Trail of Cthulhu

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest. TL;DR: I have rapidly become a fan of the Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game, a modern, player-facing alternative to Call of Cthulhu that highlights the investigative aspect of Lovecraftian adventuring.

I’ve always loved all kinds of games, but the frequency at which I played RPGs was, until recently, about once a decade: a handful of D&D sessions as a kid, an afternoon of Top Secret in high school, a GURPS session in college, and a taste of Call of Cthulhu in my early 30s. Of the many systems I’ve learned (and the number I’ve learned is an order of magnitude greater than the number I’ve played, alas), Call of Cthulhu (CoC) was by far my favorite. Not only am I a sucker for the horror genre in general, and H. P. Lovecraft in particular, but I also appreciated the game for putting the narrative front in center, with the dice relegated to a supporting role.

A few years ago I picked up a copy of Trail of Cthulhu (ToC), knowing full well that, like dozens of other RPGs I have purchased over the years, it would be read but likely never played. But the system appealed to me to such a degree that I decided to actually try it out. And so, on Halloween of 2011, I gathered several of my friends and subjected them to the eldritch horrors that the game has to offer. The evening was so successful that I have run the game several times since, for a variety of friends and acquaintances. It’s with thanks to ToC that I can, at long last, add the title of “roleplayer” to my gaming resume without resorting to exaggeration or wishful thinking.

Even the cover of Trail of Cthulhu emphasizes the investigative nature of the game


Why did I enter the world of roleplaying with Trail of Cthulhu, rather than in the company of its much lauded forefather? Because ToC emphasizes the investigative aspect of the game, which I find to be the most fun. In fact GUMSHOE, the engine thrumming within ToC, is specifically tailored for mystery-oriented RPGs, and the exploration of Lovecraft’s horrors is but one of its many application.

GUMSHOE is built around a simple proposition, albeit one viewed as heretical by many Call of Cthulhu fans: characters in an investigative game should be given the clues for free. In other words, players need not “Spot Hidden” to find the essential manuscript, pass a “Listen” check to hear the scratching behind a secret door, or miss out on a key piece of information because they failed to interrogate a wino four scenes back. If an Investigator is in a location containing a clue, and has a skill appropriate for finding it, the Keeper forks it over. No dice rolls, no chance of failure, no games derailed for want of a well-hidden journal.

GUMSHOE accomplishes this by dividing an Investigators skills into two broad classes: Investigative and General. Investigative Abilities, such as Occult and Flattery are those that enable players to learn things, and work automatically. If a character in the story has information and is susceptible to flattery, for instance, a player need only declare that they are laying on the charm to get the goods. General Abilities like Firearms and Fleeing, on the other hand, are those that enable players to do things. Unlike Investigative Abilities, General Abilities require a dice roll, and can result in failure. So while finding the combination to the safe is a given, sneaking past a rogue shoggoth is not without risk.

Some Call of Cthulhu players find this to be even more blasphemous than the creatures they face. Finding clues is the entire point of a mystery they argue, and removing that element neuters the game. The creators of GUMSHOE beg to differ, and cite as evidence for their position the traditional police procedural, where the finding of the clues is a given, be it Sherlock Holmes spotting mud on a suspect’s shoe or the CSI team sweeping a motel room for DNA. The interesting part of the story, they posit, is in the interpretation and synthesis of the clues, as the detectives move from scene to scene drawing ever closer to their quarry. GUMSHOE works by deprecating the drudgery of evidence collection and highlighting the fun of piecing together the Horrible Truth.

What could go wrong?

On the Trail

With Trail of Cthulhu, Kenneth Hite takes the GUMSHOE system and plunks it into the world of H. P. Lovecraft. Hite has an impressive resume in both RPG creation (he is credited with GURPS Horror) and the Mythos (on which he has written several books), and his considerable experience is obvious in the design.

