Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Retrospective: Cthulhu Companion

I've written before about my fondness for the concept of companion volumes to roleplaying games. By "companion," I don't simply mean a rules supplement, though many RPG companions do include augmented, expanded, and/or new rules. Rather, a companion – or a good companion, at any rate – isn't focused solely on the mechanical aspects of a game; neither does it consist entirely of "fluff." Instead, it's a buffet of options, ideas, and inspiration for players and referees alike, particularly those who've been playing a game for some time. 

The first such companion I ever owned was 1983's Cthulhu Companion, subtitled "Ghastly Adventures & Erudite Lore." Released two years after the publication of the first edition of Call of Cthulhu. CoC was – and is – one of my favorite RPGs. After my initial purchase of it in 1981, I played the heck out of it with my friends. Consequently, I was more than ready for this companion when it was released. I was eager for additions and expansions to the original game, not to mention inspiration for my own adventures. I found all of that and more in this book.

Cthulhu Companion begins with a brief overview of the changes appearing in the upcoming second edition of the rulebook. The changes are quite minor, the most significant being that the characteristic Charisma is replaced by Appearance, for reasons that are never explained. At the time, I simply accepted this change, which was subsequently employed in several other Basic Role-Playing variants, like Pendragon. Nowadays, I find it a bit odd. If ever there were a game where a character's physical appearance should matter little, it's Call of Cthulhu. All the rules changes presented in Cthulhu Companion are small and that's one of the things I've long admired about CoC: until very recently, every edition of the game and its support materials were mechanically compatible without almost any effort.

Highlights of the companion are "The Cthulhu Mythos in Mesoamerican Religion" and "Further Notes on the Necronomicon." Both of these faux academic articles try to contextualize the entities of Lovecraft and his imitators within real world cultures and mythologies. The former takes a cue from Zealia Bishop's "The Mound" (ghostwritten by HPL) and focuses primarily on Aztec religion, while the latter casts a broader net, delving into Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Arabic legendry. I love these sorts of articles, which provide excellent pointers for how to make the Cthulhu Mythos feel more "real" and grounded. I read and re-read both of these many, many times in my younger days.

Also included are lots more details about prisons in the 1920s, along with a large list of new insanities and Mythos beings. These might be called the "bread and butter" of companion volumes like this, since they're useful to any referee – I mean Keeper of Arcane Lore – regardless of the kind of campaign he is running. Of particular interest to me, both then and now, are the inclusion of deities from the works of Clark Ashton Smith. I've long felt that one of the strengths of Call of Cthulhu is that it's infinitely capable of expansion beyond the works of Lovecraft himself. Indeed, I think the game is improved by occasionally shifting its focus elsewhere, lest it become too monomaniacal in its devotion to the Lovecraftian canon (however defined).

Of course, no companion would be complete without adventures. Cthulhu Companion includes four, ranging from the brief to the lengthy. Each of them is unique and illustrates a different aspect of Call of Cthulhu. For example, "Paper Chase" is a short scenario that brings the investigators into contact with a a Mythos being that is not entirely antagonistic – an unusual occurrence! "The Mystery of Loch Feinn," meanwhile, is an example of couching an old legend in Mythos terms. "The Rescue" is a "mundane" horror scenario involving non-Mythos creatures (werewolves), while "The Secret of Castronegro" imagines what a Mythos tale might be like if set in the American Southwest rather than Lovecraft's New England. Even if not used as-is, all the adventures contain plenty of ideas and inspiration the Keeper can use in crafting his own.

Cthulhu Companion is a classic Chaosium product, filled with plenty of imagination and inspiration. Aside from the original boxed set, this is probably the Call of Cthulhu product from which I got the most use back in the day. Even now, paging through, thoughts of a campaign centered around a subterranean expedition in search of blue-litten K’n-yan, red-litten Yoth, and black, lightless N'kai – all thanks to the little hints about each mentioned in the Mesoamerican Religion article. It's precisely for that reason that I'm such a big fan of companion books and takes such pleasure in them. Here's hoping we might see more books of this sort in the future!


  1. I was also absolutely enamored of this volume. I still want to run a Castronegro-centered campaign at one point, although the intervening years have provided a number of additional Southwestern scenarios that could be provided hooks in the setting.

  2. A huge part of how Call of Cthulhu spoiled me is that my first copy was the 3rd Ed Games Workshop hardcover ... which included all the contents of the Companion.

    To me, that kind of material was, and is, what game design is about.

    That said, I do love a Companion.

  3. One of the best of the Chaosium Companions. I cannot agree more with your statement that a CoC campaign is improved by occasionally shifting the focus away from Lovecraftian horrors. CAS, Howard, Seabury Quinn, Wandrei and Manly Wade Wellman all wrote great horror stories; throwing some of their monsters at your players might be just the thing (sorry) your players need for a change of pace or style.

  4. I got the new 2 inch box from the recent kickstarter. Thanks for reviewing this booklet. I helps me want to read it!

  5. Also got the 2' inch box. It's even better than the original.