Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sandy Petersen Reviews Call of Cthulhu

A number of people emailed me today, asking that I take a look at this "review" of Call of Cthulhu by its creator, Sandy Petersen. It's quite a read, especially if you're interested in the genesis of this classic of the hobby. There are a lot of fascinating tidbits in it, some of which I already knew from other sources, but I think the most interesting to me concerned why the game was set in 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.
And there you have it.


  1. The more I hear about Chaosium the more it seems like a rough place for IP to hang out.

  2. I've heard him say that he now runs games in the modern era just because he knows the price of a flashlight or a gallon of gas. I more or less do the same thing, but my old group who I used to run CoC for never really liked the 20s setting.

  3. "A haunted house is a haunted house as far as I was concerned."

    Great, except there really aren't any "haunted houses" per se in Lovecraft's fiction. I always felt Petersen mixed too much standard occult tropes in with the Yog-Sothothery (not to mention the pernicious influence of that Derleth dude on the game, which is another story).

  4. In this case, I'm glad Chaosium's opinion won out. Though my favorite era is Gaslight, the 1920s is a lot of fun.

  5. @ dhowarth333

    There was the shunned house, which I suppose doesn't quite have a ghost in it, but still.

  6. Awesome read, James. Loved the part on SAN, with PCs trying to cover their eyes so as to not see the monster, and his realization that he was on to something. Thank you for the link!

  7. I remember reading something to that effect over at Mr. Peterson seemed to indicate that players have more in common with “modern” games that the would with earlier eras. I’m sure this is it, but here’s a question from part of a quick interview with Sandy Peterson (SP) at (YSDC)….

    “YSDC: What is your favourite era (& why)?

    SP: Modern times. Lovecraft wrote his tales in what was, to him, the "modern" era. M. R. James says that the best ghost stories are placed in a setting in which the reader could plausibly imagine himself to be. Finally, the modern setting lets 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?".”

    That kind of sums things up, right?

  8. I love Lovecraft. There is a 'people going collectivly insane' quality there that I enjoy.

    Set aside the whole elder gods thing and you can find something where people are collectivly experiencing something they percieve as reality. One person going nuts should seem normal, but a group experiencing the same insanity is frightening. Thats why I love 'Mountains of Madness'. Lovecraft's style is most obvious.

    I occasionally talk about insane stuff: Quite a few find my suggestion that String Theory invalidates Religion and Evolution so challengingly insane they respond with hatred and violence. The fact Is that in a World of Possibility manipulation, where we have been exposed to black holes which expand as change in possibility forward and backward through time, and even the experience of time and our humanity are fraudulent, what Lovecraft talks about are very much possible.

    At Superposition all life is the same life. And it isnt Human.

    Lovecraft is talking about a world filled with the 'symptoms' of the creation of a Man made Black Hole and how life responds in exposure to it. Now that is scary.

  9. I am another who thinks Call of Cthulhu is better in a past setting... the '20s, by gaslight, or even the Roman Empire. It's part of the charm for me. Cthulhu Modern just doesn't strike the right chord.

  10. @ Duglas: Thats because they dont know how to tell it. The Humans are going collectivly nuts in a shared fantasy. 'Sucker Punch' seems more about a 'collective fantasy experience' than anything like Cloverfield.

    Now If the cloverfield movie had ended with the entire population of New York being revealed as strapped down by millitary guys because it turns out that the civillians had all gone nuts hallucinating the same insanity and ripped the city apart then that is Lovecraft.

  11. It's funny how two people from opposite ends can add all the right ingredients. Greg's elitist attitude towards HPL could of easily killed the project, but he was right on the money to have it kept in the twenties. Same go's with Sandy, who could of blew it by setting it in the modern age, but with question, wrote not only an excellent set of rules but perfectly defined the tone of the game in a way that stands out from most other RPG's.