The first 80 pages of the book are essentially Hite’s conversion of Call of Cthulhu to the GUMSHOE system. Yes ToC is its own game, but there is no way (nor need) to deny CoC’s omnipresent influence. PCs are called “Investigators” and the GM is the “Keeper”; many of CoC’s signature skills (e.g., Credit Rating and Psychoanalysis) have been carried over; and yes, characters have a Sanity rating, which will erode over the course of several games.

Hite augments all this with a number of innovations. Stability, for instance, is a measure of an Investigator’s short-term mental well-being, and can be refreshed by completing adventures, finding safe haven, via the application of Psychoanalysis, and so forth. (As in CoC, however, Sanity tends to be a one-way street toward madness.) Investigators also have built in motivators, including Drives (Curiosity, Ennui, and other explanations as to why they investigate the Mythos) and Pillars of Sanity (core beliefs, such as “Science trumps superstition”).

The latter two-thirds of Trail of Cthulhu contains a wealth of material, from an overview of the 1930’s (the default era for ToC adventures), tips for Keepers, an Introductory adventure, and a repository of campaign ideas. Of particular note is the chapter on the Mythos, where Hite provides detailed descriptions of the creatures, tomes, spells, and entities that inhabit the Lovecraftian universe. He even provides multiple possibilities for each of the Great Old Ones, allowing Keepers to choose the form of the Destructor they wish to unleash on their hapless players. Here, for instance, are three of Hite’s six interpretations of Ithaqua:

  • The Great Old One Ithaqua, the Wind-Walker, dwells in the Arctic wastes. It abducts lone travelers or those who have attracted its unfavorable attention, carrying them off into the auroral skies. They are found weeks or months later, frozen solid in positions of great agony, missing random body parts, and partly buried in the ground as if dropped from a terrific height.
  • Ithaqua resembles a gigantic (even miles-tall, although this may be a cold-induced hallucination) humanoid with ragged stumps at the end of its trailing legs. Its eyes glow a lambent red. This appearance matches the descriptions of the Wendigo, the legendary man-eating monster of the Chippewa, who inspires cannibalism in those who encounter him. Ithaqua, likewise, sometimes transforms its victims into its own semblance, leaving them insensible to cold.
  • Ithaqua is an Outer God embodying the inevitability of thermodynamic decay. As time increases, molecules get colder and more isolated – the Arctic north is the coldest, most isolated part of the human world, a preview of the “heat death” coming for us all. Ithaqua causes, or is, or is created by, that immovable truth.

Chock full of ideas like the above, the Trail of Cthulhu book will be of interest to anyone fascinated by the Mythos — even those who have no intention of ever playing the game.

They’re saving you a cell

My Impressions

I’ve run several Trail of Cthulhu sessions since discovering the game, and all have been a blast. These are some of the features of the system that I most appreciate:

  • Dice rolls are rare but meaningful: As I mentioned above, Investigators need only roleplay the use of their Investigative Abilities to receive the clues necessary to proceed. Dice rolls are required when a character invokes a General Ability, such as Firearms or Fleeing, and failure usually results in a significant setback or injury. Furthermore, all rolls are made using six-sided dice, and the results are dead simple to interpret.
  • Sessions are concise: A session of ToC tends to be briefer than it would have been if played using the CoC ruleset, as dead ends are eliminated, clue hunts are minimized, and the action isn’t continually interrupted by dice rolls. I have played some ToC adventures in a single evening that surely would have required two or three sessions using CoC.
  • The game is player-facing: I’d never heard the term “player-facing” prior to ToC, but the term perfectly encapsulates much of what I like about the game. In most old school RPGs, the GM “runs” the game and the players deal with whatever is thrown at them. In ToC, however, the players are active agents, and one duty of the Keeper is to react to their choices, weaving the elements introduced by the players into the narrative.

    For instance, each Investigator has points that can be used on investigative “benefits” (e.g., an additional clue, or a contact in the city that can aid the team). The players not only chooses when to spend these points, but can suggest the nature of the benefit received. The Keeper is the final arbiter of course, but this gives the players much more say in how the story unfolds.

