Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Retrospective: Cthulhu by Gaslight

Alongside Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller, Call of Cthulhu occupies a special place in my heart. The source of my affection is twofold. First, I've simply played the game a great deal in the decades since I first encountered it. Second, the game further familiarized me with the works of H.P. Lovecraft and those of his friends, disciples, and imitators, many of whom has since become my favorite writers. In short, Call of Cthulhu has been the source of much enjoyment to me and that counts for a lot in my estimation.

Though I played CoC during the end of my time in elementary school and throughout high school, it was during my college years that my first truly memorable campaign took place – and a big part of that was due to the publication of Cthulhu by Gaslight. Published in 1986, Cthulhu by Gaslight was one of those delightful boxed sets Chaosium produced throughout the 1980s. As its subtitle makes plain, it's a CoC supplement focused on "horror roleplaying in 1890s England," which was right up my alley at the time, obsessed as I was with the twilight of the 19th century and the birth of the so-called Modern Age that followed. 

Unlike some fans of the game, I never felt that Call of Cthulhu and the 1920s were inseparable. After all, the choice of the game's temporal setting was always an arbitrary one. What is arguably the first story of the Cthulhu Mythos, "Dagon," was published in 1919 and many of Lovecraft's most celebrated works, such as At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow over Innsmouth, and The Shadow out of Time weren't published until the 1930s. Consequently, when Chaosium decided to release its first supplement dedicated to an alternate time period for CoC, I happily snapped it up and inflicted it on my college friends, who, as it turned out, were just as enthusiastic for "Victorian Cthulhu," as we often called it. 

The boxed set consisted of two staple-bound booklets and a large map of London. The larger of the two booklets was "A Sourcebook for the 1890s" and was quite similar to, though larger than, "A Sourcebook for the 1920s," which had come in the original Call of Cthulhu boxed set I owned. Even at 56 pages in length, the Sourcebook is necessarily brief in in the topics it covers. After providing new and alternate occupations, updated skills, and weapons, it focuses primarily on the basic facts of life in Victorian England, with a special emphasis on London. There are thus discussions of politics, social class, technology, crime, and of course the occult, given the popularity of the subject in the late Victorian world. There are also, rather oddly in my opinion, rules and suggestions for time travel in Call of Cthulhu, in the event that either the Keeper or the players wish to transport their 1920s characters three decades into the past instead of making new 1890s investigators.

The second booklet, "The Yorkshire Horrors," a lengthy scenario that involves the era's most famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his family in the machinations of the Napoleon of Crime, James Moriarty, who has now allied himself to the forces of the Mythos. Even at the time, I found it all a bit silly and over the top, something that the author of the boxed set, William A. Barton, seems to have recognized. He provides alternate names for all the major Holmesian characters so that the Keeper can avoid the inevitable eyerolling that might come upon the revelation that you're fighting worshipers of the Great Old Ones beside Holmes and Watson. 

In the years since the publication of Cthulhu by Gaslight, there have undoubtedly been several better – or at least more comprehensive – treatments of the Victorian Age for use in RPGs. Even so, the virtue of this particular supplement was that I both made use of it to play Call of Cthulhu but that it encouraged me to read and research more extensively into a number of historical topics that I might otherwise not have. I have little doubt, for example, that my continued fascination with Victorian occultism was jumpstarted as a result of owning Cthulhu by Gaslight. All my favorite RPG books, supplements, and scenarios have done the same thing: made me want to make use of them with my friends and encouraged me to go beyond them. 

Despite its flaws and shortcomings, Cthulhu by Gaslight did just this, which is why I rank it so highly even today.


  1. IMO the late Victorian era's a better fit for Cthulu than the 1920s. There's much more oddness around the edges of the Victorian era than of the 1920s, and more scope for things man was not meant to know just being...out there.

    In the 1920s, with semi-decent air travel, not knowing about some of the things in the Mythos is a bit odd. In the 1890s? Perfectly sensible.

    And the 1890s has a much more well-developed sense of social order and man's place in things than the 1920s. Much easier to play with that.

    1. Agree. Either Victorian times, the Dark Ages or the present, which is what the 1920s were to Lovecraft when he wrote them.

      For that reason, I prefer the present. Also, the juxtaposition of mundane reality with eldritch horror is all the more alarming that way.

  2. Can you recommend good sources for better understanding the Victorian era for gaming. We had some trouble while playing space 1889 with grokking the social mores and situations of the time (beyond pretty ham handed tropes of colonialism played for laughs)

    1. Perhaps other can chime in with suggestions. For myself, I mostly amassed a collection of non-RPG books on various subjects of interest and went from there. Nowadays, I imagine there are also many great online resources available as well.

    2. I haven't read this yet, but I have on my shelf "How to Be a Victorian" by Ruth Goodman, which is a focus on what a "day in the life" of Victorians of different social classes looked like, which strikes me as likely very useful.

      "The Underworld in the Victorian Period" by Henry Mayhew is a classic, and is especially good for getting the slang/cant right, and knowing what thieves, prostitutes, and so forth are up to is always helpful for RPGs.

      More regency era than Victorian (the early 19th century rather than the late), but GURPS's "Goblins" does a rather good job of getting across the way class was seen and treated in 19th century London through satire.

      Lastly, not a source, but a shortcut that might help with some of the seemingly weird social mores that I picked up from somewhere and have found useful: for Victorians, "sexual desire" was roughly equivalent to how most folks today think of "hatred" - a part of the human experience that might technically be justifiable in narrow, special circumstances, but is generally a bad thing and is always suspect.

      Hating someone because he hurt someone in your family? That's kind of the equivalent of being sexually attracted to your spouse - justifiable, accepted, but maaayybe still kind of morally suspect. Hating someone just because they are a part of some group or you don't like their looks? That's as socially and personally unacceptable today as being sexually attracted to someone just because you liked the looks of him/her was to Victorians. Basically, being promiscuous or even flirtatious then was the social equivalent of being a racist today.

      Hope some of these help!


  3. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Also any Dickens.

    1. Les mis is set between 1815 and 1832. And is in French, and the translation is boring.

  4. As many others, I owe CoC my reading of Lovecraft and it was part of the triad of games (D&D, Traveller, CoC) that started me into the hobby.
    As such it still holds a special place in my heart, even though I haven't played it in ages, and I rarely play horror-themed games anymore.
    Its supplement I hold most dear is, without a doubt, The Dreamlands.
    The game that first sold me the Victorian age as gameable was Space 1889, and Castle Falkenstein sealed the deal.

  5. PS, talking of Cthulhu in rpgs.
    A few years back, italian publisher Serpentarium got out its own Mythos-based game.
    L'alba di Cthulhu (Dawn of Cthulhu) starts where most Mythos game usually end: Cthulhu's victoria.
    The game is noir/mistery set in R'lyeh, last city of Earth, in the 50s.
    Humans and aliens live together under the watchful eye of "President Cthulhu"
    players (who can be Mi-go, Ghouls Humans or Deep Ones) run a Detective Agency in R'Lyeh

  6. What's interesting to me, is that Space: 1889 fanzine "Transactions of the Royal Martian Geographic Society" had several scenarios for Cthulhu by Gaslight in Frank Chadwick's setting. And ideas like the Martian canals being a vast Elder Sign...