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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)

The 'cults' were much more difficult. They could obviously not be correlated with the normal Runequest cult rules, both battle magic and Rune spells being conspicuously absent in the normal world. At first, I tried to simply write up all the different deities as if they were normal monsters, listing SIZ, POW, and so forth for each different god, along with some brief notes about the cult, if any, of that particular being. I quickly discovered that this approach was unsuitable, since the scores I gave the various monster gods was too completely arbitrary, and the possibility of harming one in the course of play too remote for their statistics to really matter. For a month or two, I let the matter of the gods slide and worked on other projects, hoping that a brainstorm would enlighten me to the point where I would be able to finish the project.

The aforesaid brainstorm did finally come, and I listed each god according to its effects when summoned, its characteristics, its worshipers, and the gifts or requirements that it demanded of those worshipers. This approach was eminently workable, and I was quite self-satisfied at its conclusion. Later on in the development of the book, Steve Perrin wanted to re-include the statistics for the deities, and thus the STR, INT, etc. of Cthulhu and the rest are now included in the game again. Anyone disagreeing with the particular score we gave any deity is certainly free to modify themto fit their own preconceptions or prejudices instead of ours.

The magical system used in the game was also a special difficulty. Lovecraft made noeffort to make any spells in his work seem consistent - his primary objective naturally being to produce horror rather than to give a coherent system for FRPing. In fact, in most stories, spells are never cast in the story's course, although the grisly effects of spells are often seen or implied. Another difficulty is that only the 'bad guys' usually have any spells. I needed to make the spells such that the players would usually be afraid to use such black arts. In order to create spells, I simply theorized as to what spells would be needed in order to produce the effects seen in the books, and applied my theories. It was easy enough after that, since most of the spells were being used to contact or control the various monsters and/or deities in the Cthulhu Mythos,and a very few spells with different effects thrown in. The players are discouraged from using too many spells, since the process of using spells directly gains contact with many grisly beings, most of which there is no protection against.The skill listing was not one of the major problems in the game. I took a few days to formulate lists of all the skills which I felt would be usable in the game, and then took a few more days to write up the effects of these skills in game terms. Greg Stafford was of help here, in that he sent me a list of what he felt would be useful skills. The skill list is prominent for the large number of esoteric knowledge skills on it, including such skills as Accounting, Archaeology, Law, Lingidstics, Geology, Zoology, and so forth. Many other skills presented themselves to my fevered mind, but limitations of space and sanity precluded my putting them all in. Any good game referee should be able to determine the effects of skills not included in the game already. One such skill, that I feel should have been included, is Photography. Maybe the second edition will have it.

One shortcoming which may be made manifest to some readers is the preponderance of academic subjects in the skills list. Being a student myself, I have a natural tendency to see the world in an academic light, and to list the skills I know best as the most specialized and subdivided, so that there are separate skills for Psychology and Psychoanalyze but only a single skill for Operate Heavy Machinery. I can partially justify this bias by the fact that most players in the game will be more intellectually than physically oriented, and by the fact that the vast majority of Lovecraft's heroes were also well-educated in the so-called 'higher sciences'.

Since I am no gun nut, I was incompletely prepared to deal with the problem of firearms in the rules. Everyone I knew gave me a different story on how much damage guns would do, how many shots they would fire, etc. The first gun listings done were far too low on damage given, and the second group were much too high. Finally I sat down with Steve Perrin and Sean Summers after Origins '81 and thrashed it out until we all felt that the guns were properly represented. I personally feel that the gun section is one of the more accurate parts of the game, if rather less important in a player's context, since the game is set up to penalize those characters relying on firepower rather than brainpower.

In trying to make the game itself have the feel of a horror story, I first set up the monsters such that almost any single monster was more than a match for a single character, and some monsters were even beyond the capabilities of even a well-organized party. My motive was not to make the game unplayable or a killer but to cause the scenarios and actions of a single game session to revolve around plans and plots to dispose of a single horrific event or being.