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Call of Cthulhu Designer's Notes: Sandy Petersen

By Sandy Petersen

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)

Ever since I found a tattered, World war II vintage copy of the works of H.P. Lovecraft in my father's library in 12th grade, I have been enthralled by Lovecraft's creations. The exotic monsters, black terrific atmosphere, and overall mood of horror all combined in my mind to form many shuddersome moments. I greedily devoured all of Lovecraft's stories I could get my hands on, and now, fourteen years later, Lovecraft is firmly ensconced in my heart as my all-time author.

I have been engaged in fantasy role-playing for nearly eight years now - almost as long as the 'genre' has been in existence. Two years ago, a friend of mine, Steve Marsh, suggested that I start a campaign based on what he called "American Gothic"; by this he meant a fantasy campaign taking place in the modem era, with only a little magic, and most monsters stemming from '50s horror movies and modern horror literature. I actually started this campaign and went to the trouble of detailing all the possible types of scenarios that could exist, and made up some special rules for combat, experience and so forth. This campaign was short and abortive, but the things I learned from it planted some of the seeds for later work.

A year and a half ago, I wrote to Chaosium, offering my services in writing up a Runequest variant based on a fantasy world derivative of H. P. Lovecraft's dreamlands cycle, as best exemplified by the short novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Greg Stafford replied that they were working on a variant game entitled Dark Worlds which was to cover H. P. Lovecraft's novels in a modern sense. My fancy was immediately struck by this, and I begged Greg for a chance to get in on the project. My craven begging bore fruit a few months later, when, beyond my expectations, Chaosium dumped the entire project in my lap. I was going to be allowed to do the whole thing myself. Chaosium sent me very little source material at first and I was very much on my own,not even knowing what the previous workers had done. The assignment seemed relatively easy to me, and after some slight toying with the project, I hit some mild snags and decided to let the project sit a few months. When I was finally prodded back into action again, I looked more closely at the situation and was appalled.

The Problems

When I first approached the project, I thought that it would be ridiculously easy; all I would have to do is put the Runequest rules in a different time period, add some new monsters, and have different cults than those in Cults of Prax. But it proved not tobe that easy. Working on the project I discovered that I would have to formulate an entirely different magical system consistent with the books, yet playable; I needed tomake a fairly complete listing of modern skills, such as Automobile Driving, Mechanical Repair, Psychoanalysis, Library Use (for which skill I am indebted to Steve Marsh once again), and so forth; I also had to make a list of, and rules for modern weapons including guns - no small project in itself. It seemed to me that overnight the project had multiplied in size and complexity by about a thousand times.

All the foregoing difficulties were actually minor compared to the one paramount design problem which I faced: how can I make the mood of a fantasy role-playing game match the mood of a modern horror story? I needed spooky happenings to get the players chilled, I needed black horrors that would chill the minds and blast the souls of the intrepid investigators, and I needed to make sure that the game did not degenerate into a slugfest or simple matching of power against power.

The Solutions

The monsters were relatively easy to develop. I already had experience in making up monsters for gaming (having had a book of 99 new monsters for Runequest published by Chaosium a few months previously [Gateway Bestiary, Ed.]), making my task simple. I poured through all the stories written by Lovecraft and a great number written by his imitators and picked out all the hideous abnormalities that seemed to be at all consistent from story to story. The total was surprisingly low, and I had to dredge up monsters from quite obscure stories and collaborations in order to have a respectable number of creatures to smite the players. In most cases specifics were lacking on the monster, so I had to do a little bit of educated fudging, giving the monster in question abilities that at best were only implied in the story. I was not completely arbitrary in this and feel that the results make for a harmonious whole.