Friday, October 2, 2020

Interview: Sandy Petersen

Sandy Petersen scarcely needs an introduction. One of his first RPG designs, Call of Cthulhu, remains one of the most successful and widely known roleplaying games of all time, played by several generations of gamers. It's probably done more to introduce the works of H.P. Lovecraft into pop culture than anything. Since writing Call of Cthulhu, Mr Petersen has gone from strength to strength, producing not just RPG materials but also video games and, most recently, boardgames. He very kindly agreed to answer my questions about his early experiences in the hobby, his career, and his current activities.

1. How did you first become involved in the hobby of roleplaying?

In 1974, a friend of mine brought the original D&D to the table. He'd borrowed it from a teacher at our university. I was doubtful and it sounded loony, but when we played it we had fun. So I started roleplaying in the year it was published. 

2. Did you start playing RuneQuest as soon as it was published in 1978? What attracted you to the game? 

I did start in 1978. Just happened across it in the tiny Utah Valley game store and noticed it was set in the same world as my White Bear and Red Moon game. I got it because WBRM was such a weird universe and I liked it. Then, when we started playing it, of all things we got hooked by the game system which was vastly superior to D&D. No character classes. Bows were actually useful. Giant monsters were super-scary. No less than two magic systems, each of which made sense. By the end of the year we weren't playing D&D any more. 

3. Could you elaborate a bit on what it was you liked about Glorantha? What were the features that you found so compelling?

I was fascinated that the world seemed more mythic rather than mere sword & sorcery. I loved the fact that religion played such a core role. It wasn't rare in D&D for a cleric to join the party and if you asked him what his deity was, he'd answer, "I don't know, but he's Lawful Good." Also people besides clerics had religion in RuneQuest. A lot of it was simply that the world seemed huge, well fleshed out, and unique. D&D gave you no setting whatsoever except for a generic medieval place (this last has been fixed since then with plenty of good settings). One of my friends, who really, really liked fantasy, finally gave up on D&D because it was a mishmash. As he explained to me. "D&D has centaurs, demons, stirges, and trolls all in the same world. Those are totally different mythologies. I can't take it." I can see what he meant, though it didn't bother me as much. But I could still see the attraction of a world, like Glorantha, that was created to make sense. 

4. Your first published RPG credit is the Gateway Bestiary for RuneQuest. Among the exotic creatures it introduces for use with RQ are some derived from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. How did you first become aware of Lovecaft's work?

At the age of 8, I found a book in my dad's storage boxes, The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories. It was an Armed Services edition, published in 1942 (never could figure out why reading HPL would make our men fight harder, but I'm glad they had access to it). I was one of those annoying precocious kids who read a lot, and had already read Poe. So I read this book and was blown away. I couldn't find any other sources of his works though - he was pretty much totally out of print. I didn't find more sources of his works for years! Probably the search for Lovecraft got me hooked as a super fan.

5. I recall reading an article in Different Worlds that your original plan for a Lovecraftian RPG was to base it on the Dreamlands stories. Why did you initially take this approach? What did you see in the Dreamlands stories that made you think they'd make a good basis for a roleplaying game?

I simply had failure of imagination. My idea was not to write a whole new RPG – that sounded like a huge project. I just wanted to do something about Lovecraft. The RuneQuest game was medieval/ancient myth & magic, I thought the Dreamlands would be a good match, so I could do a Dreamlands sourcebook for RuneQuest players. Chaosium had the real vision: a whole game, set in the modern era about Lovecraftian horrors. I mean, I had previously designed my own little modern-era horror RPG but not for publication, just for me and my friends. I never dreamed Chaosium would give me the reins to a full-on RPG of my own.

6. It's my understanding that, at the time you proposed your Dreamlands game, Chaosium had already approved another horror RPG called Dark Worlds, written by Kurt Lortz. If that's correct, how did it happen that Call of Cthulhu eventually became Chaosium's horror game instead? 

