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Call of Cthulhu Designer's Notes: Lynn Willis

By Lynn Wills

First published in Different Worlds magazine, issue 19, February 1982, pp.8-13


A PDF version of this article is available to download. (3.5 MB)
Call of Cthulhu is a boxed role-playing game set in 1920s United States, the place and time in which horror-writer H.P. Lovecraft originated what became known as the Cthulhu mythos. The game works best with four or fewer players, each of whom might run 1-3 characters. The characters will investigate mysterious Cthulhoid events and situations. Call of Cthulhu is the first published fleshing-out of the Basic Role-Playing rules, a system designed for quick and simple RPGing. Like Runequest, CC is percentile-oriented, and it uses the same initial characteristics and some of the skills.

The Cthulhu Mythos

By temperament an antiquarian and student of the bizarre, Lovecraft developed a cycle of tales hypothesizing that beings of great power dwell on Earth, biding their time until they can reclaim the surface of our world and extinguish upstart mankind. The being Cthulhu happens to have the largest cult among the degenerate offshoots ofhumanity who would worship such an entity; he may also be the most powerful being onthe planet. The protagonists of the stories are like Lovecraft in their uniform love of old and strange things, and Faustian in their will to know the meaning of the Cthulhoid clues across which they stumble.

Each story in the mythos depicts a narrator's dawning comprehension and shock at discovering this disconcerting threat to life as we know it. By accepting the narrators, the readers for a moment accept as well those horrifying conclusions of impending doom. Feelings of underlying menace and of ill-glimpsed, uncontrollable forces are congenial to our era, and account for some of the popularity of Lovecraft's work.

The game consists of the Call of Cthulhu rules, a Sourcebook for the 1920s, Basic Role-Playing (the CC rules start from BRP), cut-out characters for use in play, character sheets, a special world map, six dice, and other inserts. It is boxed, with an excellent Gene Day full-colour painting on the front, and sells for $19.95. There are no Elder Signs, dark gems, or mysterious manuscripts written on debatable surfaces included, yet powerful forces were at work to prevent this game ever from being published; surely mi-go scuttled around corners, and vast putrescences rose above the wooded hills!

The Origins of the Game

Originally, Call of Cthulhu was not about Cthulhu at all. (We say it 'kuh-THOOL-hoo'; Lovecraft said it 'tluhluh' or 'khlul-hloo,' but he wasn't trying to get gamers to ask for it by name in stores.) Nor was Sandy Petersen the designer. The springboard for Cthulhu was a proposal from a free-lance designer about a gothic fantasy role-playing game, and he wanted some incidental use of Lovecraft descriptions. His proposal was interesting. I negotiated rights for the Cthulhu mythos from Arkham House, but after many months delay the manuscript of the game was unsatisfactory, and had to be (with bad feelings and confusion) turned down. It was originlly to be a 1980 release; now we were hoping for 1981.

During that time manuscript sections had been lost, letters delayed, and motives misunderstood: all obvious signs of the surreptitious influence of something in our affairs. But events turned for the better. While I had been reluctant to pull a concept from its originator, Greg had been hopping about for months waiting to see the project roll: he nominated Sandy Petersen, a long-time Lovecraft fan who met every deadline. Sandy jumped at the chance. It was agreed that the rules would become exclusively about the Cthulhu mythos, since we had those rights. (This change of authorship clearly escaped the notice of those beings in charge of foiling the game ,since there were no complications.) The rules were to follow the general Runequest development order, but what more happened between Greg and Sandy should be left for them to write.

The draft which Sandy sent was substantially the first part of the rulesbook as published, minus ten or so pages of copy, a few maps, and Gene Day's interior illustrations. Al Dewey was kind enough to start a weekly Cthulhu campaign, and was careful to follow the rules as written, so that we could accurately perceive how the game would play as written. Most of the subsequent modifications concerned the new characteristics, Education (EDU) and Sanity (SAN), and the combat section.