Thursday, August 16, 2018

Playing Games Part 4: Call of Cthulhu

My first HPL book;
is that the most metal
Lovecraft cover ever
or what?
There were three names that leaped out at me from Appendix N, and you can probably say them with me: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft. I had heard of these guys from other sources and now that they were intersecting with Dungeons and Dragons, it was time to run them down. I had read a couple of Lovecraft stories in various horror anthologies along the way, so it was a natural for me to dive right into Arkham and Innsmouth and Dunwich. I've spoken at length about Robert E. Howard. And while I read most of my Clark Ashton Smith in a brief flurry, he never really stuck with me like Howard and Lovecraft.

But there was a whole game devoted to Lovecraft! I was slow to answer the Call of Cthulhu, not because I didn’t want to play it; I did. Badly. Desperately. It’s just that, no one else read the same weird shit that I read. Even in my high school, I was an outlier when it came to Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. Everyone else who read those guys were either already my friends, and/or not into gaming. It was a rural suburb of Waco, Texas, in the 1980s. What did you expect?

Best part of the boxed game? The map!
When I finally got some friends together, we were seniors and they had caught up with my reading tastes, or were sick of hearing me talk about the game. I don’t know which, but we had a lively campaign going that sprawled out into other groups and random people that we knew through friend-of-a-friend associations, and it was fun. But I was born to GM that game. I loved scaring the bejeezus out of my players. I got pretty good at it, too. That’s okay, though, because the beauty of the game—I think the thing that has kept it viable all these years—is that it’s designed to kill you, if you don’t go crazy first.

That one thing, those few rules governing sanity and the Cthulhu mythos knowledge, did a better job of simulating the subject matter than any other horror role-playing game since. Anyone with a fear or madness trait or rules for scaring characters all either shamelessly crib from C of C, or they try so hard to not crib from the game that it falters under its own inelegance.

I’ve played other games with a horrific bent; notably Chill, from Pacesetter games, and GURPS Horror, and tried many others, but nothing else will do. And it’s weird, too, because the game is not much different than the other fantasy RPGs at the time; you roll three d6 for your stats, which look and act a lot like the stats in other games. Call of Cthulhu had a skill system that was simple and direct, and moreover gave you something to do with your percentile dice. So, it had all of the crunch and clunk of AD&D, and in fact became the Basic Role-Playing set of rules that they used for Stormbringer and Thieves World, among others.

Around the time that I was deep into the game, Chaosium started publishing the beginnings of what would be a multi-million dollar industry; Cthulhu and Miskatonic-themed items. The Miskatonic University Graduate Kit was the first time I ever saw such things in a store. You got a diploma from MU, a parking pass, a student ID, a course catalog, and so on. They even gave you a bumper sticker from old MU with an octopus on it. Cute.

They also made fake book covers out of paper, designed to wrap around regular books, to freak out the squares on your commute. After that came the buttons, and then the campaign kits (“Why Settle for the Lesser of Two Evils?”} and eventually even I got in on the action when I was working at Chessex Manufacturing. More about that later.

My C of C game was fluid, just as likely to contain vampires and werewolves as the horrors of the Deep Ones. We didn’t always play in the 1920s. My favorite time period was 1936, just after everything settled down in Lovecraft’s world (owing much to his illness and death in 1937), and the characters were essentially batting clean up for the cosmic all-stars. I tried C of C in other time periods (Cthulhu by Gaslight, Cthulhu Now, and a couple of weird others) but it was just not as satisfying for me. I didn’t mind reading stories written in different times, but playing in those worlds was not my cuppa. That’s not to say that the game materials weren’t good; au contraire, they were awesome. Just not for me.

This is a game I know I could pick up tomorrow and run. I still have all of the stuff I wrote for it. One of my top 3 favorite RPGs of all time.

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