  • Floating Clues: ToC encourages Keepers to have a stash of extra clues on hand. If the Investigators decide to do something that is not in the script — search the lighthouse that was only meant as scenery, say — the Keeper can reward their initiative by giving them something for their trouble. It’s another manifestation of the player-facing nature of the game, rewarding Investigators who stray from where they are “supposed” to go.
  • Purist Mode: Most CoC adventures are pulp in nature, allowing players to confront and even defeat gods. ToC allows for this style of play as well, but also introduces Purist rules that remain true to the spirit of H. P. Lovecraft stories. If you like your adventures lethal and your outcomes bleak, this is the mode for you.

In case you’re curious, the four Trail of Cthulhu adventures I have run thus far are Dimension Y and Devourers In the Mist (from Stunning Eldritch Tales collection), The Dying of St. Margaret’s, and Not So Quiet. I would highly recommend any of these, especially Devourers as an introduction to the system. (I ran a customized version of the printed Devourers; Keepers who are interested in my revisions can read about them here.)

My favorite session to run was “The Dying of St. Maragaret’s”, a purist adventure true to the style of H. P. Lovecraft


I’m a fan of Trail of Cthulhu, and unsurprised that it’s the game that finally turned me into a roleplayer.

The system not perfect, and there are aspects that I find odd or unworkable. The point-spend mechanism is a marvelous idea as it ensures that all players get their moment in the spotlight, but often feels clumsy and disruptive in play. The game can careen from diceless to dicefest when group combat erupts. And the soft- and hard-driver rules, where a player can be punished for not roleplaying an Investigator the way the GM feels it ought to be played, as so counter to the spirit of the game that I’ve simply chosen to ignore them.

Some critics question why ToC exists at all, since Call of Cthulhu Keepers who prefer player-facing games have long used floating clues and the other “innovations” championed by the system. That is undoubtedly true, but by codifying these mechanics Trail is a boon for novice Keepers who might otherwise struggle with these elements. And while you could play any ToC adventure using the CoC ruleset (and vice versa), the systems lend themselves to different styles of play.

Take the Call of Cthulhu game I participated in last Saturday, a “haunted house” scenario in which the players were confined to a mansion and bad things happened to them over the weekend. Although our party was ultimately successful, we missed several clues because we’d neglected to search some key locations. That wouldn’t have happened with ToC, as Investigators always get all the core information. But ToC also favors stories in which the players travel from scene to scene, following clues toward a destination (hence the “Trail”). It is also ill-suited to adventures in which the players are not actively trying to solve the mystery; without the investigation, Trail flounders. So while there is a great deal of overlap between CoC and ToC, neither is obviated by the other.

If you are currently enjoying CoC I see no reason for you to switch. But if you are interested in a new approach, or new to Lovecraftian roleplaying and wondering which system to adopt, give Trail of Cthulhu a read and see if it models the sort of play you prefer. It certainly does for me.

You can learn more about Trail of Cthulhu at its Official Homepage, RPGGeek, and on the Yog-Sothoth forums.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest. Important: If you are thinking of playing this game on the PC (as opposed to on X-Box), please see my caveat at the end of the review.

In 2003 I began to hear rumors of a forthcoming video game based on Call of Cthulhu. My interest was piqued but my hopes were not high. I assumed that the game would be a routine first-person shooter, with the thinnest veneer of Lovecraft slapped on so as to justify the license. After all (thought I), how could a video game approximate the experience of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game?

That question soon became moot. In early 2004 I became a father, and my career as a gamer came to an end–at least for a spell.

I was, however, reminded of the game last month, as I continued research for the H. P. Lovefest. And I discovered, to my surprise, that Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was not only released, but released to mostly positive reviews. Even more encouraging to me, though, were some of the negative comments made by gamers on Amazon and Metacritic. They accused the game of being overly linear; they lamented the long and unskippable cut-scenes used to provide voluminous expository information; and they railed against the ridiculously high difficulty level.

