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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



FIRST COPIES OF CALL OF CTHULHU WERE DELIVERED TO OUR OFFICES AMID A THREE DAY STORM OF RAIN, LIGHTNING AND THUNDER ON FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 1981. FREQUENT POWER OUTAGES AND OTHER STRANGE HAPPENINGS WERE NUMEROUS.

A PDF version of this article is available to download. (3.5 MB)

While I was working out this part of the game, I read an article in Sorcerer's Apprentice magazine, which explained how to adapt the Cthulhu mythos to the game of Tunnels and Trolls written by Glenn and Phillip Rahman. The article was well-written, but all of it was useless to me (having already progressed past most of the areas covered in the article) except for one part. The article suggested that a new characteristic be added in such a campaign which basically would represent Willpower, and that this score gradually decrease as the player progresses in a game until it reaches zero. The authors also said that the failure of a saving throw based on this characteristic should result in insanity or fainting. This idea struck me as the perfectway to incorporate a large portion of the Lovecraft feel into the rules.

Originally, I had the Sanity characteristic range from 1-100 at the start of a character's creation, and only go down, and that permanently, upon encountering a monster. When it reached zero, the character would go permanently insane. This oversimplistic solution proved poor in play. It was changed so that losing varying amounts of Sanity caused different amounts of problems, and each monster, spell, and magical book read caused a different amount of Sanity loss. This made for a very fatalistic or depressing game, as the players watched for their precious Sanity go down, and down, and down... In many ways this matched the stories' mood perfectly, but it often made for a feeling of hopelessness in a game. The entire crew at Chaosium evidently bent their efforts to improve on the original system, and the system now allows for increase of Sanity through various means (though the tendency is still definitely towards Sanity loss rather than gain). A reasonably complete chart for appropriate forms of insanity is included as well.

The current sanity rules are quite good, I feel, and still give a feeling of hopelessness to the players at times, though in actual play it is usually possible to overcome the handicaps of having a poor Sanity. The whole concept of Sanity permeates the game and makes it what it is. It allows for such things as the case in my own campaign, where six players stood inside a pentacle trying to summon "One Who Walks Between the Planes". When darkness lowered, and scraping noises were heard, several ofthe characters hid their eyes so that they would not have to see the hideous being. It is hard to imagine such an event happening in Runequest or D&D.

Conclusions

An especially charming aspect of the game is that it is set up to be run in the roaring twenties. This time era is close enough to our own to allow us to fully understand the culture, motivations, and activities, yet far enough away so that everything that happened then is covered by a patina of glamour. It is hard for a player to lock horns with Al Capone or meet a young Albert Einstein. The game can easily be run in a more modern time period by a clever referee, and most of the information for a modern campaign is more readily available to the players and the referee. In a campaign set in the 1980s the players will readily know how much a new car costs, or what inventions areavailable.

A Sourcebook for the 1920s is included in the game to provide supplementary information about the period including all sorts of interesting information (do you know what company advertised its product as coming from contented cows?) and useful facts, such as steamship costs for passage and the internal layout of Pullman cars.

In the game's present form, it plays much like an adventure mystery, such as the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The players rush around frantically trying to find out what exactly the problem is with which they are faced, trying to cope with it, and trying to get something out of it as well. The game is based on Basic Role-Playing, - a framework on which the rest of the rules are hung. The simple, yet elegant rules, of BRP make iteasier to get right into playing the game without having to learn about various picky specifics. In fact, it has been my experience that a campaign run in which the players know absolutely nothing about the rules except for what is in Basic Role-Playing and howthe skills work is one of the finest campaigns that can be run in Call of Cthulhu.

In writing up this game, I wanted to have a game which both had the overall mood and specific details of the Cthulhu Mythos. Additionally, I wanted to make an enjoyable and easily playable game. I think that I have succeeded (though not without help) in both of these requirements. Being a player (though not a referee) in a Call of Cthulhu game requires perhaps less rules knowledge than any other role-playing game that I know, yetstill gives the player an excellent return in fun, adventure, and chills. The very subject of the game, along with the setting, encourages roleplaying rather than simple rules-following. If the goal of the campaign is to stop the evil Cthulhu and his minions from destroying the world, a suitably heroic (though horrific) death for a player can be truly edifying for all. I think you'll like the game as much as I do. If (barbarous thought) a person should decide to use the game not as a game in itself, but as a Lovecraftian source for monsters, magic, books, etc., for a different game, it works well for that too. I would have to say it is probably better as a source for Runequest than any other roleplaying game except Worlds of Wonder.






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