I don't recall who the original writer on Dark Worlds was. I know he was in Texas. What Chaosium told me is that he had sent them just a few pages of stuff, including a 1d100 table to roll up Spooky Noises with. I just asked if I could read over the project and make suggestions, when they dropped the whole thing on me. They said they'd send me the stuff from the original author to look at but they never did. I didn't get to see the Spooky Noises table till like three years later. My understanding is that it was going to be a Lovecraft game from the very start, but I was not privy to how they decided to do HPL instead of some other author. 

7. Call of Cthulhu is probably most notable for its introduction of a Sanity mechanic. Obviously, the idea for it came from Lovecraft's stories themselves but did you have any other inspirations for it, particularly on the game mechanical side?

The real origin was an article in Sorcerer's Apprentice magazine in which the authors posited a sort of mental stability stat for Tunnels & Trolls. If you fumbled your stability roll, it would drop by a point. The concept of a stat that could be lowered hit me like a thunderclap, and I ran with it, creating the entire Sanity system in a day or two, and then honing it. 

But at first I just thought of Sanity as another tool for the monsters to use to blight the investigators, plus a means to simulate folks going crazy – a common event in Lovecraft's tales. I changed my mind on the very first test we did using Sanity. The players were in the "Haunted House" scenario (still in every copy of CoC) and had found a creepy old book which had a spell – "Summon Malign Entity From Beyond." Somehow they got it into their heads that this Malign Entity was the cause of the haunting, so they decided to summon it. They went into the basement, set up a pentacle and did the summoning (it was actually a Dimensional Shambler spell). I told them that they heard weird sounds, like something clawing its way through the dimensions, and then a portal opened and something … awful … pulled its body forward. This is when I got a shock. One player said, "I'm covering my eyes." Another, "I'm running away upstairs." A third "I'm huddling in the corner, face turned to the wall." 

You'd never see D&D players averting their gaze from a possible threat! But in Call of Cthulhu, their investigators acted as though they were afraid, because of the Sanity rules. I understood at that moment how powerful the Sanity rules would be in making a game terrifying. It was a rule mechanic which drove players to behave in a way that suited the world.    

8. By the time you'd written Call of Cthulhu, you already had several RuneQuest products under your belt. Were you still a freelancer at the time you wrote Call of Cthulhu or were an employee by that point?

I was still freelancing. I was going to school in Utah, finishing my Bachelor's degree. I became a part-time employee of Chaosium shortly after Call of Cthulhu's publication. 

9. TrollPak is widely considered one of the best RQ supplements of all time, as well as being one of the best depictions of an imaginary species and culture in a roleplaying game. Which parts of that boxed set were you responsible for? Were you given a lot of freedom or did Greg Stafford provide you with strong direction?

I did the scenarios and the "science" part, like troll evolution and anatomy. Greg did the weird psychology/mythic material. We worked super-well together and as a result of Trollpak we basically became indispensable to one another for all things RuneQuest. I still worked alone for Call of Cthulhu, as he did for Pendragon

10. Your credits while working at Chaosium are many, spanning RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, Superworld, and more. Looking back on them all, do you have a favorite, one that you're most proud of?

I guess my four top picks are first, Call of Cthulhu, which is still the game that gets me bought drinks when I'm at convention. Second, the Ghostbusters game (for West End), because it won an award and the game system then got used (usually without credit) in a bunch of other RPGs, so its legacy lives on. Third, the Borderlands adventure pack for Runequest because it was the first-ever boxed campaign set. And fourth, my developmental work on the original Arkham Horror board game for which I was not given credit, though I feel I was key in turning Richard Launius's great design into a polished version.  

11. After you left Chaosium, you entered the world of computer games, working first for MicroProse and then, more famously, for id Software. Was the transition between pen and paper and digital games difficult or did you find that the skills you'd developed at Chaosium served you well outside the world of tabletop gaming?