A frustratingly lethal game with a focus on narrative and a proclivity toward railroading players? This sounds like a better adaptation of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game than I’d expected!

And so, for the sake of the H. P Lovefest, I downloaded a copy of the game from Steam and played it all the way through. Oh, the things I do for you.

My fears that the game would be heavy on first-person shooting and light on Lovecraft were allayed immediately. Dark Corners opens in 1909 with the protagonist, Private Detective Jack Walters, venturing into the homestead of a strange religion called the Fellowship of the Yith. As Walters explores the house, searching for clues as to the purpose of the cult, he discovers paintings of the Great Old Ones upon the walls, finds the Pnakotic Manuscripts on an altar, and stumbles across some horrible Yithian technology in the basement. And, significantly, he does all this unarmed. Even from the get-go, the focus of the game is on investigation, stealth, and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.

The main story, set six years after the prologue, keeps you in the role of Jack Walters, and deprives you of weapons for at least the first quarter of the game. Which is not to say that you lack opposition–far from it. After you travel to Innsmouth (yes, that Innsmouth) you are beset by enemies on all sides, and must survive by skulking in the shadows when possible, running like hell when necessary, and patching up your wounds with first aid kits when you can find a moment’s reprieve. The flight-not-fight tenor of the game is so emphasized that, even after you acquire a gun, you’ll tend to use it as a last resort rather than as a first.

The story of Dark Corners is impressive, on par in detail and faithfulness to Lovecraft with the best of the Call of Cthulhu scenarios. And it even incorporates CoC’s most interesting mechanism, the sanity attribute. When Walters encounters horrors, key aspects of the game change to reflect his mental distress: the video becomes blurry, or wavers in and out of focus; the audio warps and wafts; and the controls become unreliable. Too much terror in too short a time frame and Walters may well go insane–with deadly consequences.

The devotion of the Dark Corners writers to the source material–both Lovecraft’s stories (The Shadow Over Innsmouth foremost among them) and the CoC RPG–is immensely gratifying, and shines in every chapter. I actually played the game through twice: once on the regular level of difficulty, and a second time on the easiest level, so as to enjoy the story without being murdered every forty seconds.

And you will be. Murdered, that is. Often. Even I, a fan of the notoriously fatal role-playing game, found myself exasperated at times by the lethality of the game. There is, for instance, an scene about a third of the way though, in which you must escape from the Innsmouthian locals, that is inexcusably unforgiving. I am also going to side with many of the game’s critics in declaring the save points in the game to be way too few and far between. I understand the philosophical unpinning of this decision on the part of the game designers–preventing players from saving at will makes the game all the more scary–but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel like defenestrating my laptop on more than one occasion.

All that said, I enjoyed Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth as much as any game I have played recently, a list that includes the both the Halflife and the Portal series. As a Lovecraft aficionado I am obviously biased, but even so it does not surprise me that the game was included in this compendium of Best Games of All Time.

Dark Corners is as close of a Call of Cthulhu campaign as you’re going to get without five other people and some ten-sided dice, and it’s a loving tribute to the master of dread.

Huge Caveat for PC Gamers: Dark Corners was originally developed for the XBox and, as I understand it, the PC port was performed hastily, in the last days before Headfirst Productions went belly-up. As a result, the PC version has some bugs. Some are small and ignorable; others are large and obnoxious. One however, near the end of the story, literally renders the game unfinishable.

The bug doesn’t occur on all systems, but it occurred on mine and, I suspect, on most modern systems. It takes place on the ship, when you are asked to fire a cannon at Devil’s Reef. The reef is supposed to show blue lights to indicate your targets, but the bug prevents them from appearing, making this mini-game all but impossible to complete.

