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.
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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.
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 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.
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.