  12. My Favorite:
    "so you could get your girlfriend to play when Cthulhu was running"

    A feat that D&D, through all editions and all the years, still has never managed. I bet there wasn't a woman within a mile of the OSRCON. :) Bravo to CoC if this claim is true. I never played the game though so I can't verify it's accuracy. I love that D&D (and PF) both use the "she" pronoun in the rule books as if that has some magical power to draw women in. Ridiculous.

  13. count me as another 1920's guy. I'm not so sure that HPL would ever have even conceived of his strange cosmic creations in a more modern era. I think the specific nature of the 1920's era was a huge contributing factor to the nature of his writing - the burgeoning technological developments mixed with horse & buggy reality. Communication over long distance was still a difficult thing and its much easier to imagine isolated communities full of mystery (and horror) existing then than it is now in the era of cell phones and satellites...

  14. Although I created a great New Aeon deck for the Mythos card game back when I played that game, I really think HP is best pre-WW2. That war opened up the world towards the space age, and also showed to every living being on the planet that there was true horror in the world.

    Anytime period prioer to 1940, please.

  15. modern era would be a little tricky, but I could easily see running a game in, say, the 1970s. Something more instantly familiar to the modern gamer, but not exactly current.

    There was a recent piece on NPR about how the first problem all modern Horror films have is explaining why none of the cell phones work, and how that's a huge annoyance that past directors/writers never had to worry about.

  16. I think my preference for the modern era of CoC largely comes from the fact that I started with the d20 book. It describes playing in any decade from 1890 - present and the two sample scenarios are both in the modern day. It never occurred to me until I got the Chaosium version that the "default" setting should be the 20s.

    I personally find the era a bit to foreign to really work for what I want to do with a horror game. As for modern technology, I'm too young to really remember a time before cellphones. My father was an early adopter of them due to the nature of his work, and I was born the year before 2e came out. Granted you do usually have to work around them, but it's not too terribly difficult.

    I once ran the Madman adventure from the current iteration of the core book set in the modern era where the PCs were shooting a reality show. It was odd, but everybody ended up dying so their video never actually made it to where anyone could distribute it.

  17. One advantage of the 1920s and earlier is that there was so much un-/under-explored territory in the world.

    Nowadays, when we've satellite mapped the globe many times over, using visible light, non-visible light, radar, and even gravitational anomalies, it's harder to squeeze in unexplored ruined cities and whatnot. And if you hear about one that supposedly exists, you can check the site on Google Earth in a matter of minutes.

  18. I wonder what Petersen thinks of the Laundry RPG.

  19. I haven't run a CoC game in about ten years, but when I did, I generally set games in the present day. That said, one recurrent problem that occurred in those games, that never occurred in FRPGs, was players knowing certain things that I had no idea about. I don't know much of anything about firearms or the legal system, e.g., but characters occasionally put themselves in situations that went beyond whatever notes or research I had prepared on the topic. I almost always let the players have their way if what they said was reasonable -- a good GM always improvs around technicalities -- but found old-fashioned D&D a breeze by comparison, where I can make up whatever I like, the law or physics be damned. :-)

    Great link; I loved this gem: "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!?"

  20. "That said, one recurrent problem that occurred in those games, that never occurred in FRPGs, was players knowing certain things that I had no idea about. "

    Exactly. This goes both ways as the DM can be very knowledgeable on a subject the players have no idea about and despite their best efforts to role play they get nowhere.

    Another thing I've never understood about CoC games is how do you get around the whole idea of the investigation of the unknown when your players know the investigation will always lead to some alien horror? Every time you sit down to play a game of CoC don't you know that the end result of the investigation will be, well, something to do with Cthullu or his ilk? So after you have played it once or twice whats the point?

    With Dungeons & Dragons you can play forever and never go in a dungeon or meet a dragon.

  21. Ok, there was atleast one girl at OSRcon.

    I ran my CoC game set in 2058 so near future.
    I think it was easy for the players to understand that age not so different from today; just smaller & faster and smarter tech. The players were cloned genetically enhanced clones. (yes, two players could play the same base character ... that was something I offered ;0) )
    The setting was a retro-fitted 12th century Irish monks tower (moved to the US in 1924?) so a cool and creepy mix of steel & stone (old and new).