Here is the solution:

  1. Get to the point where you are supposed to shell Devil’s Reef, which takes place in the “A Dangerous Journey” chapter. Look through the viewfinder and, if the blue lights aren’t obvious, exit the game.
  2. Download this zip file.
  3. Unzip the file and copy the “A Dangerous Voyage 5-28-2011 6.11.26 PM” folder into “C:\Users\[yourusername]\Documents\Bethesda\Call of Cthulhu”
  4. Relaunch Dark Corners, choose “Load Game”, and select the “A Dangerous Voyage – 05/28/2011” save slot.

A bug of this magnitude is clearly unacceptable, and I therefore cannot recommend the PC edition of this game (even though that’s what I played). But reviews of the XBox version make no mention of this glitch; that version is presumably unaffected by this and several other errors.


This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest.

I was not alone in observing the 75th anniversary of Lovecraft’s death on March 15, 2012. Here are some other commemorations:

Games: Arkham Horror

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest.

There are countless board games that simulate D&D and similar “dungeon crawl” RPGs. They accomplish this by providing the components and rules necessary for the hack and slash element of the game: the movement through the labyrinth, encountering of monsters, the throwing of dice to resolve combat. The narrative aspects of the roleplaying game, meanwhile, are surgically removed, or reduced to an “Introductory Paragraph” to be read to the players before the action begins.

But how does one recreate the experience of Call of Cthulhu, a roleplaying game in which story is paramount? Arkham Horror does so by focusing on the aspects of CoC that make it unique: the teamwork (AH is a cooperative game), the escalating sense of doom, the “sanity” attribute, and, above all else, the plot arcs of the characters involved.

Pete the Drifter investigates the Black Cave

The board depicts Arkham, the fictional setting of many of Lovecraft’s stories, in the most functional manner possible, with locations such as “The Witch House” as circles with artwork, streets as colored rectangles, and the routes connecting the two as thick white lines. The background shows tract housing in an attempt to make things look a little more City-ish, but it’s clear that the board was designed to be pragmatic rather than aesthetic. The first time you see it you are likely to wonder how the game hopes to capture the spirit of Lovecraft with such a drab playing surface.

The answer, as in the roleplaying game on which Arkham Horror is based, is via story–a staggering amount of story of story. Flavor text is everywhere and, unlike most games of this sort, demands to be read. For starters, each player begins with a Investigator–Joe Diamond the private eye, Jenny Barnes the dilettante, etc.–and the back of each character card tells “The Story So Far”, describing how this unfortunate soul came to uncover those Things That Man Was Not Meant to Know. For example:

Sister Mary has served the Church faithfully for many years, so when she was sent to Arkham to work with Father Michael, a man whose writings she had admired for many years, she felt that she was truly blessed. Now, after witnessing Father Michael’s strange mood swings and seeing some of the bizarre practices that go on in this town, she’s beginning to feel that she may have been a bit too hasty …

Now, gathering her things and quietly leaving South Church, Sister Mary has decided to investigate this town, and in so doing, reaffirm her faith.

Sister Mary is one of 16 Arkham Horror Investigators

These characters move around the city of Arkham, investigating locations, collecting items, and unearthing clues. There is a separate stack of cards for each neighborhoods on the board, and when an Investigator visits a building–the Library in the Miskatonic neighborhood, say–a card from the corresponding deck is drawn. The text describes an encounter experienced by the character, and usually asks the player to perform a Check by rolling a number of dice and comparing the result to the Investigator’s relevant Skill: Fight, Sneak, Lore, Luck, and so on. Here again the mechanics of the Call of Cthulhu RPG are emulated, albeit in a simplified form.

Meanwhile, gates to Other Worlds open around town and unleash terrible creatures into the streets, while the power of some terrible god grows ever stronger. Players can close these gates, but only after traversing the bizarre dimensions to which they lead, and returning to town before irrevocable madness sets in. If too many gates are open concurrently, or if monsters completely overrun the town, or if any of a number of Apocalypse-triggering conditions are met, the Great Old One shows up for a climatic final battle. And as anyone who has played Call of Cthulhu can tell you, shooting Yog-Sothoth with a .45 rarely ends well.