I was able to fit right into computer games. One thing that helped me is that my friends and mentor at MicroProse also came from the world of tabletop games, so we were all adapting tabletop means of development to the new world of digital games. It turns out that game design is game design, no matter what the medium. The hard part of adapting was that you couldn't do it all yourself. You had to work with programmers and project leads, and artists were far more core to the design than in a tabletop game where they mostly just functioned as illustrators, hired after the game was mostly finished. 

The process went full circle in 2012, when I returned to tabletop gaming, and brought my digital ethos with me. One thing I had learned is to treat artists as a team member, not an "illustrator" and to have them involved from the start of the process. This is one of the aspects that made Cthulhu Wars and Planet Apocalypse memorable – that art involvement. I also learned to playtest super-early and super-often. 

12. In 2015, it was announced that you had returned to Chaosium, specifically to do work on the Call of Cthulhu game line. Which projects have commanded your attention in the past few years?

I returned to active control of Chaosium along with Greg Stafford, but not in order to work on Call of Cthulhu, and I don't think that was ever stated. [Thanks for correcting my memory -- JM] Instead, we returned to ensure the planned release of Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, which had stalled tragically and to get Chaosium out of the hole it had dug itself into. Greg and I never planned to stay. He was in retirement, and writing fiction, while I had a whole other company to run. In fact, within a month Greg and I sold a controlling interest in Chaosium to Moon Publications and basically turned it over to them. About a year later, Chaosium bought out my remaining shares except for 1%. 

I worked with the new Chaosium to produce Petersen's Abominations, a book of scenarios I'd compiled over the years. I have more such scenarios and Chaosium said they were interested but have not come back to it. They also wanted a bunch of my Glorantha scenarios and I worked with an editor to get that started, but since then I guess they've been too busy to move it along. 

13. Outside of roleplaying games, you've also been busy with your own company, Petersen Games, designing and producing extremely high quality boardgames. What prompted your interest in boardgames? Were you always a fan of this type of game?

In grammar school, I used to stay inside during recess to play Clue, so boardgames have always held interest. I started playing Avalon Hill wargames when I was about 12, and that has remained the case my whole life. As in I still play them. I was originally interested in D&D because it was a game, and we were playing lots of games all the time. Chess, chess variants, wargames, and so forth. The realm of games was not as wide as it is now – trading games, Euro games, unique card games, and worker placement had yet to be invented but we did our best. 

As the years went by I still played these games, and so did my co-workers everywhere I went. I played Up Front and Titan and Britannia at Chaosium, among others. At Ensemble Studios, we'd play Vinci, Settlers of Nurnberg, Shadows Over Camelot, Descent, and Twilight Imperium, among others. The board games never ceased. At home I'd play a tabletop wargame with a friend on a weeknight or sometimes Saturday. 

The main change when I started to publish my own games was that when I get together with my friends mostly I force them to playtest one of my upcoming works. I'd say 75-80% of our game sessions double for me as a playtest. We do occasionally pull out another game for fun. And I play games with my grandson on Sunday. He likes Rattlebones, for instance. So yeah, always steeped in games.  

14. Do you still get the chance to play RPGs? If so, what games are you currently playing?

I have a game session almost every saturday night. It's pretty much always Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest, with occasional forays into something else when one of my pals wants to GM (usually Risus, then). Of late we've been playing the Hyperspace RPG a not-yet-published creation of my own set in the same universe as my not-yet-released Hyperspace strategy game.


  1. Thank you for this awesome interview! You're doing a service to the hoby by interviewing all these great designers.

    *Your* interview on Wandering DMs was also excellent. You should do a follow-up!

  2. This was really interesting. Thanks.

  3. Great interview. James Raggi always says you don't need sanity rules to make players act like demented, and from the story Sandy tells from that Haunted House sesion, he kinda agreed with Raggi: His players didn't need rules to act scared, I guess the addition of those rules didn't really improve the experience. It's been long since I last gmed CoC, but after a few years running LotFP, I guess next time I run CoC, I will ignore sanity rules.

    Thank you for this great interview.

  4. Great interview. I have recently become very interested in Sandy Petersen's creations and this interview was a good find!