    I'v played in many game of CoC set in the 1920's, 30' & 40's and felt a bit disconnected in all of these games from my character.
    ... My understanding of those times is mostly from TV & Movies; so not real? (hollywood).

    I have the in the past used all the BRP game products to add depth and dimension to my CoC games there is 30+ years of stuff you can use from the original Runequest, CoC, and Eternal Champion saga (Elric, Stormbringer and Hawkmoon) there are many others.

  22. Another thing I've never understood about CoC games is how do you get around the whole idea of the investigation of the unknown when your players know the investigation will always lead to some alien horror? Every time you sit down to play a game of CoC don't you know that the end result of the investigation will be, well, something to do with Cthullu or his ilk? So after you have played it once or twice whats the point?

    I think you're looking at it from the wrong perspective. The involvement of some aspect of the Cthulhu Mythos in most adventures is a foundational assumption of the game, much in the same way that that most D&D adventures assume the existence of, say, magic. Neither assumption, though, says anything about how the Mythos is used, let alone what the characters will do when they encounter it. I think it's an error to portray CoC as primarily an "investigation game." Investigations are a regular feature in CoC adventures certainly, but the core of the game lies with its sanity rules and the question of how modern, rational men deal with the knowledge they uncover in their investigations. CoC has a very wide scope for play in actual practice and is no more limited than most RPGs.

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  24. James: I guess I'll just have to try it someday.

    "He also mentioned he chose a dungeon setting so that the players could not wander off wherever they pleased since solid stone kept them along the maps he made."

    And behold! The first "railroad" is born. I kid, sort of.

  25. The nice thing about 1920's Americana was that it was a cusp between a dark past and a bright new technological future. You could easily get the sense of travelling back in time by leaving the big city and end up in a farm in Hicksville. But you also got the sense that this new technology was coming and going to banish the dark superstitions.

    Couple this with the ability to easily get to and explore parts of the world that had never seen a European explorer before, and the 20's make an ideal period.

    [That being said, the only Cthulhu I've run has been modern, or rather post-apocalyptic survival, as it was set after the stars had changed and most of the human race was either dead or zombies (the name for someone whose mind had snapped completely from the change).]

  26. Cibet, in my CoC experience, while there was always a supernatural element to the games, it was not necessarily strictly "Mythos" related. For my games, Lovecraftian is an adjective describing a set of themes and a mood, rather than any specific pantheon or monster-crew.

    And as a one-off tournament game, I once ran a far-future scenario in which the PCs were robots and humans awoken from hibernation on a STL starship. That one was fun.

  27. hey, when i click on the linky part it reports a 404 error. is it only me?

  28. My favorite era is actually the future; I prefer to adopt Call of Cthulhu for a science-fiction setting. The modern era feels too normal; there aren't really any mysterious corners of *our* world left at this point.

  29. Every time you sit down to play a game of CoC don't you know that the end result of the investigation will be, well, something to do with Cthullu or his ilk? So after you have played it once or twice whats the point?

    To get all pretentious for a moment, Call of Cthulhu is about the journey, not the destination.


    Now that's out of the way, my favourite era for the game is the 1890's but I've only ever played it in the 1920's and run it in the modern era, for some reason. I've often wanted to do a 60's/70's campaign, drawing from the old ATV/ITC television shows.

  30. an important part of cthulhu is the tension between the scientific and the occult/religious. It's at least partly about a generation on the cusp of a new sensibility.

    Try working that out in '80s New York. Cthulhu is at home in the '20s.

  31. Cthulhu works for me in any era so long as the "monsters" are kept in the background, just as Lovecraft would have wanted. For me, long before Trail of Cthulhu introduced the idea, was the belief that what Lovecraft was intoducing was a proto-Nietzschean idea that humanity has moved beyond Good & Evil and that we are rapidly becoming like the Great Old Ones.

    This idea can work in any era that there is the taint and corruption that marks humanity. In antiquity, the abandoning of the Old Gods and Reason of the Greeks could lead to the conjuncture when the Stars are Right - being the Fall of Rome.