Yes you can battle–and be devoured by-the Big Guy himself. It’s an honor.

There is more to the game–lots lots lots more–but you get the gist: from humble beginnings the Investigators uncover a terrible threat of mankind, and save the world in the nick of time … or suffer a fate worse than death in their failure. No game I own comes closer to recreating the feel of a RPG than Arkham Horror.

Now the caveats, of which there are many.

First, this is a Byzantine game, with a dizzying amount of stuff of which to keep track. On more than one occasion while playing Arkham Horror I have thought that this, the board game version of Call of Cthulhu, is more complex than the roleplaying game on which it is based.

Second, it takes a loooong time to play: three hours at a minimum, unless you are spectacularly (un)lucky. A corollary to this is that the game’s player rating of “2-8” is universally acknowledged as BS: playing AH with more than four is ill-advised, unless you’ve set aside a week for the playing.

Third, AH is an very much an “experience” game; anyone who cares more about victory than enjoying the ride will wind up vexed and frustrated at the vagaries of fate. Don’t play with that person, they are a drag.

The Fantasy Flight version of Arkham Horror was released in 2005, but for some perverse reason I didn’t pick it up until last year. Once I did,though, it quickly became a favorite, and remains for me an ideal ways to while away an evening. If you are interested in playing, see if someone you know has the game and would be willing to teach it to you–there is no better way to learn. But even if you have to undertake the Herculean task of decoding the rulebook, your investment will pay you back with interest. For fans of Lovecraft, Arkham Horror is a game for the ages, and the strange aeons therein.

Grabbag O’ Updates

Risk: Legacy (no spoilers): We have now played seven games of Risk: Legacy, and our interest in the game has yet to flag. As I mentioned in my initial review, our first session ended with new rules and cards coming into play, inspiring us to reconvene the following Sunday and continue our campaign. Yet more goodies were unveiled during the second session, but scheduling conflicts prevented us from gathering a third time until yesterday evening.

Last night we played two more games and, in the middle of the second, the most significant change yet was introduced, a literal “gamechanger” that goosed our enthusiasm for one more session at least. I was dubious that we would complete the full 15-game arc, but with the eighth and ninth installments approaching and yet more stuff in the box to discover, my skepticism on this point is waning.

It’s still Risk, for good or ill. But at the very least you you gotta acknowledge the skill with which they seeded the game with hooks to keep the players engrossed.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch: My atrophied pinky fell off as prophesied, but the good folks at OSI stepped in and replaced it with a bionic prosthetic.

I am still getting the hang of it, and have thus far broken the hands of three people while consummating pinky swears. Also I guess I have to fight Bigfoot? That sounds like bullshit but whatever.

Return of the Elder Gods: The H. P. Lovefest resumes tomorrow with a review of Arkham Horror.

Wither the Lovefest?

It’s not uncommon for me to abandon a project due to lack of interest. I am pretty sure the H. P. Lovefest is the first project I have ever abandoned due to abundance of interest, though.

Except for the part about abandonment. The original plan was for me to write an essay about Lovecraft for The Morning News, with a publication date of just before Halloween. While conducting research discovered that the 75th anniversary of the author’s death is next March, however, and decided to target the piece for then instead.

But then why stop posting here, you might ask? Well, the truth is that all my free time has, of late, been devoted to the various Lovecraftian into which I submerged myself. To wit:

  • I have been reading, for the first time, the Cthulhu Mythos stories written by those in the Lovecraft Circle; specifically, I have been working my way through this book, with The Atrocity Archives on deck.
  • My evenings have been spent engrossed in the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which I will review soon.
  • This year, for the first time, I served as the GM for the Halloween Call of Cthulhu game I participate in annually, and that took rather more preparation than I had expected. Keepin’ is hard!

So the H. P. Lovecraft will continue over the next few months, albeit on a more lackadaisical schedule than I had originally intended. Stay tuned.

