Old McWhateley had a cult… Iä! Iä! Cthulhu Fhtagn! – My Top 5 Lovecraftian gaming products

In keeping with the theme of Lovecraftian Week here in Stargazer’s World I want to do a series of mythos themed top five lists inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. And since this is a gaming blog what better list to start with that my Top 5 Lovecraftian gaming products!

Hopefully it will be equal parts nostalgia and mini-review; I’ll try to include some gaming tidbits or ideas that can be of use to you. So without further ado gentle reader here we go…

5. Call of Cthulhu RPG (3rd Edition): This was my first Call of Cthulhu product. Well that’s not technically true, since it wasn’t mine. In the late 80’s when we were starting to play role-playing game we didn’t have money to buy every game and each person got the game that they wanted to run; we often mail ordered games together to save on shipping and handling. I don’t remember what I ordered that particular time, but my friend Luis ordered the Call of Cthulhu 3rd edition Boxed Set and became our official Cthulhu Keeper.

Boxed Sets have a special place in my heart. There is some sort of magic to opening that box and taking out all the different components. I remember that after Luis read the booklets, I got to read the Investigator’s Book with its red cover and the profile of the pensive man. Inside the sparsely illustrated book I got my introduction to Lovecraft and the Call of Cthulhu game. Although I must admit that upon first reading the book there were some details that confused me (for some reason the Resistance Table was hard for me to understand, but I was a pretty green gamer back then). The sample Harvey Walters’ character sheet and the one page example of play at the end of the booklet fired up my imagination and creativity.

Another thing that got me was the reading lists. By this time I knew who H.P Lovecraft was, but I was YET to read any of his works. After playing the game I became obsessed with reading the mythos stories and thus began a long love affair with Lovecraft and works inspired by his writings.

Years later my friend Luis moved and couldn’t take all his gaming books and I inherited his Call of Cthulhu boxed set. It’s still in my collection; the box has almost all the original components: The Investigator’s Book, The Keeper’s Book, the Sourcebook for the 1920s, character sheets and a map of the world. Only missing are the dice and the cardstock investigator figures.

But I got something better, copies of our old characters! The Keeper used to keep our character sheets (ironic I know) and when I opened the box I found some of the old character sheets we played with. I don’t think these are the very first character we used, but these were some of the first investigators we played. I’ve collected those character sheets into one PDF file, Including a copy of my character Rupert Edgard “Iggy” McNuggart, historian and antiquarian; for anyone interested in seeing what we played back then around 1995. Be aware we created these characters using the 3rd edition rules, and excuse any mistakes made, we were all eager teenagers back then.

I have later editions of Call of Cthulhu in my collection, even the Basic Role-Playing game system I first experienced in Call of Cthulhu, but nothing compares to the thrill I got from the boxed set!

4. Cthulhupunk: The Cthulhupunk book is a GURPS sourcebook for playing Lovecraftian adventures in a cyberpunk world. Although the book is out of print (according to the Steve Jackson website) you can still get copies out there on the Internet. Later editions of the book have a nicer cover, but my copy from 1995 is graced with the art of Albert Slark, showing a cyborg stalked by a Hound of Tindalos. While I’ve seen other pieces by Albert Slark and love some of them, let’s say this is not one of those pieces. Despite the horrid cover, this is one excellent book.

By 1995 I was better versed in the Lovecraftian mythos. I had read the stories and played games set in the 1920s and modern times, but here was a thrilling idea, Lovecraftian adventures in a cyberpunk setting. Besides my love for the mythos I also brought the book because of the author, Chris W. McCubbin. I am a big fan of his work and back then he wrote one of my favorite columns in White Wolf Magazine, Out of the Parent’s Basement. So when I saw the book I snatched it up! I love GURPS sourcebooks, even if I rarely play the game, and this book did not disappoint.

The layout and art are excellent, set the tone of the book most effectively and are of exceptional quality. The first chapter, an overview of the Cthulhu Mythos is a clear and concise presentation, ideal to introduce the uninitiated to the concepts. I particularly like the timeline. The second chapter, the Cthulhu World, presented the dark future where the game is set. The distant time of 2045!

Fifteen years after it was written the future story of our world is badly outdated. The Commonwealth of Independent States that came into existence after the fall of the Soviet Union, and must have seemed so important back then, is given greater geopolitical importance that it had in our world and their dissolution is a harbinger of dark times in the game’s timeline. Still it is amazing some of the things the author predicted that echo real life events, devastating hurricanes, pandemics, the stock market collapse, and drug wars. Our world is not quiet the one portrayed in the book but it certainly has elements in place.

The Bestiary and Investigator chapters are GURPS specific and may not be as useful for gamers not using the system but the creature write up are informative and the weird science devices are imaginative and dark. The Cultist and the Adventure Seed chapters are chock full of ideas for adventure set in this setting.

Here is MY adventure seed idea for Cthulhupunk: I’ve always wanted to run a Cthulhupunk adventure where the players are hired by a music company executive to “procure” the sheet music to a particular piece. The executive claims the composer is an eccentric who still writes music in paper and although he was paid for his work he refuses to relinquish it. If the players investigate the composer was very popular and successful until he worked on a particularly disastrous production that was generally panned by the critics and ignored by the fans. Further investigation reveals the composer worked with sounds recorded by American historian Rupert Edgard McNuggart during an Antarctic expedition in the early 20th century. The sheet music is actually part of a ritual to awaken or call terrible things from beyond our world. What will the characters do? That’s just an idea…

I think Savage Worlds would be a great fit for a Cthulhupunk campaign, and there is already a Savage Wolds Cthulhu book, Realms of Cthulhu. But if you want to do the conversion yourself there are documents out on the internet to help you. You can also see some sample NPCs at the Steve Jackson Games website to wet your appetite for the book.

