Introduction to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos
and Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game
The term 'mythos' suggests more than a typical
roleplaying game world; it implies a rich and lavishly-detailed setting
and it is an entirely apt word to describe the unique fantastical creation
of Howard Philips Lovecraft, his literary correspondents and many writers
since his death in 1936.
Different strands of Lovecraft's writing combined
to create the mythos. The central idea was his concept of an ancient
assembly of godlike beings who, in practising black magic, somehow lost
their power over the Earth and constantly strive to regain their hold upon
it. However, although this might sound superficially like the standard
Christian myths of fallen angels and suchlike, Lovecraft's conception was
far more complex and less clear-cut. The boundaries between godlike-being
and god, between science and magic and between evil and amorality (or a
morality alien to humans) are far from clear in his stories.
Many of Lovecraft's stories concerned the efforts
of human (and sometimes non-human) cultists to restore these fallen gods
to their former positions as rulers of the earth. One of these 'Great Old Ones'
gives his name to the mythos itself: Great Cthulhu, who sleeps beneath
the Pacific Ocean, dreaming and waiting for when 'The stars are right',
when he will be free again.
Another strand of Lovecraft's fiction which was
woven into the mythos at times was that of the Dreamlands: a world which
certain people may enter while they dream; a strange and fantastic world
where the laws of our universe do not necessarily apply and where dreamers
may exist as another person altogether while their body sleeps on in our world.
But the details of the mythos are best discovered
through reading Lovecraft's work. The grand sweep of the mythos is a
depressing picture; evil will prevail in the end and mere humans are
powerless against the beings who exist in the spaces just beyond our
world. Lovecraft once compared our safe, familiar universe of day-to-day
things, adrift in an infinite and hostile universe to a bubble blown from
a jester's pipe, tiny, fragile and existing only at the whim of the jester.
His stories are grim, gothic, brooding; they are
filled with yellowing manuscripts, dusty, forgotten cellars and terrible
secrets best left undiscovered. If writings were coloured then Lovecraft's
would be shades of grey, the green of moss on old walls and the blackness
of a dank and dripping well.
"The Call of Cthulhu", a role-playing game based on the
supernatural horror fiction of 1920s writer H.P. Lovecraft, scooped all
the major awards for "best RPG" when it first appeared in the early 1980s.
It has become a firm favourite of gamers worldwide, and a staple of
The main reason for the success of the system -
apart from the appeal of its baroque setting - is probably that encourages
role-playing and initiative, with simple game mechanics and minimal
dice-rolling. The players take on the role of "investigators" (typically
in the 1920s, in the New England of Lovecraft's stories, although
scenarios can be written for any time or place). The problems they face
can generally only be dealt with by research, negotiation, surreptitious
investigation and lateral thinking. Brute force is usually not an option,
and when violence does occur in the game, it is shocking, dangerous, and
definitely a big deal - adding an extra layer of excitement. The
horrifying experiences the characters go through are likely to drive them
temporarily or permanently insane, giving a new dimension to role-playing
for the players to run with.
All this can have a real appeal to the jaded fantasy
gamer who is tired of endless dice-rolling, routine hack-and-slash
violence, and the absence of any real challenge. In "The Call of Cthulhu"
player characters are up against titanic foes, and, while they might be
able to snatch a temporary victory, they can never hope to prevail in the
long term. The sense of danger is real, and the stakes (and, often, the
body count) are high.
It all adds up to a unique and challenging gaming
experience. And when the stars are right, you too will come to dread...
The Call of Cthulhu!
©copyright 1996 Marcus Ogden and Julian Field
Tuesday, 08-Feb-2000 10:39:28 GMT