The SAN Trap

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest. It is not, however, a review of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying game, despite the title. It is instead an high-level overview of the game and its affect on both roleplaying and Lovecraft’s legacy.

If you are unfamiliar with tabletop roleplaying games, or have only been exposed to RPGs of the electronic variety, you might equate the entire genre with Dungeons & Dragons: wizards, unicorns, swords, potions, and lots of dice. And that’s not a bad description of D&D, at least insofar as how some groups play it. Players draft characters, form a party, delve into a dungeon, and hack away at the monsters therein, accumulating Experience and losing Hit Points.

“Hit Points”, in the lexicon of D&D and many other roleplaying games, are a measure of physical health, and when they drop to zero or below your character may pass out or even die. “Experience”, on the other hand, is an abstract measure of how much your character has “done” in its life, and is amassed by performing tasks such as killing monsters and completing quests. After you’ve accumulated a certain amount of Experience your character “levels up”, becoming more powerful in the process. As there are many many ways to recuperate Hit Points and few ways to lose Experience, the end result is a game in which characters become ever more powerful and very rarely die.

This model is ill-suited for a roleplaying game set in the world of H. P. Lovecraft for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the entire concept of “Experience”–the rewarding of players for performing tasks–implies that doing things is worthwhile, which flies in the face of the pervasive futility found in the Mythos tales. For another, a game in which death is rare is about as far from Lovecraftian as you can get. And what’s the point of characters becoming “more powerful” when, even at their zenith, they are but specks before the Great Old Ones?

Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu, solved all these problems with one deft stroke of genius. While the core of the roleplaying game is very generic (so much so that it is called the “Basic Roleplaying System)–with statistics such as Strength and Dexterity, a list of possible skills, and yes even Hit Points–it features something that no game before had included: Sanity. Sanity (or “SAN”) works much like Hit Points do, as a measure of someone’s current condition; however it does not track the character’s physical health, but rather his mental health. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to recuperate Sanity in a Call of Cthulhu game. And as the characters (called “Investigators” in CoC parlance) learn more about the horrors of the Mythos, the maximum that their Sanity rating can reach slowly dwindles. In short, the heroes in Call of Cthulhu grow ever more fragile over time rather than stronger, as exposure to eldritch horrors drives them to the brink of madness and beyond.

To the uninitiated this might sound like a clever twist on the Hit Points formula, but not something that would necessarily set the tone for the entire game. But it does. For one thing, players quickly learn not get attached to their characters–after a few sessions they will be dead, or insane, or–best case scenario–retired recluses with a crippling fear of everything. Needless to say, all of this serves wonderfully to reinforce the sense of existential terror. It also has characters acting in ways striking different than they would in other RPGs; when monsters appear in CoC, players quickly learn that the best strategy is not to attack but to turn tail and run like hell. With brawn all but useless when faced with the omnipotent horrors of the elder gods, Investigators can only succeed by using their wits; when they enter battle at all, they typically do so armed not with knives and guns but with dilapidated tomes and arcane knowledge.

The relationship between H. P. Lovecraft’s legacy and the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game is one of strange symbiosis. The sanity rule, inspired by Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic nihilism, has made CoC one of the most beloved roleplaying games of all time; the popularity of the game, in turn, has sustained the interest in Lovecraft’s works, and the company behind CoC (Chaosium) had expanded the pool of Mythos-related material though the publication of fiction and CoC sourcebooks. And when you consider the overlap between those who play roleplaying games and those who work in technological fields, it’s no wonder that the Internet is rife with Lovecraftia. (Wikipedia alone has hundreds of pages devoted to the man and his creations, everything from Azathoth to Roger Zelany …) How odd that the man who described games as “avenues of escape for persons with too poorly proportioned and correlated a perspective to distinguish betwixt the frivolous and the relevant” would have his own relevance extended into the 21st century by a pastime such as CoC.