    Dark Ages, there were countless times that we would lapse in barbarism.

    Victorania, lots of opportunities to plant the dark seed where mysticism is competing with progress both in Britain and the rest of world.

    1920s is rife with strife with the rise of irrationality of the totalitarian states.

    Modern (I always play just a few months/years from the Now) - lots of opportunities to view the world through mirrorshades and see a darker world.

    Future - cyberpunkish/Alien type horror provide lots of opportunities for dark gaming.

    One of the classic tropes that I use is the cultist dons the robes of power of any age. Therefore, when I am playing the Modern - more likely you will see her/him in a powersuit from Brooke Brothers rather than flowing robes with blood splattering his fine Hugo Boss dress shirt.

    Thus, I guess that I am more influenced by American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis' novel) as a way of getting closer to Lovecraft. I use Chaosium products for sure but it is more to get inspiration rather than playing them straight out of the box. If the party is to encounter monsters, I usually portray them, as either science gone wrong (hints of a government conspiracy here) or malformed humans. So my Deep Ones are malign entities that you do not want to cross not Orcs. Similarly, those "alien gods" are beyond the comprehension of anyone witnessing them.

  32. Once we accept that the evil lies in humans doing bad things to another then the rest of the scenario always falls into play.

    The point of the post that I found interesting was: "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."

    I would disagree with the assessment that Traveller places you above - for most Traveller games - one is playing glorified truck drivers in which sh*t happens and you are called into the grey and darker corners of the universe. However, what has drawn me to Traveller and CoC is that very human quality - that fragility.

    I also ran CoC at OSCon, the scenario had a bunch of investigators aptly termed the Losers who have to solve a mystery involving a scandal involving one of Toronto's politicos because the Police don't want the liability should the leads go back to the politico.

    Of course, one can play Traveller/CoC in a pulp fashion but I think their greatest draw as old time games is the satisfaction that what we could do in Real Life is duplicated in a game. There is a place for heroics (as in D&D) but what draws me back is the grimness of 1st level Magic User when all you have is a dagger and Magic Missile spell plus maybe a few catnips and your wits & a 10hp fighter plus cleric to defeat the big bad. Coming close to death is only time that you really feel alive. This and the Bodacious babes is what constitutes the Power Trip that makes RPGs satisfying.

  33. When I GMed CoC it was always 1920's England. I remember there were some excellent White Dwarf articles on the setting. I read most of Lovecraft's work at the time and while I enjoyed the stories and found them interesting and often (unintentionally) hilarious I didn't think much of him as a writer. The other players either felt the same or hadn't read any Lovecraft at all.

    What sold me on the game was the setting. One of our best games; and by best I mean there were a few moments when the players were actually scared or at least worried; we had a Bertie Wooster alike, an unsuccessful jazz singer (he was big in France) a mumbling Oxford don, and a Texan gentleman. The players loved that stuff. The could ham the whole thing up and it served as a great counter point to those scenes where they encountered the Mythos. Things went from very light to very dark.

  34. While I started out with D&D and other fantasy rpgs, over the last 3 decades I've played more horror based rpgs than anything else and CoC was my first and greatest Horror RPG love (with Kult being a wild passionate romp that one never forgets).

    Whatever time period works best, in my experience, usually falls to the interest and passion of the Keeper/GM and whether or not the players are on-board with the Keeper's vision and approach. If not, even the most standard 1920s adventure can fail horribly.

    Pagan Publishing in the 90s came out with excellent modern adventures/campaign settings, excellent 20s stuff, and probably the best Victorian era campaign Supplement "The Golden Dawn".

    And their one shot modern adventure "In Media Res" is my favorite published CoC adventure ever published by anyone.

  35. I've played CoC in time settings from the 1880s to the present, and they all work. An advantage to the 1920s and '30s is that they are just different enough from the here-and-now to be slightly unsettling. Everything is familiar yet subtly changed, which is perfect for a horror game. Personally, being a huge fan of film noir, I have other reasons for focusing on those years, too. My favorites are the '20s and '30s for their noir atmosphere, and the '50s for anything with a twinge of atomic horror to it.

