard for Cthulhu was a proposal from a free-lance designer about a gothic fantasy role-playing game, and he wanted some incidental use of Lovecraft's descriptions. His proposal was interesting. I negotiated the rights for the Cthulhu mythos from Arkham House, but after many months delay the manuscript of the game was unsatisfactory, and had to be (with bad feelings and confusion) turned down.
Thanks to Victor Raymond, who kindly sent me a large collection of old Judges Guild materials, I uncovered another piece of Call of Cthulhu's prehistory. In the May/June 1980 issue of The Dungeoneer, there's an extensive interview with Greg Stafford, where he talks about "a new introductory role-playing system based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft." Since the Different Worlds quotes above are from 1982 and Sandy Petersen notes that he'd contacted Chaosium "a year and a half ago," one can assume that what Stafford says in The Dungeoneer refers to the earlier version of the game-that-became-Call of Cthulhu.

Anyway, here's what Stafford says:
It's called Dark Shadows. It's being authored by Kurt Lortz and we'll have the usual amount of Chaosium support material to add local flavor so that the game will be easier for the Judge and the players to get into. By local flavor I mean that it will include items such as timetables for getting around the world in the late 19th century (which is where much of the Lovecraft material takes place). Like most Chaosium books, we want to make it entertaining to read or browse.
So, the game originally had a different title than the Dark Worlds Petersen specifies and its original designer was Kurt Lortz, brother of Steve Lortz, whom I believe is the same Steve Lortz who was a player in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign, though it's possible he's a different person entirely. In any event, it's fascinating to consider that Call of Cthulhu began its existence as a Gothic fantasy RPG set in the 19th century rather than as a straightforward evocation of Lovecraft's cosmic horror.

18 comments:

  1. More fun facts:

    Issue 7 of Sorcerer's Apprentice magazine (Summer 1980) contained an article called "The Lovecraft Variant," which was a Tunnels & Trolls rules hack for playing 1920s Cthulhu Mythos adventures. It was pretty damn cool.

    It later evolved into Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes.

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  2. There was also something called American Gothic, which seems to be some kind of modern-day Lovecraftian D&D variant created by Stephen Marsh and also unpublished.

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  3. Well, that explains a lot about the classic CoC scenario, "The Haunted House". That adventure has been in every edition of CoC since at least 2nd (the earliest I have), and it reads and plays more like a ghost story than a Cthulhu Mythos story.

    Knowing that CoC was originally meant to be a gothic horror game explains why this adventure is the way it is.

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  4. Very interesting. I consider myself a CoC "nut" (It's my favorite RPG overall), and I'd never heard of this earlier attempt, nor the Dark Worlds/Dark Shadows* earlier draft that became CoC. A neat bit of trivia you've uncovered here!

    *(I wonder if this title was an homage to the wonderfully awful horror soap opera of the same name?)

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  5. The Stephen Marsh materials are discussed extensively on The Acaeum, if you're interested in digging around.

    Allan.

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  6. The comment about time tables makes me think of the of the 1920's sourcebook that was packed in with first edition CoC. It included such info as well a variant character creation system and character sheet. It did not mesh exactly with with BRP or CoC 1ed. - maybe it's what became of the material created for Dark Worlds.

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  7. > For example, in the February 1982 issue of Different Worlds
    q.v. http://www.yog-sothoth.com/content/898-Call-of-Cthulhu-Designers-Notes-%28Petersen%29

    > There was also something called American Gothic, which seems to be some kind of modern-day Lovecraftian D&D variant created by Stephen Marsh and also unpublished.

    A couple of lines in passing only as a suggestion in the perszine that Steve ran for one of his PBMs; http://www.yog-sothoth.com/local_links.php?catid=24

    > In any event, it's fascinating to consider that Call of Cthulhu began its existence as a Gothic fantasy RPG set in the 19th century rather than as a straightforward evocation of Lovecraft's cosmic horror.

    *nods* D&D in Lake Geneva several years prior to that was actually closer to CoC than CoC started off itself. :)

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  8. There's a video interview with Greg Stafford in the Lovcraftian Tales from the Table DVD in which he talks a bit about the origins of CoC along these lines.

    His description of the first CoC game played at Chaosium after Petersen sent in his manuscript is hilarious. Something like, "So at the end of the game we looked around and thought, 'Right, your guy's dead, your guy has no face, and your guy is trapped in alternate dimension...'."

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  9. @ John: Actually, according to Sandy Petersen in an interview on Yog radio, the Haunted House was actually a scenario he developed for his own home brew rules and ran before every working on CoC.

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  10. I'm a big fan of Lovecraft's Dreamlands material. I'm rereading DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH right now. I'm surprised not many games have used this material as a springboard for adventures.

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  11. @Zarmoff: I've considered it myself, but it would never make a mainstream CoC game, imo. I've often thought of using the information in the Dreamlands set as a basis for a weird swords & sorcery campaign using BRP or T&T, for example. I reckon it suits that use better.

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  12. @ John:

    Years ago I played in a CoC Master's round at GenCon in which we started as powerful Dreamlands characters who found themselves transported to this world. As least in that limited sense, using Dreamlands as the "home" for the PCs worked marvelously.

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  13. I suspect most people coming to the table to play Call of Cthulhu want gribbly horrors lurking in rotting locales, and so the Dreamlands stuff has always seemed a hard sell. Which is a shame, as it's a unique fantasy setting.

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  14. Weren't there some supplements dealing with the Dreamlands, though? The 5th edition rulebook includes a small section advertising it, I think.

    Probably not, but I wonder if the rules are connected at all to this primordial game.

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  15. So when was the Cthulhu info printed in Deities and Demigods? Was Call of Cthulhu already out by then?

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  16. > So when was the Cthulhu info printed in Deities and Demigods? Was Call of Cthulhu already out by then?

    D&DG 1980, CoC 1981.

    There were other Mythos refs in print previously but, yes, perhaps surprising that Lovecraft wasn't higher profile earlier on; perhaps continuing to reflect the influence of EGG's particular idiomatic slant onto RPing rather than other influences such as RJK ( http://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/gh_kuntz_bibliography.html )

    D&D's expansion into such realms was probably hampered by a general lack of vision (/product, in general) and imposition of increasingly dogmatic viewpoints on what had been a more "free-form" system in earlier days: D&D /was/ BRP, after a fashion...

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  17. Don Jolly, yes, there's an extensive Dreamlands supplement for CoC, and very good it is too, but I've never been able to get anyone to play it.

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  18. One little added thing about the pre-Sandy Petersen version of Call of Cthulhu referred to as "Dark Shadows" or "Dark Worlds". In speaking with Greg and Sandy about this, the only thing they said ever actually written for that manuscript (and why the project was scrapped for Sandy's) was a "spooky sounds in the graveyard" table.

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