3. Cthulhu by Gaslight: Of all the books on my list this is the last one I got. Surprising since Victorian England is one of my favorite time periods, but nevertheless I did not get this book until some years ago. It includes a great overview of the times, politics, timeline, travel, even clothing and fashion, details for creating Investigators for this time period and a great series of adventures. While I don’t usually run pre-made adventures, the adventures in the book contain many great ideas and details for adventures set in a period not everybody is familiar with. The map of London and the color plates are up to usual Chaosium standards. A great book overall.

I can’t wait for the publication of Space 1889 Red Sands, which Michael reviewed some weeks ago, so I can mix my love for Space 1889 with the Cthulhu mythos. Imagine discovering a temple to the Great Old Ones in Mars, protected by degenerate High Martians, or perhaps a Mi-Go settlement. The possibilities! However I’m not the first person to suggest this.  There is an article in heliograph.com about exactly this idea.

Even if you don’t want to mix your horror and your retro sci-fi there are many adventuring opportunities in Cthulhu by Gaslight regardless of the system you use.  Here is another Adventure Seed Idea: I love the spirit of exploration of the age, with so many opportunities to discover the secret places long forgotten or hidden away. The characters begin in London where the family of a friend lost in exotic places asks the characters for their help. They find a map hidden among his papers and must fight the cultists who want to recover the map, followed by a mad dash across the world to reach the location before the cultists. What awaits there? This could be played as a pulpish adventure or a dark and dangerous tale in the vein of Lovecraft’s stories.

This book is an excellent source of information for the period, whether you play Call of Cthulhu or not. Highly recommend!

2. Call of Cthulhu d20: If you’ve read any of my previous posts this must come as NO surprise. I’m a big D20 fan and the possibility of playing Call of Cthulhu with the D20 rule set just tickled my fancy. Granted the nature of the system results in a different gaming feel. Investigators in the D20 version are more resilient, but the author, Monte Cook, did a great job of capturing the feel of the mythos and paring down some aspects to make the characters feel like normal people, not super characters of other d20 games.

I like how the heroes play, in some ways more than I like how D20 Modern characters work. They used the Insanity mechanic from Call of Cthulhu, a great idea since I think it’s one of the strengths of the Chaosium game. Through numeric and mechanical formulas it emulates how the characters lose their minds. If you have players that love role-playing it gives them an idea of how to play this. For the more mechanically minded there is the real fear of the ever shrinking Sanity. A very elegant mechanic indeed!

There is also the fact that the mythos creatures in the book can be used in other D20 games. Now I had the stats so my D&D character could conceivably fight Cthulhu. Ask my players, they will tell you there is always some Lovecraftian feel to my games, no matter the genre or the system.

Although the book is out of print there are resources out there for the enterprising GM. Yog-Sothoth.com has D20 conversions for various adventures, including the famous Masks of Nyarlathotep. There is even an online character generator. The characters in the PDF earlier in the post were actually rolled up to play Masks of Nyarlathotep. Imagine the D20 characters finding the journal, or letters from a long dead family member and how it draws them into the adventure… Call of Cthulhu D20 may be dead but definitely not forgotten!

1. Deities and Demigods, the Cthulhu Mythos: This was my very first contact with the Cthulhu Mythos! I had just begun playing D&D some months before when a neighbor had a garage sale. To my surprise and delight he had been a D&D player and was selling his collection. I purchased an early edition of Deities and Demigods for $10, one that included the Melnibonean Mythos and of course the Cthulhu Mythos.

The Erol Otus art captured my imagination; here were horrific creatures, pools of eyes and mouths, Cthulhu with its horrific stare. I read and re-read that chapter, but I never unleashed any of the more powerful creatures upon my unsuspecting players, some deep ones perhaps. I did roll the dice when they mentioned the name Hastur to see if the Unnamable One appeared. There was a 25% chance… Alas, he never did!

If you can get your hands on a copy I believe the Cthulhu Mythos as they appeared in Deities and Demigos would be great for old school games out there such as the Basic Fantasy Role Paying Game or OSRIC.

This first contact with things Lovecraftian began my long descent into the Lovecraftian world. It piqued my interest as well as that of some of my friends, it led to us playing Call of Cthulhu and my voracious reading of all things Lovecraft. This interest continues, I believe I’ve read most of what Lovecraft wrote and many of the stories inspired by the Mythos.

As a final note, I realize some of my Top 5 choices may seem a little dated (hey I’m not denying my age) and I may have missed some of the newer Cthulhu themed games out there. Some like Cthulhutech and Trail of Cthulhu I am yet to read and I am looking forward to the Realms of Cthulhu for Savage Worlds I already ordered (hey writing this had some effect on my wallet!). But I know my good friend Michael is a fan of the first two and has written about them before so even if they are not on the list I know they are well represented.

Well that’s all for now, the first Top 5 list is done!

What are your favorite Lovecraftian gaming products?