  36. There's something really wrong about this. Just a week ago you were complaining that the new Hobbit movie didn't reproduce the book faithfully enough. Now here we have someone saying they were forced to reproduce a text faithfully, and you're implying that this was a bad decision.

    Does anyone here think you would have taken CoC seriously if it was set in an '80s America, detectives with mass spectrometers and cell phones and the Old Ones stalking Wall Street? You would have sneered at such an idea as a gimmick.

    You've really reached the point of being a curmudgeon for the sake of it here.

  37. "...and cell phones and the Old Ones stalking Wall Street?"

    I've always thought Michael Douglas was an avatar of Nyarlathotep.

  38. It's H.P Lovecraft's Birth day Tomorrow!
    20th August 1890, he would be 121.

    I'm going to light a candle and read from my first edition copy of "Something about Cats".

  39. @faustusnotes - ? I must have missed the "curmudgeonly" part of this posting...

  40. "Doc" Herbert also used to say that the Chaosium guys have no idea what they have on their hands when it comes to Cthulhu. Many conversations over at YSDC confirms this. Sandy should know.

    It's quite a peculiar company.

  41. @faustusnotes you do realize that there is a difference between what would work in a film and a game.

  42. I totally forgot abot Ramsey Campbell, who I discovered in the 90's. Most of his stuff was set in 1950's and 60's England, and worked pretty good in those regards. His Severn Valley stuff was just outstanding.

    Most of the fun for me when I first started CoC long ago was the research I had to do on the 20's. I knew so little. Now I feel I am a mild expert on the period, especially Los Angeles where I set most of my campaign stuff. You tend to discover all kinds of real life stuff that makes for great hooks and starting points (I read that there were a lot of deaths in LA at that time from Gas explosioins, so I tied that in to the fire god, which also included the real life burning down of the Santa Monica Pier. I had PC's present for that).

    And there is so much more than must space monsters. Thugs, cultists, minor hauntings, and such things are the true meat of the games. One major PC was a torch singer type, and she was involved with gangsters, and so was a boxer PC who we occasionally played out his matches with gambling and all. There is plenty of juice in 1920's America to help make your CoC campaign a hit.

  43. opossum101 said...

    "hey, when i click on the linky part it reports a 404 error. is it only me?"

    I had that- the link is actually split into two urls, click on the 'call of cthulhu' part for the correct link.

  44. Sandy Petersen definitely has a point and Lovecraft’s most immediately compelling work (Call of Cthulhu and Mountains of Madness, for example) is totally contemporary in orientation. But he also wrote much that was very antiquarian in style, so the point gets a little muddled when you read all of Lovecraft.

    I think that Chaosium was absolutely right to insist (at least initially) on a retro setting for CoC when it was first released. Anything not set in the 1920’s would probably not have had much success with players at that time.

    I just finished reading Petersen’s Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and although I love CoC, I’m finding myself increasingly at odds with his conception of how the game should be played. His fixation on player death is almost fetishistic in its extreme. The campaign seems like it would be completely broken and unplayable without massive intervention and modification from the Keeper.

  45. Just a week ago you were complaining that the new Hobbit movie didn't reproduce the book faithfully enough. Now here we have someone saying they were forced to reproduce a text faithfully, and you're implying that this was a bad decision.

    Who's "you?"

    If it's to me you're referring, I'm confused, because this post says nothing about my feelings regarding the use of the 1920s setting for CoC.

  46. @cibet

    I played several CoC games where things in the very end turned out to be masterminded by relatively mundane, Scooby-Doo type villains. Really kept people on their toes as to what, exactly, you'd run into and whether it was really a Lovecraftian horror or not. Our DM did a really great job with those games.

  47. I set my CoC-ish game in the immediate post-Civil War West. The hint of chaos that war and dislocation and a new frontier bring was perfect for running "Cowboys and Cthulhu."