Monday, June 13, 2022

Suspense in the 1920s

One of the fascinating things about Call of Cthulhu, originally released in 1981, is the way that Chaosium's early advertisements tended to, if not actually downplay its connection to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, place it on an equal footing with other elements, such its 1920s setting or a broader "investigation of the occult." 

Anecdotally, this approach seems to have worked. Though HPL was well known in some corners of the hobby at the time, he certainly didn't enjoy the same wide level of fame he now possesses. Given that, promoting it as a more general horror game makes sense. I know plenty of people my age whose first introduction to Lovecraft was through Call of Cthulhu, much in the way that they learned about Robert E. Howard's Conan from the pages of Marvel comics. Likewise, CoC was one of the earliest RPGs set in the 1920s, predating TSR's Gangbusters by a year (though FGU's Gangster! appeared in 1979). I know that certainly appealed to me (and still does – it's my preferred era in which to play the game). 

The older I get, the more I find myself in awe of what Chaosium accomplished in the first decade of the hobby. Better late than never!


  1. Speaking of Cthulhu and "suspense." The old radio show Suspense did an adaption of the Dunwich Horror.

    It may be the first adaption of Lovecraft.

    1. My father loved to tell me how great the old radio programs were. His favorite was "The Shadow," which was famous for the line, "Who knows what evil lurks, in the heart of men..."

      I am familiar with some old shows, but I always appreciate discovering more. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. I think Chaosium's approach was spot on. What attracted to me to CoC at the time was the era, not the link to HP Lovecraft (who I'd never heard of).

    The original Grenadier CoC miniatures were also part of the appeal. So interesting to paint compared with yet another orc.

  3. As soon as Chaosium games showed up at my LGS (late 81/early 82), I was hooked. I had been reading the ads for a year or two in The Dragon and I was fascinated even by those. CoC was fantastic, but Runequest changed EVERYTHING for me. I started snatching up everything from Chaosium I could find (CoC, RQ, Stormbringer, DW magazine), and even ordered some items direct via mail order. D&D (and other TSR games like Top Secret) dropped off our gaming map, and never recovered. Though we ran mostly "modern games" (including CoC) in 82 and beyond, if it was fantasy, I was running RQ 9 times out of 10. I was also picking up things like SuperWorld, Elfquest, etc as they arrived/were released. Chaosium always hit the sweet spot for me- I loved the system, they wrote the types of products I wanted to use at my table, they published the kind of magazine I wanted to read and compared to TSR the people at Chaosium were very laid back (professional but personable). I was a huge fanboy of the company until the last several years since the new management took over (for a few reasons that I won't get into).

  4. I second everything JFFB just said!

  5. The publication of Call of Cthulhu, which added Sanity and gunpowder to the BRP mechanics, seemed to open a door for a great many people. The first edition cover stated "Fantasy Role-Playing in the WORLDS of H.P. Lovecraft", so it didn't focus the game on just the Great Old Ones but on Horror, suspense and the Occult in general. The lines between those themes and Adventure were not as sharply drawn in HPL's time and a lot of us found that the CoC rules worked just fine if we wanted to include other sources in our campaigns. Tarzan and Pellucidar? Sure. El Borak and Fu Manchu? No problem. The Shadow and Jimgrim? They fit like a glove.

    Do your players want to focus just on the Occult? Take a look at the work of just three writers: Seabury Quinn, Manly Wade Wellman and Donald Wandrei. Their stories have provided me with literally decades of campaign material. Are the antagonists dangerous? Yep. Are they scary? Yes indeed. Will they inevitably lead your players to mind-shattering horrors which dwarf mankind and could lead to the end of the world as they know it? Well, maybe. Depends on their luck, their wits and most importantly, their decisions.

    Call of Cthulhu opened the door to Adventure in the 1920s. For many people, the lure of that open door is still quite strong today.

  6. For anyone wondering about buying 7th edition, I was on the fence about it but glad I bought it. Using 3rd edition there was a lot of house rules I had to make up for our games that I was never really satisfied with, but 7th covers many of them well and is easily compatible with older editions. I haven't been happy with some newer game purchases but I was with this.